“No matter the size of the project there is a consistent theme and that’s they [BuildEmpire] always deliver. Not only that, but the solutions they deliver and the standard of development is second to none.”
– Stuart Kay, Head of Sales and Marketing at BPP
BPP and BuildEmpire worked together on the concept of ‘The Hub’. This was to become the digital centre for BPP’s digital learning for both students and staff. At the heart of ‘The Hub’ is the new Totara platform, where the learning takes place, but surrounding Totara we built a bespoke virtual learning environment, a CMS for administrators, and linked together pre-existing software and web applications.
VLE – Maximising Learner Engagement
Before and throughout the building of the VLE, BuildEmpire worked closely with BPP user interface designers to create the right learning environment for maximum engagement. The VLE we built for BPP centres around the Achievement Ladder concept. As soon as students log in, they see which courses and activities they have completed recently, and any deadlines or coursework submissions are coming up. This information is pulled from Totara and displayed in the bespoke VLE interface via an API (see ‘Extensive API work…’ section).
As well as being able to view their learning journey, students can also see announcements and news in the VLE. This is a great opportunity for tutors to leave messages for their students, and another reason for students to log in regularly.
The homepage of this VLE gives students a quick link to their latest learning modules, encouraging students to click through and continue learning.
This user interface allows the students to see all the information they need in an intuitive and BPP branded interface. The achievement ladder concept helps people visualise their own learning journey and is extremely intuitive. It also looks modern and stylish, reflecting the idea that BPP are thought leaders in their field and the education they are providing is up to date and relevant.
APIs – Pulling Everything Together
Behind the scenes of the VLE, the relevant information is being pulled through from Totara via extensive use of APIs. Some course information is also being pulled through from the existing Moodle platform (so that course directors can move all their content across to Totara gradually). Other information, such as news and announcements, is being pulled from the ‘Admin’ or CMS part of the app, where tutors can log in.
Some re-designs of Totara can be done by simply re-skinning the user interface, however, in this case we decided it would be much better to pull the information through via an API since the users interacted with the information in a different way. The newly styled interface was also not 100% Totara, but had some bespoke elements to it as well. With this said, BPP were keen to pull through as much of the original Totara functionality for the user as possible, so as not to lose any of the great features native Totara already offers.
BuildEmpire built numerous APIs to make sure students had everything they needed within the VLE every time they logged into ‘The Hub’.
As well as building a VLE front end for the students in The Hub, everytime a new student is registered on a course, a new user is automatically created in Totara. Admins are able to log into another part of ‘The Hub’ and set up different user groups, approve course applications and manually add students if needed. Once the settings have been configured by an admin, new users are automatically added to the right cohort within Totara, and subsequently they can access their course content straight away.
As well as being able to set up rules for student applications and user groupings, an admin is also able to add course summaries to their online catalogue here. Because the website, VLE and Totara all work together, a student is able to purchase a course on the website, automatically be set up in Totara as a users, and then access their course content straight away. This flow was important for BPP because most of their competitors still use a paper-based system which is lengthy and time consuming for staff. This quicker, digital application process improves the user experience as well as being more efficient for staff to handle.
Integration with Mobile Apps
BPP already have their own mobile applications which work as companion apps to the main VLE. The mobile apps enable students to access their course content directly (in Totara) when they log in.
Although we did not build the apps, we facilitated the connecting of Totara to the mobile apps and liaised with BPP’s mobile app builder to make sure the content was being pulled through correctly. Allowing students to connect to Totara directly via a mobile app helps students access their course content wherever they are, and whenever it is convenient for them, encouraging engagement and modular learning.
Single Sign-On Security
Single Sign On (SSO) is a way users and admins can log in to one application and also be automatically logged in to other applications which are connected to the same central security system. SSO systems are designed to be very secure and to stop admins and users having to log in and out of several systems separately.
We built BPP an SSO security system using Auth0 and SAML. Auth0 now links ‘The Hub’ with Totara, course mobile apps, Power BI, and Sharepoint. Having an SSO system is not only secure but is convenient for users, allowing them to move between platforms seamlessly. It helps BPP deliver their learners an uninterrupted learning journey.
During this project we spent a lot of time and effort building applications and systems to surround Totara, but Totara is still the engine behind the learning for BPP. Although information is pulled through to other apps, all student activity is tracked within Totara and all course content is directly created in Totara, meaning users and admins can make the most of the full power of Totara functionality and benefit from Totara upgrades in the future.
The work we have done for BPP is a great example of a robust, scalable solution. Firstly, we used the CDN ‘CloudFront’ to make sure the system can cope with huge spikes in traffic (around enrolment dates and deadlines) and still be reliable, quick and responsive, from anywhere around the globe. We also used separate high resource servers for the API and LMS parts of the platform, in different availability zones, and placed them behind a Load Balancer, to ensure an equal flow of traffic to each server.
Secondly, as with all the infrastructure we build for our clients, BPP’s platform is deployed to an environment-specific AWS account with restricted security groups, SSH key access, and VPNs to ensure a high level of security.
Finally, we use CloudWatch to monitor the system and alert us in the unlikely event that we encounter a problem. We also use RDS to host our databases, so that if anything goes wrong with a server that is out of our control, we always have a backup.
Take a look at some screenshots from the VLE from a lear point of view: