elearning in the cloud: IET

Liveblog notes from Niall Sclater‘s IET Technology Coffee Morning, on eLearning In The Cloud.

Niall is the OU’s Director of Learning Innovation.

Models in eLearning Systems. Basic view is the LMS or VLE model – a learner interacting via a browser to the VLE (Moodle or Blackboard these days). So Moodle is at the heart of the OU’s systems, with others linking in, including OpenMark (developed at the OU), Intelligent Assessment (short-text responses), MyStuff (ePortfolio system, due to be decomissioned), eTMA system (for assignments), and Eluminate for synchronous stuff. Elluminate now available across the university. At a language summer school, a lot of feedback said they hated Elluminate, but then another lot said they loved it, and it was a lifeline to the rest of the university. SOme tutors very unhappy with it, others very enthusiastic. At the beginning of the experience, we’re learning how to teach effectively with it – can’t just duplicate classroom experience.

Lots of universities do it this way.

some clouds
(cc) donabelandewen on Flickr

What’s wrong with the LMS model?

Tor Hoel reckons VLEs are tools in institutional control – they determine what the students get, can’t control. Andy Powell (eFoundations) says VLEs promote a culture of dependency. Jon Dron – VLEs may overtly or subtly align the institutional processes with the software.

Alternative model: a Small Pieces Model, made up of many services loosely aggregated – e.g. Flickr, Blogger, MediaWiki, etc. Possible objections/issues with this (from the floor): fragmentation of users. Instability of content – not controlled. Students might wonder what they’re paying for if they’re being directed to free services. You have to support many different platforms to help people, more diverse, takes more effort. Big issue for IT staff and support; at least with Moodle can ensure there is a body of staff to maintain, upgrade and support it on the Helpdesk. Identity management – many usernames & passwords, forgetting. No control over standards like accessibility and usability.

But Martin Weller and Tony Hirst pushing the boundaries – this stuff is often more advanced, flashier, more fun, more people using it. Would be a shame if we can’t channel that enthusiasm in to enhancing our systems.

Challenge to bring in the benefits of this but without getting the worst of these concerns.

Clarence Fisher – serious concerns about small pieces – identity management, inconsistency in user interface. Many students very sophisticated IT users; many of us are similarly; but many of our students are new to IT and need hand-holding.

Going outside the institution? Currently all hosted internally – except we do use Second Life which is externally hosted. We have active community there on a social basis. Some teaching activities – Martin LeVoi planning a course there. Lots of accessibility issues for SL – needs good machine, not always robust, but potential. Sense of presence that 2D sites don’t give.

And now … Google Apps. (See my earlier post on what Google Apps might do for us.) Very different. Pilot happening now with 12,000 students invited, about 10% registered, we suspect primarily for email. Whole range of applications, nothing to install, all on the browser. Google provides this for educational institutions for free, for as many students as you like, and for staff. Working on the agreement, rolling out the pilot at the moment.

Advantages: Legal agreement which means we can be sure of some things, e.g. where the data’s stored. Other systems can store it anywhere, but for Data Protection is has to be stored in the EU or in the US under Safe Harbour. Very important for us. Google takes accessibility quite seriously. Some issues still, but have an accessibility team and are working on it.

LMS model works through a browser to Moodle and Elluminate; the LMS+Cloud model just adds e.g. Google Apps or Microsoft Live@Edu. Microsoft offering is quite similar in what it offers.

What makes something cloud computing? (In terms of benefits.) Firstly, ubiquitous network access. Secondly, could be stored anywhere – for us we have assurance it’ll only be in EU or US/Safe Harbour – but could be anywhere, or in multiple places, perhaps split up, and it doesn’t matter to the user. It could be electricity is cheaper at different times, so a document accessed from the US when it’s night time there, but from Brazil at other times. Third issue – server utilisation. Usage of an OU physical server – it varies massively over the day, but at peak periods it’ll be huge (e.g. registration, TMA deadlines); if host it yourself, have to have the maximum capacity installed the whole time. Very inefficient – can typically be 40% or less utilisation on average, and still be overloaded at maximum peak which you just don’t handle. Cloud computing gives you (the illusion of) infinite scalability – you think you have as much use as you want. They can increase your capacity as demand rises – you don’t have to plan extra resource around e.g. exam time. Fourth, you only pay for what you use, rather than paying for underused capacity all the time. Fifth – on demand self service, can change things very simply to increase your levels of service – don’t need to support hardware. Sixth – Idaho electricity 1KWh – 5.91c, Hawaii 23.35c – cheaper to transport data across the world than electricity.

Three levels of cloud computing – IaaS, PaaS, SaaS – Infrastructure, Platform, Software as a Service. Examples: Saas – Google Apps/MS Live@Edu. PaaS – Google code. IaaS – Amazon web services. We’re mainly doing Google Apps, but use e.g. Amazon web services for things like handling iTunesU.

Issues with the cloud

Problem with Google Apps – things change all the time. TU100 course being developed at the moment, using Google Apps heavily. Author had written material around one specific bit of functionality … and the next week it’d gone. So we have to do things in a different way, can’t guarantee things will still be there. Web based courses offer potential for fixing this – but probably more costs in presentaiton than there were before. Also decided main course content would be in a wiki, with students encouraged to update it. Radical for the OU!

Example – Google Wave, everyone very excited, now decommissioned. Just as well we didn’t build any courses around it (!).

Availability – service level agreement. With our VLE we’ve struggled to get 95% availability; Google promised 99.9%; Westminster have experienced 99.99%! An advantage – better availability than we can do. Hosting IT systems is not our core business. AACS do a good job of hosting our systems, but will never be as good.

Other issues – popularity of companies hosting services. E.g. Google issues with China. Google Street View protests in Milton Keynes. At the moment, Google quite popular – but that might change suddenly and profoundly. Having our brand associated so closely is risky. Also careful about students’ data protection concerns – e.g. Facebook with breaches of privacy. Even in pilot roll-out have had students contacting Helpdesk with concerns since they don’t trust Google, more inclined to trust a service hosted by the OU. That may not be an entirely rational trust, but it is a real one.

Also spam – agreement is that students will not be sent spam; some students are concerned about this. It’s illegal to send unsolicited spam within the EU; we have to be careful.

Advertisements placed within the publicly accessible version, but not in the student version. But when they become alumni, Google may then decided to put e.g. contextual adverts alongside email.

Non: Who owns the content?

The university owns the content, is very clear. We can devolve that and say the students own what they put up. But Google doesn’t own it, and can’t give it to others. They will do statistical analysis on activity, but will not identify individuals.

Jon Rosewell: When does a student become an alumni?

Tricky! We don’t have a definition of when they become an alumnus. Still working on that. Will have to come to some agreement, e.g. 3 years after they finish their last course – even graduates may go on to do more courses.

Q1: What’s in it for Google? Statistics about data use? Brand association? Eventually charge?

They say no intention to charge, inclined to believe them.

Q1: Don’t be evil!

Yes. As soon as they do charge people will move away. Brand awareness is a huge thing. What we’re getting for free they sell commercially, so students here who move to industry will be advocates.

Q1: Refining their model through the OU

Not just the OU – many already, and lots in the States. Also testing things out on the educational sector. Most new functionality is available for Premium version as well as the Education version.

Changing landscape

Comparison of various features in Blackboard, Moodle, live@edu, Google apps, Google groups (now part of Google apps but not yet rolled out with OU).

Martin LeVoi: Google groups very easy to administer – better than FirstClass vs Moodle. Break up students in to small groups – dynamically defined, add students to them – and get them to work together on shared documents.

Quite an administrative task for 800 students. Looking at tutor groups on Moodle mirrored on Google apps so don’t have to do it.

Martin: Tutor groups too inflexible, want smaller groups, flexible ones, of 4-5.

Students set their own up.

Rhodri: Two definitions of Google groups and Google Groups – big-G is the tool; not the most user-friendly or stable, not getting good educational usage. Most use Google groups little-g which is a management/admin infrastructure. Now looking at OU to make this very flexible and integrated.

A lot of LMS/VLE functionality is present in cloud services – not a great leap to imagine people will use these for learning purposes But management of users and groups is not nearly so sophisticated. But we might end up doing everything Google Apps and move away from Moodle – take all our hosting problems away, ensure greater availability.

Jon: Moodle in the cloud?

Have been thinking of that for a while. Some potential business partners. An obvious step. All the advantages of the cloud, extended to Moodle. Would solve a lot of our problems. Definitely possible, believe being done already by Moodle Rooms in the States – they’ll host your site for you using cloud services. Chatting to Google about integrating the two platforms.

New things are happening all the time – not just things vanishing, but new features coming online. Big departure for OU where we minimise load on Helpdesk through careful and controlled release of changes. Helpdesk very concerned about this, which is why we’re rolling it out slowly, because we have no idea about how much load it’d be.

We’re getting rid of FirstClass, and want to provide an email solution for students. GMail likely route.

Might also use Google Apps as an ePortfolio – Helen Barrett did a mashup. Work commissioned from IET. EPortfolios as document store, assessment of work. Either students export in to the eTMA system, or find a way to preserve a work in a current state when it’s submitted so they can’t change it. Sophisticated API, may be able to transfer ownership of a file; investigating those. Potential huge. Student can easily carry on using it as personal user later, don’t have to worry about it being stuck. Also easy to export in to other formats.

Systems around the institutional and the personal level. Not planning much course stuff on the cloud services. But might see migration of functionality over time in to the cloud. STudy planner, resources pages, forum, wiki, blog, podcast could all get moved to appropriate service.

Google Marketplace – third party apps available for people to use. Will see educational apps added which we could use – e.g. if an assessment service. A long way from that at the moment.

New VLE forum. Now looking at iGoogle (part of Google Apps, will provide for students, probably). Bring in RSS feeds (e.g. news items) and other Gadgets/Widgets and so on – your view of the world. Philosophy is now to allow students to view things the way they want, rather than defining it tightly and making sure everyone gets the same. Drag in things from the VLE, view in different places. So could present VLE forum there. Distributed OU Learning Systems, DOULS – interface between VLE and Facebook, iGoogle, etc – JISC project. Many issues – Facebook study, students’ attitudes, many very enthusiastic, but a minority very vehement about keeping OU stuff out of there. We cannot make use of Facebook compulsory for students. But if they want to use it, we should provide content to them to give them convenience.

Andrew: Facebook study, a reference?

Will send you it by email.

Andrew: Maintenance of identity across Google Apps provided by the OU, and ones students might use of their own volition, and stuff not part of the apps package?

Your OUCU and your OU ID will be transferred to Google Apps, to give single sign-on for that and OU systems. If a student has another Google Apps account, can be very confusing. But now new facility to view multiple Google accounts in a single session, but not tried it yet, very new. Also bringing in new apps not part of the suite, not explored properly either. Agreement with Google only applies to applications within the bundle – John Woodthorpe experimenting – can bring in other applications when you’re looking at Google apps through us. Not sure what they have to click – not clear have to agree to new terms, may not realise not subject to our agreement. Gets very confusing. Complex.

Rhodri: Students manage their Google account through Student Home. So if change password on Student Home, goes through to Google. To other accounts, have had issues where someone has signed in with another, have to actively sign out and then sign in through the OU. New system to deal with multiple accounts, not polished yet. Shared Namespace – can use your Google ID for some of the other services, but that’s down to us as an institution to decide – OU can decide whether to let students use things. At the moment only Google Reader – only for staff at the moment, trusted tester status. Won’t be in student domain until end of the year, and then still up to us as to whether to adopt it.

Q1: Google in mobile computing in last few years. Are their apps easy to access through mobile devices, more than OU? Have better solutions?

They have mobile apps …

Rhodri: Depends what you mean. Google spent a lot of time and effort on Android platform, integrated with Google Docs, Sites, GMail, but also improved web presence, so if you come through a mobile device to their web site will get custom view. OU doing too – mobile version going on same lines to improve web experience, but not making apps available to access content directly. Apps we are doing are around public engagement, discipline-specific, etc. At the moment, if students on pilot, always have to go through Student Home, not via Google – might work via mobile devices but not tried – officially we don’t support it yet.

Martin: Great for e.g. virtual summer schools. Always struggled with own VLE, because that 5% our systems are down kills a synchronous activity. Also the sophistication of sharing is better than a wiki – a word-processed document: heading, styles, tables etc – supports multi-authored very well. Spreadsheets just not possible in wiki, presentations too. Will make our collaborative courses – there are a few – much better for students. Students complain about e.g. tracking latest version.

Issue remains in Google apps.

Martin: Documents do have audit trails, can see who’s been editing it.

Google docs like a wiki but more sophisticated.

Martin: In a way that’s friendly to the student, just like Word. Even though it’s technically more complex than a wiki, it’s familiar.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

4 thoughts on “elearning in the cloud: IET”

  1. Re: “Small Pieces” models, there are surely ways around the weaknesses that people mention? For example, consider incorporating local or 3rd-party services that provide some of the quality-focused functionality that is needed, and that give scope for a central support team to continue to provide the glue that makes things work well. My guess: this could be done in ways that give a learner more say in what they learn and who they learn it with, eg via PLEs. As to which, take a look at the OU’s work in http://www.role-project.eu/

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