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Many institutions are reviewing their current virtual learning environment provision in the light of changing requirements. Whether you are reviewing your learning and teaching strategies, want to streamline your admin processes, respond to student feedback or simply provide better quality support for smaller groups within your institution, this briefing paper will help inform this review process.

Extending the learning environment

This briefing paper is available in digital format only.

Download_Extending_the_learning_environment (pdf)

Many institutions are reviewing their current virtual learning environment provision in the light of changing pedagogical requirements, improved administrative integration and the emergence of new classes of social media on the wider web.

Whether you are reviewing your learning and teaching strategies, want to streamline your admin processes, respond to student feedback or simply provide better quality support for smaller groups within your institution, this briefing paper will help inform this review process.

Why review our virtual learning environment?

Successive UK governments have identified an engaging student experience of higher and further education as a major priority in ensuring the continued competitiveness of UK education in the 21st century.

“It is important that colleges use all the resources and assets available to them as effectively as possible, including better use of virtual learning environments and the opportunities they afford”
John Widdowson, Chair of the Mixed Economy Group of Colleges

Technology has changed the classroom experience both for teachers and students. Students can check facts during a lecture from their mobile phones and the seminar room itself could be an entirely virtual space or a state-of-the-art connected classroom. Virtual learning environments (VLEs) have become an essential part of almost every higher and further educational institution.

Distributed learning environments

Students increasingly consume information in ways and on devices of their own choosing. At the same time, institutions might pull together information and tools from different administrative systems and servers, some run outside the college or university, to present a seamless overview of what is going on to students.

The online learning environment has become much more distributed, with tools being developed separately, maintained separately with different security and privacy models and often very different user interfaces; and yet together they create the students’ online experience of a class.

“The question is not IF our learning environments can be or should be distributed but rather HOW”
Alex Reid, Associate Professor of English and Professional Writing at the State University of New York, College at Cortland.

What institutions want – efficiency, flexibility and teaching excellence

How do we support those innovative learners and teachers who want to use tools that aren’t yet mainstream? Tools which are successfully used in one institution may not be viable in another because they can’t be installed and supported, or because there are too few potential users to make them financially viable.

Two related solutions are to share tools hosted elsewhere and to foster a culture of reusable open source widgets.

Connecting and sharing

Linking external tools to a proprietary learning environment is becoming easier. One emerging way to do this is through an openly available specification (IMS learning tools interoperability, LTI). This is a relatively new development, so it is not a core part of all commercial vendors’ provision. Its uptake is growing, however, and it does have support from key VLE vendors like Blackboard, Sakai and Moodle. So if you are looking at a new tool, ask the vendor whether they are supporting learning tools interoperability. More widespread adoption could lead to shared services, before choosing the best tools available. A university, college or third party can host a tool they are familiar with and provide the system for the whole community.

“The development of open specification connectors for applications has opened up new opportunities for institutions. Without LTI, non-technical staff won’t be able to plug into new tools, so their students will lose out” Stephen Vickers, Manager, Technology Enhanced Learning Team, University of Edinburgh

Alongside these developments we are seeing the rise in popularity of widgets, apps and gadgets, primarily for use on mobile devices. Again using standards based methods such as HTML5 and the W3C widget specification, many of these can be used and developed for educational purposes and made available to staff and students through VLEs.

As the case studies will illustrate, these widgets, apps and gadgets range from relatively simple institutional news items to dedicated standalone applications providing personalised assessment information for students. Supporting the communitywide sharing of all types of widgets can significantly reduce an institution’s effort in producing its own solutions. The result: a learning environment to meet the culture of your institution.

Opening institutional data

Institutions also need to share their internal data to make systems work more effectively. Your institution probably stores a lot of information in separate databases using different applications, eg for enrolment, accounts, HR, estates, research, catering and course administration.

Although fundamental to running your institution, the data stored in each may not be shareable or openly available. Administrators, teachers and students often waste time and effort accessing information on timetables, room bookings, reading lists, assignment hand-in dates and examination results and combining the information into a coherent picture of what students need eg to produce a work plan or individual assessment schedule.

Linking systems and data will save time, avoid data duplication and allow staff to better monitor key data like student access and usage, achievement and performance. As a result, institutions can tailor their learning environment to meet the needs of learners more effectively.

An institution-wide approach to data allows for much better information about how learners are interacting with the institution. If data is tagged in a consistent way you can reassemble it in the form of very useful management reports for programme leaders about how students are using the resources of the institution.

“ Interoperability underpins everything, it is the most important asset you can have” Jen Fuller, Senior Learning Technologist, City of Glasgow College

What students want – the seamless experience

 Students have a strong desire for consistency and easy access to basic information. When Manchester Metropolitan University reviewed their learning technologies, students told them they wanted a one-stop shop to easily find things they needed for their learning: timetables, assessment deadlines, readings lists, room changes. These are what Mark Stubbs, Head of Learning Research Technologies at Manchester Metropolitan University, calls the “hygiene factors for the student experience”.

Increasingly it is the students, not their teachers, who are making decisions about which resources and services they use. The Open University is now moving closer to that vision with a series of gadgets which take parts of the university’s VLE and make them available on other platforms like iGoogle. The idea is to allow students to view the parts relevant to their own learning, blended with their other interests such as news, weather and sports updates on a choice of platforms. If they don’t want to engage with Google for reasons of accessibility or privacy they don’t have to use it.

Institutions differ in the extent to which they hand responsibility over to the students. Where the Open University allowed students to pull parts of the VLE into their Google platform and the VLE almost disappeared, Southampton University opted for a “Learning and Living Environment” based on their existing Blackboard system where personalisation would be done automatically: the system knows who you are, gives you things that are appropriate for you, knows your role, classes, even that you’re coming to the end of your first year so you need to get a flat. The student can then decide what her front page looks like and there is an app store with approved apps which students can run as widgets on their screen. Institutions need to cater for students who have the digital literacies to manage a personalised learning environment as well as those who need a more structured environment. The best approach is to be flexible and allow for personalisation which can lead to more student engagement and choice.

Sharing exam results online

When three colleges merged to become Scotland’s biggest college, City of Glasgow College, it had to deal with a large number of distance learning cohorts and different systems. Online access to exam results was especially important and the college decided to experiment with open source to develop a system to fit their users’ needs. The project team used a pilot version of Moodle and wrote code to pull student exam results from the student records system into the VLE. Flexibility and low cost were key – ExamView is a lightweight, portable framework able to pull results from any records system and display them to any user, which ensures that the tool will work even if Glasgow decides to change its VLE in future. Benefits to students include a single point of access to live, personalised information; benefits to the college are a more effective integration of systems that encourages staff to input student results into the student records systems as well as a reduction in data entry and duplication of effort.

Meeting students needs

Manchester Metropolitan University responded to a decline in student satisfaction with an extensive review of their learning technologies. Focus groups identified a strong need to sort out the administrative information that surrounds learning, the “hygiene factors”. Manchester extended its VLE through Moodle block technology and used their institutional license for CampusM to deliver mobile services to students. “We realised that in order to deliver a step change in the student experience, we needed to be able to assemble the university around the student”, explains Professor Mark Stubbs. The team used a shared services approach: Moodle and the University’s repository are run on another institution’s server.

So how can institutions distribute their learning environments?

You can now be more inventive and effective about how you deliver and design your teaching – whether you are moving from a proprietary system over to open source learning environments like Moodle, or expanding the functionality of existing systems.

Where does e-learning fit in your overall provision and strategy – which includes your business model?

Are you increasing student numbers, adding new campuses, creating new courses, merging teams or departments? Or would you just like to provide a new tool for one of your courses, eg a peer assessment tool?

The first step is to make sure your VLE meets your current and future needs. It is important to analyse your requirements comprehensively – it will save you considerable costs down the line.

JISC’s strategy infoKit  could help you to develop a strategy by guiding you through the issues you will need to consider, ranging from policy to understanding internal processes to customer perception.  The infoKit is supplemented by a new business intelligence toolkit.

The next step is to look at the technology you have got and whether it can meet your expected needs.

Talk to your technical colleagues about ways you can start opening and linking data, integrating your systems, developing access to resources or experimenting with new tools, widgets and apps.

Point to what other institutions have achieved and encourage your technical colleagues to investigate. There are now a number of ways to integrate functionality and content from the wider social web with institutional systems. From embedding content from an institutional repository into a blog, to integrating assessment and student financial information, the JISC Distributed Learning Environments Programme has implemented a number of these approaches.

What next?

Get your senior managers on board

Convince your senior managers that a distributed learning environment will make more creative and efficient use of technology and save money. Most institutions already have a VLE but don’t have the time to explore ways of adapting it or considering how it fits in with their overall priorities. Institutions who do this well and are thinking about enhancing their systems will have an edge as they are providing things in a way that other institutions don’t – they are “assembling the university around the student”, as Mark Stubbs put it. Key lessons are emerging from the JISC’s projects on Distributed Virtual Learning Environment which you may find useful in your own institution.


Widget: a small self-contained application that works on the web, desktop or on a mobile device
Gadget: similar to a widget and widely used in Google
App(lication): similar to widget and gadget, mainly used by Apple
CampusM: a commercial service for producing mobile applications
IMS LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) Specification: an open specification to connect two systems.
It provides a standard mechanism for an external learning application (referred to as a tool provider)
to be integrated with a tool consumer (a system which “consumes” a tool, such as a VLE).

Further Information

Documents & Multimedia

Maike Bohn, Paul Bailey and Sheila MacNeill
Publication Date
19 June 2012
Publication Type
Strategic Themes