IT Services

WebLearn and Nexus – which tool for which activity?


1. Introduction

The online environment in the University of Oxford is being transformed. A new Groupware service is being deployed1, the virtual learning environment has being upgraded2, the University’s student system is being developed3, and the glue that holds this all together – identity and access management – is continuing to be built4. It is essential that the various systems interoperate effectively and produce a coherent environment for the user.

This paper considers two of the services, Groupware/Nexus and the virtual learning environment WebLearn, and addresses the oft asked question what is the appropriate use of each? The guidelines are in keeping with practices at other Universities who are further down the path of rolling out a SharePoint service to complement their existing VLE.

A PDF version of this document is also available for download via the ODIT web site.

2. Groupware/Nexus and WebLearn

2.1. Groupware/Nexus

The Groupware Project was launched on 15 October 2008 at an event attended by the Vice-Chancellor and Gordon Frazer, MD Microsoft UK. A 'Letter of Understanding' was signed by both parties marking a new degree of collaboration. The new service has been named Nexus5, which emphasises its communication and group working aspects, and is based on Microsoft Exchange 2007 and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server6 (MOSS). It includes7 a service which is available to all staff and students offering: email, shared contact list, shared calendaring system, task listing, document sharing, document management, workflow and more.

The current Groupware Project is the first phase of long-term development in Groupware. Migration of Herald users began during August and September and will continue in mid-October 2009. The project will complete by the end of March 2010 resulting in the Nexus service. It is intended to build on the foundation laid down with the MOSS software, in particular, through a series of future projects. One possibility being considered, for example, is the building of a virtual research environment using SharePoint as the foundation8.

2.2. WebLearn

The University has had a centrally-provided virtual learning environment since January 20039. It is a collection of online tools brought together for learners and teachers to use in creative ways to facilitate learning and teaching support at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and is widely used. The system is highly flexible and has been developed over the years to complement Oxford’s existing teaching practices – notably the tutorial system.

Over the last year the virtual learning environment has been radically overhauled. Although it still has the same name, the underlying software has changed, and it is now based on Sakai10. The Sakai Project began as a $6.8 million community source software development project founded by the University of Michigan, Indiana University, MIT, Stanford, the uPortal Consortium, and the Open Knowledge Initiative11. It is now used by Cambridge, and most of the major US Universities (including Yale), its popularity reflecting the fact that it was developed by world-class research-led Universities.

The new WebLearn service had a pilot phase lasting a year and was launched on 30 June 2009. In addition to organising learning support materials, it offers an extensive (and developing) set of tools developed with the Oxford teaching model in mind.

3. Which Tool for Which Activity?

Members of the Nexus and WebLearn teams are often asked which tools should be used for which type of activity. Other universities have faced the same issue. An extract from a University of Amsterdam blog12 states:- My basic statement is that the conceptual design behind SharePoint is completely different compared to Sakai. Although there are areas of overlap between Sakai and SharePoint, there are well-documented differences. Sakai is designed for and built by the educational environment, and in Oxford we have used this as our tool for learning and teaching support to supplement our face-to-face activities. MOSS has been designed for supporting workflows within collaborative research and committee management; most of the leading research Universities now have some implementation of SharePoint.

Both Nexus and WebLearn are still under development in Oxford, and preferences may evolve with use, but in answer to the question of what each should be used for is, our recommendation is:

3.1. Primary role for WebLearn:

WebLearn is the service of choice to support teaching and learning. There has been a considerable amount of investment to tailor it to the environment in Oxford and support is available to ensure it is used effectively. WebLearn offers:

3.2. Primary role for Nexus:

Nexus is the service of choice to support online communication, document sharing, research groups, and administration. When requirements for the Groupware service were being specified it was clear that there was a need across the collegiate University to hold and share documents. It offers:

There are points of interface which require further development. Both WebLearn and Nexus have, and need, calendars (termed a scheduler for the former). It will be essential that these interoperate dynamically. It will also be necessary for both services to interoperate with other applications, both within and beyond the University; and both will need to interoperate with a diverse range of platforms, including mobile devices. Both services will interoperate with the OUCS OAK read/write group store later this year. This will mean, for example, that distribution lists created in Exchange could be used in WebLearn, and an ad hoc group made in WebLearn could be used in Nexus.

4. Conclusions

The University does not mandate a particular system for any specific activity. Users should choose the service which best meets their needs and is easiest to use. However, both services have been designed to help facilitate specific processes in the University, and OUCS is funded to provide user support and service development within the agreed scope of each service. WebLearn has been designed to support teaching and learning, and its focus is to meet the needs of teachers and to offer a first class environment for students. Nexus is a new service which is designed to offer a shared online environment for staff and students across the collegiate University, and the SharePoint component of MOSS focuses, in particular, on document sharing and workflow support for researches and administrators.