Page last updated at 00:20 GMT, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Virtual learning 'slow starter'

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Virtual learning is a "cottage industry" not a "national revolution", says Ofsted

The use of online materials to help students with their lessons has been "slow to take off", a report from Ofsted inspectors has said.

A study of "virtual learning environments" (VLEs) found that in many schools and colleges such systems were still on a "cottage industry" scale.

However where they were more developed, particularly in colleges, such services were able to "enthuse" students.

The benefits to learners are so far "not yet obvious", say inspectors.

The Ofsted report says that "despite expectations", the arrival of these online support services for learners was "still in the early stages of development".

'Not widespread'

Such virtual learning systems can provide background material, practice tests, course notes and internet links to help pupils at school or for homework or revision.

The Ofsted report says that such ideas have been introduced in schools since about 2000, but that the implementation has been surprisingly patchy.

It highlights that a 2005 government strategy report called on the educational technology agency, Becta, to ensure that a majority of institutions made effective use of technology.

In most places surveyed by Ofsted, the use of such VLEs was "not widespread" and where it was in place it was often the result of the enthusiasm of individual teachers.

"We found that the exploitation of VLEs at curriculum level resembled more of a cottage industry than a national technological revolution," inspectors concluded.

The report, based on more than 40 different types of institution, found no example where a VLE provided a "comprehensive" range of materials for every subject.

The study found "very limited" use of VLEs in primary schools, a little more use in secondary schools - with the most developed use in further education colleges.

However inspectors found that the virtual materials available to college students were most likely to have been produced by subject specialist staff, with little from external sources.

In terms of finding evidence of a positive impact on learning, inspection reports between 2005 and 2007 suggested that benefits were "not yet obvious", says the study.

But the inspectors called for continued support for such virtual learning projects, highlighting the range of ways they were being used.

As well as use in school and for homework, there were virtual materials which supported pupils who had been excluded, some had specific areas for parents and there was help for work-related learning.

Such schemes "flourished where skilled and confident teachers and tutors treated the VLE as an extension of their normal work".

In contrast, it says the least successful virtual learning schemes were "used as a dumping ground or storage place for rarely used files".

Stephen Crowne, chief executive at Becta, said the agency "acknowledges that more work needs to be done to support the pace of change, but we are already seeing learning platforms bringing huge benefits to schools where they are used across a wide range of activities within their organisations".

"Our recent research shows 63 per cent of secondary schools and 22 per cent of primary schools are using learning platforms an increase on the previous year."



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