We have been quietly putting some very powerful tools in place for K-12 teachers here in Michigan to help enhance and provide online experiences for our students. With help from many dedicated and hard working educators we have laid a good foundation to build upon. Much of this work revolves around Moodle. Making it easier to use. Providing resources. Providing training. Providing support and technical assistance. And most importantly trying to develop a community around learning using Moodle as the delivery tool.
So, what are big picture plans?
Step One: Develop Distribution and Sharing Capabilities
There are many reasons why we chose to use Moodle. But lets focus on some of the universal tools we have implemented and one way they can be utilized. We’ll start with the REMC Moodle Hub and Hub Preview sites. These sites are designed as a way for Michigan teachers to share their courses, content, and quizzes with the entire State of Michigan! We want to leverage technology to allow us to work smarter; not harder. Every Michigan school district can connect their Moodle site to the Hub. This allows teachers to upload their courses as well as browse and download courses they want to use. The ultimate goal is to provide courses professionally designed to align with benchmarks and standards. There will also be a need for well designed individual project-based learning courses which provide all the tools and information needed for a student to complete a learning project. The Moodle Hub will be a great distribution center for valuable content for teachers. The Hub is fully integrated with Moodle and easily accessed from within the users own Moodle site. We want to share best practices.
Hubs are great for gathering content from outside of your site. Moodle also has powerful features and capabilities to share content from within a Moodle site. MetaCourses, activity backups, using a course as a repository, and other features are internal ways of sharing and collaborating. These methods of sharing and collaborating need to be developed by teachers. It is ultimately going to depend on how the teacher wants to use the tool.
Step Two: Lower Barriers and Increase Access
There is no way around this. Your Moodle System Admin needs to step up and be a hero! There are a few things that need care and attention in order for Moodle to be successful. These are not magical mystery items and when done right will greatly improve the user experience with Moodle.
- Logins – Use LDAP or another single sign on solution. Having a single form of login is one of the most important things you can do to simplify and increase usage of Moodle. We try to eliminate as many logins as possible. All these usernames and passwords do is distract the learner from accessing the material.
- Allow Teachers to be Teachers – Automatically make teachers course creators based on LDAP settings. This will allow every teacher to just login and begin using Moodle by creating a course and getting started. The biggest barrier is often the tech person! If a teacher wants to explore using Moodle at 2am on a friday, LET THEM!!! Don’t setup a system by which a teacher must wait for your approval or action to setup a course. Make it easier.
- Appearance – It cannot be understated the importance of a well thought out theme and homepage design for Moodle. Many sites are still not responsive (Adapt to screensize for phones and tablets). Many Moodle homepages are very text-heavy with blocks and things that clutter up the page. Look at Moodle as a tool and as a tool design the homepage to get the user to where they need to be. We built a Moodle theme from scratch to be very direct and focused on getting the user logged in and to their courses to digest the learning material.
- Moodle Defaults – There are many settings in the backend of Moodle that can be tweaked by your Moodle Admin which makes using Moodle easier for teachers. Many plugins have default settings. The Moodle Admin should adjust these so that the most common settings used by teachers are the defaults and don’t require the teacher to change them each time they add a new activity. When a new course is created the course can have default filters and other various settings applied at the site level. The Moodle Admin needs to explore the Site Settings.
- Performance – Make sure the servers are up to the challenge! Do not use old equipment just sitting around. Put in the effort to ensure that the server is optimized for performance and monitor the workload to ensure success.
Moodle Social Wall Supports Easy Classroom Communication
Another thing that will increase adoption of Moodle is using the new Socialwall format. This new course format will transform a Moodle course into a social learning experience. Many teachers only want an efficient way to communicate and distribute learning materials. These teachers will often say that Moodle is overkill for their needs and too complicated to be useful. We listened and because Moodle is open source we were able to develop a tool that will allow teachers who only want a communication tool to utilize Moodle. This is in an effort to keep all teachers on ONE PLATFORM. As a parent myself, I cannot stand it when my child must go to 10 different websites to complete homework. I also find it very inconvenient when I have to check all these different tools from weebly to wikispaces to you name it – just to get homework or classroom updates. If each teacher uses a different tool I find that I spend too much time accessing their site and then learning how each tool presents material. It would be so much more convenient and productive if there could be ONE tool that could meet the majority of needs. It is also better for students to use one tool because they don’t have to remember logins and they only have to learn the tool once and it applies for every class. Students spend more time learning content and not learning the tool.
The new Moodle Socialwall course format is designed to get more teachers using Moodle by lowering the barrier to get in and use it everyday. The hope and desire is that once the teacher is comfortable using Moodle they will want to explore other powerful tools and share in some of the shared content from the Hub. Moodle will grow with you as your skills and comfort increase.
Step Three – Develop Community & Resources
It can often be scary if you feel you are an island unto yourself. We are working to build support communities for both technical and classroom needs. Each year the REMC organization puts on a Michigan Moodle Moot which is two days of in-depth Moodle training, discussions, and sharing. This is by far the best way to meet and learn more about how to best use Moodle. We have several listservs that send out email “calls for help” and connect technical experts across the state. There is even a Michigan Moodle User Group for sharing resources and ideas. We are also exploring models of training for Moodle. One such model uses Moodle “roaming” which allows users from one Moodle site to connect to another Moodle site and seamlessly access courses and materials. In this example a local ISD wants to provide training to several different school districts. By utilizing Moodle roaming the ISD can have all districts access the same training course and avoid having to create special logins for all the users. By developing a strong Moodle community we hope to be able to rapidly share successes and best practices.
Step Four – Customize and Enhance
Moodle can be custom tailored to meet your needs. Using various technologies and 3rd party applications you can build a very robust and powerful learning platform. In the past we have outlined our learning platform and how we integrate eportfolios and other learning tools with Moodle. These tools are all open source and free to use. We have each tool fully integrated with Moodle meaning that each tool connects via Moodle and there are no special logins required.
We want teachers to know that their hard work will not be yanked out from under them. We have had experiences where Blackboard was free – until funding ran out. We have seen other “free” web services come and go. If a teacher builds a course in Moodle they own the content and work they put into it. They can take it with them by simply clicking the backup button. Using Moodle provides teachers with freedom that might seem trivial at the surface level until a teacher needs it. Other services are silos and lock the user into their tool. We want teachers to have a level of security in knowing that the tool they use will be there for them.
Our learning platform consists of:
- Mahara – student portfolios and web authoring
- BigBlueButton – web conferencing
- WordPress Multisite as a publishing tool – Connected via LTI to Moodle to provide external classroom websites
- Moodle Hubs – REMC Moodle Hub and Dearborn Moodle Hub for content sharing
Step Five – Models and Workflows
This is where you develop models of how the tool can be best used. One example could simply be that a teacher would login to their Moodle site, download an entire course from a Moodle hub and use it to compliment classroom resources. Another scenario could involve a shared assessment course between several teachers who each have individual classroom courses but collaborate to utilize common tests. Another idea is to have one classroom course and then a “mix and match” pre-built, shared units that award badges of completion when a student finishes the learning. In this setup the teacher handles the day to day activity in the social learning course and can pick and choose from a bank of learning exercises as needed. Each school district will inevitably develop their own path and how they want teachers to utilize Moodle. The key idea is that Moodle is flexible enough to accommodate your needs. And in areas where it is not, you can make it be.
Here is an example video of a workflow that would take advantage of teacher collaboration and the new SocialWall course format.
Hopefully in the very near future we can have demonstrations on how all of these tools and integrations can all come together to make an impact for teachers and students.
Moodle is a very robust learning application. I have tried to very quickly outline a few steps to improving the user experience with Moodle. Obviously the planning and implementation are key to the success of any project and often this is overlooked. There is no substitute for good planning. I am hopeful that here in Michigan we can continue to develop resources and community around Moodle. It is my belief that this is the best tool from a teacher, student, and district perspective.