Jisc case studies wiki Case studies / Enabling Integrated Learning Environments (EILE)
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Enabling Integrated Learning Environments (EILE)

Funded by the: JISC Flexible Service Delivery programme.

Lead Institution: University of Kent.

Partner Organisation: IMS Global Learning Consortium and Canterbury Christ Church University.

Key Words: Getting more from existing investments.

 

Background

 

Aims and Objectives

 

The EILE project drove toward Flexible Service Delivery (FSD) by supporting the implementation and integration of new or enhanced administrative systems. Leveraging the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment’s (VLE) many entities, including users, courses and modules, we provided mechanisms that allow it to intelligently link to other web systems using the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) framework and a configurable web services Moodle block that can receive data from providers.

 

Context

 

There are currently 3,145 registered Moodle sites currently active in the United Kingdom alone. Since the University of Kent adopted Moodle in September 2009, we now have approximately 10,000 active users and it is becoming a central hub of activity for our students and academics. As our e-learning platform becomes easier to integrate with, it is important that the security, maintainability and focus of the environment are preserved and a process should be in place to support this. The University of Kent is currently turning to an SOA model, which uses web services to expose the data in our information systems. We have a wide array of candidates for consuming in to Moodle, one of which is our timetabling system.

 

IMS Global Learning Consortium (GLC) are a non-profit collaboration among the world's leading educational technology suppliers, content providers, educational institutions, school districts, and government organizations dedicated to improving education and learning through the strategic application of technology. IMS GLC is now enabling the next generation of Digital Learning Services, combining digital content, assessment, applications, and administrative services. Participation in IMS activities enables leadership in strategic use of technology to achieve Learning Impact. The University of Kent will become contributing members of the IMS GLC as we believe their approach to interoperability will become standard and will assist in the dissemination of their work, while also becoming well positioned for when the standards are in place.

 

Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) are the largest centre of higher education in Kent for the public services - notably teacher training, nursing, policing, health and social care - and a significant provider of programmes in a wide range of academic and professional areas. In total CCCU offer over a thousand academic and professional study programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate level. CCCU will be acting as consultants throughout the project, but particularly in the dissemination phase.

 

The business case

 

The EILE project leveraged the analysis and discussions that have informed the IMS Full LTI specification. To support these studies, we will be performing an analysis of the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University's environment and it's adaptability to the specification. Our baseline project plans with and without the use of this technology should further support our claims and feed in to a cost-benefit analysis on closing the project.

 

We are expecting the introduction of our outcomes to the community, both internally and externally, to pose questions regarding the value of interoperability versus any costs involved. A cultural change may be necessary for the long term success of the outcomes, as we will need to encourage developers to consider interoperability, particularly through our standards, when developing applications. We are mitigating this risk by publicising our progress to followers of the project and creating tutorials on how to become compliant, which could form the basis of workshops.

 

Key drivers

 

Interoperability can bring great benefit to the software development, and wider JISC, community. Integrated tools can share information to provide a rich user experience while developers can leverage parts of other applications to significantly shorten the development cycle and related costs. In addition, if the application is created in accordance to common standards it could also be used cross platform with little additional effort. These features of interoperability would allow universities to deliver applications quicker and for less investment to their students, staff and even other institutions.

 

In the fast moving industry we now find ourselves in, flexibility is an important factor when choosing solutions. It is important that they remain responsive and that change does not encounter significant cost. Interoperability can mitigate this risk. If for example, an institution was currently operating one VLE with a view to move to another, they would like as few ties to the old as possible to ease the transition. One such tie could be that a third party system that integrated with the previous VLE may not be developed for the new. If, however, the tool was compliant to a standard that both VLEs support, transition could potentially be seamless.

 

While standards are extremely useful, their level of success is closely tied with that of adoption. Our challenge was to make it easy to become compliant by creating two simple interoperability tools for Moodle, which will act as blueprints for further development, and providing documentation to support the process. This project is of great benefit to IMS in the dissemination of their standard, especially within the JISC community, and will stimulate the development of interoperable tools, reducing the time and cost involved in creating and distributing new learning software.

 

Designing the project approach

 

The EILE team is well practiced in Agile working methodologies and used them in the project. Larger developer tasks were broken down in to user stories, arranged in to iterations and built in to regular, working releases. We also endeavoured to use the same philosophy when completing other deliverables such as the reports.

 

Our only uncertainty in terms of our project approach, was whether the Agile methodology would work well with externally funded projects, which we believe it did.

 

Establishing and maintaining senior management buy-in

 

We engaged our Senior Management through our steering group, of which two are members, and by publicising our progress and successes via blogs, presentations and workshops. The steering group met approximately every two months. This would appear infrequent based on the length of the project, but as the project progressed according to plan we did not need to arrange any additional meetings. It would have been useful to have a wider representation of the possible stakeholders in attendance. Information Services and our Unit for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching were well represented, but perhaps we could have invited others to represent the academic community, to promote our development effort further.

 

Technologies used

 

Moodle (abbreviation for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) is a free and open-source e-learning software platform, also known as a Course Management System, Learning Management System, or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). As of January 2010 it had a user base of 45,721 registered and verified sites, serving 32 million users in 3 million courses. Moodle was developed by Martin Dougiamas to help educators create online courses with a focus on interaction and collaborative construction of content, and is in continual evolution. Moodle's open source license and modular design allows any developer to create additional modules and features which has allowed Moodle to become a truly global, collaborative project in scope (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moodle accessed 29/09/2010).

 

The Full LTI specification, expected for public release later this year, defines a formal, negotiated deployment process whereby the Tool Consumer and the Tool Provider reach an agreement about:

  1. the run-time services that will be used to support tight integrations between the systems
  2. the security policies that will apply
  3. the set of destinations within the Tool that can be launched from the Tool Consumer system (http://www.imsglobal.org/lti/index.html accessed 12/05/2010)

 

Outcomes

 

Achievements

 

The headline achievements for EILE include the completion of some of the first Full LTI compliant tools that serve to prove the value of the specification and stimulate interest and commitment from the software development community. The project is nominated for the IMS Learning Impact Awards and has presented its findings at e-learning conferences in the UK, the Netherlands and the USA.

 

Benefits

 

Tangible

 

The EILE project has produced the following benefits to these beneficiaries:

 

  • A Full LTI compliant consumer for Moodle (IMS, JISC, UoK, Moodle)
  • Two Full LTI media streaming solutions written in SCALA and PHP (IMS, JISC, UoK)
  • A Full LTI plug-in for Wordpress (IMS, JISC, UoK, Wordpress)
  • A Full LTI plug-in for PMWiki, built by the University of Strathclyde (IMS, JISC members, UoK, PMWiki)
  • A Moodle plug-in to allow the consumption of arbitrary REST-FUL web services
  • A process through which to evaluate potential integration candidates (JISC, UoK)
  • Libraries to enable others to become compliant

 

It has also provided reports based on the following questions:

 

  • Are there other opportunities for integration around our and our partner’s institutions? (JISC, UoK)
  • What, if any, real cost savings could be achieved through interoperability? (JISC, UoK)
  • How might the mechanisms enable Moodle to act as a portal? (JISC, UoK, Moodle)

 

New skills

 

The project team has gained new skills in the following areas:

 

  • Programming with SCALA
  • Applied knowledge of IMS LTI
  • Understanding of the specification creation process
  • JISC project management

 

Working closely with IMS LTI working group gave us a great insight in to the process of creating an international standard. With no experienced JISC project manager on the team, we needed to seek assistance from those within the organisation who had experience and kept in regular contact with the JISC support.

 

The project team improved their software development ability through books and online resources on the subjects.

 

Intangible

 

The EILE project is very confident we have provided:

 

  • An interoperable VLE through one existing international standard (LTI) and one new Moodle specific standard (our web services block) (UoK)
  • A shortened development cycle for interoperable providers (IMS, JISC, UoK, wider dev community)
  • An easier to manage provider/consumer relationship (IMS, JISC, UoK, wider dev community)
  • The ability to adopt best of breed tools and shared services (JISC, UoK)
  • A greater knowledge and appreciation of interoperability through standards (UoK)
  • A catalyst for future VLE plug-in development (JISC, UoK)
  • A raised awareness of the upcoming specification in the JISC community (IMS, JISC)

 

Drawbacks

 

Our original intention on this project was for existing members of L&RD to deliver the project and to employ a temporary member of staff to act as backfill. We have discovered that recruiting backfill is a difficult and time consuming process and we were not able to recruit as soon as we would have liked. This caused some disruption to our other projects as we tried to minimize the impact on EILE. This situation is made more difficult by the short amount of time between the announcement of a successful bid and the start of the project.

 

Key Lessons

 

The EILE project has demonstrated to the team the great benefit of using agreed standards, especially in the learning environment. Having moved from one VLE to another recently, we are very aware of the disparity in learning tools and the way they interpret the academic environment. While the rest of the industry is trying to find a way for everything to talk to everything, LTI has isolated a particular area and created a comprehensive view of learning tools and the data they will need to exchange.

 

We have also identified the importance of building and belonging to communities. To ensure the longevity of our project we are actively trying to engage other institutions and individuals to help us build providers. Our community has already produced two great examples of LTI providers and there are plans for many more.

 

This is also the first JISC project the Learning and Research Development (L&RD) team have undertaken and we have learned a great deal about bid writing, budgeting and reporting.

 

Looking Ahead

 

The EILE project team has helped the JISC funded British Cartoon Archive to acquire further funding to develop their offering and make it LTI compliant. We will be working very closely with them during this project. We will also be on the lookout for other follow on projects as well as continuing on building our community by presenting and consulting at events.

 

It is our hope that remaining budget from the project might be held on to as a longevity fund to help us to further promote and build on our project. We have identified many potential LTI providers and would love to explore some more. We are in discussions with JISC on this matter.

 

The EILE project has planned for an increase in operational capacity and will be leasing hardware to cope with a higher load.

 

Sustainability

 

The LTI consumer we have built is a comprehensive version of the core components of the specification. There is, however, much more of the specification to develop. As we are aware that the time we can dedicate to this may be limited, we are focusing on building a community of interested parties to help us to complete more of the specification. We hope continuation projects will also give us an opportunity to add further functionality.

 

The Moodle consumer and the streaming server solution meet a business need for the University and will be deployed this summer. These components will be looked after and maintained by L&RD and changes will be contributed back to our public code base.

 

Summary and reflection

 

Overall we believe the EILE project has been a great success. We have delivered on our project bid and are already seeing the results of our efforts. Through the project we have built strong links with IMS, JISC and our academic partners.

 

The EILE project team has learned a great deal over the duration of the project. We were pleased to see that our agile way of working fits well with JISCs own project management techniques. Our newly acquired knowledge and experience with the LTI specification will allow us to continue to be at the forefront of its development. We are confident that the LTI standard will be successful and are very proud to have been a part of its formation.

 

Since starting the project the EILE team has seen many opportunities for integration and we hope that the University of Kent and JISC continue to fund development in this area. 

 

Appendix

 

Project Website

 

http://www.kent.ac.uk/is/projects/eile/index.html