Friday, July 20, 2012

Choosing An Online Class Hub: The Moodle Illusion

This is part three in (most likely) a four part series on choosing a class internet hub. My objectives for an online class presence are:

1) Parents should see the class website as an intuitive and easy place to find, retrieve, and review information on class events and learning.
2) Students should want to come to the virtual space to explore on their own.
3) Parents should want to come to the virtual space to explore on their own.
4) The online space should be extension of the classroom where we can come together to discuss ideas, offer and seek help, and expand our understanding.

I hope to use these objectives to guide my decision making, experimentation, and overall process of finding the right online hub for my class. This post focuses on course management systems. I could write about Schoology, or Edu 2.0, but since there are whispers of my school thinking about adapting Moodle, I'm going to direct my disapproving finger-wag towards its general direction.

The Moodle Illusion
I know Moodle is a powerful course management system. I know there are a lot of educators that swear by it. But Moodle has to be implemented in a system that supports that implementation, or else it's just a more complicated version of Google Sites. I know that is an obvious statement, but I see Moodle implemented in a lot of different schools that shouldn't touch the stuff. And the type of school that should stay away from Moodle is the school that doesn't understand or is unable to fully commit to these two beliefs:
1)  There needs to be a major commitment of training, planning, assessment, reflection, and ongoing development to run the system and adapt to the needs of the community.
2) There needs to be dedicated Moodle advocates on staff that have the technical expertise, time, and desire to make the first belief a reality.

Not for everyone, kid!

If there is an unawareness or unwillingness for a major time investment, then the school's Moodle system will be less successful than something much simpler, and look pathetic to boot. 

I work at a small international school There is pretty much one class for every grade. That changes a bit from year to year, but it holds mostly true. Two years ago there was a big purchase in SMART Boards,  with the thought being, I'm sure, "If you install them, they will be used." Or something like that. Yet after the installation, for at least a year they were barely touched. There just wasn't enough mindfulness about to what purpose do we, as a school, want them for, and through what type of training will we achieve those objectives. This isn't unique. The major mistake that schools repeat ad nauseum the world over is that the cost of a new product- in time, energy, and money- is finished once it is purchased and installed.
Training Is Not Only Overlooked In Schools

Moodle is an entirely different beast, and (in my admittedly limited experience) I haven't really seen a small international school implement it correctly, nor have I seen a classroom (with the possible exception of one) from a small international school create a space that follows my own objectives for an online class hub.

PHP Problem?
And remember those middle two objectives of mine? The ones that require great design to be integrated with great content? That seems to be rather challenging with Moodle's scripting language, PHP.  I don't know anything about PHP, but it seems rather tedious.

I do know that it is difficult programming something elegant with a language that is anything but. PHP may not be the best choice for a ginormous course management system, especially if your concerned with ease-of-use, adaptability, and good design. 

The Time Conundrum
How can schools who want to implement Moodle make the time necessary to train their faculty? Well, they have to make it a priority. This can be a problem, because you know what can't be a priority? Everything else. That means CIS accreditation, the curriculum review cycle, reviewing and assessing educational philosophy, policies, strategic plans, and strategic objectives, other in-house professional development, and the dozen or so other tasks all teachers and administrators do in their free time at a small school have to take a back seat.
Because You Can't Make An Omelet Without Breaking A Few Unicorns

And that is why it is so tough for a small school to do Moodle right. Because none of those things can take a back seat. They're all considered, rightfully so, a huge priority.

The Case Against Standardizing A Whole School Management System
If a small school like mine does adopt Moodle, and they're somehow willing and able to commit the time and resources to make it work, then that's good. For some.  I mentioned in my introductory post in this series that creating on online presence not only depends on personal objectives but the grade level you teach as well. As a fourth grade teacher, it shouldn't matter that my presence is standardized to match the other elementary grades, since we are all in self-contained classrooms. The picture looks a little different for middle and high school teachers since the children in those grades need an easy way to manage the course work from multiple teachers and expectations.
What I don't get is for a whole school to adapt the same same management system. That doesn't make sense to me, because as a fourth grade teacher I don't need a huge course management system. I'd rather identify what I need, and find the best tools to support that. That's what I like about web tools; there are always competing apps. I can try out several and find the best fit for my classroom. Maybe the best fit is my school's implementation of Moodle. But probably not. And ignoring individual teachers' passion, preferences, creativity, expertise, and objectives isn't such a super recipe. It stifles ideas and innovation, and that's not what we want a school to be- probably.

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