Moodle: e-learning’s Frankenstein
Is the educational hat on the Moodle logo a little dated and about to fall off?
The word ‘Moodle’ was a word used for nearly a century to describe just ‘messing about’. “….he has gone off to moodle about doing nothing” Back to Methusela (1921). Apparently the word was used in Australia (where Moodle was first developed) to mean just dealing with things as they come along. It then became 'Martin’s Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment', as it was first developed by Martin Dougiamas, then squared up into the more geeky Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment.
This semantic drift is reflected in the TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations) that describe this type of software – LMS (Learning Management Systems), VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments), DLEs (Distributed Learning Environments), CMS (Content Management System), LSS (Learning, Support System) etc. As we shall see, Moodle has become lots of different things to different people.
We have also had the drift of the actual entity, as Moodle has evolved into different species as it has moved into different learning habitats. There’s the low-level messy non-learning use, where it’s used to launch everything from hardcore sex content to specialised content that has little to do with education and training. Let’s call this the ‘bottom-feeders’. Then the more advanced life forms.
Cambrian sea explosion
Then was the Cambrian sea explosion into schools, colleges and Universities, in many cases the entire institution adopted it as their system of choice. Many of these have gone it alone, but many struggle with implementation, updates, troubleshooting and security. It’s messy and many of these implementations, although worthy, are slow and at times unreliable. Nevertheless, this was where the whole thing had time to evolve and it has boosted education's e-learning capability.
Vertical expansion of food chain
This has led to a raft of ‘expert’ companies, higher in the food chain, who feed on this rich mix of smaller creatures. Companies such as Enovation in Ireland, with a background in IT services, are experts in the customisation, integration and hosting of Moodle. This has been a healthy development, as the weakness of open source has always been its raggedness around implementation in real working environments, where one can’t afford to just Moodle about with some enthusiastic, troubleshooting IT guy in the basement.
Offshoots, such as the OU, that promised to take Moodle to new heights, have then turned out to be separate species in themselves. This project put paid to the myth that Moodle is ‘free’, as they spent nearly £6 million 2 years ago (a cool million on Moodle development alone) and that was just the pilot! In fact, it turned out not to be such great, functional leap forward, more of a cul-de-sac in terms of the usefulness of the code. As a projects across the OU it's been a great success.
From sea to land
Then a few brave souls took Moodle from the vast, open sea of education to the harsher, competitive and predatory environment of land, and things moved fast. On land they came across huge predatory dinosaurs. They had to compete with massive LMSs, the Tyrannosaurus Rexes of learning management. But Moodle was smaller, faster and cheaper. Tired of crippling licence fees and being eaten alive on support costs, clients started to look to consider Moodle and other new entrants.
Some, like LearningPool, set up Moodle as a back-end delivery system, to offer and sell content to specific habitats, like local authorities and the public sector. This was great, as it took the pressure off cash-strapped organisations who wanted hosted, focused content at a reasonable price. These customers are not competitors. They need to share, as it lowers the costs for everyone; that’s the evolutionary advantage that Moodle delivery offers.
Corporate mammals wanted more autonomy. They also wanted cheaper stuff but control within their own micro-habitats. In steps Kineo and others to break the mould, and use Moodle to help businesses deliver learning. These customers don’t want to share as they’re competitors, who like to eat each other, so hosting common content ain’t the point. This was fine, so an entire new habitat became Moodle friendly. Interestingly, as Moodle has become such a force in education, a large number of new recruits will be familiar with it when they enter the workplace, reinforcing it's corporate usefulness.
Around all of this, Moodle training providers have emerged, supplying demand for those who lack the skills to implement, troubleshoot and design content for Moodle. A surprising amount of this is classroom training, which is a bit of a puzzle.
Moodle ‘partners’ in crime
Meanwhile, the Moodle Partner system found that it had been outflanked. It had worked in happier times, in the calm and tranquil sea of education, and was suited to its early manifestation as a simple, cheap, educational tool. This is no longer true. One and two-man, entities, along with occasional edicts from Martin, cannot stop the runaway process of evolutionary progress, and may even be holding things back. It could, perhaps, take Moodle in the wrong direction.
Kineo, who almost single handed took Moodle into the corporate market in the UK, and are now attempting to do the same in the US, have been repeatedly rejected as a Moodle Partner, yet have more serious, and impactful, implementations under their belt than any other known partner in the UK. I’m not that sure they care. However, in practice the ‘partner’ system is as toothless as a sperm whale in the jungle, and becoming rapidly obsolete.
Moodle’s pedagogic pretensions
A lot of rot is spoken about Moodle supporting a ‘constructivist’ approach to learning. That was always a utopian dream. This Vygotsky-inspired babble is only really spouted by academics with too much time on their hands. It’s really just a standard collection of learning management tools with no real pedagogic innovation or intent. There’s nothing in Moodle that wasn’t, or isn’t, in other LMSs or VLEs if you will.
The current foray into social networking et al, recasting the system into a souped-up Web 2.0 tool, is, in my view, totally misguided. It’s taking Moodle into the realms of highly evolved, but endangered species. Educationalists love to talk about learner-centric, constructivist models of learning but usually default back into a didactic, lecture-driven, ‘I teach-you learn’, behaviour. Stray too far from the current model and any LMS will collapse into a soup of collaborative connectivity. The knives are out, I sense a fork.
Moodle – the future
Something’s got to give – and soon. There’s too many new habitats, new species and competitive pressures for the old system to remain intact. It’s won’t implode. There will be no Permian extinction. However, there’s likely to be one or more forks, acrimonious or not, and perhaps the emergence of a Redhat with proper certification. It is certainly the case that Moodle will make deep inroads into new corporate and other habitats, away from education. That’s all good in my bag, wasn’t that what ‘Moodle’ meant – messing about, dealing with things as they came along?