This afternoon one of my managers sent me a link to an article to look at regarding a review on a Learning Management System (LMS) that he had heard about. I love receiving these articles because each one I research I walk away from saying, “OK, that’s nice, nothing new.” After I responded to him, talked with a few people, and thought this over I decided that it is time to write a blog entry on what I look for in an LMS and why. Let’s set the stage.
Over the last six years I have been involved to some extent or another in moving paper based curriculum electronic. The first two and a half years of the process it was done on a “do now and ask forgiveness later” principle. My supervisors at the time knew I was moving to electronic curriculum but they were not ready to deal with it. After that, about three and a half years ago we went to a new management team that understood, accepted, and encouraged the change. Of course, as soon as word got out to the vendors what we were working on every educational vendor came out from the woodwork and wanted our business. This was a very interesting and educational experience that I had known nothing about and was not expecting. It seems there are three main players in the LMS market: Blackboard, Angel, and Moodle. All other systems on the market are built off of these three software packages.
Blackboard and Angel are commercial packages, they are pay to use, and more importantly, pay to use each “model” or each function of the module. User of Blackboard are required to adhere to disk space restrictions, bandwidth restrictions, and every additional function that you wish to use from their library is charged for in some way or another. Angel works along the same lines. Additionally in the basic level of these products, the one a smaller school can afford, the system administrator is not allowed to access the command line, the shell, or the operating system behind the LMS front end. This means that the most simplest maintenance tasks must be performed by the people hosting the platform (Blackboard, or Angel). These companies are able to do this because they somehow were awarded the “trademark” and “Patent” for the online classroom. You will notice that I left Moodle out of this entire conversation, there is a reason.
Moodle is the third basic platform, Moodle stands in a land of it’s own. See, it is an open source platform, in other words it is freely available, the source code is all available, and it will install on anything. Before I say more about the features and functionality let’s address the patent issue. Moodle is exempt from the Blackboard patent battle. In order to not get into a long, expensive, and world-wide court battle Blackboard has a written agreement with Moodle that they will not attempt to enforce the patent against the Moodle project. I say world-wide battle because Moodle is developed in just about all countries by thousands of developers. It would be an impossible idea to enforce patent laws and trademarks against such a large open-source project. In addition Moodle has been developed by people that do not have access to Blackboards “methods” and “intellectual property” which again would make it hard to prove anything in court. So, they have an agreement and I am told it is in writing. So, what is so special about Moodle that makes it great? Really that anything any other platform can do Moodle can do as well. And some things Moodle can do other platforms can’t. It is all a part of the plugin structure for Moodle.
What’s a plugin? A plugin is something that an end user or in this case an administrator can easily add to a software package that will enhance it’s functionality. At this time Moodle 2.6 has 684 plugins available and a number that are in the process of being updated from version 2.5 and 2.4 to 2.6. These plugins are in addition to some of the Moodle core functionality which are standard to all installations. The people who work on my team, our leadership team, and our instructors who may read my blog may be asking, “684 plus things, we don’t have that many available to us.” They would be correct because like many Moodle administrators I do not have everything enabled – more on that later.
In the interest of comparison and education, let’s look at the most recent article that I was sent a link to, it was regarding an LMS platform named Helix and reviewed by Wade Roush in “At Atlius’s Online College, Students Will Learn Through Stories” (April 9, 2012). Roush touts the backbone of the system it’s ability to “structure lessons around real-world scenarios” and to articulate what the student needs to learn and be tested on based on these stories. He quotes Paul Freedman, Atlius’s founder and CEO as saying “that Moodle and all other learning management systems used by online education companies “are based on 1999 technology and do not allow for the level of personalization that you see everywhere on the web today’. (2012)” Surprisingly this statement has allowed Mr. Freedman to round up almost 27 million dollars in capital from investment firms. Sounds great, right? Even more surprisingly he is mentioning a very well supported and open source LMS in his logic. Well there is a little flawed logic being applied to this.
The first issue is the learning management system is a delivery platform, be it Moodle, Blackboard, Angel, or any of the offshoots doesn’t matter. It delivers the content that it is told to deliver. If I take a course built in Moodle, tell it as a story that gets the students involved, use that story to deliver competencies, test on those competencies as a part of the story, and award badges for completion I have set up Moodle to do exactly what Mr. Freedman has collected 27 Million dollars to do. And, guess what, I can do exactly this at a cost of roughly $400.00 per month in hosting for about 10,000 students scalable to upwards of 250,000 students on the Linux platform. The next part of the “better system” that Mr. Freedman advocates is one of competency based learning combined with story boarding. None of these concepts are new, and yes they will be a wonderful addition to any classroom, but it does not require an investment in a new piece of software.
Competency based learning is about a three to four year old well researched method of teaching and learning. With competency based learning the student is exposed to a concept (competency), the student studies it, works with it, explores it, and when they prove they have mastered it the student can move on. OK, sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? Now, storyboarding is a way of teaching a skill or lesson by framing the lesson within a story that makes sense. This is something that has been done by vocational instructors for decades, and in other cultures for millennia prior to formal education. Back then it involved a story teller sitting around a fire and telling stories about great adventures. In more recent times (recent I mean 300 years ago or so before formal education fixed all of our problems) this involved the apprentice and the master. The apprentice learned by doing and being a part of the story.
One such example of storyboarding would be teaching the students how to diagnose a bad thermostat, you know that thing on the wall that makes the room colder or warmer? So, I have three ways to teach this skill. First, I can sit all the students in rows in a lecture hall and we can take about an hour of notes on what a thermostat is, how it works, and all the things to check. Second, I can take all the students into a shop environment and I can demonstrate all the functions of a thermostat and demonstrate how to fix it, then test the students on it. Third, I can talk to the students about a service call that I went on while I was in the field, I can demonstrate how I diagnosed the problem and in the process teach the concepts of a thermostat, then I can give the students a scenario to work through that has them practice and in the long run demonstrate that they have learned about a thermostat. Educational research has shown that the final approach works the best, it allows the student to connect their learning to an experience, otherwise known as experiential learning. Nothing new, still exciting, but nothing new.
The next thing that is touted in this article is that students and instructors sometimes value things as live tutoring sessions, whiteboards, flash-cards, discussions, critical thinking, and rubrics. All of these are available in Moodle, and the cost is whatever the hosting and internet access costs.
So, what is available? I am not going to go through all 684 items, but some of the more exciting ones that everyone else is toting as new and the reason to switch to their platforms are:
- Threaded discussion boards with competency or numeric grading (core functionality)
- Flash-cards, hangman, and other games (games module)
- Tutoring (MyLiveChat module for realtime) (internal core function messaging for asynchronous)
- Whiteboard (10 different modules that provide this functionality)
- Competency based learning (core functionality of activity completion)
- Storyboarding (part of the default theme. This is dependent on course design, not software functionality)
- Workshops (plugin as well as core functionality)
- Rubric (available as a part of all assignment types)
- Multiple course formats (both core and plugins )
- Collaborative editor (collaborative plugin)
- Team assignments (assignment_team plugin)
- Online audio recording assignment (assignment_onlineaudio plugin)
- User polls (internal core functionality and plugin)
- Survey’s (internal core functionality and also plugins)
- File handling, storage, video streaming (internal and external based on operating system).
This short list is just a tip of the iceberg. Additionally since Moodle is open source and extremely well documented if something is missing that you would like to have for your classroom and school you can either learn (preferable) PHP5 or hire a PHP5 developer to create that functionality for you. Let’s say you have a project that takes one year to develop, this approach is still infinitely more cost effective than paying for a closed source LMS.
The challenge with Moodle that those of us who lead an educational effort is to decide on what we should make available and what would overwhelm our instructors with to much at one time. This is why I do not have 684+ modules installed on the LMS and why I do not make all of the internal functions available.
In this post I have picked apart a single review for a single type of LMS, Helix, but every other closed source package has the same limitation, you are paying for someone else to provide you with their view of what learning should be like. You do not have the freedom to innovate, you do not have the freedom to change, you do not have the freedom to say “this isn’t working lets change our approach” without migrating to a new vendor. With Moodle if you want to change your course structure, if you want to change your approach, you can do so while continuing to provide un-interrupted services to your students. The open source package is the one that gives you the most flexibility, the most innovation, and the greatest freedom for your students.
So, what do I look at in an LMS? Easy, does it provide a greater level of freedom, innovation, dependability, and affordability as Moodle? If the answer is “yes”, than there is something to look at. If the answer is “no” than I walk away feeling good about where we are at.
Mr. Freedman has a great concept. A non-traditional approach to learning that involves experiential learning, competency driven, and story telling. My problem with this approach is that it is not new, it has been used for millennia, and in our digital world it is not the software that drives this, it is how the software and courses are configured and setup.
(The opinions expressed in this post are mine alone and in no way the opinions of my employer and was written on my own time.)