Moodlemoot 06 – Introduction & Niall Sclater’s Keynote

Jul 27, 2006

Miles Berry

Photo by Stuart YeatesBack home now after a couple of amazing days at the third UK MoodleMoot. This year’s moot was hosted by the Open University, and with 235 delegates from 17 countires (it was to be 18, but the situation in the Lebanon meant that one of us wasn’t able to travel) it was a far more polished, professional event than it’s two successors (with AV recording from the main lecture room for those interested, as well as aFlickr stream), but was still one of the friendliest conferences I’ve been to, hardly surprising given the warm, supportive nature of the Moodle community. I think it’s testament to the Open University’s commitment to Moodle as its insititutional VLE, as well as that of other key institutions like Bath and Glasgow univeristies, that we had lots of the developers with us this year, inluding Martin Dougiamas himself; great as it is to hear about and be inspired by the way Moodle’s being used in other schools, it’s all the more exciting to be able to chat with the folk who’ve made it what it is and share in something of the vision for its future.

Niall SclaterNiall Sclater, the OU’s VLE programme director gave the opening keynote, and gave some insight into their priorities for VLE use and development – they have a budget of £5 million for this, with the changes and enhancements being fed back into the moodle community as open source code. Although the OU didn’t have much experience of open source, in their evaluation exercise it became clear that Moodle came far closer to meeting their needs than all the commercially available VLEs. Traditionally, the OU has focussed on individual study courses with lots of high quality materials developed in house, which, despite its social constructionist underpinnings, Moodle can support very easily; Niall seems optimistic though about using Moodle’s more interactive, social tools to support a far broader range of pedagogic approaches, with far more opportunities for students building their understanding through interactions with others.

The OU are funding Martin and the MoodleHQ team’s work on developing a far more fine grained roles and permissions architecture, which will be very useful at schools level too, with the ability to create fine grained access rules for parents, moderators, senior management etc. Neil outlined the vast range of existing systems that they’re hoping to integrate Moodle with, as well as the migration of existing course materials; again he seemed optimistic about this, but it’s not clear yet whether Moodle will be the hub of the integration, or merely one component – Neil hinted at political issues as well as technical ones here; with my interest in knowledge management, I was pleased to hear that they’re thinking about integration with their CRM system, which I see Nitin Parmar‘s also exploring. Again from a KM perspective, it was good to hear about work they’re doing to make better use of the data in the environment to track learners – Niall showed some amazing graphics from getting folks to wear eye trackers whilst viewing websites, but I don’t think he’s going to be making this a course requirement. Asynchronous communication and, to a lesser extent, collaboration have been big features of the OU’s appraoch, and they’re keen to bring extra functionality into the Moodle forums based on their experience with FirstClass. They’re also planning to make good use of blogs and wikis, although have reservations about Moodle’s existing blog implementation as it doesn’t (yet…) support comments. The OU at present has some interesting tools for sychronous communication, such as Buddy Space and Flash Meeting, and they’re eager to bring this functionality inside Moodle, and share this with the rest of us. They’ve also taken on the continuing development of the quiz module, and are keen to enhance the funcitonality here too.

The OU is also looking at developing its own e-portfolio solution, I think with the idea of integrating this into Moodle, and are keen to achieve compliance with whatever standards emerge in this area, from CETIS or UK-LeaP, although it was amusing to hear him admit that the more folk who adopt Moodle the less one has to worry about other standards, a point Ian Lynch (who was at the moot with an OSC hat on) had made some time ago. They’re also looking at shared portfolios, and envisage building in some sort of version control system, which I tend to see as a requirement for collaborative distributed peer-production (qv), and will have some sort of visual presentation engine for portfolio contents, which is lacking from elgg at present. Niall thinks it’s going to be interesting to see how things work out between wikis and shared portfolios in this area. They’re also doing some work on Moodle’s accessibility, including support for mobile devices, and calendaring.

All pretty impressive stuff, and of course the sort of thing they’d need to spend money on anyhow once it’s been identified as a need, but by doing this stuff as part of an open source project, they get contributions from lots of other folk for free, and everyone gets to benefit from their expertise. The other, perhaps unforseen effect, is how the OU’s size, budget and reputation has given it a leading role in Moodle’s development, almost overnight. I’m not overly worried by this, as I think they’re heading in the right direction, the voice and contribution of the community remains important, and there’s still very clear leadership from Martin. In the Q&A, Niall acknoweldged that the real issues are about cultural change rather than technological innovation, as I’m sure we’ll see in the schools’ sector as we get closer to the 2008 learning platform roll-out.