Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Response to elements of the Guardian Link's Moodle article

I thought I'd write a few lines to respond to some of the statements in the Guardian's Moodle article, which is published today in the Link E-Learning supplement.
[Warning: may contain strong and personal opinions]
As ever when someone from a commercial interest tries to comment on Moodle, much of what is said there is, unintentionally or otherwise, based on misinformation which starts to bear an uncanny resemblence to the tactic of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
First off, here's an entertaining and, to be blunt, entirely bogus quote from a Fronter representative:
Moodle can’t meet the availability and reliability necessary for a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation.
Let's look at least one of the huge assumptions packed into such a tiny statement. First of all, this statement attempts to reinforce the notion that using an Open Source tool means that it's got to be installed on a second-hand (and probably old) server somewhere in a dusty server room, probably maintained by a pale-skinned geek who, if he doesn't communicate in binary, barely speaks English and might live in a shed. It's a bit like saying that MS Office wouldn't be worth relying on because there's a chance it might be installed on a old, dodgy laptop with a flaky hard disk and badly seated memory and the "S" key missing from the keyboard. The above statement would ring true if it read:
A badly-run and supported server can’t meet the availability and reliability necessary for a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation.
Now that rings true, but do you see the problem with a statement like that? This statement would mean that any learning platform, VLE, or other critical service would not "meet the availability and reliability" if the service underpinning it wasn't up to scratch. Imagine the horror if a core element of a Learning Platform service wasn't available for four days. That couldn't happen. Could it? Oops, looks like it could. Now then, the RM Easymail system can be part of the RM Learning Platform offering, but could you see a Fronter rep saying something similar about RM? Nope, I didn't think so either...
How badly thought through that statement is becomes even clearer when you consider what Becta have said (again and again) about what the Learning Platform framework is about. It's not about a product, it's about a service. That service is the totality of everything - the product, the infrastructure supporting it, the helpdesk which supports the users... hopefully you get the idea. Also, does the Fronter rep seriously think that the Open University, the LSE and others aren't bothered about their services being available 24/7?
Now of course, any server can go down, but that doesn't reflect on the services being run on it - unless you're threatened by another product, in which case don't worry about being accurate, just make stuff up. A quote from an RM rep says:
What are the costs of hosting, managing and running it? What does it cost to tailor it to what you want it to be? Moodle is very 'tailorable' but it can have slightly higher configuration charges. You have to sit down and do it yourself or every teacher has to, and that has a cost.
Well, let's answer that in the context that I know about, that of what we're doing in Bucks.
The cost of hosting, managing and running it? The same, if not less, than any commercial offering. Moodle is offered to our schools as part of their broadband connection and costs them nothing to host. As for managing and running it - the cost is the same as anything and it's a time cost and resourcing cost for the thing that's worth investing in - people. This cost exists for any learning environment and it's a fallacy to suggest otherwise.
To suggest that every teacher needs to configure Moodle themselves is bizarre (and for what it's worth fits neatly into at least one of the Top 10 Moodle Myths which you might like to read immediately after).
Yet again, take a closer look at that statement. How is the notion of "slightly higher configuration charges" arrived at? We've been working with West Sussex and other LAs to develop, over a number of years, the optimum way of setting up Moodles for our schools and this doesn't cost the schools anything. Actually, a phrase like "slightly higher configuration charges" does sound exactly like it's inspired by the Wikipedia definition of Fear Uncertainty and Doubt referred to earlier...

FUD is generally a strategic attempt to influence public perception by disseminating negative (and vague) information.

Here's a statement which made me smile (wryly and to myself):

The need for interoperability is crucial, insist the [proprietary] learning platform people, because secondary schools are expected to work collaboratively with neighbouring schools on the new 14-19 diplomas.

The implication of this statement is that it's not possible to interoperate with Moodle. Well, it's a good thing that that's crucial, since we've only got a system which allows single sign-on for any of our users into any school Moodle (with permission) using the same username and password - and all this without going near Shibboleth (which Moodle can do in its sleep).

Sometimes statements like this confuse me. I can't decide if they come from an accidental misunderstanding of Moodle (or whatever) or a deliberate piece of misinformation. As it's a new year and I'm feeling charitable, I'll assume the former, but you can make up your own mind. Either way, these statements are just plain wrong. Rest assured though, if you're a school trawling around BETT this week and you mention that you're using Moodle to one of the Becta LP Platform suppliers, they'll be doing their best to scare you out of it...


  1. I like this part

    Why would I choose something that costs me money and is unknown outside the UK? Why would I want to be dependent for support on a company that could go bust tomorrow? There is absolutely no commercial sense in taking that risk.

    There was some valid point, schools can have problem with setting up and running Moodle, but I suppose everywhere is some IT teacher who can battle Moodle fairly well..and then you have a great and big community on moodle.org..and Moodle partners.. etc. So there is no need for schools to tackle Moodle problem alone.

    It will cost something, money or time, but nothing worthwile is free anyway :D

  2. Hi Ian,

    As one of the people quoted in the article I made it very clear to Jack Kenny that my concern was not over Moodle when it is centrally hosted as in the Bucks model which I can see works and which I am supportive of. My concern is where a single school adopts a solution be it Sharepoint, Moodle or some other LP/ VLE and thinks they can host it, manage it, support and configure it all on their own and all for free!

    Great blog keep it up.


  3. Hi Tim, absolutely, I agree... I've always said that when it comes to the "industrial strength/scale" use (not "industrial style" as quoted in the article, mind you, I was driving in a car when I speaking about it) then serious hosting with serious support is what's needed. Having said that though, a school can get going in online learning using a local/small-scale implementation (of Moodle, or something like WordPress) to start with. I think the problem lies in that when schools do interesting work in those early stages, it's publicised and interpreted by some as "well, the only way they'll ever do it is via a Heath-Robinson setup" - clearly not the case with the OU, CLEO or maybe even West Sussex and Bucks.
    I think my main point of contention is with the Fronter comment - clearly something like the EasyMail outage could happen to anyone but that's not a comment on the product - and I can't see any of the Becta LP Approved suppliers making similar comments about any of the other approved suppliers.
    Also, I firmly believe it is a school or LA's role to provide training - or "education" as I'd rather call it. Fundamentally the technologies are similar if not the same, and it's a robust pedgagogy which is required to develop this. Learning to use a system requires thought about the accompanying pedagogy - and vice versa as far as I can tell.

  4. Well, as someone who's just been updating her school's (CLEO) Moodle in the early hours of a weekend, I take exception to the Fronter yes man's comment at the start. In fact, the whole article made me angry. I think Moodle is hitting it off so well with teachers because it's made, improved and disseminated by those in education - it's not a 'product' for sale developed by a commercial company who only think of educators afterwards... we had someone visit us from a school who'd commissioned a VLE; he came for ideas he could suggest they might implement on the commercial one - he left with the intention of persuading them to ditch the contract and go for Moodle. You talk of FUD - and as I was reading about Moodle being 'dissed' by the commercial companies at BETT ,I was reminded of Ghandi's comment First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you - then you win. So we're at the last stage, I think, before Moodle reigns supreme! Oh -and it's not just IT teachers who can battle Moodle fairly well either!