Fond Farewell

Now that you're leaving I may have to actually work - eCard

Martin Weller managed to blog about this first with his post Goodbye to Two Colleagues – As with Martin I’ve been avoiding using this blog for personal posts however I’m making an exception in order to say a fond farewell to Ross Mackenzie.

Ross is leaving the Open University (N.B. he is not retiring, nor being made redundant!) – he is leaving to pursue higher ambitions and explore. During our time together at the Open University he is someone who has regularly made my working life much more bearable, especially over the past few years, by providing interesting back-channel conversations on twitter and email during meetings which usually turn out to be much more productive than the meetings themselves!

Ross has achieved many valuable things for the university. I still remember Promises (can’t remember which bits of this acronym are capitalized, or indeed what it stands for!) which was about conformance of an online presence for modules across the curriculum. I think that was a real achievement as previously everything was much more bespoke, hand crafted an unsustainable. This project paved the way for the VLE which was another one of Ross’s achievements ( I was also drafted in to advise Martin Weller with the groundwork about what an institutional VLE should include…. the old Sakai v Moodle debate and loosely coupled v tightly integrated – those were the days!).

I worked with Ross most recently to get VLE changes completed to upgrade to Moodle 2 and incorporate many new features (called RAP – Roadmap Acceleration Programme – accelerated because it achieved three years worth of work within one year!)  – I remember Ross was the person who first expressed support for use of personas – and I’ve tried to take that work forward and we’ve had some success with this although there’s more still to do to get personas embedded, however without Ross they might not have been explored at all.

… it hasn’t all been about work. It has also been about having someone who is prepared to speak up in favour of educational technology and who is prepared to look for  a ‘yes’ when the easiest answer (but not the correct one) is to say ‘no’. I value having Ross as a colleague over the past many years – for the anecdotes and witticisms that make my work enjoyable.

arctic landscape

…I wish him all the best on his travels to Arctic landscapes in search of elusive beasties that might eat him (hopefully not) and I expect that our paths will cross in the not too distant future.

Acquisitions and Mergers

I have been reading with interest the posts about Blackboard’s recent aquisition of MoodleRooms. There’s a good article by Christopher Dawson about it for ZDNet Education. The creation of an Open Source Services Group headed up by our old pal well known by the OU crowd – Charles “Chuck” Severance of Sakai fame. I think he’ll do a great job and he is upbeat about the Blackboard finally listening to his message about ” think[ing] more broadly about the LMS market”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one however that feels a little uncomfortable about the acquisition (and possible merger?) of these. The quote by Martin Dougiamas is interesting

“The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry…but it’s my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies. I’m happy to say that Moodlerooms and NetSpot will remain Moodle Partners, and have promised to continue…participating in the community…and contributing financially to Moodle exactly as they always have.”

I think it’s a very interesting move by Blackboard. It reminds me of the Microsoft approach of the 90’s where they saw best-of-breed and acquired them to be merged into their ‘market leading’ technology group.

My feeling is that if all the organisations can remain pure to their ideals and founding principles then this should be treated as a positive move to financially support the onward development of the products and services. There is a little demon on my shoulder thought that’s whispering in my ear that Blackboard are not being altruistic in this venture. They are owned by a private equity firm. It’s a good move for them, it’s hedging their bets. It’s playing the percentages. It may however reduce consumer choice down the line.

Overall I’m not quite as upbeat about this as Christopher Dawson. I see this as a power-play by one of the giants in the LMS arena however a saving grace might be the fact that we’ve got a good guy in Chuck and a mature Open Source Community. If they don’t like a product they’ll build a better one.

I’m not for a proliferation of LMS’s but I am pro choice and I think we should be able to have interoperable systems and services without having to buy whole product suites. If Dr Chuck can manage to make that happen then I’ll buy him a drink. Possibly two.

Community Engagement

community image

We ran an eLearning Community event on 18th October to explain the new learning systems roadmap and the direction of travel for OU learning systems – by “we” I mean that the presenters were myself, Liz Burton-Pye, Head of Learning Teaching and Quality Office and Rhodri Meredith, Project Manager (Business Change) in Learning and Teaching Solutions. The event was well attended with over fifty people from across the University and all from a range of different backgrounds.

Firstly the three of us gave short (*cough*) presentations to explain the “Where we are now” with Learning Systems, “Where we’re going next” (i.e. the new Roadmap) and “Over the horizon”.

Here are my slides from the event which set the context of the workshop which took place after the presentations (and a brief break of tea and coffee).

For the workshop we split people into five tables. Each table represented one specific “scenario”. The scenarios were as follows:-

  •  The Qualification is Everything
  • OU Goes Global
  • Informal Learning is Cool
  • Learning is Disaggregated
  • Employers Just Want Key Skills

These were picked because they were the five most popular scenarios rated by people who visited us back in March at the Open University “Learn About Fair“.

persona workshopWe were keen to try to get a good representation of staff from across the OU at all the tables and we had at least five people at each table. Every table was co-ordinated by a facilitator (i.e. someone who knew in-depth about the scenario being developed).

We gave each group a set of persona cards. The persona cards are representations of typical types of OU student (for more on this use of personas see the “How we use personas” blog post that I publish earlier ).

We asked people to then take each persona in turn…

Persona cards

…and answer the following questions to map the personas against scenarios using a form similar to the one below..

Scenario questions

We engaged in some very interesting dialogue. When we finished each table then spent five minutes summarising what they had learned. There were some stimulating discussions and I know that I can’t do justice to them within a simple blog post but I’ll try to synthesise the main ones that sprang up during the workshop…

Informal Learning is Cool

Some people will use informal spaces to engage with a professional community (Martin) and as a means to an end. Some may not have time for informal study initially due to time pressures (Abila). However others like Jason who have had a bad experience with formal learning may find informal learning stimulating and engaging and structure can be applied later to keep him on track. The idea of having “Informal with badge” may be appealing, especially to those leisure learners like Margaret. Career oriented people may stay clear of informal (Win) but generally Digital Literacy may be a concern with  some personas and be a barrier to them engaging with informal learning.

The Qualification is Everything

Some learners may want to begin with an Openings module for various reasons before going through to qualification (Abila and Josie). Jason would want to build gradually perhaps through a diploma or certificate first. He would also benefit from community engagement and informal mechanisms to keep him stimulated and on track. Some students (like Rachel) may be put off by the level of commitment required.

Learning is Disaggregated

People like Win would like the flexibility as she maybe cannot commit to specific times (e.g. for assessment) but may also require structure so may be mixed blessing by going through disaggregated route. David may prefer structured approach but may also wish to choose an alternative assessment model as he may not favour continuous assessment.  Josie and Regi may both favour flexibility in their start and end times for different reasons. Some learners like George may be overwhelmed by disaggregation (this feeling over being overwhelmed keep recurring and is a known issue with a more small pieces approach).

Employers ‘Just’ Want Key Skills

Students use context for interest and engagement and learn key skills in the process. Do they need key skills personally or as a University should we provide them for others and are they useful? Split into two camps of learners who broadly agree that key skills would help with confidence building (Abila and Jason) and useful to have appropriate skills for marketplace (Martin). And those that disagree such as Rachel where the subject is more important to keep her focussed and the leisure learners such as Margaret who do it for the love of knowledge.

OU Goes Global

This was summarised through learner stories….

Student Story 1

In middle of studies, travelling and emigrating requires flexibility and ability to learn on the move. Use of mobile and internet cafes. Local partnership provides language adaptions and contextual content, using local payment and currency – makes use of Open media – setting different prices for different parts of the world.

Student Story 2

24/7 support very important of shift workers, added benefit and advantage, same for those with families. More flexible assessment due to shift work but students ‘hopping around’ is difficult for continuity of online advantage e.g. real time/ synchronous collaboration. Student follow paths/self-directed learning versus collaborating with others. Depends on nature of module. Put in as much variety to accommodate all.

Tutor Story

Tutor generated content from diverse tutor community (local knowledge). Good local examples from students.  Want local study but want it accredited. Uses mobile (or wifi) light versions of content but not interested in rich media. Tutor group listings via mobile or text alerts. Similar to email services currently on studenthome/tutorhome.


The overarching themes to emerge from the workshop were therefore :-

1. Learners need to be digitally literate enough to engage. We need to ensure they are provided with mechanisms to achieve that (handholding).

2. We could do more around exploring informal learning with “badging” to provide status associated with having understood material without having to go down a formal assessment route.

3. Flexibility and structure are both important so need to be built into the solution. The scenarios do not stand alone so a lot of the final discussions were about how they could be combined for greater benefit.

4. We need to be careful not to overwhelm potential learners. The “chocolate box approach” may seem appealing but actually just confuse people.

5. Feedback following the event is that some of the community wanted an opportunity to have an open ended discussion around the talks and topics arising. My suggestion is that people post into the discussion on Cloudworks associated with the event (..remember this is a public space!)

My special thanks to Chris Pegler for organising the eLearning Community events and providing us with design ideas, persona cards and event facilitation which made this event so effective. There are some more photos of the event on Flickr…

Personae gratae

A group of us who are involved in developing the future learning system plans for the Open University are using a range of techniques taken from “User Centred Design” and User Experience (UX) to help us create the future systems for the OU and also to explain the complexity of the systems developments to senior management in a way that is easily understood and powerful. I wanted to share some of these techniques that we’re using without going into any of the detail which may be business sensitive.

man with hammer image

First of all what we’re doing is using a combination of Personas (some people suggest personae as the plural but I’ll use personas to describe these) and scenarios. There are many websites and blog posts going back years which talk about the power of personas and scenarios to design and development. JISC have used it within their design workshops and they’re used in different ways by different groups, for example here’s a post on “Web Design from scratch” by Ben Hunt which describes their use in design.

We’re using these in a slightly different way than for design but rather to describe areas of functionality to be developed to meet particular needs. In the persona development we adopted a range of persona’s that were created by the Online Communications team to describe target users for OU websites.

Here’s an example snippet of one of the persona’s to help explain them…

Age/personal:  18, lives in Glenrothes with his Mum
Job:  Works in Dixon’s part-time
Education:  Highers
Studying aim: Degree in Computing/IT
Online likes:  Interaction, multimedia,
customisation and iPhone apps
Web games, chats, texts; surfs fast, but without


We use a set of personas to describe a range of target users and they test the system through a typical use case. We also have some high level scenarios to describe the depth of a particular system in supporting users from end-to-end. Scenarios in our case describe the environmental elements not possible easily through personas, so our scenarios are focused on direction setting and understanding where the OU should be going to meet the demands of new learners. for example we have scenarios based around informal learning becoming prevalent and another scenario around the need for key skills.

Personas are powerful because they:-

  • Allow systems to be developed to meet specific user types
  • Afford consistency of development across different systems
  • Are a useful tool for describing how people will use the services
  • Are useful for testing and benchmarking services against requirement, i.e. are useful for usability and accessibility testing.
Scenarios are powerful to us because they:-
  • Describe the full end-to-end functionality of a system
  • Take socio-economic and other environmental factors into account
  • Set direction of development
  • Describe the strategic value and business benefits

We are using these to map through to a set of “Roadmaps” which describe how we intend to deliver the changes. The roadmaps, programmes and projects within it are along the lines of the JISC P3 model which itself is a variant of PRINCE 2 methodology and therefore well established. The creative bit is how we’re describing this through the combination of personas and scenarios. We have been through this process once before with a programme called RAP (Roadmap Acceleration Programme) where we used a world cafe approach to gathering requirements (see my previous post on Future Learning Systems ). We used the user testing sessions to “validate” the personas against real people to ensure that they’re accurate and complete and the testing informs the system development, this was particularly useful to establish what works in the less clearly defined areas of the roadmap such as the development of Google gadgets through the JISC DOULS project.

The next steps are to build in the marketing knowledge that we have received through consultancy reports on segmentation which can help us plan out which personas we particularly want to target, and  secondly to get areas of the OU to adopt sub-set of the personas and ensure that they refresh them to keep them relevant. We already have some success with this since Student Services have adopted a persona approach to describe the “targeted services” which they want to provide through StudentHome the OU Student portal.

I can’t stress enough though how important it is to have a single coherent set of OU personas. The power comes from system developments being mapped holistically i.e. when values are shared across the organisation about meeting specific user needs and creating, buying or customising systems to meet those needs.

Musings on Moot

moodle moot logoI attended Moodle Moot 11 for the first time this year. I’ve been happy to catch up from others or to visit blogs to get a sense of the up and coming Moodle stuff but I must say that there is nothing quite like a face to face dialogue with other practitioners to help to clarify the big “elephants in the room” and get them addressed.

Senate House

Senate House, UoL

Highlights of the conference for me included Gráinne’s keynote and her differentiation of services which are ‘object’ centric compared with those which are ‘ego’ centric. I hadn’t thought much about this up until now but I’m definitely finding an urge with my twitter and Facebook posts to make them ‘quirky and interesting’ and so Gráinne’s talk struck a cord. It was quite an academic and generic but none the less inspirational and her references to works by Sara De Freitas and Michael Wesch were on the money, for example how people either love or hate Facebook, the fact that the people and technology both evolve together and organisations are generally slow to employ technology well to evolve their practices.

I attended a workshop from Manchester Metropolitan University about their use of cloud service provision using Equella and ULCC to provide the hosting, platform and custom integration. Things that interested me about this approach was that they employed a post per faculty to assist with the migration. They migrated quickly and moved all undergraduate provision to the new platform from Blackboard. The key point that they made in my opinion was “We wanted to target resource elsewhere on the learning environment so bringing in expertise was best way to get ahead and it was important to get contracts right for hosting. Make sure you have the right partners.”

There was a workshop from University of Kent on their move from WebCT to Moodle which followed a similar model to MMU and they transferred in around nine months (January to September 2009). They made strong reference to the LTI specification and later in the MOOT we had confirmation for increased LTI support in M2. They have a blog site that explains their work in the LTI arena.

Other things that I attended included a workshop on Individual Learning Plans. I was impressed by the work done by Hall School on getting tutor feedback models and peer review and peer assessment processes in place and which they seem to think works. I also found it interesting that they (also) use Google Apps and Moodle model for their VLE and do various things around the portal to make these as integrated as possible and have single sign on working across them. The Hall School chap caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that Google Apps is the future for the VLE in his opinion and they’ve started using Google spreadsheets for peer assessment and Google Sites for ePortfolio (as they didn’t want to add an extra layer of complexity by adding Mahara to the mix).

There was a good talk by the University of Vienna on using Eye tracking for Usability using the Tobii Eye Tracker. I agree with everything that the chap said but we at the Open University also use the same equipment and also user studies, paper-prototyping and accessibility testing and a myriad of other practices throughout VLE development so I found it useful but to me it’s to be used in context of improved testing regimes rather than the ultimate tool (for example certain elements are more distracting to some people than others, causing fixations which could be interpreted incorrectly if not backed up by other evidence, for example whether colour blindness affects the fixation).

Martin Dougiamas

Highlights from day 2 of MOOT include of course the keynote by Martin Dougiamas given via video conference link. Things he covered included big push for mobile support, work on community engagement (Mooch), the new method and processes for deploying code which make it much more robust and creating what he calls “Safe environment for production sites”. He also mentioned work on performance improvement in v2.1. The development work included a shout to Tim Hunt and his work on the quiz engine and also the work on incorporating Forum NG, although here he was a bit vague on whether Forum NG would be adopted, adapted or  rebuilt from ground up. The three things I came away with were

(a) Martin wants to push to mobile effort and increase support across mobile tech, initially iPhone and closely followed by Android

(b) Martin wants to improve the mechanism for responding to issues and building them into the product through new process models

(c) Martin is not interested in building a repository within Moodle and indeed the emphasis is on building good hooks from and to Moodle with whatever back-end of middleware products you wish to use for your installation.

I spoke to the Equella people on day 2 and discussed how they’re working with MoodleRooms to provide an alternative hosting service to the MoodleRooms/Alfresco option. They also want to promote their products as aggregators and to enhance visibility of institutional repositories. Providing the glue.

I spoke to the Institute of Education about their use of PebblePad (hosted by PebblePad) but was surprised to find that they leave the whole service in the hands of the students so that for example it can be used for CPD activity but relies on the students being trusted to manage their portfolio and not ’embellish’. They did say that it was extremely well used by their students as a reflection tool.

I attended three workshops on day 2 two of which were from the OU as I was learning as much about how our developers see our installation as how other people view theirs. I found it refreshing to ‘look in from outside’ with fresh eyes. I think the team in the OU within the Learning and Teaching Solutions unit do a fantastic job of which they should be very proud and it really showed at the MOOT how much they are respected in the Moodle community.

The other workshop I attended was from Dyslexia Action about their support of students. Boy do they give intense and active management, guidance and support. I’m really not sure if it would scale to the numbers the OU supports but I admire their dedication to their students.  Camtasia to provide screencasts, Scribd to provide documentation support, help button and FAQ’s, webinars to get students involved then further webinars for tutorial support, live chat for support issues including Jing and Skype and when all else fails GotoMeeting . It made me tired just listening to him!

To finish off the moot we had a great stimulating talk about happiness. It was a fantastic way to end the event and made everyone feel upbeat. We even did a bit of flashmob doing actions to the ‘official Moodle’ song

Google User Group Event

This week I attended the Google Apps For Education UK User Group Event in Loughborough.

There were a group of hardcore tweeters and the event had over 1000 tweets (search for #guug11) – also some nice work done to demo a mash-up using Google Apps spreadsheet and crunching twitter data to display top tweeters against this hashtag. (@timbuckteeth won the day!)

Highlights included the first UK live presentation of the CR-48 Chrome OS laptop.

CR-48 Chrome OS laptop

CR-48 Chrome OS laptop

..I was impressed by the simplicity, the fact that you can install multiple copies of the OS so that you can have failover if an OS gets corrupted and also that you don’t need any other software as it’s all simply a browser. The always on concept is appealing, and thankfully at Loughborough we had good Wifi, but I’ve been to events where it’s patchy or non-existent. I do now however store almost all my ‘stuff’ in the cloud and use Google docs to master and then convert into MS Word to clean up and send on so I think conceptually it’s where we’re moving. For those who don’t know about Chrome OS there’s a good explanation at Geekosystem

We saw a live demo of Google Translate which was impressive real-time translation of IM chat messages (into and from Japanese in this case). Worked very well and available within docs, sites and gmail. We saw a demo of this in sites and again it seemed to do a complete translation of the page.

As well as the new tools and functionality presented we also had the opportunity to hear accounts of how people were getting on with using Google Apps to support students. A couple of notable quotes here…

“How many people are happy with their VLE’s?” – a total of five hands went up.

“the platform must be intuitive FOR THE TEACHERS, the students will know how to use it anyhow”

“If it’s good the students will sell it for you”

“Walled gardens present problems”

“Most VLE’s are actually only CMS’s”

“Sakai 3 is a Facebook like environment”

“Will we need Moodle, Blackboard etc. in the future or simply mix and match Google Apps and tools on marketplace to create the LMS?”

This was for me one of the most interesting aspects of the day and when at the end of the day we returned to Google presenters and had a Q&A session the same concerns were being voiced across the group. Those who had not adopted the suite were generally concerned about security and privacy of data. Those that had adopted the suite were generally concerned about accessibility, onward directions with respect to the learning landscape (integration with VLE products) and how Google was going to support the HE community that it was cultivating.  Google stressed its commitment to achieve better accessibility in the Apps suite and working with us to do that.

Google also stressed the support for the community and it’s ambition to address concerns that individuals had which would be raised directly through the Google reps at the event.

Overall the event was thoroughly enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the next one. I particularly enjoyed the chats with people both on twitter and face to face during the breaks in sessions as they provided an extra dimension to the event.

Further blog posts and event summaries

Are waterfalls agile?

People talk about agile but what do they really mean by agile?

David Matthewman CIO, OU

David Matthewman CIO, OU

I read a very insightful and interesting interview with David Matthewman, the OU’s newly appointed CIO, in Computing Weekly and I’ve also had a number of discussions with him about development and programming. In the interview he says “As part of a more disciplined approach to market methodologies, Matthewman will be introducing a more prolific use of agile and scrum development, as well as service management standards such as ITIL.”

I think this is a move in the right direction for the OU and for other organisations who similarly have adopted up until recently very traditional waterfall methodologies for enterprise level system development, however agile development methodology on it’s own won’t solve the problem. I read a paper last week commissioned by Hays for example which was about agile development called “The Elephant in the Developers’ Room” – it’s kind of drawing conclusions it wants to make the case for agile, but the headline statistics alone are stunning:-

  • 60% – 80% of project failures can be attributed directly to poor requirements gathering, analysis, and management, costing US businesses $30 billion per annum
  • 50% of major projects (defined as costing >£10m) are cancelled when at least 40% of spend has been incurred
  • 40% of system problems are found by end users
  • 25% of all spending on projects is wasted as a result of re-work
  • Up to 80% of budgets are consumed fixing self-inflicted problems
  • Only 8% of large-scale applications projects (those that cost between £6 million and £10 million) succeed.
  • Just 16% of software development projects close within acceptable constraints of cost, time and quality.
  • Cost overruns of anywhere from 100% to 200% are common in software projects.
  • IT workers spend more than 34% of their time fixing software bugs

Anyway I had a twitter discussions with some developer colleagues, which is by the way the best way to solve the worlds problems, and the conclusions were as follows:-

Agile methods alone wont fix the problem of very large developments failing.

Here are some of the practical reasons why very large projects fail from experience with projects of 60m+ which I been involved in with SUN and Microsoft and others who do this stuff well on the whole:-

  1. Some issues are behavioural to do with the makeup and background of the team
  2. Some are to to do with poor management, not specific project management but people management and lack of ability to think creatively, direct appropriately and react (important as scope changes)
  3. Project scope changes, so some issues are to do with inflexibility, not reviewing scope regularly and adapting
  4. Some are to do with lack of empowerment of developers, making them both understand and grow, giving them challenge and enabling cross working
  5. Some are to do with siloing of activity, “only X knows about that” mentality
  6. lack of ownership of issues “not my problem mate” – it’s everyones problem
  7. Good (critical) people leaving during the project. Perhaps there’s a place for a ‘golden handshake’?
  8. Some are to do with complexity. i.e.not breaking the big complex system build down into smaller manageable chunks.
  9. Some are to do with people not understanding the vision. Everyone must understand it.
  10. Finally by far the best projects I’ve worked on are ones where everyone contributes to the solution, feel tied to the success of it. The reporting, logging and reviewing processes serve a purpose that those in the project understand, i.e. it’s directly relevant to assisting them and their colleagues. The organisational structure is kept light and serves to help development, rather than for MI alone.

As we move into a more commoditized, off-the-shelf, ROI, SLA, cloud-based, shared solution, outsourced, yield enhanced and recession proof world it’s important to remember that the ‘uniquness’ of an organisation is created through the innovations that come from within rather than without. Developers can still add that uniqueness to an organisation by building bespoke services very well and at scale.

We’ve just started a venture to develop the OU Media Player for example which is going to create ‘the worlds’ most accessible media player’. It’s built using existing services but we’ll add the value to make it provide captioning and accessibility services and to link to all OU media materials on a variety of platforms including the VLE. This is a very small team working over the next five months in an agile way. I’ve got 100% confidence in it’s success because it’s a great team, everyone understands how important it is to the OU and they’re being given the freedom to build it iteratively, creatively and well, i.e. serving the OU’s mission in being “open and accessible”.