There was a time when parents waved their children goodbye at the school gates and didn't have much idea what they were up to until the end of the day. Letters home about homework or school trips could languish in the bottom of school bags and the only time mothers and fathers heard about how their little darlings were really doing was at parents' evening.
New technology means parents can now track everything from whether their children are on time for lessons to what marks they are getting by accessing school information online. Nowhere is this change being felt more than in schools that have implemented virtual learning environments.
A virtual learning environment (VLE), sometimes known as a managed learning environment or a learning platform, is a combination of web-based tools designed to support teaching, learning and school management.
Timetables, lesson plans and policies can be uploaded onto a VLE, which also often includes an online personal learning space for each pupil - a kind of portfolio containing examples of their work. And because the information is web-based, it can be looked at by teachers, parents and pupils anywhere, any time - as long as they have access to a computer, an internet connection and the relevant password.
Although the first institutions to take VLEs seriously in the UK were universities and colleges, schools have become increasingly interested in what these platforms can offer, including better communication between staff and parents and a reduction in teacher workloads by allowing departments and even schools to share resources.
Research last year by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), found that 61 per cent of secondary schools were using VLEs - spurred on, in part, by the Department for Education and Skills' target that all pupils should have access to an online learning space by 2008.
Primary schools, perhaps because of their relatively small sizes and budgets, have been slower to take up the baton, but Becta says that is changing. One third of UK primary schools already used VLEs at the start of last year and another third said they intended to sign up in the following months. As far as Becta is concerned, this is a positive step.
"The benefits of having this level of technology pays off," says a Becta spokesman. "We are seeing more engagement and more involvement from children, and that has to be a good thing." This is hardly a surprising view from an agency whose raison d'tre is to promote learning through tech-nology. Two months ago it launched a framework of 10 approved suppliers to help schools choose which learning platforms to invest in.
Microsoft Learning Gateway is one platform on offer. Alan Dodson, Learning Gateway manager for Sandwell, in the West Midlands, explains how the area was one of three local authorities chosen to pilot a four-year, Becta-managed and DfES-funded project to test VLEs in schools. Thirteen of its 93 primary schools now use the VLE, with plans for the rest to follow suit. "In the schools that have taken it on, it's become crucial both as a school management tool and as a learning and teaching tool," Dodson says. "Initially, nobody knew what it would do and how they would use it. Now they are asking how they managed without it."
But primary teachers have sounded a note of caution. Matthew Goodyear, assistant head teacher at Warren Junior School in Barking and Dagenham, London - another of the local authorities chosen for the DfES pilot in 2002 - says problems soon became apparent. …