VLE Report 2015/Process and consultation

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This is a short history of the WMUK Virtual Learning Environment. It covers in some detail the discussions undertaken by the contractor, and the significant steps in the first three years. It forms part of the VLE Report 2015.

Background: the position in 2012 on training[edit | edit source]

Training in the form of workshops was just beginning around the UK in 2012.. In retrospect there were two main workshop models at the time, one deriving from Darren Logan and the other from Doug Taylor, the former being more “template-like” and designed for an audience of scientists, the latter coming from Doug’s experience as an IT teacher in secondary schools.

The edit-a-thon was then evolving; but neither then nor now was it primarily a training event in the more structured and academic sense. The World War I edit-a-thon at the British Library took place during summer 2012, during Andrew Gray’s Wikipedian in Residence position there.

One original conception for the VLE was to consolidate “slides”, i.e. work from existing presentations, but neither main model lent itself to that. It would have been natural to work from accepted good practice. In retrospect, the absence of a definite syllabus representing “WMUK training” hampered that direction: what was to be taught was not divided from how it was to be taught,. Also the kind of audience was mainly graduates, often research students and academics, with a mixture of communications staff, and the balance of material required was the subject of experiment.

Wikimania 2012 took place in Washington, and there was great emphasis on the newcomer experience on Wikipedia; it also saw the beginnings of the WMUK Education Committee with Doug Taylor and Charles Matthews. All these elements, with Train the Trainers, were there simultaneously.

The whole context, therefore, was an expansive feeling that WMUK could advance in the training area, but without much focus.

Early discussion[edit | edit source]

The VLE project began in 2012, explicitly as support for the WMUK training programme, in the context of Train the Trainers. There was no great in-house expertise of Moodle to call on. The trainer-training was in the area of presentational skills, rather than Wikimedia knowledge. There was an early meeting with Candy Piercy of Midas Training, before there was a VLE, and some exploration of buying in some of their content, under a free license.

There was also a period of community discussion of the whole area of online education, on two email lists (the Education Committee was just being set up at Wikimania 2012), raising a broad range of issues, including whether WMUK was moving into assessment, which was not then part of the plan. There was discussion of the VLE with its budget holders, but that was inconclusive and curtailed (EduWiki was being set up in parallel).

Charles Matthews spoke one-to-one with Jon Davies around July 2012 to find out what was required (the only such occasion) and decided on a new wiki, ModuleWiki, as interface with Moodle. It would be dedicated as a MediaWiki front end to giving access to a Moodle VLE; this decision set aside options such as Wikiversity and WikiEducator, as complex communities. He also surveyed Moodle Partners in the UK for hosting and the writing of the required single sign-on (SSO) module; this was despite a comment from a budget holder that he should not be dealing with hosting at all, which had not led anywhere.

There were also at this time some meetups of interested parties in the community, in London and Cambridge, involving in particular Fabian Tompsett, Peter Coombe and David Palfrey. Admin training was discussed with Jonathan Cardy; FAQ on the OTRS system with the office.

Development of a prototype[edit | edit source]

Peter Coombe’s work on the Wikipedia “manual pages”, on which he reported at Wikimania 2012, became the basis for supplying the missing “syllabus”. In two stages, the topics involved were sorted into “courses”, and the FAQ pages on English Wikipedia used to isolate the points to cover in each “module” (these are the later “lessons”).

The prototype VLE was a Moodle site of these 81 modules, divided into 16 courses at levels A, B and C; with a couple of X for “so you think you are an expert?” Early discussion had revealed that an expert-level intellectual property quiz would be an attraction. Each module was given roughly the same amount of text, considered a placeholder this point. Resources sections in a module concentrated on manual page and FAQ links to Wikipedia. No FAQ related to the WMUK OTRS were supplied, though they were requested.

The prototype was delivered to WMUK at the end of November 2013.

2013[edit | edit source]

The start of 2013 saw no immediate technical handover of the prototype VLE to WMUK; instead it was passed to the Tech committee, and a budget set, with essentially no communication to the contractor. The VLE was then “in beta” for a long period, in effect for the rest of the year, and the basic content was static. There were several significant developments, however.

The VLE was put to outside review: the common factor in the assessments was the need for more graphical interest. Staff time was provided by WMUK to add images to each module. The VLE was presented at the AGM. An announced consultation on the VLE in relation to the Train the Trainers review did not take place, however. It had been promised by Jon Davies, after a phone conference in the office, dedicated to the VLE, involving staff and volunteers, and bringing up a point on access that is still live. The lack of involvement of the CE in the project, at this stage as around Wikimania in DC, was a major negative.

Developer time was requested to adapt a transclusion module, first written by Jan Luca for Wikiversity, so that community participation in the VLE content would be possible. Moodle has no page histories, making collaborative editing and attribution troublesome. Transcluding from a wiki would give a page history. This issue well illustrates the gulf between Moodlers and Wikipedians. It was an Education Committee decision that transclusion was the way ahead to develop the VLE content from the beta version.

Pressure was applied by a trustee for the VLE to be moved from commercial hosting, which was an introductory package, before the intended system had been tested in situ. This led to acrimony on the Tech list, and an appeal to the WMUK Chair. The VLE project was strongly criticised on the Education committee's list by the developer assigned to it, speaking as a WMUK member. This matter was brought to the attention of the CE, who said a staff member would deal with it.

The VLE was indeed migrated into WMUK’s hosting, which was expanded to a suitable size only in 2014, six months after performance issues with the VLE were reported in August 2013 (on Bugzilla, by that staff member). The planned VLE workshop, to engage trainers, was cancelled four weeks ahead of time because of a lack of progress.

Outside consultancy, while clearly needed, was in fact deferred for consideration. A phone meeting with staff and two contractors was held, with Charles Matthews under the impression that the external consultation he had agreed with staff had taken place. In fact it had been vetoed by the other contractor as "not necessary". Cost estimates for continuing with the intended system were taken at face value, and work was stopped. General discussion of the performance of Moodle plugins showed up a grey area in performance questions generally, and whether the Moodle Partners charges for custom systems really reflected the demands on hosting. Some points, such as the behaviour of the quiz extension in asynchronous use, were never resolved.

Also in the second half of 2014, two opinions from different parts of the WMF were obtained in face-to-face meetings in London. One, from the engineering direction, was sceptical about Moodle as software, revealing about WikiEducator and its use of transclusion, and definite that WMUK should resource a Moodle site properly or not at all. Another, from the education side, lamented the lack of comprehension of “instructional design” as supported by Moodle by Wikimedians.

Work on the VLE proceeded with upgrading of the skin, and a project to add quiz questions written in the GIFT format, for portability.

2014[edit | edit source]

With no new budget money, but piecemeal financing, the VLE in 2014 was developed by an upgrade by a volunteer to the current version of Moodle, and further work on the content and appearance. Outside consultancy was used to quantify hosting for a “production” version with much higher traffic. Midas reviewed the content, as did some community members. The modules were consolidated into lessons, more quizzes were added, and some videos in July, ahead of Wikimania, where the VLE was the subject of a presentation at the Education Pre-Conference. It had also been shown at the preliminary Education fringe conference, earlier in the summer.

The transclusion module was not worked on in 2014, despite an application to Jon Davies, and the expanded hosting. This setback undermined the demo potential of the VLE, and was pursued in discussion. It ended with an announcement of a future review, and reference to a dearth of resources.

The VLE has been in limbo from about October 2014. The feedback from WMUK after Wikimania was that the content was at an acceptable level. No formal launch was made, absent an upgrade to the single sign-on module.