Connecting systems using standards - The University of Edinburgh
The Edinburgh-led ceLTIc project used four case studies (WebPA, Elgg, CampusPack and PebblePad) to investigate the integration of learning applications with virtual learning environments (VLEs) using the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability specification (LTI). The project team found LTI a very convenient mechanism for providing secure access to an external learning application like WebPA, irrespective of the VLE being used. LTI also provides a simple way of sharing a single instance of an application between multiple institutions, thereby making it cost-effective to support small-scale use.
Connecting WebPA to your learning environment – improving online peer assessment
For many degree courses group work is a requirement of accreditation. It is notoriously difficult to identify individual students’ contributions and peer assessment is probably the most powerful means to do so. WebPA is an open-source online peer assessment tool, developed with JISC funding at the universities of Loughborough and Hull. It enables students working in groups on assignments to assess and grade their own and others’ achievements.
WebPA is an open source online peer assessment tool that enables every team member to recognise individual contributions to group work. A well known criticism of assessed group work is that each student receives the same team mark, regardless of individual performance. By using WebPA to peer assess group work, each student receives an adjusted mark. Lecturers set the criteria for the assessment and decide on the marking system. WebPA is a flexible tool that accommodates different pedagogic approaches associated with different disciplines.
So what is the best way to connect WebPA with an institution’s VLE?
WebPA is a specific tool for assessment with many features and not everyone in an institution would need such functionality. If it isn’t cost-effective to install and maintain a local copy of WebPA, the solution is to connect to a hosted version, using an openly available specification, LTI. Without this users don’t just need to set up and maintain a local copy but also have to input users and courses and maintain that data. The huge benefit of LTI is that your user account and courses are created “on-the-fly” as and when you connect.
LTI can pass on user details for single sign on from any VLE to an application.
The JISC-funded ceLTIc project investigated the potential for LTI to connect multiple systems for teachers and learners, with promising results.
Keys and secrets – how LTI works
Project leader Stephen Vickers was managing the e-learning team at Edinburgh at the time and the JISC funding call addressed his main concern: “how do we support our innovative learners and teachers who are doing things that aren’t mainstream?”
If you have got an LTI compliant learning application and an LTI compliant VLE, staff only need to enter three bits of data – a launch URL, a consumer key (that identifies you as a customer) and a secret (ie a value which secures the connection). This will allow WebPA to connect with any VLE whether it be Moodle, Sakai or Blackboard. An instructor could find a tool they like, sign up, get the URL, consumer key and secret, plug them in and go. Streamlined and simple.
“My ultimate goal is that it should be impossible to tell the difference between a tool within and external to, any given VLE,” explains Stephen Vickers. For that to happen the two need to exchange a lot more information. A lot of features in VLEs are based on administrative systems, and the next generation of LTI will allow for much more messaging between a system, the VLE and the learning application/tool.
One of LTI’s main attractions is that it is more than just single sign-on; it allows you to pull through a list of enrolments (so that peer groups and assessment tasks can be created before the students connect) and to pass back grades to the VLE. These are much more complex requirements than just single sign-on and would require significant effort to implement as a bespoke adaptation.
Benefits of linking WebPA to VLE
Two tutors and a developer working with WebPA at Edinburgh identified key benefits from the current linking of WebPA to their VLE (WebCT). These benefits included:
- Single sign-on – no need to log out and log in again somewhere else;
- Everything is in one place for students and administrators
- Assisting functionality for tutors – being able to add a tool to WebCT and have it work.
In addition, both tutors suggested that a potential benefit from improved linking could be the passing across of student data, such as matriculation numbers and names, from the VLE to the tool.
The Future of LTI
The development of open specification connectors for applications has opened up new opportunities for institutions. “Without LTI, non-technical staff won’t be able to plug into new tools, so their students will lose out,” comments Stephen Vickers.
LTI offers benefits to all parties involved in learning applications: developers only have a single integration mechanism to support; VLE administrators do not have to install separate integrations for each third-party learning application; teachers can embed links to new learning applications within their courses to provide a richer learning experience to their students.
Because WebPA is outside the VLE it makes it easier for users from different systems to share course areas within it. One scenario in which this might be used is a peer assessment task involving students from different courses or even different institutions.
Next steps: lobby the producers and get developers to build learning applications using LTI
The future could involve having a hosted service for WebPA and use LTI to connect to it from other institutions. Vickers and his team did a lot of work with the Blackboard community and are urging developers to start building learning applications using LTI. There is a need for more hands-on tutorials to show developers how LTI works. Vickers concludes: “You should be able to just find a tool you want to use and install it, similar to mobile phone apps. We want to make that process of finding something and installing it as seamless as possible.”
The work of the ceLTIc project continues through further JISC funding to provide developer resources and investigate the use of LTI for delivering shared services.
The ceLTIC project
LTI briefing paper
LTI and WebPA
On sharing WebPA between groups of users