SharePoint versus Blackboard and Moodle: the battle for the Virtual Learning Environment market in UK Higher Education

I am currently working on a Northumbria University research project into the usage of SharePoint in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).  The research is funded by Eduserv.

The first stage of the project has been a literature review.   A Google search for occurences of the word ‘SharePoint’ on sites within the domain ‘’  threw up many descriptions of how particular HEIs are using SharePoint.  University IT departments often provide information for staff and students regarding their information systems on the University’s publicly accessible website.

The search indicates that two common uses of SharePoint by UK HEIs are to:

  • provide their teams or departments with SharePoint collaboration sites (team sites) so that they can use them for document managament and collaboration in place of, or as a supplement to, their network shared drive OR
  • use SharePoint as a portal powering their website/intranet and connecting up to internal systems

These are similar to the uses that organisations in other sectors of the economy make of SharePoint.

Some of the most interesting debates in the literature concern the use of SharePoint in a role specific to the world of education, namely its use as a virtual learning environment (VLE).

Microsoft’s attempt to break into the VLE market

Virtual Learning Environments are the primary way in which HEIs manage teaching and learning.

Virtual Learning Environments typically provide learners with

  • access to key resources such as lecture schedules, reading lists, lecture slidepacks, assignment details, news and announcements
  • facilities to collaborate and connect with fellow learners, and with lecturers
  • a personalised space to keep a record of their own work and learning

The market for VLE software is bigger than simply HEIs, it also comprises schools and further education colleges.

In the UK the VLE market is dominated by two specialist VLE systems:

  • Blackboard (a proprietary system)
  • Moodle (an open source system)

With SharePoint 2007 Microsoft are making an explicit move into the VLE market. They are likely to find this a hard market to crack into it.   No enterprise system vendor has yet managed to break into this market.   Most HEIs already have a VLE in place.

In October 2008 Dominic Watts, Microsoft UK’s Higher Education Business manager, posted a blogpost Using SharePoint as a VLE.  In it Watts states that Universities could use SharePoint as their VLE either by using out of the box functionality or by customisation.

The post itself does not elaborate on using SharePoint’s out of the box functionality, but this is likely to mean:

  • using SharePoint team sites as collaborative areas for staff and students around course modules. This would provide facilities such as SharePoint calendars, discussion boards, announcement lists, wikis and blogs, and would enable the use of document libraries to store resources such as reading lists and slidepacks
  • giving each student an individual SharePoint ‘my site’ through which to organise and record their own work, and to communicate with fellow students and lecturers.

In terms of customisation Microsoft are making a SharePoint Learning Kit freely available via Codeplex that extends SharePoint to provide VLE functionality.

The possibility of using SharePoint as a VLE gives HEIs an interesting choice to make. Do they go for a specialist VLE provider, or do they go for SharePoint and look for synergies with SharePoint’s use elsewhere in the institution?

Examples of usage and non-usage of SharePoint as a VLE

In the US Washington State University is using explored the use of SharePoint as their VLE.  Their Centre for Learning, Teaching and Technology wrote a blogpost giving the following four reasons for adopting SharePoint as a learning environment for students, in preference to Blackboard (the market leading specialist VLE):

students are learning skills in SharePoint that they can later use in work contexts, where Blackboard skills are not useful outside the school context

As [the] university adopts SharePoint for a variety of administrative purposes, there becomes a larger group of SharePoint experts who can provide support to both faculty and students using SharePoint as a learning platform.

SharePoint has a concept for exporting sites and elements of sites (libraries, web parts, surveys, etc) as .STP files and then re-importing these into other sites or adding them to templates for users to choose.

SharePoint’s architecture enables other linkages and mashups. It is a source and consumer of RSS, will support embedding of other Web 2.0 resources in its pages, and can capture email and originate email alerts.

The blogpost also mentioned the flexibility of SharePoint document libraries, and SharePoint’s fine grained access control.

[Update: Nils Petersen of WSU has left a comment to this post informing me that WSU explored the use of SharePoint , but it was never centrally implemented, and that WSU are now implementing Angel as its centrally supported learning environment]

In contrast Utrecht University chose Blackboard as their VLE, rather than SharePoint, even thought they are using SharePoint for their website, intranet and had plans to use it for team sites.   Keith Russell wrote a blogpost in which he gave the following rationale for Utrecht’s rejection of SharePoint as a VLE:

Blackboard offers all the required functionalities out-of-the-box, whereas using Sharepoint would require a lot of programming and customising. This would not only make it a very expensive option in the short term, but also requires upkeep and adaptations in the longer term. Sharepoint was also considered less suitable due to the steep learning curve for staff. This is related to the fact that it is not purpose-built for teaching and learning and does not fit in the ‘classroom metaphor’

SharePoint’s current position within the UK VLE market

In their  2008 Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for higher education in the UK UCISA notes a consolidation in the market:

Blackboard continues as the most used enterprise or institutional VLE. However, when also including VLEs that are used more locally, e.g. within departments, then Moodle is most used with a rapid rise since 2005. Overall, there is a vastly reduced range of VLEs in use since 2005.

The same UCISA survey commented

SharePoint was identified as the leading institutionally developed [VLE] platform.

However SharePoint still trailed well behind Blackboard and Moodle with only 5 HEIs using it as their main VLE (7% of UCISA’s sample).

Microsoft is keeping its options open with regards to the usage of SharePoint in relation to teaching and learning. As well as promoting SharePoint as a VLE in its own right, they also sell SharePoint as an enterprise portal that can provide access to the VLE and any other HEI information system. As early as May 2007 Microsoft’s Higher Education blog announced that web parts had been developed that enabled information from the Moodle VLE to be displayed within SharePoint.

More HEIs are using SharePoint as a corporate portal, or as a general enterprise document management and collaboration system, than are using SharePoint as a VLE. HEIs such as the University of the West of England, Coventry University, and the University of Oxford have large SharePoint implementations in place or planned. However each of them are sticking with their specialist VLEs.

Debates among information professionals

JISC provides a network of Regional Support Committees to provide UK further and higher education institutions with help in relation to information technology. Many of the Regional Support Committees facilitate a Moodle User Group, a Blackboard User Group and a SharePoint forum. The minutes of the Scottish SharePoint Forum, Held on 16 June 2008, includes the following list of the questions discussed in a round table session at the end of the meeting. The list is dominated by questions concerning the relationship between SharePoint and specialist VLEs:

Is there an overlap between the functionality of VLEs and SharePoint or do they serve different purposes?

Does content need to be in a single place (i.e. the VLE, SharePoint or elsewhere)? Does this matter if the end user can be directed to services via a single interface (and single sign-on)?

Single sign-on is essential for providing seamless access to services for students

What content should be provided for students? Are we giving them what they need or are we simply being led by the tools that are available?

VLEs are effective tools for distance learning, but are they being used widely by other students?

7 thoughts on “SharePoint versus Blackboard and Moodle: the battle for the Virtual Learning Environment market in UK Higher Education

  1. James,
    Thank you for the link to our work at WSU, however a clarification is in order. WSU is currently migrating to Angel as its centrally supported learning environment.

    Explorations of SharePoint were only that, explorations. They have not been implemented centrally. Further, the exploration moved our thinking toward open content, as seen here The references to Leslie will lead you to some interesting thinking in this domain. The other contribution I think we are making to this open learning conversation is in the area a “Harvesting Gradebook” To explore that idea, I’ll refer you to this recent post and the readings it references.

    1. Hi Nils, thank you very much for the clarification, I have updated the post to show that SharePoint was never centrally implemented by WSU as a VLE.

      I am very interested in your explorations of different ways to use technology to support open learning. My understanding is that you gave students SharePoint ‘my sites’ and encouraged them to use their ‘my site’ to record and display their work, and to engage with people inside and outside the university who are interested in the topics they are investigating/ learning about. You also developed a very neat way of allowing visitors to a students ‘my site’ to give them feedback and to assess their work against defined criteria.

      How well did you find SharePoint ‘my sites’ suited the learners who used it, and suited the type of open learning model you are seeking to encourage?

  2. James

    The SharePoint MySite is quite a powerful tool and its use is spreading among our students. Our ePortfolio contest shows some of the things students did. That has been complicated by an adoption this summer of Live@EDU for student email. That system also has some collaboration tools which compete for mind space with MySites.

    We learned a variety of things from the contest, the first of several posts on the topic are here:

    These explorations led us to begin to think about student portfolios in the cloud — and to ask why the university should set up a garden for students, walled or not.

    That led to a series of ideas summed up in the term Harvesting Gradebook. That work has blossomed in several directions, a recent theme is here but you can follow it back to some of the earlier posts.

    Thanks for your interest

  3. Hi James,

    Your post is pretty much consistent with my latter year experience at Uni. SharePoint was used as the portal interface, mySite was this small link thing no one ever clicked on at the top right of the portal. And something called WebCT was used as the VLE (horrible thing that it was).

    All the best and do keep posting updates on how you’re getting along with this.


    1. Hi Shooresh

      Your experience that your fellow students in the latter years of your course made no use of the SharePoint MySites is an interesting one. One of the things I would like to find out during this research project is the extent to which students and staff in UK Universities make use MySites (where they are made available), and the extent to which they find them useful.

      Nils Petersen provided an interesting link in his comment on this post to some very good uses by Washington State University students of MySites as e-portfolios. I would be interested to know whether this experience has been repeated elsewhere, or whether WSU are a special case, because of their distinctive open learning philosophy. Nils and his colleagues encouraged students to break out of the confines of their course and of their University, by using their ‘MySite’ as a public record of their learning in tackling a particular problem, and as a way to get feedback and engagement from other people interested in the problem. I believe that Nils and his colleagues were happy for students to use alternative tools, such as a web-hosted blog, if they preferred.

      MySites are the nearest thing in SharePoint to the profile page familiar from web 2.0 applications such as Facebook, and to blogs. As such they will be directly competing with web 2.0 applications for the time and attention of students and of staff.

  4. Hi James,

    I should mention that mySite was available for some time before I became aware of it and, I and others only became aware of it when we received an email from ICT directing us to this obscure link at the top right of the portal.

    I don’t know how much progress with uptake and use they’ve made since.

  5. James,
    We are using both Sharepoint and Moodle in our Department and we seem to fall into two groups of teachers/researchers: Moodle is used by those who teach standard modules and find it convenient. Sharepoint is used for those who want more flexibility, more collaborativeness, and the possibility to have different levels of user permissions and contributions. Those of us who prefer Sharepoint are typically colleagues who are organising research groups or teach one-off tutorials etc.
    I myself prefer Sharepoint, see a recent presentation:

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