Tackling a virtual Goliath

October 21, 2005

There's an open-source, economical alternative to the rigidity and American flavour of off-the-shelf virtual learning environments, thanks to two Leeds University academics. Alison Utley meets a quiet challenge to commercial technology's one-size-fits-all approach

Everyone knows that technology should be made to fit the way people work and not the other way round. But in the world of virtual learning environment (VLE) software, that wisdom can be frustratingly difficult to apply. Many academics have set out determined to embrace high-tech ways of working with students, only to find that the systems on offer are difficult to customise to their own needs.

Stuart Lee, head of learning technologies at Oxford University's computing services, believes his experience is typical. "We have found that commercial systems are very rigid and hierarchical, often use US terminology and structures, and impose overly restrictive roles to tutor and student," he says. Oxford's solution has been to eschew popular US software products in favour of a freely available open-source alternative known as Bodington.

Bodington was developed nine years ago by two academics at Leeds University and Oxford's endorsement of their product has given its supporters a much-needed boost. For not everyone in higher education is convinced of the arguments in favour of Bodington, namely that it is a freely available, flexible and academic-friendly learning environment compared with its better-known rivals. But finding the resources to continue developing Bodington has been a slog and the future is uncertain. Leeds itself has yet to decide whether it will stick with its own homespun product or ditch it and invest in a commercial VLE such as WebCT or Blackboard. With a rapidly growing market share, the reassurance of attractively designed user interfaces, features galore and 24-hour helpline support, commercial packages can be difficult for universities to resist.

Bodington's co-inventor Andrew Booth, a biochemist and professor of online learning at Leeds, admits he did not set out to invent the system with colleague Jon Maber. "We were trying to find ways to apply IT as a way of supporting student learning in a university that had large numbers of students studying short modules," he recalls. The approach was focused on student support - identifying individual students' learning problems and fixing them - rather than subject content.

"We weren't interested in putting lecturers' notes on the web. We wanted to find a way for tutors and students to communicate properly, so we gave them the bare bones and left the departments to put their own curriculum material in there," Booth says.

This was important, he explains, because academic departments need to feel a sense of ownership of the system in order to have confidence in it.

Currently Bodington is in use across most of Leeds University and each individual modification becomes an invaluable part of the system's development, allowing it to grow "organically" and respond to the needs of teachers and students.

The fact that Bodington is an open-source system means anyone can access the source code and develop it according to his or her own requirements.

Lee says the benefits of an open-source VLE at Oxford went far beyond cost savings. "The fact that we can change the source code and tailor it to our own needs rather than being locked into someone else's code is invaluable to us," he observes.

In addition, he says, Bodington is easy to use and has the advantage of being developed by a like-minded research university. "We have managed to run and develop the VLE powered by Bodington with five members of staff, plus all of the server costs, more or less for nothing for the past three years. This has saved the university somewhere in the region of £450,000."

Lee said there is already a good community of developers in the UK from Oxford, Leeds and Manchester Universities and the UHI Millennium Institute.

They act as a collective pool of expertise supporting each other for free, either online or by phone, and meet up regularly. "As the pool of developers and institutions using the system grows so does the potential support - which means that this is a sustainable model," Lee says.

UHI uses Bodington to cater for every module, course, lecturer and student in the institution and Sean Mehan, head of e-frameworks there, is another convert. "There are a number of advantages over a commercial system," he said. "Bodington completely maps the complex organisational information model in a way that the major commercial alternatives are completely incapable of. We are also able to rapidly tailor it to meet all of our institutional requirements, and to benefit from the investment in developing and retaining skills and knowledge in-house." Cost savings were also paramount at UHI, he added.

But what of the future? Booth believes the days of the monolithic VLE are pretty much over. "You can't get everything you need in one package and different systems need to be able to communicate with each other, so we are moving towards distributed learning environments," he says. "That is the future and it is almost with us."


Under remote control

Brunel University's new communications system, which allows access via any PC or phone, has already shielded staff from potential payday chaos. David Jobbins reports

It was the day before payday at Brunel University - a routine peak for any organisation's administration. But this day was to prove anything but routine. A high-pressure pipe in an administration building ruptured, filling it with thick steam and destroying the PBX telephone system. More than 300 staff - including vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz - had to be evacuated. Critical operations such as finance and student registration were knocked out.

But the university had just begun to update its communications using IP telephony, and the new system's mobility and flexibility proved invaluable. Key staff were relocated to a disaster recovery centre and, using the newly acquired technology, network manager Simon Furber was able to get key functions up and running within 12 hours and set up a new reception for the university. A day later, he had installed and set up 350 IP phones.

"As payday was the next day, it was vital we got critical operations up and running," Furber says. "Without Cisco's IP telephony system we couldn't have done it as effectively. It was quick and easy to move people to any location and enable them to work."

Brunel's data network had come to the end of its natural life. Instead of a straight upgrade, Brunel's vision was for a network infrastructure that would support the latest innovations and provide a flexible foundation for future development such as wireless commutations. With 13,500 students and 2,500 staff across four sites in West London, an effective and fast network is invaluable.

Furber says: "The use of IP networking and telephony equipment requires a significant investment, but it also offers value for money. It could pay for itself in five years."

Cisco initially helped Brunel build a network infrastructure that connects its four West London campuses, comprising staff and administration offices, teaching facilities and student accommodation. The IP telephony solution runs across the same network. Cisco's Unity Unified Messaging and Unity Voice Mail products are being used to create a unified messaging system for the whole university that will integrate almost 8,000 PCs and 2,500 Cisco IP telephones. Users will be able to access e-mails and voice messages from either a PC or a telephone. The system will also enable messages to be accessed visually and audibly from either device.

Staff can log into a phone anywhere on campus and gain access to their personal number, individual phone settings and personal directories on that handset. This has introduced additional efficiencies, such as the ability to work from home, giving staff a more flexible working environment. The speed of the Cisco network supports working from any location because access to personal or department-specific information is much faster. Phone directories and individual phone numbers can be updated and distributed campus-wide instantly.

Brunel has also updated its accounting software to expand the level of information it provides and the way it can be circulated. Finance director Tony Holloway explains: "We found that our existing system was too slow and labour-intensive and could not produce the depth of real-time information required. With the introduction of our student finance package, we also needed the capability to share information between accounting and a central database, so that students could easily access their financial status."

Brunel turned to Symmetry to provide EasyLink (an integration tool), Plan Upload, Journal Upload and InfoLaunch into the existing accounting system.

"After a fairly straightforward and painless implementation process we're really reaping the benefits," Mr Holloway said. "EasyLink allows us to directly integrate third-party software with our core business applications and transaction-generating system."

It used to take five people three days to print, collate and distribute monthly financial reports. The reports are now generated and sent by e-mail automatically, taking one person just one day to oversee the process. The information can also be tailored so that overviews can be compiled for the vice-chancellor. More detailed "drill-down" reports can be produced for the head of a department.

Brunel plans to develop a web-based service so that students can check account information online and update personal details. It is also considering how it can link its core finance system with areas such as library services, eliminating the administrative tasks involved in inputting details of financial transactions into the central accounting system.

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