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The blog of Michael de Raadt

A New Battleground

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From the static Web to dynamic mobile browsing

Moodle 1.9

Moodle 1.9

In the beginning, when Learning Management Systems (LMSs) were young battlers, Moodle came about as a combatant that succeeded through its stubborn simplicity. Other LMSs attempted to overload interfaces with Java to achieve an edge. Moodle, on the other hand, stuck to standard Web interfaces to achieve the same result. The result was that Moodle was considered simpler and more user-friendly. If you knew how to use a Web browser, you could use Moodle; you didn’t have to have any additional browser plugins installed. Moodle’s usage grew rapidly, overtaking its competition, because people could understand it.

With the advent of AJAX and JavaScript libraries, the Web has started to move beyond being a place to present content and has become a place where applications (once bound to the desktop) now live. JavaScript, having existed for many years, is finally being used to its fullest potential, allowing greater interactivity on Web pages. AJAX is a means of communicating between a browser and a server without a page reload, in other words, things are happening in the background without the user needing to leave the current page. The Web is now truly dynamic; this new Web is the place LMSs were meant to be. The challenge LMSs face, is to achieve simplicity, while adding dynamic elements in an intuitive and unobtrusive way, always maintaining usability and accessibility.

LMSs are also being used beyond the desktop. Now that we are finally seeing consistency among desktop browsers,  developers are faced with a new challenge in the form of mobile devices. The standards set for the Web are still followed (although I think a mobile browser war is just getting started), but the physical interface to the browser is different on mobile devices. No longer can we rely on users with a mouse, keyboard and monitor; the Web has to work with touch interfaces also. We aren’t even afforded the luxury to assume a reasonable minimum screen size.

A new battleground

I have been involved in the bureaucratic effort to select a new LMS for a university. Battle was fought by lining up each LMS candidate side-by-side against a set of features. The LMS with the most checkmarks next to its name was the victor. Moodle won this battle many times because it was well featured. If the feature didn’t exist in the standard distribution, there were add-ons to supplement it, and if that wasn’t enough, you could always customise. The other thing Moodle had going for it was its underdog status, which I’ve talked about before.

About two years ago, at the 2011 Australian Moot, I sensed a new set if biases creeping into the public consciousness. No longer were people asking for more features, instead they were wanting style and speed. Does this mean Moodle is feature-complete? Probably not, but at least most people seem satisfied with the current feature set and seem to have shifted priorities. A new battleground has been forming in my mind in the last couple of years.

So what is Moodle doing to arm itself for this new battleground? Here are some newish additions to Moodle’s arsenal.

Simpler Editor

People spend a lot of time in Moodle using the editor. The WYSIWYG editor has been around from very early in Moodle’s history, but now it’s is being simplified. We’re still using TinyMCE for now, but keep your eyes open in future for a brand new, home-grown editor alternative that will be slicker still.

New editor look

Drag-and-drop

The most obvious use of AJAX and JavaScript is drag-and-drop and Moodle now uses this in a number of places. You don’t have to leave the course page to add a file resource (“dump-and-pump” is so much easier). If you want to rearrange the placement of activities, resources or blocks, no page reloading is needed. In a similar way, if you want to rename something, you don’t have to edit a whole page of settings. Where ever a file is needed, if you can drag it into the file picker, that will get the file uploaded quickly.

Drag-and-drop

Access to the world’s data

Repositories are sources of files. They could be files on your computer, files on the institution’s server, files from the Web or files from “the cloud”. This concept seemed to stump some people at first, but it is now starting to make sense. At the advent of Moodle 2.0, there were a few teething problems with repositories, but this part of Moodle has settled down into something smooth and reliable.

Repositories

An interface that works on anything

Apparently students and teachers have new-fangled mobile devices now, and they want to access their Moodle sites on these devices. Responsive themes allow a single Web interface to react to different screen sizes. On a large screen, the view is not too different from the standard theme, with a few rounded edges. On a small screen, things are rearranged: menus collapse into icons, blocks shift to below content and pop-ups fill the screen. There are a number of other changes that the use of touch devices have promoted as well. Not only is the interface becoming more usable on different devices, it’s also becoming more accessible to users with disabilities.

Moodle on a small screen

Is it working?

Well, none of the things I’ve mentioned above appeared on the feature list a few years back, so are they needed now? There are a large number of registered sites still on 1.9 – why? Is it a case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, or is the simplicity of older Moodle versions still more attractive to some users? Change, it seems, happens slowly in the world of education. Change can be dramatic for people.

When Mary Cooch conducted some training for existing Moodle users at Our Lady’s Catholic High School, the new interface was different enough that they did not recognise they were still using Moodle. One participant’s response was that the new system was “Unbelievably simpler than Moodle!” Others had similar comments, and even though it’s a small sample size, I think we can see that as evidence that Moodle is getting simpler.

The battleground of the future

The battle goes on.

The question now is where the battles of the future will be fought. Predicting the future is precarious, and I’m undoubtedly going to be proven wrong, but I have to speak at a conference next week, so I’d better come up with some ideas that sound slightly visionary.

Scale

learn.moodle.netMassive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a hot topic at the moment, with large courses being offered online to anyone willing to participate. Many are anticipating that MOOCs will have an impact on the future of higher education. Moodle has recently conducted what could be seen as an experimental step into the MOOC world. Check out learn.moodle.net.

Massive is big, but is there something bigger. Moodle and other LMSs have traditionally focussed on tertiary education and corporate training. There is a smattering of use in primary and secondary education, but it is limited to a relatively small number of classrooms. However when you compare the student numbers and budgets of these sectors side-by-side, primary and secondary education dwarf the other sectors. So why are LMSs not being used widely in primary and secondary education. I believe the answer is that primary and secondary teachers are not well supported and have less time to attempt such ventures than their colleagues in higher levels of education. Where LMSs could start to become useful is through large-scale integration at state or federal levels. If an LMS is set up where the curriculum is defined, teachers would be freed of the laborious tasks of gathering resources, establishing assessment and conducting grading. Instead they would be free to focus on what they do best: teaching.

End of one-size-fits-all education

At almost any level of education, once the class grows beyond a handful of students, necessity prevents teachers from implementing individual learning plans. The burden of assessing students regularly enough, measuring their performance and adjusting the curriculum to suit them becomes nearly impossible. But that is where LMSs can help. At the moment providing an individual path through a curriculum that automatically adjusts for a student is possible, but it is cumbersome. Hopefully we can improve on that in the future.

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Author: Michael de Raadt

I'm a husband, dad, manager and education technologist.

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