VLE Review: frequently asked questions

WebLearn, built on Sakai software, has been Oxford’s virtual learning environment (VLE) for eight years. To find out if it still meets the University’s needs today or if an alternative solution should be considered, the VLE Review consulted students and staff during the 2016-17 academic year. Findings have been shared and the review is now looking for a new VLE supplier to replace WebLearn. 

A number of frequently asked questions about the review are answered under each of the categories below. 

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A virtual learning environment (VLE) is a web-based platform that can both support and enhance teaching and learning. This may be done face-to-face, fully online or a mixture of the two (blended). Most universities have (at least) one VLE and use it for a range of purposes, including sharing learning materials, delivering and supporting learning activities, supplying course information, conducting and managing assessment, communicating with students and supporting collaborative (group) work. A key benefit of VLEs is that they are designed to present resources, activities and interactions within a course structure, and to organise students and staff into cohorts, groups and roles. Many are integrated with other University systems in order to obtain that course and user information.

The majority of departments, faculties and schools within the collegiate University use WebLearn, while some use another VLE such as Moodle. 

WebLearn has been Oxford’s VLE for eight years. It runs on the Sakai platform and has been extensively customised to meet Oxford’s requirements. Sakai continues to be developed and improved, and a new version of WebLearn was released in September 2016. Nevertheless, it is important to understand whether the platform continues to meet Oxford's evolving teaching and learning practices.

During Michaelmas term 2016, a consultation exercise was run to support the implementation of the Digital Education Strategy, in which feedback from divisions supported the review of the VLE. 

There are five aims:
 

  1. Explore, by consulting with staff and students across the University, how WebLearn is currently used, and the extent to which it meets their needs. We also wanted to find out how teaching staff who do not use WebLearn use other technologies to support their students’ learning. The output is a ‘landscape’ report, which was completed in May 2017, and a summary of findings is available on the VLE Review findings web page. 
     
  2. Gather requirements from across the University, to identify what users need from a VLE. This stage concluded April 2017.
     
  3. Evaluate market-leading VLEs against those requirements and make a recommendation to enhance the existing VLE, or the switch to another provider. With all the information acquired, a decision on how to proceed was taken in mid June, to move forward with a recommendation to look for a new VLE (for details, refer to question 14 in the Looking for a new supplier to replace WebLearn category). 
     
  4. Select a new VLE supplier to replace WebLearn. For details, refer to question 16 in the Looking for a new supplier to replace WebLearn category.
     
  5. Agree the detailed design of the new VLE and plan implementation to ensure a smooth transition.

The review is moving forward with a recommendation to look for a new VLE for Oxford (see questions 13-20 in the Next steps category for details). In the meantime, we will continue to keep WebLearn available, as usual.

The focus is on finding a solution that supports teaching and learning. For those people who are using WebLearn for other purposes, WebLearn will remain available until alternative solutions are identified, support for these alternatives is in place, and prior notice has been given. In 2018-19 we will investigate the full extent of WebLearn usage for non-teaching and learning purposes, identify gaps where no existing alternative solution fits, and consider how such gaps should be handled.  

Where individual departments have their own VLE or online learning platform, they may choose to  retain it. Their requirements have, however, been taken into consideration in the review in the hope that when they come to review their platforms they will consider the centrally provided VLE.

A major reason for the review is to identify what staff and students need from a VLE. Any recommendations from the review will be based on staff and student requirements.

The review started in Michaelmas term 2016 and will continue throughout 2017.

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Following the consultation earlier in the 2016-17 academic year (see question 10 in the VLE Review consultation and findings category) a User Group was set up, which includes representatives from across the University, and ensures user needs are met satisfactorily. It provides advice, support and assurance to the project for VLE-supported teaching and learning processes and activities.

The User Group's role includes prioritising requirements, providing information about processes, reviewing and testing functionality and usability, and much more. As part of the VLE supplier selection, the group are involved in evaluating suppliers’ proposals through attending and providing feedback from the demonstrations, and testing (see question 15 in the Next steps category). The group also helped to define more specifically the benefits the project aims to deliver, which will enable the prioritisation of the planned activities for the delivery phase.

The Project Board, which includes representatives from all academic divisions, has ultimate responsibility for overseeing direction and governance of the review. The board is closely involved in the supplier selection process, and will recommend a preferred supplier (see question 15 in the Next steps category). 

For further information about the User Group and Project Board, please refer to the VLE Review governance web page. 

The VLE Review User Group provides advice, support and assurance to the VLE Review, and represents end-users to ensure Oxford’s needs are met satisfactorily. The group comprises of a range of  users of VLEs. For User Group membership, please refer to the VLE Review governance web page. 

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In Michaelmas term 2016 and early Hilary term 2017, we consulted academics, administrative staff and students from across the University. This included people who use WebLearn or another VLE to support teaching and learning, and those who use WebLearn for other activities. It also included teaching staff who do not currently use WebLearn, regardless of the reason. 

We carried out student and staff surveys, to help us understand more about their current experience of WebLearn (or any equivalent system in use), and received over 1000 responses. In addition, approximately 100 students and staff participated in our interviews and workshops. The VLE User Group (see question 8 in the Student and staff involvement in the VLE Review category) continues to represent the needs of students and staff across the University.

With all the information acquired, a decision on how to proceed was taken in mid June, to move forward with a recommendation to look for a new VLE for Oxford (see questions 13-20 in the Next steps category). This outcome was shared with colleagues in the collegiate University in late Trinity term 2017. 

The full report and a summary of the findings is available for University members from the VLE Review findings web page. The report covers the current usage of WebLearn and alternative online platforms at the University, with a focus on teaching and learning uses, and assesses academic and student satisfaction with WebLearn. 

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To ensure this process is fair, and in line with recommendations from the University Purchasing department, names of the suppliers taking part in the selection process will not be shared until after the process is complete. 

On 8 June, the Education IT Board approved the VLE Review Project Board’s recommendation to look for a new VLE supplier to replace WebLearn. In accordance with this recommendation, suppliers were invited to submit a detailed proposal fulfilling a list of requirements specific to Oxford, marking the beginning of the supplier selction process. 

The main reasons for this course of action are to:

  1. Provide an improved user experience to staff and students by implementing a VLE that addresses many of the concerns raised regarding shortcomings in the usability of Sakai.
  2. Benefit from simpler maintenance procedures, through these efficiencies, foster the development of specialised tools that accommodate requirements and activities specific to Oxford.
  3. As set out in the University’s Digital Education Strategy, support academic staff as innovative teachers by improving the functionality and usability of key digital platforms.
     

The selection process will focus on finding a solution that supports teaching and learning. For those people who are using WebLearn for other purposes, WebLearn will remain available until an alternative solutions are identified. For details, please refer to question 4 in the Further information about the review category. 

Following consultation with staff and students (see question 10 in the VLE Review consultation and findings category), we reviewed the VLE market and requested benchmark information from the leading VLE suppliers. Members of staff who are responsible for the WebLearn service provided information about WebLearn, including its ability to meet the requirements gathered by this project. This information, along with the findings from the ‘landscape’ report (see question 12 in the VLE Review consultation and findings category), was assessed against the benchmark information from leading VLE suppliers. In addition, early usability evaluations of the other leading VLEs were compared with WebLearn usability tests. 

A thorough selection process, consisting of a number of activities, such as supplier demonstrations, and usability testing, has been put in place. The details are outlined on the selecting a new supplier page. The VLE Review User Group is involved throughout the process, to ensure Oxford’s needs are met satisfactorily.
 
Following submissions of their detailed proposals fulfilling a list of requirements specific to Oxford, VLE suppliers have been invited to demonstrate the suitability of their proposals in person. To ensure this process is fair and in line with recommendations from the University Purchasing department, names of the suppliers taking part in the selection process will be shared only after the process is complete.
 
The results of all activities will feed into a report, which will be considered by the VLE Review Project Board on 28 November, who will recommend a preferred supplier. 
The evaluation team consists of four sub groups, which will evaluate different aspects of each supplier's proposal:
  1. Technical sub group - evaluating technical aspects, such as security, performance, and user authentication
  2. Functional sub group - evaluating functional aspects, such as how easy the VLE is to use, and how well the VLE would support teaching and learning at Oxford
  3. Implementation and support sub group - evaluating the suppliers' approach to working with the University to support a smooth implementation of the VLE 
  4. Commercial and legal sub group - evaluating the commercial terms of agreement, and price

In each evaluation sub group, evaluators, and subject matter experts will be responsible for reviewing and scoring the proposals, based on written submissions, supplier presentations and demonstrations. The functional sub group will take into account of feedback from usability testing, and sessions to try out the alternative platforms. 

 
VLE Review User Group – representing you
During the selection process, the User Group will form a major part of the functional evaluation sub group. With a range of users of VLEs on the group, they are ideally placed to represent people in their division to ensure Oxford’s needs are met satisfactorily. To find out who your User Group representative is, or read more about their involvement in the VLE Review supplier selection process, please refer to the VLE Review governance page.  
 
VLE Review Project Board – providing assurance 
The Project Board will examine a report that recommends a preferred option and a reserve option, and any other evaluation evidence that it may call for. It will challenge the process where necessary, and select a preferred supplier for endorsement by the Education IT Board. The key question the board will consider is, ‘given the selection criteria and process, do we have confidence that a credible and evidenced recommendation can be made?’. Further details about the Project Board’s involvement in the VLE Review selection process, please refer to the VLE Review governance pages.
 
Staff and students involved in usability testing and sessions to try out the alternative VLEs
Many people have been invited to take part in usability testing and sessions to try out the alternative VLEs. The project has worked with Oxford University Student Union to promote the activities to a range of students. In addition VLE Review User Group members, WebLearn User Group members and WebLearn Coordinators have been invited to participate, as well as those students and staff who expressed an interest in being involved in usability testing.

To ensure this process is fair, and in line with recommendations from the University Purchasing department, names of the suppliers taking part in the selection process will not be shared until after the process is complete. 

Based on market research, suppliers were invited to provide benchmark information. The suppliers that responded to this initial request and met our requirements most fully were then invited to submit their proposals. 

 

After the supplier has been selected, the project will prepare an implementation plan that will outline the resources necessary to transition to the new platform. The plan will include support for departments and colleges in migrating existing content to the new platform. We will design the new solution in detail, with input from the User Group, and divisions.

Once the transition plan is drawn up, we will ask the Education IT Board to approve the plan in Trinity term 2018. We will take a phased approach to implementation, which is based on the experience of other universities replacing their VLEs.

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During Michaelmas term 2016, a consultation exercise was run to support the implementation of the University’s Digital Education Strategy, which aims to “ensure that in 2020 Oxford remains a premier institution for teaching by adopting the very best teaching innovations that are made possible by digital technology”. During the consultation, departments and faculties were asked to consider current and future use of technology for teaching and learning within their subject area, to identify important areas for resourcing from the perspective of academic staff and students. Priorities for digital education included the need for a review of the VLE. 

More information about the Digital Education Strategy and consultation is available on the Digital Education at Oxford website: www.digitaleducation.ox.ac.uk/home.

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If you have any feedback or questions for the review, you can either contact a representative of the VLE Review User Group, or email the project team at VLEreview@it.ox.ac.uk.  

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