I realized the other day that my Moodle had become more than just a learning management system used to support what I did in the classroom: in many ways my bricks and mortar classroom had become a learning space to continue what I was doing on my Moodle!
My grade 8 English class was about to start a unit on Film Study, and, even without thinking about it, the very first thing I did was create a Moodle page for the course! The way things are set up at my school, I don’t have a home classroom for my English classes – I have to travel. Not all of the rooms have AV equipment, not all have computers. Teaching film from multiple venues, some of them quite devoid of technology, was going to be a challenge. Not insurmountable of course, but it made my choice of Moodle as my primary platform that much more natural.
With Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) sweeping through tertiary education, the winds of change are now starting to unsettle a few leaves in the secondary sector as well, and few can doubt that eLearning and Hybrid solutions will form an important part of the secondary school in the next decade. If Harvard Professors are lining up to present courses online, high school teachers will surely follow.
While there are many learning platforms and options available to teachers, Moodle is one of the most common, and has the great benefit of being Open Source, adequately supported and of course, free.
So what can Moodle do that a traditional classroom cannot?
I have to say as a cautionary note that I do not think that traditional classrooms will disappear: especially in the school setting. While the lecture and seminar structure of the University is well suited to online adaptation, schools don’t work with lecture method. Teachers are much more hands-on, and while online solutions will no doubt play a part in the classroom of the future, the need to have teachers who help mediate content or hone skills for students will require substantial face-to-face interaction. I see online solutions as an aspect of the classroom, and while some content may be delivered entirely online, it could be that we reach the middle of the century with classrooms looking not entirely unlike the ones we see today. But it is certain also that a large part of the schooling of the future will involve online experiences.
A Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle can perhaps be visualized in five aspects, five functions which either sustain traditional classroom teaching, or substantially disrupt it. Generally speaking, the first three levels do not work to transform educational practice as it exists today. In fact the technologies may improve ways of doing it traditionally, and hence strengthen it. Just as the Interactive White Board is an improved form of the chalk board, or a visualizer replaces the over-head projector.
The last two levels, however, represent potential for substantial transformation of education, and Moodle must thus count as a truly disruptive technology – one with the potential, perhaps not to replace the classroom, but certainly to transform it beyond recognition.
The First Level (Document Management)
One of the most common uses of a School Moodle is as a document management system. Most teachers generate an enormous amount of paperwork – worksheets, notes, tests, marking memoranda and so forth. Much of the time these get handed out to students and subsequently filed or lost. Anyone who has ever handed out anything in a classroom will know that a certain percentage is always left on the desks at the end of the lesson, and a greater percentage left at home when needed next. Moodle allows any kind of document to be posted online, which can then be downloaded whenever needed. Lost papers can be effortlessly retrieved, printed out or saved onto a flash drive.
Links to web-pages or third-party documents can also be posted on a class Moodle, making it a very efficient way to present and store course documents. I also include class documents such as class rules, subject policy, and my schemes of work. Moodle, thus largely replaces a teacher’s subject file.
Many school Moodles are currently stuck at this first level, and even if this is all that you do with your Moodle, it is well worth the time and effort. Documents are as easy to place online as to file, and because the Moodle is backed up daily – much less easy to lose! While I do print out paper handouts, many of the documents I post are available only online (such as marking memoranda and exemplars). Moodle can also help teachers build up an archive of past papers, which is very useful for students.
The Second Level (Paperless Assessment)
Moodle also allows students to submit their assignments online, digitally. This is a simple process and because all submissions are date-stamped, all arguments over late submission can be settled effortlessly. Also there is no need to engage in senseless arguments over whether a student did indeed submit an assignment or not. Moodle never lies!
Work can be assessed online using a rubric (with Moodle 2), feedback can be written in a separate box, or the original work returned annotated with remarks, or a marking memo attached, as desired. The mark allocated is stored on the computer and can be exported to a spreadsheet. Moodle can thus effectively be used as a mark book. No need to transcribe marks to a spreadsheet!
This really makes marking effortless as a teacher, but it also helps students as the feedback is immediate. Students can submit an assignment from home, after midnight, and teachers can assess it in their pyjamas!
The Third Level (Multi-Media)
Because any kind of document or file can be posted on Moodle, teacher handouts are no longer confined to text alone. Teachers can add videos, either linked or embedded, PowerPoints, sound files, or SCORMs (eLearning files), alongside any file of any sort or format. This is an amazingly useful and versatile addition to any teacher’s armoury. You can imagine how useful it is for a film study class, for example. The ability to show short clips to illustrate particular camera angles or editing techniques, or clips from the film the class is studying, is a huge windfall! But the advantages for a Science class of having videoed experiments for replay is evident as well! Indeed the ability to be able to stop and rewind content is a huge boon for students. The success of the Khan Academy and the flipped classroom concept demonstrates the advantages of this approach, but Moodle allows a teacher to pull all the material together into one place, and organise it logically for students.
The Fourth Level (Interactivity)
Despite the numerous advantages of being able to post and receive digital files of any sort, these capacities in Moodle by and large take what teachers are already doing, and simply make it easier to do so. It is not an earth-shattering transformation of the educational process. A teacher could screen a video in class, for example, rather than embedding it on a Moodle page.
However, the very ease of use, and bringing together multiple functions under a single umbrella does represent a change of the scale of what is possible and signals technological affordances making significant changes in the way education is organized possible. The Flipped Classroom model is a case in point: reversing the traditional view of what is done in class, and what is done for homework.
In the Flipped Classroom model the more passive and receptive tasks (listening to the teacher for example) are allocated as homework, and the more interactive tasks – class discussion or practice on Maths problems is done in the classroom where the teacher is able to make more telling interventions.
The interaction between teacher and student is crucial to education, and by and large requires a traditional classroom where face-to-face interaction can occur. Moodle does have interactive functions, however, which allow for some of this to happen online. For example there is a Chat module which allows students and teachers to chat in real time, or forums, which allow for more asynchronous communication to occur. There are also Skype or virtual meeting plugins which allow for distance seminars (webinars) to happen. One could certainly imagine a classroom, using this interactivity, which used only online communication channels, funneled through a Moodle platform. This would completely obviate the need for a bricks and mortar school, and indeed such virtual schools do exist. Moodle thus has the capacity to completely disrupt the current educational model which is based on physical schools. I would argue that these schools would miss out on some of the more intangible benefits of real schools – the socializing functions, the benefits of team sports and so on, and of course the really crucial child-minding role played by schools when children are younger. I don’t believe schools are about to disappear, but they will undergo substantial change.
In most cases schools running an active Moodle system would probably look to use the interactive functionalities when classroom options were not available. There doesn’t seem much sense organizing a chat room on Moodle for a class which meets face-to-face on a daily basis. However, a chat room might be useful for a group planning a project as homework, or a forum could be used for pre-class discussion. The forum discussion on a novel might become the topic of conversation in class. A Moodle system also allows an outside expert access via a Discussion Forum or Skype call to participation in a class.
The Fifth Level (Multi-Modal Authoring)
I believe that there is also an important role for Moodle to play as a focal point for multi-modal conversations. We live in a media enriched world, in which communication is increasingly conducted in multi-modal environments. One of the most powerful features that Moodle possess is that it allows for any file, of any format to be embedded. This means that teachers can post Youtube videos, or their own videos or podcasts online. It also means that students can deliver conversations, such as feedback on tasks via sound or video files. These can be embedded in a forum post, for example to create vialogues (or video dialogues). I get my students to use the web cameras at the back of the computer room to record report back on a task they are doing, or a topic they are researching. This replaces standing up in front of the whole class to give report back. The recording saves as a video file which can easily be embedded in a Feedback, Forum or Blog post on Moodle. Students can also post projects they have done, in any digital format in the same way, giving the opportunity to publish what they have authored amongst their peers. Links could be set up to any content published on a wider, more public stage.
To my mind this access to publishing opportunities provides a platform which threatens to transform education in truly radical ways. Wherever possible I believe we should be encouraging students to create and publish their own content as part of the learning experience, and sharing this with other classes, or outside experts. Moodle provides an infrastructure which facilitates this process to some degree.
Because Moodle operates off a web browser, the technology required is relatively inexpensive. Because Moodle accepts all files of whatever format, Open Source software solutions can be used. As long as a school has some computers and an Internet connection it can be run off a server owned by the school, or off of free Moodle hosting sites such as http://globalclassroom.us. Developing an effective Moodle Classroom is therefore not as daunting as it may seem, and does not need to wait for a school to have all the bells and whistles. It can be implemented bit by bit as you learn and grow with it.
I cannot do without my four-walls classroom, obviously, but in a very real way, almost tangible, I have come to rely on my Moodle to an even greater extent.