Jisc case studies wiki Case studies / Kent Personal Learning Portal Pilot (Kent PLPP)
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Kent Personal Learning Portal Pilot (Kent PLPP)

Lead Contact: Phil Poole (Phil.Poole@canterbury.ac.uk)

JISC Programme: DeL Regional Pilots

Lead Institution and Partners: University of Kent (L), Aim Higher Kent and Medway, Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), University of Greenwich, Oxford Brookes University, South Kent College


Project Dates: January 2005 - March 2007


Case study tags: online learninge-portfolios,university of kente-portfolios for assessmente-portfolios considerations - identity managemente-portfolios considerations - authenticatione-portfolios considerations - defining requirementse-portfolios considerations - interoperability,e-portfolios considerations - it skillse-portfolios considerations - legale-portfolios considerations - open sourcee-portfolios considerations - storagee-portfolios for supporting learning processes


Background & Context


What is the background to the e-portfolio initiative?


Widening participation and the requirement to support academic skills in the context of retention has motivated most HE and some FE institutions to develop and exploit web-based resources and technology to support essential academic skills. There is substantial duplication and limited resources to create interactive materials within each establishment. The Kent Personal Learning Portal Pilot (PLPP) project built on the work undertaken by HE and FE partners in Kent and Medway as part of the Kent New Technology Institute (KNTI) initiative.


As part of the pedagogic strand of KNTI, interest from FE partners promoted collaboration to collect and share resources to support student academic skills. At the Medway Campus a joint desktop project was being developed to enable students from the four HEIs to seamlessly access networks at the shared campus. In the spirit of this collaboration PLPP undertook to create a portal through which all four partner HEIs involved at the Medway campus, and their partner FE Colleges, could share resources that would benefit students in transition to Higher Education.The primary objective of the PLPP was therefore to provide non-traditional students with access to HE resources through the use of web technologies offering services at any internet-enabled location.


What was the purpose and intended outcomes of the initiative?


The project intended to pilot a personal learning portal. The primary objective of the portal is to provide non-traditional learners with simple access to a range of services that will help them optimise their personal learning experience whether their actual course includes online course materials or not. The services to be included are induction and support services, personal development planning and e-portfolio. The portal will be linked to existing projects to provide shared desktop access at the Universities at Medway project and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) at partner institutions.


The setting up of shared services accessed through the web will also serve to develop an awareness of the higher education learning environment and support the development of information skills required by this environment. Building on strategic e-learning partnerships within the region, as well as the institutions directly involved at Medway would help achieve this.


The long-term aim was to find a way to maintain the records for both in such a way that they go with the student rather than being identified with their time at a particular institution. This would enable relevant aspects to be accessed by pre-registration students.


How was the initiative implemented?


The project was tackled in three overlapping phases:


Phase 1 - Technical infrastructure and development of PLPP

Development work concentrated on back-end features (authentication and authorisation, providing channels to applications etc,) rather than work on the presentation at this stage. All developments were undertaken using mainstream languages and standards. Wherever possible the project adopted open standards and open source software.


Phase 2 - Identification and linking of resources into PLPP

A thorough investigation of student needs, linked to potential resources, was undertaken by relevant members of the project team in association with potential FE partners. This involved desk research and examination of a range of resources available within partner institutions and on the internet. An audit of these resources was necessary to identify which would: a) be possible to link to the portal; b) be valid for the target groups; c) be fit for purpose.


Phase 3 - Testing and evaluation of PLPP

The approach taken throughout the pilot was to put the experience of the users before the technical development considerations of the system even if the technical solution was to resort to workarounds rather than optimum solutions. There was also a recognition that the range of portlets was not going to be as extensive as we had anticipated.


At an early stage pilot groups were selected using additional targeting criteria (widening participation students). Groups were identified where students were aiming to enter Higher Education (Access to HE programme), and whose staff (tutors and technical staff) were prepared to undertake the time-consuming task of being introduced to a new system and way of working. It became clear that constraints on working time in other institutions (FE), and the size of the task they were being asked to engage in, prevented some of the identified groups from taking part. A total of 120 students and 8 tutors finally participated in the pilot.


Tutors and students were trained in the use of the portal by members of the project team working closely with each group. Effort was focused on providing online support, a help desk and training for both staff and students. Group and evaluation meetings led to amendments in the approach as the demands of users were taken into consideration and as the project progressed. Project groups, across sectors, worked well together, aided by close geographical locations.


Technology Used


What technologies and/or e-tools were available to you or did you seek to develop?


Wherever possible the project adopted open standards and open source software.


Technical development included:


  • Apache Webserver and Tomcat to provide necessary web services
  • MySQL was used for both the portal and e-portfolio database
  • uPortal provided the portal framework and PETAL was used for the ePortfolio system
  • LOM IMS2 standards were used for learning objects
  • XML documents were used to create metadata-rich files
  • Only basic authentication and authorisation were achieved, though we investigated systems using LDAP and Shibboleth protocols
  • KUSP Project to provide a Shibbolized portal (http://www.kent.ac.uk/is/kusp/)


Interoperability explored the extent to which the portlets from partner institutions can be linked through the portal.


  • Web-based static resources were designed for portability. The use of templates was explored to test the portability of resources between institutions or into a central resource
  • Web-based interactive resources should be designed in a way that enables them to be used as learning objects capable of being used within a variety of web applications such as VLEs
  • The PDP system in the pilot would provide output from the e-portfolio SQL database in a form that could be imported by other institutional (PDP) systems, using emerging interoperability standards (e.g. IMS, XML)


Success Factors


What are the key outcomes of the initiative?


The project has raised the levels of awareness and knowledge of learning portfolios and e-portfolio systems for all those involved; project staff, tutors and students. Project staff and host institutions are now aware that a shared platform of resources is possible across partners and different sectors. This is a big step forward to providing a practical tool which can possibly increase student performance, attainment, progression and retention.

Working relationships were greatly strengthened between partner institutions and have led to proposals for continuation which demonstrate the increased commitment to sharing and supporting students' access to HE at a regional level.


The project had a positive impact on students' attitudes to personal development planning, especially reflective learning. Student buy-in to this was encouraged by the fact that they were hoping to progress to university where this learning approach is encouraged. At the same time, the students appeared to grasp the concept of the portal immediately and had no trouble assessing its value as a learning tool. It was also comforting that students could see its value as a teaching tool even though it was not used regularly by tutors. From a student perspective, tutor use of the tool would have encouraged their own personal use, especially if use was integrated with lessons and tutorials.


Students liked the fact that the portal was potentially a one-stop-shop for resources, links and documents. Portability was important to students, and although this was not achieved in the scope of this project, it is a crucial selling point to users.


Study support materials have been well received and are being used across a wider range of institutional staff as a result of the dissemination activities.


The e-portfolio tool and the portal, although complex and non-intuitive at times, proved robust in themselves, although sometimes difficult to interface with other systems at a local level.


What follow-up activity will be/has been carried out as a result of the project?


At the end of the evaluation period a full-day conference was held to disseminate the results of the project to other institutions and agencies in the South East. The Journey into HE Conference on 30 March 2006 was attended by 50 delegates.


Lessons Learned


What are the lessons learned from the project?


The project provided evidence to partner institutions, stakeholders and practitioners that a shared resource platform can be achieved and utilised to positively affect teaching and learning. Although at the end of the project the portal required further modification to improve access and usability, the pilot provided a resource which, in principle, would be of value to non-traditional learners and their tutors, easing and encouraging transition through different levels of learning. This project demonstrated to practitioners and learners that local education providers are working together to make their learning journey easier and this will be achieved if interoperability and portability can be made possible between all local providers.


Recognition of Goodwill


Small scale, tight projects require goodwill from participating partners in the allocation and deployment of resource (e.g. more staff time was needed than was officially allocated in the plan). Goodwill should be formally recognised by partners who sign up for similar projects.


Cultural Issues


When working across sectors, cultural as well as technical issues have to be taken into account. There is an interest in sharing resources across institutions but, as FE colleges are significantly less well resourced than HE, electronic resources may not be readily shared. There are implications for shared provision in the retention and transfer of e-portfolios between sectors, but standards are, as yet, so far away that it is difficult to see how this can be achieved in the short to medium term.




Communicating with individuals from third party providers (e.g. software suppliers) may be difficult, especially if contact is limited to email and electronic help facilities. Face-to-face meetings with suppliers, or a coordinator who has direct access to a supplier, should ensure that issues are resolved quicker and that confidence is maintained.


Open Source Software (OSS)


One of the important features of adopting an OSS approach is access to a development community for knowledge sharing and support. In the case of uPortal the strong community provided an invaluable resource throughout this project.


Tutor engagement


Tutor engagement was achieved in the project but not to the extent hoped for. It became apparent from the student focus group and from tutor feedback that the tutors were unclear about how to use the portal as a teaching tool. Tutors had engaged with the fact that their students could use the portal and resources for their personal learning, and in most cases were encouraging the use of the portal in a weekly session. It had not registered with tutors that the use of the portal could be integrated into lessons and tutorials or that it could provide a tool with which to signpost further learning and to provide further support and encouragement for additional learning outside of the classroom. Rarely was the portal used by tutors as a communication tool for informal feedback and participation in their students' reflective learning.


Technical issues


Single sign-on is as important as we thought. Maintaining a system with multiple passwords is not scalable!

It is important to test and optimise the system for equipment that is likely to be used. In our case the student lab PCs had 15" monitors with 800x600 resolution. Designing for the user environment should be undertaken from the outset. Screen real estate issues take time to resolve.


Further Resources


Kent PLPP Website - www.kent.ac.uk/is/plpp

Kent PLPP Appendix Bb Petal diagram

Kent PLPP Appendix C Authentication

Kent PLPP Appendix F PLPP final evaluation

Kent PLPP Appendix L Resulting file

Kent PLPP Final Report

Kent PLPP Technical Side of Portals and ePortfolios