Friday, August 17, 2007

Models of Moodling - Good, Bad and Other

In response to the post on Merlin John's blog about Moodle's apparent ascendancy there has been quite a bit of discussion on the Naacetalk email list about VLEs/Learning Platforms in general and Moodle in particular. I was going to start a long reply but - I don't know why, whenever I read a long and detailed reply on a mailing list, my finger twitches and moves, unerringly, towards the Mark All As Read option for that folder. So here's an answer, along with some (in context) quotes from what people had said.
The main gist of the discussion was in areas such as:

  • have some LAs enabled Moodle to work across all schools so schools can collaborate?
  • (the assumption that) a lot of work needs to be done to get Moodle started;
  • do we expect primary schools need to run Moodles on their own servers?

The last two in particular tend towards Myths 2 & 5 in the 10 Myths of Moodle - "Moodle needs a full time, php developer on your staff- or at least a lot of technical support to run it in house" and "You can’t just use Moodle out of the box – the basic Moodle install just isn’t that sophisticated".

There were some interesting quotations around Moodle, including:

  • "[a school choosing between Kaleidos & Moodle] opted for Moodle - largely because of the very highly skilled network manager..."
  • "Perhaps [the future VLE market leader - a simple out of the box solution that is affordable] will be Moodle but it’s unlikely to be Moodle in it’s present form where lots of work needs to be done to get started successfully."
  • "[having a single learning platform in each area or LA] begs the question of a central planning strategy that seems to imply even the smallest primary school will have a VLP on its own servers"

Here's an executive summary of my thoughts in this area...

  • schools shouldn't host their own services if they're that mission critical (maybe they're not that critical, yet...);
  • collaboration works best when we remove as many potential hurdles as possible. Like it or not, single system does much of this removal;
  • Moodle is more than flexible enough to work across primary, secondary and tertiary sectors;
  • it also works "as is" and doesn't need tweaking before a school can start using it;
  • the "work" involved in this from a school's angle isn't technical - it's organisational, to do with effective planning and associated with changing the culture of teaching & learning;

The reason for this post is to try and give an answer of what we're trying to do here in Buckinghamshire and how that is a response to some of the points above.

One first principle is that no school should have to rely on having its own technical expertise or capability before its online learning environment will work. A situation where this wasn't the case would, at a stroke, prevent many schools from having an online learning environment. It's the Local Authority's (LA's) responsibility to make sure that the VLE correctly configured, installed and available to the schools when they need it - we have an SLA with our suppliers which will provide recompense if this doesn't happen. The somewhat cliched idea of "only those schools with enough geeky staff to run a web server being those who can effectively use Moodle" is Simply Not True. Ask our primary schools. If it was a requirement for a school to have an "expert" to run things, then the school would become vulnerable (a) when that person left and (b) when the school went into the employment market to replace them - how many schools would be able to measure a candidate's capability in such a technical area?

Another principle is that schools have as much control as we can give them over their virtual learning environment. This means that each school has at least one adminstrator (who has so much power they could in theory break the system) and (if they want) FTP access to the Moodle themes area to upload their own themes for their school if they're bothered. They can set things up as they want - course categories, courses, teachers, which modules they make available to staff and students, whatever.

Schools should be able to & expected to share what they've done & learned and learn from what others have done - hence having a uniform platform available to all schools means that resources prepared in (and shared by) one school can, with permission, be used by other schools or staff within the same school. This also means having a username system which allows collaboration and access to learning resources across the LA, including between schools and between the LA and schools.

Above all, schools should be able to focus on the implications of using a tool like a VLE & not on the tool itself. The tool will have implications for teaching, learning, the culture of the school, relationships with parents & carers, other schools, and pupils/students and an appreciation of this (often using lessons learned in other schools) is critical to effectively using a tool. In particular having a changed culture where working and sharing in new ways are to the fore is the most important change a school can make to ensure effective use of a VLE or Learning Platform. This also applies in a Local Authority - having a plan is critically important.

Interestingly, more and more the funding for this area looks as if it's going to be devolved to schools (hence encouraging a piecemeal approach across an area) while at the same time one of the expectations from Becta in its self-review tools for Local Authorities is that all schools are committed to the LA's view of the world as far as Learning Platforms go. Is there a slight disjoint here? By the way, you should probably read Martin Owen's The Learning Now Arriving at Platform... before you do anything else today.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Moodle becoming schools' VLE of choice

A message on Facebook from Merlin John points lets me know about an article on his blog. Really interesting reading (primarily because it's based on research by BESA, the British Educational Suppliers Association) it talks about how Moodle is (according to this data) the leading VLE of choice in secondary schools and a significant player in primaries. When combined this makes Moodle the most significant VLE in schools, due to the other offerings being markedly skewed towards either primary or secondary.

This is interesting, because bear in mind this is without Moodle being on the approved Learning Platform suppliers list and comes through a history of antipathy towards this sort of a solution from the DfES.

Read the full article on Merlin John's blog. Interestingly the article is sandwiched between two other postings - the one below refers to a Campaign to Avert Learning Platform mistakes and the one above reveals the percentages of schools who think LPs and ePortfolios are important in personalising learning. You might find the results interesting...

The full report is available from BESA for £250. Crumbs, think of all the years of hosting a decent-sized school Moodle you could get for that...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Self visualisation - some sources for Moodle avatars

Once you've let your staff and students loose (or as loose as you'll let them) on your Moodle, one of the first things which they think about is how they are represented graphically in the virtual environment. To the rest of us, this equates to: "what's my picture gonna be?".
There are a few guidelines it's worth enforcing as best you can. Ideally these might include guidance such as:

  • your image should not be a photograph of yourself - this prevents other people using it in other circumstances - very important for staff!
  • it should not be pornographic or otherwise inappropriate - what counts as inappropriate should be decided locally - i.e. as a primary school would you object to pupils using images from "grown-up" films or cartoons?
  • it should be something that you feel represents you - a character from a book, film, a football club logo, a sport, or whatever you like, subject to the other guidelines.

One practical tip is that, if you introduce the idea of having a profile image (aka "an avatar") during a lesson or training session then it's almost a certainty that everyone will go off and try and find an image to represent themselves. This Can Take Hours. Better to introduce it at the end of a session, so that people can go and find their perfect image in their own perfect time.

Having said that, what about using actual images of pupils, since most schools hold these? At least one school in Buckinghamshire has done this, since all Bucks Moodles are closed to the outside world and therefore images are only available to those who can log in. This would require an admin to log in and upload each pupil's image to their profile - a longish process. It's also worth pointing out that some of the more individual (i.e. "self-chosen") images can give an insight into what pupils like and how they see themselves - as well as becoming easy to identify throughout the site in forums, choices and other activities.

So if you want some easy to use sources for avatar images, where can you go. Well, here are a few I've been browsing around recently - there are many, many more and if you particularly love one please add it as a comment to this post.

  • The Simpsons Movie site has a "generate your own Simpsons character" section - results are emailed to you but you must log in to save your character. There's an unofficial one here;
  • This site allows you to create your own South Park character - decide if it's appropriate for your pupils (and staff?) or not;
  • WeeWorld (not what you might think) allows users to create WeeMees;
  • If you've too much time on your hands, try this one (if you can get it to work properly);
  • There are lots of others...

An important part of the whole "what's my picture going to be?" question with pupils (and with some staff) is that your Moodle environment becomes a good place for new users to practice getting this sort of thing right in a safe environment. This particularly applies in primary schools, where many pupils won't already have a vast range of online identities and hence their teachers can support them in thinking about issues such as:

  • what does the image I choose say about me?
  • what might happen if I use a photograph of myself?
  • what do I want the image to communicate about me?

Of course, if you're starting Moodle in a secondary school, it's very likely that most students will have an established online identity, good or otherwise, so encouraging them to think about what their image on Faceparty is telling the rest of the world might be the sound of a door slamming on an empty stable.