Getting the most out of your VLE: how to easily add functionality

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How much do you and your students get out of your Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)? These online platforms - currently dominated by Moodle, Blackboard and Canvas - have been prevalent within UK higher education for well over a decade now.

At their most basic level, these VLEs may be used as static repositories for handouts and lab books. Somewhat more sophisticated uses include opportunities for peer interaction and basic quizzes.

These have advantages over paper-based systems, but VLEs have so much more potential - often left untapped. Now let’s go beyond the basic functionality.

Imagine your VLE with the added opportunity to provide real-time feedback to individualised student assessments, test your students on their ability to draw chemical structures, add in complex mathematical notation or introduce engaging and interactive resources to spice up your own content.

With these added functionalities, the opportunities for student engagement and active learning are abundant.

So, how can you take advantage of these by adding functionality to your VLE?  Will it be time-consuming to set up? Will students need yet another set of log-in details to remember? What about all the student records and grades?

There are two main solutions: plug-ins and LTIs.

Plug-ins are modular building blocks which each add a new feature to the VLE, but need to be developed for each individual system. Moodle, being an open source system, has many plug-ins developed by individuals or institutions within the community.

These may be well-supported and updated, or potentially may be taken into the core system and the maintained codebase. But this can take time and of course there is a cost associated with developing new functionality. Anyone adopting these plug-ins should be aware they may stop updating or even cease to exist at any point.

So what’s the answer? How can institutions get new functionality added to their system without compromising the institution system or adding to their support burden, no matter which VLE they use.

Enter LTI.

Over the last 10 years the LTI protocol (Learning Tools Interoperability) has been introduced and developed to allow third-party suppliers to link directly into the VLE.

Using LTIs you can seamlessly embed an externally provided tool within your VLE. Once set up, the resources are readily available to your students and staff. You enable enhanced subject-specific content with no extra log-ins required and the reassurance of support from your provider.

So how does it work? The key features to know about are:

  • Users are automatically authenticated into the external system
  • Restrictions can be added to determine how much identifying data is shared
  • A different experience can be defined for different roles which are mapped across the systems (eg staff and students)
  • Grade information can be shared back to the VLE gradebook
  • Custom parameters can also be passed between the systems to further individualise the experience

The benefit of the LTI approach is that it bypasses inherent limitations caused by prior choice of institutional VLE. In fact, your university could change its VLE and the service of the third party tool can be maintained.

Institutions and providers need to understand the data that will be shared between systems and data protection inevitably needs to be a part of the discussion. However, the protocol opens the door to users to make use of transformational learning technology without the complexity of introducing new systems.

This is why LTIs are becoming widespread - even a norm - across UK Higher Education institutions. With LTIs, virtual learning environments really can be the portal to a plethora of new and exciting learning opportunities.


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