The learning content management repository virtual environment system 2.0 and its future, summarized

As I explained earlier, at this year’s JISC CETIS conference I was in charge of running a session comparing content management, virtual learning and repository systems. I’ve just finished updating the session page on the wiki with links to all the presentations and commentaries available from the day. Here are my own summary and reflections on the session.


The first half of the session was given over to presentations, each about 15 minutes long. I introduced the session, along the same lines as my previous blog post, trying to describe how VLEs, Repositories and Content Management could be seen to occupy roughly the same space in different ways (though that doesn’t mean that they do the same job), and how I hoped we could use the session to discuss what factors are important in this space, and how those factors might be changing. We had five other presentations.–

Stephen Vickers of Edinburgh University summarized the findings of a project at Edinburgh University to scope out their current VLE use and future requirements. They found that much of the functionality of the VLE they have wasn’t being used, so, for example, about half the courses only use 30% of the available tools and only 10% of the courses use more than half the available tools; the tools that were most used were content-related tools. Likewise, while all students were enrolled on the VLE they didn’t do much there. For the future, integration with other systems (blogs, assessment, MIS) was seen as more important than increasing the number of features within the VLE. Also seen as important for the future were better content management and less restrictive access to content (to allow, for example, prospective students to look at a course before enrolling for it), both of which came up later in the day.

Richard Kirby, of CAPDM, a company which provides support for content creation and management for distance and blended learning providers, spoke about their single source approach to content management. This involves capturing content in XML (docBook) format to mark up the structure and purpose of the text (e.g. a list of learning outcomes would be identified as such), which can then be transformed to suit the presentation context. This content is held in a versioning repository which allows differences between versions to be identified. Richard gave two examples of the benefits of this approach, one involved updating translations of content when the original was amended: the versioning repository allows the changes to the original to be identified, the common XML structure between the versions allows the relevant section of the translation to be located. The second benefit was that the content was independent of VLE (or other delivery system), and he gave the example of Edinburgh Business School who have changed are now on their third VLE delivering the same content.

Sarah Currier of the repository vendor Intrallect spoke about the “repository bit” in the session title. In an allusion to the conference keynote session, which contrasted the factory model of eLearning (which stresses content delivery) with the city model of eLearning (which stresses communication and knowledge construction), Sarah compared the role of the repository to that of libraries in cities. Sarah gave an overview of how the Intralibrary repository software (and other similar software) interacts with other systems, both technical and organizational. The technical interactions were conceived around the actions inform (e.g. through RSS), discover (e.g. through SRU search), gather (e.g. through OAI-PMH) and store (e.g. through SWORD). The organizational support required for a repository, Sarah suggested, includes: someone with an overall management responsibility, access to technical expertise, a direct line to the community that the repository serves, and strategic support, especially money.

Mark Stiles, spoke about experiences at Staffordshire University with eLearning and innovation, taking a historical perspective in more senses than one. Initially, he said, there was plenty of innovation but little embedding of practice in systems and no sustained change. So rather than taking the role of a revolutionary he took the role of Stalin, with forced collectivization: “thou must share thine notes” via the VLE. This policy had the desired effect, but there was less innovation involved in using the VLE; in fact the innovative enthusiasts started subverting the policy. There was also little evidence that learning improved as a result of the change. Mark suggested that the future approach would be to look at loosening control by asking what needs controlling and what can be let free? He would transform from Stalin to Kropotkin, embracing diversity. As part of this diversification Staffordshire have extracted the content from their VLE and are hosting it in an independent repository which offers more flexibility in how the resources are shared and delivered.

Finally, Tony Hirst of the Open University, spoke about web 2.0 and social technology approaches, focusing on attitudes rather than technology. He contrasted VLEs, which he characterized as institutional, monolithic, private and dealing with courses, with PLEs, which are personal, portable, social and deal at the lesson level. There are many and varied web 2.0 tools that support the PLE approach, which is perceived as a problem by some; but denying their existence isn’t a solution, nor is it necessary for teachers to become familiar with every tool that their students might use. What is necessary is an understanding of what is possible and how to support that. Tony suggested that the a vital element of supporting web 2.0 approaches was that content should be portable, so that it could be used in a multitude of individual personal learning environments, and he identified feeds (RSS, ATOM, OPML) and the <embed /> tag as key in supporting portability. Systems that strip out imported content don’t help. Tony showed, as an example, Jim Groom’s work on blogs as learning environments, and suggested we needed “feed frenzied learning” and an SLE, where the S is social, syndicated, and maybe scruffy.


The discussions were, I admit it, rather rambling and unfocussed and I’m not sure they achieved much, but Lorna Campbell managed to extract some themes which came up.

Where we are now: VLEs are widely used as a presentation layer for content rather than for their communication tools. Their success lies in their ease of use rather than in how they enhance learning: they preserve the course structure–a sequence of content matching a logical sequence of learning goals–and keep everything in one place in way that simplifies the staff development and training issues necessary for their implementation in institutions. They also offer reliability and security, which are valued by institutional IS managers. The learning, by and large, takes place elsewhere, and that is fine. There are, however problems, for example when the VLE presentation does not match with requirements, for example work-based learning which doesn’t follow the curriculum of a set qualification and open content for which access restriction are unwanted. Also, problems can arise where the VLE is the common factor and there is a tendency to attach everything to it. This is pragmatic but not logical, and it tends to lead to systems bloat and stifles innovation.

The challenges ahead: The focus on content raises the question of how important is its role in learning? One analogy was that “content is muck [manure, fertilizer, whatever you wish to call it] … it’s where the learning grows”, which I rather like, but I think there remains a challenge of working through what this means for attitudes to the curation and sharing of content, and the role of universities in generating that content.

The movement promoting Open Educational Resources will be an important factor in this, especially the JISC’s forthcoming call for proposals in this area. What systems will be useful in this: an extended VLE or a minimal VLE? The general thrust of the discussion seemed to be towards a simple, minimal VLE acting as a portal [oh, I missed something out of the session title!] to present material held in a repository in a way that allows learners to know what to do with it in order to increase their understanding of a subject (in the understanding that this in only one of several ways to access the content).

The cultural factors, for example teachers’ attitudes to sharing what they have created and IS managers’ concerns about access, support and reliability remain real challenges. Technically, “it’s just about putting stuff on the web and architecting ways to discover it” (Andy Powell) which sounds simple but there are still some challenges in getting present day systems to do that. For example, VLEs don’t seem to be good at providing cool URIs for the resources they publish.

Many thanks to everyone who took part in the session, both as presenters and during the discussion.