The VLE Programme is a big investment for the OU - £5m over 3 years – currently funded until July 2008. Now over 600 course websites running on the VLE.
Here’s a typical course website. Its based around the course calendar and you can see the current week highlighted. There are news articles which help to give a dynamism and currency to the course. There are links to the course resources, library resources, assessment and forums. It’s all set up using a system called Moodle. This is the software at the heart of our virtual learning environment. It’s open source which means anyone can take the source code and adapt it to their needs. This is what the OU has done – and has put a large investment into enhancing the code to make the system more robust and accessible. We’ve also built new functionality such as a new wiki and an eportfolio system which we’re giving back freely to anyone using Moodle. In turn we are benefiting from the enhancements made by others to Moodle. So what are these enhancements?
The VLE Programme is split into ten projects, each responsible for a separate functional area. A project which is likely to have a particularly big impact on students is this one, led by Mat Schencks. It’s looking at enhancing asynchronous communication - through forums, wiki and blogs. One advantage of these technologies is that you can access them at times which suit you. Also developing synchronous facilities such as audioconferencing, videoconferencing, shared whiteboards and instant messaging. These tools require you to be online at the same time as others – but are particularly useful in certain subject areas such as languages. Both asynchronous and synchronous technologies have the potential to reduce feelings of isolation and enhance community aspects of learning for our students. So let’s have a look at some of these tools.
The OU has used FirstClass for many years and most of you will be familiar with what it does. Moodle forums are similar in that people reply to a thread of conversation. The replies are indented. A number of courses have made the switch to Moodle forums which have the advantage of being integrated with other parts of the VLE. Initial feedback is good but more extensive evaluations are required if we are ultimately to make the switch from FirstClass – so in the meantime these systems are running in parallel.
Blogs are increasingly being used in education for students to keep learning journals or project logs, and there is evidence that learning can be enhanced when they are writing for others in the form of a blog. It can also be a valuable form of feedback on the course for ALs and course teams. This student nurse is documenting her progress through a nursing course.
Wikis are also having an impact on education and are particularly useful for collaborative projects. Wikipedia is the best known example of a wiki – but what we’re talking about here is using the same technology so that students can collaboratively produce websites which can later be assessed. M883 – a course on software requirements engineering has been trying out the wiki and the course team is overall quite positive about the experience.
One student on M883 showed that the wiki-based discussion aided in the reflective process.
Another found it a good way to work.
However we must proceed with caution – collaborative activities does reduce flexibility for some of our learners. We should introduce them only where there are clear pedagogic benefits – as there were with M883.
Phil Butcher is running the eAssessment project in the VLE Programme.
He has been specifying enhancements to the Moodle quiz facility. This allows students to enter text or numbers which can be marked by the computer and provide instant feedback. The questions are easy to input and the tool is easy to use by students.
Here’s a large multiple choice test in use on a Business School course. One of the things we have added to Moodle is the list of questions here which means you can go straight to a particular question – and see which ones you’ve responded to.
This is a view from the new Grade book which will come on-stream from 2008. It’s a tutor's view of a Tutor Group. For clarity this group has just three members. The scores for each student for each assessment are listed - averages are calculated for individual students across iCMAs as well as Group and Cohort averages so that students can be compared against their peers. Scores for summative iCMAs which are still open are hidden and replaced with the date of submission. From the Grade book it will be possible to drill down to look at individual students’ responses.
Another project allows students to create online portfolios of their work. This project is led by Rachel Hawkins in Student Services.
MyStuff allows you to upload files such as images and Word documents to the VLE. You can then tag them with tags of your choice to enable you to find them easily. You can also share them with other students or your tutor.
MyStuff also allows you to input data in forms – such as this one for a CV. Some course teams are producing forms for course-specific purposes.
Another VLE project which is at the heart of what we do at the OU is the Calendar project, led by Dan Seamans.
Traditionally, students have been sent paper calendars such as this one which are very handy for sticking on your wall.
You can do a lot more though with an online calendar. In particular incorporating live links to the course resources and activities. When students were asked what they most wanted to see in a calendar they of course said when their next TMA was due. So we’ve added a block with assessment dates, which highlights the next assessment. You can see it would be easy to link from here to past assessments, results and feedback from tutors. Notice the checkbox beside each activity. This is so that students can indicate if they’ve carried out that activity.
ALs can then get an early indication of whether students are participating.
We’ve recently introduced a facility where students can see multiple course calendars simultaneously – and also add personal events.
One of the main benefits of the Internet is the ability to search for information and find out what you want to know quickly. We’re all familiar with the wonders of Google. The Federated Search project, led by Susan Eales in the Library, enables our students to search through multiple databases, and other parts of the VLE in a Google-like interface.
This is the search interface for staff/ALs. Students can only search course materials for the courses that they are studying. Public users do not see the course materials option at all.
The first 10 results appear on the screen. Results are clustered and tabs are provided to make browsing easier. The next phase of the project aims to incorporate Moodle course pages, blogs, wikis, forums and MyStuff Library catalogues and expert collections
One project that has particular importance to courses in Mathematics, Science and Technology is this one, lead by Tim Lowe.
Currently mathematical and scientific notation is displayed in the VLE as images (first picture) – which prevents the ability to cut-and-paste mathematics between VLE tools, or from the VLE into other applications such as word processors or mathematical software. It also causes problems regarding accessibility for the visually impaired. The project is looking a better ways of displaying mathematics, such as using MathML (second picture), which supports these requirements. It is also looking at how students and ALs might input mathematics into the VLE (discussion forums, MyStuff, quizzes etc) in a user-friendly way. A later phase of the project will consider the issue of diagrams and graphs.
Most people now have a mobile phone – and many have MP3 players and other portable devices. Phones in particular are becoming increasingly sophisticated devices and offer interesting teaching and learning possibilities for people on the move. Rhodri Thomas from FELS is leading this project which is looking at how to exploit these devices for learning and for supporting learners. He’s also looking at how to address the problem of students who may have a desktop or laptop computer but don’t have constant Internet access – such as overseas forces personnel.
This project which we’re doing in collaboration with Intel allows users effectively to run a local copy of the VLE on their own machine. They can view course content and contribute to forums without being connected to the Internet. When they do get the chance to go online their machine synchronises with the main VLE at the OU, downloading all the latest content and sending any forum contributions they have made to the OU VLE.
MP3 players are gaining in popularity and audio recordings have obvious benefits for learners on the move. The VLE will provide facilities for course teams, tutors and learners to record audio files and make them available on the internet as podcasts. There are also increasing possibilities for students to generate content while they are on the move and to communicate with others via instant messaging.
Rhodri is also looking at how we provide VLE content on a range of devices such as this ebook reader. While most students continue to prefer to read from paper than the screen, some of these new devices are getting quite sophisticated – and have the added advantage of allowing highlighting and annotation by the student, and incorporating hyperlinks to glossaries or other resources.
The VLE is allowing the OU to move into the 21st Century and adapt our teaching methods to learners who have different expectations. We have led the distance learning revolution since 1970 and need to continue to do so using the latest technologies. Our use of the technology will be driven by pedagogical needs and based on evidence of what works and what students prefer. The Programme is progressing well. We have much of the technology now in place, course teams are developing new courses to exploit the possibilities of the elearning. The VLE and Moodle are proving to be robust and scalable.
Jisc RSC Eastern VLE forum Oct 2007 'Open University Presentation, Niall Sclater'
Moodle at the Open University
Director, OU VLE Programme
VLE Forum, JISC RSC Eastern
Online collaboration and
Project Leader: Mat Schencks
from this activity
helped me to
reflect on my own
It is difficult to see how our
group could have produced
and reviewed a set of
requirements in the space
of 2-3 weeks without the
wiki … a good medium for
OU collaborative work.
I found the collaborative
[activity] very difficult to
participate in, with the job I
travel a lot and the
collaboration relied on you
being available for the last 5
days before deadline to see
Project Leader: Phil Butcher