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.


  1. Ian,

    I like what you say - it rings true with my own research.

    I am presently involved in a major survey of the Implementation of VLEs in schools.

    However, may I ask your opinion on the matter of large-school demands? Where servers have been centrally maintained by LAs I have had repeated comments about the poor performance particularly at 'lesson change', whereas those schools that have their own servers on site do not complain about this problem.

    Is there any significance in using Moodle? Is it a 'lighter' system in terms of bandwith?

    Secondly, is the matter of collaboration - having individual VLE servers does NOT stop collaboration - it might need the establishing of a few permissions but not much more.

    You might argue the point of economies of scale, but if that scale requires massive delays for the both staff and children logging on then it will not be acceptable.

    I have argued elsewhere concerning the massive expansion of ICT demand in schools once ubiquitous computing really takes off - I cannot imagine what the performance of an LA-wide VLE would have to be to acceptably deliver on-line access to 1000 students all logging on/off at lesson-change.

    Lastly (for now) is the issue of filtering: every school I have visited so far has a different policy on both e-mail filtering and website black/white listings. Do you envisage one LA filter system or do you allow individual schools to run their own 'filter-boxes'?

    When I launch my (simple) survey next month I am sure that you will recognise some of these issues within my questioning!

    Ooops! This site decided to swallow my efforts before I'd finished - moderator please delete the first (shorter) version!

    Ray Tolley
    ICT Education Consultant
    Tel: 0191 414 8846
    Mob: 07709 7709 45
    Skype:  ray.tolley

  2. Hello Ray,
    I think the "large school" issue is to do with a number of things...
    - server capacity
    - bandwidth
    - access to the server
    With a Moodle hosted in-school, the server has to be connected to the internet to be accessible from home (obviously). This (for some schools) wouldn't be appropriate as it provides a way in (via http or https) to part of the school's network. Should the school have a DMZ? If your school understands what a DMZ is then you probably have an opinion, if your school doesn't then I Wouldn't.
    Bandwidth (access to the server at a reasonable rate) can also be an issue - this is also affected by where the server is hosted.
    In Bucks our secondary Moodles are currently on one server and our primaries (which there are more of and would typically be smaller) are on another one - both within the County WAN, which should make speed better.
    Also, having a server on site means that, whatever UPS system you might have, that an incident in school (like a flood, for example...) means that a tool which you could use to communicate with staff and students might be underwater, rather than in a dedicated server space somewhere else.
    The thing about collaboration is that if people are using the same tools then they can easily use resources created with the same tool from another school or institution, but the usernames can be a critical stop to this if they're not universal.
    I don't think a well-used VLE will affect things across an LA - mainly because I don't think a VLE should be used in every lesson - the time with pupils in a classroom is precious - use it for things you can't do elsewhere, don't just get them all looking at screens, get them interacting with you (as a professional teacher) or one another in ways which don't use computers.
    As far as filtering goes, well it's not my core area of responsibility, but we use Atomwide's WebScreen filtering to allow schools who want to take responsibility for their own filtering (and it's not many) to customise their own Allow and Deny lists (after training). The system is the same system, it just allows schools to fine tune it - for example to allow or deny blogs, Google images, and other "most wanted / most hated" chunks of the web.