Moodlemoot 06 – day 2

Aug 01, 2006

Miles Berry

Not so many threaded sessions on the second day, and I only made it to one of the school strand ones, regrettably missing out on Val Brooks work with Dr Victoria Pearson on the OU’s “Rocks from Space” educational outreach scheme.

Howard Miller from Glasgow University's E-learning teamI went instead to the presentation from Glasgow University’s e-learning team on their three years’ experience of Moodle in a traditional research-led university. They have something in the region of 50 different instances of Moodle around the place, and whilst the e-learning team are hoping to bring this into more manageable proportions, this sort of distributed collection of Moodles throughout the institution seems quite similar to Oxford’s experience that we heard about from Adam Marshall last year. It also suggests that much as a central VLE for the whole of a Local Authority might make sense to those in charge, it might be quite natural, and entirely appropriate for individual schools to want to look after their own provision. It was interesting to hear how Moodle’s being used as a Virtual Research Environment, with small enrolment courses being used as a way of facilitating collaboration and communication in research teams, and some of their PhD students are using Moodle as a way of pulling together resources for their work, and communicating with their supervisors. Unsurprisingly, the education faculty is making good use of Moodle, building on early experience with an online EdD programme to now encompass CPD and initial teacher training, online journals having been a particularly appreciated factor in this latter provision as students are using these to keep in touch, reflect and share experiences whilst out on teaching practice: I’m sure that many of these students will go on to make effective use of VLEs in their own teaching, even if restricted to SSDN’s Kaleidos based provision.

Another interesting aspect of the Glasgow provision is the high importance given to social presence, with ‘virtual cafe’ forums being used in most departmental Moodles, without lecturer involvement, and use beyond the academic curriculum, such as by the student representative council. Whilst there’s now shared software, and the e-learning team are keen to encourage sharing practice, with site wide “Did you know?” type forums, there’s still not quite the same sharing of materials and resources that the team would like to see: I think the community hub Moodle idea that Martin had spoken about earlier in the day may help to address this, and again there are lessons here for schools. Obviously, some of the departments are making more use of Moodle than others, with the dental school now at 100% of courses and people. Those that have led the way seem to be the departments where one member of staff has been inspired by the potential and has taken on the role of e-learning champion: a model familiar from FE, but one which doesn’t seem to feature in advice to schools, where the models seem more about SMT leadership and whole school cultural change, because of fears over sustainability if the “gifted enthusiast” moves on. I was struck by the feedback from one of their users, who described Moodle as:

“Just another tool to be used by the best teaching tool of all – a skilled practitioner”.

Martin LanghoffI went to hear Catalyst’s Martin Langhoff, who’d done much of the work for the Elgg-Moodle integration code, talk about another integration project, that of integrating Moodle with digital object repositories and document management systems. Martin outlined a couple of parallel approaches to this, one based on authoritative repositories, the other on a more fluid, flexible file system approach, with each having strengths the other might lack, and each suiting rather different contexts. Martin explored the notion of leveraging a model like Debian’s fine apt-get system for storing learning objects, like IMS-CP, SCORMs and Moodle course backups in a distributed system with proper version control and metadata support,

“a lightweight tool that lets you do complex things”.

A Debian apt-get repository might deliver up to 30,000 different files to millions of users, so scalability is not an issue, and a well maintained system like this allows canonical versions of objects to be ‘published’ very efficiently, with apt-get taking care of all sorts of things like, access control, mirroring, metadata, versioning, dependencies, searching and distribution. This is of course, an essentially read-only system from a teacher’s perspective, but I could imagine it working well in a Local Authority, national or commercial context when teachers’ contributions aren’t high up the agenda. Pretty clever stuff, and a fine example of one open source project cross fertilising another, apparently unrelated one.

The file-system approach is much more appropriate for read/write access, and something like there’s support for access control lists here, although metadata tagging normally needs some additional system, and the sort of document management systems that some businesses use might be instructive. One of Martin’s other areas of involvement is in version control systems, including next gen. stuff like GIT, so I was interested to hear his take on how these tools could be used for learning objects. One of the reasons why open source had been able to work, is that CVS provides the tools necessary for a distributed team of authors to work together on complex projects, keep track of the changes being made, and generally to avoid treading on one another’s toes. Wiki engines, such as mediawiki, can do much the same for text, and allow folks to roll back to prior versions, fix ‘bugs’ and identify individual contributions. To some extent Office’s ‘track changes’ option provides a not dissimilar functionality. What we presently lack, and what I think we’ll need if we’re to see collaborative courseware (aargh, horrible word!) production really happen is a similar tool that can be used for learning objects, designs and courses; Martin isn’t aware of anyone working on this at the moment, but seemed to suggest that it won’t be long before we start to see some developments here, perhaps building on open content initiatives and repository advances.

Chris ChaterBack to the school track in the afternoon for Chris Chater’s talk on risk management and Moodle (pdf of slides). The Amercian School of Paris had brought their Moodle installation in-house having suffered at the hands of a hosting provider who lost their electricity supply, only to find their server and communications room, together with a few classrooms, flooded six months later: no lasting harm was done, although Chris described a hairy few days when his access to the net involved driving round the neighbourhood with a laptop trying to find open wifi networks. The real message of course was on the importance of back-ups, proper risk assessments and tried and tested contingency arrangements – given Moodle’s popularity, and the public-spiritedness of most Moodle folk, moving course or site backups onto a neighboring school’s server should the worst happen seems quite a practical solution, but all this does need thinking through as VLEs become increasingly mission critical applications for education – indeed in the American School’s parent agreements, there’s a stipulation that if the school is closed for more than a week then the curriculum would continue to be delivered via the net.