Saturday, March 06, 2010

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 nothingBack 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.

Evolutionary offshoots

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.

Altruistic selection

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.

Competitive advantage

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.

Symbiotic services

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?


jay said...

Donald, thanks for this post. I've been mystified by Moodle for some time and you just cleared away some of the fog.

As usual, I look forward to reading the comments of those who will feel you've just poked them in the eye with a sharp stick.


John Wootton UK said...

We have used Moodle for about 4 years now. Costs very little in ICT technician time and helps us teach students (secondary) the rudiments of what a VLE can do for them in school and as they move through the educational system. It easily imports SCORM compliant external content and forms part of the curriculum delivery. Much better than paying a FORTUNE for what are essentially the same things; a place to access content and help parents, students and staff educate themselves with teacher support.

Donald Clark said...

Jay - it's a fascinating piece of software and a meteroic trajectory across the mess that is the LMS market. Didn't really want to offend anyone, just point out some of the fractures that are emerging.

John - it's all good.

Nave said...

Moodle I believe is just a tool. Pedagogy is not about a tool it is about the approach. You can use it for instinctive - scenario driven approach to learning.. or intuitive - process driven approach to learning... Vygotsky model says nothing but how the knowledge circles with overlapping and non-overlapping regions get up on the table. The user may chose to focus on which section he/she wants to get into. The idea is to put as much on table as you can, so that you know what is there and what you can chose from.. The I-teach-you-learn model or what I call process driven models to learning would educate you for whats already in there, all documented, with some set of approaches, that there are and they can be dealt with.. It however ends killing the idea of thinking out of the box and chosing what you want to learn. Learning here is not just focussed or limited to schools, colleges, universities, institutions or corporates as units but more.. it is just like youtube featuring all content with popularity.. Go .. Click .. Search... Explore... Thats foscenario driven approach.. You dont follow a learning path here....

Learning in any LMS with the pedagogical constraints of process driven learning is about

1. Storing & Access of information
2. Communicate
3. Evaluate
4. Collaborate

Moodle fits all of it.. As a toolkit for learning systems, I must say didnt find anything better yet. But yes I do agree the part where you talk about the future of this system where they are going, and how rough and brutal they are with the opensource methodology.. Its no less commercial.. and fearing the possibility of a fork I think they ll soon go the SAS(Software as Service) way!

Nave said...

:D n like Jay I am also looking forward to what comments this shall receive :)

Mark Berthelemy said...

Hi Don,
My comments got too long - so I popped them onto my blog

Donald Clark said...

Very good extension to this debate Mark, although I'm not convinced about 'constructivism' full stop, never mind the Moodle support for such an approach. In my experience, the use of the word 'constructivist' is rarely backed up by any actual knowledge of what it means cognitively, other than a rough idea around 'constructing models in your mind as you learn'. I, personally, have found Vygotsky et al opaque and useless in the psychology of learning and to be honest, I'm not sure if even 1 in 50 of those who say they believe in constructivism have actually read any of the theory.

Mark Berthelemy said...

Hi Donald,

As Karyn says, I would tend to agree that most people who use terms don't really understand the theory behind them.



Donald Clark said...

Granted - but in education and training this has turned into a pandemic of surface talk about constructivism, learning styles etc etc , which is positively harmful, as people are spending money on the back of ill-understood concepts. The language of learning is fuzzy, dated and destructive.

Michael Hanley said...

Interesting viewpoints... provocative post... wrong in many ways...
Certainly diverging sharply from my practical, successful, documented, empirically-researched experiences using both Moodle (a technology) and Constructivism (a learning theory) - much discussed on my blog - but interesting nonetheless...

Can I poke Jay in the eye about the "theory" of Connectivism? :-)


Donald Clark said...

Whatever happened to debate! Wrong in what ways?

Michael Hanley said...

Hi Donald,
Sorry - didn't mean to leave you hanging (or seem absolutist)!

I think that you've opened up a pertinent and facinating debate (in fact I just sent a twit/tweet/whatever 10 mins ago pointing people here), but John Cleese in the Parrot Sketch I was just wishing to register an [initial] complaint with your hypothesis.

Like Mark B. I'm going to develop my response in a blog post, and link it back to here.

Keep up the great blogging,

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Michael. Remember that I'm not knocking Moodle (think it is great) simply trying to understand what it is (now many things) and where it's going.

Colin said...

I think the most important question you raise is what to do about the non Moodle partner companies who are nonetheless selling and implementing successful Moodle installations.
I think there has actually been some high quality code returned to the community from folks at OU.
I also think that Moodle 2.0 is exemplifying the idea of playing well with others. No company or school is going to be happy with a single piece of software. The largest advantage of the messy Moodle ecosystem is that many folks have hacked Moodle to plug into many systems. This should get even easier with Moodle 2.0.

As for the pedagogy piece, my experience is that Moodle does teacher centered very well. Then teachers are trained in a system that has some very good tools for student interaction (better than Bb in my opinion).

As a final note, I was just at a tech conference and presented a few sessions on Moodle to packed rooms of K12 teachers and ed tech folks. Maybe this sector can help fund and stabilize a brand of the Moodle monster ;)

Antonio Vantaggiato said...

Hi there,

I just commented your post within my blog ( hope to raise the temperature!
Antonio Vantaggiato

Donald Clark said...

Bit puzzled by some of the comments, as I really do like Moodle and am glad it exists. My points were trying to address the current dilemmas it faces in the market.

You say, "Then, when one reader points out Moodle is actually great, he says ok, “it’s all good”". I actually meant that. That's why I praised Enovation, LearningPool, Kineo and others. I'm on your side, really!

As for "cynical words from the critic-du-jour" I've been in this business for over 25 years long before Moodle was ever though of, and have seen LMSs come and go. However, I'm not 'selling' anything - just offering some opinions.

"Why Clark’s piece is on Moodle and not on BB?"
I didn't write about Blackboard because the post was about Moodle. It wasn't a comparison piece. As it happens I've been far more critical of Blackboard in this blog than Moodle. You may as well have asked "Why Clark's piece is not on . I'm always puzzled by the loose use of Counterfactuals.

"It’s not Moodle which cost 6 million British Pounds. Moodle was free" What I actually said was that "they spent nearly £6 million 2 years ago (a cool million on Moodle development alone) and that was just the pilot!" I clearly did NOT say that £6 million was spent on Moodle. The point I was making was that while Moodle may be free, it has other costs. I'm not alone in thinking that the OU work was not as fruitful as it could have been. Indeed, I gave OpenLearn a sound critique on launch.

While I agree with your observations on the weakness of current 'courses' I see the academic obsession with 'lectures' as the problem. Where we differ is in enforcing so-called 'constructivist' approaches. I say so-called because I don't believe that constructivism (as touted in education departments) is a serious or viable theory of learning.

Seriously, thanks for the comments, bit I repeat, I'm on your side and just want to see some debate on where we go from here.

Paul Angileri said...

Well this is semi-timely for me, as I just downloaded the latest Mac version to begin "sandboxing" with on my home network. Not sure I'll actually get to that for another several months what with school and all. But hey, at least I can chalk it up to positive thinking for the future.

Ethics and Transparency In Politics said...

Donald, do you have link to the source for the £6M figure? I found an old press release which says the system would be 'worth' £5M - which does not mean quite the same as 'cost' ;-)

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the OU does not view Moodle as a cul-de-sac as they maintain a high degree of involvement in Moodle development.

With 200,000+ online students (for whom online is the primary or *only* mode of interaction with their courses), I wonder how much they'd have spent if they'd used *any* alternative system?

Then consider whether the alternative would have been as open to customisation and modification...

Donald Clark said...

No this is the 'cost' but not the full cost. The figure is on the OU website:
In fact they spent a lot more, as the accounting system is not a fully consolidated cost. Many other costs are hidden in University projects such as these.

My statement about Moodle being a cul-de-sac was in terms of the perceptions of other developers, not the OU. A huge amount of money was spent on this code development but many Moodle developers didn't see it as a great leap forward, as they though it was poorly implemented. To be fair, that's almost always the case in Open Source. This was just OpenLearn. There's a large cost in post 2005 integration for the mainstream LMS activity which is around £7-8 million. Again one needs to be careful on costs here, as it's always more complicated (and more expensive) than stated. Incidentally, there's a very good paper on this:

Nevertheless, I agree that this may have been the right approach in terms of comparative costs. Note that I'm a huge fan of the OU and regard it as the one of the greatest achievements in UK education in the 20th century. I mean that. I should add that I'm not a great fan of their cost structure and curriculum development costs. The whole edifice was nearly brought down by poor fiscal management.

Paul Left said...

Quote: 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.

This seems overly simplistic to me. The pedagogic intent is evidenced not just in a tool but in how that tool is implemented. eg the glossary is BB is not collaborative, it's a tool for 'instructors' to post a certain type of content. The glossary in Moodle (like other tools) can be truly collaborative in that students can (if enabled) post and edit glossary entries and comments on entries.

Moodle reflects a constructivist approaches in that it allows for such collaboration and student-generated content in addition to teacher-generated content.

I've been using Moodle and BB for quite a few years for professional development and I know which I'd rather use: Moodle has quite a few drawbacks but it doesn't constrain my use of collaborative activities anywhere near as much as BB does.

Donald Clark said...

Paul - I see what you maen, but there's dozens of other LMSs, many in the corporate sector and other open source software, other than Blackboard, that provide rich collaboration. The LMS/VLE market has been around for over decades, way before Moodle was ever dreamt of. I suppose my point was that colaborative techniques are not unique to Moodle and Moodle certainly didn't invent studenet collaboration in software. My beef is with teh whole 'constructivist' claim - which is simply a synonym for 'students doing stuff for themsleves'.

Paul Left said...

Yes, lots of LMS and other software that provide collaboration - just pointing out that that's one aspect of Moodle which could be said to support constructivist learning.

No, Moodle didn't invent collaboration in software - I certainly wasn't trying to suggest that!

And while 'students doing stuff' isn't in itself constructivist learning, it's hard to implement constructivist learning in an environment where 'students doing stuff' isn't possible...

Andrew Chambers said...

One problem with this article and the associated discussion about constructivism is that in reality constructivism is a theory. Like others I have been in this business many years and finally work in a graduate program which uses facilitation of learning over the traditional lecture style approach. And yes this is even used for face to face classes and not just distance. How did this all start I have no idea. But the outcome for the student isn't based around a debate on the best LMS, the best teaching theory or whatever. It is based around the practice of teaching in a particular way that suits the students, teachers, administration etc. Having said that trying to introduce Vista 4 then Blackboard 9 in comparison with our earlier LMS has shown that students don't particularly like LMS systems. They want activities, discussion, debate, posed questions, readings etc. A lot of these exist in our old LMS and do not exist in any present LMS. Just go look at the discussion system in Blackboard 9 or any LMS. Where are the structured activities??? All LMS systems fail on constructivism. The teacher does the scaffolding, the facilitation. None of the systems support this in any sensible way. Rock on our sadly deprecated no longer supported WebTeach system still loved by our students... And you know what it did? What it only did? Enabled facilitated active discussion just like a facilitated tutor driven classroom... Students don't like being lectured to...

Andrew Chambers said...

Donald, Seriously please list these LMS systems that do support collaboration. But if it is simply a suite of tools that enabled unstructured chat, discussion, video conferencing etc then that is where the problem is... Quite frankly the LMS matters little as long as it has a good simple easy to use toolset. The teacher does the teaching not the LMS. But a good LMS that goes further and allows structured activities based around the classics allowing debate, group work, questions being posed and reflected on etc is more useful. Sadly most systems don't go that extra mile or are too clumsy to attempt to set these up in a simple manner...

Anonymous said...

provocative post to say the least. The problem is i already found it in a discussion about Moodle used as "evidence" moodle does not work and has no future. Not happy about that.