Monday, 25 March 2013

March 2013 OU Learning Systems Update

In this update I'll mention the recent update to the OU VLE, talk about the traffic levels we’re currently seeing and then mention the developments that we have underway for VLE releases in April and in June.

First though, real time collaboration tools.  Over the last few months I’ve made slightly cryptic references to replacing the Elluminate system that we’ve been using since 2008.  I’m pleased to be able to confirm that we’ll be introducing OU Live over the next few months, based on Blackboard’s Collaborate Platform.

We expect to have the first pilot use of OU Live in May this year, and to progressively roll that platform out as a replacement for Elluminate over the next 12 or 15 months.  As with most major changes like this we’ll be making the transition gradually – migrating modules as presentations end.  We’ve already started talking to a number of module teams about the transition process.

The March VLE update happened as we planned on the morning of the 5th March.  We refined our update process for this release so that we could try and minimise the interruption to services, and I think that refinement worked well, and we were able to bring the servers back up a little bit earlier than we had planned.

Our next scheduled update is a minor one, planned for 16th April.  This release is being put in place so that we can deploy the bridge software that links the VLE to the new OU Live service.

We’ve seen VLE traffic drop off a little since our peak in early February.  This mirrors the pattern we’ve seen every year, but we are still seeing well over 7M transactions each week, and typically forty to fifty thousand users visiting the system each day.  Overall the system is performing very well, during this busiest period of the year, with the response times being well inside the targets we've set ourselves.

We’re also in the midst of development activities for the June VLE update.

We are expecting that update to be based on Moodle 2.4, and quite a lot of the development activity at the moment is being devoted to ensuring that all the OU developed components work correctly in the new version of Moodle.

There is still some performance testing work that we will need to carry out on the Moodle 2.4-based system to confirm that it will be to handle to huge traffic load that the OU Community will place on the server.

We expect the update to happen on Tuesday 4th June.

And it will include….
• Improvements to the Forum moderation tools
• Enhancements to the OU Anywhere tools
• An improved version of the OU Annotate system
• Improvements to the Wolfson Open Science Lab platform
• Improvements to the Quals on-line platform
• The first release of a new ‘Moodle for Exams’ platform
• An update to the OpenMark platform
• And a raft of minor changes to a lot of the other tools within the VLE as we’ve updated them to work in Moodle 2.4

And finally, this really is my final OU Learning Systems update. In the short term Geoff Aldridge will be taking over from me leading the Learning Systems team at the OU.

I do want to say that I am really proud of the work that I and the Learning Systems team have done over the last six or seven years, providing a truly world class VLE to the OU Community.   In the early days we struggled at times to cope with the growth in traffic, but we were able to find ways round those challenges.  And we were also able to use the move from Moodle 1.9 to Moodle 2 to re-engineer the platform quite substantially so that we able to cope with traffic levels that we could only have guessed at – or dreamt of - a few years ago.

I’m not going to single out particular members of the Learning Systems team for mention – the real strength of what we’ve been able to achieve has been down to the fact we’ve had a really strong team that brought different skills and perspectives to bear on the problems and challenges we’ve faced.

And really, really finally thanks for reading these updates.  I’ve appreciated the feedback I’ve received about them, and hope that they have been useful.  I will be continuing to blog about online learning, but my comments are likely to become much less OU specific!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A Memoire in Eight Bits

Clearing out my desk drawer, in anticipation of escape, revealed a rich collection of old business cards, including lots of mine.

A history of online learning in eight bits (of card)?

First arrived at the Open University – in the Academic Computing Service.  Worked on THD204 built using Toolbook and delivered on 3 CDs.  First experience of learning and teaching online at the OU was hearing from disgruntled users demanding that we stay with CoSy rather than move to that new-fangled FirstClass system.
After a brief escape, returned to the OU to join the Library.  Helped them through the trauma of Y2K, made all their servers run the same operating system, and helped with the implementation of the Voyager library management system.
Jumped to the newly-formed LTS and to On-Line Applications Team.  We built course websites. Lots of them.  We worked with individual course teams and then handcrafted websites to do exactly what they needed.  Great fun, but very expensive and with lots of maintenance work to do each year. ColdFusion was our friend, and occasionally our foe.  Online stuff was, for most course teams, an optional extra or afterthought to the course, but we did make the revolutionary (or at least evolutionary) step of moving to load-balanced servers.

I must have been important by this stage – was allowed a yellow blob on my business cards.  Media Account Manager for OU Business School, for IET and ran the Corporate Team in LTS.  Lots of time taken up getting the OU's home-made lightweight Learning Management system up and running, and persuading course teams that they should move from their lovingly crafted website to that new-fangled Promises system.

Start of the Moodle years.  Clearly a time of radical thinking – we even had trendy ‘portrait’ business cards.   Made the decision to move away from lots of different systems and technologies, and hand-crafted websites to a single platform that would do (almost) everything we needed.   And in our spare time we built OpenLearn (building on the work we were already doing to make Moodle work at the scale that the OU needed).  Lots of grumbles from disgruntled users that we should stay with FirstClass rather then move to that new-fangled Moodle system.   
Everything gets bigger, including the type-face – business cards go back to ‘landscape’, and the FAX number now disappears from the card.   Every course now needs to have a course website, and online is no longer just an optional extra.  Senior management now get agitated whenever there’s a problem with the VLE. Not that there were too many problems.

Moodle 2 on the horizon. We make the decision that we will move to Moodle 2, and move away from the huge number of core customisations that we’d introduced while using Moodle 1.  Traffic levels still rising as more and more courses now make more and more use of more and more features within the VLE.  I’m sure we did have grumbles from disgruntled users that we should stay with Moodle 1.9 rather then move to that new-fangled Moodle 2 system.

Moodle 2 up and running and being used for the OU’s main VLE, for OpenLearn and for Qualifications OnLine.   Regularly seeing days with well over 1M transactions.  Regularly seeing days with over 60,000 unique users using the system.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Head of IT Development (Learning Systems), The Open University

I guess I really must be leaving.

The recruitment to find my replacement at the Open University is now under-way.  It really is a slightly strange experience seeing my job being advertised.  I can't recall a previous instance where I was being directly replaced, although I don't know if this says more about me or about the other jobs and roles I've had.

The advert is on the university jobs website - go on, have a look - the closing date is 28th March 2013.

The role does undoubtedly have challenges.  You get to juggle lots of different systems, that are now used (and relied on) by a huge number of students and teachers both across the UK, and further afield.  The posts elsewhere on this blog will give you an idea of the scale of operation, and how it's grown over the last few years. But the role does also come with a few outstanding perks - and I don't mean the attractions of living in Milton Keynes.  A lure that I've managed to resist.

The annual leave allocation is pretty good - as my travel blog over the last few years might suggest

But rather more seriously - the most obvious perk is the fantastic learning systems team you get to work with. These people appear collectively to be able to make Moodle do pretty much anything. They've certainly been able to make Moodle do anything that the institution has asked of it over the last seven years, and what's more to make it work at amazingly large traffic volumes.

Another real perk is the scarily imaginative academic users around the institution.  Within a big institution like The Open University there are a lot of very bright and very committed people - and they do come up with some very interesting ideas.  One of the fun things in the role has been working with these teachers and with the other folks in my teams to figure out how to deliver what they want to do.  Sometimes figuring out how to say Yes has been a challenge, but a good challenge.

If you want to know more about the job - either go to the OU jobs website or get in touch with me directly.

By the way, you need to bring your own boots - I'm taking these ones with me.