Monday, December 22, 2008

Are we asking too much of University IT Departments?

Recently, I've been part of a university team involved with the evaluation of a couple of open source Learning Management Systems (LMS) to replace our old version of BlackBoard (Bb) and a home grown LMS.
In the course of our investigations we found in favour of Moodle, a very popular LMS that has a wide variety of implementations that range from the world's largest open and distance education university (Open University) to small organisations and single teacher use in schools.
While the academic staff in the evaluation overwhelmingly supported the selection of Moodle, the Information Technology department did not. Their main objections were structured around the language the LMS was written in (PHP) and the need to integrate this language into the oracle database architecture the department has decided on for its long term strategic direction. PHP is a language that while many of the ITD programmers are familiar with, the their strategic direction and training is all aimed at Java applications and development. The reasons for the strategic direction are sound from a business perspective, given the management systems the university currently has in place.
Supporting Moodle will cause a deviation away from the strategic direction the IT department has chosen, and this will have an impact on training and integration with existing systems.

In the course of our investigations we also found an excellent eportfolio tool (Mahara) that will, for the first time, allow our students to store examples of their work and authentic assessment that they have designed and developed during their time at university. Mahara is also written in PHP, but offers additional challenges to the university in terms of long-term storage and support of student accounts. For example, if the eportfolios are for the storage of artifacts that can be used by the students to share examples of their work, (this is desirable to build learning engagement and ownership) then how long will the university support the hosting of student work? Issues of storage and time then become difficult issues which universities are not well placed to deal with and fund.

While this is just one example, there are many other possibilities for inclusion in high quality university courses and programs. SPARK (Self and Peer Assessment Resource Kit) is a product that I currently use to support group work in student teams. The current version is written in ASP (I think), but the new version that will be available early in 2009 has a user interface written in Adobe Flash with a back end written in PHP. Incorporating this into the current university IT infrastructure would cause additional issues for the ITD.

Yet another excellent product is ReView, a software product developed by Darrall Thompson from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). ReView offers an online assessment, feedback and graduate attribute alignment approach. I'm not sure what language this product uses, but I suspect that it would also have a Flash component in its design and operation.

The above examples are just a few, and as we continue further down the open source pathway, the divergence in software and IT architecture is also likely to add additional impositions on an IT department that is not receiving additional funding for this support.
University IT departments across the world are attempting to deal with these issues, not just my institution. While universities that are generously funded will cope better in the short term, eventually this divergence will also impact on their capability, flexibility and financial bottom line.

So what's the Solution?
While there is a natural tendency for
IT Departments to want to restrict the software, platforms and systems that can be used for all university operations to contain costs, a better approach for the entire organisation would be to have them determine just what systems are cost effective for them to support. There are some systems that the institution needs to administer as it would be difficult and costly to outsource.
Outsourcing the hosting of some systems needs to be seriously considered if the university is to become a flexible and innovative organisation.
In the course of our LMS investigations, we engaged an external hosting company (NetSpot) to provide an instance of both LMSs for us to use and evaluate. Specialist hosting companies offer substantial savings and flexibility when it comes to using software platforms that are outside the strategic direction of IT departments. Not only do these companies offer specialist expertise and a high degree of reliability, they can also be engaged with specific contracts that ensure that they meet the specified operational requirements, or risk penalties. It is virtually impossible to replicate this with Service Level Agreements between ID departments and Faculties.
Outsourcing the hosting of some teaching and learning systems offers Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) savings, flexibility and added reliability which has a direct impact on a university's reputation.

In our organisation, and many others, there are a number of steps that need to be followed to before outsourcing can occur, but these should not be a barrier to considering outsourcing with specialist Web hosts, just part of the process.


Joel Fisler said...

So you were talking about a Java solution. Did you look at OLAT? (See OLAT is an open source LMS originally started at the University of Zurich. Today its in use worldwide and available in 17 languages. Its scalable and starting with the next release in February 2009 it will be possible to have distributed OLAT installation on many servers (load balancing). And there are hosting companies available (since you mention outsourcing). I know that in Australia Moodle is very popular but you still might want to have a look at OLAT because this is a serious competitor.

Ray Tolley said...

Not so much from a technical perspective, but from the very practical end-users' needs:

Whatever the VLE, surely no e-Portfolio should be hosted by the institution?

Yes, VLEs come and go but an e-Portfolio is meant to last 'for ever'. It is no good universities thinking that they have the right to create a silo effect within their own domain by insisting on their own version of an e-Portfolio.

Children from as young as 5 and certainly up into Secondary and FE education are all begining to use e-Portfolios. It is Becta's requirement that ALL pupils will have their own e-Portfolios by 2010. Dr Helen Barrett even visualises parents establishing a child's e-Portfolio at birth!

There are, therefore, two main requirements of an e_Portfolio for Lifelong Lifewide Learning and Leisure:
1. It should be capable of 'portability' or transition from one stage of learning to another without requiring technical competencies that would exclude the youngest, oldest or less-able learners. In this context on my website I discuss 'The 7 Ages of Man'.
2. In terms of the interface, both the cosmetic treatment and the organisation of pages and sub-pages should, chameleon-like, be capable of change according to the user's perception of self-representation.

In response, therefore, to the original question, expecting university IT departments to manage e-Portfolios (for the lifetime of the user?) is just not on.

Students will soon be arriving at 'a college near you' with their e-portfolios already well populated, incluing records of APEL. Moreover, these students will expect to maintain their e-Portfolios during the short period of university life and then 'take their e-Portfolio with them' when they move on from one job to another and so on.



Scot said...

Hi Joel,
Many thanks for your comment.
OLAT look interesting (I checked out the demo site), but Moodle has some major advantages for lecturers who are not learning designers. It forces lecturers to look at the students' learning journeys and consider their resource and activity options rather than just shovel lecture notes and resources up online.



Scot said...

Hi Ray,

Welcome back to my Blog.

Yes I agree that universities should not own student portfolios and that for a number of important reasons the students themselves should have complete ownership. The most important reason is that to take eportfolios seriously they need to be seen by students as useful for them rather than an imposed, teacher-centred requirement hosted by the school or university.

I found your comment regarding students coming to universities soon with existing eportfolios interesting. This would be extremely rare in Australia as many schools are way behind our universities when it comes to using Information Communication Technology. It sounds like the UK is progressing much more quickly than we are.
Congratulations on your work in this area.



Joel Fisler said...

I know that its not an ePortfolio but I see more and more people using social (business) networks as their portfolio. For example in LinkedIn you can create your own profile, add jobs or projects you realized and they are linked to the company or project website where you can find other co-workers. You can also add recommendations for colleagues or join special interest groups. Or XING, another social network more targeted at Europe (LinkedIn is more US-targeted). There you have the same possibilities but you can also add language portfolios, educational details etc. And since both networks are very popular they have a high number of users and you have good chances to find colleagues there, add them to your contact network, ask for recommendations etc. In my opinion these tools will be come more and more relevant when it comes to having a University-independent portfolio. I can even imagine that there are students out there using their Facebook account for displaying who they are, what they did, show some results of their work and send this link to a company when they apply for a job (of course they have to make sure that there are no "I was drunk last night at a party" fotos on a friends profile linked to them... :-)

Since I work within a developers team I'd also like to mention a very popular social network target exactly at open source developers: This website lets you create your own profile and link it to open source projects. Through CVS, SVN or GIT-repository analysis Ohloh will figure out exactly how much lines you coded for which project and what programming language you were working with. It will then automatically create your profile saying that "user XY worked with projec YZ from June 2003 to December 2007" adding your role at this project, the amount of code you committed etc. Through a peer-to-peer review mechanism and by earning and giving "Kudos" the automatically created portfolio is augmented with some user-generated content. Quite interesting approach I think.

I have been looking at the IMS ePortfolio Specification last year since this whole discussion about ePortfolios is also important here at the University of Zurich. But I dont really know if this is the feature. We did install an ePortfolio tool in the end there in Zurich but its hardly used by anyone I think. My personal opinion is that social networks like the ones mentioned above will become (or are already) a lot more popular than specialized ePortfolio applications. But we'll see...

@Scot: We create our content with a tool called eLML (eLesson Markup Language - and then import it into OLAT using either the IMS CP or the SCORM format. And eLML does also force the author to stick to a pedagogical structure when creating courses (called ECLASS and described in detail on the eLML website).

Joel Fisler said...

In the second last paragraph I meant to say "future" not "feature". How do you call this in English? "Freudian slip"? At least thats how we call it in German :-)

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