Involving users in the UCEM VLE upgrade

four people working on notepads sitting around a desk
Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash


The UCEM Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is built on a Learning Management System called Moodle, and the hosting and maintenance of the UCEM VLE is managed by a Hosting Company called Open LMS. Moodle regularly releases updates to improve the user experience and maintain the security of the platform, and these updates are pushed out by Open LMS approximately 6 months after the Moodle release. Updates to the VLE are usually minor, occur several times a year, and tend to result in minor changes to the user experience.

Every few years, Moodle implements what is known as a Major Release. The last was in 2015 when the platform was upgraded from Version 2.9 to 3.0. In early 2022 we learned that the next major upgrade from Version 3.11 to Version 4.0 would be occurring later that year. Release notes and information from Moodle made it clear this was a significant overhaul of the platform, aiming to improve navigation, accessibility, and overall user experience. We realised this upgrade would require more planning from the Learning Technology team than a typical VLE upgrade would. It also offered us an opportunity to improve existing practices and investigate new approaches to the design of the VLE.


Nobody likes change, especially when it is unexpected! We understood from the start that it would be difficult to cover the detail of the upgrade with absolutely everyone at UCEM, but we developed a robust communication plan incorporating Microsoft Teams, emails, and All Staff briefings to raise awareness from an early stage in the project.

Figure 1: A graphic representing the initial plan for the VLE upgrade project
Source: Caroline King 2022


It was important to identify which elements of the VLE would remain the same; which would function differently; and which would be removed altogether. We developed a test environment running Moodle 4.0 where we and selected users could carry out extensive testing.

Early on we identified several changes that would have an impact on the look and feel or functionality of the VLE and in many cases were able to identify alternatives or workarounds well in advance. One of these early issues was the Moodle theme, which controls the look and feel of the VLE. Prior to the upgrade project we encountered some accessibility issues associated with the existing theme that we were unable to resolve. During testing we also found that the existing theme would prevent us from using some of the new features of Moodle 4.0. We decided this was a good opportunity to investigate alternative themes for the UCEM VLE.


Almost as important as the testing phase of the project was consultation with user groups. While we knew our own preferences, and the recommendations from accessibility and usability advocates, we also needed to consider the views of VLE users in our decision making. To do this, we gathered feedback in the following ways:

  • Student VLE survey distributed to determine how students use the VLE and what improvements they would like to see applied;
  • Staff Theme survey to determine which of the three shortlisted theme options was preferred;
  • Learning Experience Student Panel to consult students on potential designs for the VLE homepage.

This was in addition to the informal feedback we gathered from staff through the Upgrade channel and Learning Technology User Group, and from students through Student Representative meetings.

From the feedback received we were able to make improvements to the navigation of the VLE, the signposting of important information, and the design of the front page. We also decided to make the move to a simplified core Moodle theme, Boost. This theme is supported and maintained by Moodle, reducing the risk of bugs and future errors following upgrades. It was also extensively tested by Moodle for Accessibility and a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Test) is available.


We now knew what would be changing, and had to make a decision on when. We didn’t have a lot of control over dates for the upgrade, but our hosting company did give us a choice between an upgrade on December 28 2022, or July 13 2023. We chose to postpone to the later date to give us more time to complete testing and consultation.

The final step was to create appropriate resources to support users through these changes. With the assistance of the Media team we created a short video to accompany staff and student-facing FAQ pages. We distributed these resources in advance of the upgrade, presented at the weekly All Staff Briefing, and offered several well-attended in-person and online drop-in sessions where users could log in to the already upgraded sandbox and gain familiarity with the new-look VLE before the upgrade date.

Finally, we made use of improvements to the User Tour function in Moodle to build a number of in-situ pop-up guides to explain new features and direct users where content had moved or looked different across the Homepage, Dashboard, My Courses page, and module pages.

Figure 2: An example of a user tour being displayed over the VLE homepage
Source: Caroline King 2022


The only thing remaining was the upgrade itself. By the time 13 July rolled around we were certain there was nothing further we could do to prepare. In fact, we were so confident in our preparation for the upgrade that the scheduling of our team building day for the day prior was not a concern! Notifications of outages were sent, and we prepared a checklist of settings to work through while the VLE was in maintenance mode to minimise the disruption to users. The upgrade went off without a hitch and we were able to open the VLE to users an hour and a half earlier than intended.


Following the upgrade, we received feedback through a number of channels. Most of this feedback was positive, with users appreciating the new look and functionality (shared below with permission).

‘Top job…The VLE looks proper handsome.’

Matthew Smith, UCEM Academic

‘It looks SUPER! We are loving it in the office!… all I can hear is positive comments :)’

Charlotte Thackeray, Outreach and Inclusion Lead

‘It looks great – I heard my team talking earlier (now they’ve had a proper chance to look through it) about how much improved/clearer it is for students.’

Ella Wheeler, Student Engagement Manager

‘It looks very smart indeed.’

UCEM Tutor

Some users expressed difficulty navigating the new platform, and we were able to adapt our FAQs in response. We received some feedback from students relating to the unfortunate timing of the upgrade, which was the one aspect that was out of our control. We plan to gather feedback more formally from both student and staff users now that all have had a chance to become familiar with the new VLE to help us with our evaluation of this project.

We have learned from this project that communication and preparation can help make even significant upgrades deploy successfully. We acknowledge that disruption during the semester is less than ideal, and we will continue to do all we can to minimise this for future upgrades with advance notice and supporting resources, and will expand the communication methods and channels we use to keep users informed as early as possible. We also plan to more regularly consult VLE user groups, in particular student users, to ensure that the usability, accessibility, and overall experience of the UCEM VLE continues to improve.