Moodle Is a Virtual Learning Environment

Abstract

This paper investigates the use of Moodle as a virtual learning environment in educational settings. It highlights the characteristics of Moodle making it uniquely suited for educational purposes and explores the software from the viewpoint of the teacher. It also analyzes the impact of Moodle on learning and the reason why Universities choose Moodle as their LMS. Although there is insufficient evidence that Moodle has actually improved the learning capacity of the students in terms of classroom interaction or academic achievement, the available literature from journal articles and articles on the Internet overwhelmingly suggest that Moodle is a very popular learning management system that is highly favored by students and teachers globally.

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Literature Review of Moodle

Background

With the advent of the Internet, online education, also known as e-learning ,has taken off in a big way and course management systems (CMS) ,such as Moodle, are generally considered revolutionary in this field. Moodle is an acronym for “modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment” (Antonenko et al, 2004) and is a software package designed to assist educators to create ‘quality online instruction’ and facilitate online learning (Brandl 2005). For educators, it is a tool for the management of various aspects of course content and delivery using a single integrated system (Winter,2006) Moodle is popular among educators because it is free, easy to implement and is flexible thus supports a wide range of teaching and learning styles. While Moodle is basically used for automation of teaching tasks like giving tests, work assignments and collection, (Zenha-Rela et al, 2006), the more advanced features of Moodle facilitate collaboration (Nagi et al, 2008 ), peer assessment(Zenha-Rela et al) and provide active forums for technical support and feedback. The Moodle system has recently been expanded by users to include podcasting and gradebook options. However, there are some costs involved as Moodle can be used only where there is a local server, users need training and ongoing support is not free (Nayanakkara 2007). Studies show that Moodle is preferred by most instructors and students as its benefits are found to far outweigh the costs involved in implementation and maintenance efforts. In particular, Moodle is very popular among K-12 schools and districts which operate on limited government funding (Brooks-Young). There are currently more than 2.5 million courses delivered through Moodle (Market Wire, 1) and over half a million registered users on Moodle site alone, speaking over 75 languages in 193 countries (Moodle.org, 1).This paper analyzes the features of Moodle that make it unique, its impact on learning and reasons why universities choose Moodle as their course management system.

Philosophy of Moodle

According to the official Moodle website, the design and development of Moodle is guided by “social constructionist pedagogy”. This implies that Moodle is best suited for an educational approach that is two-way and involves interaction rather than a one-way transmission of knowledge. This concept is explained through four related concepts: constructivism, constructionism, social constructivism, and connected and separate approach. From a constructivist point of view, the learner actively constructs new knowledge as he/she interacts with his/her environment.

Constructionism asserts that learning is most effective when designed for others to experience. The concept of social constructivism holds that learning is improved by making groups construct knowledge for one another. In connected behavior, the student takes a more empathic approach and listens to other people’s ideas and asks questions. In general, a healthy amount of connected behavior promotes excellent learning and Moodle, according to its designers, supports connected behavior and a constructive social constructionist approach through collaboration, activities, critical reflection, etc (Moodle.org, 1). Dave Bremer and Reuben Bryant (2005) in their study comparing two learning management systems , Moodle and Blackboard at Otago Polytechnic, have cited that the constructivist approach behind the designing of Moodle gives it competitive advantage over Blackboard. In their paper they note that the constructivism is designed into Moodle, “rather than as an afterthought” (Bremer and Bryant, 39) which allows teachers to build on their lessons gradually through Moodle.

According to Dougimas and Taylor (2002), a healthy amount of connected behavior promotes excellent learning and therefore Moodle supports connected behavior and a constructive social constructionist approach through collaboration, activities and critical reflection. In Moodle, learning projects or tasks can be created to allow for teacher-student or student-student interactions, enabling teachers to divide their students into subgroups and encourage them to cooperate with each other synchronously in chat rooms, or asynchronously in Wikis and forums (Brandl, 16).Accordingly, Breggen et al (2005) note that modern learning practices that are student-centered, project-based, and socio-collaborative tend to favor group formation among the learners, and so Moodle’s feature of forming groups course-wide that do not change during the term of the course is in tune with its philosophy of social constructionism (Breggen et al, 2005). Moodle’s design is based on a clear philosophy which gives it a clear framework on which it can be expanded, built and made more powerful. Its social constructionist approach is also well suited to the current global environment where digitalization of information and social networking are important.

Desirable features of e-learning Platforms

There are a few factors to be considered while choosing a CMS for use in an educational setting. In a study held within Tertiary Institutions in New Zealand by Charith Nanayakkara (2007: 1) titled “User Acceptance of Learning Management” it was identified that three key groups of factors: individual, system and organizational affected the adoption of e-learning systems in the tertiary institutions (Nanayakkara, 1). At the individual level, Nanayakkara (p. 10) revealed that level of knowledge; skills in online content design and individual acceptance are important factors for educational institutions to embrace CMS such as Moodle. While individual factors have significant contribution to the CMS adoption, the system and organizational factors are most crucial for user acceptance in e-learning. Five essential factors for staff uptake in e-learning systems have been identified in their order of significance: release time for staff; ease of use of CMS; usefulness of the CMS; training and support to develop online content and reliability and performance of information and communication technologies (Nanayakkara, 10).

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Basic Features of Moodle

Moodle is developed as an Open Source software project, supported by professional programmers and users (Dougiamas 2003). The availability of Moodle free of charge gives it an advantage over similar educational software such as Blackboard and WebCT whose licensing fees are quite high (Moore 2003). Moodle offers a virtual classroom complete with all facilities and teaching materials along with detailed student records in one website that can be adapted to the needs of any educational institution (Graf and List 2005). A feature of Moodle is that it allows online collaborations between the teachers, the students and among themselves through virtual learning spaces called ‘courses’, with its own set of content and activities called “modules” (Antonenko et al). These courses are generally password protected so that only enrolled students can access them (Stanford, 58).

However, it is important to note that most CMS have this characteristic. Moodle is modular in nature and hence it is easy to add extra functionalities to the system through individually developed modules with specialized functions (Winter 2006).

Special Features of Moodle

Breggen et al (2005) point to Moodle’s unique design that facilitates the creation of course content in a repetitive manner, a characteristic of the ‘open learning design’. The modular architecture approach of Moodle supports instant creation and modification of course content, allowing instructors who are not tech-savvy to create useful learning scenarios almost directly, and then gradually refine them as their skills develop. This explains Moodle’s popularity with teachers.

Web logging is another feature of Moodle that attracts students. Ching et al. (2005) have found that students in an introductory educational technology class ‘showed a strong interest in weblogs and the ease with which Moodle allowed them to use weblogs’ as a part of their learning experience ( Breggren et al, 2005, p.7). The chat tool allows for simultaneous discussions between students to be held. One shortcoming though is that Moodle’s structure does not provide instructors with the opportunity to give answers to students’ questions, unlike other CMS like Blackboard and Desire2Learn. (EduTools,2008.CMS: Product Comparison System)

Jay Melton in his 2006 study on Moodle’s registration and assignment process noted that Moodle follows many of the conventions for usability such as a simple graphic interface, minimal verbal text and extra information provided through rollovers (Melton, 18). Melton concludes that these features of Moodle make registration easy for new users.

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Another feature of Moodle discovered by Calvo-Flores et al (2005) is the use of artificial neural networks to analyze Moodle’s student logs to identify the students most likely to pass the course and those who are not. While not unique to Moodle, Botturi et al. (2005) show that 94.3% of participants were satisfied with the performance of Moodle because of the ease with which it allowed communication with students outside the classroom, management of digital material and its accessibility to all students at all times.

New modules can be attached to Moodle allowing it to be integrated with existing students’ administrative management tools. Moreover, Moodle has an easy, user friendly interface with simple and platform independent supporting infrastructure (Teixeira et al, 3). The technological requirements for using Moodle are also cheap and easy to procure – the Appache web server, the PHP for html page script and MySql for database (Texeira et al, 3).

Moodle can also import and integrate courses structured according to the IMS and SCORM standards. This means the course materials need not be prepared from scratch but can be built from existing documents (Teixeira et al, 3). According to an article titled “Moodle Implementation at the University of Minnesota” (PPT) by Elena Ivanova and Scott Barnard (2008), Moodle was adopted by the University because of its social constructivist philosophy which promotes collaborative learning and also because Moodle allows teachers to gradually enter the collaborative model (Ivanova and Barnard, 2).

Though teachers have the final decision, the blurring of the student/teacher roles when using this tool has proved to be a valuable pedagogical approach, not as a mere technological solution, but rather as a social facilitator inducing learning(Zenha-Rela and Carvalho, 27). Thus the continuity in education pattern and the ability to bring teachers and students on a common platform for interaction purposes are features of Moodle that make it uniquely suited to educational settings.

According to Inoue and Bell (2006), Moodle was chosen at the Business Studies and Computer Sciences Department of the CMI because of its emphasis on security; reduction of administrative involvement without compromising security; complete control given to the full time teacher including the ability to restrict other teachers (this issue of control distinguishes Moodle from commercial CMS such as Blackboard where control is largely retained by the administration and/or the producers of the software; Education is therefore organized differently );its flexible array of course activities; ability to view all grades on one page and download as a spreadsheet file; upload of student assignments with time stamp; automatic grading of quizzes; allowing quizzes to be taken multiple times at the discretion of the teacher and showing feedback and correct answers and display support of any type of electronic media content (Inoue and Bell, 136).

In spite of the above mentioned features which give Moodle an appraising outlook, there are a number of other setbacks which it has. For one, it is still changing and characterized with a lot of interface “shifting” in comparison to other CMSs which are more stable, the likes of WebCT Vista 4.2/CE 6.2 and even Blackboard 7.3-8.0. Apart from this, Moodle still hasn’t been configured to embrace open source project and therefore is still faced with the problem of lack of IMS QTI support for using with Respondus and other QTI compatible tools, therefore its hard to move around text questions.(Blackboard, 2008). On top of this, some clients feel that Moodle has a poor or below high quality, user unfriendly accessibility features which should be improved on. (Web Aim, 2008). There is also the impression that Moodle tries to lock in its users since it lacks the export function and therefore it is impossible for users to switch between it and other CMSs or export its contents to open standards (Feldstein, 2008).

Limitations and Recommendations

Jay Melton (2006) notes that submission of an assignment through Moodle was difficult for instructors as it did not show the standard purple color for visited links; rather the links continued to remain blue even after clicking on them and this was confusing for the participants. Another problem faced by users was the language interface. Three Japanese participants felt that having an English interface made it difficult for them to understand the subtasks (Melton, 18). However, this mistake has now been rectified and Moodle now supports many languages that can be chosen from a drop-down menu (Moodle.org, 1).

In the paper titled “Evaluating Usability in Learning Management System Moodle” Kakasevski et al (2008) have examined the usability issues of standard modules in Moodle and made some recommendations. They suggest that lessons must have more audiovisual content in order to make them more understandable to the students. Additionally, the materials should be standard formats such as.doc,.xls,.pps,.jpg and.pdf formats which are more popular among the users (Kakasevksi et al, 617). Kakasevksi et al (2008) suggest that files in other formats must be converted before being uploaded on the system.

They also point to the problems in online chat faced by 80% of the students and the problems in the discussion forum. This is mainly because the e-tools for communication such as chat modules, forums and e-mails are not well developed (Kakasevksi et al, 618). One recommendation they make is that teachers can be allowed to place links to the official student forum instead of the discussion forum. Rashmi S. Ramagiri (2007) has observed that Moodle may be improved to include profile pictures in the chat window and allow support for smiles, images, etc. to improve the interactive environment of Moodle.

Also, provisions should be made for allowing students to check grades, enroll for any course and solve quizzes online (Ramagiri, 33). To increase student participation at Moodle forums: “enable peer-review of the quality of the posts by other students; intelligent marking of the contributions to the forums and periodical interventions from professors to the forums” (Organero and Kloos, 3).

Comparative Advantages of Moodle

Teixeira et al (2006) studied the migration of a learning platform from a website to a Moodle Based CMS and found that Moodle is more apt than a website for educational purposes. Websites work only in one direction by feeding information to students whereas Moodle works in two ways by providing an interactive platform between the teachers and the students (Teixiera et al, 1).

Dr. Khaleel Petrus and Dr. Michael Sankey (2007: 1) in their study titled ” Comparing Writely and Moodle Online Assignment Submission and Assessment”, compared student perceptions of two online course management systems – Writely and Moodle and found that students preferred Moodle system over Writely for submitting assignments, assessment and receiving feedback due to its convenience of use and high responsiveness. In another study, Michelle Moore (2003: 2) has found that Moodle is a cost effective alternative to other LMSs such as Blackboard and WebCT (Moore, 2). From the above studies Moodle is clearly the best option for online educational purposes in the present day educational context.

Enhancements and Moodle

Moodle can be customized to the needs of its users by integrating it with other modular programs. Nagi and Suesawaluk (2008) suggest the integration of Moodle with a tool called “Reports”, thus helping educators to evaluate student activities and identify online behaviors and interaction patterns using the Moodle logs (Nagi and Suesawaluk, 772). Elgg, a social networking tool, can be also integrated into Moodle and thereby it is possible to have student centered learning environments where students have their own blogs and connect with the world outside the classroom (Godwin-Jones, 2006, 8).

Podcasting can be activated on the Moodle Platform by using its forum pages. Educators can create podcasts in the form of audio Mp3 files and attach it to their posts from where students may download and listen. The RSS feed tool must be activated on the specific post so that students can subscribe to it (Hall, 67). Wimba Inc recently announced an enhanced integration with Moodle to incorporate the Wimba Collaboration Suite(TM) into the Moodle platform to facilitate the use of “online video, voice, text, application sharing, polling and white boarding” (Market Wire, 1). Consequently, the learning environment at Moodle will be made more collaborative and interactive, increasing student engagement and retention. Another extension of Moodle’s functionality has been achieved through its combination with other technologies such as the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Hot Potatoes. A module for Moodle was developed by Bateson (2005) that allows Hot Potatoes, an existing authoring tool to be incorporated into Moodle. Teachers have found that it increased its flexibility. SCORM, a standard for the packaging and deployment of Web-based “learning objects,” facilitates the exporting and importing of data across platforms when integrated with Moodle. With the increased ability to transmit information across different platforms using Hot Potatoes or Authorware and using merging technologies like SCORM and XML, it is possible for teachers to choose and customize the tools they need for their teaching environments and hence more avenues to be explored.(Levy and Stockwell, 210). Thus the ability of Moodle to be expanded in its functional capabilities makes it an educational tool well suited for the future that is marked by rapid changes in media and communication.

Evaluation and Feedback on Moodle

Botturi et al (2007) have studied the impact of Moodle in the context of two Tessin (Switzerland) higher education institutions: the University of Lugano (USI) and the University of Applied Sciences of Italian Switzerland (SUPSI) in May 2004. In a survey of 57 faculty members they found that 44% of respondents reported learning enhancement after Moodle was implemented, whereas 56% did not notice any change (Botturi et al, 8). Moreover, from the teacher’s point of view, it was found that 60% of them felt that students reacted positively to the new LMS and 51% of them claimed that the students had no difficulty in adapting to Moodle (Botturi et al, 8). Though the software is popular, the adoption process of the platform in the involved universities required that two actions be taken: all learning material available or previous learning platforms had to be migrated to e-Courses and teachers and teaching assistants had to be trained in Moodle in an application oriented way (Botturi et al, 9).

Antonenko et al (2004) have thoroughly evaluated Moodle using a framework based on the concept that learning environments are rooted in five core foundations: psychological, pedagogical, technological, cultural and pragmatic. Psychological foundations refer to the research, theory and practice of the learning and thinking processes. Moodle takes into consideration several learning theories such as situated cognition (tasks in authentic context) and cognitive flexibility (the Glossary Learning Module). Pedagogical foundations refer to the instructional practices that the designers use and are generally based on the theories of learning.

Moodle’s design is grounded in constructivist and social constructionist instructional principles. Technological foundations refer to the ways media affects the process of learning. In the context of cultural foundations, Moodle upholds values such as collaboration, sharing and community. On the pragmatic side, Moodle is well suited for the online educational environment. It is cheap, easy to download and install, efficient and has cross platform compatibility and a low-tech browser interface.

Conclusion

Moodle is an entire course management and delivery system and software to aid learning. Its discussion forum is comprehensive because it provides students with the opportunity to send and receive posts, availability of spell check and RSS feeds. This is in line with the philosophy of collaborative learning. Students can participate in group discussions, and also grade themselves in comparison with others. All this is conducive for proper learning.

However, to become better, Moodle should work on its weaknesses; including the lack of student self selected groups and online tutorials to help students. It can also provide students and instructors with their personal home pages where they can post information regarding them. Despite the given favorable features of Moodle, its also worthy to note the other factors which make it less desirable like the lack of export features, lacking CMS QTI open source support for using with Respondus and also the fact that as it is still subjected to many changes, it has many interface shifting.

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