Category Archives: Architecture

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Jisc's earning analytics architecture

Explaining Jisc’s open learning analytics architecture

Jisc is currently procuring the different elements of its architecture for a basic learning analytics system which we plan to make available to UK colleges and universities later this year.  In this video I explain how it all fits together.

The service will consist of the following components, and institutions will be able opt in to use some or all the components as required:

A learning analytics processor – a tool to provide predictions on student success and other analytics on learning data to feed into student intervention systems.

A staff dashboard – a presentation layer to be used by staff in institutions to view learning analytics on students. Initially this presentation layer will be focussed on the learner but dashboards for managers, librarians and IT managers could also be developed.

An alert and intervention system – a tool to provide alerts to staff and students and to allow them to manage intervention activity. The system will also be able to provide data such as methods and success, to be fed into an exemplar “cookbook” on learning analytics.

A student app – based on requirements gathering with staff and students.  Integration with existing institutional apps will be supported.

A learning records warehouse – a data warehouse to hold learning records gathered from a range of institutional data sources. We will define an output interface and also support integration with a common set of institutional systems.

When will it be available?
A procurement process is underway, proposals from suppliers have now been received and we are at the selection stage to appoint suppliers to develop each of the components of the learning analytics solution. The agreements will be in place in early May.

The expectation is that a basic learning analytics system consisting of the processor, dashboard and warehouse will be in place to pilot with universities and colleges from September 2015. The other components will be developed over the next 6-12 months.  A full production service will be provided if the pilots prove successful and popular from September 2017.

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Refining a systems architecture for learning analytics

European experts came together last week in an icy Paris to review Jisc’s evolving architecture for learning analytics.  The event at L’Université Paris Descartes was jointly hosted by Apereo and Jisc.  Delegates included representatives from the Universiteit van Amsterdam, the Pädagogische Hochschule Weingarten in Germany, Surfnet in the Netherlands, CETIS and the Lace Project, as well as Jisc and Apereo.


The architecture walkthrough involved participants taking on the following roles for the day:

  • Oracle (knows everything about the architecture)
  • Student
  • Teacher
  • Tutor
  • Researcher
  • Security expert
  • Software architect
  • Privacy enhanced technologist
  • Front end developer
  • Federative log on expert
  • Enterprise service bus expert
  • Data governance expert
  • Writer
  • Chair

It turned out to be a very effective way of getting some in depth constructive criticism of the model, which Jisc is using to procure the components of a basic learning analytics system.

Michael Webb takes us through the Jisc learning analytics architecture

Michael Webb takes us through the Jisc learning analytics architecture

Consent service
The workshop was organised in conjunction with the Apereo Europe conference and an event the following day around ethics and legal issues. It was interesting how almost immediately the architecture session got caught up in issues relating to privacy. These were of such concern to the Germans present that they believed their students wouldn’t be prepared to use a learning analytics system unless the data was gathered anonymously.  Once learners had gained confidence with the system they might be persuaded to opt in to receive better feedback. Thus the consent service was confirmed by the group as a critical part of the architecture.

Two use cases were suggested for the consent service: 1. students control which processes use their data, and 2. the institution wants to use data for a new purpose so needs to obtain consent from the students. I find myself wondering about the logistics here: what happens if the student has left the institution?  Will you risk having large gaps in the data which diminish the value of the overall dataset?

One participant suggested that students could decide if they wanted analytics to be temporarily switched off – like opening an incognito window in a browser. This would allow them to have a play and do some exploration without anything being recorded. The logistics of building this into multiple systems though would certainly also be complex – and it would potentially invalidate any educational research that was being undertaken with the data.

Students may be worried about privacy, but handling the concerns of teachers was also felt to be crucial.  It was suggested that statistics relating to a class should remain private to the teacher of that class; concern was expressed that learning analytics could be used to identify and subsequently fire ineffective teachers.  “Could a predictive model allow unintelligent people to make decisions?” was the way the participant with the “teacher” role summed up the perennial battle for control between faculty and central administators.

One suggestion to minimise privacy infringements was to use the LinkedIn model of notifying you when someone has looked at your profile. Certainly every time someone views a student’s data it could be logged and be subsequently auditable by the student.

Jisc learning analytics architecture v2.0

Jisc learning analytics architecture v2.0

Student app
One idea was for the student app to use an open API, allowing other student-facing services to be integrated with it. Another issue raised was that most analytics is carried out on data sources which can be fairly “old” however there may be a need for realtime learning analytics. And a student app which assessed whether learning outcomes had been achieved could also be very useful.

One of the most interesting ideas mooted was this: could the most important source for predictive analytics be “self-declared” data? It might be that some wearable technology monitoring your sleep patterns or your exercise levels for example could be mapped onto your learning performance. Or you might want to log the fact that you’d watched several relevant youTube videos that you’d discovered.

Learning record store
Concern was expressed around the performance of dashboards when required to process big data. Thus the ETL (extract, transform and load) layer is crucial to determine what data is stored in the learning records warehouse.

Alert and intervention system
This should not only be in place to help those at risk but should also allow the teacher to analyse how well things are going on overall in the class. Interventions might be to congratulate students on their progress as well as to address potential failure or drop-out.

Learning analytics processor
This was deemed to be so critical that it should form a separate layer, underpinning the other applications. Meanwhile compliance with the Predictive Modelling Markup Language has already been specified by Jisc as a requirement for the predictive models to be used by the learning analytics processor. But one member advised us to be wary of “gold-plated pigs” – some vendors are great at presenting beautiful apps and dashboards which may have shaky underlying models and algorithms doing the predictions. Most staff are unlikely to want to know the fine detail of how the predictions are made but they will want to be reassured that the models have been checked and verified by experts.

The use of technical, preferably open, standards is going to be important for an architecture comprising a number of interchangeable components potentially built by different vendors. The Experience API (Tin Can) has been selected as the primary format for learning records at the moment; it should be relatively easy to convert data from the LMS/VLE to this format, and some plugins e.g. Leo for Moodle already exist. However there may be a maintenance overhead every time each LMS is upgraded.

It was suggested that the IMS Learning Information Services (LIS) specification would be appropriate for storing data such as groupings of individuals in relation to courses.  There is already reportedly a LIS conversion service for Moodle.

The problem of ensuring universally unique identifiers for individuals (and activities) was also noted.

Our “cracker” (security expert) was concerned that security issues will be complex because of the number of different systems in place.  Meanwhile there’ll be ongoing requirements for patches and version updates for the different LMSs and student information systems.


Have people given up on tablets?

Have people given up on tablets?

We were reassured that the architecture, with some minor changes suggested by the group, is robust, and we’ll be aiming to put in place a basic “freemium” learning analytics solution for UK universities and colleges by September.

We hope also that this will contribute to international efforts to develop an open learning analytics architecture and we look forward to working with other organisations to develop it further in the future.

I’m grateful to all the participants who made such useful contributions on the day and in particular to Alan Berg of Apereo and the University of Amsterdam for initiating this workshop and doing the lion’s share of the organisation.

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Current OU systems are disparate

MyOU: A seamless online experience for learners

Category : Architecture , OU VLE

Accessing online content and services has become a vital part of the OU experience. The virtual learning environment has been carefully designed over the last seven years and has some excellent features such as a custom-built forum tool and quiz engine.  Meanwhile we have other systems such as StudentHome, Open Learn and Library Services, full of useful content and tools.  These websites have grown up organically, are owned by different parts of the organisation, have different user interfaces and are not as well integrated as they could be.  Navigating through them to find the information or tools you need, particularly if you’re new to the University, can be a confusing experience.

Current OU systems are disparate

A new initiative called MyOU aims to put this right and will optimise the online experience for our students. Currently in the requirements gathering stage, we are consulting heavily with our learners and with the various stakeholders across the University. MyOU will provide a new layer on top of  existing systems making the online experience much better for students.

Future vision for MyOU:  My OU online experience is seamless. If I’m at multiple stages of the journey at the same time it’s still seamless. I get what I need at the right time.What I see is adjusted according to my profile.Content is presented in different blocks on the screen.The OU gives me a default set of content. I have lots of control over what I see. I can make it look the way I want.I don’t need to know which part of the OU is providing the content.I can access the whole thing with a simple URL e.g.

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Module planner gadget

The Distributed Learning Environment Comes a Step Closer

Fed up being force-fed a whole lot of stuff of no great interest to you in your university’s virtual learning environment? Want to view only the parts of most relevance to your own learning – and blend them in with your other interests such as news, weather and sports updates? The Open University is now moving closer to that vision with a series of “widgets” or “gadgets” which take parts of the OU VLE and make them available on other platforms.

Module Planner Gadget

The developments have been made possible with a grant from JISC for a project called DOULS (Distributed Open University Learning Systems). The first prototype gadget, built by project developer Jason Platts, makes the module planner from the Moodle module website available to students in iGoogle. Jason has built the authentication module which makes it possible for the gadget to communicate with Moodle. At the moment this is a one way flow of information from Moodle to the gadget, however future versions will enable updates to data held in Moodle via the gadgets.

Future gadgets planned for development are:

  • Forum Updates – showing latest updates to forums, blogs and wikis you’re subscribed to
  • Assessment Helper – prompting for when next assessments are due
  • Study Buddy – enabling students to connect with others who have similar interests

The idea behind all this is to allow users to work in the environments most comfortable to them and not to be forced to visit an institutional website all the time, which might not be configured in the way they want it.  Learners will be able to create their own dashboard including updates to do with their formal learning as well as anything else they’re interested in. We’re also investigating the development of similar applications in Facebook and LinkedIn. All the code will be made available freely to other institutions.

An additional benefit is that we may be able to use the functionality of the other platforms to make possible something that can’t be done solely in the VLE.

Of course many students may prefer to visit the VLE in its entirety and they’ll still be able to do so. There are also possible reasons why institutions might not want to lose them entirely from that environment – such as them potentially missing out on guidance and support, news items or knowledge of new courses. However overall it has to be a good thing to give control to learners over exactly what they want to see and in which environment they want to see it.  The VLE is not dead but merely fading away into the background.

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Google Apps

Facilitating group interaction in Google Apps

Google AppsOur pilot roll-out of Google Apps is going well.  To date we’ve invited 12,000 students and nearly 2,000 of them have signed up.  At the moment it’s up to students what they do with the tools and we’re staying out.  The possible uses for formal learning though are intriguing and I just had a chat with Rhodri Thomas about the next steps.

We’re looking at replicating our tutor group structure within Google apps.  That would have two initial benefits:

  1. You could email those in your group more easily
  2. You could share documents with them easily too

It also might make you feel some affinity with those in your group I suppose and be more likely to share things.  Some students of course might not want to be emailed by members of their group or to have documents shared with them so we’ll need to think about that.

Sharing documents with the wider world outside the University is also likely to be of interest.  Currently we’ve locked down the ability for users to share documents outside the domain but there will soon be pressure to open this up.  You might have a collaborative project with people elsewhere or wish to share eportfolio content with a future employer.  There are also third party applications such as DocsToGo which apparently won’t work unless this option is switched on.

Our exploration of the use of Google Apps as an eportfolio system continues.  Eportfolios sometimes need to be assessed, and one of our key requirements will be to ensure that any content that is submitted for assessment is preserved in that state.  Another option would be to export it into our assessment handling (eTMA) system however the alterations to formatting when transferring out of Google Docs and into Word may mean it’s better to keep the documents in Google and invite the tutors to go there instead.

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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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The VLE is dead

Reports of the demise of the VLE/LMS are greatly exaggerated

Category : Architecture , Web 2.0

The Association for Learning Technology’s annual conference currently underway in Manchester included a well-hyped session called “The VLE is Dead”. The debate included a number of well-rehearsed viewpoints on both sides of the divide between those who would like to do away with institutional learning systems and those who see them as essential (if perhaps a necessary evil). They’re essentially the same points I’ve been thrashing out with Tony Hirst, Martin Weller and others over the past few years.

Steve Wheeler kicked off by suggesting that the term VLE is wrong for a start, that we are talking about content management systems and that they don’t promote learning. Sure, the name is not perfect, but it does describe a particular toolset, designed with learners in mind. VLEs do offer the ability to schedule a range of learning activities and make tools available rather than just manage content.

I have always felt that learning systems are basically “learning neutral” and are at the mercy of the learning content and activities which are made available through them. If Steve sees no valuable learning taking place in VLEs then is that due to the lack of imagination of the teachers using the systems he knows? There are innumerable examples of imaginative, engaging and effective learning experiences taking place in schools and colleges via VLEs (as argued by James Clay later) – and many well-documented examples in higher education.

Steve claims that VLEs promote homogenised content and that this one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for students. Perhaps his institution has the budget to create individualised content for each student depending on their preferences and learning styles. Mine doesn’t. Or maybe all his students are happy to pull together their own list of appropriate learning resources and activities from around the Internet and to form their own groups to study together jointly. Most of those in my institution would not be and they relish the carefully crafted learning content and activities provided for them, which they can supplement with further individual research as required.

For Steve, VLEs prevent students from discussing with others outside the University. There are undoubtedly scenarios where valuable learning could take place by connecting with individuals with shared learning interests via the Internet from around the World. What normally brings students together though is the common purpose of studying a syllabus and taking the same assessments at the same time. It is certainly irritating to be constrained by the licensing policies of commercial VLEs, where you cannot easily integrate groups of non-registered students into discussions however open source solutions have no such restrictions.

Graham Attwell is anti-VLE because he is anti-formal education and he launched his usual attacks on the mass education system, based on a standardised curriculum. If you come from this standpoint then a VLE does indeed replicate many of the undesirable, closed aspects of the formal education system, locking out those who have not registered on courses and funnelling predetermined content into them. A “personal learning environment” comprised of multiple pieces of freely available social software neatly fits the anarchic educational world view, but in my view we will need VLEs for as long as we have formal education with groups of (increasingly fee-paying) students, facilitated by individual tutors, studying a common curriculum for specified periods incorporating rigorous formal assessment processes.

James Clay took a pragmatic approach, despite being billed as the VLE man. No-one thinks that VLEs are perfect but when used appropriately they can provide a framework and guidance to the student and help staff who lack confidence with multiple social networking sites. Nick Sharratt argued that the VLE is not yet complete but that it is necessary and it is our responsibility to demand enhancements so it does meet our needs. He suggested that users expect reliability, predictability and consistency across courses. Well, we’ve had “the VLE is more reliable/unreliable than free social software tools” debate many times so perhaps it’s pointless to revisit it but I just have to point out that I’m finding the current performance of Facebook is making the system unusable and we would rightly be slated if the VLE was as slow to use….

From the recording, I recognised the dulcet Liverpudlian tones of Chris Jones in the audience. He argued that the VLE sits in an institutional framework and is not just about learning. VLEs are indeed very much about the administrative aspects of formal learning and that’s why they’re not going to go away. Nick asked how you can use a social network for learning without knowing who your fellow students are, for example. Whether VLEs are any good at facilitating effective learning as well depends on the imagination and skills of those creating the content hosted by them and the activities facilitated by them. Meanwhile, denial-of-service attacks permitting, social networking sites and free learning content go from strength to strength for those with the time and inclination to engage with them.

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Principles for future VLE/LMS development

Category : Architecture , Moodle , OU VLE , Policies

A group of us met earlier in the year from my office and from Learning and Teaching Solutions at the Open University to discuss some of our ideas around the future development of our Moodle-based VLE/LMS. Out of this discussion emerge, I think, some principles which could be taken into account when looking at new functionality. I offer these not as absolutes at this stage but am keen to hear what others at the OU and elsewhere think about them.

Principle 1: The VLE should facilitate easy online collaborative content development. The systems are not currently in place to make this easy – and they need to be enhanced.

Principle 2: The VLE must recognise the needs of specific subject areas and business needs. Areas such as maths, languages and continuing professional development courses have unique requirements for displays, technologies and formatting which need to be catered for.

Principle 3: The VLE must be able to allow access to a variety of users. Employer engagement in particular will require increasing access from outside the university and there are various other types of user which require access.

Principle 4: We need to assess continuously whether we have the right balance between “control” and “freedom” in the use of the VLE by staff and students. A compromise needs to be reached between allowing users to have sufficient levels of access to VLE facilities and maintaining the quality of our learning content, activities and support.

Principle 5: The integration of external tools will be continually evaluated. While the University considers an in-house VLE to remain essential there are facilities such as email provision which may be better outsourced.

Principle 6: The OU VLE should be visible on a wide range of channels. All student facing systems should be accessible and easy to use on mobile devices as well as on desktop PCs and laptops.

Principle 7: All textual content should be stored in XML format where possible. This will help considerably with repurposing for delivery on other platforms eg paper, e-books and mobile devices.

Principle 8: Documentation should be good enough that course teams do not feel the need to write their own supporting notes around use of the VLE facilities. A proposed revised Computing Guide will address this issue which results in duplication of effort and the production of paper resources which go out of date quickly.

Most of these are probably relevant to other institutions too. There are other things such as ensuring accessibility, usability and robustness which we already assume; all the above are aspects we have not tackled systematically to date. Any thoughts gratefully received.

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Opening up the Open University online

Category : Architecture , OU VLE

I’ve just been at a workshop with my colleagues Tony Hirst, Ross Mackenzie, Martin Weller and others looking at how the OU’s virtual learning environment could be enhanced by closer integration with other systems elsewhere. This could work both ways so that:

  • Live data from other systems is integrated within OU course content, and
  • OU learning content is more exportable into other organisations’ systems

Organisations are increasingly making access to large and useful datasets by providing APIs ie ways in which developers elsewhere can tap into that data. Many of our courses could benefit from inclusion of dynamic data within the course content. One example might be an economics course which looked at the progression of a recession. See for example the BBC’s animated map of growing unemployment in the UK which could potentially be incorporated in a course and provide a more up to date and engaging experience for the learner than a static resource if it was based on the latest data.

Concerns were raised that including dynamic data sources from elsewhere in our courses is risky because of the services potentially being withdrawn, the data changing so that it is less meaningful or the data structures being altered. One solution would be to take a snapshot of the data at the beginning of the course so that students are accessing that rather than the live data. But does this remove the dynamism of the experience for the user? A way forward might be to provide both archived materials and live ones.

So why try to incorporate this data in course content and perpetuate the spoon feeding of students? Would it not be more in students’ interests for them to visit the website with the original data so that they learn how to navigate it or perhaps see other interesting materials while they’re there? Thanh Le pointed out that perhaps when two feeds are combined it makes sense to present the result locally otherwise with a single data source it’s better to send the learner to the original site.

There are pros and cons of both approaches but including graphs of live data feeds within course content does allow course authors to include commentary around the data, makes the courses look more current and avoids them going out of date so quickly.

We also looked at what could be exposed from the OU via APIs. Already quite a lot is available from OpenLearn, iTunesU and other systems with RSS feeds. One suggestion was that these should be combined and made accessible to other organisations/users using a single API.

My biggest concern is how to convince course authors of the relevance of all this. Most of them are struggling to find the time to engage with other aspects of elearning, let alone the techie world of APIs, RSS feeds, mashups and the like. We suggested that the Library needs to develop its expertise in the data sources that are out there – and to be able to suggest to course teams not only what they could use but how they could combine more than one feed together to produce useful applications for the learner.

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Dancing with the devil: a view from Blackboard’s European conference

Category : Architecture , Moodle , Web 2.0

In the heart of downtown post-industrial Manchester, currently basking in sweltering Mediterranean temperatures, Blackboard is hosting its European Conference, BbWorld Europe ‘08.

Michael Feldstein has described the attack on Blackboard’s market share from Moodle. Whether this has anything to do with the negative publicity surrounding Blackboard’s patents, reported on extensively by Stephen Downes and Jim Farmer it’s impossible to say. What’s clear though is that Blackboard is striking back with some very interesting innovations – and my feeling is it may achieve many of them faster than the Moodle community can.

Michael L Chasen, Blackboard’s CEO, described the three principles of Project NG (Next Generation) which is bringing WebCT and Blackboard together into one platform: Student achievement, Openness and Web 2.0. So what does that actually mean?

There is an excellent instructor dashboard, something Moodle is crying out for (and the sort of thing recommended by our Student Support Review at the OU). It informs tutors about what’s new, what needs attention, which students have handed in work late, which haven’t logged in for a week etc.

The authoring facilities are also getting increasingly sophisticated. A course management block allows you to drag and drop blocks of content around the page, building new items and adding assessments, communication tools etc from drop-down menus. One of these menus is for mashups allowing you to integrate Google Earth maps, Flickr, YouTube and other resources easily into courses.

Accessibility appears to be being taken seriously with keyboard friendly interfaces for every feature.

An adaptive release feature enables the release of different items of content to be sequenced and scheduled.

The AJAX interface appears to flow through the whole suite of applications from students customising their home pages by dragging blocks around – to instructors reordering questions in a test just by dragging them (moving away from the increasingly outdated HTML forms interface).

Support for languages is enhanced and students can select one of 14 languages for the Blackboard interface (Moodle wins on that score).

Probably the most interesting way Blackboard is developing is to open itself up. I’ve been arguing that this is what has to happen to VLEs/LMSs if they are to survive. It is a particularly good strategy for Blackboard anyway – by sucking in information from other applications and exporting useful information to other systems it keeps the LMS firmly at the centre of the various educational systems. Courses from Moodle or SAKAI for example can be delivered with single sign-on, and events from those courses aggregated into the Bb interface.

“Communities” can be set up by students to create their own social learning spaces if the institution wants to make this possible.

The student profile has been redesigned and looks good – something you could imagine would give a greater sense of ownership to the student.

There’ll be enhanced SMS facilities so that announcements, updates etc can be sent by text message in whatever ways students wish to receive them.

And finally there’s Bb Sync which is supposedly going to be announced officially tomorrow but kind of has been already. It’s a Facebook application which allows aspects of Bb to be accessed through Facebook. For example students can see course announcements, whether new grades are available or the headers of new forum posts. Click these headers and they are transferred to the forum in Blackboard – again that strategy of drawing everyone back to the mother application. It provides lists of those who are both on your course and have a Facebook profile and allows you to communicate directly with others via Facebook.

So have I gone over to the darkside and am I going to recommend the Open University switches from Moodle to Blackboard? Hmmm…not right now I haven’t. For one thing, talking to some of the delegates, they want their hands on this stuff now and are going to have to wait a year or so for some of it. Meanwhile the Moodle community has lots of innovations up its sleeves too. Rivalry between these two worlds (and preferably some others as well) is a very healthy thing and is precisely what learners and teachers need.