Sunday, October 01, 2006

From Personalized Learning to Open Courseware: VLEs and Access Rights

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

I have a little poster session coming up at Educause with the rather loong title of 'From Personalized Learning to Open Courseware: Learning Management Systems Can Be Flexible', reflecting many elements that I'd like to convey. I hope to elaborate in the following posts.

The watchword is flexibility, as this is what really matters at Oxford. In 2001/2 a working group with broad representation from academics, IT staff, and administrators undertook a lengthy procurement process for an LMS (we tend to call them VLEs in the UK) - a list of documents is available from the LTG Web site. We evaluated about 30 systems against both a features checklist and a more probing set of requirements encapsulated in two mock courses. It was the latter that proved most illuminating because for all their features, bells and whistles, the commercial offerings were unable to fit our needs: ranging from simple things like terminology to more fundamental issues with the data model. They also seemed designed for substantial investment of resources so that if you used just one tool, your 'course' would contain lots of empty space, whereas we wanted a very gentle transition for academics, who could start tentatively by simply uploading a lecture handout without need the help of an IT officer. And with the commercial systems there were the licensing fees to consider.

The only system that allowed our ways of working Bodington, which had the considerable benefit of being open source (now under the Apache 2.0 license) - free of license fees and free to develop further according to our needs. I recall how Prof. Andrew Booth and Jon Maber came down from Leeds and gave an informal presentation, quickly establishing rapport as they related their experiences at various levels in their HEI that met with ready nods of understanding. When it eventually came to choosing between Blackboard and Bodington, Bodington gained close to 100% of the votes. A pilot service was launched soon after, became production in May 2004 and has grown steadily since.

The system developments are driven mainly by user requests, but some developments are done a bit independently as we try to be forward-thinking. This year there have been two key developments and the poster session is to illustrate, but to describe them properly I need first to try to explain a little about the access control system because it underpins both.

Access Control Management

When you enter WebLearn at the root, you are presented with a Web site that presents its pages in a hierarchical structure using a physical metaphor, with the top level initially with a list of Buildings and underneath Floors, Suites of Rooms and so on, the labels providing a number of conveniences beyond having merely folders and files. If you log in, there's little difference, except that as you explore the site you will find that what you can see and do has changed. It's a completely different paradigm from the flat structure typical in many other VLEs - you don't have a 'my courses' view as such.

There's no explicit concept of role (as in admin, course designer, instructor, marker, student, etc.) - rather the key concepts are groups of users and access rights (see, view, post, record, mark, etc.) Each resource in the system may have a set of groups and access rights assigned. Thus the notion of roles becomes implicit based upon who can do what and where; as one can belong to any number of groups, each assigned multiple rights per resource, everyone has effectively their own set of authorisations, i.e. their own roles.

Such granularity makes it easy to set up varying levels of participation, ranging from simple involvement such as moderating a discussion board, through to administering an area containing dozens of courses. It also readily supports change and can accommodate all of the following scenarios:
  • A Continuing Education student in creative writing requires access to course material in the Faculty of English
  • A graduate student needs access as a student to study materials, yet may also need to serve as a tutor for undergraduates
  • A member of teaching staff with certain rights as a lecturer may require further rights as a course co-ordinator.
  • A student studying Philosophy is advised by her tutor that she should consult some materials on Logic provided by the Computer Science department
  • Students from two colleges set up a shared project workspace and then find that they need to share with students from another college plus their college tutor.
It's one of the trickiest things to digest - even technical developers who have had a chance to work with Bodington, examine its source code have often not fully grasped the richness of the granularity! It's not that hard, just different, I think. You can gain further idea in an overview of access rights.

I think it's also worth considering whether the nature of roles also has resource implications - I think that once you start fixing labels on people it can reduce flexibility and with the lack of fluidity you can't share workloads so easily, things can't work organically. The more designated roles, the more complicated it can become.

If anyone is interested to trying things out, I'd be happy to help - there are (of course :-) various ways of doing this.  I shall probably create some WebLearn test accounts for Educause.

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