Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) are web-based platforms for the online elements of courses. Over the past year, they have been essential tools in the delivery of learning as most teaching has gone remote, and their role is likely to remain a crucial part of courses in the future. With this dramatic increase in prominence, many universities are likely to evaluate the tools they currently have and begin to assess what is missing and how their platforms can be improved.
The big question is should we invest in our current platform or spend the next two years and considerable resource moving to a different one?
Moving VLE is a two-year project. It can be broken down into two broad areas; year one is completing the tender process to select a new platform, and year two is for implementing that chosen solution. You can further break these two areas down into four six month stages for changing your VLE:
- Writing the tender
- Selecting a vendor
- Technical implementation and pilot
- User implementation
Writing a tender
The first stage starts with a review of the current platform’s strengths and weaknesses and a collection of requirements for the future of teaching and learning at the institution. You may choose to bring in selected vendors, including your current provider, to present their software’s latest features and future roadmaps as a soft market test before the decision to stay or move are finally made. The information collected at this stage is documented in the tender paperwork and sent to vendors for a written response. This final step and the next stage are likely to be through a formal procurement process that your finance team will support your through.
Selecting a vendor
The vendors will formally respond in writing to your tender documents, and the university will need to go through each scoring the responses against the requirements. The top-scoring vendors can then be invited in to present how their software will meet the stated needs. Getting as many academics involved in these sessions is crucial to selecting the best fit for the university. Once the successful VLE provider is specified, the contract negotiations and procurement checks start. Do not underestimate how long this process might take – I would suggest leaving a minimum of three months from when you have selected the successful provider for all the contract details to be agreed upon and data protection and legal checks to be processed.
You now have a new shiny VLE! It needs to be integrated into the Universities systems, the single sign-on, the student record system, and other teaching and learning platforms. The platform will also have to be configured with the options that best suit the way it will be used. The better you have captured the requirements in stage one, the easier this stage will be. Getting the VLE set up and ready to use by the whole university can be challenging. A large scale pilot, moving over a department or school during the technical implementation, can be an effective way to identify and fix any minor oversights or fine-tune settings. Make sure you select courses that are happy to get the new shiny toy in the understanding that it will have bugs.
You have collected requirements in a tender document, you have selected the best provider to meet these requirements with a great deal, and you have integrated it into your systems; you now need to manage the change. The final stage can be the most disruptive; most academics will not have been involved in selecting the tool and will be unforgiving if the move over is not smooth. Communication, automated processes, well-planned training and support, and a much better system will help the user implementation but do not underestimate the resource requirements for this stage; it might cost in time and effort multiples of the contracts first-year costs.
There is some excellent information on the internet on how to manage the four stages introduced here successfully. Most countries have HE specific learning technology networks that can provide a lot of help and guidance. If in doubt, get the VLE vendors in as early as possible to start the conversation and ask many questions, it is a highly competitive market between the top three providers, so the quality of the customer service can be outstanding.
Please feel free to get in touch on Twitter if you are going through the process and have any questions. I am happy to pass on the excellent help I have received during reviews and tenders in the past.