Leicestershire vs Moodle

May 16, 2006

Miles Berry

Things seem to be hotting up in the competition for the UK government’s 2008 rollout of ‘learning platforms’ for English schools.

Last week there was a curious post on the TES ICT forum, asking about alternatives to Moodle, as someone had heard that it wasn’t on ‘the approved list’ – strange, as Becta haven’t posted the final, first version of the functional requirements on their public website yet, nevermind starting the approval process, which I’d be amazed if any of the current crop would get through, although Moodle should be OK by the time v2.0 is released.

Yesterday though, as Josie reports in Moodlebug, news reached the JISC VLE discussion list that Leicestershire local authority had written to all its heads and principals,

“discussing how schools should prepare for having a learning platform embedded by 2008; the jist is essentially to wait and see what they think might be best (as they haven’t yet made up their minds) but, in any case, they explicitly advise schools not to use Moodle (the only software mentioned in the letter) as it depends too much on specific local support and knowledge. I think they are concerned about the possibility of schools sharing resources, and that, in their minds, “non standard software” won’t network very well.”

I’ve not seen the actual letter yet (but would be interested in doing so if there are any Leicesterhsire heads or authority staff reading this), and leaving to one side for the moment the clear bias against the world’s best loved VLE in all this, the authority’s grasp of VLE implementation, and of Moodle, seems bizarre in so many ways:

  • For a start, I can’t quite get over the arrogance of the local authority in thinking that they know better than the schools what are going to be the right VLE solutions for their teachers and pupils – I’ll agree that choosing a VLE is not something to be rushed into, but surely it needs to be an environment that suits the school itself, that embodies something of the school’s vision for learning and teaching and matches the needs and aspirations of its stakeholders – this is something the school will be far better positioned to know than the folks at county hall. It’s at times like these that I’m so glad I work in the independent sector.
  • Nor do I think the best way of preparing for a ‘learning platform’ in 2008 is going to be to do nothing about it for the time being – there surely is a case for experimenting with a few courses, trying things out, seeing what sort of technology, and more importantly pedagogy, will work for online or blended learning, and building up some local expertise.
  • That said, I can’t see how they could argue that Moodle depends on local expertise, of course you can host it in-house, but there are other options too – the moodle.com partners, a number of HE and FE institutions, and increasing numbers of local authorities and RBCs, some more openly than others. What’s more, Moodle users have access to free, global support from fellow users and the developers themselves.
  • I don’t actually see what the problem is with local expertise anyhow – surely an understanding of schools as learning organizations implies that they continually seek to develop the knowledge and skills of all their members, and open source projects are great for encouraging users to develop in this way, as they can get to know how the code works, participate in the community, and perhaps contribute something to the ongoing development of the software. This means that the software benefits from their expertise too, in a way that’s jolly difficult with proprietary code, where school staff are confined to an end-user role, which is where Leicestershire seem happy to keep them.
  • Because Moodle is open source, and furthermore underpinned by a social constructionist paradigm, I’d not be surprised to learn that Moodle users actually have far more propensity to share resources, and indeed ideas, than most users of commercial platforms, who I suspect are more likely to buy content in from the platform supplier than developing it themselves or with other schools. If Leicestershire really wanted to encourage its schools to share resources, then giving them all Moodle accounts and letting them learn from one another about what makes for good online courses would seem worth a try, I’d have thought. Even if a school eventually opts for another VLE, IMS-LD level C, flawed as it is, is on the list for Moodle 2.0, so by then it’ll be easy enough to move courses across between one VLE and another, assuming they’re both standards compliant that is.
  • If by networking well they’re getting at infrastructure, then I think Moodle would do pretty well in a fair test – you can get to it from any old browser without proprietary mods, and it’s useable via dial-up, or indeed from blackberry or PDA. Nor does it require high end server hardware, or yet more proprietary server software to get it up and running.
  • If they mean getting it to work with other applications, then, as it’s open source code, that’s not really an issue, as there’s nothing, other than good manners, to stop developers coding up calls to Moodle’s well documented database, although it would be better to wait for the webservices features that are on their way.

The real issue here though is the prejudice against Moodle, and by implication open source code in general. We have here a robust, scalable VLE that has captured the imagination of nearly four million teachers and learners throughout the world and in all phases of education, and which has evolved within education to provide the tools its users want to support communication and collaboration within vibrant online communities. Yet this is the VLE which is singled out for disapproval by those charged with overseeing a county’s education.

It’s sad to read the reaction of some of the moodle.org community to this news, who seem to think that there are vested interests involved here. I really don’t think this could be the case. It seems far more likely that the council worker responsible has been unduly swayed by the views of one or two employees at Becta or the DfES who seem dead set on the notion that ‘learning platforms’ will have to be provided by the commercial software industry, despite the evidence of Becta’s own report of savings in total cost of ownership where open source software is used, and government policywhich requires a level playing field for open source software: “contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis”. Perhaps Moodle is so far ahead of the commercial alternatives that the only way to ensure a fair game is to handicap Moodle by advising schools not to choose it. I do hope that the Leicestershire heads will have the courage to form their own judgements on these issues.