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The OU Virtual Learning Environment
Efficient use of Forums and Email by Students and Tutors

We have been progressively testing the techniques and believe we are close to the optimum solution for us as highly mobile users. The solutions are for use on Computers and Netbooks primarily using Linux.

The solutions and the page are not optimised for use on small mobile devices such as phones.

Contents Table

1. Introduction

This is our first response to the changes to the OU Email and Conferencing systems for Tutors and Students, in particular on the impact on 'Mobile Users' and users of Open Source Software including Linux. The Open University has used FirstClass, which is an excellent integrated Email and Conferencing system for ar least 12 years - we first wrote our first web page about upgrading it to Version 5.1 in 1998 and the OU had been using version 3.5 for many years. It was a Server Client system where the client had to be installed on your system. It could be used in an Offline mode called Personal if you installed a simple server on your machine which you could Replicate (synchronise) when you were online). Few pieces of Software have stood the test of time so well and it is still well supported but for various reasons the OU has chosen to use a different conferencing system based on the OpenSource Moodle online Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). In parallel the OU has withdraw Email support for students and provided Microsoft Exchange mailboxes for Tutors. The only supported access to The Microsoft Exchange Server is via a web interface provided by Microsoft called OWA (Outlook Web Access) and the Virtual Learning Environment supplies a web based forum system as part of a wider system. This obviously offers some cost savings as there is no longer any need to licence the FirstClass Clients or provide students with email. Optimum use of the VLE involves not only the online access via a browser but also monitoring of the forums by techniques involving emails and RSS feeds and they will all be covered.

Why seek Efficiency?

I think we all try not to waste time but this web page is, in particular, looking at how to work when one does not have a fast always present internet link or is paying for time or data. It gives considerably more incentive to be very efficient when one is paying to work over a satellite link at £0.50 a minute or from a roaming mobile connection at £4 a Mbyte. First lets set some groundrules with a consideration of the different types of users and connections as they will affect the most efficient way to operate- where we sit is in italics. Your situation may be very different.

Types of Use and Users

Types of Connection

The Open University Virtual Learning Environment

The Open University has changed from using First Class as its Primary Email and Conferencing system for its courses to a Virtual Learning Environment. A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) provides a framework and set of tools by which course content and elearning activities can be delivered online. As part of the OU's VLE, a number of tools have been developed which are now available for ALs to use to support student learning. There is another reasonable definition in the Wikipedia Article on Virtual Learning_Environments . The OU VLE is based on Moodle and is currently has the largest number of users outside of Moodle.org itself at 651,727 and has 5,332 courses using Moodle (as of 8 November 2010). Moodle has proved scalable, robust and feature rich and the fact that other establishments are already running with over 25,000 courses confirm the system has plenty of scope for expansion for the Open University.

At this point we are only interested in a few components of the OU VLE, in particular the VLE-Forums and, for tutors, Email provision through the Microsoft Exchange Server. We will cover Email access first - it is a Chicken and Egg situation but it is easier if one understands the email before considering Forums.

The Need for Good Email Access

Student Options for Email

Webmail class solutions

POP and IMAP based Email - Thunderbird

Tutor Options for Email

If you are a Tutor with you can Expand to find out about OGA

Microsoft Outlook Exchange Server

Microsoft Exchange is a proprietor collaborative application product developed by Microsoft. Exchange's major features consist of electronic mail, calendaring, contacts and tasks; support for mobile and web-based access to information; and support for data storage. It it used internally by OU staff and is also used to provide Email to Associate Lecturers (tutors). The licence fees include charges levied on a per user basis hence the restriction to Tutors.

Access software

The Outlook Web App (OWA), originally called Outlook Web Access, is a webmail service of Microsoft Exchange Server. The web interface of OWA resembles the interface in Microsoft Outlook. OWA is used to access e-mail, calendars, contacts, tasks, and other mailbox content via a web browser and offers much of the functionality of Microsoft Outlook. The most important difference is that Outlook allows users to work when an internet connection is unavailable, whereas OWA requires a fast internet connection to function. The OU favours OWA and provides no support for users of Microsoft Outlook or other POP and IMAP access from, for example, Thunderbird. The OU thereby restricts supported use to those with very deep pockets or broadband. The OWA interface comes in two flavours, one with a complete feature set and an alternative 'Lite' version with reduced functionality. The full version requires Internet Explorer 7 or later, Mozilla Firefox 3.01 and later, Google Chrome or Apple Safari 3.1 whilst the Lite version is rendered in most other browsers.

Microsoft Outlook is a personal information manager, available separately application and as a part of the Microsoft Office suite. It is the optimum client designed to work with Microsoft Exchange Server and it is claimed to have 500 million users. As well as e-mail, it also includes a calendar, task manager, contact manager, note taking, a journal and web browsing. It can be used as a stand-alone application, or can work with Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft SharePoint Server for multiple users in an organization, such as shared mailboxes and calendars, Exchange public folders, SharePoint lists and meeting schedules. When this article was first writen the current version was Microsoft Outlook 2010 for Windows and 2011 for Mac and they only costs £119.99 as a standalone program. Not surprisingly there is no version for Linux.

Thunderbird access via IMAP and POP. The Outlook Exchange Server email can be set up to be accessible via IMAP or POP although, not surprisingly Microsoft has not implemented the full standards and conventions used by almost everyone else. These is the best way to be able to continue to work when an internet connection is unavailable or expensive and you can not afford to purchase Outlook or one uses Linux. The main use with the OU by Tutors is email and Thunderbird offers impressive facilities for Offline working with IMAP or POP so this is our preferred solution.

Direct POP and IMAP access has been withdrawn on the grounds of security but it is still possible to get a similar access whilst retaining the security of Microsoft Outlook/Exchange/OWA via a Davmail Gateway thus remains our preferred solution.

The pros and cons of IMAP and POP

Although this section refers to direct IMAP and POP access to the Exchange Server access through the DavMail OWA Gateway is similar whilst avoiding the security concerns inherent in direct access to the server.

IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) and POP (Post Office Protocol, often called POP3) are both protocols (rules and formats) for handling email. POP is the simpler format; IMAP is more sophisticated and arguably more robust. The OU’s advice is therefore that if you feel the need to have an offline email reader then you should connect to it using IMAP.

POP If you use POP to connect your email client to the OU’s Exchange server, it will send any messages waiting to your email client and will, by delete them from the OU server, which means that if for some reason you loose your emails the OU will not be able to get them back. There will however be an option, in all modern Email clients, to keep a copy on the server, which can be a good idea as this allows you to you access your email via several different ways (OWA or another email client using POP or IMAP)

IMAP, on the other hand, sends a copy of the email to your computer and keeps one on the server, and it synchronises the data between the OU server and your computer. It will also allow you to access any folders that you have created on the server and it is much more secure because the OU will ensure that all messages are backed up. So if something happens to your computer there will still be a copy of all your messages on the server.

The choice of POP versus IMAP is very dependent on circumstances and we will return to that when we have more experience of both.

Outlook Exchange Server - Key Information to set up direct POP or IMAP access when available.

Common Information to set up IMAP and POP access to OU Microsoft Exchange on Thunderbird

Name: A Other (your choice for display)
Email address: a.n.other@open.ac.uk (new email format)

Incoming Communication using IMAP
Type: IMAP
Port: 993
Server name: ouca.open.ac.uk
Security: SSL
User name: ano123
Authentication: Password

Incoming Communications using POP
Type: POP3
Port: 995
Server name: ouca.open.ac.uk
Security: SSL
User name: ano123
Authentication: Password

NOTE It is best to set to Retaining a copy of the emails on the server

Outgoing Communications through Exchange are always SMTP
Type: SMTP
Port: 465
Server name: ouca.open.ac.uk
Security: SSL
User name: ano123
Authentication: Password

Note: The advantage of using the OU SMPT server over that from your ISP is that it automatically saves your sent mail into an online folder providing backup.

DavMail Gateway - Key Information to set up POP or IMAP Access

This requires the DavMail Gateway software to be installed on your machine and running in the background whilst you are accessing Email. There are many guides to installing DavMail including ones from the computing departments of many mainstream universities. The information on the DavMail site is however perfectly adequate or you can use the DavMail section in our Howto Guide to Accessing a Microsoft Exchange Server from Linux

DavMail Gateway Settings
Exchange Protocol: Auto
OWA(Exchange) URL: https://ouca.open.ac.uk/owa
Local Ports: Leave as defaults
Everything else: I have left as defaults.


Thunderbird Settings


Note: This is a local connection to the DavMail Gateway so connection security is not an issue.

Choosing between OWA, Redirecting, Forwarding, IMAP and POP access to the OU Exchange Server

I have experimented with most of the options and they all work and the decision rests on on what sort of user you are, in particular if you are mobile and want to minimise times online and/or data flows. My initial feeling was that the IMAP route was the one to try first, perhaps because it was different to what I done before and I wanted to explore it more. In particular I wanted to see how well the offline caching worked, how effective the message filters were on an IMAP mailbox and get a handle on the actual data flow.

The advantages of Redirecting or Forwarding from the Exchange Server set up in OWA - Note: No Longer permitted.

You can avoid/minimise your use of OWA if you are not enthusiastic about using an online system for email. You can easily set up OWA to Forward or Redirect your emails. The two are different. Forwarding is just an automatic version of the Forwarding of an email message you are used to. The Title has FW: added on the front and the reply address is that of the OWA mail system so you can easily make the mistake of replying to yourself. The only advantage is that the messages remain on the Exchange Server. Redirecting is perfect if you already have a good well set up Email system with plenty of mailbox capacity. You can arrange for all the messages to be Redirected by a simple rule and they will no longer be on the server. This means the mailbox will never fill up and you probably do not have to worry about resetting passwords until you need access to change the forwarding - hopefully it can be reset elsewhere. You can, of course, also use either to cope with a period when you are away and want a less data thirsty solution than web access and you can use your rules to make sure you just forward/redirect the important messages and leave everything else till your return.

The advantages of POP access through Thunderbird (leaving messages on the server) are:

  1. A local copy of everything incoming which can be used to retain a long term audit trail.
  2. Short term backup via the messages retained on the Exchange Server
  3. Access via OGA, IMAP or POP on other machines while the messages are retained (say 3 months)
  4. The same tagging of messages and sorting into folders as with OGA is possible with the advantage they are local.
  5. True offline working with writing of emails offline possible
  6. Choices about data flow with ability to restrict the length of messages downloaded to say 10K until cheap data available (Thunderbird feature)
  7. Overall reduction in data flow because only one download needed which is good for mobile broadband.
  8. Online can can be kept very short with everything being accomplished in a single send and receive of all ones POP mailboxes in parallel which is good for pay by the minute mobile operation for example via a satellite link.
  9. Data link integrity only a minor issue with offline operation using POP and SMTP - would you use OGA on a train with a tunnel ahead?

Disadvantages of POP access through Thunderbird (leaving messages on the server) are:

  1. One has to eventually use OGA or IMAP access to tidy up the Exchange server to avoid exceeding mailbox limits (currently 100 mbytes so not a problem over the length of a course)
  2. No seamless operation across machines - one computer is very much the master although the Thunderbird Profile can be moved to a different machine when one is going mobile for an extended time.

Advantages of sending emails through Thunderbird and considerations in the choice of SMTP server

  1. Easy choice of SMTP server even on a message basis
  2. Any outgoing emails can be automatically copied to another email address - we keep a separate mailbox for these backups
  3. Use of OU Exchange Server's SMTP server has advantages as a further copy is saved online for backup on the exchange server and accessible via OGA.
  4. The ISP or mobile operators SMTP server can easily be set up as an alternative - some operators do not allow access to other SMTP servers to avoid spamming even if you are using authenticate SMTP.

VLE Forums - an Introduction

Open University Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Forums look superficially like any other forum set up you are used to but they have more and better moderation and monitoring facilities than usual. They are, as usual, web based and, unlike FirstClass, there is no way to work offline when creating new postings and replying to old posts followed by a quick replication (synchronisation). This means that you need a fast, permanent connection to get the best from them. The two ways to get offline information are:

We will cover these two in turn

Subscribing to a VLE forum

The first and most useful mechanism to aid your efficiency, especially when working without reliable internet access, is to subscribe to the forum or to a single thread within it. There are links at the bottom of the forum or thread to do this. Once you have subscribed, an email is sent to you at your registered OU email address which contains every new posting and, for ones already in a thread, the post it is responding to. This good for a small number of forums which do not have large numbers of participants. If you have a large number of active participants you will receive a large number of emails and if you have several forums they will all be mixed up making monitoring difficult. You obviously do not want to subscribe to every Forum you ever visit but you may still end up end up with half a dozen if you are a tutor on a single course and another two or three for every course. Students will want to monitor their Course's Tutor Group and Discussion Forums and probably a couple more. We are monitoring four whilst teaching a single course. These produced a total of 93 over a sample week which is too really too many to handle efficiently.

Taming your subscriptions by Rule Based Filtering

There are two mechanisms we use to be able to efficiently handle a large number of emails from subscriptions along with other email:

The main thing is to decide on your strategy for Tagging and Sorting into Folders (and any other tricks you can think of) before you create the rules to implement it.

Thunderbird - Rule Based Message Filtering

Thunderbird has a very advanced Message Filtering which can be used to implement the scheme above. It is easier to show some screen dumps than explain as it is all very simple and self evident when you come to do it. It is accessed by Tools -> Message Filters which brings up a Window like the one below.


Each new Filter is set up by New and can match Subject, From, Body, Date, Priority, Status, To, Cc, To or Cc, From To Cc and Bcc, Age, Tags and Size match Contains, Dosnt Contain, Starts with, Ends with, Is, Isnt, using AND and OR logic. The actions are equally flexible Move Message to, Copy Message to, Reply with Template, Mark as Read, Add Star, Set Priority, Tag, Set Junk, Delete, Delete from Server Fetch from Server and Stop Filter Execution. They can be set to run Automatically or On Request on any folder in the Account

Manual running on selected folders gives opportunities in the future for automatically deleting low priority emails after a certain time locally or on the server and even filing Stared Messages for

We will now look at some examples of the very simple Filters we actually use.

Sorting Messages into Folders in Thunderbird

We use the information in the title of the email message and information in the body of the message and then move the message to a different folder. This works on POP and IMAP folders and you can move the message to an online folder on the IMAP server if you have an Exchange or other IMAP mailbox or an offline folder if you have either a POP or IMAP mailbox. If you access the same IMAP folder on several machines you need to ensure none of the rules which move messages conflict and are preferably identical.


Craeting Tags for Messages in Thunderbird

You are well on the way when you have all the postings from each Forum in their own folder and they are tagged depending on who made them. The tags have to be set up before you create the rules. You can change the names and it will automatically adapt. The tagged are given different colours so the messages also show up in different colours. I tag you can tag myself, the members of my tutor group and the course team. This is a huge help when one, as a tutor, is looking at a course wide forum so one can keep an eye on ones own students and similarly for students to see what the rest of their group is doing. It also means you can pick out the Moderators and other Course team
postings. This shows a small part of the filter for students (with false names):


Tagging has to be set up on each machine as the tags are not stored with the message.

Displaying and using Tags efficiently in Thunderbird

Once you have tagged you messages you can also use the various search and sorting tools in Thunderbird to easily pick out the tagged entries - the quick search feature is perfect for this. The screen grab below shows this in action on some tests in an otherwise huge inbox.


Filtering and Tagging in OWA

OWA is only available to Tutors so [ Click here to expand if you want to know more ]

Other ways of improving ones efficiency

There are three other main ways to improve efficiency, in particular when one is limited in ones Internet access. Making ones routine activities as quickly accessible as possible. Many of the VLE activities involve being online so it is essential to be able to quickly access all the online areas without going through a series of links and pages. It is also desirable to do as much as possible in preparation before going online - writing a complex posting against a clock where every tick costs money is stressful and inefficient! The following are some tips which save time and make life quicker and easier.

1. Configure Toolbars in Firefox and Thunderbird:

This is a very obvious and simple way to save time but very few people seem to bother. If you right click anywhere on a Firefox or Thunderbird Toolbar you will get a short menu including Configure. This takes you to a floating window with all the unused tools which you can drag to the toolbar of your choice. You can also drag Fixed Spacers and Flexible Spacers which mean you can get an efficient layout to suit you especially as you can also move any of the existing tools. In Firefox we add the tools for the Favourites and Bookmarks sidebars, Print and Open New Tab and Open new Window. Extensions often also offer Tools to open the like FireFTP or toggle their toolbars on and off like Googlebar Lite. Our layout for Thunderbird is even more comprehensive with Tabs, Marking, Print, Address Book, Next Unread etc added or repositioned.

2. Make good use of Bookmarks in Firefox.

Many people are aware of the use of Bookmarks (Favourites) in a browser and the Bookmarks Toolbar but few seem to realise how versatile and easy Firefox makes it to very quickly save and access Bookmarks and even open a number of tabs simultaneously.

3. Preparing replies and new postings offline

They can then be copy and pasted quickly into the Forums whilst you are online. However there are some limitations which have been built in by the OU to what can be Posted. Regardless of what you copy into the online VLE Posting Editor or add by editing the HTML a lot of formatting will be stripped and the code tidied up at the posting stage. Much is justified by the OU Accessibility policy so everything is restored to a common font and all colours of text and backgrounds are removed. In summary - If you try to use any feature you add using the editing their toolbar it is unlikely to remain in your Posting. The exception is that very basic tables seem to transfer and background colours remain within a table cell.

I have tried a number of 'Editors' to prepare compatible offline content and in my order of preference:

NOTE WELL: There are some problems of copy/paste into a forum if you are using the Firefox browser which means you need you to modify a Firefox system file or add a Firefox Extension. This is not a bug but a deliberate security policy built in which has to relaxed on a site by site basis. See Appendix 1 for details.

Using RSS feeds.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a web feed format used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video in a standardized format. Most RSS 'channels' includes full or summarized text, plus metadata such as publishing dates and authorship. Readers can subscribe to timely updates from favoured websites or to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place. The user subscribes to a feed by entering into the reader the feed's URI or by clicking an RSS icon in a web browser (such as Firefox) that initiates the subscription process. The RSS reader automatically checks the user's subscribed feeds regularly (often every half hour or when the package is opened) for new work, downloads any updates that it finds, and provides a user interface to monitor and read the feeds. This avoids one needing to manually check the website as all new content is effectively pushed onto their browsers when it becomes available. This is the mechanism which provides the BBC news feed built into the Firefox browser (the drop down at near the left of the links toolbar).

The OU offers RSS feeds for most VLE Forums with the title displayed. This means you can very easily know when an interesting posting has turned up and is ideal for a tutor group. You can also see the content of the postings which are in the feed Without having to Log In by clicking at the bottom of the list on the link Open Forum-Name. You can then go to the actual postings to respond from the links but you have to log in at this point. The access to the aggregated page is via an unencrypted link (http rather than the encrypted https) so you should therefore be cautious about using RSS in Wifi cafes or on shared machines where the address might be left in the browser history.

Subscribing to a Forum is very easy you will find the feed at the bottom of each VLE forum:


Using an Atom RSS subscription in Firefox is very easy, just click on the Atom RSS link in Firefox and you will be taken to a page for the subscription which looks like :

and click subscribe now and it will add it to the end of your bookmarks toolbar - you can then drag it where you want and use Right Click -> Properties to shorten the name so they all fit on.


Solutions for Copying from the clipboard into a Forum Posting in Firefox

There is a major problem with a copy and paste approach in Firefox because of security concerns. If you try to paste from the clipboard nothing will happen or sometimes you will get a message saying it is not allowed and a link to a Mozilla article. By default, JavaScript and other scripting is not allowed to read or set your clipboard data in Firefox. This is because malicious websites scripts could erase or replace what you have in your clipboard or read your clipboard which is a security issue. There are, however, instances when you might want to bypass this restriction and grant access to selected sites. It is, for example, very desirable to be able to paste formatted information into the Rich Text Editor used by the Open University in all it's Moodle based Forums - without this one can do little preparation of material outside of Moodle or add input from other sources. You can read more about the problem in the Mozillazine Article Granting_JavaScript_access_to_the_clipboard

You need to modify the Firefox configuration to change the policies for clipboard access. They can be edited directly in the Firefox Profile Folder or one use a simple Firefox extension to help you. If you are happy to edit system files and are only worried about this with the OU site the former is probably best. I have also tried the Extension which is endorsed on the Mozilla site - it is simple and seems to work very well. It also gives a warning of restrictions of potential problems before you use an embedded Rich Text Editor and can set up policies for several simultaneously - the advantages seem to outweigh the ever present but slight risk of interactions between Extensions if you already have several in use.

Method 1 to grant privileges to the clipboard to allow cut, copy and paste operations.

  1. Close all Firefox/Mozilla browser windows.
  2. Navigate to your Firefox profiles directory.
  3. Open prefs.js in a text editor like notepad or gedit (see below for ways to locate it)
  4. Copy/Paste the following into the prefs.js file - it does not matter where as long as it is in with all the other preferences.

Additional URLs can be added with a space as separator

Finding a Firefox Profile: Firefox 3.6 and higher allows you to find and open your profile folder by Help -> Troubleshooting Information then under the Application Basics heading, click on the Open Containing Folder button and a window with your profile files will open.

If you are running an earlier version of Firefox it is best to upgrade. Otherwise the profile directory location varies depending on the operating system. If you still have a default installation it can be found from a search for a folder with random characters but ending in .default or a search for prefs.js which has changed recently.

Method 2 to grant privileges to the clipboard to allow cut, copy and paste operations - AllowClipboard Helper Extension

If you do not want to edit 'system' files you can use an extension for Firefox to manage these clipboard policies. It is called the AllowClipboard Helper Extension and can be found at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/852/?application=firefox&id=852. It warns you if any editing text box prevents clipboard actions by displaying a small yellow tab at the bottom of the box and if you click it there is a window opened which allows you to grant privileges for clipboard operations if you are convinced the site is not malicious - the OU site should be OK. Screenshots follow:


Clicking on the yellow tab leads to the next window which had the address in the box ready to click Allow. OK will complete activities by restarting Firefox (do not panic when everything disappears) even so it is best not to have too many tabs open and do it before you start editing. After the restart Paste will be possible.




The views here are entirely our own and are not endorsed in any way by the Open University. What is written on these pages is our own experiences and is not intended to replace in any way the documentation supplied with any of the Open University software. Always Backup before installing any Software and on a regular basis. Do a proper cost Benefit and Risk Analysis taking into account your circumstances and knowledge base before making any changes. Past performance is no indication of the future returns.

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