The JISC-funded programme 'Building Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) in HE'  was of three years' duration and concluded in July 2003. The aim of the programme was to explore developments that test, evaluate, and prove (or in some circumstances disprove) the generic deployment of technology in support of improved learning. The programme has developed good practice and shared ideas and experiences across FE and HE sectors. The specific objectives were to:
The fourteen projects funded under the programme explored issues in four areas: the development of learner-centred MLEs; the development of institutional systems to support MLEs; the use of IMS specifications to develop MLEs; and strategies to achieve organisational change to support MLEs.
Six of the projects developed a variety of joined-up systems which, in general, linked together back-end administrative systems and presented a user interface through a Web front-end. In many cases, the system that was developed shared many of the characteristics of an institutional portal (also commonly known as Educational or Campus portals).
The JISC wished to review the systems that were developed and to consider their potential for future use in the wider FE and HE community; this article summarises the full report  that was produced as part of the review.
The aims of the report were to review products developed under the programme in the context of international technology developments in order to ascertain their potential future in the FE and HE community.
The objectives of the report were:
Essentially all project products were underpinned by an architecture summarised in Figure 1:
Whilst common across the JISC 7/99 projects that were reviewed, Figure 1 is not really a generic MLE Architecture; rather it is typical of any N-tier Web application and contains easily identifiable storage, logic and presentation layers on the server side of the application.
Harder to pigeon-hole was the 'glue' that supports interoperability between the various layers to occur - the term 'middleware envelope' is used here to bracket the integration magic that holds it all together. It was principally in the nature of their middleware envelope that projects differed from a technical standpoint - and this is also where the major innovations of this strand of the JISC 7/99 programme can be identified.
The overall impression was that the six projects had more in common than they had differences. This commonality is conveyed in Figures 2-13; the architecture diagrams have been constructed using the same schema as that used in Figure 1.
This project sought to integrate the student information system, the timetabling system, key documents (e.g. student handbook, regulations) and a news/messaging system. The product was primarily aimed at students of De Montfort University.
The potential for exploitation within other institutional contexts is very wide; the uPortal framework is agnostic and standards-based. The degree to which other systems can integrate is limited only by whether they offer adequate APIs and whether sufficient expertise is available to undertake the task (and maintain the service subsequently).
In general the architecture was flexible. However, the most innovative component of the product - the Broker between the student record system and the rest of the MLE - was also the most proprietary in terms of the toolkit (Visual Basic) and the platform (Windows) required. For such middleware to be adopted widely it needs to be recast in a more open, less platform-dependent alternative.
Integration of Writtle College's four primary databases (finance, library, student records and timetabling) was the primary goal of this project. In addition, about twenty-five ancillary databases and discrete data sources used throughout the College were also integrated within the GIMIS core (e.g. locations database, FE Attendance). The product was aimed at both staff and students.
The architecture was flexible if working within a Cold Fusion  environment. The potential for exploitation within other institutional contexts is limited by this factor. The current prototype exposed an extraordinarily rich range of information drawn from many content sources within the institution and demonstrated what can be achieved with a high level of commitment to an information strategy.
Perhaps the distinguishing feature of this project (a joint venture between St. Andrews and Durham Universities) within the JISC 7/99 programme was its recognition that information maintained by departments (as opposed to the central administration), and the work involved in doing so, are important components in the overall institutional information base. This project sought to integrate departmental and centrally maintained systems using Java Server Pages . In particular it focused on the exchange and management of data about students and modules (the 'Module Management System' - MMS). The product was mainly aimed at academic staff.
There are many components to the overall system; it was not clear to what extent they would be portable to other institutions, (though this was never an explicit goal of the project). The diversity of applications suggested that the system was indeed flexible within the local departmental context, provided in-house expertise was available to customise and develop the system.
This project sought to provide access to a wide range of systems: student records, unit enrolments and marks, course data, accommodation records, debtors and payments data, library borrower information, IT Service user data and timetabling information. It was primarily aimed at students of the University of East Anglia.
The project started development using WebObjects  but switched to the uPortal  framework in its final stages. The architecture was flexible; the IMS - Generator and XML - IMS conversion programs can work with either a WebObjects-based or uPortal-based system.
The use of XML to act as the interface with institutional data allows this middleware to sit between any data and any Web application that can import and read XML. If you know your institutional data structures and have the expertise to modify a few (less than five) XML documents, then the middleware can work in your context.
The potential for exploitation within other institutional contexts was very wide. It was not clear that deep integration of systems had yet been achieved in the current prototype; the passing of authentication credentials between component systems had not yet been implemented.
This project at Sunderland University attempted to integrate a virtual learning environment (WebCT) and student records system (SITS) within a portal. The product was aimed at both staff and students.
The project was distinctive in not having embraced Java as a development platform and instead adopting Zope  (a Python-based Web application framework). While this architecture is highly extensible (and portable), the project was able to reuse existing components (Plone  - itself built upon the Content Management Framework), to create their product more or less 'out of the box'.
SMILE had not yet achieved deep integration of its SIS and VLE systems. It had achieved a degree of being joined-up by providing a 'one-stop shop' at which users can find collected in one place the links they need to other campuses. But there was no passing of authentication credentials; a separate login was required at the systems (e.g. E-mail, VLE) to which you were taken.
The validating example of the TISR project was a model of the student record. The project showed how a student record can be embodied as an LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) directory entry, and, using the TISR API, how the LDAP directory can be populated with student records, the individual components of which are derived from different sources.
TISR is described as a 'lazy meta-directory'. Its role is to integrate the disparate data sources that typically make up the student record. Sample data connectors including JDBC (Java Database Connectivity ), LDAP, Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB)  and XML have been developed. In short TISR will integrate whatever you want. The product is aimed at systems administrators.
Aware of the international efforts to produce specifications for interoperability such as the IMS, EduPerson and LiPerson 'student objects', TISR focused on a pragmatic solution while such standards consolidate and manufacturers of both instructional and administrative software for the educational sector implement them.
The potential for exploitation within other institutional contexts is probably universal - what institution does not have more than one flavour of content repository? The TISR middleware is agnostic and standards-based.
Ravensbourne College has delivered an exemplar project which should inform the future development of any 'project standards' that the JISC may wish to consider in programmes involving technical development.
It has been a privilege (and a learning experience) to see behind the scenes of the projects, their code and their host institutions - their co-operation is gratefully acknowledged. My thanks in particular to Tish Roberts (JISC Programme Manager) for the support and patience she has shown.
Article Title: "Six MLEs: more similar than different"
Author: Paul Browning
Publication Date: 30-July-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue36
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue36/browning/