Thursday, November 08, 2007

VLE of the future - current status

I want to briefly report on the status of our project on the OUNL's VLE of the future. When the project started in February, the goal was to write an advice for the University Board about the technology needed to support the OUNL's future educational activities. For me - as a newcomer at OUNL - it was not clear what the future educational strategy of the OUNL was, and interviews with stakeholders showed that I was not the only one in that position. I need to add that clear choices were made by the University Board at the end of 2006, but my perception during a round of interviews was that the implications of those choices were not clear to all those involved. The following double choice was made:
  • On the one hand, the main objective remains to offer Dutch-spoken academic courses and bachelor and master degrees for open and distance learning. Target groups here are those that want to combine education and work, or never had the chance to study before. Underlying this is a supply-based business model, centred around high-quality self-study materials with minimal coaching.
  • Next to that, there is growing activity in more targeted areas, where lifelong learners with fragmented learning needs are the target audience. Basic resources for this activity is the existing supply of course materials and of human expertise that can be used in other settings and for other audiences. Also partnerships with other colleges and shorter programmes are offered in this area. The business model for these activities is not quite clear yet - as is the case for most institutions in this rapidly changing area. The student is very much in the centre of this model, and the OUNL wants to be able to offer services and content that provide added value in a way that clients will want to pay for the services.
In order to try and clarify some of the implications of these choices on ICT tooling, the project developed a number of extreme scenario's of the future. These scenario's were not meant as distinct future directions for the institution, but rather as vehicles for bringing across the message that
different business choices imply different business processes (and staff skills) and that different business processes imply different ICT support tools.
I think we may have formulated the message somewhat too pointedly, but as a result I think the message came through.

Next to the scenario's, we formulated a number of basic principles for the future VLE, which we have now given the working title "Personal Learning and Working Environment" (PLWE). These principles are:
  1. Every student his/her own learning environment: personalisation & flexible delivery are important key words. We need to offer an integrated portal entry as well as feeds, widgets and web clients that feed into mash-up tools such as iGoogle, Netvibes or Pageflakes. Moreover, the student is in control of the functionality and tools that (s)he wants to use.
  2. The PLWE needs to support the complete educational process for teachers, tutors and students, and not just the delivery of course materials and interaction (the so-called exploitation processes). The PLWE needs to offer services and functionality for the design, assembly, and delivery of courses / learning materials, for teaching and tutoring, for community building, and finally for the management and maintenance of educational materials and activities.
  3. The student and his/her learning are central to the PLWE, and these need to be supported by the most appropriate digital tools. However, the PLWE needs to be at the same level of priority within the organisation.
  4. Cohesion through architecture: business choices need to be aligned with business processes, with systems and applications, with information and ICT infrastructure. This cohesion needs to take the form of an integrated design that warrants long-term sustainability.
  5. Open standards allow technical components and services to communicate. Moreover, as the OUNL is a small institution, the importance of partnerships and alliances will increase, thus enhancing the importance of (open) standards.
  6. One single infrastructure for all current and future markets and product-market combinations will increase the potential for functional synergies.
  7. Open Source software enhances the extension and adaptation possibilities of the PLWE. Next to that, the OUNL is a public institution mainly funded with public money, and the public can benefit from the software that is developed for the PLWE.
  8. Finally, the PLWE needs to have an experimental setup, next to its production environment to allow faculties and staff to research, develop and test new tools and methods. An easy transition from experimental to production environment is needed.
Next week, OUNL management will discuss these issues and make some decisions about them. More to follow.

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