Saturday, 15 December 2012

December 2012 Learning Systems Update

[Have just realised that I didn't publish this when I wrote it - I can only blame the excessively large number of pre-Christmas lunches I indulged in during December].

Welcome to the final Learning Systems Update of 2012.

We’ve just rounded off a very busy and productive year for the learning systems team by releasing a major VLE update.

A major part of the update was moving the system underlying the VLE from Moodle 2.2 to Moodle 2.3 – giving us a lot of new functionality associated with the newer version of Moodle.

We’re also adding in a lot of new local OU features – some of which I’ve been promising for several months. 

There are quite a number of improvements related to quizzes

We’ve added a long awaited feature that sends a reminder email to students who have attempted a summative quiz but haven’t remembered to submit it.

We’ve added a number of new administrative features to the quiz, and we finally get STACK questions as part of the Moodle quiz.  This will dramatically improve our ability to both assess and teach mathematics online.   We’ve already done quite a lot of publicity around this, but if you want to know more or see a demonstration contact me, or Phil Butcher or Tim Hunt.

Our structured content tools get a number of improvements too

We can now produce ePub3 interactive eBooks – so we can better support learners with iPads, we’ve improved our support for videos, and we have also improved our systems so that we can handle very big files more efficiently.

There are also the VLE enhancements that we need to allow users of the soon-to-be released OU Anywhere apps to get their course materials.

As always there are release notes on the Online Services website that will give you chapter and verse on both the new features and existing features in the VLE.

Availability and performance levels for the VLE continue to be good for the both the old and new VLE platforms, and we are seeing approximately 5M transactions each week almost all on the new VLE and something like 40-50,000 unique users visiting us in any 24 hour period.

As we move into the New Year there will some big changes for the learning system team.

We’ll be completing our development work for the March VLE update, and we’ll also be starting to do some of our preliminary testing of Moodle 2.4, in anticipation of moving to that as part of the June update.

In addition, In January I and the learning systems team will be moving from Learning and Teaching Solutions to join the IT Development team.   This will ultimately mean quite a lot of changes to the way we work. 

However, while I hope in the short term the change won’t be apparent to any of our users, it will, in the longer term, enable us to both develop and support our systems even more effectively than we do at the moment.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

November 2012 Learning Systems Update

We’ve now passed our code freeze date for our next VLE update, and we are in our "testing and bug fixing" phase ahead of the code deployment on Tuesday 4th December.  

Since my last post we've made the decision to use Moodle 2.3 for the December release.  We completed a load testing programme in mid-October, and we’re now confident that the system will be able to carry the load we’re currently seeing – and have quite a lot of headroom too to cope with further growth.

The December update is going to be a fairly major one for the platform taking us from Moodle 2.2 to 2.3 in addition to adding new features, and we’ll be warning users that they should expect the system to be out of service for up to 2 hours early on 4th December.  There will be notices on both StudentHome and TutorHome, warning users that the system is going to be unavailable once we've confirmed the timing.

As we’ve gone into testing, we’ve also been able to start to firm up the catalog of features we expect to include the December release.  As always this list comes with the caveat that if a major problem appears during testing we might need to hold back a feature to the March update.

As I mentioned last month the December release will include STACK, our new tool for assessing and teaching mathematics, changes to OU Annotate and the introduction of a new content handling mechanism to support the new suite of apps that are being developed for the OU Anywhere project.  

In addition we’re also adding tools that allow interactive ebooks (in epub3 format) to be produced automatically.  We’ve also finally had a chance to migrate the Repository activity from Moodle 1.9 to run in Moodle 2.3.

As we finalise the release features we’ll be putting together a set of release notes which will appear on the Online Learning Systems website.

As expected at this time of year, we are seeing plenty of students making use of the VLE.  Over the last few weeks we’ve seen an average of just over 41,000 unique students visit the main VLE each day, and the total traffic on the system averaging just over 800,000 transactions daily.  

As usual we are again seeing our ‘normal’ fluctuation in traffic over the course of the week – with our peak traffic (typically 50,000 unique users, generating over 1,000,000 transactions) on Mondays, which gradually drops off to our ‘quiet’ day on Saturday, before picking up again on Sunday to another peak on the following Monday.

The final topic I want to mention, is to give you an update on how the Learning Systems team are continuing to work with the wider Moodle community.

At the end of October two members of the Learning Systems team attended the Moodle DeveloperConference in Perth in Western Australia

This event addressed a lot of the challenges facing both us and other large-scale Moodle users.

I’m hopefully that in the short term, changes to the way that Moodle uses caches will improve our performance once we get to Moodle 2.4 (hopefully in mid 2013).  And that some of the other suggestions and ideas will make a significant difference to both features we use and to overall performance with later versions of Moodle.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

New and Old

Welcome.  I've decided to move my work blog from it's location on the Open University VLE to a new home here.

The old site will remain live but I'm not planning to make any further updates there.  I've moved the old posts going back to late 2009 over onto this site, and further updates will appear here.

And if the URL here is just too long to remember - try

Thursday, 11 October 2012

October 2012 Learning Systems update

I think it's safe to say that our autumn traffic surge has well and truly started. Over the last few weeks our total transaction count on the various systems within the VLE collection has climbed from under 4 million to 5 million to then to well over 7 million.  We’re also finally seeing our new Moodle 2 system really start to the take over from the old Moodle 1.9 system – recently the new system has been carrying well over 75 % of the traffic, and we recently saw the newer system finally have it’s first 1 million transaction day.  I’m pleased to say that the platform is continuing to perform well under this high load.

As I mentioned in the last update there isn’t a VLE update in either October or November, however we do have a lot of development activities underway targeted at the December release. I’ll talk about a few of these.
We’ve just about completed work on the STACK development to support assessment of mathematics – this work has been a partnership between the OU and University of Birmingham, and I’m delighted that the system is finally getting it's first use in Birmingham this month, and on OU systems shortly after that.  To find out more, go and join in the animated discussions on the forums. There is also due to be a book published shortly by Chris Sangwin (our collaborator at Birmingham) which will say much more about computer aided assessment in mathematics.
We’ve also been doing development work to improve the way that Moodle handles the growing number of very big files we have.  Moodle isn’t really designed to handle big files well, and as more projects and initiatives around the OU have started to produce huge video files or complex ebooks we’ve needed to find way to both store and deliver these to users.  A new development, that will be part of the December release, will make this process much more efficient. If everything goes well users won’t notice any change – but the overall system performance should get better. There is more about this on Sam Marshall's blog.
On the theme of system performance, we’ve been continuing to evaluate the performance of Moodle 2.3.  We’re currently running with Moodle 2.2 and we want to be sure that moving to version 2.3 won’t have an adverse impact on performance.
We’ve also started doing a further round of development work on the Annotate system.  We’ve given this system a little while to bed down, and we now have a series of new features we want to add to the system. These will appear progressively over the next few releases – starting with the December release. There is a some background information on Annotate on Jenny Gray's blog, and if you are a member of the OU community you can get more information and try it out at
Finally I want to talk about Elluminate.  We had an interruption to the Elluminate service during the last weekend of September, which impacted a significant number of users. There were two issues linked to the problem, the first (which we are still exploring with Blackboard) related to a problem with the underlying database which supports part of the Elluminate system, and a second issue which is related a slightly strange state that the system got itself into when it was restarted. We’ve already put a fix in place for this second issue, so that if similar problem recurs with the database we should be able to resolve it much more rapidly.
While I’m talking about Elluminate I should say that we are still working with a number of external suppliers to identify what will replace the current Elluminate platform next year – hopefully I’ll be able to bring you the outcome of that deliberation as part of the November update.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

September 2012 Learning Systems update

Since the last update, we’ve had two successful VLE releases, and continued the procurement process to find the replacement for our current real time collaboration system.
Over the two VLE releases we’ve added new features to ForumNG, updated the MyReferences toolset and made a number of changes to the HTML editor including improvements to its handling of TeX and MathML code and its tools for rendering tables.  In addition we’ve also made a significant number of improvements to the Structured Content tools within the VLE.  (Apology: The links within this post are only going to be reachable by members of the OU community)
In the August release we also started the pilot deployment of the new Participation Tracking report which will help the new Curriculum Support teams to identify individual users who are struggling with their studies, and who may need additional support.
There are full details of all these changes in the release notes which you can find on releases page of the online learning systems guide website.
We’ve also updated the guidance notes, the computing guide and the style guide to reflect recent changes to the VLE toolset.
As we might expect, the traffic levels on the VLE have been relatively low over the summer (about 3.5M transactions each week compared with the peak of almost 9M we saw earlier in the year) – but we're expecting the traffic levels to start picking up quite dramatically over the next few weeks.
In additon to the releases there have also been a number of back end developments carried out within the learning system team. We’ve been carrying out the preparatory work to allow us to switch the VLE over to running under the more secure HTTPS protocol – this shouldn’t make any difference to the learning experience of the users, but will enable us to have greater confidence that VLE traffic is fully protected.
Alongside that work, we’ve been evaluating Moodle 2.3.  At this point we are still running Moodle 2.2 on the OU VLE, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to complete the load testing to give Moodle 2.3 the go ahead over the next few weeks so that we can use this for our December release.
On the topic of releases. Over the last nine months we’ve been carrying out monthly VLE releases.  We are now going to swap back to our quarterly pattern, so our next planned release of the VLE will be in early December.
The September update was also an important release for the Quals On Line platform which is due to go live to students during the second week of September.
The procurement exercise to replace Elluminate has continued over the summer.  We are currently in discussion with a number of potential providers, and we expect to come to a conclusion at some point in November.
The final topic I want to mention in this update relates to Learning Systems team rather than to the Learning systems platforms.
As some of you will no doubt have seen from the announcement on the OU intranet, there are going to be some changes to the governance of Learning Systems within the University.  This will include the transfer of the Learning Systems team from LTS to IT at some point during the financial year that has just started.  There is currently an implementation team drawn from LTS and IT working through the implications of this change, and hopefully I’ll be in a position to say more about these changes and their timing in the next update.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

July 2012 Learning Systems update

The Open University VLE was updated to Moodle 2.2.3 on 3rd July 2012 In addition to the fixes and tweaks from  Moodle HQ, we’ve also added in a bundle of new changes and development from OU developers (that link will only work for OU staff).
We’re planning to continue with our monthly update schedule in August and September, and to then move back to quarterly updates in the autumn with the follow-up releases being in December 2012 and then in March 2013.
We’re also planning to carry out a maintenance update on our Moodle 1.9 system to bring that up to the latest version (1.9.18).   We had planned to do this in mid-June, but we discovered a slight performance degradation on the server shortly before the update was scheduled to happen and we decided to hold off on the update so that we could investigate.  The performance is now back to normal levels, and we’ll be going ahead with the update in mid-July.  As I said in the previous post, the update doesn’t add any new features , it just allows us to add in security updates.
On the theme of server performance I wanted to take the opportunity to provide an update on our current traffic and performance figures.  At the moment we’re seeing about 4.5 million transactions per week across the two main moodle installations, this is well down on the peak figures that we saw earlier in the year (over 8.5 million transactions per week) but does reflect our normal annual cycle.
Over the last few weeks availability of the VLE has been extremely good, and well over 99.8% of all our transactions have been better than our target thresholds.  The actual target for each transaction varies – but for most of the common end-user transactions we aim to deliver the page back from the server in under 300 milliseconds.
Since my last post, Moodle 2.3 has been released – there’s a long list of interesting new features, some of them having been developed at the OU. If you want to know more there are release notes on the website.
We know that this release has been through some pretty rigorous functional testing within the Moodle Community to ensure that the new features all work.  However before we are able to move to Moodle 2.3 we are going to carry out a programme of load tests to ensure that the system is able to operate configured the way we need it at the OU, and at the load levels we see here.   At this point I  don’t think that we’ll be ready to move to Moodle 2.3 in September, so that move is now likely to be part of our December update.
As part of keeping up to date with the wider elearning community, I'll be spending next week at Blackboard World.  I'll be interested to see how Blackboard Learn has developed over the past year, and also to hearing a bit more about how Blackboard's new open source community is going to work.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

June 2012 Learning Systems Update

I’ve been doing a Learning Systems podcast each month (with the exception of my recent ‘sabbatical’) since December 2008.  These podcasts are available to the Open University community but not more widely.  It occurred to me recently that I could (in the spirit of recycling) turn the scripts from these podcasts into a monthly posting here too – trimmed or extended where I get too OU specific.
At the time of the May post the Learning Systems team were still spending quite a lot of time grappling with the degraded performance we saw when we upgraded from Moodle 2.1 to 2.2 in early April.  Most of our users wouldn’t have spotted the degradation in performance – but on the servers we could see that the typical time it took to deliver a page within Moodle had jumped from around 300 ms to just over 500 ms. In itself perhaps not a figure to panic about, but something that we felt that we needed to both understand and remedy.  We were eventually able to isolate the problem to the new mechanism for handling context in Moodle 2.2 – and particularly to the sort of indexing required in PostgreSQL to support the context handling at OU scales.  Once we got our heads round the indexing, we saw performance jump back to the sort of figures we had with Moodle 2.1.  Panic over, for now at least.  The saga of the move to Moodle 2.2, has made us revisit the timetable we had in mind for deploying Moodle 2.3.  We had been planning to deploy 2.3 in either August or September  - with the latter being more likely give the slip in the release.  We now think that we need to do some serious load testing on Moodle 2.3 (as it’s configured at the OU) before can unleash it on our users, which will inevitably introduce some delay into the deployment.   There are a number of features in 2.3 that we want to bring into service here – not least the one’s that we’ve developed – so we will be bringing the new version into service at soon as we can.
Once we’ve got our collective heads around Moodle 2.3, we’ll turn our attention to Moodle 2.4.  The provisional specification for Moodle 2.4 mentions incorporating both the ForumNG and OUwiki.  Both of these were developed at the OU and shared with the community, and I’d be absolutely delighted to see these formally adopted into Moodle.  I’m sure there will be some work for developers here to do to smooth the way forward, and we’ll do whatever we need to do to help this happen.
In more routine business, we’re still gradually moving OU modules (courses in Moodle-speak) from our Moodle 1.9 installation through onto the newer 2.2 installation.  We’re doing this gradually as each module ends so that our students don’t see a sudden change in mid-presentation. At the moment Moodle 1.9 is seeing around 4.5M transactions each week, and Moodle 2.2 about 2.3 M – we expect that balance to switch round as we go through the summer and into the autumn.
We’ve also started work on refreshing the real-time tools we use alongside Moodle. We are currently running with Elluminate 10 (from Elluminate when we bought into it, now from Blackboard) – and we’ve just started the procurement exercise to allow us to either continue with Blackboard Collaborate for a further period of time, or to move to an alternative platform.  There is more information about the procurement exerciseelsewhere.
And finally, and only relevant to OU folks, there will be a update to the both VLE installations during June. On Tuesday 12th June we'll be updating the new VLE - the biggest single change being the new HTML Activities tool within Structured Content - significantly improving the ability to embed HTML4/HTML5 activities within the VLE. On Tuesday 19th June we'll be updating the old VLE - no new features being added, just minor maintenance updates.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Wood and the Trees

Over the last six months I've been as far south as South Georgia and as far North as the North Cape.  I've taken more pictures of penguins than is sensible, I've seen the Northern Lights on ten occasions, I've been mugged by a striated caracara, chased by antarctic fur seals, learnt to drive a team of Siberian huskies and realised just how cold -20C feels.
And despite (or maybe because of) my absence the Learning Systems team at the OU has kept going, delivering regular VLE releases adding new functionality and working to migrate OU modules from the old Moodle 1.9 VLE onto the new Moodle 2 platform.
As I've got re-immersed in OU activities over the last few weeks, I've had the chance to reflect on what has changed while I've been away.
Learning System developments tend to be bundled up in monthly releases and, inevitably, these releases usually involve incremental, rather than earth shattering, changes.  However over a six month period the incremental changes all add up - and coming back to the party after a while away it really is quite dramatic how far things have moved on.
  • We've now migrated about 50% of OU modules onto the new platform (currently using Moodle 2.2.2), and we're on track to have almost all modules moved over by the end of 2012. At the moment the new platform is carrying about 25% of the total load (in terms of transactions).
  • We've brought Elluminate 10 into service at the OU - and about a third of our real-time collaboration traffic is now on that version of the platform.
  • We've finally turned off the FirstClass conferencing system.
  • We've rolled out OU Annotate to everyone in the OU Community - and added lots more new features to it.  We are seeing really encouraging usage levels on this too.
  • We've specified and started to develop a new version of the OpenLearn platform, based on Moodle 2.
  • We've specified and done lots of development work to support the OU's move to qualitifications-based teaching.
Within the VLE itself,
  • We've added lots of refinements to the collaborative tools collection (the OU versions of the blog, forum and wiki), most visibly making these tools all much more consistent.
  • The Quiz Engine continues to evolve with every release adding a few more question types (we're now up to 23 different types).  There has also been lots of work carried out to redevelop the STACK computer algebra system as a Moodle question type. We've been demonstrating that development to the Maths Faculty at the OU, and we expect to have it ready for release in Autumn 2012.
  • We've also added extra features to Structured Content (the OU's XML-based authoring system) to further enrich the learning materials that students can get access to on the VLE.
Any one of these developments probably wouldn't have seemed big enough to need a blog post celebrating their completion but seen together they look like a really impressive collection of developments.
Maybe I should go away more often.