Experiences of technology change

The University of Nottingham undertook a VLE review in 2010. One of the drivers was the desire for a more coherent and consistent student experience.

In achieving this the University had to take account of the needs of all of its stakeholders including the medical and business schools each of which had their own bespoke VLE locally built and maintained. This arrangement met local needs very well but carried a maintenance overhead and consistency issues.

Following a procurement process, Moodle was selected as the open source option seemed to offer the greatest flexibility and the University could be more confident in encouraging the medical and business schools to adopt the new system knowing they could extend it to meet their own needs. The University of Nottingham had developed the open source, accessible content creation tool Xerte and knew that the Moodle community had already integrated this into the VLE.

There was also a need to deliver a VLE for the University's campuses in China and Malaysia. The strategic ambition was for a shared environment across all three sites and this led to the decision to host internally in order to take advantage of a dedicated internet connection between the sites.

Andy Beggan, formerly Associate Director, Learning Technology at the University of Nottingham, told us that changing the VLE platform also provided an opportunity to re-engage those colleagues within the academic community who were becoming complacent with the status quo and tended to carry on doing the same old things.

From a technical point of view it was challenging to go from a vendor managed system to hosting and managing an open source tool like Moodle but team members rapidly became highly experienced in load balancing, application monitoring, performance etc. Although it was a steep learning curve, they succeeded and overall student satisfaction in Moodle increased, eventually superseding satisfaction with the previous VLE.

Andy Beggan, formerly Associate Director, Learning Technology,
University of Nottingham

The University of Hull has experienced all of the main types of VLE. The University started with an in-house system and changed to a commercial product then to the Sakai open source VLE in 2008.

In 2013 the University undertook a VLE review. Focus groups revealed a significant level of dissatisfaction with the existing VLE and Chris Turnock, Interim Director, Learning and Teaching Enhancement Directorate, told us that, with hindsight, there had not been sufficient resource allocated to support and development of the open source product.

Staying with Sakai was not really an option for the University as the existing version of Sakai would need a major upgrade if they were to continue using it. There was a general desire to move to a commercial product and the University ultimately chose Canvas.

The University of Sussex is moving from an open source VLE and is implementing a commercial SaaS VLE for the 2018/19 academic year.

The University had been using Moodle for over 10 years and had undertaken a considerable amount of customisation. They were still using Moodle version 1.9. Server support for this version had been discontinued in July 2012 but the extent of customisation meant it was not possible to upgrade without breaking all of the customisations.

They were also starting to experience significant performance challenges especially with the sophisticated workflows they had created to support the electronic management of assessment.

Overall, however, the change was not driven by dissatisfaction with the existing open source VLE but rather by a realistic assessment that the technology was old and limiting. David Walker, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, told us he could foresee that if they did nothing then the increasing instability of the product risked changing people's perceptions and causing dissatisfaction in the near future.

Many of our Moodle customisations had changed the core code. They were actually very good functionally but they challenged the sustainability of the platform.

David Walker, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning,
University of Sussex

In 2013 London Business School undertook a procurement process in order to move away from their in-house VLE that they felt was no longer supportable. They had two versions of the same bespoke software in different parts of the institution and the versions were significantly different so that there was no crossover in development effort.

One of the difficulties in this project was therefore meeting the needs of two stakeholder groups with different requirements and priorities. A SaaS solution was chosen particularly because the product had good Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI)* making it easier to plug any gaps.

Mark Pountney, Head of Business Technology and Innovation, feels that the change from on premise hosting to a SaaS solution is a huge improvement and not having responsibility for development and hosting has taken away many headaches.

We have been able to invest our time and development effort in extending the product using LTI to enhance the bits it doesn't do well instead of having to undertake bespoke development. Our vendor has made a strategic choice not to try to be all things to all people and this allows us to assemble a kind of best of breed model using LTI.

Mark Pountney, Head of Business Technology and Innovation,
London Business School

*Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) is a standard that prescribes a way to easily and securely connect learning applications and tools with platforms like learning management systems (LMS), portals and learning object repositories in a secure and standard manner without the need for custom programming.

Edinburgh Napier University reviewed its VLE use in 2012. The review was partly prompted by the supplier withdrawing support for the product but also because the University felt that VLE use was not achieving its full potential.

There was a sense amongst academics that the previous VLE had been chosen by information services and imposed upon them and they were now looking to take greater ownership.

The academic community felt strongly that an open source product would offer greater flexibility in terms of not being tied to a company's research and development programme and would be a better fit with the academic ethos. The School of Computing was already using Moodle and the successful bidder in the procurement process was a Moodle partner who supported the initial implementation.