Saturday, May 12, 2007

Why we use Moodle as a central web site

Offering schools a VLE as part of a learning platform offering is fairly straightforward - it's designed for that, so it's an obvious thing to do. However, when it comes to creating a central web site for something other than "normal" VLE functions - for example communicating information with schools, sharing resources among schools, there's no doubt that there are better tools available - Moodle is a CMS - but it's a Course Management System rather than a Content Management System, so not everything that a Web Content MS does is as easily achievable in Moodle.
However, it is a fairly straightforward task to customise a Moodle instance so it looks like a "normal" web site from the outside. You could use the additional Content Management System block in Moodle, but that's another story...
When I started in Bucks over three years ago (longer ago than this), one thing I was tasked with was creating a web site for sharing resources to support schools through the wealth of tasks and functions surrounding school improvement. I'd been part of a team in Hertfordshire doing something similar, but this was extremely labour-intensive and done in a "traditional" authored in Dreamweaver fashion, which became a victim of its own success. The County Council's bang-up-to-date web site (a "retro" look, so I believe) , which was edited by a few authors mainly using FrontPage, wasn't up to the task, and the forthcoming Content Management System didn't offer the flexibility required. As a service we were under pressure to conform to an unsustainable way of working ("prepare your information, pass it to someone who's got special web skills, they'll do the work (and due to the volume of work be the bottleneck which slows everything down), then the work will be published for you...") but I'd been down that road before and didn't fancy a return journey.
At some point in 2004, (don't ask, I don't remember) I stumbled across Moodle and it seemed that we could answer both the "we need a web site" and "our schools need something to support online learning" issues with one application. However, boyyyyyy was it difficult in convincing people that this was a way forward ("we already have a CMS, why do you need your own?"). In the face of much criticism and opposition from all sorts of places we launched the site and shortly afterwards began to offer a few schools their own Moodles as part of a pilot project.
At the time, I hadn't thought forward to the point where we are now, with schools having their own sites and starting to use Moodle in a way which underpinned, enhanced and broadened some of their learning and teaching. However, it turns out that the decision to use Moodle was unintentionally (and I emphasise that word) a very wise one. Here are some reasons why:

  • having a central area for curriculum resources which delegates the responsibility of publishing subject information to the subject advisers, consultants and associated admin staff means that, if they use it, they are already familiar with the VLE system being used in schools they're supporting - almost without realising it;
  • sharing resources with schools means that many staff are used to accessing a Moodle web site before they start using it themselves to create and share resources - essentially they get to experience some of the site as a consumer/pupil (on the BucksGfL site) before taking on the role of provider/teacher (on their own Moodle). This particularly applies in areas of the site where they are part of a community, using forums, links, glossaries, etc. in order to access and share resources;
  • with staff who are using Moodle to teach, we're encouraging them to share courses they've created in their own Moodle with other schools on a share-alike basis. Indeed, with our current batch of schools which we're training, we're making the sharing a condition of the fact that we're paying for staff's cover time to be at the training sessions. Our schools' Moodles are restricted by default so that only staff from a particular school can login to that school's Moodle. So how does a member of staff evaluate what a resource shared from another school looks like? Well, the fact that we've got a central Moodle means that we can Backup and Restore those shared courses from many schools to the central BucksGfL site, where staff from other schools can access them (as "pupils"), experience them, decide if they'd like to use them and then download them. Result? Staff know what you're getting and can save both time and effort by choosing things you know would work, rather than just sound like they might...

With the development of Every Child Matters and a move towards Children's Services, using the central Moodle site for council staff to share discussion, resources and opinion might provide the more forward-thinking within the Council to think creatively about how the same tool used in schools (where it already is active) could be used to ensure that pupils and staff are heard at all levels of an organisation like a Local Authority. Can this happen? Will it happen? Hold your breath...

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