The schizophrenic Moodle

picasso-portrait of sylvette david~b99_1433

Picture taken from here

Can we separate the way we teach from the technological systems in which we work? This question was posed by Maha Bali and Jim Groom in a thought-provoking post critically examining the ethos of educational technologies. Maha and Jim argue that the choices we make in educational technology say something about our values and pedagogical visions–they are inseparable from how we go about teaching and learning.

Couldn’t agree more. When I was teaching online classes in Learning Technologies at the University of Minnesota most faculty and graduate instructors were using Ning as an alternative to Moodle (institutionally supported) because its design better aligned with the values of the program. The goal in LT courses was “for students to discover and create knowledge as a group, with the instructor acting as a guide through the assigned materials” and Ning was a great platform to achieve that. A lot of what we were doing in Ning was driven by pedagogy but we were also guided by the possibilities and limitations of the platform itself. On the plus side learners could easily get a sense of others’ presence in the course through features like member pages, blogs, discussions, chat and photos and videos. There were small design touches we liked a lot, like how each forum post appeared with a member thumbnail picture. (In a class I’ve taken as graduate student all students had administrative access to Ning so we could even change the design of the platform if we wanted to.) On the other hand, I had to grade students’ work and Ning didn’t have a gradebook, I couldn’t set up assignments or create a sophisticated system to archive course resources. After all Ning wasn’t originally designed as a Learning Management System (LMS) and the way it worked was so different than Moodle, which is specifically designed for that purpose. I’m not saying that Ning is better than Moodle, it’s just for our purposes Ning seemed to work best.

Now I’m going to diverge a bit because it is really interesting to think about the multiple layers of values and visions embedded in educational technology. Especially when we think about technologies that are designed specifically for the purpose of education, like a course management system.

Let’s consider Moodle, for example. I find the misalignment between the ethos of the Moodle developer community and the end product quite puzzling. Let me explain:

Moodle as a design project: is community driven, globally supported, open-source.
Moodle as an LMS (how the end-product is typically used in higher education institutions):  is institutionally driven, locally supported, closed. Also supports the use of copyrighted materials because it’s institutional (this is one point I deviate from Maha and Jim because they argue that LMS are copyright havens).

I believe there is a strong mismatch between Moodle as a design project and Moodle as an LMS because there’s a disconnect between the field of computer science and education in general. A recent TaLIC lunchtime conversation where two computer scientists presented their work also made me realize the big gap between the two fields.

Solution? More partnership, more conversation between computer science and education and less bias toward our own assumptions and the paradigms of each field. Result: (potentially) innovative products to use in education. What do you think?


8 thoughts on “The schizophrenic Moodle

  1. I always thought both Moodle and Canvas had slightly different ethos to typical LMSs because Moodle is open source (so technically, if ur able, u can modify the design) and Canvas has options for public courses (not just closed). But u make a good point about the developer vs educator community because most educators aren’t developers who can modify Moodle source code or even know how to tell their IT folks to make a change for them. I think we mention these two LMSs at some point in our presentation (Jim and I)

    Re Copyright haven – i don’t know if we understand each other correctly here. What did you mean from your end? I think in our discussion during AMICAL we go through this but we never finish talking about it and I think Jim and I might have different views on it. I am not sure

    1. Re Copyright haven: So this is in response to what you say in your post: “The LMS delivers on its name: It is a closed, copyright haven that makes giving quizzes and grading easier.” I thought you were saying that in an LMS it is easier to distribute materials that have strict copyrights (like scanning an article in a textbook and putting up online for students to read and download). I might have misunderstood this because in the next line you also mention that LMS “reinforces higher ed’s refusal to push back on draconian copyright laws…” I didn’t watch the whole presentation so you might be addressing all of this there! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      1. So yeah we are saying LMS helps with what u said – scan a chapter and keep it inside within fair use. When we (ok, I’m speaking for myself not Jim) would like to push against copyright as an unfair law and find ways to teach with openly accessible material and processes. That is idealistic because in some disciplines there are materials that teachers really feel are valuable and well-suited for learning and that are usually copyrighted

        1. You are quick Maha! Ok now I understand what you mean, the closed nature of LMS kind of helps the status quo in copyright laws. I’ll go back to the presentation and watch the section where you talk about copyrights. The audio wasn’t so good so I was skipping sections.

    1. Thanks for reblogging this post!

  2. Since my institution, Granite State College, has online enrollments over 75% of all enrollment credit, we use Moodle as a core enterprise system. We have a dedicated Moodle engineer. Our prior engineer was also a programmer and an ABD candidate in learning science.

    We do not host Moodle internally, so we are limited in our ability to expand on the concept of opensource flexibility. Moodle plugins are sometimes poorly coded and can wreak havoc with logistics, such as the sub-page plugin that caused course imports to crash. Thus, our host (Remote Learner) has to go through a rigorous testing process before any add-ons are enabled.

    Moodle is not WordPress — not in practice, at least. Further, myself and the rest of the ID Team often argue how much good pedagogy is centered around teaching, the LMS, additional tools, and what the right balance should be.

    While I agree that the tools we implement serve as an endorsement to learners of how to approach communication and interaction, I’m less inclined to think that the choice of LMS has a significant effect on achieving outcomes as much as instructor presence and good feedback.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I agree that good pedagogy should come first in designing learning environments but it’s also true that the tools we use shape how learners engage with the content, other people, activities etc. and so might have a significant effect on the learning process and the outcome as a result of that.

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