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VLEs at the heart of curriculum innovation

Christina Smart
Last modified 07 Feb, 2011
Published 07 Feb, 2011
This article looks at how VLEs are being used to support curriculum innovation in four of the recent Transformation Curriculum Delivery through Technology projects, and discusses why, despite all their shortcomings, VLEs are still are the heart of curriculum development.

There has been much discussion in recent years about whether institutional Virtual Learning Environments are dead [1]. But projects in the JISC Transforming Curriculum Delivery Through Technology programme have demonstrated that this is far from true [2].

The following wordle diagram represents the technologies in use in the programme.

Figure 1 Delivery Programme Wordle

Figure 1: Delivery Programme Wordle by Sheila MacNeill [3]

Looking at the diagram two things are immediately obvious, firstly institutions are making use of a wide variety of technologies to meet their curriculum needs (over 60 different technologies across the programme) and secondly VLEs, particularly Moodle, are at the heart of many institutional innovations. One message that has emerged from the 15 projects is: Don’t feel constrained by your institutional VLE, there are novel and interesting ways to use it.

Moodle was the most popular VLE in the programme, as Sheila MacNeill, from JISC CETIS explains: “7 out of the 15 projects are using (Moodle). I think this probably reflects the increase in adoption of Moodle across the UK” [3]. But Blackboard, webCT, and LearningNet were also used in projects, as were a number of social networking sites like Facebook and immersive world technologies.

The widespread use of VLEs in the Curriculum Delivery programme could be due to the approach the programme took, as Lisa Gray, JISC programme manager explains: “Because the programme focussed on transforming practice in many cases the technologies projects used were relatively common-place. Many projects used available institutional technologies like the VLE because their focus was on effecting change in practice through the technology, rather than on technical innovation. What has been exciting to see is the extent to which projects were able to effect and evidence real change in the way in which curricula are delivered (and beyond), with real impact on the experiences of the learners and staff involved.” [4]

And although VLEs have come in for some bad press, there are some things they are very good at, as Lou McGill synthesis consultant discusses: “(The VLE) is highly valued by students as a portal to both their learning and support functions, including assessment and feedback handling. Remote students found the VLE to be a valued link to the institution when they were away on placements (MoRSE project [5]) with VLEs offering reliable (mostly always available) and secure places for staff, students and others (such as industrial partners) to share information”[6]

This article will consider the way in which four projects adapted or extended the use VLEs to support teaching and learning challenges. In some cases projects used established institutional VLEs in some cases introducing a new VLE to provide greater flexibility.

eBioLabs using a personalised VLE to support laboratory sessions

The eBioLabs project based at the University of Bristol decided to use Moodle instead of the institutional VLE BlackBoard [7]. Flexibility was an important factor in the choice “(Moodle) provided the greatest flexibility and ease of customisation, as well as a good track record for stability and usability” [8].

The challenge at the core of the eBioLabs project was to make biochemistry laboratory sessions more engaging for students by improving student’s preparation before each session. Over the years the staff at Bristol University had noticed that new students had less and less direct experience of working in a laboratory setting prior to University and lack of preparation meant that students weren’t getting as much out of the lab sessions as they might.

To address this the eBioLabs team developed an interface and number of high quality resources to introduce the students to the lab sessions and to test prior knowledge before they came to timetabled sessions. With additional funding from the Faculty and HEA Centre for BioScience the project employed three student developers and a flash developer who worked with academic staff to produce animations and videos in Wimba Create. Each lab session consisted of three parts; experimental information as background to the session, an automatically marked pre-laboratory quiz, and a post lab assignment which would be automatically marked.

The uptake of eBioLabs has exceeded expectations, since October 2009 eBioLabs has been rolled out across the science faculty and now there are over 800 students using these resources on 10 bioscience courses. Surveys of students before and after the introduction of eBioLabs have shown a remarkable shift in attitudes towards lab sessions. When asked to what extent they agreed with the statement “practical classes are one of the most enjoyable parts of the course” 50% agreed after using eBioLabs compared with just 22% before. Staff too have seen benefits in the reduction in time spent marking practical assignments, one academic commented “Across the three practicals I have never before seen students work so hard and produce such good data” [8]. eBioLabs has recently been licensed for use at another UK university, and its success has persuaded the university to invest in the development of a full blown electronic marks, attendance and feedback system.

Speaking about the project as a whole Gus Cameron, project manager commented: “We are finding we do have genuine economies of scale, as we support more courses we can reuse more materials. The project has become deeply embedded and we are making staff really reconsider traditional modes of teaching and how we can get students to interact and engage with laboratory teaching”. [9]

Like other projects Moodle was the backbone of the eBioLabs project and even though the system was new to staff and students the team spent a good deal of time making sure the interface was well designed and intuitive, and of course staff and students were already familiar with the concept of a VLE as Gus Cameron explains: “We knew the system (Moodle) would work because it was already in people’s daily work practice. Staff and students are now more IT literate than 4-5 years ago and in a sense it doesn’t matter to them what the VLE is, eBioLabs just does what they want it to do. It’s all about usability.”[10]

Cascade: Developing a Moodle module for online assignments

The Cascade project based at the University of Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education used Moodle in several ways to better support students and staff [11]. The department was facing the challenge of reduced funding as a result of the government’s ELQ (equivalent or lower qualification) policy in which funding would no longer be available for students working towards qualifications at a level below the level of qualification they already hold [12]. With 15,000 enrolments a year, the reality for Continuing Education was a significant reduction in funding making it imperative to find efficiencies and looking at new ways of delivering courses.

Moodle was central to the project in a number of ways as Marion Manton from the project explains: “Of the 5 focus areas that the project worked on, online assignment handling, VLE support for courses, generic content, course design, and online enrolment and payment, 4 were centred on Moodle. We have a lot of internal expertise in Moodle, running our first courses on it in 2004, so it made sense to build on this knowledge.” [13]

One of the aims of the project was to help the department to “undertake its activities more efficiently” and so a significant part of the technical development in Cascade was modification of the assignment handling module and the development of a new extensions module for Moodle. The new developments added the following additional functionality:

  • Assignment deadline extensions
  • Registry workflow (to match the institutional workflow)
  • New capabilities and roles
  • Ability to add additional parameters such as word count.

Following extensive testing the new system is being used with students and staff and is being embedded into the department’s mainstream activity. Marion Manton said; “By focussing more on streamlining administrative processes we gave staff space to do more creative things.”[9]

The Cascade project also explored using online enrolment and payment for courses, an aspect of the department’s work where significant efficiency savings could be made. Online enrolment and payment for courses was already in place for fully online courses but not for other courses in the department. Offering online enrolment more widely meant the project team needed to develop the Department’s administration database, InfoSys. The website for the department was also redesigned at the same time to make it easier for potential students to find and pay for courses.

Technically these developments are not very complex but they do address the strategic challenges faced by the Department. The Cascade team were careful to listen to the staff to identify the (sometimes small) changes that would make a big impact:

“While technology might offer a sensible solution to a challenge faced by the Department, the complexity mostly did not lie in the technical solution itself but in understanding the process or system it was modelling. In some cases this meant that the eventual solution was relatively “low tech.” [14]

Making the New Diploma a success – developing a Moodle based Portal

Two of the 15 projects were based in Further Education Colleges and were funded by Becta. Lewisham College chose to focus its efforts around better supporting learners on new Higher Diploma courses in ICT and Creative Media [15]. The project developed a Learner Portal to give students more control of their learning and progress allowing them access to resources from anywhere and promoting reflective learning.

Moodle was chosen as the platform “because of its constructivist approach to scaffolding learning and its flexibility to integrate with other open source systems” [16]. Increasingly colleges and universities are using external hosts for their systems and the team at Lewisham decided to use ULCC (University of London Computer Centre) [17] to host Moodle in order to speed up the implementation process (it took just four months to migrate from BlackBoard).

Mahara was integrated into the portal and allowed students to build up a portfolio of evidence to reflect on their learning and create interactive CVs. Also, the fully integrated ePDP has had a major impact: 96% of learners said that seeing their attendance and punctuality offered them a sense of independence and motivation.

So successful was the development of the eME portal that the project has been rolled out across the entire college for all students. Demonstrable savings are sometimes hard to find in learning technology projects, but the team at Lewisham have some impressive numbers. Since moving to a Moodle based portal they’ve saved £50,000 per year on the Blackboard license. Even more impressive are student retention figures for the Higher diploma course which increased from 62% before the project to 92% afterwards [16].

Figure 2 Screenshot of eME

Figure 2: Screenshot of eME

Like the Cascade project improving access to resources and simple developments like online assignment handling can have a huge impact:

“The work done by Lewisham College to develop a fully integrated Learner Portal using open source technologies is radically changing the way students are taught and able to access information and support” Andrew Comrie, Critical Friend to the programme [16].

The project team hopes that the benefits of the project will continue into the future as Patricia Forrest from the project explains, “At the heart of this initiative is the development of new ways of delivering outstanding teaching, learning and support through the use of technology to meet the whole range of student needs for a diverse community of students including those who are disadvantaged and hard to reach. It ensures digital literacy skills are embedded throughout their learning experience in order to equip them with the skills needed to thrive in a highly technologically driven and competitive world.” [18]

MoRSE - Supporting remote and mobile learning

The Mobilising Remote Student Engagment (MoRSE) project explored the use of technology by students at Kingston and De Montfort Universities when remote from their institution either on field trips or industrial placements. Both institutions use BlackBoard [5].

Students studying Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic science at De Montfort University attend an industrial placement for a year as part of their course to give them real experience of the workplace. The challenge for this part of the project was to incorporate reflective learning into the placement year. While a number of technologies were explored the project team decided to use tools in the institutional VLE Blackboard primarily because “The placement takes place in a completely different environment, that of a high technology commercial company where there are frequently issues of commercial confidentiality.” Using Blackboard reassured the industrial partners about the “security of the systems being used” [19]. Blogs were used by students for personal reflection and were open to only to themselves, their tutor and industrial supervisor. A communal wiki in Blackboard was used for group discussions with the other students on placement.

Although it took time for students to develop reflective practices while on placement they did appreciate the ability to stay in touch with their institution: “I found participating in the MoRSE project an excellent way of keeping in touch with the university and tutors, it made me feel like I was still part of the university and they had not just totally left me alone in the working world”. [19]

In their final report the team note the importance of Blackboard “It should also be noted that the use of an institutional VLE was also highly valued, as a familiar space from which students could leave and re-enter the institution whilst working remotely. This sense of being “in-touch with the familiar” was important, as it focused on a space, a set of functions, and participants who were known to the student and the staff” [19].

The MoRSE team discovered a number of different issues and constraints in using technologies to support fieldtrips so in this context the VLE was used primarily to provide core resources with “most interaction and collaboration ... undertaken externally to the VLE” using mobile and personal technologies including Twitter and Flickr [19].

Final thoughts - increasing ubiquity and confidence

By addressing clear problems in the curriculum such as how to support students on placement or how to capitalise on laboratory teaching, and by thinking creatively these projects have achieved some amazing results. Marianne Sheppard from the support project for the programme stresses this point:“(The projects) show a responsiveness to stakeholder needs and preferences without compromising their objectives and demonstrate that institutions can maximise their return on investment by "thinking differently" about how the VLE can support innovation in teaching, learning and the associated support systems/processes.” [20]

It goes without saying that the technology itself is rarely the limiting factor in how it is used in institutions. Convincing staff and students of the benefits of adoption is the hard bit. What these four projects (and others in the programme) have demonstrated is that using technology that staff and students are already familiar with has major benefits. Even in the case of Making the New Diploma a Success and eBioLabs where staff were introduced to a new VLE, Moodle, the fact that they were already familiar with the concept of a VLE was important and these projects paid particular attention to the design of the new interfaces.

Not surprisingly changes in how we use and view technology as society also appear to be having an impact on implementation in our universities and colleges as the Cascade project final report notes:

“Openness to technology in teaching and learning by staff has increased dramatically in the last couple of years as technology has become more pervasive in life generally. Thus while not all staff think they have the skills to engage with technology, they no longer dismiss it in the way they may have done even 3 years ago. Resistance to technology has been a major barrier to adoption in HE in the previous decade, but it does seem that there is now more opportunity for widespread uptake than ever before.”[14]

It seems that the increased ubiquity of technology has also led to an increased confidence in universities and colleges to experiment as Sheila MacNeill notes, “The sheer numbers of technologies being used (in the programme) does, I think, show an increasing confidence and flexibility not only from staff and students but also in developing institutional systems. People are no longer looking for the magic out of the box solution and are more willing to develop their own integrations based on their real needs.” [21]

This article has focussed on only four of the 15 projects, but all the projects had an impact. Notably the SpringboardTV project one of the Becta funded projects won an Association of Colleges Beacon award for setting up an internet TV channel for teaching students at the College of West Anglia [22].

Details of all the projects can be found on the JISC web site [2] and in the Design studio [23] which has further information and ideas about using technology in innovative ways.


[1] ALT-C 2009 symposium The VLE is dead

[2] Transforming Curriculum Delivery through Technology web site

[3] Sheila MacNeill June 2010 Online environments in use in the Curriculum Delivery Programme

[4] Phone conversation with Lisa Gray.

[5] MoRSE project

[6] Lou McGill August 2010 Not just about new technologies

[7] eBioLabs project

[8] eBioLabs project final report available soon at

[9] Sustaining Innovation in Curriculum Delivery session at Innovating e-Learning 2010

[10] Phone conversation with Gus Cameron

[11] Cascade project

[12] ELQ policy

[13] Email correspondence with Marion Manton

[14] Cascade project Final Report

[15] Making the New Diploma a Success project

[16] Making the New Diploma a Success final report

[17] University of London Computer Centre

[18] Email correspondence with Patricia Forrest

[19] MoRSE project final report, available soon at

[20] Email correspondence with Marianne Sheppard

[21] Sheila MacNeill January 2011 What Technologies have been used to transform Curriculum Delivery

[22] College of West Anglia internet TV channel wins national award

[23] The Design Studio


Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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