by **Andy Kemp**

I should start from the outset by saying that I have no affiliation with any of the companies mentioned below and the opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not reflect the opinions of anyone I have or currently work for...

With that out the way I guess I should start by saying over the course of the last 6 months or so I have been involved in the process of examining various VLE solutions available on the market at the present for use in my school. The search has been long and detailed and we have still not reached a final conclusion but I thought it may be useful to others if I shared my experiences of the current shape of the market. It is also worth drawing attention to the fact that every school has different needs and different skills in house and so there is no magic bullet, one solution fits all product, which is perfect for everyone... These reflections are in relation to the priorities we started with, which I will allude to in my discussions...

At present the market is dominated by a number of products some of which are complimentary and others which are aimed at different markets. Our original search included the following products (in no particular order) Moodle, Frog, LP+, SLG, Blackboard, Fronter, StudyWiz, SharePoint, and Uniservity.
One criteria we felt was essential for our needs was having the physical server on site, as internet connections are not always reliable. This eliminated from our search immediately Uniservity and Fronter as neither of these have the option for hosting on site. Blackboard was also eliminated due to its costs being very high and aimed at the wrong demographic.

This left us considering Moodle (which I have used previously), Frog, LP+, StudyWiz, SLG and SharePoint. When I attended BETT in January I managed to have a look at a few of these products. LP+ was one I looked at whilst at BETT. Whilst being a very capable package (built on top of SharePoint), it seemed very complicated to build a simple page with multimedia content, which I was concerned would limit its use to only the most technical - that said if you had a more technical staff you may find it more appealing. For this reason and the lack of in-school hosting we decided not to pursue LP+ any further.
We were hoping through this deployment to achieve both a typical VLE and a more efficient means of reporting to parents. As only Frog offer this as part of the same solution we also considered SLG (SIMs Learning Gateway) as a mechanism for extracting and reporting data from SIMs and making it available to parents.

SLG is fundamentally a collection of webparts for SharePoint which enable the extraction of data from SIMs in real time, and then displays them within a SharePoint installation. This meant that one of the possible solutions we considered was having a SharePoint portal which would act as a front end for any VLE solution. Web parts are also available for Moodle & StudyWiz (at a annual cost). This solution would certainly offer a very powerful and (technically) flexible solution. However my experience of using SharePoint has led me to believe that going down this route would add extra complication and technical difficulty to the use of the VLE. Also as we currently have no experience of SharePoint this may well lead to significant extra costs to integrate solutions.
SLG can also be externally hosted by Capita, giving you a fairly vanilla SharePoint install with the webparts in. SLG for those who haven't used it does a very good job of replicating parts of SIMs on a the web, which is great if you like the way SIMS displays its data. Personally I was hoping to have a bit more freedom with how the data can be displayed an manipulated but sadly the product is currently quite limited in this area. For example if you enter your interim reports in the marksheet view they are sent to parents in the same way so you get the list of reports which can be filtered by date but not by subject, so if you wanted to review your child's English grades over the past 2 years you would have to filter the report for the dates and the sort the column by name to see the English ones which doesn't seem very intuitive. Also there is no facility to graph the assessment data to look at trends. Also whilst there are some graphs for attendance data the graphical quality of the pie charts etc seemed quite pixel-ly. It does have the advantage of being fully integrated into SIMS and if you already have a SharePoint installation it may well be worth giving more though to It also enables you to do some data entry into SIMS, but as we have remote access to SIMS via Citrix already this was not something that we were interested in.

Now we come down to the final three VLE products we were considering Moodle, Frog and StudyWiz. These are quite different products in many senses and will be more appropriate to different users. Moodle which I have used at my previous school is often touted as the 'free' solution. Whilst Moodle is opensource, and therefore has no licensing fee to call it free is to not show the whole picture.

It is quite possible to throw together a basic Moodle installation on a cheap bit of webspace (or an old internal server) for very little money, where moodle really costs though is in time. As someone who has spent many hours writing plugins, themes and blocks for Moodle I am very aware of its cost... However if you have enthusiastic and experienced tech support/teaching staff who are willing to spend a lot of time integrating various plugins, tweaking themes and integrating third-part solutions then Moodle is truly as excellent solution. As we were looking for a solution to be used across the whole 4-18+ age range I had my concerns about how well Moodle could be used across this whole spectrum given it origins as a FE/HE product, however I am aware there are a few pioneers pushing its use in the primary age group. My personal concern with a Moodle based solution is that is very reliant upon technical expertise to create and maintain it, and should that technical expertise ever move on you have the potential issue of the project falling into disrepair as there is no external support... However if you are prepared to take this risk and have a good team then Moodle is a very flexible and powerful solution with a fast growing community of support behind it... At present I still find Moodle to be a little bit too complicated for all staff to use without significant training, but I do think this is improving...

Finally the two commercial products left Frog and StudyWiz.

StudyWiz:
StudyWiz is clearly a very broad and powerful VLE product.

Huge array of features: Blogs, Quizzes, Assessments, Games, Forums, Galleries, Surveys and E-lockers...

Fantastic Mobile interface (and iPhone eLocker app) – This is a very impressive attempt at trying to explore the possibility of handheld learning (i.e. class equipped with iPod Touch devices). StudyWiz is definitely ahead of the pack on this front, although how many schools are in a position to be able to take advantage of this yet is debatable. Currently on iOS 4 the mobile interface is buggy as ids the eLoceker App.

ClickView integration was very impressive, and seemed very simple to use. But ClickView have removed their free service.

On the negative side I personally found creating content on StudyWiz to be quite complicated, and often counter-intuitive. For example to create a page with links to some past-papers (something most department would want to do). You first create an information page with some information or description on it. (You don't need to do this) Then you need to go and create a folder (which must be marked as a ‘Featured’ folder otherwise it doesn’t appear on the information page previously created) (Again no need to do this as in primary you can point students directly to the folder and in standard interface new activities appear in the home page panel) you can then set about uploading your files. The problem is that if you now want to create a different page about some other topic, then the ‘featured folder’ will also appear at the bottom of this page as it is ‘featured’ for the class not the page. (You are misunderstanding the class page - Using publishing/expiry dates/featured folders/featured activities is very flexible and the default is quick. Also you can do this via creating a shared eLocker which is much more flexible. As with any platform with flexibility you could by experimentation find the 'worst way' to do something rather than the most efficient)


Similar problems creating other resources, first you must create a folder, then the resource. (Not true in the latest version 9.4.5 released in Dec 2010 - Quick create allows a more immediate way to create activities). Then you choose either to make it featured so it appears at the bottom of every page for that class or you don’t in which case students need to go through two or three more clicks to find the correct resource. I couldn’t find any obvious way of setting a resource/activity as a homework so that it would appear as something that a student ‘had to do’ rather than just being a resource that the student ‘could do’. It may well be possible to do some of these things but having spent a reasonable amount of time using the demo, it leaves me concerned about how simple it would be for staff to use. (You can set activities to be sequential so that there is an order and a dependency on the previous activity)

The reports/gradebook element of StudyWiz is very impressive but not at all simple to use. If you want to look at the results of your class then you have to go into the reports section (which can be found either in tools or on the class menu). However this is where things get complicated as there are separate reports for all the different styles of activity (eg. Multichoice, Assessment, QTIAssessment, SCORM) and then each of these have several different reports. All of these provide a huge level of detail (including the mathematically interesting normal distribution curve – that I can’t even imagine maths using!) but do so at the loss of simplicity, as I frequently had to try several different links before being able to find the correct report.

Podcasting of galleries seemed to be a nice idea with the concept that files, pictures and media would all become available in iTunes. However having done some testing on the audio/video feeds into iTunes. To see any other media then it must be fed into a standard RSS feed reader.

The forums are very well done, with plenty of flexibility. (Here I disagree. they have limited threading and do not support the repository feature so students cannot easily add images, sounds or files to their responses)

Also a related concern was the fact that Studywiz basically resets each year and then all courses need to be put back in, and any data we want to carry over would again require additional intervention – not sure how much work this was but it was specifically mentioned during our demo. I personally would prefer results and grades for students to follow them up through the school, as this gives much more scope to track progress etc. (If you put all students into a school level group then you can get the reporting of past activities that you want as long as you carefully use the publish options and don't delete assessed activities The latest version has a mark book with assessment grading etc. very secondary orientated though and as usual with Studywiz OTT compared to the Moodle grade book)

From an aesthetic point, I find the ‘secondary’ theme to be quite busy & crowded. The ‘primary’ theme however seems much more logically structured and I could see this working better in a primary school. However the fact that we cannot ‘theme’ or design the layout or templates is a concern for me.

The Studywiz ePortfolio is an excellent record and evidence based additonal cost module that supports export and review plus allows ePortfolio collections to be published as externally accessible websites protected or not with a password. The collections can be passed through an approval system.

The surveyor module is well implemented for single school use but has issues in a multi-school deployment. It's comprehensive and has a work flow that matches what a professional may do which makes it unintuitive but powerful. OTT for school use.

Frog:
There are several pluses and minuses to Frog as a solution, and in some cases some of the features are likely to be seen as pluses to some and minuses to others:

A single product – Frog is the only one stop shop solution we considered, this has potential benefits in terms of integration between the VLE elements and the Parental Reporting/Engagement elements. It also has the advantage that we should be able to roll out a complete solution in one go, although this may be seen as a disadvantage to some as you loose the modular element.

For me the crux of what I like about Frog is the simplicity mixed with flexibility. It is simple to create a page, throw up some resources, add in some media and away you go. However underneath this is a very powerful system of FrogBricks which enable the user to create various different types of resources and ideas. I personally think that Frog is the only product I have seen that would enable almost any teacher to quickly get up and running and be able to create resources without having to undertake significant INSET training.

The Parental reporting side of Frog I think is a real strength, as it purports to offer us significantly more flexibility with how we present our SIMS data than SLG does. As the data is all access via Capita’s own Business Objects (as they are full technical partners) we should not have to worry overly about changes to table structures etc. I felt that the setup of the parental portal element of Frog had the potential to achieve more than simple reporting but more along the lines of increased dialogue between teachers and parents.

There are several other features of Frog that I felt would be useful and engaging for students. The ‘facebook’-esq status updates coming in Frog 3.0 give rise to the potential for students to see Frog as the place they go regularly to keep up with Friends, especially with the ability to create custom groups/events for trips and clubs etc. One of the biggest hurdles to getting engagement with students will always be giving them a reason to visit the VLE. If the communication is all one way (i.e. we push stuff out to the students) then they are likely to lose traction as soon as there is a period where nothing is added. By also making it a controlled ‘social’ environment we stand a chance of students using it as a social medium as well as a learning medium which has many positive benefits...

Also the ability to embed a live website quickly and easily into another page has interesting potential for those departments (like my own) who already subscribe to other web-based resources as we could in theory just embed the page directly into Frog so pupil need never really leave the Frog environment.

The bespoke element of Frog I think is huge benefit of their approach. I have been very impressed by the quality of the graphical design work which Frog do and feel confident that we would end up with a product that not only offers us the facilities we need but does using a design that encourages people to use the site.

There are however some shortfalls with Frog. The current implementation doesn’t offer us the level of ‘multiple-choice testing etc’ that we would necessarily want but we have assurances that they know this is a short coming and that it is being worked on. Also the current forums are quite limited no allowing for rich-text entry, or much in terms of management.

For me one of the most impressive elements of Frog has little to do with the product directly but come from comments from other users. Frog is one of only two products (Moodle being the other) which seems to be consistently spoken of highly by its users. Similarly Frog Partner companies (of whom I spoke to several at BETT) all spoke very highly of their enthusiasm, and professionalism.

From a personal perspective, I admire to the philosophy of Frog as a product, and the open nature of the company (they have several blogs, twitter, and customer forums etc where they communicate directly with their customers), and this means (maybe naively) that I think they are a company and a product that a school could form a very productive relationship with.

For me fundamentally whilst a SharePoint/SLG/StudyWiz solution would probably be a technically more advanced solution, what we gain through having a more technical solution we lose through the intuitive and simple-ness of use. As a comparison I see this as being similar to the differences between a Windows Mobile based phone and an iPhone – Technically there are several things you can do on the Windows Mobile based phone that you cannot do on the iPhone. But the iPhone is so simple to use and so intuitive (my 3 year old can use mine) that users are more than happy to forgive it its shortcomings and would still rather use an iPhone then the technically superior Windows Mobile based phone. And this comes from someone who happily replaced his last Windows Mobile based phone with an iPhone!

These opinions are solely my own and reflect the considerations within a particular set of contraints, which may not apply in another school. All of these products have their own relative merits and in different scenarios each may be a sensible and appropriate solution...

Some summary observations:
Product
Pros
Cons
SLG
Easy Access to SIMS data
Same Layout as SIMS
Enables some limited data entry into SIMS
Some integration with Exchange data
Limited display options
Limited to access only to SIMS data
Limited ability for parents/students to manipulate data
Quite expensive for a fairly limited scope product
Frog
All-in-one package
Seemingly forward thinking and pro-active company
Good design skills
Very Easy to use
Social Networking element
Flexible Parental reporting
Hosted on site
Relatively low on-going costs
Offers off-site access to software via Secure Gateway
Flexible 'frogbrick' concept allows for drag and drop creation
of complex pages
Limited online testing/quiz functions
No integration with exchange data
No display for Maths/Science notation - e.g. Latex etc
Weak Forum Tools
Doesn't offer full SSO solution
Large initial outlay
Uniservity
Very simple for end user, as most content is
entered via a single Rich-text box
Growing support for more complex features
Graphical unexciting
Subscription model so relatively expensive ongoing costs
Externally Hosted
Limited MIS integration
Moodle
Very flexible open-source product
No ongoing license costs
Good choice for a 'tinkerer'
Excellent supportive online community
Highly extensible product that can be made to do almost
anything with enough work...
Offers SharePoint webparts
Will need some hosting either internal or external
Will need significant technical expertise to make the most of it
Default theme is very bland (but so easily/quickly improved with little tens/hundreds of themes. Moodle 2.0 theme much improved) - KristianStill KristianStill Apr 10, 2009
Aimed at secondary or older
Setup time can be quite significant depending on what you want
to achieve
StudyWiz
Very good tool set
Lots of modular options o extend the system
Sharepoint Webparts available (at cost)
Excellent mobile learning clients
The admin menus are not always clear and obvious
No significant options to theme the site
If you purchase all the options it is a large annual cost
Requires Apple's WebObjects (£500) if not run on an an Apple XServe
Fronter
Interesting design based upon the concepts of corridors
and rooms
Simple layout
Good primary tools
Good Forums
External Hosting
Recently purchased by Pearons, as yet unclear what effect
this may have...
SharePoint
Well established portal software
Similar look and feel to MS Office
Integrates well with many 3rd Party products via
webparts - e.g. SLG Exchange etc...
As it is a commonly used corporate package it is quite easy (if costly) to by in custom coding/support
Not really a VLE! Requires significant adaptation to use properly as a vLE.
Very Corporate feel
SharePoint Sites all look/feel the same
Not very Student friendly
If integrated with other products run the risk of multiple
tools (e.g. forums) all doing the same thing
Can be expensive depending on schools current MS licensing
Blackboard
Very powerful and established VLE product
Mostly used by universities due to high costs...