Extending the VLE through widgets, web and cloud services - Manchester Metropolitan University
Manchester Metropolitan University set about making a step-change improvement in student satisfaction through a bold programme of institution-wide change. Part of this was a new Virtual Learning Environment, enhanced through a JISC project which sought to prove that a mash-up approach can extend an institutional VLE by integrating cloud-based and institutional systems. Hit data demonstrate that the new aggregated service has quickly become a key part of institutional infrastructure. The project has shown that a service-oriented architecture can deliver real value to students on an institution-wide scale.
The Challenge: creating a seamless student experience
"We can’t change anything because we’d have to change everything"
Manchester Metropolitan University has over 35,000 students taking more than 1,000 different courses taught by some 1,500 tutors across seven sites. Making the student experience consistent is a challenge for an institution of this size and complexity, with considerable technical and cultural obstacles to overcome.
A network of key players united behind a strategic drive to modernise the way students interact with the university. This was led by the new Deputy Vice Chancellor Student Experience, Kevin Bonnett, and included the Head of the Department of Learning and Research Technologies, Professor Mark Stubbs.
Building on the JISC Supporting Responsive Curricula project, the University launched the EQAL initiative in 2010 to transform the undergraduate modular structure to create a more consistent, university-wide student experience. Kevin Bonnett asked senior colleagues to set up four interlinked strands to make a step-change in MMU’s student experience: transforming the curriculum, centralising the administration, setting up new quality assurance processes and finally, introducing a new learning environment to support all of this.
"I was given the simple task of ensuring our students had seamless, personalised access to everything via our new VLE and supporting technologies. No pressure!” Professor Mark Stubbs
Extending the VLE
An extensive learning technologies review received a strong message from students: please give us a one-stop shop. They talked at length about valuing consistency and easy-to-find essentials for their learning –timetables, assessment deadlines, reading lists. These are what Mark Stubbs calls the “hygiene factors for the student experience” - the basics you have to get right. Additional work with focus groups set the goal: to sort out the administrative information that surrounds learning.
“Colleagues in the JISC community have been saying for a long time that a service-oriented approach is the way to go. But nobody had really done it on a massive institutional scale. We just went for it.” Mark Stubbs
To give students a seamless experience, two things were needed:
- consistent identifiers across corporate systems, and
- web services that could bring everything together around the learner
Adopting a Core plus model
The project team envisaged a core learning environment provided by the University that could be extended by tools other people found appropriate for their particular styles of learning and teaching.
Manchester Metropolitan University’s Core plus model shows the different levels of a distributed VLE – including links with relevant administrative and other (e.g. library) information and functionality, as well as content and functionality from the wider social web through a variety of methods including relevant standards such as IMS LTI, W3C widgets and web services.
Embedding new technologies
The aim was to deliver seamless and personalised access to an integrated and extensible VLE from a range of devices. The project team reviewed their choice of learning technologies and partners and chose Moodle, Equella, Talis Aspire Campus Edition and campusM. Mark Stubbs established a three-way contract with ULCC and Equella for hosting and custom integration. This service-orientated approach was key to providing agility and re-use benefits. “Our distributed VLE model depends on integrating solutions from a number of different partners and we have discovered that an agile, can-do working relationship with partners is a key enabler for this style of provision,” says Mark Stubbs. “You need rock solid systems plus smart people to advise you how to integrate them into your system. It is about finding the right partners to work with and to deliver your vision.”
Our Distributed VLE architecture is a combination of on-premise and cloud systems mashed up around the learner.
Why did Mark Stubbs and his team decide to go with a hosted Moodle platform rather than the University’s existing BlackBoard system? The money previously spent on licenses was now redistributed to hire new e-learning support officers to help academics to use the software and embed new learning technologies in everyday practice. This team proved crucial: they are embedded within faculties four days a week and meet every Friday to discuss issues emerging across different faculties, to share learning and address fixes.
"JISC funding for our Widgets Web- and Cloud-services project gave us encouragement and some momentum for trying something spectacular with our VLE.” Mark Stubbs
The student records system now feeds into the new VLE using a one-to-one mapping with instances of modules and programmes. “Each course area in Moodle is set up with a module identifier which we can throw at our EQUELLA repository and say: what have you got? Or we query our Talis Aspire reading lists. We know the user, so we can bring back personal timetables and assignment hand-in schedules. And because we use web-services we can surface this content on students mobiles or in our SharePoint portal and we can provide single-sign-on to hosted email and calendaring”, explains Professor Stubbs.
35,500 users did five million activities in Moodle in the first month of the new VLE and activity and is steadily growing.
A culture of responsiveness
The W2C project allowed the team to explore a number of technical approaches, including W3C widgets (as specified by the World Wide Web Consortium). Although the widget approach had considerable promise, for a fast, institution-wide deployment the project team chose to extend the VLE through tried and tested Moodle block technology and use the institutional license for CampusM to deliver mobile services to students. A personalised Moodle feed now aggregates frequently-requested administrative information such as module timetables, assessment deadlines and reading lists. Hit data demonstrate that this service has quickly become a key part of institutional infrastructure. The JISC project was mapped into MMU’s online student experience survey which has seen satisfaction levels rise in course organisation and learning resources rise after Moodle and its supporting services went live. These improvements happened in the much larger context of the EQAL change initiative so don’t necessarily flow directly from the JISC W2C project, but it is encouraging to see satisfaction levels rise in the key areas of course organisation and learning resources. JISC innovation funding is designed to achieve rapid results, working in tandem with wider institutional objectives.
Incremental change is not enough. You have to drive large-scale change by changing the environment in which people work – Kevin BonnettManchester Metropolitan University had a talented team of people, a problem that galvanised staff and a Deputy VC who was championing learning technologies. But the lessons learnt can also apply to smaller scale projects that want to assemble crucial information around the learner.
To conclude with Mark Stubbs own words: “A special set of circumstances enabled us to achieve something spectacular. The best is yet to come!”
JISC is very grateful to the Manchester Metropolitan team for openly sharing their learning technologies review with the sector and their exemplary blog detailing their JISC project experience.