05 March 2013

Moodle vs. INSERT LMS (Part I)

This is going to be a long one, but it's overdue and very important to the work we're doing with students. I've been concerned as of late as I hear school district representatives discuss which Learning Management System (LMS) they want to use in their districts.

I've heard Moodle, Schoology and Edmoto discussed. I've also heard about some districts in MN looking into a Desire 2 Learn (D2L) license.

We're well beyond the point of avoiding the discussion on whether or not a school should have a LMS. They should. There's just no getting around it. It's a necessity for teachers who want to make curriculum available to students anytime/anyplace. Web pages just don't cut it.

I find myself now being a Moodle evangelist for a number of reasons since I know how to use the tool relatively well. Here are some of the arguments for using various tools (not D2L, I've not heard any of these related to that LMS):
  • Our teachers like it/We like the layout
  • It's easy to use
  • It's free
If there are others I'd be glad to hear about them and discuss them in a future post. For now, I'll just take these one by one.

Our Teachers Like It

My first question would be, "Why do they like it?" What is it about the tool they find useful? Have they looked at other tools and to what extent? Are they aware of all the tool's features? If they're just playing around and posting handouts for students I'd bet that there's a lot that they don't know.

If they like the layout are they aware that the layout of various systems can be changed? Usually this is an issue of training. People make their minds up pretty quickly and often without the kind of information that is necessary when a district is launching flipped/blended/online initiatives.

Every time I ask the question why I hear, "It looks like Facebook," so let me address that right now:
So what? If something looks and acts like Facebook then why wouldn't someone just use Facebook? Do they really think that students are going to be excited to go to a class page because it looks like Facebook (which by all accounts is not as popular with the kids these days anyway)?

Does looking like Facebook allow you to create interesting and engaging content and personalize it for your students? If you have an example I'd like to see it. I'm guessing that it's just not out there. Facebook and tools meant to look like it aren't flexible and robust enough to teach a course; especially if students are moving through content at their own pace (which is what the trend seems to be).

It's Easy to Use

I'm guessing that this has to do with simplicity. I don't want to discount it entirely, but easy to use without training throws up all kinds of red flags for me. I think what is most likely is that the limitation in features makes it simple. When we want to develop content for students we should want lots of possibilities and features to address different types of content/assessments/students.

Anything is easy to use once you learn how to use it effectively. 

It's Free

Can we just kill this argument once and for all? Nothing is free. Everything takes time to learn, develop and access. We don't want to chose our tools based on the fact that it's free (even though it's not).

What follows are some of the features for which I use Moodle. If the others can even come close to this, again, let me know. I'd love to see some examples so I can compare.
  • Customization of Roles
By this I mean a few things. Within an existing course I can create roles for students to ignore time limits on quizzes when required by an IEP or 504 Plan.

I can create a role to limit students from messaging who may not be allowed to use that feature due to various restrictions placed by parents, treatment facilities, or students who've abused privileges. I have roles for counselors or people who want to upload users; and review student grades. Other customized views can be created by tweaking permissions on existing Moodle roles. This kind of flexibility is absolutely necessary for the different types of users our sites have. It also allows me the ability to set up resources for sharing so that others can observe, download and spread.
  • Customized view of content
Using Moodle's Groups/Groupings feature I can designate which students get to see which content. This is great for students who need remediation, are working on different activities or need to take modified assessments. Having all of this content available in the same course allows me to save time making copies of resources and monitoring multiple courses.
  • Course content completion tracking and restricted access to activities
These are two newer features in Moodle that I use quite a bit. The goal for most districts is Personalized Instruction. These settings help me with that. Not only can a student see at a glance if something has been marked complete, I can restrict access to content for which the student is not yet ready. Students can work on mastering content before they're able to move on. This eliminates the need for giving an F or moving students on before they are ready (which by all accounts, happens with about a third of the students in this country).
  • Course Layout/Design
This matters, maybe more than it should, but it matters. I can make my courses look and behave more like webpages because of Moodle's labels and auto-linking. If we look at the factors relating to Diffusion of Innovation this one relates to Compatibility. Designing courses in a way that students are used to if they are regular web browsers allows them some familiarity and increases the likelihood that they will access the content. If you use an LMS to try to recreate the classroom, you're doomed for failure. You can get rid of files to download, lists of handouts and walls of text/links greeting your users that so many online courses are guilty of. The default setting for most courses, no matter your LMS, is allowing for the scroll of death which should be avoided at all costs. In Moodle, if your course is ugly it's your own fault; in another LMS if your course is ugly, there's not much you can do about it. Here are some other courses I've been working to improve from semester to semester: Advanced Composition for the Digital Age and Frank Herbert's Dune. It only takes a couple extra hours once the course is set up.
  • Gradebook Flexibility
It's easy enough to allow a Student Information System to integrate with Moodle, but within the LMS there are many features that can be utilized. Course categories can be weighted and aggregated in multiple ways. The assignments integrate Rubrics and Marking Guides into assignment submissions.
  • Sharing resources
I want to share as much as I can. It's ingrained and part of who I am. Because of that I find it helpful to stick with tools that also easy to share. I'm a believer in the Open Source movement and the quality of Open Educational Resources. When content is built within a proprietary system, what is the likelihood that it will be opened up and shared with the rest of the world? Being able to take content made by others and then have complete control over it so that I can edit for my students is invaluable. 
  • Real world preparation
While the argument can be made that one particular LMS or another would be used by the most colleges, many of them do use Moodle. What about when a student leaves college? I've had the benefit to see Moodle being used by a great deal of businesses and agencies. They don't necessarily advertise the fact that it's Moodle, but having exposure to it means that when students are faced with it in training sessions that they'll have a familiarity with it. I'm actually not all that concerned with this one since using one (Moodle, Blackboard, D2L) will give you enough of the tools to use another. I mention it because I can't name any large organizations besides schools that use Schoology or Edmoto for their professional development platforms.

The sad fact is that most Moodle administrators are teachers that have used it themselves for only a couple years (I'm not knocking them, I'm one of them). There is a gap in professional development to encourage its use because people don't know what it's capable of or what they can safely avoid. To combat this I only ask teachers to learn a few things. We go over the WYSIWYG editor, creating a Page and creating an Assignment. That's it. With those simple features one could complete a pretty decent course. Then we can work on things like layout and design. I'm not saying the other features aren't great, but if you want to get people moving quickly and without much hassle those are the two big ones.

The world wide community of users is standing by to answer questions, make YouTube videos and share courses/support. Many of them are pushing the limits of what can be done with today's technology and finding new ways to push the LMS to do things it wasn't necessarily intended to do. It's those users who are also suggesting improvements and contributing plug-ins that can make it do even more.

I have even more to say about the advantages of Moodle and some of the things I love about what it can offer but I'll save it for another post. If we want to differentiate instruction and personalize it for individual students and use the student data to inform our own course edits/improvements, at this stage in the game you'd almost certainly have to use Moodle.

More on that and integrating a social aspect to Moodle later...