Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Two alternative VLEs

The English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC) is a little bit different from the rest of the university in that it is based around classes rather than courses. Although each class is part of a larger course and follows certain materials and requirements, each teacher has tremendous freedom to do what they want with their students. We also have quite a few classes which are NOT part of a larger course and teachers are very much on their own when it comes to deciding on syllabus and content.

What this also means is that the traditional VLE which serves a large number of students on a standardised course is not always relevant for our teachers’ needs. Although some teachers do use the University VLE (Blackboard), others have been experimenting with lighter, more personalized online solutions for their groups.


A few of our teachers have been successfully using Edmodo with their classes. The best way to think of Edmodo is ‘Facebook for classes’. It deliberately mimics the look and feel of Facebook and this makes it very easy for the students to understand the way that it works. As a teacher you can create multiple groups and students are given a unique code to join their one. When you post material or links, you can specify whether it goes to all your groups, just one of your groups or an individual. 

Also, there are options for setting polls, homework and you can add more than one teacher to a group (as you can on a traditional VLE). One thing I like about it is that it has excellent embedding options: most embed codes from popular online services such as You Tube, Audioboo and Voicethread can be added and the video or audio will be playable directly from the page. Another thing I like is that any audio uploaded is automatically available to listen to through a media player. Since we do a lot of recording of our students speaking, this is a great feature.

Edmodo is used mainly in K12 education, so there is an emphasis on teacher control that isn’t appropriate in higher education. For example, there’s very little opportunity for students to contact each other through the website and they can’t send private messages. Also, it doesn’t function that well for document storage. However, if those two things are less important to you as a teacher, it can be a really attractive tool to use with the students.

Google Sites

Google Sites seems to be the ginger-haired stepson of Google services, which is a shame because I think it’s a fantastic tool once you get to grips with it. For anyone not familiar with Sites, you can build your own website using a variety of templates or build your own from scratch through a user-friendly interface. This site can then be shared publicly or with a limited number of people such as a class or group. 

Over the last few years, I’ve created several Google Sites to use  with my classes. When I first started a couple of years back, it didn’t work as well as I hoped mainly due to problems with sharing and accessibility. At that stage the university hadn’t fully switched over to Google Apps so I was using my own email address and students were using their university email address and they were all kinds of issues with them not being able to access the site.  There were also fewer options for embedding things like forums and media players on the page and I had to search around on the Internet for complex solutions.  

However, I came back to use Sites recently and things have really improved.  Google groups is now integrated into the service and can be embedded right on the page as a class discussion forum. There are also many more options for adding widgets to the page, such as Twitter feeds, word of the day and homework announcements. There is also excellent integration of other Google products such as You Tube and Google Docs. 

Integration of Google Groups into a Sites webpage

What I love most about Sites is that I can customize exactly the way I want it so I only have the pages and services I want my students to access and I can also tweak the design so it looks exactly the way I want it to.  Everything from the logo to the navigation panes can be changed.

On the negative side, creating your own site can be laborious and there is quite a learning curve if you don’t want to use one of the ready-made templates. I consider myself reasonably proficient with web interfaces, but even I found myself floundering around the settings sub-menus trying to find a particular feature or editing function. There are also limits on storage which means it may not be the best solution for teachers wanting to use it to upload large audio or video files for students to access.

I think VLEs are great for organising online content for large courses with large numbers of students and fairly fixed material and systems of assessment. But for those working in a different environment, some of these other services might be more appropriate.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting to hear about what you've been doing with Google Sites, David. Have you tried creating your own templates? It's very easy to do and once you've done that, people who are authors on your site can quickly create pages using your templates... or you can even publish the whole site as a template for reuse. Can be great for supporting structured site creation, for example e-portfolio type activities.



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