Thursday, December 17, 2009

Revisiting Moodle

It is often difficult for learning management systems to keep up with social networking and collaborative technologies. Their architectures are a bit clunky, and even when they allow embedded html to link into social networking, it's often difficult to incorporate them in an outcomes-based way. Further, they are not dynamic and it is difficult to integrate mobile activities and devices.

In these cases, Moodle, as an open-source solution, is often overlooked. The basic structure and philosophy of Moodle are simple: object-oriented, with a focus on reusability of components, and a very transparent structure that rests on a foundation of forums, which makes it very friendly to interaction and collaboration. Further, the flexibility of Moodle makes it ideal for programs ranging from certificate programs to graduate programs such as an online MBA program.

Ideal for Small and Evolving Programs
Moodle is instantly appealing to fledgling programs. After all, the price is right. It's free. Granted, nothing is really free, and the trade-off with opensource is the fact that it's necessary to do the IT work oneself. There are hosting solutions such as MoodleRooms, which are affordable for the individual instructor or small institution.

Moodle does not look much like other learning management solutions such as Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Angel, or the old WebCT. If anything, it reminds one of an expanded discussion board, with customizable add-ons. Student information systems can integrate fairly easily, which makes a "soft launch" or pilot program a viable option. This kind of approach is effective for graduate programs, professional programs, as well as independent study and professional development. One is limited only by the limits of one's imagination.

Moodle's emphasis on reusable content objects makes it fairly easy to make changes to individual courses and to an entire curriculum. It's also fairly easy to save objects in repositories that can be shared by other instructors and the instructional design / technology support. Moodle lends itself to convenient, enterprise-wide content management.

The fact that Moodle allows faculty and the institution to be responsive to evolving student and organizational needs, and educational objectives is a core benefit. For example, if the school wants to be able to tweet students in the event of an emergency, Moodle is much more effective than using email to do so. One can embed applications and integrate them in order to enhance functionality.

Emphasis on Interactivity
With the forum structure as its foundation, Moodle's core architecture rests on interactivity. However, Moodle's capability extends much further than simple posting to a discussion board. Students and instructors can post photos, videos, audio. In addition, they can embed an integrated application which allows content sharing as well as collaboration.

The fact that the forum is so interactive is engaging. Students like to see if their posts have provoked a response. They also like to comment on each other's posts, and to respond in kind. Relevant, engaged interaction is motivating, and one can guide the interaction toward achieving outcomes.

Collaborative learning activities (Wikis, Glossaries) in Moodle replicate the kinds of activities that students do in their everyday computing lives. Most students are comfortable with wikipedia, so to be able to contribute to their own wiki encourages a belief in one's capabilities and an "I can do it" attitude. Contributing to a collective body of work lets people learn by observing others performing a task. Further, Moodle makes it easy to ask and to answer questions.

Student presentations can take many forms, including portfolios and galleries. This makes it easy for the student to assemble a portfolio or to make a presentation. Presentations can be synchronous (taking advantage of chat and embedded whiteboards), and asynchronous (archived powerpoints, etc.).

Interacting with mobile devices, including smartphones, is easily done in Moodle as well. For example, students can post to Flickr or to Facebook, which can be embedded within the course shell. Posting remotely, and building on existing resources is important. At the same time, it's important to include a cautionary note when incorporating social networking because it can take one away from one's primary learning objectives, if one is not careful. Further, extraneous, non-course-related materials may slip in, which could prove distracting, even embarrassing.

Future of Moodle
Moodle will continue to evolve to meed needs of users. As an open-source program, development of updates has not always proceeded as smoothly as hoped, and times of economic crisis tend to be particularly challenging. On the one hand, the fact that opensource is free increases the demand. On the other hand, increased adoption by schools, and the development of mobile and other applications, puts pressure on Moodle to bring out new editions and to enhance capabilities.

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