5 Key Projects for the Learning Systems Roadmap at the Open University

I’ve recently been working with colleagues across the Open University, in particular Liz Burton-Pye, to define a roadmap for our future learning systems.  Moodle lies at the core of our online learning provision and its usage is growing rapidly with 50,000 unique users accessing it every day.  Elluminate is used for synchronous communication and Google Apps is about to be added to the picture as a personal space for communication and storage of content.

We’ve assembled many requirements for future developments and experimented with various ways of grouping and presenting these requirements.  A draft roadmap is at last beginning to take shape.  While there is much behind the scenes, less exciting work to be done on enhancing areas such as search functionality, five innovative headline projects stand out.  I thought it would be useful to present our latest thinking on these areas below and see if people agree that these are key areas to concentrate on.

Mobile VLE

Vision: Within three years the majority of students will have a smartphone and not long afterwards almost all of our students will have one.  This will present tremendous opportunities for learners to study from the small device they will carry with them everywhere.   While most students will use larger devices such as laptops and smartphones to study we should make it possible to carry out all aspects of OU study via a mobile device.  Websites redesigned for small screens will be adequate for most purposes.  Mobile apps however will be developed for specific learning purposes and a generic OU study app should be investigated to enable enhanced navigation, use of the entire screen and offline access.


  1. Our mobile presence should not attempt to replicate that designed for larger screens.  It will have fewer options and be more icon-based.
  2. The existing separation between StudentHome, course website and subject website will have to be rationalised for mobile learners.

Google Apps

Vision: Google Apps will become the primary space for students to create and store content and to interact with others informally and under their own control, while the VLE will remain the main space for more formal module and subject-based activities.  The functionality of Google Apps will be added to in the next three years and new apps will be made available, some with interesting educational possibilities.

The use of cloud-based services for students is a significant departure for the University, with the burden of hosting the hardware and software borne externally.  However there are possibilities for integration between Google Apps and internal systems.  For example it may become useful to replicate tutor group structures within Google Apps so that tutor-mediated learning activities can take place there.  Formal course-based activity may therefore begin to migrate to Google Apps where the functionality offers something additional to that provided by the VLE.


  1. Google Apps is primarily for individually-controlled activity and informal collaboration, while the VLE is primarily for institutionally-led learning activities.


Vision: The University will provide eportfolio facilities to all students and staff.  These will be for a range of purposes including:

  • the storage and organisation of learning content, references and materials produced by the user
  • the presentation of work to professional bodies and employers
  • personal development planning
  • the capture of data in structured format for formal learning activities
  • the preparation of a portfolio of work for assessment purposes

Google Apps provides much of the above.  Work to be carried out will ascertain whether its functionality is sufficient to meet all eportfolio purposes and whether any omissions can be built or procured to integrate with Google Apps.


  1. The eportfolio is owned by the student
  2. It must be fully exportable for use as a lifelong learning record

User-generated content

Vision: Web 2.0 systems allow users to place their own content such as blog postings, images or videos on the web and to share them with ease.  Such facilities are available in Moodle and Google Apps.  Social software also increasingly encourages commenting on the content of others and the rating of that content.  Other users can then view the comments and see aggregated rating scores to help them navigate to the most popular content.  Users whose contributions are rated highly by others can be given reputations which can motivate them to make further high quality contributions.  Providing such facilities for our students will increase their connections with each other and help them to feel more engaged in learning communities.


  1. Our learning systems should incorporate commenting and rating functionality throughout.


Vision: Users will increasingly expect to be able to personalise online systems so they can view content in ways which suit them best.  They will also wish to present themselves to others in the way that they choose.  A personal workload planning system will enable students to plan their study activities.


  1. Students should be able to use the hardware platform and browser of their choice
  2. OU learning systems should enable users to set individual preferences for colours, fonts etc
  3. They should conform to accessibility standards and work with screen readers
  4. The incorporation of different elements of functionality and their positioning on the screen should be largely under the control of the user
  5. Users should be able to define an online profile with full control over how they present themselves to other OU students and the World