why choose WebLearn?

I was asked last week to help a group at Oxford decide whether or not to use WebLearn. Taking as a starting point the assumption that you already want a web based learning platform, this is why you should choose WebLearn.

WebLearn is:

  •Free at point of use •Sustainable •Tailored to Oxford •Widely used •Backed up •Single sign on •Open source and standards compliant •Integrated with University systems •Integrated with University collections •Aligned with academic practice  • Configured for mobile access •Supported with training •Supported by OUCS helpdesk •Supported by local developers •Supported by an international community of research universities •Supported  and tested by a community of users at Oxford •Regularly updated and improved•As open (or closed) as you like •

I racked my brains and wrote another list, of reasons why some people might not choose WebLearn. But then decided these were just more reasons to do so 🙂

  •It’s a tanker rather than a jetski •It’s Enterprise-wide and has rigour •Sakai developers are a bit rare and highly sought after •It’s not ‘from industry’ •It looks like a VLE •Currently  used by only few institutions in the UK.

 The main benefits for Oxford in choosing an open source system are:

  • flexibility:Oxford’s IT infrastructure means that ‘one size certainly does not fit all’; commercial VLEs do not support Oxford’s model of devolved administration.
  • responsiveness:the central VLE team can respond very quickly to performance problems, bug reports and requests for new functionality.
  • customisation:of terminology, interface and tool set.
  • no licensing restrictions:there are no restrictions on the number of users allowed to access the service; in a research-intensive institution such as Oxford it essential that external collaborators can have an account and work within the VLE without us having to worry about licencing restrictions.
  • integration with other Oxford IT systems: it is easy to modify the software and follow the recommended Service Oriented Architecture approach recommended by the JISC; for example, we have integrated Sakai with the Oxford Single Sign-On (SSO) service (WebAuth), the new Oak Authorisation service and various library systems; in the future we are committed to embrace the Oak Groups service, the institutional RSS service OxItems, Nexus (SharePoint / Exchange)and the proposed OUCS mobile computing infrastructure.
  • external funding:open source software is generally more amenable to the use of open standards and thus allowed OUCS to pursue external research grants through the JISC and the like.
  • clear exit strategy – no product lock-in:content can be imported and exported with comparative ease.
  • free from commercial risk: ironically because there is no company backing the system there is thus no risk of the company being taken over by one of its rivals and us being forced to move to a new platform against our wishes.

For the open sourcing of software to be effective it is necessary to build a sufficiently large and vibrant community so that the product can become self-sustaining and progressively develop to include new ideas. We surveyed a number of open source systems the criteria were that any solution at Oxford must:

  • be modifiable / extensible (for example, open source);
  • not be tied to a course-based content structure;
  • offer fine grained access control and flexible group definition to support Oxford model of learning;
  • have devolved administration;
  • offer equivalent tools and services as those supported by Bodington;
  • have distinct advantages over the incumbent system.
Some of the main reasons we chose Sakai were:

  • Proven scalability / reliability: Sakai is used in vast institutions with tens of thousands of concurrent users.
  • Other comparable UK research-led and Ivy League institutions use Sakai, for example, Cambridge, Hull, STFC (formerly CCLRC), Stanford, Yale, MIT, UC Berkley and ANU, meaning that there is already a strong community who have very similar goals to Oxford.
  • Sakai’s strengths lie in its collaborative features whereas others concentrate more on pedagogy; it is felt that the former is more appropriate for an institution such as Oxford.
  • The Sakai community have expressed a real desire to incorporate key  features into the core code base, for example, site hierarchy, reusable groups, and fine-grained permissions. (Sakai 3 will embrace many of these ideas.) In addition, the process for ensuring that Oxford’s additions to the code base is better defined for Sakai than for other comparable open source systems.
  • Sakai is a modern service-oriented architecture (SoA) with a simple interface for plugging in new tools or third-party web applications. (This architecture is recommended by JISC).
  • Sakai is built using Java which maps very well to the core competencies within OUCS.
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