“I don’t know how to use the VLE!”

A model of VLE embedding and development

Despite many people talking about the death of the VLE over the years, the institutional VLE is still an important component of most colleges and universities offer in the online space. Whether this be supporting existing programmes of study, those offering a blended approach, or even for fully online programmes.

For most universities and colleges, growth in the use of the VLE is relatively organic, with little planning on either side. Training is often focused on the mechanistic and technical aspects of the VLE. Some training looks at the learning first, but without understanding the potential of the functionality or the affordances of the VLE, it can be challenging for practitioners to work out how to use the VLE to meet the needs of that learning activity.

The end result is an inconsistent approach to how practitioners use the VLE which can be confusing for learners who have multiple modules or courses delivered by different people. The other end result is that sometimes an inappropriate function of the VLE is used resulting in a challenging experience in learning something, with the challenge being using the technology, not understanding the learning.

One of the attractive aspects of any VLE is the range of functionality that it offers allowing practitioners (academics, teachers, lecturers) many different ways to engage with learners and create learning activities.

However that very attractiveness in variety of functionality, is also the real challenge in getting the VLE adopted. Faced with a wealth of features, many practitioners won’t know where to start and what they should do first, as well as how much they should do as well.

Likewise if you want staff to integrate and link with other tools and plug them into the VLE, then there is an additional level of functionality (and features) that needs to be understood. Not just those of the VLE, or the other tool, but how best to integrate and link them. You may for example want staff to connect their blog (or their learners’ blogs) into the VLE for discussion and comment.

For many years when supporting staff I realised that a more sustainable and holistic approach was to break down using the VLE into a series of step changes or stages. These stages would be relatively simple to adopt, and once confident and using the VLE at each stage, the practitioner could then move onto the next stage. This echoed the approach that most advanced VLE users had taken, but probably didn’t realise they had.

Too often when talking about the VLE to others, it can be easy to forget our own learning journey with the VLE and assume others can embrace all that functionality in one go. Also many practitioners who are seeking help and support, may not really understand the process of self learning on how to use the VLE that “expert” practitioners have been through and are expecting to pick it up all in one training session.

The use of steps or small changes is one that many practitioners can embrace and can use to make best use of the VLE and start on a journey integrating third party tools into the VLE.

Back in 2010 I published the five stage model I had been using.

A five stage model for using the VLE

VLEs have a huge range of functionality, a lot of criticism often laid against the VLE is that some users are not aware of those functions.

There is often too much information about the VLE for new users who may not understand many of the concepts or have the skills to fully utilise the functionality of the VLE.

This five stage model was designed to support and enable staff to easily embed use of the VLE into their teaching and learning. I wasn’t alone in doing this and I am aware of others across higher and further education who had a similar line of thinking.

For the purposes of this article I am going to re-visit the VLE five stage model and provide an updated version that can be used to support and train staff to enable them to use the VLE effectively and hopefully a better experience for the learners.

The original model got a fair bit of comment and criticism. One of the points made was that uploading resources such as existing Word documents was flawed as a better approach was that to put the text straight into the VLE as it would make it better for the learner. With files such as Word document, the learner has to have the right software, download the file to read it. Whereas just putting straight text (and content) into the VLE means its can be just read there and then, makes it more accessible more quickly. I have incorporated that critique into the model as I don’t disagree with that sentiment (and didn’t at the time), however we need to consider that some staff have a large collection of existing digital files that they may want to use with their learners, so I don’t think the concept of uploading files should be dismissed.

As with the previous model there are five main stages. The concept is that a member of staff gets themselves comfortable with each stage before moving onto the next stage. Within each stage it may be possible to break it down into smaller steps or stages. As a result the length of time it will take to do each stage is dependent on not just the member of staff, but also the number of sub-stages that need to be completed. This is less about rushing through the stages but ensuring staff are comfortable and competent at each stage, and ensuring that they then move onto the next stage.

Unlike the previous model, though there are five stages, the final three stages are not taking in order, the practitioner can use which of the three to do first (and which would be most useful to their practice and their learners).

Stage One

Upload to the VLE the scheme of work, information about the course (for example reading lists), useful links, information about the lecturer. If there is a course handbook then this could also be uploaded.

Stage Two

You could upload the presentation slides, other course resources, handouts, assignments, detailed schemes of work and more links.

Now this is something that is often laid against VLEs as why they don’t work as they are merely used as repositories of materials. However practitioners who are unfamiliar with the VLE often need a starting point. To throw the full functionality of the VLE at a practitioner who may be apprehensive about using the VLE and unsure of the benefits, is similar to throwing a learner driver onto a Formula One racetrack! Or maybe throwing them onto the M25.

Though one of the issues with uploading files to the VLE is that this can cause issues for the end user (the learner) who may not have the original programme to open the file. This is exacerbated if the learner is using a mobile device to access the learner. The original model was criticised on this point, as rather than uploading Word files to the VLE, the practitioner should enter the text (or copy and paste) so that the end user experience is much better.

So though I agree with the criticism and the sentiment, as it does make more sense for the learner, I am also appreciative of the challenge in getting practitioners to use the VLE. Yes uploading files is not as great as entering content direct into the VLE, having some stuff up there is better than not having stuff up there from the learner’s view point.

Having said that you can a mini stage which is about adding content direct into the VLE.

Stage Three

There are three choices at stage three.

Stage Three Choice One Engagement

Add engagement by learners through the use of discussion forums. Online discussions can engage learners in a variety of learning activities.

You can also add discussion by linking into the VLE external tools such as Twitter or Slack, if there is where the discussion is.

Stage Three Choice Two Content

Add more content try and put up new content at least weekly.
So then you’ll get asked what content should you put up. Well a lot depends on how the practitioner delivers learning, but could include:

  • All the pages from interactive whiteboard sessions from the classroom.
  • Photographs of pen based whiteboard or flip chart activity.
  • Videos, either embedded, or uploaded, very easy to embed videos from services such as YouTube or Vimeo.
  • Embedding presentations from services such as Sway or Prezi.
  • Links to e-Books in the virtual library or online libraries.
  • Audio recordings, these could be by learners or by practitioners, an overview of the lesson, topic or subject.
  • Learning objects from various repositories.
  • Images and photographs.
  • Lecture capture recordings.
  • Embedding outcomes of using tools such as Padlet.
  • RSS feeds that learners could subscribe to, though these are getting rarer, so you might want to add a link to a Twitter account instead!
  • Photographs of paper based exercises, if you for example use flip charts for brainstorming sessions, taking photographs of them and uploading those images can make it easier for learners to remember what they did. In the previous article I said in this section “with digital cameras” as they were a thing back then, today most modern phones have excellent cameras for this kind of activity.
Stage Three Choice Three Interaction

Add interactivity to the course through the use of quizzes and feedback. Quizzes are often part of the core VLE system, sometimes external quizzes can be uploaded and added.


By now usage of the VLE will be pretty much embedded into the delivery of the course. It will be much easier for the practitioner to offer the course through a blended approach and be more able to deliver learning in times of closure (say through snow).

This is just one approach, please share in the comments how you are embedding practice in the use of the VLE.“I don’t know how to use the VLE!”

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