Integrating key student systems with the VLE - City of Glasgow College
City of Glasgow College has a large number of distance learning cohorts and needed to integrate different systems after a merger. Having access to exam results online was especially important and the College decided to experiment with open source to develop a system to fit their users’ needs.
The JISC-funded ExamView project developed a tool to pull student exam results from their UNIT-e Student Records system into their Moodle VLE. Flexibility and low cost were key – Exam View is a lightweight, portable framework built with interoperability in mind; the tool can be used by any institution as it works with a range of Student Record systems and VLEs.
In September 2010 the College landscape in Scotland changed dramatically when three colleges merged to become Scotland's biggest college, City of Glasgow College. This meant dealing with a large number of distance learning cohorts and different systems. Having access to exam results online was especially important; previously results had been posted on walls, by letter, or announced by individual lecturers which meant some students were getting their results later than others and in an inconsistent way. In addition, there were institutional pockets where people didn’t immediately update the student records system which led to huge delays in processing awards. Finally, staff had to copy the results into the VLE gradebook which meant additional time and duplication of effort.
All of the above methods would result in an inevitable delay between staff entering results in the student records system and students receiving their results. The College needed a solution that would provide students with secure, private access to their exam results as quickly as possible, without placing an additional burden on staff.
JISC funding enabled the team at Glasgow City College to experiment with open source to develop a consistent system to fit their users’ needs.
A better use of data
Integrating the VLE with the student records system would make better use of the data gathered in the latter and encourage increased use of both systems while avoiding duplication of effort.
“I spent much more time on planning and documenting than writing code - the project was a big exercise in planning and getting access to peoples’ data.” Alex Walker, Web Developer
The JISC project used a pilot version of Moodle and wrote code to pull student exam results from the Student Records system into the VLE. The project used a Rapid Application Development methodology which allowed the team to develop the application in a short period of time while still capturing user requirements and feedback. “Our main aim was to get the exam results into Moodle. We wanted to write code at a basic level so you could pull results from any records system and display them at any front end,” explains the project’s developer Alex Walker. The team needed to write queries that would generate the right information. They tried different layouts and got feedback on how students wanted to see the results displayed: ideally students wanted to see all results at a glance which would make filling out UCAS forms in preparation for going to university a lot easier.
The ExamView application offers several benefits:
- Staff only have to type results into one system.
- Students receive their results quickly, privately and from any location 24/7.
- Students are encouraged to use the VLE as a portal of information.
- Staff are encouraged to type results into the Student Records system in a timely fashion.
“Interoperability underpins everything, it is the most important asset you can have.” Jen Fuller, Senior Learning Technologist, City of Glasgow College
Flexibility and low cost were key – Exam View is a lightweight, portable framework able to pull results from any records system and display them to any user, which ensure that the tool will work even if City of Glasgow College decides to change its VLE in future. Exam View’s multi-tier architecture makes it easy to use with many different student record systems e.g. UNITe or any Oracle or MySQL database.
A multi-tier architecture
Exam View has three layers:
- The Presentation Layer is what people will actually see. It could take the form of a Moodle block, a simple web page, a Mac OS dashboard widget, or a plug in for any other web system.
- The data layer is the back end that stores student records.
- The Model Layer is where the magic happens. This layer is responsible for pulling student records from the data layer and translating them into a format the front-end can understand.
Writing the system in this way makes it easier to work with a different data store, since only the functions that communicate with the data store need to be rewritten. Also, if City of Glasgow College want to integrate Exam View into a different system, only the presentation layer needs to be rewritten.
Figure 1, showing the layout of the system, and how the layers communicate with each other.
Linking the VLE with the student records system has provided students with seamless access to live, personalised information via a single system, which has enhanced their experience. All participants in subsequent focus groups expressed that they like the new ExamView feature in Moodle and in a survey students rated it as their top choice for receiving exam results (80%), significantly more than by email, face to face or post. Students noted that having all their results listed online was particularly helpful when completing their online UCAS applications to progress to University.
Staff were also impressed with the ExamView feature and one group of staff said that they now planned to change their method of giving exam results from a paper card to ExamView, especially as it can be accessed from home during the holiday period.
It is still early days but the organisation will no doubt benefit from the project by improved systems integration, a reduction in data entry and duplication of effort – data will be entered once into Unit-e, but will be seen from Moodle. As the information will be visible to students, it is anticipated that staff will be motivated to input results timely, resulting in increased student satisfaction.
Open up your data!
The biggest hurdle other institutions in a similar position will face, apart from the technical knowhow in linking two systems together, is to persuade people to open up their data. The City of Glasgow College team spent time reassuring colleagues that checks and measures were in place to ensure that they were only asking for read-only permission. They promoted the institutional benefits: the new system would encourage staff to put results in. Alex Walker recommends: “Have good communications with your student records people. They, with good reason, guard their data. You need to reassure them, keep talking to them about what you want to do and why. Do that long before any technical development takes place.”
The JISC funding allowed the project team to put more time into the planning stage and see what would benefit other institutions. Upon completion of the ExamView application the code and extensive documentation was released to the community. Enquiries have already been received from a number of institutions world-wide on how to use the application with their own systems.
The source code and related documentation are available to download from:
Moodle, search for "ExamView"