Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fox's Glacier Mints & trashy training

I did something I never do these days - hung around after giving a talk to attend a training course - on ‘Creativity’. Surely, I thought, training must have moved on from the days when all you needed was a bowl of Foxes Glacier Mints, an abstract noun and a flipchart?
Guess what? It hadn’t. The trainers that run these sessions remind me of children’s entertainers, rather too eager and bouncy, and a bit creepy. In this case her enthusiasm was frightening rather than infectious, like some crazy clown on speed. I’m sure that in any normal setting she would have been diagnosed as bipolar – or just plain polar!

And then she was off - like a runaway train. Think ‘out of the box’ she demanded, the first of several dozen clich├ęs that rained down on us over the next three hours. It was like being clubbed into submission by platitudes. Why then, I thought, were we were all sitting in a box (classroom) to listen to this from someone who’s clearly off their box? She then leant forward to show her first Powerpoint slide – it was, guess what – a box! But only one side was visible (she was using an early version of Powerpoint, probably the first) and the graphic was mostly invisible. She rolled her eyes, “Technology eh”. Then back to the scripted jokes and, oh no, my heart sank, the dreaded 'breakout groups'. We were all given coloured pens and the predictable flipchart paper.

“Now for our first challenge on creativity, I want you to write down all the possible uses you can think off for a BRICK!”. Ah well, when in Rome. I got to work, “Penis extension (may need string), instrument of torture (crushing fingertips), trap for killing small mammals (held up by twig), missile at demonstrations (against bankers), prank (place in paper bag and put on pavement for kicking on Friday night), pendant (urban look for industrial rappers), head drop (place carefully on top of slightly ajar door), object of philosophical reflection (does brick exist when no one sees it), Christmas present (for someone you hate), slam into the back of the head of people who stop to answer their mobile in front of you in the street, subject of a mathematical problems (volume, trigonometry etc), drop from top of a building to determine its height (time the drop), breaking open walnuts, hot water bottle (heat and place in bed), break in karate chops…. I was on a roll but our time was up.

Apparently most people manage 3-5 ideas and anyone on eight to ten is borderline creative genius. I was ecstatic, as I’m clearly the Leonardo da Vinci of ‘brick’ creativity. I scored 15! However, I suddenly felt sheepish when she started to ask people what they had written. “Paperweight, , building, exercise weight…” My answers suddenly seemed pathological.

We then had to apply our newly discovered creativity to e-learning. How, she wondered, could we make our e-learning better, through creative thinking. Once again we were forced to, you guessed it; ‘Think out of the box’. “Go to places you never thought of going” she shrieked. On the Powerpoint was written in light green text on a white background, ‘What are the barriers to people using e-learning and how can they be overcome?’ My first though was ‘Delivering a course entirely in light green text on a white background’. No, thought I, don’t be flippant, and so suggested, to our group, who had the obligatory piece of flipchart paper on the table, “Sex, drugs, rock and roll, or Nectar Points”. Our trainer came across, and although she said, “That’s it, think out of the box!” it was a rather forced statement delivered behind a sort of dead smile. We weren’t being serious enough.

And then I saw it, the bowl of Fox's Glacier Mints (Does anyone other than training venue managers buy these things?). I popped one into my mouth - it was saccharine sweet, completely transparent and of no nutrition value whatsoever. It was time to leave.

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?