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With funding from JISC’s Distributed Virtual Learning Environment programme Hugh Davis and the project team at Southampton set out to create an adaptable and innovative virtual learning environment fit for the next ten years.

The learning environment prototype - Southampton University


Like many other universities and colleges the University of Southampton has been planning for a world in which there is less public money going into education. The university felt it had been providing good value to students but needed to plan for larger class sizes, new overseas campuses and a new generation of students who grew up with the internet.

This meant a close look at efficiencies but without decreasing the value of the Southampton education. “We needed new thinking,” explained Hugh Davis, Professor of Learning Technology. The University also wanted to pre-empt students getting fed up with internal inconsistencies– for example they had to pick up assignments either as a handout from a secretary, during a tutorial, from a lab or their blackboard platform. Southampton wanted to provide them with better value for money.

With funding from JISC’s Distributed Virtual Learning Environment programme Hugh Davis and the project team at Southampton set out to create an adaptable and innovative virtual learning environment fit for the next ten years.

A one stop shop

The aim of the project was to develop a prototype that would create a foundation and focus for the evolution of Southampton’s new learning environment (SLE). The intranet was to be at the centre and the team was looking at SharePoint as a potential integration and delivery infrastructure. Similar to the Manchester Metropolitan model based around Moodle [insert link to MMU institutional case study], Southampton used Blackboard instead, Sharepoint was to be used for timetables and the repository and Talis to access the library. The idea was to connect key systems and data – fees, estates, library, timetabling, a repository of learning materials, mobile apps – to create not just a distributed learning environment but a distributed living and learning environment.

Project leader Hugh Davis explains: “We wanted the learning environment to be personalised and personalise-able. The former would be done automatically: the system knows who you are and which classes you attend, shows you information that is appropriate for you and will even flag up that you are coming to the end of your first year and need to get a flat. The environment should be personalise-able: students can decide what their front page looks like, chose approved apps from an app store and run them as widgets on their screen, and decide what feeds they wanted, e.g. using an aggregated approach similar to iGoogle or Netvibes which lets you design your front end.”

The plan – and how it changed

The team wanted to evaluate whether SharePoint had the right functionality through a series of proofs of concept. These were based on scenarios of typical use to explore ways of interacting, personalisation and services integrating data from institutional systems. In addition, the team deeply engaged with students and used an agile development methodology.

User surveys and co-design meetings highlighted two key criteria that would shape the user’s experience of the planned portal:

  • Groups are the main lens through which users collaborate, access and personalise services
  •  Services are available through apps. Groups and a user’s personal homepage become canvases on which to drop apps, personalising their environment

The team built some apps that demonstrate how users can personalise their learning environment. These apps show how heterogeneous data can be used to support innovative tools. The MyToday app has been deployed in the prototype environment. It shows a snapshot of useful daily information to its user: first ten unread emails, scheduled appointments and tasks. This app uses data from the email and calendar systems.

Southampton SharePoint

Figure 1 group page personalised with 'MyToday' widget

When the team demonstrated the first proof of concept the wider university started to take a strong interest in the Southampton Learning Environment project. As a result, the team was asked to change emphasis from providing limited ‘proofs of concept’ to providing a fully deployable perpetual beta prototype by September 2011.

The shift in focus had the effect of concentrating resources on the deployment of Sharepoint (a significant piece of infrastructure) and meant there were fewer resources available to design the vision of the future Southampton Learning Environment. Infrastructure roll out and the needs of research, faculty and administrative staff took centre place and the engagement with agile feedback methods reduced and turned into more formal user reporting meetings

Testing times

The prototype was tested by 1200 test users which helped to evolve new features. However, the scope of this was limited by three factors: the concentration of resources on rolling out basic SharePoint infrastructure, the difficulty of providing an acceptable user experience within SharePoint, and finally, difficulties in surfacing data from heterogeneous institutional systems reduced the value of the services that the Southampton Learning Environment could offer.

The pilot deployment of the Southampton Environment showed that a flexible environment that surfaces data from heterogeneous systems can only provide a good user experience if it has role- based access across the systems and a single, once-only sign on. The SharePoint environment has no native support for this capability resulting in many logins per visit - a poor user experience. The university has set up a new project to provide the needed identity management.

Agile design principles

  1. Be location independent and platform agnostic – the SLE should be accessible from on or off campus, and should be available on multiple browsers and tools.
  2. Enable a single point of access – provide access to services through summarisation and deep linking.
  3. Support the full learner journey – cover both formal and informal learning and support users at all stages of engagement with the university (from application to alumni).
  4. Give users control of their own data – allow users to see (and whenever possible) manage the information held about them.
  5. Be personalise-able but always have sensible defaults – allow users to tailor views and functionality, but should always provide a sensible baseline experience for those who do not wish to personalise.
  6. Do fewer things better – provide a high quality experience of core services rather than maximize coverage across all University systems.
  7. Provide the shortest path to key services – aim to provide short navigation and easy access to functionality considered key by users.
  8. Support flexible use – do not unnecessarily enshrine workflow or usage patterns and be open to users appropriating its services and abilities in the ways most appropriate to them.
  9. Be open and inclusive by default – the default should be that data and services are open and accessible to all, and only closed and controlled when necessary

Next steps

The long term aim for the Southampton Learning Environment is to be an integrated, digital world readily providing for all aspects of the learner journey. It should enable the provision of learning materials, communication platforms, administration services and social interactions, all within an evolving and involving, empowering and personalised environment.
MS SharePoint is designed primarily as a document management system that enables access and sharing. A better use would be to integrate it into a flexible infrastructure to provide that service rather than attempting to change it into the infrastructure itself.

While SharePoint did not provide the necessary flexible, extensible infrastructure or development environment, the Group and Apps interaction metaphor is a significant outcome that has great potential for creating personalise-able environments.

The next step on the way will be to solve the cultural challenge of opening data sources for app development to create an open, collaborative culture of innovation.

“Our eventual aim is to open up our app library and allow students and staff to create their own apps that use the University’s non-sensitive, open data exposed through the portal infrastructure, and then share those apps back with the University community”, concludes Professor Davis.