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Leading the field in a virtual environment

A free software system developed at the University has beaten its commercial competitors to become the University of Oxford’s new virtual learning environment (VLE).

The Bodington system – used to support teaching by every department at Leeds – is open source, so it can be downloaded for free with its original source code, and developers can adapt it and add to it as they wish. Improvements can be fed back to the original development team, so everyone can benefit.

Gateway to learning – the entrance to 'Bodington Common', Leeds' VLE based on the open source Bodington system developed at the University

“Oxford is justifiably proud of the way it teaches its students,” said professor of online learning Andrew Booth. “They didn’t want to have to change that to fit a software programme. One of Bodington’s advantages is that it doesn’t tie you down to one way of teaching.”

“We’re looking forward to participating in Bodington’s development,” said Dr Stuart Lee, head of learning technologies at Oxford University’s computing services. “We found the other systems very rigid and hierarchical, often using US terminology and structures, and imposing overly restrictive roles to tutor and student. Bodington is flexible enough to deal with our way of doing things – and we were keen to support an open source project.”

Bodington began life as a web-based discussion forum, created by Jon Maber, then working as a computer officer in biological sciences. He joined the University’s flexible learning development unit to develop the system. As more features were added, the metaphor of a building was introduced, with floors and rooms for user-friendly navigation. In keeping with tradition, this virtual building was named after an illustrious figure from the University’s history: its first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Nathan Bodington.

“All departments at Leeds now use Bodington Common – our own VLE based on the Bodington system,” said Jon Maber. “Some run complete distance-learning degrees, others individual modules, and how they structure their teaching and which features they use is totally up to the tutor. Bodington is also very accessible and compatible with many adaptive software programmes for disabled computer users. It can also cope with all modern language character sets, and many ancient ones as well.”

The system’s wide range of features include multi-choice papers, completed online with marks and analysis sent direct to the tutor; discussion rooms where students and tutors can post contributions; questionnaires or short papers filled in online with written answers; and tutors’ ‘pigeonholes’ where students can upload their completed work. Neither tutors nor students need any technical knowledge to use the system.

The University of Manchester has already chosen to adopt the system and over 50 institutions around the world have downloaded the software.

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