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The Open University’s Virtual Learning Environment hosts approximately 600 ‘live’ courses and has around 150,000 students accessing it each month. The University is constantly improving the online learning environment for students to tailor it to their needs. JISC’s Distributed Open University Learning Systems (DOULS) project aimed to add functionality, features and services to meet the need for a more distributed VLE.

Linking Google and Moodle a roadmap to improve online learning - The Open University


“The Open University has recognised that it is important that students choose which environment to be in – a good direction of travel.” Judith Pickering, Project Manager, Open University

The Open University is the UK’s only dedicated distance teaching university. It has more than 240,000 undergraduate and around 20,000 postgraduate students. The University’s Virtual Learning Environment, based on the Moodle open-source software, hosts approximately 600 ‘live’ courses and has around 150,000 students accessing it each month. True to its mission to be “open as to people, places, methods and ideas” the University is constantly improving the online learning environment for students to tailor it to their needs. Enhancing the VLE is fundamental to the learning and teaching strategy.

Increasingly it is the students, not their teachers, who are making decisions about which resources and services they use. “Rather than insisting they consume info in the way we want them to, students can do it from their own choice of environment”, explains project manager Judith Pickering.

While students use social networks and mobile applications, external systems and platforms such as Google Apps for Education as well as widgets/gadgets are getting more sophisticated. There are mounting opportunities to exploit such tools for teaching and learning.  Enabling users to interact with these external systems from within the VLE will provide a more integrated experience for students.

“Google Apps for Education is becoming a key way for students to interact and share content.  Moodle is the World’s most popular learning management system.  Many institutions have both platforms available for students but integration, if any, is often limited to single sign-on between the two systems” says project director Niall Sclater.

Potential benefits of integrating Moodle and Google Apps more closely:

  • Providing a more integrated (and hence less disjointed and confusing) experience for students
  • Students being able to view content from their LMS/VLE in a more customisable, personalised environment – e.g. using iGoogle
  • Teachers being able to create innovative learning activities using rapidly evolving functionality not available in Moodle – but able to present it within a Moodle site

 The JISC-funded Distributed Open University Learning Systems (DOULS) project explored how the Open University could move towards a more distributed, service-orientated VLE architecture with the ability to deliver these services via browsers, feeds or other mechanisms.

The road to a personalised student experience

The DOULS project sat within the Open University’s learning systems roadmap commissioned by the Vice Chancellor and the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning, Teaching and Quality). The roadmap has been informed by a range of personas of likely future users of the system. The JISC project used these online personas to verify requirements and inform decisions about how to distribute the Open University’s learning system. In addition, staff workshops helped to educate colleagues in the principles of distributed learning in the form of gadgets and widgets, supported by a guide: ‘A short introduction to gadgets’. 

Open University persona

Figure 1, sample student persona from Open University

The project team consulted users across the institution about their requirements and selected five key areas for learning systems innovation: personalisation, user-generated content, e-Portfolio, Google Apps deployment and mobile provision.

The project developed 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 there is currently no obligation for them to use it.

The University infrastructure needed to migrate from its current web-delivered model to become both a consumer and provider of data services. This will enable users to interact with the VLE from within external systems and platforms such as Google Apps for Education, widgets/gadgets and mobile applications.

There are two sides to this process:

  1. to distribute elements of the VLE between different environments, and
  2. to use external tools and platforms such as Google and enhance the learning experience by incorporating them within teaching and learning.

The result still looks like it is within the Moodle environment but has enhanced functionality, using Google Apps that include email, instant messaging, contact management, calendar, shared documents, and online document creation.

The JISC project allowed us to do very innovative work rather than simply improving systems we already had in place – Judith Pickering

The project team investigated how it would be possible for an iGoogle gadget to interact with a Moodle VLE. They focused on using the native functionality in gadgets, provided by the Open Social API, which enables secure requests to be made to cross-domain servers. These investigations lead to the concept of creating a mechanism by which Moodle could verify these requests and provide access to its internal web services to provide data specific to the user of the gadget. This approach would provide sufficient functionality to deliver a platform on which any required gadgets could be developed.


The following gadgets have been developed and the code released to the community via Github.

OU Study Planner gadget: a Google (OpenSocial) Gadget that displays a student’s Moodle course website(s) study planner(s).

Open Forum search gadget: gives students the opportunity to find help/information across some public OU resources based on keyword search

Collaborative tools status gadget (formally known as the Forum recommender gadget):  informs students as to whether there is any unread content within collaborative activities on their course VLE sites

Buddy gadget: a networking application that enables students to find others with similar academic interests and communicate with them.

Improving accessibility

The project delivered several integrations between the Open University’s VLE and Google which not only took the form of gadgets but also new web tools that enhanced student opportunities for collaborative working and portfolio functionality. The project team is now trying to get tutors to think about using these tools within their teaching and learning. 

Institutionally the Open University made a cultural shift, with the agreement to adopt Google tools and use them to provide an institutional eporfolio.

The biggest impact has been on the Open University’s approach to usability and accessibility testing.  The project triggered the development of a Usability and Accessibility Testing Plan and Guidance Document which included a new model for testing and research for the University’s learning systems. This has enhanced prior practices and has now become standard practice across the institution. “Reflective learning and inquiry are at the heart of our pedagogical approach in business and management studies. The ePortfolio activity tool and the enhancement of the core institutional VLE toolkit will clearly will benefit our students by offering greater flexibility as to how and where they access our teaching systems.” Keith Honnor, Learning and Teaching Technology Manager

The student tests from the project have helped to amend the set of Open University Online Student Personas.  These personas are used by online projects across the university to assist with functional specification and expert usability testing activities.  

And finally, the project led to a new institutional process for the assessment and management of VLE accessibility (see A System for managing accessibility for the VLE platform).  Gadgets developed by the DOULS project were used to test and improve the process in practice.


The DOULS project blog

An introduction to gadgets

A System for managing accessibility for the VLE platform