I’ve just been at a workshop organised by Joel Greenberg exploring the potential of bringing Moodle and SAKAI together. There were representatives from Cambridge, Nottingham and Michigan Universities, plus the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and the OU. Chuck Severance, former brains behind SAKAI, kicked off with a fascinating talk about his current thinking on personal learning environments, VLEs/LMSs and standards.
Chuck was lamenting the fact that the VLE market is still divided into silos, with no real interoperability amongst commercial or open source VLEs. He felt that there are two key standards which need to be introduced in order to make this happen: IMS Common Cartridge, which deals with the format of the learning content held within VLEs, and IMS Tools Interoperability which describes how the functionality of different learning systems can be “mashed-up”.
As there are no implementations yet of the latter “standard”, IMS Tools Interoperability, it’s hard to get users experiencing the benefits and demanding the functionality from vendors. I’ve suggested previously that standardisation of learning technologies will only happen if there is a business requirement. In the case of IMS Question and Test Interoperability there is no massive uptake of this “standard” yet because there are not enough institutions who wish to pass around assessment content. If universities felt it was in their interests to buy and sell or exchange exam questions then IMS QTI would be taken a lot more seriously.
Well Catalunya has a real business requirement for two systems to work together. Due to an unwillingness to select either Moodle or SAKAI, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), funded by the government of Catalunya, is developing tools which work with both systems. So perhaps we are going to see working implementations of IMS Tools Interoperability in these two VLEs soon. That could in turn inspire others to work with the new standards UOC is developing to build tools which plug seamlessly into both platforms.
Does that mean that we will be able to run Moodle but, for example, bring in the SAKAI quiz engine instead if we decide it’s better than the Moodle one? Sam Marshall argues that it doesn’t matter if the Moodle one isn’t quite as good as the SAKAI one – more important is a consistent user experience across the tools. John Norman from Cambridge, who’s taken over carrying the SAKAI torch from Chuck, confirmed that students at Cambridge don’t want to have to worry about different interfaces and have spontaneously asked for greater consistency between tools.
There was reasonable though not complete consensus in the group that VLEs are getting big enough and that certainly functionality should be developed outside of the VLE and “plugged in”. Martin Dougiamas said on his recent visit to the OU that he wants to reduce the 1.5 million lines of code in Moodle – not increase them. Chuck suggested that it’s not necessarily a good idea to have the ten best used features of a VLE carried out by ten different applications, and I’ve argued previously that there are sound reasons for maintaining a core set of functionality within the control of the institution.