Educational Innovation at the Open University of the Netherlands

Educational Innovation at the Open University of the Netherlands
Instellingsbreed Programma Onderwijs IPO
            Open Universiteit Nederland

    Educational Innovation at the Open University of the

Kathleen Schlusmans
Henry Hermans
Steven Verjans
Wil Giesbertz
Howard Spoelstra
Ellen Rusman
Desirée Joosten – ten Brinke
Karel Lemmen
Leo Wagemans
Martine Coun
Henk van den Brink
Ruud Hoefakker
Educational Innovation at the Open University of the Netherlands
IPO reports

The Open University of the Netherlands offers open distance education for adult
learners. As the Open University wants to transform itself from a printed-based
university with face-to-face tutorials to a web-based university, in 2007 the Global
Educational Innovation Programme (Instellingsbreed Programma Onderwijs - IPO) was
established. All the central projects on innovation and quality are coordinated within
this programme. The aim of the programme is to help the Open University to keep up
the high quality of its courses and to stimulate the transition into an e-learning
university. The programme addresses the following issues: the VLE, tutoring and
support, testing, quality assurance, multimedia and course development.

The IPO reports are publications in which the deliverables of the projects are reported.

The IPO reports can be ordered from:

Open Universiteit Nederland
Secretariaat IPO
Postbus 2960
6401 DL Heerlen
Tel. 045-5762450
Open Universiteit Nederland
Educational Innovation at the Open University of the Netherlands
Educational Innovation at the Open University


In 2007 the Open University of the Netherlands decided to establish an overall
educational innovation programme for the duration of three years. The aim of the
programme is to focus the innovation activities of the Open University, to promote e-
learning in all the faculties and to achieve cooperation between faculties and the
different departments. Central projects in the programme are the implementation and
change of the VLE, the introduction of the virtual classroom, the implementation of
online testing, the digitalisation of educational materials and the implementation of
several quality assurance instruments. This collection of papers presents the main
results and findings of seven projects of this programme. Most of these papers were
prepared for the 23rd ICDE World Conference on Open Learning and Distance Education
“ Flexible Education for All : Open – Global – Innovative” 7 – 10 June 2009 Maastricht,
the Netherlands.
Educational Innovation at the Open University of the Netherlands
IPO Report

Table of contents

1     Educational Innovation at the Open University of ................................ 5
the Netherlands ............................................................................................ 5
2     Developing a sustainable, student centred VLE: the OUNL case .......... 11
3     The introduction of a virtual classroom instrument at the Open
      University of the Netherlands............................................................ 21
4     Improving the validity of assessments in Computer based assessment
       ........................................................................................................ 27
5     Supporting distance education’ candidates in Assessment of Prior
      Learning procedures. ........................................................................ 32
6     SEIN System: fine-tuning of a web-based system for the evaluation of
      distance learning courses at the Open University of the Netherlands . 36
7     Course development: From printed-based to web-based courses ........ 43
8     Practice in distance education: on the role of scenariobased interactive
      multimediaprogrammems for the web ............................................... 49
Educational Innovation at the Open University

1      Educational Innovation at the Open University of
       the Netherlands

       Kathleen Schlusmans

1.1     Summary

The strategic plan of the Open University of the Netherlands 2006-2009 states that the Open
University wants to become a digital university where Internet plays a major part in all the
educational processes. In order to achieve this transformation it was decided to create an
overall educational innovation programme for the duration of three years. This programme
goes across all existing faculties and departments and the programme manager reports
directly to the University Board. The aim of the programme is to focus the innovation
activities of the Open University, to promote e-learning in all the faculties and to achieve
cooperation between faculties and the different departments. Central projects in the
programme are the implementation and change of the VLE, the introduction of the virtual
classroom, the implementation of online testing, the digitalisation of educational materials
and the implementation of several quality assurance instruments. The paper goes into the
scope, the organization and the content of the innovation programme and focuses on four
key factors for success: commitment, communication, collaboration and staff development.

1.2     Introduction

The Open University was established in 1984 as an institute for open higher distance
education. The Internet revolution of the nineties was very important for distance teaching
universities. Internet offered means of overcoming distance and provided means of flexibility
which were unheard of before. At the Open University of the Netherlands several innovation
projects were set up to integrate the internet into our educational system. However, ten
years later, the results of all these innovations were rather disappointing. Although there had
been a lot of innovative projects they were very diversified and the results were often limited
to one or two courses and one or two faculties. There was no shared vision on educational
innovation and there was very little collaboration between faculties.

In 2006 the board of the Open University decided to make a major leap into the future and
to change the whole institute from a print based university into a digital university. One of
the strategies in doing so was the creation of a global educational innovation programme for
the duration of three years.

In the paper we will explain the scope, the organization and the content of the innovation
programme and focus on four key factors for success: commitment, communication,
collaboration and staff development. In the final paragraph we will discuss several issues we
encountered in the innovation programme.

IPO Report

1.3     The scope of the programme

The aim of the programme is stated as follows “At the end of 2009 the Open University of the
Netherlands offers high quality, flexible, open distance education which is to a large extent
web-based and which uses to the full the opportunities the Internet offers. In doing so the
Open University becomes a key player in e-learning.”

A group consisting of members of the faculties, the R&D-department and the services
department developed a list of six priorities for the programme: a shared educational
mission, the Virtual Leaning Environment, tutoring at a distance, testing and assessment,
developing online courses and quality assurance.

1. A shared educational mission
In order to make the transition from a print-based university to a web-based university it is
essential to have a shared educational mission. The first priority of the programme is to
redefine the educational mission of the Open University with regard to the central position of
e-learning and to get the commitment of the whole staff and all the faculties for this mission.

2. The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)
In 1997 the Open University developed its own VLE and in the Netherlands it was a
frontrunner in using a VLE. However at the turn of the century commercial VLE’s were
introduced and there was a lot of discussion about having our own VLE. Faculties became
dissatisfied and started using their own solutions. In 2005 it was decided to make the
transition to Blackboard as the central VLE but by that time the use of the VLE had become
so diversified that a central solution was not generally accepted. An important goal for the
innovation programme is to implement Blackboard and to streamline all other faculty based
systems which are used within the Open University. But there is also consensus that
Blackboard was not the final answer to the VLE, so in addition to the implementation of
Blackboard the programme is also required to start designing a VLE for the future.

3. Tutoring at a distance
At the Open University where students study at their own pace only a limited number of
students can or will go to the meetings in the study centres. In 2006 the student body
advised the Open University to look into the use of virtual classroom software to provide
more flexible tutoring and support at a distance. In 2006 one faculty experimented with the
virtual classroom and these experiments were so successful that it was decided that the
introduction of the virtual classroom in the whole university is a major task within the
innovation programme.

4. Testing and Assessment
The quality and flexibility of the exams is a fourth major topic. In the early nineties the Open
University introduced a flexible assessment system, the so-called sys-exams, for nearly half
of the courses. Students can register for these exams whenever they feel ready for it and at
the appointed time in one of the study centres an individual exam is generated and printed
out for the student. However it is felt that the closed questions which are used in most of
these exams do not really match up with the academic level of the courses we offer.
Moreover about one third of the exams are still organized three times a year and it turn out
that the students feel that those exams hinder their study progress. The introduction of
computer based testing (CBT) can solve the quality problems as CBT makes new advanced
and flexible item types possible. CBT can also increase administration and scoring efficiency
and reduce costs for many elements of the testing lifecycle and can so create more flexibility
in the whole testing process.

Educational Innovation at the Open University

Up till 2006 the Open University only accepted prior formal learning experience as shown by
formal certificates and degrees for credit exchange. One of the aim of the innovation
programme is to explore the ways in which informal prior learning can be assessed at the
Open University and be made part of the credit exchange policy.

5. The development of multimedia online courses
The printed courses of the Open University are of a high quality and have a structured
design. The online courses however are very divers and there is no standard design for a
web-based OU-course. There is also no ‘standard way’ of developing these courses, the
quality criteria are not explicit and very often online courses are no more than ‘digitalized’
version of the printed courses. Developing strategies and tools for developing online courses
is the fifth priority of the programme. This also included a focus on developing multimedia
materials for the web.

6. Quality assurance
The final priority of the programme is quality assurance. At the start of the Open University
quality assurance was very high on the agenda but in 2006 the central quality systems
needed attention and updating. One issue was making better use of the internet to ‘hear the
voice of our students. Another issue was preparing the staff for e-learning and organizing a
central teaching qualification programme.

These six priorities resulted in the following projects:

Themes                           Projects
The mission                      The educational mission
The VLE                          Implementation Blackboard
                                 The VLE of the future
                                 The central VLE of the Open University
                                 Educational services and student portal
Tutoring and support             The virtual classroom
Testing and assessment           Computer based testing
                                 Quality of testing
                                 Accreditation of prior learning
Course development               Developing digital courses
Quality control                  Measuring study success in distance education
                                 Course evaluation
                                 Measuring Student satisfaction
                                 Information on quality
                                 Staff development

IPO Report

1.4     The organisation and funding of the programme

The programme is positioned across faculties and the programme manager reports directly to
the university board. The programme manager has been nominated by the deans of all the
faculties and is appointed by the board. In the programme office a financial advisor and an
office manager look after the administrative and financial side of the programme.


                                         Manager   Office

                             Steering                 Student
                             Committe                 Group

             Project 1          Project 2             Project 3        Project n

              S.G.                S.G.                 S.G.              S.G.

Figure 1.1: The organisation of the innovation programme

A steering committee of representatives of the deans of the faculties and the head of
departments advises the programme manager and all major decisions about the programme
are discussed in the steering group meetings.

There is also an advisory student group who meets twice a year to advise the programme
manager on the content of the programme and to discuss the major problems students at the
Open University encounter and how the programme can help to solve those.

The programme is broken down into several interdependent projects. Each project has got a
project leader who reports to the programme manager. The project leaders and the people
who work in the projects are all staff members of the faculties or the departments, most of
them work only part time in the programme.

Each project has got its own supervisory group (S.G.). The members of these groups are
recruited from the faculties, the departments and the student body and they are the
ambassadors of the project. They report on the problems faculties encounter and report back
to their faculty or department about the results of the projects and they advise the project
leader and the programme manager about all issues concerning the project.

Educational Innovation at the Open University

A central fund of 3 x 1.000.000 euro was put aside for the programme. Moreover it was
agreed that a considerable number of staff members of the educational technology
department and the ICT-department would participate in the programme without additional
funding. Faculties en the services department received extra funding based on their actual
input in the programme as an incentive to participate. All external expenses and the cost of
the programme management were paid for by the central fund.

1.5      Key factors for success

The key factors for success of the programme are: commitment, communication,
collaboration and staff development.

The innovation programme is organized in such a way as to ensure maximum commitment.
Especially the steering committee and the supervisory groups are very important to involve
faculties in the projects. By continually listening to the needs of the faculty and by taking
those needs into account in the development of the projects, faculty members feel that the
innovative solutions are actually relevant and helpful and not just something the
management or the educational designers have thought up.

A second important factor for success is communication. A lot of time and effort is spent in
informing the organization about the programme and the projects. Regular seminars and
demonstrations are organised. The annual ‘day of teaching’ is introduced. This is an internal
conference to which the whole staff is invited and in which all the projects present
themselves, where people can have hands on experience with the latest technology and
where the staff can discuss the major educational issues they encounter. Every issue of the
student magazine and of the staff magazine contains a least one article about the
programme. Every week one or more announcements about the programme is made on the
Open University bulletin board. Despite these efforts, reaching the whole staff has been one
of the hardest things of the programme.

One of the aims of the programme is to have more collaboration and cooperation between
the different faculties and the departments. In each project people from different faculties
and departments work together and learn from one another. Moreover in the supervisory
groups members of all the faculties and departments meet regularly to discuss the progress
of the project and this had the added advantage that they also start finding similarities
between the faculties which often result in collaborative activities between faculties even
outside the programme.

The timing of our programme coincided very luckily with a national initiative of all Dutch
Universities to introduce a teaching qualification for lecturers. Since 2008 all university
lecturers are obliged to get a teaching qualification in higher education. Each university is
responsible for the training of its own staff. The design and organization of the university
teaching qualification at the Open University is also one of the projects in the innovation
programme. It was decided to position this ‘qualification’ project in the centre of the
programme with links to all the other projects. Each project in the programme is asked to
deliver one or more training modules which can be used in the lecturers qualification
programme. This enables us to use the teaching qualification activities to introduce the
lecturers to the new e-learning approaches and the new quality assurance tools. Especially
the new lecturers who participate in all the workshops and training modules are from the
start aware of our innovation activities and are very willing to participate in trials and pilots..

IPO Report

1.6     Discussion and conclusion

The programme has been going now for two and a half year and although in general the
programme is successful and the results of the programme already become visible in the
educational system of the Open University, there are also issues which still remain to be

The first issue is to get the balance right as far as the extent of e-learning is concerned. The
management of the Open University has decided to make the transition to a complete web-
based university but the question remains if our students and our staff are ready for this

Most of our students seem to be very positive about the possible added value of e-learning.
They feel that e-learning can overcome the distance, connect them much more to the faculty
and the tutors and make their study life in general much easier. But the students have high
expectations. They want much more tutor activity and tutor presence on the web than they
are getting at the moment. They want the same high quality in online courses as they are
used to in the printed materials. And they want added value, they are not satisfied with
online courses if the only thing they can do is to print them out. They want the technology to
work flawless and efficiently.

A lot of our lecturers have much more reservations about the e-learning revolution. There
are three groups of them: the eager lecturers, the so-called early adopters go out on the
web, find the latest tools and want to use them immediately with their students. The
majority of the lecturers are willing to admit that e-learning might have its benefits and they
are prepared to use the mainstream technology if it is user friendly, does not take up too
much time and when there is enough support. There is also a third, luckily small, group of
lecturers who do not believe in e-learning at all and this group is not at all reached by the
innovation programme. The early adopters are the inspiration for the programme, they get
things going in the faculties and they force us to rethink every process and tool we want to
implement. But they also make it very difficult for the projects to implement systems on a
large scale. As soon as an innovative practice becomes available in the whole university they
have already moved forewords and they feel that the innovation programme always offers
too little too late. So although it can be temping to focus the programme on the early
adopters, the innovation programme should focus on the majority of the lecturers. Getting
the majority of the lecturers to use new tools and to change their pedagogical approach is
the main challenge of the programme and will also create the most visible long term effects.

The second issue lies in the heart of the programme structure. The programme stops after
three years but the need for the implementation of innovation does not. The programme is
now nearing the end of its term and changes are already visible. There is more focus on
educational innovation, there is more consensus on using e-learning and multi media. But
when the programme stops there is no organizational unit to take over the concerns of the
programme. There is no central unit at the Open University responsible for the overall
innovation, for quality control, for staff development and for introducing new technologies.
One of the challenges of the last period of the programme will be to set up the organization
in such a way that the results of the programme do not get lost when the programme stops
and to find a way of keeping the innovative effort going.

Educational Innovation at the Open University

2  Developing a sustainable, student centred VLE: the
OUNL case

Henry Hermans and Steven Verjans

2.1     Summary

The Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL) has adopted the concept of the personal
learning and working environment (PLWE) as the future delivery platform of its educational
services to students. This concept means that students should be able to shape their own
personal virtual (learning) environment, based on individual tool and technology preferences
. To support this concept the OUNL faces the challenge of setting up an architecture and
investing in the development of a set of educational services that can be integrated not only
in the institutional learning environment, but that can also be merged with personal
In this presentation we describe the first steps of a distance teaching university in its move
towards this PLWE concept. This means reconsidering the role and position of the current,
more traditional VLE, and developing new educational services that aim at getting students
more committed and involved, inspired by the success of current web2.0 technology.

2.2     Introduction

How does a distance teaching university deal with the technological dilemma of supporting
its students across an increasingly wide range of Internet technologies whilst continuing to
offer a reliable and secure institutional platform? In answer to this dilemma, the Open
University of the Netherlands (OUNL) in 2008 adopted the concept of the PLWE, the personal
learning and working environment (Verjans et al., 2007). This concept describes the ideal
situation in which users access the information and services that the OUNL offers through
any number of different technologies that support (open) standards. Where does this
technological dilemma come from? On the one hand, there is a group of not-so-technically-
savvy students and staff for whom working with a traditional VLE (virtual learning
environment) is quite a challenge. This group has grown used to the paper-based distance
education supported by face-to-face coaching sessions, and is only gradually being coaxed
into accepting web-based support and coaching. On the other hand, there is a group of
knowledge workers who are using advanced web2.0-technology in everyday (working) life to
fill their ever-growing need for up-to-date personalised information and knowledge. This
group expects educational services to be delivered seamlessly to their personal (learning)
In this contribution, we describe the path that the OUNL is following in order to solve this
dilemma. In the first section, we zoom in on the concept of the personal (web) environment,
also referred to as PE, as opposed to the managed learning environment (MLE) that we
describe in the second section. In the third section then, we describe a number of possible
approaches towards an environment that combines the best of both worlds. The fourth
section then goes on to describe the case of the Open University of the Netherlands and the
overall approach that was chosen, a concept that we have labelled the personal learning and
working environment. We conclude the paper by describing some experimental pilots in more

IPO Report

2.3    Personal (web) environment as an instrument to create order
in the knowledge society

The modern knowledge worker is being confronted with a growing amount of knowledge and
knowledge related services on the Internet. Museums, newspapers, universities,
governments, all these institutions are in the process of making their information and
archives available to the public on the web, and are providing user services, often originating
from new business models. Much information that has so far been stored in dusty archives
and was hard to access is now simply becoming available from home, work, or on travel.
Next to organizations and institutions it has also become much easier for individuals to
create and share information on the web and to broadcast themselves. Varying from full
websites, wiki’s and weblogs, over assets like pictures / slideshows, video’s, bookmarks, or
the recently popular micro blogs. Also a variety of personal information is being shared on
social networks like Face book or the Dutch equivalent Hyves.

In addition, other (new) tools or services are responsible for generating a new and ever-
growing type of information based on existing online information. If you look at a social
bookmarking site like delicious for example, you see that all kinds of user generated
(meta)data is being transformed to new information like bookmark counts, tag counters, and
representations like tag clouds. Social networking tools make connections available that were
hidden in real life. Customer behaviour, stored in CRM applications, make it possible to
personalise recommendations for new products like books or CD’s. The web is making all this
information available through a variety of channels. The challenge we are facing now is how
to create order in this chaos and how to manage this knowledge overflow?

A solution in this respect can be found in the current so-called mash-up tools, providing one
with the opportunity to structure information and information services according to one’s own
preferences using key technologies like RSS-feeds and widgets. This type of tools is evolving
more and more towards a personal desktop within the browser, providing knowledge workers
with an environment to create an online, personal web of knowledge and services, that can
be accessed independent of time, location and platform. We’ll address these tools as personal
environments (PE’s). Typical for PE’s is that the individual user is in control, and can shape
his or her environment. Within the PE the user may distinguish between work, private and
study related information and information services, or mix them up completely as this
subdivision may not be a relevant organizing principle.
The educational equivalent of the PE is what Graham Attwell (Attwell, 2006), Scott Wilson
(Johnson et al., 2007; Wilson, 2005; Wilson, Liber, Griffiths, & Johnson, 2007) and others
have termed the personal learning environment or PLE. However, as learning – both formal
and informal – and working are becoming more and more intertwined, which is especially the
case for lifelong learners, the narrowing to learning is becoming irrelevant, which is why we
prefer to use the term personal environment or PE. The left hand side of Figure 2.1 below
illustrates the concept of a personal environment.
Good examples of these PE’s are tools like Netvibes ( or iGoogle
( Within these tools one can easily create structure using tabs,
and add feeds and widgets/gadgets that are shown as kind of portlets within these tabs. The
look and feel can be customized according to personal preferences.

Educational Innovation at the Open University

                      Figure 2.1: PLE versus MLE (from Wenmoth, 2006)

2.4    Managed (learning) environments offered by educational

The opposite of PE’s are so-called institutional environments. In relation to educational
institutions, Derek Wenmoth (Wenmoth, 2006) refers to these environments as Managed
Learning Environments (MLE’s). The right-hand side of Figure 2.1 illustrates the concept of
an MLE. These MLE’s are built around applications usually referred to as virtual or online
learning environments (VLE’s or OLE’s) like Moodle or Blackboard, usually supplemented with
a collection of applications for specific services. Through these VLE’s educational institutions
provide students and staff with a wide range of services supporting the primary process of
education: instruction, tests, fora, news, monitoring et cetera. At the present moment many
institutions deploy integrated, monolithic VLE solutions, like Blackboard.
Stereotypically, one can say that the institution is in control in an MLE and not the user. The
educational institution has a supply-driven approach and decides which services are best for
students and staff, where and how to deliver the services, and how much students are
charged for usage. The functional design/setup/implementation of the environment often
reflects the organizational structure of the institution. The institutional portal and MLE are
separated environments, and are often poorly connected.
Web2.0 services are hardly offered and typically restricted to the features that the VLE
applications (such as Blackboard or Moodle) offer. RSS feeds are scarcely present, there’s a
small set of pre-defined user profile fields, and online sharing of information between users
is difficult and restricted to institutionalized applications like portfolio’s. Commercial VLE’s
are almost always password-protected, and restricted to registered students

IPO Report

2.5    Bridging the gap between the personal and the managed
learning environment?

But then of course there is the growing group of staff members and students who have
already explored and adopted the benefits of new public domain tools, and who prefer
including all their information and knowledge sources to be integrated. In this paragraph we
describe a number of possible approaches for bridging the gap between the personal
environment (PE) and the institutional MLE or managed learning environment. These
approaches are indicated in Figure below.


             PE                                                               MLE


       Figure 2.2: Stylised version of the relation between personal environment, managed
       learning environment and the World Wide Web (based on Wenmoth, 2006).

The main assumption underlying figure 2.2 is that the institution knows about and recognises
the importance of web-based applications and platforms (Web2.0) and of a personal
environment. Raising the awareness of the growing potential of personal (learning)
environments for the lifelong learner (and for the professional or academic staff member) is
a major issue when an institution wants to move towards a more student-centred digital

   1. When this awareness is present in the institution, a first possible approach to bridging
      the gap between the personal and institutional environments is to open up
      institutional borders for Web2.0, and thus for personal environments.
          a. A first possible set of actions in this approach is to use Web2.0 for distributing
               public domain content and services. For instance, (a) public domain video
               materials can be published on YouTube, Vimeo, iTunesU or TeacherTube, (b)
               public educational and research bookmarks can be shared on delicious, furl or
               diigo, (c) audio and video materials can be distributed as podcasts on iTunesU,
               podcaster or podomatic, (d) presentations can be made available through
               Slideshare or Slideboom, (e) public news and blogs can be made available by
               providing RSS-functionality so they can be included in personal (learning)

Educational Innovation at the Open University

       b. A second set of actions that can be taken as part of this approach is to
          establish an institutional presence in the relevant (or most popular) social
          networking sites. For instance, (a) set up a company profile within LinkedIn to
          assist the institution in its hiring processes, and to provide employees with a
          ‘home’, (b) set up an official presence in the most popular informal social
          networking sites, such as Hyves, Face book or Net log, in order to provide
          passers-by with correct information and somewhat balance the increasing
          number of informal student or staff groups or pages.
       c. A third set of actions in this approach is to encourage staff and faculty to
          incorporate links to external streams of information (e.g. relevant blogs,
          relevant people to follow on Twitter / Delicious) into their courses, or to
          encourage students to co-create a knowledge stream by allowing them to
          suggest additional materials, sources or relevant blogs to a particular course.

2. A second approach is to offer users not only public information and services, but also
   more personalised information through private RSS or other standards. For example,
   course announcements, contributions to closed discussion forums, or specific internal
   institutional information can be made available through private RSS-feeds. Another
   example consists of an alerting and registration service for specific events, tutorial
   sessions, lectures or conferences related to one’s field of study. Such event data
   could be made available through a Google calendar widget or a private feed with iCal
   or vCal data.
   The institution might also choose to collect thematic information streams (both
   personalised and public) into a number of pre-set clusters of feeds / knowledge
   streams. For instance, the department of finance and accounting can bring several
   relevant feeds related to public auditing together in a single cluster and offer it as a
   public Netvibes tab, an iGoogle tab, or an OPML file. Such a cluster would then
   contain knowledge materials produced, selected or filtered by Open University staff,
   such as recorded lectures, textual or multimedia open educational resources, blog
   posts, shared bookmarks, but also event-related information about workshops or
   study sessions. This offering can then simply be included in a user’s personal
   environment and tailored to their needs.

3. A third possible approach is to allow users to tailor their personal workspace within
   the managed learning environment, allowing students to add relevant personal feeds
   or knowledge sources to their personal space in the institution’s virtual learning
   environment, even to include external widgets. This customisation can be situated at
   the individual level (a student adds personal feeds), but also at the group level (study
   groups, regional groups), the course level, the programme level, the faculty level or
   even campus wide. Students could for instance choose to share their calendar within
   their working group or their course colleagues to make it easier to arrange virtual
   study sessions. Another option could be to support students in using the managed
   learning environment as an e-portfolio platform, where they can bring together their
   learning products, process and achievements. The aim of this approach would be to
   make the institutional environment their central knowledge hub as far as their field of
   interest is concerned.

The next paragraphs describes the case of the Open University of the Netherlands, and
the steps it is taking towards establishing a personal learning and working environment.

IPO Report

2.6  Towards a personal learning and working environment at the

At the end of 2007 the OUNL had an extended institution-wide strategic discussion
concerning the future VLE-approach (Verjans et al., 2007) and it was decided to draw up a
new roadmap for electronic servicing of students and staff for the next period of seven years.
Key starting points in this new approach is that we should take into account that (1)
people/students have different aims, needs and preferences and (2) people/students have
different learning and working environments. The latter of these principles has been
addressed through the emerging concept of the Personal Learning and Working Environment
(PLWE). The PLWE is centred on the idea that students – as adults – (should) take
responsibility for their own learning and their own learning environment. In other words, the
student is in control and both wants to and is able to largely determine for himself/herself
how he/she wants learning materials to be provided and with which degree of quality, which
supervision and assessment services he/she wants to utilise – at both programme and course
level – and which technological environment/environments and applications he/she wishes to
use for organisation, communication, and information. The large majority of OUNL students
also have a job, with the associated ICT-based working environment, and want to be able to
integrate what the OUNL offers into that working environment.

For the OUNL, the adoption of the PLWE concept presents a challenge that involves the study
programmes, the OUNL organisation, logistics and technology. From the technology point of
view, the institution needs to reorganise its ICT services and content in such a way that they
may be provided as flexible, “pluggable objects” that can be included in various technological
environments. This implies shifting from thinking in applications towards thinking in services.
It also means rethinking the ICT architecture and moving towards a more open model. In
fact, it involves operating on the basis of a properly thought-out design and not on the basis
of ad hoc decisions and facilities. The aim is sustainability and the ability to keep pace with
new developments, for example in educational theory or technology. It also means maximally
sticking to open standards, as our content and educational services have to be interoperable
to have them integrated or running outside the institutional environment.

Content and presentation need to be separated as much as possible in order to allow for
flexible delivery through different communication channels. The student that is in control can
decide himself /herself whether to read a text online, either on a computer screen or a
Smartphone, to download it as a PDF and read from an eReader or have it printed in the copy
shop around the corner and read from the printed version. This implies completely new
workflows and tooling for content production and management.

The OUNL is tackling the process towards a PLWE on a number of organisational levels in
parallel, following the 2007-2008 institution-wide discussion.
   •    At the institutional level, a central decision board has recently been installed, the so-
        called Programme Board for Service Development. This board will keep track of
        ongoing ICT development projects in the different departments, projects and
        programmes and will prioritise the central support for these development projects.
   •    Workshops and other dissemination activities are being organised to raise awareness
        about the potential of Web2.0 and personal environments for the academic
        community (e.g. Hermans & Verjans, 2008).
   •    A list of student-centred services was drafted and discussed at different levels within
        the institution.
   •    A roadmap was agreed upon for a two-tier approach regarding the further
        development of the MLE platform: (a) upgrading / streamlining of the current MLE
        application, in parallel to (b) experimental piloting with new services. As for (a), the

Educational Innovation at the Open University

        current MLE will undergo streamlining in the sense that redundant applications will be
        faded out. Software upgrades of the central MLE applications will be benchmarked as
        to their compatibility with the PLWE principles. Those upgrades that support either of
        the approaches outlined above will be prioritised. For example, an RSS building block
        for the current MLE has been installed, and other Web2.0-related building blocks are
        being investigated. As for (b), the experimental pilots being undertaken will be
        discussed in more detail in the next paragraph of this paper.
   It is our contention that the move from an institutionally oriented MLE to a student-
   centred PLWE is such an all-encompassing change that it requires parallel actions at a
   number of fronts.

2.7     The OUNL’s first steps towards a PLWE

In this section we will sketch the first experimental steps of the OUNL towards the new PLWE
concept. One of the OUNL projects investigating new student centred services is called
‘MyEducationalServices’ (MOD). The MOD project members – coming from different
departments within the OUNL – work closely together in order to pilot new concepts and
services and subsequently advise the internal decision making authority, the so-called
Programme Board for Service Development.

Before discussing the pilots that are being undertaken within MOD we want to briefly
describe the current MLE, which is known within the institution as Studienet. The main
application within Studienet is the Blackboard system, which serves as a student portal as
well as course management system. Recently, Moodle has been added to Studienet as an
alternative course delivery system, specifically for more interactive course tasks. Certified
testing and examinations are to be handled by Question Mark Perception. Finally, Studienet
also contains a variety of dedicated tools and utilities that are being used throughout the
Next to Studienet – which is a closed environment – the digital environment consists of the
corporate website of the OUNL ( Studienet and the corporate website are
separate web environments, only connected through a series of hyperlinks.

Pilot 1: Towards a personal workspace with social networking services
In the long run, Studienet will evolve towards an integral part of the corporate website and
no longer exist as a separate environment. The corporate website will serve as the
institutional portal with personal workspaces for registered users, giving access to all
relevant information and information services with maximal personalisation. These personal
workspaces will be designed from the perspective of the user. Following the Web2.0
paradigm, the user will be in control to organize his/her own OUNL working space, plug in
and share personal data and widgets, or – the other way around – plug OUNL data and
services in their own mash-up tool.
As personal interaction, communication and collaboration are key for improving learning
processes in face-to-face education as well as distance education, social networking services
should be an important part of this workspace. In pilot 1, the OUNL is investigating the
requirements for online social networking in an academic environment through pilots and
surveys amongst students. The results will provide the institution with useful insights and
the functional requirements for designing and implementing the personal workspace. Figure
2.3 shows a screenshot of the environment that was developed for this first pilot.

IPO Report

Figure 2.3: Prototype of student personal workspace (myOUNL)

Pilot 2: Google Apps
Since 2008, the OUNL has its own Google Apps domain. Google Apps is a collection of web
based applications (email, calendar, chat, collaborative document authoring, sitebuilding)
that work closely together and that can be well integrated in iGoogle, Google’s personalized
environment or dashboard.
Up to the time of writing, only the mail application has been made available for students as it
was not clear what the added value of the other applications might be. After all, the Google
Apps are available for free within the public domain, so why offer the same services from the
institutional domain?
In Spring 2009 two pilots will be carried out to investigate the added value of Google Apps.
One pilot will focus on collaboration, the other will focus on making institutional event data
available in a more flexible way using Google calendar services. This pilot can be situated
within the previously described ‘approach 1 – opening up the MLE to Web2.0’

Pilot 3: Stars and comments
At the start of 2009, several pilots were started that provide students with online rating and
comment services throughout the course material. Rating, annotating en tagging services are
becoming more and more common services on the Web, giving consumers the possibility to
provide feedback about their experiences and appreciations. As such they provide valuable
information for other consumers and on the other hand it may help OUNL staff to improve
their services. Within current VLE’s such as Blackboard, this type of functionality is hardly

Pilot 4: Personalised delivery (e.g. for eReaders)
In 2007 the OUNL made Dutch national headlines by being the first university in the
Netherlands to offer parts of their course materials on electronic paper for a numbers of
students of the Faculty of Management.
In the long run, the OUNL as a distance education institution wants to shift from delivering
course materials in paper form to web-based distribution where the student decides in which
format he/she wants to receive the study materials. Printing-on-demand, e-book readers and
computers that make reading of electronic documents comfortable, are key technologies that
will help us to realise this vision.

Educational Innovation at the Open University

In pilot 4, we are investigating the delivery for e-books of our own courses together with
materials from publishers. The aim is to deliver a complete study programme electronically,
be it interactive materials in our electronic learning environment or by delivering more static
materials on e-book readers.

2.8     Conclusion

This paper states that for modern knowledge workers the trend towards and the need for
personal (web) environments (PE’s) is growing and cannot be ignored. Web2.0 puts the user
at the centre, and it is the user who decides how he or she wants to shape the process of
knowledge sharing and creation and what services to use to support this. The challenge for
educational institutions, especially distance teaching institutions that serve the market of
lifelong learners, is to find a way to keep up with these demanding users and interesting
new web2.0 applications. In many cases they are faced with monolithic VLE’s, that can
hardly compete with the speed of new developments.
We have indicated three possible approaches that may be combined into an institutional
strategy towards a more user centred virtual learning environment. These approaches are:
(1) using the public domain for distribution of public content and services, (2) making
personalized content and services available and ‘pluggable’, e.g. through private RSS feeds
and (3) opening up the VLE and allowing students to add relevant information to their
personal workspaces and to contribute knowledge to their learning communities. The Open
University of the Netherlands recently adopted such a student centred approach and is
preparing to move towards a situation where each individual student can shape his or her
personal learning and working environment (PLWE). It is obvious that the implementation of
such a strategy will affect business processes, architecture and technology choices and
therefore requires a high-level orchestration of the change process.

2.9     References

Attwell, G. (2006). Personal Learning Environments [Electronic Version]. the wales-wide web
        - Graham Attwell on learning, knowledge & technology. Retrieved 30-03-2009 from
Hermans, H., & Verjans, S. (2008). Van www naar een persoonlijk kennisweb.
      Onderwijsinnovatie, 10(2), 37-40.
Johnson, M., Liber, O., Wilson, S., Beauvoir, P., Sharples, P., & Milligan, C. (2007). Mapping
       the Future: The personal learning environment reference model and emerging
       technology. In D. Whitelock & S. Wheeler (Eds.), The next generation. Research
       Proceedings of the 13th Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C
       2006). (pp. 182-191). Scotland, UK: Herriot-Watt University.
Verjans, S., Hermans, H., Bertrand, M., Eshuis, J., Janssen, D., Mofers, F., et al. (2007).
       Principes voor een persoonlijke leer-en werkomgeving voor de Open Universiteit
       Nederland - Rapportage "Elo van de toekomst". Heerlen, NL: Open Universiteit
Wenmoth, D. (2006). More on MLEs and PLEs [Electronic Version]. Derek's Blog: musings on
     the use and impact of technology in education, and of the future of education in
     general. Retrieved 30-03-2009 from http://blog.core-
Wilson, S. (2005). Future VLE - The Visual version [Electronic Version]. Scott's Workblog.
       Retrieved 30-03-2009 from

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Wilson, S., Liber, O., Griffiths, D., & Johnson, M. (2007). Preparing for disruption: developing
       institutional capability for decentralized education technologies. Paper presented at
       the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and
       Telecommunications 2007, Vancouver, Canada.

Educational Innovation at the Open University

3   The introduction of a virtual classroom instrument
at the Open University of the Netherlands

Kathleen Schlusmans, Wil Giesbertz, Ellen Rusman and Howard Spoelstra

3.1     Introduction

In 2006, the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL) started running trials with a so
called virtual classroom. A virtual classroom is a combined set of tools for conducting
classroom-like sessions live over the Internet. Since 2006, more than 20 pilot projects have
been carried out, involving more than 25 tutors and over 200 students. We intended to use
the virtual classroom as a replacement for face-to-face (f2f) tutoring sessions, which are
normally organised in our study centres located across the country. The questions we asked
ourselves were: Is the virtual classroom a suitable alternative for f2f meetings and, if so,
what is the best pedagogical approach to use and the best way to organise it’s use?
All pilots were organised in a project that was positioned directly under the OUNL central
board, and in which most faculties participated. We investigated several virtual classroom
instruments in order to come to a first selection of promising candidates. In the end, two
instruments were closely investigated in our trails: first LearnLinc from Ilinc and later on
Eluminate Live! Academic version from Elluminate. All pilots were evaluated extensively. Our
findings indicate that the virtual classroom is a valuable addition to our educational offerings.

In this paper we will describe what a virtual classroom is, why we choose to implement it and
how we came to our selection of an instrument. We will also report on our findings from pilot
projects and our recommendations on how to use a virtual classroom instrument in distance
education settings.

3.2     What is a virtual classroom?

A virtual classroom is an instrument for conducting live classroom-like sessions over the
internet. In it, students and tutor(s) can communicate using voice, video, chat and
whiteboard tools. They also have facilities like application sharing, polling, breakout sessions
and quizzes. It allows the tutor and students to participate in real time lessons and
discussions. Students can ask questions, draw on the whiteboard, and participate in breakout
sessions. (Almost) everything that can be done in a real classroom, can be done in a virtual
classroom. Moreover, the whole classroom session can be recorded and made available for
review afterwards.

In Figure 3.1 we present a screen shot of the virtual classroom instrument Elluminate Live!.

Fout! Objecten kunnen niet worden gemaakt door veldcodes te bewerken.
Figure 3.1: screenshot of an empty virtual classroom in Elluminate Live! (student view),
indicating some interaction functions.

3.3     Why we considered using a virtual classroom?

The main pedagogical model of the Open University of the Netherlands aims at supporting
self-directed learning. OUNL students study independently, in their own time and at their own

IPO Report

place and pace, using course materials specifically developed to support self-directed
learning. Contacts with tutors are limited and in most cases take place through e-mail or in
discussion groups. OUNL organises f2f meetings in study centres for most introductory
courses, but to a far lesser extent for regular courses. These f2f meetings offer the students
a sense of connectedness: they get to know each other and their tutor and get immediate
feedback on questions and problems.

The attendance at f2f meetings has always been a problem within the OUNL, as their nature
collides with the model of supported self-directed learning. Students can start and complete
their courses at any time and are not part of a defined cohort of students. So f2f meetings
usually do not match with the individual pacing of the student. Furthermore, special need
students or students who live or work abroad can’t join these meetings. F2f meetings often
are not very efficient as student numbers are too small to cost effectively organize the
sessions in more then a very limited set of study centres. This means that most students
have to travel quite far in order to attend a meeting.
In an effort to retain the advantages of f2f meetings but at the same time come to terms
with their disadvantages, it was decided to investigate the opportunities a virtual classroom
could offer.

3.4     Pilot projects with the virtual classroom instrument

In 2006, a first experiment with a virtual classroom took place in a course on Chemistry
(Corvers, 2006). This experiment was considered successful and subsequently it was decided
to start pilot projects to extended the number of courses that used the virtual classroom in
order to establish whether it would be fruitful to implement the virtual classroom for
University-wide use.
The aim of the piloting phase was to answer the following questions:
    -   Is the virtual classroom an alternative for the f2f-meetings in the study centres? And
        if so, under which conditions?
    -   How do we go about implementing a virtual classroom solution for University-wide
             o Which software should we use?
             o Which pedagogical model(s) should we adopt?
             o How many students can be involved in virtual classroom sessions?
    -   How do we support students and staff in virtual classroom use?

During 2007 and 2008 more than 20 pilots took place throughout all six faculties of the
OUNL. The tutors all took part on a voluntary basis. In most pilots small groups of students
participated, varying from 4 tot 15 persons. The virtual meetings were not compulsory, so
students could choose whether they wanted to participate or not. In half the cases meetings
took place through the virtual classroom, while in the other half also parallel f2f meetings
were organised. The pedagogical approach in the meetings was roughly the same as in the
f2f meetings: short presentations, asking questions and discussing issues.
In the 2007 pilots we used the software from ILinc, but in the 2008 pilots we used Elluminate
Live!. Most of the time we did not use the video facilities. We found it’s use too cumbersome
and besides that, the audio signal became more difficult to hear when video was used
simultaneously. We evaluated all pilots using questionnaires and interviews.

Educational Innovation at the Open University

3.5     Results of the pilots

Overall, the students were very positive about their experiences. They thought the virtual
classroom an efficient alternative for the f2f-meetings, as they did not have to travel to the
study centers and as the sessions were more frequent and not as long as the regular tutoring
sessions. They felt that their involvement was comparable to regular sessions, some even
said they felt more involved as they got more opportunities to actively participate. They also
liked the opportunity to view session recordings after the meeting. When asked if they would
prefer online meetings to real live meetings, the students were still a bit hesitant. Most of
them would prefer a mixture of both, specially in situations that require much interaction and
discussion. The tutors were very enthusiastic about the experience of online tutoring. None
of them has stopped using the virtual classroom since. But at the same time they were a bit
disappointed by the number of students that attended the online sessions.

Students and tutors alike reported that they thought of the virtual classroom as a suitable
alternative to f2f-meeting. For both, the meetings were much easier to organise and
available at a much shorter notice than f2f-meetings. It also emerged that the possibility of
organising shorter but more frequent meetings worked much better than one long f2f
meeting in one or two study centres (mainly because of the reduced travelling time). The
virtual classroom is not as effective as f2f teaching but it is certainly more efficient.
Certainty within the smaller groups of students during the pilots, there was enough
opportunity for interaction. Students experienced the same amount of involvement and they
did not feel it was more difficult to stay attentive. All tutors who participated in the pilots
decided to go on using the virtual classroom after the pilot period ended.

But students and tutors all still felt that the virtual classroom should be a supplement to f2f
meetings and not a total replacement. They missed the direct communication, the meeting
over coffee and the general chitchat which makes learning fun. In the beginning tutors felt
very insecure when using the virtual classroom and they certainly felt exhausted afterwards.
But after some sessions they got used to the specific requirements on communicating and
keeping track of interactions in the virtual classroom.

3.6     Selection of the virtual class instrument

In order to select a virtual classroom instrument we developed a list of specifications based
on the needs of tutors, students and educational experts: we scored potential candidates on
educational use, user friendliness, features and administration. For educational use we
looked at the way different teaching activities were supported, such as discussion,
workshops, group work, assessments etc. User friendliness was assessed by examining the
installation procedures, the features of the integration into our Virtual Learning Environment
(VLE) and the availability of training materials for students and teachers. For features we
looked at the availability of Voice over Internet (VoIP), presentation tools, whiteboard tools,
application sharing, public and private chat, feedback tools, document sharing, polling and
quizzes. We also looked at how the system should be installed/administered, the way
students and tutors were authorised for use and the licence fees.
We initially looked into a whole range of virtual classroom instruments and assessed them
using the list of requirements. After the first round in our elimination process, two
commercial products were tested extensively in the pilots. Finally we decided to choose for
Elluminate Live!, mainly based on quality of audio, extensive feature set, support for multiple
platforms, automatic reconnection features and low bandwidth requirements,

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