Saturday, 19 December 2009

Our Teaching and Learning Environment (TLE)

Early last academic year, I approached our school’s Principal and discussed with him at length how I could extend our learning environment beyond the walls of the school. It was, and remains, one of my core beliefs that as a 21st Century Educator, I need to help children see that learning does not only occur in a classroom setting. And, as such, I felt the need to open up access by the children to a learning environment that they had more control over which they could more actively and meaningfully contribute to. It would be a community where their ideas were shared with their classmates and they could collaborate, extend, inquire and build on their passion to investigate and explore regardless of their physical location or time of day.

Given the fact that we are in a primary school, and the children are 10 or 11 years old I recognised and, identified my perceptions about the alternatives open to me. I support wholeheartedly the views of commentators such as Martin Weller (2008) who tend to support the idea that PLEs and VLEs are actually part of a continuum of environments. Thus, our learning environment would be called (as Martin Weller points out) a Teacher learner environment (TLE). But I call ours a Blended Teaching and Learning Environment(BTLE). According to Weller, a TLE can be seen as a step, moving along the continuum towards a full-fledged PLE.

These are a few of the reasons I felt it was necessary to implement the BTLE in our school’s particular circumstances:
1. A BTLE would be preferable to an ad hoc solution because of the security concerns of parents and teachers. Given the varying degrees of IT experience the children possessed, it was felt that a BTLE would be the safest option and a would provide a good grounding for later.
2. A BTLE would likely provide a more efficient means for parents to monitor their children's progress versus a system which would be less centralized and would potentially require a large number of logins and passwords. Although use of OpenID is becoming quite widespread, I felt that it was still too limited to give us access to tools we may need to use.
3. The BTLE would allow teachers to more easily assess student progress rather than having to monitor multiple websites which may be difficult to obtain data from.
4. The BTLE would allow a more structured environment for the children where standards for content and etiquette could be carried over from the classroom.

On the other hand, there were several concerns which had to be either addressed or at least kept in mind:
• Human and hardware resources needs. The demands on our already over extended IT department had to be limited as far as possible. Moreover, the hardware currently in use in the school was considered at a point where upgrades were essential even without any additional demands of implementing a BTLE.
• Parental reluctance in terms of the cultural belief that if “it” wasn’t happening in a classroom and out of a textbook then, whatever one called it, it would not be education. In other words, there was a (in some cases strongly held) reluctance on the part of parents to deviate from a system of teaching which did not mirror their own past experiences.
• Security. Whatever environment I created, it had to be straightforward to administer and keep secure. Moreover, it needed to be seen to be secure where children were free to interact with their colleagues in a safe, educationally appropriate and meaningful environment.

So, with those perspectives firmly in place, I set about creating my game plan. I determined the needs of the children in terms of IT experience and attitudes towards technology. Then I began creating a road map of what I hoped to achieve at various "checkpoints" by the end of the academic year.

Over the year our class “tested” four possible learning environments and reflected on how they fit. It was clear from the outset that no “off the rack” environment would be perfect but given the cost and resources constraints we were under we had to be more creative. What we, as a class, needed to work out was which one was the most accessible and appropriate for our learning.

In the end, we ended up creating our BTLE, which consists of:
• – one of the two main facets of the TLE. It took me quite a while, but I eventually set up the class and the school environments, loaded all the student accounts, uploaded resources, created resources and lessons, which in some cases included recordings, video demonstrations, screen demonstrations and of course assessment strategies using rubrics for assignments and then linking the resources to the lessons.

Other facets of the BTLE are:
• Class Blog
• Shelfari
• Google Wave
• Wikispaces
• Voicethread

While there are a number of logins to recall and passwords for students to remember, “experience is a great teacher” and there have been relatively few password or login problems.

So, in the end, we never really created a VLE/LMS but a BTLE in which we have a completely online (does not use any extra school hardware beyond a network connection) Moodle-type of environment which is complemented by a class blog and a few external websites. We have, over the last year and half, also developed the practice of adding and removing bits from our BTLE as we need them. So, a month from now, who knows, the list may look completely different.

Some of the many benefits of having created the BTLE is student online access to relevant assessment and standards of content, authentic reflection opportunities, collaboration, rethinking and changing ideas, investigation, inquiring, discovery and digital storytelling to name a few. In other words, 21st Century skills.

Have you created a VLE, LMS, or BTLE? Perhaps you have a hardware strapped school as well. How have you implemented your learning environment? Tell me about it in the comments!

Works Cited
Weller, Martin. The Ed Techie. March 6, 2008. (accessed 18 December, 2009).


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