25 Years of OU: 2003 – VLE


After my experience with T171, the UKeU, and helping develop their platform, I was approached by the PVC at the OU to be the first VLE Director. I was still a relatively young academic (well in OU terms anyway), so it was a bold choice which wasn’t an immediate hit with everyone concerned. At the time the OU had developed a range of bespoke technologies and was using some third party ones, but there was a desire to have a uniform solution now that elearning was definitely part of our mainstream offering.

I undertook a stakeholder consultation with all the faculties, support staff, IT services and students. My experience was that these kind of consultations are the sort of thing you have to do, but in the end frustrating. There was a lot of resistance from academics to the idea of any elearning or at least not being able to use their own platform they had developed over the weekend. There were people wedded (and in same cases I began to think, literally, wedded) to existing software. There were others who didn’t really understand what VLEs could offer, and so were happy to go along with what I suggested. And so on. The VLE discussion was rarely about the VLE, but rather it became a proxy for whatever concerns, plans or issues people had at the time.

But there were some useful considerations that arose from this, and it helped me when going in to meetings with commercial companies such as WebCT and Blackboard. I found out that you become incredibly popular when you’re the person making the decision on these kind of things. That kind of social pressure is probably not insignificant in people making purchasing decisions.

Eventually I opted for (in a 70 page report) the idea of a service-oriented architecture. Using a protocol called Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), the idea was that data could be passed between tools. This would allow us to assemble a system from different services. I proposed that this would ensure that the VLE would not be a collection of mediocre tools but a collection of the best-of-the-breed tools for our particular needs.

We didn’t really bring this to bear, but a middle ground was to adopt an open source solution – in this case, Moodle. This permitted enough customization while providing an agreed-upon infrastructure. The OU has been a great contributor to the Moodle community, and the adoption of a VLE dramatically accelerated our uptake of elearning. The open-source approach allowed the development of tools within the Moodle framework, and today it is a sophisticated platform supporting nearly 200,000 learners.

Covid-19 bit: VLEs have been around for a long time. They’re not perfect, they’re bloody annoying at times, but most HEIs have one. They have the technical infrastructure available for online learning (it may need a bit of propping up to handle the scale). What they lack is the expertise from educators and resource in terms of support to shift online. Although I moan about VLEs often, it turns out they’re not dead, and you can do a lot of interesting stuff pedagogically in them. They’re not the thing that will be holding you back, so you don’t need a new tech to do the online pivot, you probably need more investment in making innovative use if it.


  • Eric Likness

    Agree with this 100%
    “They’re not the thing that will be holding you back, so you don’t need a new tech to do the online pivot, you probably need more investment in making innovative use if it.”
    It seems like everyone wants to scapegoat the LMS, but truly if they invest some time and effort, they can get a class reformatted for the platform and re-use/update at will every academic term. No need to keep looking/protyping/testing/researching a “new thing”. The old thing works, and will continue to work.

  • Lynne

    Another perspective:
    Some (much?) of the internal resistance to the OU’s switch from its previous system was on philosophical/political-with-a-small-p grounds. The new VLE struck many as bland & centrally controlled, n comparison with the relative anarchy of the old ways, where individual users had far greater control & scope for creativity, rather than finding their teaching activities shoe-horned into templates devised elsewhere. It was about democracy, about ‘bottom up’ versus ‘top down’ approaches, & about fighting to preserve some of the spirit of the original internet. The OU’s open source VLE may have given greater freedom & control to developers at HQ, but at the expense of disempowering the distributed workforce. Some of us never quite got over it…

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