I recently read an article posted on TechnicianOnline titled “Moodle usage increases regardless of complaints” that really got me thinking. The article outlines the difficulties being faced by educators at NC State University as they come to grips with the use of the Moodle system. I strongly recommend before reading this blog post further that you read the article they posted in it’s entirety by clicking here.
I do not doubt that many educators reading this article will feel that this could just as easily be describing their own school/Uni/workplace. The points raise are ones we all hear often. But what if all of this could be avoided? Well..it can and it should!
Let’s start by lifting one specific quote.
“The problem with Moodle is that it has so many features that are complicated for the instructors to use. A lot of us don’t run our classes that way and don’t need all of those things . . . I would like to see them come up with a Moodle lite, or something like that.”
Bob Larson (communication lecturer)
Is this statement true? Resoundingly so. Moodle IS a complex tool with a wide range of features ranging in complexity.
Does it need to be so for the teacher? ABSOLUTELY NOT. The issue here is not Moodle itself, it is bad admin setup. But it is far easier to blame the tool and hence, here we are.
The aim of this post is to address just some of the techniques that can be implemented to make Moodle a far more pleasant experience.
What is the issue in a nutshell?
It is often said that Moodle’s strength, and weakness, is its range of features. Those numerous pages of options that confront every teacher the moment they turn editing on.
The strength of course is that all these settings allow us to customise the system and course to work exactly as we want. To allow us to delivery an online model of education that does not have to fit inside some pre-determined methodology but instead the work the way that we each intend.
The weakness is the confusion. Anyone who has set up a Quiz in Moodle will know what I am talking about here. Pages of options that while giving flexibility also create large amounts of complexity.
So why am I blaming Admin? Here is why. Moodle does not HAVE to be this complex. It is designed to be customised and shaped to fit the exact needs of the organisation. Why have a site full of features and settings your staff don’t need?
Implementing Simplicity (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Moodle)
Moodle provides numerous areas where Admins can enable/disable functionality as well as setting defaults. No organisation uses all the features. Why have them all on? The admin should customise the site to the needs of the organisation. How can we do this. Some examples are below:
- Disable/enable plugins based on what you need moodle to do.
Blocks can be culled very easily. As can many other plugin types.
- Set defaults
Plugins as well as course settings can have default settings. Don’t force educators to have to change numerous options every time they create. Find what 80% plus use and set the defaults to that level. This is very useful at the course default level
- Customise your plugin settings
Many plugins in Moodle allow you to “hide” settings in the “show advanced” toggle. Not removing them completely, but removing them from the initial view. This enables power users but makes things far less confusing for beginners
- Create custom permissions
Another way of limiting how many options appear to a user is to change/create custom permissions. Most organisations don’t fit into the seven standard Moodle roles. And why should they? Every organisation is different. Customise moodle’s feature set based on the real world roles your organisation has. More information on Roles and Permissions in Moodle can be found here.
- Create course templates
Now personally I hate the idea of course templates. I find template based courses are forced to make too many assumptions around how a course should be delivered. That being said, to many new users who don’t know where to start, this can be a god send. (P.S. course templates are a simple use of Moodle’s backup/restore function). A great discussion around this very topic was started by David Brown on Moodle.org and is worth a read if you are only starting down this path (http://learn.moodle.net/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=32240)
- Create a help course
This is so obvious and yet done by only 10% of sites I come across. Support your educators! It is a simple idea isn’t it. You don’t even have to make all the content yourself. At the lowest level link to relevant Moodle docs. Check out the how to’s on the Moodle YouTube channel. But you should do MORE than that. Invest some time every week to create your own videos and documentation. Don’t magically expect your users to magically absorb information from the Knowledge Unicorn as it flies past dropping sugary sweet candies of perfection and best practice as your educators sit in front of their screens of satisfaction. It just doesn’t happen!Below are some examples of Help courses made by organisations that are open to the public
- Focus on Design
How many sites do you find using just a front page moodle generated course list as a means of navigation? (sorry University of Essex, Im using you as an example)Have you put any thought at all into how you users navigate the site? Using nothing more complex than a Label, Admins can create custom front page navigation to make it easier for users to get to exactly where they need to go. Check out the examples below using nothing but labels to achieve this.
If you are willing to go a step further and use a custom theme then you can achieve front pages like these.
- Invest in PD
Another contentious statement. What? Moodle is free you say? Hell no! N system is free. Even if you are not paying for the software you need to invest in support. Training. Don’t invest and expect no uptake! I don’t know any more about the PD program at NC State University other that what is in the article. I did however beam brightly when I read the following quote.
“We will come to a faculty member’s house and teach them exactly how to do whatever it is they personally need to be able to do on Moodle if they request it”
Martin Dulberg (senior coordinator)
I could go on, But in short, it is easy to blame a system for all your woes. Moodle IS complex. It IS detailed and it IS full of settings. But only as far as you want it to be. The trick for Moodle administrators is to find the right balance of design, training and settings to ensure that the system can work the best it can for their organisation. Be careful of going too far in the opposite direction though. I want to finish with this last quote form the article.
“The most we can do is try to make the best tools that we can, and it is up to the instructor to decide how they want to use it, if they want to use it. We can’t appeal to the lowest common denominator.”
Martin Dulberg (senior coordinator)
In particular that last sentence. If you build a system aimed at your lowest common denominator you are doing them and you a diss-service. Find the average pace in the organisation. Build for them while idealy providing upskilling for the lowest users and still providing effective tools for your power users. But in the end, remember we are NOT building for our lecturers/teachers. As contentious as this statement will be.
Moodle should be constructed for your learners, not your educators!
Are you an Admin and never thought about any of this before? That is why YOU should be the first to be up-skilled. How can YOU be responsible for a system YOU don’t understand? Don’t know how your educators are/should be using Moodle? Find out? Speak to them. Get involved in the process. My closing point is that being a Moodle administrator is NOT a purely technical role. It is just as heavily focused in understanding the pedagogy/andragogy of its intended application as much as the LDAP and security settings.