Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Suggestions for a Digital Learning Environment Strategy

There is an e-learning environment strategy currently being formulated at University - I'm not part of the group creating it, but have been able to pass on some ideas. I almost ended up creating my own strategy document when I was putting my ideas on paper, and although my document has been rejected as being too technical, some of my ideas seem to be creeping through...

Rather than letting my draft vanish, I thought I'd put it on my blog so it might at least help others formulate strategies. It is an incomplete draft, but quite a bit of effort went into it.

If you do make use of this, please remember to cite it properly, and give me credit where appropriate.

Barr, N. S. F. (2017). Suggestions for a Digital Learning Environment Strategy. [Blog] Niall B's Blog. Available at: http://niallb.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/suggestions-for-digital-learning.html [Accessed dd Mon. yyyy].

Suggestions for a Digital Learning Environment Strategy

Niall S F Barr


In the last 30 years or so there has been a dramatic change in the technology available for teaching, with blackboards being replaced by digital projectors, the Internet providing rapid access to large amounts of information, and students carrying their own personal devices for accessing the Internet. One of the key parts of this change has been the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), a web application that combines a variety of resources and interactive activities in a structure relating to courses. The University of Glasgow was an early adopter of web-based learning as a partner in the Clyde Virtual University (CVU) project (Whittington and Sclater, 1998) which included the development of a web based learning platform that was arguably the first modern VLE.
The introduction and take-up of the VLE was extremely rapid. CVU was created in 1996, and just five years later over 80% of UK universities and colleges had some form of VLE; by 2005 this figure had risen to 95% (Farmer and Tilton, 2005). At that time there were a large number of different platforms available – Farmer and Tilton list over 40; however, the majority of these have now vanished with the majority of universities using one of a handful of conceptually very similar commercial and open source platforms. Of the 24 Russell Group Universities, 12 use Blackboard, 9 use Moodle, and Sakai, Sharepoint and Canvas have one University each.
The conventional VLE has become a "Dominant Design" in higher education, that is a broadly accepted general design to which all variants conform (Wilson et al., 2007). In spite of this there is a paucity of research on both the benefits and the design of the VLE. The general approach and design seems to have been largely driven by what was available and understood, as well as being constrained by the limitations of the technology that was available when the dominant design was emerging.
While the VLE has become an integral part of the education process, it is far from the only technological innovation which is enabling change in the education process. The smart phone, effectively a pocket sized Internet enabled computer, has become ubiquitous with over 95% of University of Glasgow first year students carrying them at all times (Honeychurch and McCluckie, 2014), and the technology available to teachers in the classroom may include smart boards, visualisers and shared digital activities such as messaging feeds, classroom voting and collaborative document editing.

Current position

2.1. Moodle
2.2. Mahara
2.3. Urkund/Turnitin
2.4. Lecture theatre equipment

Interactive questions during lectures are supported by YACRS (classresponse.gla.ac.uk), a relatively simple in-house web application which allows students to interact using their own mobile devices. Previously clicker systems which involved handing out handsets to the students were used for this purpose, however the logistics of these systems meant they were not as widely used as the new web application.
In addition to the core functionality of Moodle, it is possible to link Moodle to external tools that conform to the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification (McFall et al., 2012). QTIWorks, an assessment system developed in collaboration with several other British universities including Edinburgh, Strathclyde, Liverpool Hope and Southampton provides a way of launching more advanced quizzes than those supported by Moodle's internal quiz system is the only current centrally supported LTI tool, however LTI is not limited to currebt tools, and Aropa, a peer review system similar to Moodle workshop is hosted within the School of Computing Science. Tools that can be launched from Moodle using LTI or used as a stand-alone tool and is used by a number of courses across all four colleges. A completely different approach to peer-review, and also potentially grading, is provided by an experimental Adaptive Comparative Judgement tool ACJ-LTI, which is at an early pilot stage.
Tools which are not integrated into the University systems, but which are used by many lecturers, include Peerwise: a system hosted at Auckland University in which students create their own multiple-choice questions, and answer and comment on their classmates questions. TodaysMeet.com is a free website that allows teachers to create a closed Twitter like chat environment for their students. It is likely that many other free or freemium web tools are made use of by teachers at the University. It is also very likely that many of these tools do not comply with European data protection requirements, however teachers are using them without being aware of this.

Issues with the current model

Modern VLEs such as Moodle combine a large number of tools that can be used to support education, but which are not inherently related, into a single large software package. The bringing these tools together into the VLE they have become clear unified package where teachers can pick and mix which tools they need to use, however at the same time they have become part of a much larger and more complex software system. By making simple tools part of a large complex system, they become significantly harder to maintain with the consequence that they rapidly become outdated. A clear example of this within Moodle is the wiki software which is very much more primitive than other stand-alone wikis. From a software engineering viewpoint this would be described as system which has excessive coupling. As Bell et al., (1997) point out: "a piece of software should be divided into modules in such a way that there is a minimum of interaction between modules (low coupling) and, conversely, a high degree of interaction within a module (high cohesion)".
Although the individual activity modules within Moodle suffer from this tight integration, it is important to recognise that the main purpose of Moodle is to provide an extremely comprehensive authorisation system which ensures that each user has access to the right tools. Having fully separate tools would lose this valuable feature. IMS LTI works well with Moodle’s authorisation features as it provides a simple single sign-on into third-party tools which includes a context (i.e. course), one or more roles such as “Learner” or “Instructor”, and user information which can be just an anonymous identifier, or can include name and e-mail address.
Third-party tools that are used on an ad-hoc basis, such as TodaysMeet.com, may pose an additional problem as the University has no control of the data collected by these tools. There has recently been an issue in the United States where the provider of a free hosted tool was found to be collecting student data and selling it to third parties2 . Tools which are currently free or low-cost may also be part of a bait and switch strategy, and become significantly more expensive to make use of later. An example of this dubious business practice is Turnitin's grademark software, which was initially offered as a free extra, but then was used to justify large price increases. Software developed using venture capital funding frequently has significant price increases once users are relying on it, and there has been significant venture capital funding for education related software in recent years. Alternatively, tools may vanish with no warning when their funding runs out.

Changing landscape

The underlying technology that supports the digital learning environment continues to evolve, and there are a number of imminent innovations that may lead to further change. One innovation which is definitely about to appear is web assembly, a virtual machine in the browser compatible with the output of GNU C++ and other high-performance compilers, which is currently undergoing testing with all the major browser providers. Web assembly will allow the possibility of running the types of interactive simulation that been shown to be very beneficial for education (McAteer et al., 1996), and which were also advocated in the Dearing Report, within the browser. It will also allow significant changes to the user interface of web applications, although with the major caveat that accessibility may suffer it is used inappropriately.
Interactive whiteboards continue to improve, and the latest generation may provide the extra features that will make them an essential part of the classroom rather than an optional extra. As network infrastructure speeds improve, the possibility of directly sharing images on whiteboard with a students' personal devices, and allowing two-way interaction becomes a real possibility.
The Internet has already dramatically changed the way we deal with information, by providing very rapid ways to search for and find information. As Hugh Davis pointed out in his keynote at the 2015 University of Glasgow Learning and Teaching Conference, this has led to a different requirement for learning. The emphasis has moved away from knowing information towards knowing how to find the information and discriminate between good and bad sources. The Internet has also given a voice to many dubious sources would previously have struggled to be published so the emphasis on discrimination between good and bad sources is becoming increasingly important.
With these changes in technology it is also likely that there will be significant changes in how teaching is done. The traditional lecture with one-way communication from the teacher to the student is already being challenged with techniques such as the Jigsaw Classroom (Aronson, 1978), flip teaching and just-in-time teaching (Mazur, 1996) and the use of interactive technology. Further technology improvements are likely to enhance these techniques. The TEAL spaces currently being piloted at the University are designed to facilitate these approaches to teaching, and are likely to become a much more common type of space.
There are also changes in the expectations of what skills will be developed and used in education. Just as the introduction of affordable word processing in the 1980s led to an expectation that students would be able to type and produce formatted documents, current improvements in digital technology mean that being able to produce audio and video productions is becoming a reasonable expectation. Some courses at the University are already asking students to submit short videos for assessment, and it is likely that this type of assessment will increase.
There will also be major changes in the skills required by teachers. It will no longer be acceptable for teachers to have low levels of digital literacy, and it will be essential that they continue to develop their skills as the technology changes.

Future requirements

Digital literacy

In future we will continue to need greater digital literacy in both staff and students. The idea of new 'digital native' (Prensky, 2001) generation has largely been debunked, and it is now recognised that the apparent digital literacy of students is often very superficial (Bennett et al., 2008). Genuine transferable digital skills that can be applied to different situations is likely to be one of the most valuable graduate attributes in future, and so encouraging the development of digital literacy, both in staff and students is essential. Teachers will need to take ownership of their own digital skills, just as they take ownership of the maintenance of their skills and knowledge in their own disciplines, however the University has a role to play in providing or sourcing the scaffolding for their development. (https://1minutecpd.wordpress.com/ could provide some inspiration for this.)

The interconnectedness of all things

When planning the future of the digital learning environment, or any innovation in the technology to support teaching it is essential to take technology, pedagogy and policy into account. Data protection and accessibility considerations may also be involved. Any attempt to make changes without fully taking into account all these factors is likely to lead to poor decisions and short-term or impractical solutions.
An example of a situation where the technology, pedagogy and policy are all deeply interconnected is the process of marking coursework. Online marking is made significantly more difficult if the file format being used for submissions is not intended for subsequent editing, however PDF, a format intended for final printing, has become the de facto standard in spite of not being an appropriate format for later editing. The switch to using a format which can easily be annotated online and supports good accessibility, i.e. HTML would make it very much simpler to create a good quality online marking interface. The final grades from an online assignment need to be stored in a secure place, so policy decisions need to be made about where that should be. Moodle gradebook is a possibility, however Moodle is not generally considered to be a place for final grades. Pedagogical considerations require timely and detailed feedback, which also must be accessible to all students including those who make use of assistive technology to read the computer screen.

What is needed from our Digital Learning Environment

In future the Digital Learning Environment at the University is likely to need to support a greater variety of different teaching needs, including increased use of distance and blended learning, and courses that are being taught on more than one campus. An increase in distance learning may also lead to an increase in the numbers of students with accessibility issues that have to be accommodated by the Digital Learning Environment. Personalised learning environments and portfolios are also likely to become more important in the future.

Building on what we have

Even the most conservatively taught courses at the University make use of Moodle as a repository for handouts, a gateway to reading material and the point for submitting coursework, however courses that make significantly more use of Moodle are less numerous.
As Moodle is the main computer system used for education at the University, when teachers require a new facility they often assume that Moodle is the right place for it to be located. In addition, lecturers visiting conferences occasionally see examples of new Moodle modules that have been created by student projects, and which superficially looks very interesting, but unfortunately lack both the coding quality and maintenance regime that would allow them to be deployed in a major Moodle installation such as the University's. This leads to further demands for changes to Moodle, however these are not necessarily appropriate.
In many ways, Moodle can be considered to be an authorisation system that controls access and rights for a variety of resources depending on the user's role, course registration and groups. While the individual tools in Moodle are simple, and often dated, the authorisation management would be difficult to duplicate in simpler more focused tools.
As mentioned earlier, marking interfaces and feedback are an example where it seems natural to use Moodle because from the teacher's viewpoint Moodle is the right place for educationally related online activity, however in practice all that is needed from Moodle is an authorisation for students and staff to submit, grade and review work, and possibly an interim repository for grades. A tool outside Moodle is also needed for originality checking. IMS LTI provides a way for Moodle to provide authorisation information to an external tool, and receive back a score, so in practice there is no need for the marking interface to be part of Moodle. Once we have accepted that there is no need for Moodle to actually be tightly integrated with the marking interface, there are many more options available.
This approach of using Moodle as an authorisation system, with basic default activity modules and using external tools launched by LTI from Moodle for more advanced or specialist activities, is potentially a very good approach. The idea of replacing the VLE with a set of loosely coupled and relatively simple modules has been discussed for some time (JISC, 2004) (Honeychurch and Barr, 2013), and Moodle with LTI provides suitable core for this. By doing this it becomes possible to allow teachers to have different modules available to suit their needs, and as the modules are individually simple maintenance becomes more straightforward. Core course material that is to be made available long-term should remain in Moodle, as this will facilitate archiving.
With this approach, Moodle will remain the core of our Digital Learning Strategy, but where Moodle does not provide the features that are required, rather than directly extending Moodle we will aim to add external modules that the couple to Moodle using LTI to provide the extra functionality required. It will be made clear to teachers that LTI modules that are only used by a small number of people will have limited support, and may be temporary facilities.

Enabling the users

  • Good practice resources that recognise the different requirements and cultures of different disciplines will be created to help guide teachers, and self paced online training will be found or created to help teachers develop the digital skills needed for their changing role.
  • It essential that this development is made part of the teachers core responsibilities - the attitude that learning technologists should create magic for them is unsustainable.
  • Building better tools to help teachers create content.

Improving use

  • Focus groups to find what staff and students need
  • Time taken to develop digital resources vs non digital
  • Cultural issues - developing online material takes time (Clark, 2015), so a sharing culture where we are added value for other peoples material rather than just creators is essential. We need to embrace OER, both as creators and consumers (The university is added value, think of digital content like text books ).
  • Probably should also discuss publisher stuff here.
  • This all links back to interoperability standards.
  • Need to recognise that different disciplines have different traditions, and different requirements.
  • Evidence driven - what actually works (Probably look at (Bates, 2015) (Daniel, 2016) (Clark and Mayer, 2016))
  • Assessment - Turnitin and Urkund only assess originality against published work and their own archives of past essays, they do not tackle the issue of essay writing services or the popular students getting more assistance from classmates.
  • Device compatibility - should mobiles use the same system, or a mobile feed (like Oxford)
  • Customizability of appearance vs consistency of user experience and accessibility - how much do we want teacher to be able to alter the appearance of their VLE?


  • Standards based - interoperability is essential for long term support (Barr et al., 2012)
  • Small modules with a standard interface are easier to change than monolithic software systems

Data protection

  • Current situation is that officially everything in IT Services, and reality is teacher wishing to experiment with other tools end up using tools elsewhere with no thought about data protection.
  • Trying to be too secure causes insecurity…



Aronson, E., 1978. The jigsaw classroom. Sage.
Barr, N., Milne, S., Neve, P., 2012. Contextualizing formative assessment in Mathematics and Statistics, in: 1st HEA STEM Annual Conference: Aiming for Excellence in STEM Learning and Teaching. Presented at the 1st HEA STEM Annual Conference: Aiming for Excellence in STEM Learning and Teaching, Higher Education Academy, London, UK.
Bates, A.W., 2015. Teaching in a Digital Age. Tony Bates Associates Ltd.
Bell, D., Morrey, I., Pugh, J.R., 1997. The essence of program design, The essence of computing series. Prentice Hall, London ; New York.
Bennett, S., Maton, K., Kervin, L., 2008. The “digital natives” debate: A critical review of the evidence. Br. J. Educ. Technol. 39, 775–786.
Clark, D., 2015. Estimating Costs and Time in Instructional Design.
Clark, R.C., Mayer, R.E., 2016. E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. John Wiley & Sons.
Daniel, J., 2016. Making Sense of Blended Learning: Treasuring an Older Tradition or Finding a Better Future. Online Learn. News Contact North-March 2.
Farmer, J., Tilton, J., 2005. The Use of Virtual LearningEnvironment Software in UKUniversities 2001-2005. Instr. Media Magic Inc.
Honeychurch, S., Barr, N., 2013. Scoping the future: a model for integrating learning environments.
Honeychurch, S., McCluckie, B., 2014. First Year Student Use of Technology and their Expectations of Technology Use in their Courses.
JISC, 2004. The E-Learning Framework - Projects Directory [WWW Document]. E-Learn. Framew. URL http://www.elframework.org/projects/index.html (accessed 2.15.17).
Mazur, E., 1996. Peer instruction: A User’s Manual. Addison-Wesley.
McAteer, E., Neil, D., Barr, N., Brown, M., Draper, S., Henderson, F., 1996. Simulation software in a life sciences practical laboratory. Comput. Educ. 26, 101–112. doi:10.1016/0360-1315(96)00011-5
McFall, G., McKell, M., Neumann, L., Severance, C. (Eds.), 2012. IMS GLC Learning Tools Interoperability Implementation Guide Version 1.1.
Prensky, M., 2001. Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. Horiz. 9, 1–6.
Whittington, C.D., Sclater, N., 1998. Building and testing a virtual university. Comput. Educ. 30, 41–47. doi:10.1016/S0360-1315(97)00077-8
Wilson, S., Liber, O., Johnson, M.W., Beauvoir, P., Sharples, P., Milligan, C.D., 2007. Personal Learning Environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational systems. J. E-Learn. Knowl. Soc. 3, 27–38.