Investigating the use of an Open Source (free) Virtual Learning Environment in a Secondary School

Author: Ray Le Couteur

School: King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford, UK

Ste address:

Submission Date: 28 October 2004

Pupil age range:

What were your original aims?

Moodle is a sophisticated, easy to use, flexible and totally free (Open Source) VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). The Moodle VLE can be run anywhere in the world on any computer with a modern web browser (such as Internet Explorer).


Like most VLE’s, a major advantage is that it is truly community software; ownership is shared. All teachers can have their own online ‘classrooms’, individually or shared within a faculty, and can add and edit their own resources. Pupils too, as well as accessing documents, programs and web links provided by teachers, can participate in discussion forums, journals, quizzes and surveys which are all built into the Moodle interface.


The use of Moodle allows organic growth of online learning as and when teachers perceive a need; schools that invest in expensive commercial VLE’s are likely to put teachers under pressure to get ‘value for money’; unless there is a perceived need by teachers, the true educational benefit may be limited (putting materials online because they’ve been told to put them online). 


My aims were:

·        To determine the effectiveness of Moodle in enabling teachers to implement online learning in a secondary school situation.


·        To introduce the software to the staff at my school, to support their use of the software, monitor their successes and failures, and investigate the effect it has on teaching and learning.


In what way did you refine your aims?
My overall aims remain little changed.


However, after literature research on VLE’s, I quickly discovered that almost all the published research related to the tertiary sector. What little research was available regarding the use of VLE’s in the secondary sphere (some examples are available on the BPRS site) were usually very limited in scope, often relating to use by a single enthusiast teacher with his or her classes.


In the light of this I added a further aim to my research – to look at the differences in the use of and usefulness of a VLE between the secondary and tertiary sector.

Which research processes did you find helpful?
The first stage was to search and review the available literature on VLE’s. Much of this research was done on the internet (as a relatively recent technology, the immediacy of the internet provided much of my research information on the use of VLE’s) though several books from the Cambridge University Education Library were consulted – though these mostly related to e-learning in general.

I then started writing questionnaires, initially three: one for students, one for infrequent staff users and one for frequent staff users of the VLE. In the event, I only used a single staff questionnaire (for all staff), but supplemented this with a focus group meeting/discussion with the most frequent staff users of the VLE, which was partly recorded for later analysis.


I also benefited from discussions with and advice from my University of Cambridge tutor, Sue Brindley, who helped me refine and improve my questionnaires and pointed me in the direction of some useful sources of information and research findings.

The student questionnaires were used with a sample of students (ones who were likely to have a reasonable exposure to the VLE during the year - some from Year 10 and some from Year 12)

Initially, I felt rather overwhelmed by the questionnaire data (and the likely time required to analyse it), but I developed a very useful method of recording all responses on a single blank questionnaire, which produced an immediate overall visual record of responses.

Which research processes did your pupils find helpful?
Students who used the VLE as part of their studies were almost universally positive about the VLE and indicated ways in which they had been helped in their studies (see below).


Students who completed the questionnaires also benefited form the ability to feed back on their educational experiences (a relatively rare event) and to help formulate future policy from which they will benefit.


It was interesting that, although the questionnaires were anonymous, all the students who participated (over 60) took the activity seriously and produced responses that were worthy of consideration. This may reflect the motivational impact of involving students in their own learning.

What were the learning points you gained from undertaking the research and what were your findings?


My Learning

I have learnt about the technical issues regarding a database driven website and about ‘Open Source’ software in general; how VLE’s are used in universities and are increasingly being employed as a tool for distance learning; also, which features of VLE’s are most employed by universities and that little research is available on the use of VLE’s in secondary schools.


In addition, I learnt about survey techniques, refining and re-refining my questions and making use of focus groups.


My Findings

Since a VLE in a school is likely to be an additional tool for teachers (as opposed to the only tool in distance learning), it was not surprising that some features of the VLE such as forums, quizzes and assessment modules were less used than in the tertiary sector.


By the end of the year, about 1/3 of staff were using the VLE from time to time, about half of these frequently. Another 20% showed initial interest, but never pursued it. Almost all staff cited lack of time as a constraint on the use of the VLE.


How was the VLE used and found useful by teachers (focus group comments)?

*To post own tasks online, linked directly to relevant websites.

*To provide lesson information, resources, syllabus for long term absentees.

*To provide an ordered list of course requirements; gave structure to students work (and helped organise the teacher). Also supported NQT - materials are dated and helped to guide teaching speed.

*To post exemplar work/model answers for pupils online.

*Ease of use of Moodle enabled regular updating of links/materials. Teacher could edit/add new links in lessons, immediately they are suggested by students.

*Skills ‘toolbox’, essay planners etc posted online.
*Revision materials posted online – for pupils with identified problems.

*General paperwork, syllabuses, trip letters, health and safety forms posted online to save admin.

* Homework posted online – no excuse for forgetting/misinterpreting tasks.

Generally, teachers used the VLE as an extension of their classroom practice. It was only rarely used to develop new teaching approaches.

Main Benefits for Students (cited in questionnaires - % citation)

*Helped with revision (50%)

*Extended my learning (39%)

*Helped me keep up with difficult topics (33%)

*Enabled me to keep up with work when absent (25%)

*Helped me manage my own learning (eg. move ahead at my own pace) (19%)


Note: One unexpected outcome - a student new to the school felt that the VLE had helped him feel part of the school and helped embed school systems.


Note on Forum use:

Discussion forums appeared less useful than is the case in the tertiary sector. They were used occasionally in some subjects for specific tasks, but pupils had to be ‘coerced’ into using them.  General ‘help’ or ‘revision’ forums were little used by students. An exception was for clubs where the VLE acted as a ‘meeting’ point for the group. Forums were then well used. Teachers in charge of these activities found the VLE very useful.



What evidence relates to this learning and your findings?

Selected groups of students (likely to have been exposed to significant use of the VLE) completed a survey on their use of the VLE: 45 responses were received from Year 12 students and 19 from Year 10 students.


All staff were asked to complete a short survey on the VLE; 32 responses (around 65%) were received.


A focus group was selected of the most frequent staff users of the VLE; their responses relating to the use of and their successes and failures with the VLE were recorded.


The Moodle software generates automatic logs of its use and this allowed ongoing monitoring of the use of the VLE.

What are the questions for your future practice?

Can I target staff training in the use of the VLE more effectively (a number of staff mentioned lack of knowledge/confidence as reasons for not using the VLE)?


Should I investigate using the VLE to develop new teaching approaches rather than using it as merely an ‘add–on’ to current practice?


Can I use results from staff and student surveys to encourage more effective use of the VLE?


Can I find an effective, low admin way to ensure that students sign up for accounts with the VLE?


How can I ensure technical support is available for students with technical/login problems (a minority of students mentioned login problems in their surveys).

What are the questions for your school?
Can the range of ways the VLE is used in the school be broadened? How could this be achieved?


How can more teachers be encouraged to use the VLE?


A large majority of staff cited ‘lack of time’ as a constraint in making use of the VLE – should the school attempt to find ways of giving teachers time to make use of the VLE?


The VLE is used as a teaching tool aimed exclusively at pupils. Do we wish to open these areas up more formally to parents to help them become more involved in their children’s education?

Are there any questions for further research?

It would be interesting to compare our use and experience of the VLE with other schools, particularly a comparison of the costs/benefits of using Open Source (free) software with a commercially available VLE.


Also to compare our philosophical ‘bottom up’ approach to the VLE, as a tool made available to staff but with no pressure to use it, with the probably more common ‘top down’ approach where the school ‘purchases’ a VLE and puts pressure on departments to make use of it.


The Moodle software provides a framework for teaching activities, links, discussions etc, but does not provide content. What is the experience of schools that have bought into VLE’s together with online content for their subjects?


Why are students reluctant to use general ’help’ forums? Do they use other technological support structures (eg instant messaging)?