Over the years different learning platforms have pushed what’s possible in teaching and learning forward. From WebCT to Sakai, ANGEL, Moodle and Canvas, tools have evolved, been reimagined and met the challenges of creating a truly next generation learning experience. This is not a post about a platform like that, unfortunately.
Having been trained as a learning designer (instructional designer) and taught into interaction and web design classes over the years, there is no perfect LMS (Learning Management System), or VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). Many of the best ones out there continue to make design decisions that hinder learning. For over 40 years researchers have been exploring what makes learning effective in computer based environments. Some of the VLE’s out there do a good job of addressing it, and some don’t address it at all.
Why is this important?
An LMS / VLE is a significant investment for any educational organisation, and how it is chosen is incredibly important. It goes beyond comfort and convenience, but should draw upon what we know about learning, user experience design and the affordances available in contemporary learning design practice.
After using Moodle heavily for the last couple of years after about an 8 year absence, I was surprised at how little it had changed, which led to this being a concern from a leadership perspective. The fact that large institutions still use this platform is really interesting to me, and may have a lot to do with marketing – if it is sold as an innovative platform when it seems to lack many basic features that have been around for years in other platforms, it got me thinking how this choice is made and how the choice is presented to interested parties at universities and other educational organisations. The purpose of this post is simply to provide a comparison between different versions of Moodle over the last 10+ years and highlight a few things every day users may not be aware of, both on the technical side, and what’s possible with other platforms.
Before I jump in though, this is not meant to be a ‘dis track’ against Moodle. It is, after all, an open source project, with many programmers, designers and testers working hard to advance it, usually on their own time. For many organisations, it’s the sane choice – its usually more affordable, usually easier to get up and running for a small team.
It is however, important to address what Moodle is, what it can do, and what it can’t do in the second decade of the 21st century. As more and more of the technologies we use can be abstracted, integrated, mobilised across multiple contexts, hardware platforms and purposes, educational institutions really need to be aware of what is possible, instead of just sticking with the familiar.
What Makes a modern Web App?
When it comes to learning platforms, most have well documented and easily accessible APIs. While most have moved on from an old standard called SOAP, most still use REST, which itself is a bit old, while a couple now also use GraphQL. Essentially, when writing new programs or extending functionality most platforms use this API to ‘talk to’ the VLE.
These ways of interacting with learning environments allow for so much creativity, especially because students have access to them and can then work with their own data. A few years ago I had the wonderful opportunity of working with folks at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where we hosted Canvas Hackathons – multi-day events where we trained interested students on how to work with their data and build amazing new ways to interact with their learning materials and fellow students. After 2 or 3 days we had undergraduate students creating Alexa-enabled voice activated apps that told learners when their assignments were due, apps that worked to pair study partners across courses, and even parse through discussion board data to assess learning and confidence in a subject area using Machine Learning techniques.
When we look at Moodle, the APIs available to us are essentially 20 years old, they rely on hard-coding plugins (a tightly integrated add-on) in PHP, the original programming language that Moodle was created in in the late 1990s. There is a Web Services API that allows for access to some functionality through SOAP or REST interfaces, but these are limited compared to what other platforms allow. What’s more, the documentation that Moodle provides doesn’t say anything about what kind of information is returned or how any potential tool can ‘talk back and forth’ with the system. Hackathons would be nearly impossible to hold, simply due to the state of Moodle’s API documentation, which is lacking compared to the competition.
It’s all in the interface
One good way to compare how a web app has evolved is to just look at different versions of it. For the purposes of this comparison, 4 versions of Moodle have been compared, each representing the most ‘evolved’ major version outlined below.
In the next sections of this post, we’ll have a look at different parts of Moodle’s interface, how they’ve changed over time, and how they relate to functionality namely Course Layout, Activities and Resources, Apps, and Inclusivity. These areas that shown simply to demonstrate the difference between Moodle and other platforms.
|Moodle 1.9.9||9 July 2012|
|Moodle 2.9.9||14 November 2016|
|Moodle 3.11||17 May 2021|
|Moodle 4.0.2||11 July 2022|
Let’s first look at what an ‘out of the box’ course looks like in Moodle over the last 10 years (consider that Moodle 1.9 is just a more ‘evolved’ version of Moodle 1.0, which was released 10 years prior). Overall, the layout has not changed at all. The use ‘blocks’, the boxes you see on the right hand side of the interface is consistent, as well as the structure of materials and activities in the course. While there are different options for displaying these, the built-in structure is generally a list of collapsible ‘modules’. For teachers, the ‘Turn Editing On’ function has not changed, either.
While other VLE’s allow for custom home pages and customised navigation, this is still very difficult to accomplish in Moodle.
Use the arrows below to explore different versions of Moodle.
What’s even worse is that in version 2 through 4, when students scroll down, the name of the course disappears, and with so many institutions using templates, it’s very hard to for any user to orient themselves. One of the basic rules of web and interface design is that users need to know where they are – they need to be able to situate themselves to organise their thoughts and strategies for completing tasks. If they don’t know what course they’re in, this will make it extremely challenging.
Activities & Resources
When it comes to overall functionality and what teachers and students can do with each other, it’s important to see how this has evolved. Most of us use our phones to communicate, share photos, video chat, brainstorm, mind map, annotate, remix and a number of other common tasks. When we take a look at the tools and activities available to us in Moodle over the years, not much has changed.
While other platforms have added built-in options for video submissions and web links as assignment submissions, Moodle’s Assignment submission is still only provides 2 options, text box and file upload. While it’s true that you can always copy and past a web link into a text box, and record video into the same, the technical affordances of separating these types of student submissions out like other platforms do provides a more advanced learning experience. Moodle doesn’t even automatically create a web link out of easily identifiable web link text, nor does it recognise youtube video links and embed them like many other platforms do. This is simply another area where Moodle hasn’t kept up with the pack.
As previously discussed, modern web apps that are built from an API-first paradigm by their very nature allow for increased extensibility. Much like our mobile devices have ‘App Stores’ for adding new functionality to these devices, some modern VLEs have this built in. For example, Canvas and D2L Brightspace both have app stores that allow instructors to add specific functionality to their individual courses, allowing for more innovative educational experiences and expanded options for content-sharing, communication, assessment and learning experiences.
It should be noted that Blackboard and Moodle do actually allow for the addition of apps through specific web links, but for most users it’s generally more challenging for them to add additional functionality, and it may not happen as much due to this barrier.
One very common setting for users in many modern web apps is the ability to set a personal pronoun. It’s a simple and effective way to acknowledge and respect the identity of everyone who uses a system, and for learning using technology, expression of and respect for individual identity is incredibly important, as it is tied to how teachers and learners present themselves and expect to be treated.
Canvas, D2L and Blackboard all have this setting as part of their core functionality. Moodle does not. Moodle does provide an ‘alternate name’ field, but this alternate name (if a pronoun is added to it) doesn’t appear anywhere – not in participant lists, not in forum posts, or participant lists. This needs to be changed in the language pack for Moodle itself, but inputting some code to pull the alternate field in.
Transparency and Choice moving forward
Now that we’ve examined Moodle 4 in detail, and how it compares to other LMS’s and VLE’s in the education space, it’s important to consider how the choice of what platform is used is made and how this is communicated. More often than not in tertiary and higher education settings, this decision is made behind closed doors by a select few. Over the last couple of decades the common means of doing so involves Requests For Information, Requests for Proposals, Non-disclosure agreements, surveys and a number of other strategies, but rarely is the documentation embedded in these processes shared publicly.
Ultimately, it would be fantastic to hold public surveys for students, staff and instructors, where the findings are made public and the criteria of what each system was compared against could be publicly available for all to see. This way, if any public funding was used to pay for these systems, transparency is built in.
Additionally, as more and more technologies seek to integrate and capitalise on student data, this process really needs to be made transparent as a matter of policy, including sharing details around Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs), and the results of surveys and quantification benchmarks of how technologies are chosen when there is more than one option.
The quote below by Steve Jobs fits really well with the current climate of VLEs and with all the discussion around ‘Digital Transformation’ and the ‘New Normal’ of education leveraging technology to deliver learning experiences to more people in more places, it’s makes sense to reflect on it.
What’s clear in this case is the lack of advancement demonstrated in Moodle is that if this platform is chosen in 2022, you may be getting a faster horse, but you’re also getting a horse with a shave and a new coat. What’s on the page has been there for 20 years, and changing the font won’t allow the learners of the next decade to engage, create and share in the ways they should be able to.
In the case of Moodle, it’s pretty clear to this ex-Learning Designer, Researcher and University Instructor, that any university adopting Moodle in 2022 may end up falling behind their competition both in terms of SoTL (scholarship of teaching and learning) research as well as innovative practices in teaching and learning. Moodle’s outdated paradigm for integrating with other technologies, it’s lack of addition of new features on par with existing platforms clearly show it is a horse in a world of self-driving and flying cars.