Building an open source learning ecosystem: does anyone want to?

My Learning Ecosystem by ianguest, on FlickrLast week I saw a few tweets in between sessions whilst I was at the ASME annual scientific meeting (#ASMEASM2014) from the annual Blackboard World get together.  Over the weekend I read a few articles and this piece in Inside Higher Ed – The post-LMS LMS caught my eye.

IHE report that Chuck Severance, who’s Chair of the Sakai Project Board has commented that this year’s round of LMS/VLE vendors have been characterised by their lack of major announcements.

“I think we’re in a weird place right now in the marketplace — partly because there’s a lot of parity between the systems,” Severance said. “You can almost throw a dart at a dartboard and pick an LMS, and it won’t be that bad.”

He added, “Everyone is struggling to figure out what the next steps are.”

The article goes on to mention that the major LMS/VLE platforms are embracing interoperability standards and moving to the notion of a marketplace of apps and add-ons rather than trying to build clunky bloated tools into their platforms.  This leads us back to the notion of an online learning ecosystem which includes different tools that hopefully are all usable and do what’s actually needed.  The piece ends with Chuck Severance reminding us that the notion of a learning ecosystem was something that was talked about years ago in educational technology circles.

The idea of a learning ecosystem was a hot topic at ed-tech conferences years ago, Severance said, but instead “everything fell back to ‘let’s all stay inside our silos.’”

“Everyone wants to make proprietary ecosystems,” Severance said. “That’s not what a learning ecosystem is.”

How true – we’re still stuck in walled gardens and too often teachers are given a technology and told to use it rather than starting with what and how they want to teach and looking at what tools might best support and enhance what they’re trying to achieve.

Severance continues:

“Higher education needs to be present with real participation to ensure that the right things happen, and that it doesn’t just go to the quickest, dirtiest solution it can possibly be,” Severance said. “The sad thing is that if an open ecosystem does not get built, a closed ecosystem will. If the open-source people don’t stand up and actually get involved …, then we’ll just wait for the vendors to tell us how much it costs.”

Is there an appetite to develop this open learning ecosystem?  At first glance it would seem that in the current climate of cuts and reduced funding in HE in the UK that perhaps this isn’t achievable.  In times of plenty we seem to have seen lots of projects funded and technical solutions developed which haven’t been sustained and adopted by the wider community.  There are countless reasons for this, I have my own thoughts, but sometimes it’s when we have to be a bit more resourceful and creative that we can work together and come up with solutions that work.  The wider issue is whether HE in the UK buys into the open source ethos and I’m not sure it does in the way that other sectors have.
Are there others interested in working together to build an open learning ecosystem and can we make it happen?  Or is everyone past caring?  Back in March Joss Winn from Lincoln talked about hacking the University at the JISC Digifest.  In the medical and healthcare professions education field we’re now working on organising two hackday events, is there anything similar happening in HE more broadly?  Perhaps everyone’s happy with proprietary solutions?
Image Attribution
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  ianguest  

Isn’t it time that Higher Education went agile?

Andrea Provaglio: Beyond Agile @ WebExpo by evalottchen, on Flickr

A few weeks ago I read a piece on Inside Higher Ed titled Blackboard’s Challenge.  It talked about the change in ownership of Blackboard and the challenges faced moving forward and it included this statement:

A healthy Blackboard is important to our higher ed community because the presence of Blackboard drives competition and innovation in the LMS market, and because many schools will continue to be Blackboard clients in the foreseeable future.

Is that right? Is a healthy Blackboard important to the higher education community? As this piece by TechCrunch highlights, Blackboard is not exactly universally liked as a company or as a VLE/LMS and this comment may chime with many:

Personally, I’ve never met someone who gushed about the Blackboard user experience, which was handicapped by feature creep, while, over the course of your four years at college, the speed, agility and core user experience stayed the same.

This poor user experience and sense of loathing isn’t something that’s exclusive to Blackboard, others have similar critical views about Moodle and Desire to Learn.  It’s also not a view that’s limited to VLEs, you can hear similar frustrations about administration and other IT systems in higher education.  It’s the same in the NHS, there are complaints about systems that are slow and clunky and the NHS ePortfolio also comes in for lots of stick.  Where is the evidence that these commerical and institutional systems drive innovation in the way that users want to see innovation?

Using technology is pretty much a condition of work and education these days and for many it’s a headache, when it should be the opposite.  Universities spend large amounts of money licensing proprietary systems to support student management and learning.  These systems are adopted to support efficiency and avoid duplication of effort, yet many systems don’t speak to each other, so there is still duplication and departments still rely on endless spreadsheets and Access databases to manage their own unique requirements.  Systems that get procured are generally ‘market leaders’ but being a market leader doesn’t necessarily mean being the best.  Every institution has its own quirks and using off the shelf solutions don’t always make for a good fit.  Further investment is often needed to support customisation or the development of building blocks that help provide useful bits of functionality.  In the case of VLEs it can sometimes feel like you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, particularly for courses like medicine that don’t fit the typical modular degree programme.  Then we have the issues of usability.  Some of these systems are bewildering, there’s no evidence of user experience or interaction design or the realities of day to day workflows being taken into account in their development.  There are browser issues and not much evidence of responsive design to support use on different devices.  It’s little wonder that staff and students aren’t just bringing their own devices to work but also using open technologies to support them in their work and studies.

So is a healthy Blackboard important to Higher Education?  I don’t think so.

With technology changing so rapidly isn’t it more important that HE begins to change its culture around technology and becomes less reliant on commerical technology solutions?  Is it time for HE to start adopting a much more agile approach to its use of technology and a culture of involving end users as it develops and implements IT solutions that are truly transformative?

The Agile approach to IT development has been adopted by the Cabinet Office as it has revamped GOV.UK, the gateway to government information and services. They’ve opted for agile, chosing to use open technologies and inhouse development teams that engage with real users. The UK Government’s digital strategy is detailed on their Cabinet Office website.  It’s worth having a read of. There’s a bit from Appendix 3, which outlines the proposed digital by default (transactional) service standard that states:


Redesigned transactional services will be:

  • simple and intuitive enough for users to succeed first time, unaided
  • designed for inclusion, so all who could use it do use it
  • make use of common design and user experience tools, so once people have done something once, they will be able to do it elsewhere
  • redesigned using feedback received from a private or public alpha phase, and a public beta phase

Development and technology

Redesigned transactional services should be:

  • developed using agile, iterative, user-centric digital development methodologies, using open source code by default
  • make use of common cross-government technology platforms
  • make use of and meet open standards
  • offer high-quality APIs, enabling reliable reuse by third parties and integration with other government services
  • capable of working on all common browsers and a wide range of web-enabled devices, including mobile phones
  • impartially, robustly and regularly tested throughout the design and lifetime of the service.

What kind of systems would we have in HE if we adopted this digital design approach?  How much money would we save?  So much money has also been wasted on big NHS IT projects, could an agile approach help make some real progress here too?

There’s much said about lack of engagement with educational technologies by teaching staff in HE.  Part of the problem could be that we’re too focussed on a particular technology like an off the shelf  VLE rather than how lecturers want to teach.  If we worked with teachers as the starting point and included students would the typical VLE look quite different? If it was designed and redesigned using data from feedback, would we be using something that had any resemblance to the current incarnation of Blackboard or Moodle?

VLEs were the topic for discussion on last week’s #UKmeded Twitter chat at the suggestion of Jess Palmer aka Minty Green Medic, who shared some frustrations with her institutional VLE.  Following the chat Aspirant Medic (Christopher McCann) blogged about bringing technology to medical education and how he’d like to see a new open learning environment emerge for medical education, an idea that was discussed during the chat.  Similarly in medical education the NHS eportfolio also causes frustration, you can frequently see tweets about this and there’s also discussion on the NHS Portfolio Revolution blog.  Recent NHS Hack days have looked at developments around the Portfolio. Matt Pendeleton has also shared some thoughts on engaging clinicians in the development of clinical systems based on his experience on recent clinical attachments.

Technology is generally becoming more accessible and we’re engaging with growing numbers of apps and websites to support different aspects of our work and play.  The user experience of these technologies is generally positive which is why there’s so much heart sinking when using many institutional IT systems. There’s been many a time when I’ve been using an app on my iPad or using some Web 2.0 tool and I’ve thought why can’t I have that functionality in the tools I have to use for work (eg learning repositories). I’m not alone here,  Jess, Chris and Matt have ideas and hundreds of others do too, students, staff, doctors, patients and adminstrators.  With an agile approach these individuals would be able to help contribute to developing solutions that really work.

So how do we get HE and the NHS to see the light about agile development in the way that the Cabinet Office has?  There needs to be a fundamental change in culture around IT projects, one that focuses on relationships and communities and that is inclusive.  It’s also likely that business and procurement strategies may need to change.  It’s been interesting to look at recent tweets about some of the issues around the NHS ePortfolio servers and to see that a simple and logical solution can’t be implemented because of finanical procedures.  There needs to be a realisation that infromation management touches every department and it can’t be looked at in individual silos but rather needs to be seen as a whole across the whole organisation.  It’s an area where we need to see strong strategic and creative leadership, a leadership that engages with stakeholders at all levels.

A few days ago Seth Godin wrote that “When everyone has access to the same tools

…then having a tool isn’t much of an advantage.

The industrial age, the age of scarcity, depended in part on the advantages that came with owning tools others didn’t own.

Time for a new advantage. It might be your network, the connections that trust you. And it might be your expertise. But most of all, I’m betting it’s your attitude.

There’s a lot of talk about competition in HE,  is our attitude to IT something which can help to give us an advantage?  How do we change the attitude and the culture around IT in HE?  How do we encourage our instituions to become agile so that UK HE can be responsive in an ever changing climate.  Maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree!

I’d like to know what the catalyst for change was at the Cabinet Office.  If you know I’d welcome hearing from you.


WordPress in UK Education Event: Would you come? Do we need one? Are you using it?

At the end of July I shared a couple of links via Google+ and my Tumblr site about an LMS app theme for WordPress and WPLMS, both of which focus on developing LMS/VLE type functionality for WordPress.  I find this sort of stuff interesting because the team I work with have been migrating our teaching resources from Blackboard to a new learning portal built in WordPress.  This migration has been the culmination of three years work, starting with blogs on WordPress.com to support undergraduate teaching to then setting up our own WordPress multiuser site.  Feedback from staff and students have informed and driven our developments  to the point that our undergraduate medical curriculum is now delivered via WordPress.

Reading about LMS app theme got me thinking and I posed this question on Google +

I think I may have said this before but couldn’t a few of us in the UK using WordPress as an alternative to the more traditional VLEs work together to get some JISC funding to develop some useful WP educational plugins and functionality?

As Martin Hawksey quickly pointed out there are others using WordPress in education in the UK, there’s been interesting things going at the University of  Lincoln, Dumfries and Galloway College have been using WordPress as an eportfolio tool.  There’s also the work of Jim Groom at the Universty of Mary Washington, which was one of the initial triggers for my interest in WordPress, and more recently his DS106 cMOOC.  Steve Bonham joined the conversation which then spilled over to Twitter and Pat Lockley also chipped in and  we talked about the possibility of a meeting to showcase how WordPress in being used in UK HE and explore whether there might be opportunities to explore funding to support WordPress development.

So as the title of this post asks, do you think we should try and hold some sort of UK WordPress in education event?  Would you be interested, would you come?  There is a JISC WordPress listserv but it has very little activity.  There are growing numbers of individuals and organisations using WordPress in UK education, there are annual Blackboard user meetings and Moodle meetings and although there is annual UK Wordcamp there’s not an educational event.

Do we need an event?  Should we start a google doc where we could detail who’s using WordPress and how, a bit like Matt Lingard’s doc on UK VLEs?  Would you be interested in a Google Hangout for a starter discussion?  Would there be any chance of funding from JISC or other groups that might fund a WordPress special interest group or an educational WP hackday type of event?

I was going to publish this post following that conversation, but things were too busy and hopefully I’ve not missed a trick in not striking while the iron was hot!  What do you think, are you interested? Would be great to hear from you via the comments here, Twitter, Google+ and any other channels that this post might be shared.

Come and talk to Blackboard … the listening VLE

Last week I spent two enjoyable days at Durham University for the 10th Annual Durham Users Conference.  The strap line for this year’s conference was Anti Social?  I went along to the meeting partly because here at Dundee we upgraded to Blackboard (Bb) v9 in the summer and I was hoping to meet and hear how other medical schools were getting on with the upgrade.  Also as I have an interest in how Web 2.0 type tools can be used to personalise learning my attention was hooked by the antisocial theme. I plan to write two posts summarising my reflections on the Conference, this first one looks at Bb issues and the second will pick up on the other presentations.

One of the most interesting sessions of the meeting was the panel session with representatives from several UK universities, including Durham and Liverpool that had upgraded to Bb 9 over the summer.  All of these universities with the exception of Northampton, which has an externally hosted Bb platform, experienced significant issues with the upgrade.  We certainly did at Dundee and in the College of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing these issues persist with web browser issues for staff and students using NHS IT networks, where IE6 is the standard browser.  Bb was not terribly popular with clinicians before the upgrade and it is even less so now.  Jake Gannon from Liverpool reported that some teaching staff there too were no longer using Blackboard following the upgrade. The discussion from this session was recorded in the conference twitter stream, which you can find by searching for #durbbu10 or by visiting the conference twubJo Badge has also written an  excellent post summarising the panel session on her DrBadgr blog and Terry Wassall from Leeds provides a helpful twitter derived report.

The following day the team from Blackboard had their opportunity to respond.  The presentation was headed up by Jan Poston Day and the key message was that Bb were changing and wanted to listen to what their users/customers were saying.  It was rather startling to hear that there was only 9 weeks of beta testing on Bb 9 but I guess this exaplians why Dundee and other institutions that have upgraded have experienced significant issues.  It was clear from Jan’s presentation that Ray Henderson’s arrival at Bb from Angel is clearly cultivating a listening culture and that they want to hear from us.  They are setting up a ‘bug squad’ to help determine client priorities, ensure clients have a voice in Bb software maintenance and undertaking quarterly satisfaction surveys.  Users can also get support via Bb Twitter accounts and there’s also Blackboard Connections where Bb users can connect with other users, share best practice etc. We were also told about NG Playground, course level access to a live development build of Bb allowing users to try out features that are currently in development.  The Playground is also a place to exchange ideas, get feedback on development roadmaps etc and for users to have input on future development.  So Blackboard want to listen to us and reflecting on this on the train back to Dundee an old TV advert sprang to mind for the Midland Bank, which had the strap line, ‘Come and talk to the Midland, come and talk to the listening bank’.  Blackboard clearly want us to talk to them and they want to be the listening the VLE.  I managed to find the Midland Bank advert on YouTube and you can take a look at it if you want to hear a blast from the past.

Becoming a student again

Today I became a student again as I started my Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education.  The course is run by my institution, the University of Dundee, and there are about 30 of us enrolled in this cohort.  We kicked off today with a one day workshop, and whilst we predominantly study by distance learning there are a series of further half day workshops and we are all in small group study sets which will meet approximately monthly.

I’m looking forward to doing this course and in particular to reflect on the role that the Web 2.0 type tools that I use everyday will play in supporting my studies and helping to develop my personal learning environment.  It will also be interesting to experience Blackboard as a student, as opposed to a teacher.  Will my view on whether the VLE is dead or not change?  Watch this space!

The VLE/PLE debate and medical education

Wordle of blogs posts on the VLE/PLE debate

Wordle of blogs posts on the VLE/PLE debate

A couple of weeks ago there was another round in the VLE/PLE debate. Steve Wheeler kicked things of with his two fingered salute to the VLE, where he concludes that it’s inevitable that the personal web will win a straight fight with the VLE.  On a comment Steve has posted in response to a piece by Mark Notess on eLearn Magazine he does admit he is being deliberately provocative to get the debate going.  James Clay responded with his post It’s not dead … yet … followed by Matt Lingard with VL-istically speaking and Lindsay Jordan with The VLE/PLE debate. There is some consensus across these four posts and I find myself agreeing with many of the points raised by Steve, Matt, James and Lindsay.

Whilst I make use of the personal web to support my own personal development and think (hope) that ultimately it will win the so called fight against the institutional VLE, I too feel this is still some way off, particularly for medical education.  There are two main reasons for thinking this

  • the current low level of use of Web 2.0 tools to support teaching and learning amongst both teachers and students and
  • firewall issues in the NHS which prohibit the use of a number of personal web tools to support teaching and learning.

In his post James responds to Steve’s piece by saying,

The concept that the majority of learners are adept at using Web 2.0 tools and services, are engaged with social networking and importantly are able to apply these skills to learning is a flawed concept at this time.

This is a view I would go a long with and the report on Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World published by JISC in May 2009 highlights these same points.  For example the report identifies that nine out of 10 students will be regular users of social networking sites on entry to University, but they have little sense of how Web 2.0 technologies might be used to support their learning and they are not pushing for changes in traditional educational approaches.  This report also identifies the need for targeted staff development opportunities aimed at identifying and spreading best practice in the use of Web 2.o tools in pedagogy.

The results of a study by Sandars and Schroter in the PMJ in 2007 also identified the need for staff development on the use of Web 2.0 technologies in medical education.  They presented the results of an online survey which sought to identify the current familiarity and use of web 2.0 technologies by medical students and qualified doctors to identify barriers to its use in medical education.  This study found that whist there was a high awareness and high interest in web 2.0 technologies there was generally low use.  Sandars and Schroter concluded that for the potential of these technologies to be realised in medical education there needed to be increased training in how to use them.  A couple of weeks ago I used this paper to kick off discussions at the Journal Club run by my colleagues in General Practice.  Rather like the doctors in Sandars’ study my colleagues had an interest in web 2.0 technologies and how they could use them to support their teaching but all identified the need for staff development in this area.  What was also interesting in the discussion was to hear their feelings about the institutional VLE with clunkiness and usability highlighted as issues.

Working in medical education there is an additional barrier to adopting the personal web to support teaching and learning and that’s the NHS firewall.  A challenge that medical schools face is making content available to students in the clinical phase of the curriculum when students are on clinical attachments based in NHS hospitals and GP practices.  Our students can access the institutional VLE from local NHS Trust PCs (albeit very slowly on IE6) however they cannot access the University’s webmail and there are problems accessing commonly used blogging sites, wikis, social bookmarking sites etc because of the NHS firewalls. A few months ago I was invited to do a staff development session with the psychiatrists involved in teaching our students and asked to demonstrate some web 2.0 tools and show sites where free content was available. I couldn’t access about 80% of the things I wanted to show and had to rely on back-up screenshots that I’d prepared as a standby.

I don’t know how we get around the NHS firewall issues but I think there are positive steps we can take to increase the use of personal web tools to support teaching learning.  We need to provide more opportunities for staff development but also identify how we can encourage students to see how these tools can support their learning and not just their social lives.  It’s also important to keep the debate going and to encourage and support the early adopters of technology and pioneers in e-learning to keep on innovating and being creative in how they use technology.  There probably needs to be some sort of centralised VLE-type system which looks after managing cohorts of students and providing a secure environment for some activities, particularly in areas like health professions education where there are important issues relating to patient confidentiality which must be considered.  At the same time the VLE of the future should be more open and support the integration of open tools so that students can pull together their own content to support their learning using tools which they can continue to use after they’ve graduated.

The VLE is dead‘ debate continues at the ALT meeting in Manchester in a couple of weeks time.  Unfortunately I won’t be there but will be following on Twitter.