OU blog

Personal Blogs

A New Home for my Work Blog

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Tuesday, 6 Nov 2012, 15:00

I've decided to relocate my work blog to http://reflectionsonlearningonline.blogspot.co.uk/ so I'm not planning to put anymore updates here.

The old posts will remain - but are also duplicated on the new site.

This site shortcut will remain as bit.ly/rossmac and the new site shortcut will be tinyurl.com/rossmac

Share post

October 2012 Learning Systems update

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Friday, 12 Oct 2012, 09:34

I think it's safe to say that our autumn traffic surge has well and truly started. Over the last few weeks our total transaction count on the various systems within the VLE collection has climbed from under 4 million to 5 million to then to well over 7 million.  We’re also finally seeing our new Moodle 2 system really start to the take over from the old Moodle 1.9 system – recently the new system has been carrying well over 75 % of the traffic, and we recently saw the newer system finally have it’s first 1 million transaction day.  I’m pleased to say that the platform is continuing to perform well under this high load.

VLE Traffic 2012

As I mentioned in the last update there isn’t a VLE update in either October or November, however we do have a lot of development activities underway targeted at the December release. I’ll talk about a few of these.

We’ve just about completed work on the STACK development to support assessment of mathematics – this work has been a partnership between the OU and University of Birmingham, and I’m delighted that the system is finally getting it's first use in Birmingham this month, and on OU systems shortly after that.  To find out more, go and join in the animated discussions on the moodle.org forums. There is also due to be a book published shortly by Chris Sangwin (our collaborator at Birmingham) which will say much more about computer aided assessment in mathematics.

We’ve also been doing development work to improve the way that Moodle handles the growing number of very big files we have.  Moodle isn’t really designed to handle big files well, and as more projects and initiatives around the OU have started to produce huge video files or complex ebooks we’ve needed to find way to both store and deliver these to users.  A new development, that will be part of the December release, will make this process much more efficient. If everything goes well users won’t notice any change – but the overall system performance should get better. There is more about this on Sam Marshall's blog.

On the theme of system performance, we’ve been continuing to evaluate the performance of Moodle 2.3.  We’re currently running with Moodle 2.2 and we want to be sure that moving to version 2.3 won’t have an adverse impact on performance.

We’ve also started doing a further round of development work on the Annotate system.  We’ve given this system a little while to bed down, and we now have a series of new features we want to add to the system. These will appear progressively over the next few releases – starting with the December release. There is a some background information on Annotate on Jenny Gray's blog, and if you are a member of the OU community you can get more information and try it out at http://students.open.ac.uk/annotate

Finally I want to talk about Elluminate.  We had an interruption to the Elluminate service during the last weekend of September, which impacted a significant number of users. There were two issues linked to the problem, the first (which we are still exploring with Blackboard) related to a problem with the underlying database which supports part of the Elluminate system, and a second issue which is related a slightly strange state that the system got itself into when it was restarted. We’ve already put a fix in place for this second issue, so that if similar problem recurs with the database we should be able to resolve it much more rapidly.

While I’m talking about Elluminate I should say that we are still working with a number of external suppliers to identify what will replace the current Elluminate platform next year – hopefully I’ll be able to bring you the outcome of that deliberation as part of the November update.

Share post

September 2012 Learning Systems update

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Monday, 10 Sep 2012, 09:47

Since the last update, we’ve had two successful VLE releases, and continued the procurement process to find the replacement for our current real time collaboration system.

Over the two VLE releases we’ve added new features to ForumNG, updated the MyReferences toolset and made a number of changes to the HTML editor including improvements to its handling of TeX and MathML code and its tools for rendering tables.  In addition we’ve also made a significant number of improvements to the Structured Content tools within the VLE.  (Apology: The links within this post are only going to be reachable by members of the OU community)

In the August release we also started the pilot deployment of the new Participation Tracking report which will help the new Curriculum Support teams to identify individual users who are struggling with their studies, and who may need additional support.

There are full details of all these changes in the release notes which you can find on releases page of the online learning systems guide website.

We’ve also updated the guidance notes, the computing guide and the style guide to reflect recent changes to the VLE toolset.

As we might expect, the traffic levels on the VLE have been relatively low over the summer (about 3.5M transactions each week compared with the peak of almost 9M we saw earlier in the year) – but we're expecting the traffic levels to start picking up quite dramatically over the next few weeks.

In additon to the releases there have also been a number of back end developments carried out within the learning system team. We’ve been carrying out the preparatory work to allow us to switch the VLE over to running under the more secure HTTPS protocol – this shouldn’t make any difference to the learning experience of the users, but will enable us to have greater confidence that VLE traffic is fully protected.

Alongside that work, we’ve been evaluating Moodle 2.3.  At this point we are still running Moodle 2.2 on the OU VLE, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to complete the load testing to give Moodle 2.3 the go ahead over the next few weeks so that we can use this for our December release.

On the topic of releases. Over the last nine months we’ve been carrying out monthly VLE releases.  We are now going to swap back to our quarterly pattern, so our next planned release of the VLE will be in early December.

The September update was also an important release for the Quals On Line platform which is due to go live to students during the second week of September.

The procurement exercise to replace Elluminate has continued over the summer.  We are currently in discussion with a number of potential providers, and we expect to come to a conclusion at some point in November.

The final topic I want to mention in this update relates to Learning Systems team rather than to the Learning systems platforms.

As some of you will no doubt have seen from the announcement on the OU intranet, there are going to be some changes to the governance of Learning Systems within the University.  This will include the transfer of the Learning Systems team from LTS to IT at some point during the financial year that has just started.  There is currently an implementation team drawn from LTS and IT working through the implications of this change, and hopefully I’ll be in a position to say more about these changes and their timing in the next update.

Share post

July 2012 Learning Systems update

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Tuesday, 3 Jul 2012, 11:40

The Open University VLE was updated to Moodle 2.2.3 on 3rd July 2012 In addition to the fixes and tweaks from  Moodle HQ, we’ve also added in a bundle of new changes and development from OU developers (that link will only work for OU staff).

We’re planning to continue with our monthly update schedule in August and September, and to then move back to quarterly updates in the autumn with the follow-up releases being in December 2012 and then in March 2013.

We’re also planning to carry out a maintenance update on our Moodle 1.9 system to bring that up to the latest version (1.9.18).   We had planned to do this in mid-June, but we discovered a slight performance degradation on the server shortly before the update was scheduled to happen and we decided to hold off on the update so that we could investigate.  The performance is now back to normal levels, and we’ll be going ahead with the update in mid-July.  As I said in the previous post, the update doesn’t add any new features , it just allows us to add in security updates.

On the theme of server performance I wanted to take the opportunity to provide an update on our current traffic and performance figures.  At the moment we’re seeing about 4.5 million transactions per week across the two main moodle installations, this is well down on the peak figures that we saw earlier in the year (over 8.5 million transactions per week) but does reflect our normal annual cycle.

Over the last few weeks availability of the VLE has been extremely good, and well over 99.8% of all our transactions have been better than our target thresholds.  The actual target for each transaction varies – but for most of the common end-user transactions we aim to deliver the page back from the server in under 300 milliseconds.

Since my last post, Moodle 2.3 has been released – there’s a long list of interesting new features, some of them having been developed at the OU. If you want to know more there are release notes on the Moodle.org website.

We know that this release has been through some pretty rigorous functional testing within the Moodle Community to ensure that the new features all work.  However before we are able to move to Moodle 2.3 we are going to carry out a programme of load tests to ensure that the system is able to operate configured the way we need it at the OU, and at the load levels we see here.   At this point I  don’t think that we’ll be ready to move to Moodle 2.3 in September, so that move is now likely to be part of our December update.

As part of keeping up to date with the wider elearning community, I'll be spending next week at Blackboard World.  I'll be interested to see how Blackboard Learn has developed over the past year, and also to hearing a bit more about how Blackboard's new open source community is going to work.

Permalink Add your comment
Share post

June 2012 Learning Systems Update

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Wednesday, 6 Jun 2012, 12:15

Studio TimeI’ve been doing a Learning Systems podcast each month (with the exception of my recent ‘sabbatical’) since December 2008.  These podcasts are available to the Open University community but not more widely.  It occurred to me recently that I could (in the spirit of recycling) turn the scripts from these podcasts into a monthly posting here too – trimmed or extended where I get too OU specific.

At the time of the May post the Learning Systems team were still spending quite a lot of time grappling with the degraded performance we saw when we upgraded from Moodle 2.1 to 2.2 in early April.  Most of our users wouldn’t have spotted the degradation in performance – but on the servers we could see that the typical time it took to deliver a page within Moodle had jumped from around 300 ms to just over 500 ms. In itself perhaps not a figure to panic about, but something that we felt that we needed to both understand and remedy.  We were eventually able to isolate the problem to the new mechanism for handling context in Moodle 2.2 – and particularly to the sort of indexing required in PostgreSQL to support the context handling at OU scales.  Once we got our heads round the indexing, we saw performance jump back to the sort of figures we had with Moodle 2.1.  Panic over, for now at least.  The saga of the move to Moodle 2.2, has made us revisit the timetable we had in mind for deploying Moodle 2.3.  We had been planning to deploy 2.3 in either August or September  - with the latter being more likely give the slip in the release.  We now think that we need to do some serious load testing on Moodle 2.3 (as it’s configured at the OU) before can unleash it on our users, which will inevitably introduce some delay into the deployment.   There are a number of features in 2.3 that we want to bring into service here – not least the one’s that we’ve developed – so we will be bringing the new version into service at soon as we can.

Once we’ve got our collective heads around Moodle 2.3, we’ll turn our attention to Moodle 2.4.  The provisional specification for Moodle 2.4 mentions incorporating both the ForumNG and OUwiki.  Both of these were developed at the OU and shared with the community, and I’d be absolutely delighted to see these formally adopted into Moodle.  I’m sure there will be some work for developers here to do to smooth the way forward, and we’ll do whatever we need to do to help this happen.

In more routine business, we’re still gradually moving OU modules (courses in Moodle-speak) from our Moodle 1.9 installation through onto the newer 2.2 installation.  We’re doing this gradually as each module ends so that our students don’t see a sudden change in mid-presentation. At the moment Moodle 1.9 is seeing around 4.5M transactions each week, and Moodle 2.2 about 2.3 M – we expect that balance to switch round as we go through the summer and into the autumn.

We’ve also started work on refreshing the real-time tools we use alongside Moodle. We are currently running with Elluminate 10 (from Elluminate when we bought into it, now from Blackboard) – and we’ve just started the procurement exercise to allow us to either continue with Blackboard Collaborate for a further period of time, or to move to an alternative platform.  There is more information about the procurement exercise elsewhere.

And finally, and only relevant to OU folks, there will be a update to the both VLE installations during June. On Tuesday 12th June we'll be updating the new VLE - the biggest single change being the new HTML Activities tool within Structured Content - significantly improving the ability to embed HTML4/HTML5 activities within the VLE. On Tuesday 19th June we'll be updating the old VLE - no new features being added, just minor maintenance updates.

Share post

The Wood and the Trees

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Wednesday, 6 Jun 2012, 12:16



Over the last six months I've been as far south as South Georgia and as far North as the North Cape.  I've taken more pictures of penguins than is sensible, I've seen the Northern Lights on ten occasions, I've been mugged by a striated caracara, chased by antarctic fur seals, learnt to drive a team of Siberian huskies and realised just how cold -20C feels.

And despite (or maybe because of) my absence the Learning Systems team at the OU has kept going, delivering regular VLE releases adding new functionality and working to migrate OU modules from the old Moodle 1.9 VLE onto the new Moodle 2 platform.

As I've got re-immersed in OU activities over the last few weeks, I've had the chance to reflect on what has changed while I've been away.

Learning System developments tend to be bundled up in monthly releases and, inevitably, these releases usually involve incremental, rather than earth shattering, changes.  However over a six month period the incremental changes all add up - and coming back to the party after a while away it really is quite dramatic how far things have moved on.

  • We've now migrated about 50% of OU modules onto the new platform (currently using Moodle 2.2.2), and we're on track to have almost all modules moved over by the end of 2012. At the moment the new platform is carrying about 25% of the total load (in terms of transactions).
  • We've brought Elluminate 10 into service at the OU - and about a third of our real-time collaboration traffic is now on that version of the platform.
  • We've finally turned off the FirstClass conferencing system.
  • We've rolled out OU Annotate to everyone in the OU Community - and added lots more new features to it.  We are seeing really encouraging usage levels on this too.
  • We've specified and started to develop a new version of the OpenLearn platform, based on Moodle 2.
  • We've specified and done lots of development work to support the OU's move to qualitifications-based teaching.

Within the VLE itself,

  • We've added lots of refinements to the collaborative tools collection (the OU versions of the blog, forum and wiki), most visibly making these tools all much more consistent.
  • The Quiz Engine continues to evolve with every release adding a few more question types (we're now up to 23 different types).  There has also been lots of work carried out to redevelop the STACK computer algebra system as a Moodle question type. We've been demonstrating that development to the Maths Faculty at the OU, and we expect to have it ready for release in Autumn 2012.
  • We've also added extra features to Structured Content (the OU's XML-based authoring system) to further enrich the learning materials that students can get access to on the VLE.

Any one of these developments probably wouldn't have seemed big enough to need a blog post celebrating their completion but seen together they look like a really impressive collection of developments.

Maybe I should go away more often.


Share post

10 More Days

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Sunday, 18 Sep 2011, 11:36

After a couple of years of contemplation and a lot of time talking to people and following the blogs and tweets of various career-breakers, I’m about to join their ranks.

At the end of September I’ll be packing up my desk at the Open University, handing over the Learning and Teaching Systems reins to my colleague Paul (twitter.com/paulbeeby - I hope he’s going to start tweeting soon so I can keep track of what’s happening), and leaving Moodle and e-learning behind for six months.

The first three months are planned – Sri Lanka, Shetland and the South Atlantic - but although I’ve got lots of ideas for the second three months (including some places not starting with S), I have for the first time in a very long time got no firm plans.

One of my frustrations, over the last five years particularly, has been the lack of time to think about the trips I’ve been fitting in around work commitments.  I’ve rushed off somewhat manically to the airport as soon as I could, and spent as much time away as possible – and then plunged back into work again.  One consequence has been not enough time to go through the photographs I’ve taken or to put together the blog postings, or any longer pieces of writing, from the trips.

My hope during the six months way from the office is to have time to make the trips a bit slower than they might otherwise have had to be, to reflect on and to write about my travelling, to spend some longer chunks of time in our house in Shetland, and maybe get re-enthused about e-learning.

I don’t plan to post anything further on this blog until next Easter – although I will be posting on my travel/photography blog (rossmac.blogspot.com), and I’ll be tweeting (twitter.com/rossmackenzie) when connectivity allows.

Sitting in my study in Oxford on a Sunday morning, I have lots of conflicting thoughts about the time away.  Part of me can’t picture being away from the OU for such a long time (I first joined the University in late 1995 – and the commute to Milton Keynes is just part of what I do most days).

Part of me can’t picture doing anything other than returning to the OU in April. And yet another part of me can’t picture getting back into the formality of the daily commute again.

I'm certainly looking forward to the opportunities this winter will present - and I will give the occasional thought to the roll-out of Moodle 2 at the OU.

Share post

Moodle 2 in UK HE

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Sunday, 18 Sep 2011, 11:08

On 18th June, the OU hosted a meeting of UK Higher Education institutions who are either in the process of moving to Moodle 2, or who are very close to setting off on that journey.

This brought together about 60 individuals from about 20 institutions, and gave us the chance to talk about what we’re doing here and to learn about what is happening elsewhere.  It was good to see so many people here and to have the opportunity to talk with other folks facing the same issues, challenges and opportunities.

My presentation from the day is available on slideshare

The full timetable for the event is available at https://sites.google.com/a/gapps.open.ac.uk/hemoodle/home-1 (and we’ll be adding the presentations shortly).

One of the outcomes of the meeting was agreement what we should have regular meetings like this – and the suggestion was they we might have two face-to-face and two online meetings each year.

Share post

OU Learning and Teaching Systems blogs

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Thursday, 5 May 2011, 12:02

I was putting together a list of the various work-related blogs that members of the OU Learning and Teaching Systems Team keep - thought it might be useful to share it.


Sam Marshall      http://learn1.open.ac.uk/mod/oublog/view.php?u=sm449


Tim Hunt   http://tjhunt.blogspot.com/


Jenny Gray      http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/oublog/view.php?user=60


Jason Platts (for the JISC-funded DOULS project)  http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/douls/

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Tim Hunt, Thursday, 5 May 2011, 23:31)
Share post

MoodleMoot UK 2011 Presentations

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Tuesday, 26 Apr 2011, 11:21

There were four presentations from the Open University Learning and Teaching Systems team at the MoodleMoot last week.


Sam Marshall talked about working with Moodle HQ    http://www.slideshare.net/sammarshall_ou/how-to-change-moodle


Anthony Forth talked about recent work with mobile devices and Moodle     http://www.slideshare.net/anthonyforth/ou-mobile-and-moodle


Tim Hunt talked about the new quiz engine (he gave his talk using the quiz engine, so there aren’t slides to link to – there will be videos shortly and I’ll post links to those when they’re available).


I talked about how we’re going to be using Moodle 2   http://www.slideshare.net/ram65/moving-the-ou-to-moodle-20


And we're going to be hosting an event (in Milton Keynes on June 20th) on using Moodle 2 in the HE sector.  There's more information at 


Share post

It's all about the Numbers

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Tuesday, 5 Apr 2011, 21:34

Over the last few months most of the development team at the OU have been concentrating on activities related to getting Moodle 2 up and running here - and particularly in migrating the OU developed components and plug-ins for Moodle so that both we and others can use these in Moodle 2 as it gets deployed.

Our intention at the moment is to start using Moodle 2 with a small number of students this summer, and to gradually move all OU courses across to Moodle 2 over the following 12 months.  One of the issues for us is around having confidence in the ability of the new Moodle installation to cope with the sheer volume of traffic that our current Moodle 1.9 installation carries, so I thought it might be interesting say a bit about our monitoring of Moodle and the volume of traffic we're handling at the moment.

We have two almost-real-time systems monitoring the VLE.

There is a dashboard report on the VLE which lets us see the activity level over last 5 minutes, last 60 minutes and last 24 hours.  We can see how many users are on the system, and also get a indication of which parts of the system they are using.

OU VLE dashboard report

Alongside this we feed VLE transaction information out of the VLE to a centralised OU monitoring system which lets us see how traffic varies over the day.  The curve below is a fairly typical weekday curve showing our traffic climbing gradually through the morning to our day-time plateau (with a little peak at lunchtime) before a tea-time dip and then the evening peak.

OU VLE daily performance

So what are these tools telling us?

Firstly, the OU VLE is busy and has been getting dramatically busier over the last 18 months.

In February 2010 (February is always a really busy time in the OU's teaching calendar) our busiest day saw just under 700,000 logged transactions from just under 50,000 unique users, in February 2011 we saw the daily traffic peak at 1.4M transactions from 60,000 users (and on 21 days in February 2011 we had over 1M transactions).

Over the last 15 months we've been logging both the total number of transactions and the total number of unique users we've seen each day.  Both of these show similar patterns through the year - but while the user numbers have grown by between 20% and 30%, transaction figures have grown by over 100% over the last 12 months.

OU VLE transaction figures

OU VLE users

The next question is, what are the users doing while they're using the VLE?  The short answer is talking to each other via the forums - over the last 15 months we've seen the number of forum posts created each month climb from around 14,000 to close to 500,000.  Again the curve shows the same shape but climbs even more dramatically than the transaction numbers.

OU VLE forum posts

Now we know both the scale and the type of traffic that we can expect from our users, we need to ensure that our Moodle 2 installation can cope with this.  Hopefully I'll be able to post again in a few weeks to let you know.



Share post

OU at Moodle Moot UK 2011

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Thursday, 24 Mar 2011, 13:22

I'm delighted that, despite the pressures we're currently under to bring Moodle 2 into service at the OU, there will be four folks from the development team talking at the Moot this year.

Anthony Forth will be talking about our recent work in supporting mobile users of Moodle:  "Mobile, Moodle and the Open University".

Sam Marshall will be talking about how we've been working with Martin and his team; "How to change Moodle: working with Moodle HQ".

Tim Hunt will be talking about the latest quiz related developments: "Introducing the new Moodle question engine".

And I'll be talking about "Moving the Open University to Moodle 2.0".  I'll pick up on some of the questions I raised at the end of last year's Moot presentation - and talk about how we are planning to migrate our entire student population from Moodle 1.9 to Moodle 2.0 over the next 12 months.



Share post

Moving to Moodle 2

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Sunday, 21 Nov 2010, 12:12


In my presentation at the UK MoodleMoot earlier this year I raised a number of questions about what the OU is going to do next with our Virtual Learning Environment – and I’ve been meaning to say something about how we’re answering those questions.

To cut to the chase, we are going to stick with Moodle, and we are planning to use Moodle 2 very significantly closer to its ‘out of the box’ form.

During the summer we commissioned a review of Moodle and a number of possible alternatives in both the commercial and open-source markets, and eventually came to the view that, for the OU, continuing with Moodle was the right way forward.  However, we do recognise that we made too many localisations in our adoption of Moodle 1.x – we will be making substantially fewer with Moodle 2.x.

We also guessed, back in the early summer, that Moodle 2 probably wasn’t going to make it out the door until sometime in the Autumn (at the earliest), and we’ve been assuming that there wouldn’t be a proper/stable Moodle 2.0 release until about the turn of the year.

Our plan, at this point, is to have a fairly complete new OUVLE in place in March 2011.  This will be based on Moodle 2 and will have most (but probably not all) of the major OU contribs we developed for Moodle 1.x migrated to run in Moodle 2.   We’re not intending that this release gets used with our learner community; it will be primarily used for testing, particularly to allow us to be confident that Moodle 2 will be able to carry the load we expect. At the moment our Moodle 1.9 installation is seeing something like 1,000,000 transactions (from 50,000 users) a day and these numbers are both still increasing.

The first student-ready release of our new OUVLE will come online in June 2011, with a follow-up release in September 2011.  We’re planning to run the new OUVLE alongside the existing Moodle-1.9-based OUVLE for at least 12 months, and we’ll be gradually moving students over to the new OUVLE during that period.

The new OUVLE will also have significantly more facilities than the current VLE.  In addition to enhancing a number of the standard tools that we use (the OU versions of the forum, blog and wiki, and the new quiz engine that will be part of Moodle 2.1) we’re also carrying out a programme of developments to improve (i) Moodle’s support for mobile devices, (ii) integration with Google Apps for Education, (iii) facilities for both personalisation and the handling of user generated content.



Share post

Moodle 2.0 - and rivals.

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Tuesday, 4 May 2010, 15:56

The arrival of Moodle 2.0 is clearly a very important landmark for the entire Moodle Community, however for the OU it is also going present a number of challenges.  In my talk at the UK MoodleMoot I highlighted the fact that the OU has made something like 2000 localisations to the standard Moodle, and that this did represent something of a challenge to us in moving.

As part of understanding that move we want to commission a study of the alternatives to Moodle 2.0. We want someone to compare the functionality that Moodle 2.0 is going to offer with the functionality currently (or in the near future) offered by Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Sakai.

There is more information about the study on the OU tenders website



We are asking for bids to undertake this work to be submitted (via the tenders website) by 14th May 2010, and we want the study to be completed by 30th June 2010.

Share post

VLE Development at The Open University

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Tuesday, 27 Apr 2010, 14:41

At the MoodleMoot recently I was asked a number of questions both directly and via twitter about the model that the OU is using in our VLE development - a blog posting seems like the best way to describe what we do.

The model isn't based on any formal methodology as such but has essentially evolved to meet the needs of the OU.  There are certainly 'agile' elements in the process - at least in that we are constantly adjusting our developments to meet changing requirements from the OU community while still ensuring that we are able to thoroughly test developments before we release them to our student community.

We now have a quarterly release cycle, and we try to minimise the number of changes between those releases.  Each cycle covers a period of approximately ten months starting with a requirements gathering phase going through to a three month period when a particular release is ‘in service’.




1. Requirements Gathering.  For a couple of years we have had a process (and activities) that encouraged the submission of requirements ahead of each of the four releases in the year.  This lead to a lot of requirements being submitted, but the development team had difficulties in keeping the submitters informed about their requests.  To improve on this we’re just on the point of rolling out a requirements gathering database into which any member of the University can enter a requirement, and then come back to the database later to see the progress in implementing their requirement, or indeed why it’s not been possible to address that requirement yet.

At a pre-announced date approximately six months before a release is due to go live, we pull together the most pressing requirements from the database and from other sources around the University and put together a development plan for the release.

The decisions here will be based on (i) operational requirements, for example changes needed to improve or preserve the VLE performance,  (ii) addressing changing University strategic plans and (iii) the value of particular developments for large numbers of students.

We regard each development cycle as a distinct activity, so we reassess all the new and outstanding requirements at the start of each development cycle -  this means that new requirements may (particularly if they are performance related or address a particular strategic target) displace requirements that have been in the "queue" for a long time.

2. Once the development priorities have been determined for the release, the development tasks will be allocated to the development teams (each team having one leading technical developer working with a number of technical developers). At this time we will prepare a development environment for the new release, merging the latest stable release from moodle.org with our code base. This then forms the underlying code base for the next three months development work.  Each developer has their own development environment and is able, once they are happy with their development code (and it’s been reviewed by one of the lead developer), to commit changes into the CVS respository.  One of the challenges with a large number of parallel developments is that changes made by one developer can impact on code committed by another developer - ensuring that all the developers are aware of the range of developments certainly helps, but we are currently experimenting with a continuous integration system that will highlight problems very early in the process.

3. At the end of the development period (usually 12 or 13 weeks), the developments for the release should be functionally complete - and the statement of what’s likely to be in release that was prepared at the start of the development period gets revised.  At this point new developments get passed through to the testing team, where the new developments get tested to ensure that the functionality is as required (at this point we can start preparing the user documentation for these new features).  Issues raised by the testing team get logged directly in the Bugzilla system used by the development teams.

4. About four weeks after the functional testing starts we will be at a point when the new release of the VLE can be put onto our acceptance test system (this is the first rehearsal for the upgrade).  The new features will have been through one round of testing and bug-fixing and then integrated with the other new features into a release candidate. This is turned over to the testing team again for two weeks of intensive testing, followed by a window for bug-fixing, then a further week of verification testing.  At this point there will be a further upgrade rehearsal, before at the real upgrade. By this point in the cycle we will also have release documentation in place, and the online Computing Guide (that’s available to all users) will have been updated to reflect changes in features.

5. The upgrades to the production servers happen the on first working Tuesday of March, June, September and December, ideally, during our advertised "at-risk" periods.  On some occasions, typically if there are major database changes that require the database to be reloaded, we will need a longer downtime than the "at-risk" period allows, but we try to keep the interruption to a minimum (and we do advertise the interruption well in advance).   We will almost always have a catch-up release seven days after the main release to allow patches that didn’t quite make the deadline get onto the live system.

6. Once the release has gone onto the production servers we try and minimise the number of changes to the system. If there are security patches needed these will happen as soon as possible, in other cases changes that are requested will be vetted to confirm if they really are needed urgently.  A change to remedy a serious problem with an assessed activity is likely to be allowed, but a cosmetic change would be queued to be included with the next scheduled release.

7. The release will then stay in service for about three months, until the next release is ready to roll.

8. We also do regular reviews of both usability and accessibility.  For new features we will factor in testing periods during development, this is in addition to incremental testing on the each release, just after it goes live, either by expert testers or by student testing panels.  The outputs from this testing is fed back into the development process, with urgent changes being regarded as critical patches, and other less urgent changes being queued for the next scheduled release.


Share post

Moodle at the OU

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Ross Mackenzie, Tuesday, 4 May 2010, 11:51

I gave a keynote presentation at the UK MoodleMoot on 13th April 2010.

In the presentation I reflected on the OU's selection of Moodle in 2005, and reported on the developments that the OU has both commissioned and carried out directly.

I also talked about the scale of the OU's current Moodle installation, and speculated about how we would be working with Moodle 2.0 once it is released.

The slides from that presentation are now available on SlideShare.



A number of my colleagues also gave presentations which are now available on SlideShare

Anthony Forth - Mobile Moodle and DataPlus

Jason Platts - TELSTAR: Linking RefWorks with Moodle

Phil Butcher - Assessment for Learning


And if you want to see the gory detail - the videos of (some of) the sessions are now available online too.

Share post

VLE Podcast

Visible to anyone in the world

I aim to put together a podcast each month about recent developments in the OU VLE and the various other learning and teaching systems we use (such as Elluminate, FirstClass and Lyceum).

The October podcast has just become available on http://podcast.open.ac.uk/oulife/podcast-lts-vle-news

In this edition I talk about the functionality that has been completed for the December VLE update, and about our plans to bring Elluminate 9.6 into service.

The November edition will be about the developments we've started aimed at the March VLE update.

You'll need to sign in with an OU computer user id to get access to the podcast.


Share post

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 30764