Moodle Hosting at ULCC – A Case Study

As with many Higher Education institutions, Manchester Metropoliton University (MMU) recently faced the challenge of migrating its Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) from WebCT Vista, which was purchased by Blackboard in 2006 and is approaching its end of life.  MMU’s choice was to migrate to the open source Moodle VLE, using a solution hosted at the University of London Computing Center (ULCC), a decision which perfectly demonstrates the flexibility and commercial potential of Open Source software.

I spoke to Mark Stubbs, Professor and Head of Learning and Research Technology at MMU, and Frank Steiner, Marketing Manager at ULCC, at this week’s ALT-C conference in Manchester.

“Students don’t see the join between learning and admin systems, so why should anyone else?” Mark asked, discussing the recent formation of MMU’s Learning and Research Technologies unit.

“We basically had two major options on the table – one was to go the Blackboard 9 route, and one was to look at the major Open Source offering, in the shape of Moodle.”  To inform the decision, and ensure that the new solution would meet all of the institution’s requirements, a thorough review was conducted, the results of which were made public in the shape of the MMU’s Learning Technologies Review.  The review looked at issues such as lock-in and the university’s vision, and the decision was made that a hosted Moodle solution with the right partner was the best fit.

“That vision was developed based on the student feedback.  Their engagement with technology was just one of many things, and they wanted a doorway into the institution where they could find stuff that would help them with their learning.  They wanted the institution to ‘wrap around’ them, and we felt that we’d be able to achieve that integration more effectively by having a group of partners, Software-as-a-Service, but have integration as a core competence.

“We wanted to pick the right partners who had the skill and expertise, but have the expertise in the institution to mash this stuff up, and wrap it around the learner.  The Open Source nature of Moodle meant that if there were customisations we needed to do, we knew what we were getting in to, we knew the art of the possible, and that was important.

“We knew that people knew people Moodle a lot better than us, and wanted to tap into that expertise.  Hence the decision to go with a shared service and hence the decision to go with ULCC, because we’d heard very good things about them from the rest of the sector.”

MMU have found ULCC to be a true partner in the project, not simply providing a product but working through different approaches to issues and helping arrive at the most manageable solution.

“We’re just approaching 1.5 million students on hosted Moodles in the UK.  I’ll have to look up how many students are in the UK, but I think that’s a sizeable chunk” said Frank, discussing the figures gathered by ULCC.

“Now that we have people like Mark who want to integrate a system, we obviously see usage numbers go up, but the per-user usage grows exponentially because we see that personalised approach where everything’s integrated.”

“I try and engage with customers, find out how they use the system, then feed that back to the community.”  ULCC value community engagement, as it allows them to better serve their clients.  “There’s stuff we develop that we’d have to give back to the community anyway, but we might work with Exeter [University, another of ULCC’s clients] on some kind of online assessment projects, we’d then go to people like Mark and say ‘we’re working on this, is this of interest to you, how can we tweak this?’, we have guinea pig, then we get other people on board and we refine it, and then everybody can use it. I think that’s a nice Open Source approach.”

Mark says MMU also see the importance in opening the development process up to span the sector. “You start to Move things up from a well-crafted solution for a particular institution to a more generic set of interfaces, and gradually we have a solution that really serves the needs of the sector.  The nature of Moodle in that it’s extensible and has the community to support the extension spreads more widely than the source code, it also spreads into the way people approach working with the project.”

ULCC find that Moodle’s open nature makes it viable to build services around.  “It started in the FE sector, and we started building up a customer base.  Once you start working with a few colleges, you develop something and it works, like we developed our ILP, and you can either download it yourself or come to us and we’ll support it.  You can develop things on an individual customer basis, but chances are 10 other people are looking in to the same thing.  In a way, there’s the Moodle community, and our customer community, there’s some overlap there and that’s what we can build our services around.”

Beyond hosting, ULCC’s experience at working with a community of customers provides a knowledge base for its services. “With a lot of Open Source things, there’s a myriad of opportunities, but unless you delve in and start using it, you don’t know it’s there.  Because we have that customer base, it’s sort of perpetual, when a customer comes to us there’s a 99% chance we can say ‘well, we’ve done that for X’ or ‘maybe you don’t want to go down that route, but this’.  The other thing is, we’re not-for-profit as part of University of London, so we offer pricing that’s perhaps more attractive than going with a proprietary system.”

MMU’s solution offered some unique challenges to ULCC, says Frank, “…but in a good way.  We have a few partnerships already, some are with proprietary systems, so it’s not Open Source but it does the job you want to do very well. The fact that we use Moodle and it’s open means we can integrate that.  But you haven’t gone down that route before so you test the water, we haven’t done that before, MMU hasn’t done it, CampusM hasn’t done it, so it’s a bit of a playground and you have to find your feet.  Now that we’ve done it with MMU and it works, someone else can benefit from that.”

Mark’s happy that the Managed solution lets MMU concentrate on using the solution, rather than administering it. “We can actually concentrate in growing it, knowing that someone is taking case of making sure the growth is a managed risk, rather than ‘we don’t grow this because’.  We couldn’t have gone as fast as we did, without the support of a partner who knew what they were doing, I think that’s the bottom line for us”.

MMU’s engagement with ULCC gave them a leg-up in their community engagement, and are now close to being able to contribute back to the community. Frank says it’s mutual, “I find, unless you have you have that customer who has that crazy idea, you need someone to challenge what you do… now we’ve got MMU as a sort of flagbearer, that’s good for us and good for MMU as well.”

Mark says that the success of the partnership is self-evident. “Moodle is regarded across the whole university as an astounding success story.  We’ve done a lot of the things that students were asking for, but we’ve used Moodle as a focus for pulling that all together”.

A big thank you to Mark and Frank for taking the time to chat with me.

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