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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


A next generation digital learning environment for UCL

By Steve Rowett, on 7 November 2016

At UCL we’ve been pondering what a future learning environment might look like now for about two years. And we are starting to reach some conclusions.

Our analysis of our VLE – and pretty much all of them out there – is that it suffers from two fundamental limitations.

Silos – staff and students see the courses they are enrolled for, and generally can’t look over the fence to see something else. In real life, if a student asked to attend lectures for a course they weren’t registered for, we’d welcome their interest, their breadth, their love of learning. In the VLE we tell them that this is impossible. The VLE limits a student’s education to just what they have paid for, just what they deserve, and just what they need to know. All curiosity is lost.

Control – the teacher sets things up and students do them. No questions asked or even allowed. Forums lay devoid of posts for fear of asking ‘dumb’ questions, or fear of making mistakes. Assignments are submitted with perfunctory duty with the best that a student can hope for getting a green pass on Turnitin and some feedback some weeks later which is ignored anyway as the triumph or the disappointment of the grade awarded is processed. All love of learning is lost.

So we’re looking for something different.

And our inspiration came from an interest place – Brockenhurst College in Hampshire. Now they have a very rural catchment area – some students travel over from the Isle of Wight to attend classes. So of course, they don’t travel if they don’t have classes and therefore feel disconnected from the university.

We realised that part of the challenge at UCL is the same. The distances may be much smaller, but when you are travelling from home or commuting on the Central Line means that the disconnection is just as real.

So we need an environment that promotes connections. It just so happens we also have the Connected Curriculum initiative which will encourage interdisciplinary research-based education, where students do real, authentic work, not just essays for a teacher to mark. Where group work is the norm, not the exception. Where students are not passive recipients, but actively engaged in enquiry.

So it’s all coming together. What we want for UCL is an Academic Social Network.

What do I mean by that? Let’s take each word at a time.

First, it’s Academic. That means it is designed for education. There are plenty of social networks around – Facebook, LinkedIn and Yammer spring to mind – but they are designed for different things, typically business. Whether it means allowing people to ask questions anonymously, embedding LaTex in messages so mathematicians can speak in their own language, or structuring data to be able to find final-year projects, the platform needs to speak to teachers and students as being something for them. It’s about work, but also all of the other things that happen at university; social clubs, sports, societies, volunteering. It’s a safe and trusted place to be because the user trusts the university and knows they are not the product to be sold and re-sold to the highest bidder.

It’s Social. Because learning is social. I don’t just mean group work, but the full gamut of human social interaction. If you talk to students in our learning spaces, they are often working ‘alone, together’; that is they are doing individual tasks but just looking after each other. A student who is tired will be offered a coffee; someone will look after your laptop while you go to the toilet. Students are friends with each other on Facebook, but having staff friends is just ‘weird’. We want a space without complex meanings or difficult relationships but where everyone can connect with each other as part of the university community.

Finally it’s a Network. Universities are big places, and UCL is bigger than most. Networks are a place where you can meet like-minded folk, but also get exposure and understanding of those who study different things, think in different ways, have different approaches to the same challenge. That network extends beyond current staff and students to pre-entry students, alumni, industry and charity partners – all of those that have a stake in the vibrancy and excitement of what a university can be.

So what are we going to do?

We’re going to get one.

That’s quite a lot of work, as we have to do a lot of procurement activities to get what we want.

But for now, we have students and teachers on the ground talking to peers, understanding needs, working our what it means to be part of the UCL community.

We’ve done a lot of thinking, some talking and even more listening. It’s an experiment. We don’t know if it will work. Even if it does, it will probably take many years.

We characterise what we want as follows:

Characteristics of our platform


It’s our shot at what a Next Generation Digital Learning Environment will look like.

Many thanks to Eileen Kennedy for her work in developing and evaluating these ideas within UCL Digital Education.

12 Responses to “A next generation digital learning environment for UCL”

  • 1
    srowett wrote on 7 November 2016:

    A UCL take on NGDLE – an Academic Social Network for education https://t.co/0LPZVABezZ @eileenkennedy01 @UCL_teaching #codesign16 #ngdle

  • 2
    PodcastEdtech wrote on 7 November 2016:

    Interesting analysis of VLEs via @srowett of @ucl https://t.co/sDqogDW5od

  • 3
    Mira wrote on 7 November 2016:

    I’m really glad that we are providing staff and with a non-marketised social place without any ads or personal data harvesting.

    Broadly agree – VLEs are not born as social networks but as spaces for designing and running course activities (increasingly social ones) and presenting course information. That said, since you’ve made the case for the new platform by way of negatively contrasting VLEs, and since VLEs are so disparaged these days I’m going to make a brief case for VLEs.

    First thing – in my experience, whether students can see VLE spaces in which they are not formally enrolled, or whether forums are used is a matter of choice and design rather than software architecture – so in Moodle I’ve seen plenty of open access spaces, and plenty of discussion. The opportunities for assessment feedback in Moodle and Turnitin are very sophisticated now, and are being taken up.

    When the more social platform (which looks great, by the way) arrives, we will still need spaces for designing and running course activities, managing cohorts, running assessments with contextualised feedback (including for and by groups), letting students peruse other Moodle spaces, and communicate in an academic register. It is this academic register – whether in discussions or the way that a subject area is represented on Moodle – which requires the judicious design, encouragement, modelling from academics. This is a (the?) major difference academics make to (digital) higher education, and it is what animates VLEs in ways which only those who are participating in that course can really know.

  • 4
    Steve Rowett wrote on 7 November 2016:

    Hi Mira
    I take all that on board and I don’t think this does or should replace a VLE. Interestingly Brockenhurst still provide both and allow people to use whichever seems most appropriate for a given task.

    There is still a value in having a safe space with a group of peers, and it is right that assignments should be private and so on. But I think we can add more to what’s already there, and in a way that many staff and students will find resonates with the systems they already use outside of the university.

  • 5
    PeteAlston wrote on 7 November 2016:

    RT @PodcastEdtech: Interesting analysis of VLEs via @srowett of @ucl https://t.co/sDqogDW5od

  • 6
    Roger Emery wrote on 8 November 2016:

    That’s where our VLE started… in the sense anyone with an account could could access any course/unit. The reality was chaos in a business sense (see Mira’s comments) especially regarding asessment and communication. And it was 10-15 years ago – things change.
    Closed silos do work well when privacy is required (eg social work) with many shared spaces (eg casting lounge for creatives, law debates page for the legal eagles etc) so we have some of each – but agree, do need more with more control and contribution for the student.
    One whole school has just started a online personal tutor-easque pilot using e-portfolio as the shared personal space while keeping the VLE for the unit/course organised stuff. Maybe this is a way to go?

  • 7
    k_triquet wrote on 10 November 2016:

    A next generation #digital #learning environment – looking for something different @ucl RT @srowett | #ngdle #edtech https://t.co/zCwxIlGt6p

  • 8
    Paul Ashley wrote on 15 November 2016:

    Will there be facility to open this up for alumni? We’re struggling to maintain engagement with our distance learning students using existing UCL systems (in our case a dedicated space on UCL Extend)

  • 9
    Steve Rowett wrote on 16 November 2016:

    Hi Paul. Yes, that’s prominent on our feature list, as we want to extend this community to the entire UCL family. Now of course, we don’t have a product yet, so I can’t promise this, especially for the first release. But connecting with Alumni is a big part of the CC, and a big thing for bringing UCL people together so certainly in our requirements. Drop me an email if you want to be involved with the project.

  • 10
    Steve Rowett wrote on 16 November 2016:

    Hi Roger. Yes, we are not arguing against silos (aka safe spaces) in general – and of course for some purposes of assessment, for the functioning of quizzes etc they make perfect sense. We are not turning off Moodle at all, just observing that a different type of platform is missing and looking to fill that gap.

    We’ve used Mahara a bit, but like Moodle it is generally perceived as quite clunky. I think the difference is that for Moodle, many tasks that students are asked to do are proscribed, so they do them anyway. It’s a bit like having a clunky expenses system, but I still use it anyway because I want my money back, I don’t have a choice.
    For social/personal learning systems, there is so much more choice. I think we need to go way beyond functionality checklists to think about what makes a system actually used voluntarily – that will include its look and feel, wording, and whether every user can think that the platform has been made just for them. Didn’t say it was easy!

  • 11
    Collaborative Learning Environments. | Blogging IT and EDucation wrote on 9 December 2016:

    […] clear in Lawrie’s post is that so many are looking at the future. UCL make the very good point that in real life, students are welcomed to the physical classroom, but told “it’s impossible” to […]

  • 12
    Simon Parr wrote on 6 July 2017:

    Have you looked at Aula? I saw it at a conference and it seems to combine LMS and social media elements effectively. Google
    ‘Aula conversational learning environment’. They are being piloted at Oxford University’s Said Business School’.

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