Can you ever switch off a module website?

Module website

At the moment the Open University’s policy is to remove module websites in our Moodle-based virtual learning environment for three years after the module presentation.  To have all the module content simply vanish after that period is becoming untenable.  For our students the module website is where their learning activities are coordinated and increasingly where they access their learning content in the form of web pages, PDFs, audio and video.  In the past they were sent books containing most of the content, could display the books on their shelves and refer back to them and the handwritten notes they’d added in the margins if required at a later date.  Now with an increasing amount of content delivered online they stand to lose the permanent access they have had to their core learning materials (barring fire or theft of their physical book collection, that is).

Meanwhile collaborative learning activities are increasingly taking place in forums, wikis, blogs and other social media tools within the virtual learning environment.  All the students’ carefully crafted comments or assignment work held in these tools are lost forever when the module website is removed.

Our annotation tool, OUAnnotate, is being used by students to comment on their course content and other websites relevant to their studies. We can hardly encourage learners to use this tool to comment on learning materials for them to later discover that their annotations are no longer accessible because the associated content has vanished.

An additional issue for the Open University is that students (in England at least) are now required to sign up for a whole qualification in order to obtain a loan rather than selecting individual modules one at a time and later deciding how to piece them together into a qualification.  This is having profound implications for the way the University organises itself with the qualification becoming the primary focus rather than the module.  Content, support and communities are thus available from the qualification website as well as the module site.  Assessment may also potentially be organised around the qualification rather than solely at the modular level.

Students might therefore want or need to access online materials they were studying more than a decade previously.

So why do we have this policy of switching off module sites in the first place?  There are various reasons including not retaining personal data indefinitely and not increasing data storage by keeping multiple presentations of the same content for many years.  Another problem is that content authored for one version of Moodle (e.g. a quiz) may require a particular version of Moodle to display it properly.  You might end up having to keep multiple versions of Moodle available indefinitely – a technical and logistical nightmare.

The solution a small group of us concluded this morning is probably that first of all the student has to take responsibility for retaining their learning materials in the same way that they’re responsible for not losing their books right now.  But we need to give them the advice and tools to do so.  We prompt them somehow to say “now that you’re coming to the end of your module would you like to export the content so you can refer to it in the future?” And again three years later, just before the site is about to disappear the student is prompted to export the content if they wish.

We add an “Export Module” button on each module website which exports the core module content i.e. web pages, PDFs, audio and video into a zip file to be stored wherever they want – perhaps also to their Google Drive or another cloud based storage facility of their choice.

For forums we differentiate between those which are to be used primarily for social purposes and those provided for core learning activities. The latter are flagged as such and the “Export Module” facility is built to incorporate the forum content in the zip file, perhaps as a PDF.

Capturing interactive content such as quizzes is problematic as it would mean replicating complex server-based functionality in e-books or other complex formats, maintaining those platforms when they’re upgraded etc but we agreed to look at this possibility.

Students’ annotations to course content remain a problem.  These could be important for revision several years after the module has been studied.  If we export web-based course content as web pages then could the annotations be embedded with the content so they pop up when the content is viewed in the future?

Another issue is that of found content.  If this is paid for there may be licensing issues which prevent the found content from being saved in the export file.  If it’s “free” and merely linked to we could just retain the hyperlink in the web content and not worry too much about linked content vanishing in the future.  That’s assuming the content isn’t absolutely key to the module.  We could also possibly find a way to embed an instance of that linked content at the time of exporting.

Bespoke software such as chemical modelling tools where the student is provided with a licence for the duration of the module would clearly not be able to be exported in this way and will end up disappearing.  But arguably that happens anyway so no change there.

A project is being set up within our Learning and Teaching Solutions unit to tackle all this and we’ll hopefully be able to put an initial solution together quite quickly incorporating the core course content, and later adding things such as forum content and annotations when suitable export functionality has been developed.

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One Response to Can you ever switch off a module website?

  1. LizMallett says:

    I’m thrilled that the OU is getting to grips with this issue!
    A little addendum.. The Open University Archive has been experimenting with Web Archiving the module websites in Moodle. Although it won’t solve the problem of student contributions to forums etc., we will have an archive of the learning content produced by the OU for all modules on the VLE from 2006 onwards. A step in the right direction :-)

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