Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Evolution of Learning

Although I've been blogging enthusiastically about photography and remote places over the last year I've been somewhat remiss about keeping this blog current.  In the year since I left the Open University I've had time to think about how I see e-learning evolving, and since I’ve just used the phrase it’s about time I came clean.  I've never liked the terms e-learning or m-learning.  I'm also no longer sure that I like terms like on-line learning or even distance learning either.  It’s all just learning.

The same argument applies to virtual learning environments and virtual communities, and I've had this discussion several times recently.  There isn't anything virtual about the learning that’s done within a virtual learning environment, or anything virtual about the communities that an individual interacts with on-line rather than face-to-face.  We should just be talking about learning environments and communities.  The communities and learning environments that we interact with now are very real they just happen to be a bit different to the ones that we might have used in the past.

The reality of evolution, and this works in almost any context, is that the bits that don’t work well should (and do eventually) get abandoned, and new things get tried.  And just occasionally one or two of the new things do ultimately survive to sit alongside the things that have survived from the past.  This simplistic model is fairly easy to picture in the steady state environment, but it’s more of a challenge when we start to think about a changing environment when more stresses are placed on existing things and there is a temptation to declare ‘everything broken’ and to throw it all away.

The learning community has historically been split into two parts, one advocating changing nothing and the other advocating changing everything.  A lot of my working life in education has been on the ‘changing everything’ end of the spectrum.  I've always advocated trying new stuff and been keen to take risks to see how new stuff works in practice.  Maybe this is best described as ‘Encouraged Evolution’.   Very few teachers, and I’ll use this in the broadest sense, say that they are unwilling to improve on what they are doing, but there are many who I've heard say that they don’t have the time to experiment, and that the risks inherent in trying something different are too high.

My intention is to use this blog over the next few months to talk about how I see Encouraged Evolution in the area of on-line learning.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Moodle 2.5 Multimedia Cookbook by Silvina P Hillar

The subtitle on the cover says the book contains “75 recipes to help you integrate different multimedia resources into your Moodle courses to make them more interactive”.  And that is exactly what it does.

The author groups the recipes into nine broad themes.  These cover user experience, maps, charts, interactive documents, audio, video, images (of various sorts) and repositories.  For each theme she walks the reader through a number of external tools (mostly, but not all, freely available) that can be used to create resources that can be integrated into a standard Moodle site.  Each tool is described in just about enough detail to get you started, although I would expect the learning curves to be pretty steep for some of the tools, if the reader is going to get the most out of them.

As with a more conventional cookbook, the reader is likely to skim through the book on first purchase and build up a mental picture of the range of dishes suggested and when faced with a catering challenge (or in this case a teaching one) to flick back through the book looking for the recipe that comes closest to what is actually required.

The book does cover a huge number of different tools (at least 75!), and this means that the examples must, to keep the book to a reasonably length, be pretty simplistic.  If we stretch the cookbook metaphor a bit further, we’ve got a collection of basic recipes which the good cook (or teacher) will extend by adding their own particular specialities.  That said this book does cover everything from starters through to desserts, with a few things that are only going to appeal to a limited audience.

The writing style is very chatty.  I suspect that this will be fine for some readers, but might grate for others. Once I got into the style it didn't distract me from the content and the steps in any recipe (although I haven’t yet tested them all) did seem to work.

My only real concern about the book is how long a shelf-life it might have.   It is tied to lots of specific version numbers.  The title makes it clear that it’s intended to go with Moodle 2.5, but in addition a lot of the descriptions (and the many screen shots) for the various external tools are inevitably specific to the current versions at the time the author was writing.  I suspect that some of these will already be out of date.  The ideas behind the recipes will still hold true once the version numbers change, but the step-by-step details might change.

In all, I think this is a useful addition to the bookshelf (real or virtual) of anyone trying to go a bit beyond the tools that come with standard Moodle. 

My final word of guidance to these users would be not to try and include too many of the recipes in any one course -  variety may be the spice of life, but it is possible to over-spice any dish you are cooking.

Note: Packt Publishing invited me to review this title, and provided an evaluation copy. The Moodle 2.5 Multimedia Cookbook is available from the Packt website.

Monday, 25 March 2013

March 2013 OU Learning Systems Update

In this update I'll mention the recent update to the OU VLE, talk about the traffic levels we’re currently seeing and then mention the developments that we have underway for VLE releases in April and in June.

First though, real time collaboration tools.  Over the last few months I’ve made slightly cryptic references to replacing the Elluminate system that we’ve been using since 2008.  I’m pleased to be able to confirm that we’ll be introducing OU Live over the next few months, based on Blackboard’s Collaborate Platform.

We expect to have the first pilot use of OU Live in May this year, and to progressively roll that platform out as a replacement for Elluminate over the next 12 or 15 months.  As with most major changes like this we’ll be making the transition gradually – migrating modules as presentations end.  We’ve already started talking to a number of module teams about the transition process.

The March VLE update happened as we planned on the morning of the 5th March.  We refined our update process for this release so that we could try and minimise the interruption to services, and I think that refinement worked well, and we were able to bring the servers back up a little bit earlier than we had planned.

Our next scheduled update is a minor one, planned for 16th April.  This release is being put in place so that we can deploy the bridge software that links the VLE to the new OU Live service.

We’ve seen VLE traffic drop off a little since our peak in early February.  This mirrors the pattern we’ve seen every year, but we are still seeing well over 7M transactions each week, and typically forty to fifty thousand users visiting the system each day.  Overall the system is performing very well, during this busiest period of the year, with the response times being well inside the targets we've set ourselves.

We’re also in the midst of development activities for the June VLE update.

We are expecting that update to be based on Moodle 2.4, and quite a lot of the development activity at the moment is being devoted to ensuring that all the OU developed components work correctly in the new version of Moodle.

There is still some performance testing work that we will need to carry out on the Moodle 2.4-based system to confirm that it will be to handle to huge traffic load that the OU Community will place on the server.

We expect the update to happen on Tuesday 4th June.

And it will include….
• Improvements to the Forum moderation tools
• Enhancements to the OU Anywhere tools
• An improved version of the OU Annotate system
• Improvements to the Wolfson Open Science Lab platform
• Improvements to the Quals on-line platform
• The first release of a new ‘Moodle for Exams’ platform
• An update to the OpenMark platform
• And a raft of minor changes to a lot of the other tools within the VLE as we’ve updated them to work in Moodle 2.4

And finally, this really is my final OU Learning Systems update. In the short term Geoff Aldridge will be taking over from me leading the Learning Systems team at the OU.

I do want to say that I am really proud of the work that I and the Learning Systems team have done over the last six or seven years, providing a truly world class VLE to the OU Community.   In the early days we struggled at times to cope with the growth in traffic, but we were able to find ways round those challenges.  And we were also able to use the move from Moodle 1.9 to Moodle 2 to re-engineer the platform quite substantially so that we able to cope with traffic levels that we could only have guessed at – or dreamt of - a few years ago.

I’m not going to single out particular members of the Learning Systems team for mention – the real strength of what we’ve been able to achieve has been down to the fact we’ve had a really strong team that brought different skills and perspectives to bear on the problems and challenges we’ve faced.

And really, really finally thanks for reading these updates.  I’ve appreciated the feedback I’ve received about them, and hope that they have been useful.  I will be continuing to blog about online learning, but my comments are likely to become much less OU specific!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A Memoire in Eight Bits

Clearing out my desk drawer, in anticipation of escape, revealed a rich collection of old business cards, including lots of mine.

A history of online learning in eight bits (of card)?

First arrived at the Open University – in the Academic Computing Service.  Worked on THD204 built using Toolbook and delivered on 3 CDs.  First experience of learning and teaching online at the OU was hearing from disgruntled users demanding that we stay with CoSy rather than move to that new-fangled FirstClass system.
After a brief escape, returned to the OU to join the Library.  Helped them through the trauma of Y2K, made all their servers run the same operating system, and helped with the implementation of the Voyager library management system.
Jumped to the newly-formed LTS and to On-Line Applications Team.  We built course websites. Lots of them.  We worked with individual course teams and then handcrafted websites to do exactly what they needed.  Great fun, but very expensive and with lots of maintenance work to do each year. ColdFusion was our friend, and occasionally our foe.  Online stuff was, for most course teams, an optional extra or afterthought to the course, but we did make the revolutionary (or at least evolutionary) step of moving to load-balanced servers.

I must have been important by this stage – was allowed a yellow blob on my business cards.  Media Account Manager for OU Business School, for IET and ran the Corporate Team in LTS.  Lots of time taken up getting the OU's home-made lightweight Learning Management system up and running, and persuading course teams that they should move from their lovingly crafted website to that new-fangled Promises system.

Start of the Moodle years.  Clearly a time of radical thinking – we even had trendy ‘portrait’ business cards.   Made the decision to move away from lots of different systems and technologies, and hand-crafted websites to a single platform that would do (almost) everything we needed.   And in our spare time we built OpenLearn (building on the work we were already doing to make Moodle work at the scale that the OU needed).  Lots of grumbles from disgruntled users that we should stay with FirstClass rather then move to that new-fangled Moodle system.   
Everything gets bigger, including the type-face – business cards go back to ‘landscape’, and the FAX number now disappears from the card.   Every course now needs to have a course website, and online is no longer just an optional extra.  Senior management now get agitated whenever there’s a problem with the VLE. Not that there were too many problems.

Moodle 2 on the horizon. We make the decision that we will move to Moodle 2, and move away from the huge number of core customisations that we’d introduced while using Moodle 1.  Traffic levels still rising as more and more courses now make more and more use of more and more features within the VLE.  I’m sure we did have grumbles from disgruntled users that we should stay with Moodle 1.9 rather then move to that new-fangled Moodle 2 system.

Moodle 2 up and running and being used for the OU’s main VLE, for OpenLearn and for Qualifications OnLine.   Regularly seeing days with well over 1M transactions.  Regularly seeing days with over 60,000 unique users using the system.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Head of IT Development (Learning Systems), The Open University

I guess I really must be leaving.

The recruitment to find my replacement at the Open University is now under-way.  It really is a slightly strange experience seeing my job being advertised.  I can't recall a previous instance where I was being directly replaced, although I don't know if this says more about me or about the other jobs and roles I've had.

The advert is on the university jobs website - go on, have a look - the closing date is 28th March 2013.

The role does undoubtedly have challenges.  You get to juggle lots of different systems, that are now used (and relied on) by a huge number of students and teachers both across the UK, and further afield.  The posts elsewhere on this blog will give you an idea of the scale of operation, and how it's grown over the last few years. But the role does also come with a few outstanding perks - and I don't mean the attractions of living in Milton Keynes.  A lure that I've managed to resist.

The annual leave allocation is pretty good - as my travel blog over the last few years might suggest

But rather more seriously - the most obvious perk is the fantastic learning systems team you get to work with. These people appear collectively to be able to make Moodle do pretty much anything. They've certainly been able to make Moodle do anything that the institution has asked of it over the last seven years, and what's more to make it work at amazingly large traffic volumes.

Another real perk is the scarily imaginative academic users around the institution.  Within a big institution like The Open University there are a lot of very bright and very committed people - and they do come up with some very interesting ideas.  One of the fun things in the role has been working with these teachers and with the other folks in my teams to figure out how to deliver what they want to do.  Sometimes figuring out how to say Yes has been a challenge, but a good challenge.

If you want to know more about the job - either go to the OU jobs website or get in touch with me directly.

By the way, you need to bring your own boots - I'm taking these ones with me.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Learning Systems Update - February 2013

Since the last update in December, the Open University Learning Systems team has relocated from the Learning  and Teaching Systems Unit to the IT Department, we've completed the development work for the March VLE update, we've started work on developing the bridge software linking the VLE with the Elluminate replacement and we've seen our busiest ever day on the OU VLE.

First traffic, on Monday 4th Feb – we recorded almost 1.7M transactions from over 67,000 unique users over that 24 hours.  We also took the opportunity to try and make some meaningful estimates about the number of students we see online at the same time.  This peaked, mid-evening, at over 5000 simultaneous users.

The next VLE release is currently in pre-release testing, and the upgrade is expected to happen early on Tuesday 5th March 2013.

In this release we’ll be
•          Moving to Moodle 2.3.3 as underlying platform
•          Introducing a redesigned version of the OU blog, to improve consistency with other collaborative tools within the VLE
•          Making changes to our XML-based Structured Content authoring system – enabling video download in addition to online view, and reducing our support for Microsoft Word as we continue the move from Word to Oxygen as the OU's main XML authoring environment
•          Introducing a Statement of Participation, which will be used for Non-Accrediting Learning
•          Making improvements to wide range of module administrative tools
•          Releasing the first version of the Wolfson Open Science Laboratory platform

As always, there will be a full set of release notes made available, to the OU community, around the time that the update goes live.

We’re also working towards a limited update to the VLE in April to introduce a new bridge to support pilot use of the OU’s replacement for Elluminate.

Towards the end of April there will also be a fairly major update to the OpenLearn platform – within the Moodle part of the platform the biggest changes will be support for badges and also a number of collection management tools.

At the moment the team are mainly working on the developments that are expected to appear in the June VLE update – which will, assuming we don’t uncover any performance issues, be based on Moodle 2.4.

And finally, as regular readers will know, I’ve recently made the decision to hand over the reins of the Learning Systems team, and I’ll be leaving the Open University at the end of March.  I’m expecting the advert for my replacement to appear on the OU jobs website real soon – do get in touch with me if you want to know more.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Plan B

Just occasionally I feel the need to write a post that will wind up on both my travel and photography blog and also on my e-learning blog.  The last time I did this was in September 2011 when I was about to temporarily hang up my e-learning shoes to go and spend a bit more time carrying a camera out in the wilds.

After spending most of the last 17 years around the Open University, and the last 7 years leading the Learning Systems team at the OU, I have decided that now is time to make some changes.

I’m going to be leaving the OU at the end of March, to look for interesting new things do. 

A number of people already know that I’m going to leave, and the most common question I’ve been asked is “What are you going to do?”.   My stock answer is that “I’ve got lots of ideas, but no firm plans”.

I’m certainly intending to try and achieve a better work-life balance, or perhaps more critically a better desk-wilderness balance.  During my six months away I was able to spend a lot of time outdoors – mostly in cold, bleak places – and I do want to find ways of continuing to do that for rather more of the year than is possible even with the generous annual leave allocation I’ve been getting at the OU.

I do still want to be involved in using web technologies to transform education.  I’ve been fortunate in being able to contribute to a large number of interesting educational technology projects over the last ten years and I’m keen to continue to make use of that experience.

I’ve also talked with lots of people about travel and photography in the far North and the far South, and I’m keen to continue to do that.  I also want to help people make better use of the cameras they’re carrying and to add to my own photographic portfolio.

So, if I you think I might be able help you do e-learning or educational technology projects better, do get in touch.  Or if you want to hear more about some of the places I’ve been to or think I can contribute to projects in cold and/or remote places, get in touch. 

Anything interesting considered.  Well, as long as it’s legal.