VLE Review Frequently Asked Questions

WebLearn, built on Sakai software, has been Oxford’s virtual learning environment (VLE) for some years. To find out if it still meets the University’s needs today or if an alternative solution should be considered, a VLE Review is being carried out. 

A number of frequently asked questions about the review are answered under each of the sections 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 8 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. For further information about the Digital Education Strategy and consultation, please refer to question 20. 

There are three 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.

This is an opportunity to assess what we have, and compare it to what we need. The outcome could be an improved version of WebLearn, or it could be a completely different VLE.

The review is moving forward with a recommendation to look for a new VLE for Oxford (see questions 13-19 for more details). In the meantime, we will continue to keep WebLearn available, as usual.

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 a decision is expected in Michaelmas term 2017.

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Following the consultation earlier in the 2016-17 academic year (see question 10) 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. This includes giving input to prioritisation of requirements, information about processes, reviewing and testing functionality and usability, and much more. The next activity that the group will be involved in, is to help define more specifically the benefits the project aims to deliver, which will enable the prioritisation of the planned activities for the delivery phase. For User Group membership, 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, and will be closely involved in the important task of prioritising requirements. Representatives are listed on the VLE Review User Group web page, and further representatives will be added soon. 

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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) 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 13-19). 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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On 8 June, the Education IT Board approved the VLE Review Project Board’s recommendation to look for a new VLE supplier. In accordance with this recommendation, suppliers will be invited to submit a proposal fulfilling a list of requirements specific to Oxford, as described in question 15. 
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 is identified. Plans for this transition will be developed in collaboration with users.

Following consultation with staff and students (see question 10), 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), 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. 

Up to five suppliers will be invited to submit a proposal fulfilling Oxford’s requirements for a VLE, and then undergo a selection process. Suppliers will be invited to present their proposals and demonstrate their solutions to the VLE Review User Group and Project Board

In parallel, further testing of the suppliers’ solutions (functionality and usability) will be undertaken. If you would like to volunteer to be involved in testing, please email VLEreview@it.ox.ac.uk

The final choice of supplier will include evaluation of these activities. 

To ensure this process is fair, names of the suppliers taking part in the selection process will be shared after the process is complete. 

The suppliers are those which responded to the initial request for benchmark information, and met our requirements most fully. We may also consider one or two others recommended by peer institutions.

We will work with the User Group and Project Board to develop a detailed transition plan that will include a phased implementation process to ensure minimal disruption to departments and colleges, while maximising the full potential of a new VLE.

Once the transition plan is drawn up, we will ask the Education IT Board to approve the plan in Michaelmas term 2017. 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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