More and more universities and schools are choosing to use Virtual Learning Environments, or “VLE”. (For those uninitiated on what these are; virtual learning environment platforms deliver learning materials to their students via the Internet. The main famous examples include Open University, Coursera and Google Classroom)
With this increasing demand in Virtual Learning Environments for teachers, we need to be weary, especially as the industry is always changing, due to how quickly technology itself is changing. Many teachers are coming up with inventive means of using VLEs, which in theory are a good way to engage with your students; they enhance the construction and reconstruction of knowledge as well as the formation of habits and attitudes, all within a framework which is increasingly common in both our personal and professional lives, the Internet!
However, as it is such a recent area of education, many studies are still investigating whether students are benefitting (in real terms) from this shifting learning landscape. The Polytechnic Institute of Bragança and the University of Minho recently conducted one such study – with the aim to find a quantifiable correlation between the use of virtual learning environments for students and those students’ performance.
Using a sample size of 6347 students, researchers investigated relations between the number of accesses to the VLE and students’ performance (quantified through 3 numerical results: the number of course units the student passed or failed, the total number of units they were registered for, and the mean of the marks they obtained).
The main findings from the report:
- The number of accesses to the VLE were diverse, ranging from 0 to 1532 per student
- There is a positive moderate correlation (0.6) between the number of accesses and the number of course units passed (i.e. The more a student accessed the VLE, the more likely they were to pass)
- However, for those that didn’t pass, there was a very low negative correlation between the number of accesses and their mean marks.
Separating the 6347 students into 5 percentile groups, based on the number of accesses to the VLE, also yields interesting results; for example, the higher the mean of the group’s accesses to the VLE, the higher:
- The number of course units in which the student is registered
- The number of units they passed
- The percentage of units they passed relative to the units they are registered in
- The percentage of course units the student passed.
It was also found that the higher the mean of the group’s accesses, the lower the percentage of students who failed all the course units is.
In must be noted that these results cannot be over-generalised, as the sample concerns only one higher education institution. However, these results show almost unanimously the positive correlation between VLE use and performance.
Read the full report here.
If you weren’t aware, Google have created their own virtual learning environment called Google Classroom. It’s a decent VLE, with a number of useful features. So far, so good!
But are we not as aware of the Google Classroom disadvantages as we should be? The New York Times recently published an article on precisely this topic, titled How Google took over the Classroom. It all sounds very dystopian, although to a teacher, it might sound like a lifesaver.
As per the reporter, a social science class in Chicago starts out with each student grabbing a Google-powered laptop, and opening Google Classroom; then they write their essays in Google Docs.  And that one school isn’t alone, because more than half of America’s primary and secondary school students use either Gmail or Google Docs. That’s an incredible thirty million children.
The benefit for students is ease of use; the benefit for teachers is to have everything under one umbrella, information shareable between devices. But what else do we get?
What do we get?
There’s no doubting that Google Classroom is a well put-together online learning platform. As a virtual learning environment goes, it has a number of excellent features. It’s accessible from any number of devices and is easy to use, has a nice clean interface, and speeds up marking and review, just like other VLEs.
Google Classroom’s virtual classroom software is also another of its advantages. If you’ve never encountered anything like that before virtual classroom software is a synchronous learning solution, or in English, a VLE that operates in real time. So, they commonly feature live chat that can be used by students and teachers, for instance. It’s designed to simulate the classroom environment, but entirely online.
Google Classroom reviews paint a mixed picture, as reviewers understand the excellent symmetry and ease of use of everything that Google offer, but others are worried about just how ubiquitous Google are becoming in class. But Google Classroom reviews shouldn’t be the only thing we judge their software on.
What’s really in it for Google?
One of the key Google Classroom disadvantages is… As an online learning platform, Google Classroom stands alone as the one with outstanding privacy concerns. Indeed, a number of Google Classroom reviews point out these privacy concerns; as do hard hitting articles on NPR  and Recode.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation lodged a complaint not too long ago with the US Federal Trade Commission, accusing Google of collecting personal data on students.  The accusation is that when students log in to Gmail with their account, they log into their YouTube and Blogger accounts at the same time. The EFF say that Google then gather that data and use it for advertisement purposes. 
The benefits are great, but the Google Classroom disadvantages are simply too serious for many schools and parents. Schools shouldn’t be a testing ground for future customers, or a place for gathering data on potential consumers. That’s why we recommend considering alternative education platforms before you go all out with Google.
This isn’t the first or the last time we’re going to extol the virtues of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) for schools. The main benefit of a VLE for teachers is that it helps you to organise all learning and course materials and cut back on the vast reams of paper we all had to wade through before. But for students, it can have a very real effect on attainment. Let’s examine what the latest research says are the main benefits of VLEs for teachers, and for students.
Different levels of access
The 2017 study The Influence of Virtual Learning Environments in Students’ Performance found that the number of times students would access the VLE varied wildly from between zero to a maximum of 1532 for the courses examined in the study. But within this range, they found that students’ use of the VLE would fall within a general set pattern: grouped into five levels, these were around 10, 60, 100, 200 and 400. This suggests that apart from a small subset, engagement with the VLE was generally good.
Now, this study was carried out at a higher education institution in Portugal. Generally, universities have so far better understood the benefits of the virtual learning environment for teachers than secondary and primary schools; so the takeaway message here is that genuine engagement really can be achieved. This is, of course, a different story in say, a secondary school; students take far more subjects, and do less self-led research than university students. But that just plays into the true benefits of a VLE.
Similar marks, but more passes overall
This particular study actually didn’t find a positive correlation between the number of accesses to the VLE, and the mean marks received on a particular course. So, for instance, whether a student accessed the VLE a hundred times or a thousand times didn’t actually affect their mark. This result certainly surprised us, but it makes sense when you think about what VLE brings to the table.
What this study did find was a correlation between the number of accesses and the number of courses passed. This suggests that students who make the most of their VLE have a broader range of success than their peers. So while the VLE didn’t help these students to achieve better grades in particular subjects, it did help them manage their workload better, so that they could take on and pass in more courses. This means that the main benefit of a VLE for teachers is that it helps students tackling a large range of subjects, all at once.
If you want to boost your students’ attainment, then, encourage their engagement with a VLE. It doesn’t have to be fun, but it does have to be useful: there has to be a good reason for students to access it. Fill it with useful information and links, things that will genuinely help your students, so that they can better deal with taking on so many subjects simultaneously.