Over the Irish Sea – Moodlemoot 2012

Often at learning technology conferences, there is a discussion about what should drive change and what we should be talking about, do we talk about the technology or pedagogy? Often the consensus is that we really should be talking about pedagogy.

At the 2012 Moodlemoot in Dublin the focus of the event was very much on the technology, and one particular technology, Moodle. Most people will be aware that Moodle is a, well some call it a VLE, others an LMS, though a fair few just call it Moodle!

Photo of conference room at Moodlemoot
Photo by James Clay

There are various national and international Moodlemoots, most of which have been running since the launch of Moodle ten years ago. Moots are a gathering of Moodle users to share and discuss how Moodle works and how it can be used to support learning.

This year the UK Moodlemoot, which for the last two years was hosted by ULCC in London moved over the Irish Sea to Dublin where Gavin Henrick organised a joint Ireland and UK Moodlemoot.

There was a real mix of delegates, not just from the UK and Ireland, but also across the rest of the world. All the sectors were represented too, schools, FE and HE, as well as work based learning and the corporate sector.

In terms of the content there was a real mix of sessions. The Moot feels like a regular conference with keynotes, parallel sessions and workshops. However there is one consistent theme running across all of them and that theme is Moodle. There was a range of sessions including some technical workshops for those new to Moodle, presentations on how Moodle can be effective in supporting learning and keynotes.

Two sessions stuck out that really made me think hard about what we do in college (and one of those I didn’t even attend as I was in a parallel session).

The session I didn’t attend, was presented by Gavin Henrick and looked at how IMS LTI can be used within Moodle 2.2 to integrate data from different systems. IMS LTI is an IMS standard for Learning Tool Interoperability. This means that learning tools now have a standardised way in which they can connect to each other. So that a teacher can create an activity in Moodle which will then allow the learner to connect to another site, such as a WordPress blog installation, and IMS LTI will seamlessly authenticate the learners so that they can use the blogging system without needing to create new accounts.

The real advantage of this is, whereas before third party developers would need to create Moodle blocks to integrate their tools into Moodle, now they merely have to adhere to the IMS LTI standard and Moodle users can use the same external tool block to connect to a wide range of different tools. This should make it easier for third party developers, Moodle users and importantly learners; who will now have a bigger and more diverse eco-system of tools to use to support their learning.

The session I did attend and the session that made the biggest impact on me at Moodlemoot 2012 was the presentation by Stuart Lamour from the University of Sussex on Fine-Tuning the Moodle Experience.

Stuart delivered an interesting view of how Sussex had changed the standard Moodle interface and experience into one that met the needs of the user. He went through the quite detailed process that they had undertaken to work out what users wanted and how they actually used Moodle to get a better idea of how to change Moodle.

The reason the presentation had such an impact on me, was I actually felt what the presentation was actually about was how awful the user interface and user experience is in a standard Moodle installation. It made me realise that for too long, Moodle development has had a technical focus and has forgotten how important the user experience is.

It wasn’t too surprising in some ways, as there had been much talk at Moodlemoot about the various and different ways in which people could avoid the infamous Moodle “scroll of death”.  As most people who use Moodle know, the “scroll of death” is a feature of Moodle that arises when you actually use Moodle for anything more than showing people how to use Moodle. If you create a Moodle course with real students, then it slowly fills up with links and resources to the point where if the learner is to get anywhere on the course they have to scroll, scroll and scroll again.

If you use Moodle “out of the box” and create a course; so you add a link to a page, a link to a file, a link to a forum, a link to a quiz and the odd label or two, the end result will be the “scroll of death” and a long list of links… rather than an engaging and interactive learning experience. The learners will have a more difficult and challenging experience when using Moodle. As a result you will have disengaged learners and the complaint that Moodle is “boring”.

Yes there are “solutions”, use the Book module, pages, collapsible topics for example, however I think these “solutions” miss the point which is the problem is that there is a fundamental design flaw in Moodle in how information is presented to the end user. The reason that learners and staff call Moodle “boring” is partly the look, but again it’s linked to that design flaw, presenting the user with a long list of links to content and activities.

Yes of course you can apply solutions, after the result, however why is it that the “out of the box” vanilla experience isn’t right in the first place?

I also know that some of the training at my college in using Moodle has exacerbated these issues. We show people different features of Moodle and of course they then want to add them to their courses. What we don’t do (very well) is get them to think about the whole of their course and not only about how it looks, but also about how the learner experiences and interacts with the course. As a result we are reviewing and evaluating how we deliver both formal and informal training to see if we can start to avoid some of these issues.

These two sessions alone made the conference for me, however there was a lot more than these two sessions.

Another aspect of the conference is the networking, talking and discussing using Moodle with other Moodle users. With the number of delegates it was simple to find people with a similar type of installation, similar experiences and similar problems, that you could share, discuss and hopefully arrive at a solution. There was a real community feel to the conference and you could see people sharing and showing all the time, during breaks and over meals.

This was a conference about the technology, focused on the technology and no one worried about the fact that this was the case. Sometimes, yes we do need to look at the pedagogy, the learner, the learning process; sometimes though we need to focus on the very tools that allow us to do this. Moodlemoot is unashamedly about Moodle, and if you use Moodle it is probably the one conference you should make time for in the future.

James Clay
ILT & Learning Resources Manager
Gloucestershire College

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