Category Archives: Announcements

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Report cover

Jisc releases new report on learning analytics in the UK

Report coverJisc today released a new report: Learning Analytics: the current state of play in UK higher and further education.  It was written after a series of visits I made recently to universities and colleges across the UK which were known to be carrying out interesting work in learning analytics.

I was inspired by campuses filled with enthusiastic freshers out enjoying the late summer sunshine and no doubt largely unaware of the technological innovations underway aimed at enhancing their chances of academic success.  Indoors I had fascinating discussions with some of the staff who are pioneering the use of the new technologies in the UK.

Various things struck me as I carried out structured interviews at each institution.  They varied tremendously in their organisational structures and approaches to education, and hence in their motivations for using learning analytics.  Increasing retention for example was vital for some of them while others, who didn’t have huge problems with student drop-out, were more interested in improving the learning experience, the tutor-student relationship or the institution’s scores in the National Student Survey.

It was also interesting to discover just what an early stage the UK is at in its use of learning analytics.  The activities discussed ranged from general business intelligence and the monitoring of key performance indicators, to tools which predict students at risk of failure, to systems which help manage the workflow around staff-student interactions.   The distinction between academic analytics and learning analytics which some commentators have attempted to make didn’t really seem to apply – most people see the data as part of a continuum which can be used by people at all levels of the institution.

The approach to gathering data for learning analytics varies widely across the institutions too.  Student information systems and virtual learning environments provide the bulk of the data.  But one of the most surprising findings is that there is little common ground among the participating institutions in the analytics systems they are using.  This seems to confirm the nascent state of the technologies and the lack of consolidation in the marketplace.  Contrast this with the market for VLEs where Blackboard and Moodle dominate.

Most interviewees were reluctant to claim any significant outcomes from their learning analytics activities to date.  Several mentioned the strong correlation they have found between physical attendance and achievement.  Others found that a significant outcome of the analytics work has been improved connections between disparate parts of their organisations.

When asked about future plans, most institutions were planning to consolidate the use of the systems they had recently put in place but would also be integrating new data sources and improving the presentation of dashboards. There was a strong desire as well to put tools in the hands of students so they can better monitor their own behaviours and performance.

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Interactive Computer Marked Assessment delivery at the OU

Use of e-assessment nearly doubles at Open University

Year on year use of online assessment is nearly doubling here at the OU. In the last year around half a million quizzes were delivered to students in our virtual learning environment using a combination of the Moodle quiz engine and the University’s in-house OpenMark system.

Interactive Computer Marked Assessment delivery at the OU

The use of the e-assessement tools for summative purposes (affecting the final mark for a module) has risen to around 16% of all quizzes delivered.  Meanwhile a new question engine for Moodle has been pioneered by Tim Hunt and Phil Butcher and is scheduled for release this December.  Phil says “the new engine has a crispness and consistency that inspires confidence” and he’s pleased to “wave farewell to many of the inconsistencies of the old engine”.

Enhancements planned over the next year include:

  • Drag and drop of words onto images
  • Drag and drop of images onto images
  • New short answer question using pattern-matching algorithm
  • New question type using drop-down lists
  • New question type to enable placing of markers on an image
  • New numerical question type enabling use of mathematical and scientific notation
  • New question type to enable incorporation of Java applets (including automated marking of diagrams)
  • Audio recording question type
  • New authoring interface
  • Inclusion of STACK maths questions
  • Interface to Learnosity audio recording tool
  • Dragging implemented on touch screen devices e.g. iPad
  • Better import and export from question bank to facilitate off-line authoring

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Google Apps

OU adopts Google Apps for Education

Category : Announcements

The Open University has taken the decision to adopt a suite of online tools provided freely for education by Google. In our first foray into cloud computing, Google will be hosting for our students:

  • email (gmail)
  • contacts
  • instant messaging and presence
  • calendar
  • document creation, storage and sharing
  • websites

Google Apps

All of our 200,000 or so students will be able to use the applications, which will also be made available to staff later. Email accounts will be provided under the domain. We’ll also be looking at whether to bring on stream other applications as they are integrated into the Google Apps for Education suite.

Meanwhile email provision for our 8,000 Associate Lecturers will be brought into line with other staff and they will be given an account with Microsoft Exchange, accessible online or via email applications such as Outlook or Thunderbird.

Growing numbers of institutions are now adopting cloud-based systems such as Google Apps for Education, particularly in the US. The arguments for hosting your own student email are becoming increasingly weak when it can be done externally for free, or at least much more cheaply. Google will provide a service level agreement with higher levels of availability than we could achieve ourselves. In addition there are other services included such as instant messaging that we don’t currently provide to students but could help them to connect more with each other.

These systems will increasingly start to compete with some of the features of learning management systems / virtual learning environments such as Moodle and Blackboard. They provide a higher level of individual control for students and potentially remove some of the administrative burden from the university. Google’s recent integration of their Groups application in the the Google Apps for Education suite is going to present us with some interesting questions such as:

  • What would be the additional maintenance issues for us in turning on that functionality so that any student can set up a forum e.g. dealing with inappropriate comments, flame wars etc?
  • Should Groups be a space for informal collaboration with formal teaching taking place in Moodle forums?

Another area for investigation is the use of Google Apps as an eportfolio system. Our initial research has shown that it would work for some of the key aspects of eportfolio provision such as the storage of documents under the control of the user, the exporting of these so they can be taken with them through life, and the creation of templates for the collection of structured data for a variety of purposes. We still need to work out how we can freeze or export eportfolio content where it is being for formal assessment.

Working out the balance of what needs to be hosted internally and what can be better done in the cloud is set to become a huge and ongoing debate for educational and other institutions. Lots of interesting issues and work ahead.

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Now learners control their VLE/LMS

Much of the criticism levelled at virtual learning environments / learning management systems relates to the control of the environment by the institution rather than the learner. The individual student has minimal ability to upload their own content or to set up collaborative tools unless this has been pre-ordained by the institution. The argument goes that students (and teachers) prefer free Web 2.0 systems because they can do what they like with them; VLEs are just administrative systems for making content available to designated groups of students.

VLEs have traditionally been based around the course/module as the unit of organisation. Any other form of structure such as a superstructure (eg a degree which combines a number of modules) or a substructure (eg a tutorial group) can be difficult to set up. At the Open University we have now produced a module for Moodle called Shared Activities which allows a student or any other user of the system to set up their own forums, shared blogs or wikis and invite any other VLE user to join them. Other tools could easily be added to the list in the future.

I cannot stress enough how fundamentally this changes the underlying assumptions of what a VLE is. The institution still sets up course web pages, uploads content, specifies learning activities and assessments and provides formal tutor groups with the right students (and tutor) having access to them.

But now individual students can also form their own study groups or use the system for social networking purposes with others in ways that they decide. There is no need to get permission or involve an administrator in setting up a blog, wiki or forum – just a requirement to click a box saying you agree with the terms and conditions and will be responsible for moderating the forum etc.

It has taken more than a year since this system was built to get it released at the University. There have been concerns about the loss of control by the institution, and also procedural, legal and support issues. However finally the reservations have been overcome and the system is available to all students and staff on the VLE. One reason to offer the system to staff as well is so that they can set up their own shared activities with other staff and become familiar with how the VLE works, thus potentially gaining ideas for how these tools could be used for teaching purposes.

If you’re staff or a student on the VLE at the Open University you should now be able to set up a shared activity. Please note that currently no user support is offered.

If you run Moodle elsewhere you can download the Shared Activity Module for Moodle.

Associate Lecturers at the Open University can use these tools but if they want to do so for teaching purposes there is a separate procedure to follow.

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Open University on iTunesU

Category : Announcements

iTunes U at the Open University

Apple made available content from a few European universities for the first time on iTunes U this morning – including from the Open University. Our Vice Chancellor, Professor Brenda Gourley, said:

The iTunes U project is an exciting new opportunity for anyone, anywhere in the world to gain easy access to Open University courses. Our aim is to partner our established distance learning expertise with the power of the internet to provide as mobile, flexible and personalised learning experience as possible, whatever your current educational level, personal circumstances or technological abilities.

The OU achieved widespread recognition in the UK in the 70s and 80s for its TV broadcasts – everyone of my generation and older remembers OU lectures late at night on BBC2. Video cassette recorders made these unnecessary but now the Internet and podcasting make it possible to start broadcasting again in a much more flexible and useful way. There’s a lot of interesting content here – with 500 items from 50 courses due by the end of July.

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Latest version of VLE released at Open University

Category : Announcements , Moodle , OU VLE

Our latest incarnation of Moodle was released this morning. New functionality includes:

    Audio resources pages – enabling audio files traditionally distributed on CD/DVDs to be made available as mp3 files for download
    New blog module – we found the existing Moodle blog too restrictive so have had a new system developed – this allows the setting up of personal blogs, course blogs and group blogs, commenting on blog posts, tags, RSS subscription and the ability to publish your blog comments to different groups including your tutorial group, course, the University or the World
    Podcasting – we’ve had the Moodle iPodcast module updated and this will allow one podcast channel per course, distribution of mp3 / mp4 files, use of lyrics tags in mp3 files for textual transcriptions, scheduling of podcasts etc
    MathML filter – for the display of maths content
    Statistics – including numbers of students accessing course sites and particular activities
    Shared activities – allowing students and ALs to create their own wikis and forums and invite others to join them
    Voting – providing a range of question types and results display options.

There are also lots of enhancements to existing modules such as Quiz and MyStuff. We hope to make most of this available to other Moodle users. OU staff can view further details on the Intranet. I’ll no doubt be blogging more about some of these new features in the coming weeks.

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Open University selects Elluminate for desktop conferencing

A press release yesterday announces the selection of Elluminate for our synchronous desktop collaboration and communication requirements. This comes after a lengthy procurement process in which 14 vendors submitted tenders. Elluminate scored the highest on our educational and technical criteria. Our evaluation team think the product is particularly well-suited for distance education and includes features we consider essential such as breakout rooms when a tutor wants to split the class into smaller sub-groups. It’s already partially integrated with Moodle and we’ll be working further with Elluminate on that. As with the other enhancements we’re making to Moodle, that code will be made available freely to others who want it.

Elluminate will replace our in-house system Lyceum which is used extensively for language courses. On all of our courses it offers many new possibilities for learners to be brought together with tutors and with each other. Videoconferencing, audioconferencing, shared whiteboards, application sharing and instant messaging are about to become a lot more accessible to our learners and tutors.

Elluminate is providing a hosted service initially for us while we set up the service and do the integration work at the University. Watch this space for further details on the roll-out if you’re at the OU.

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New OU VLE Newsletter out

Category : Announcements , OU VLE

Horizons - OU VLE Newsletter - download PDF file 375k

The second edition of Horizons (PDF – 375k) is now out and about to hit every staff desk in the OU.

It includes an interview with OU VLE Programme sponsor, Pro Vice-Chancellor Prof. Denise Kirkpatrick, articles on the eassessment work, library search tools, the new audio recording tool, podcasting, and a course in the Business School running almost entirely on the VLE.

Intrepid tutor Clive Buckland who has been known to tutor from a laptop in an RAF tent in Saudi Arabia gives his views on the potential of the VLE to transform teaching, and I round up with answers to some frequently asked questions on the VLE.

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Latest version of Open University VLE released

Category : Announcements , OU VLE

This week saw the release of OU VLE v.2.0, the culmination of a lot of work by many people over the past few months. Highlights of this version (most of which will be made available in the main public version of Moodle, some already in Moodle v1.9) include:

A new audio recording module for short audio clips recorded by students via their web browsers. This was a major requirement for language courses where students were previously required to submit audio recordings for assessment on cassettes.

A gradebook incorporating considerable enhancements to the existing Moodle Gradebook, allowing students to view their grades for assessed activities.

Learning designs which contain a sequence of Moodle activities and resources.

Enhancements to the assessment block incorporating dated and undated assessment information.

Enhancements to the calendar including the incorporation of student tutorial dates and personal events.

The incorporation of all VLE content in the federated search system.

Various enhancements to MyStuff, the eportfolio system.

Integration of course website news within StudentHome, one of the first steps in the integration of StudentHome and the VLE.

Quiz enhancements including an adaptive mode where students can make several attempts at a question, each time being presented with different parameters.

Improvements to visual design and accessibility of the OU Wiki within Moodle.

Some of these features are only available for pilots at the moment. Full details of all the above and more are available for OU staff. Now on with the planning and prioritising for the final big development phase of the OU VLE Programme which finishes on July 31st…

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Horizons VLE Newsletter

VLE Newsletter on every OU desk

Category : Announcements

Horizons VLE Newsletter
Horizons, the first OU VLE Newsletter, will hit every OU member of staff’s desk next week. The articles include an interview with a course manager who likes the extra control she now has in editing her course website, a case study on wikis in a course on software requirements engineering, and details of the Science Faculty’s attempts to encourage use of the VLE.