Tools, drools and fools

Enjoyed the 2 minutes of one of the greatest scenes (and cuts) in film history? The classic of “technology as an extension of human power”…

I have long been interested in the debate about Learning Management Systems (LMS, often called VLE in the UK) and have read several papers and many (ranty) anti-LMS and pro-LMS blog posts and comments (the binarity so misses the point…). Recently, two papers (Lisa M. Lane’s ‘Insidious CMS – how CMS impact teaching‘ and Ofsted’s (UK) Evaluation of use of VLE - thank you Tim Hunt for the heads up) and a complaint by a frustrated friend using Blackboard at his university made me get on this puny little soapbox of mine.

Some research seems to support a few things that the “VLE-is-dead” voices say. Here is the gist of of the LMS critique, in point format:

Well, firstly, all of these points above are really just an eloquent confirmation of the bunch of anecdotals observed on the ground by many of the above mentioned enthusiasts, myself included. Check the forums at and you will see my point. Talk to Moodle Partners around the world who are training hundreds of teachers every year and observe these things. And more…

So, nothing new. But is that it? No good can come out LMS? Do we just give up and go home to embrace the e-nirvana of the LMS-bashers or perhaps even swing the other way and listen to the ‘traditionalists’ who think such systems and computers in general are the digital hemlock of of quality education.

What do we do? Get rid of LMS? That would be missing the point and a monumental waste.

I can only speak for Moodle, not other LMS which Moodle often gets bagged together with, when I say that it changes for better by the day. Seeing it as a static, monolithic system is simply neither fair nor accurate.

On the design part, with the support of community of users and philosophy of developers, Moodle has been and continues to evolve into something that can incorporate so many of the things critics are pointing out as lacking. Moodle is essentially an immensely versatile and free platform (seen the Lego clips :-) ?) .

We surely can and we are making it easier to grow into something organic, flexible that people (individuals, groups) literally grow, not pay for to be ‘administered’ by the top banana.

But just what can we do on the use(r) part to make LMS like Moodle really go and realise the pedagogical ‘oomph’? (I borrow a couple of points from Dave Cormier’s excellent ‘Buying tech for learning‘ post and Lisa’s paper.

1. When using it, focus on solving problems. Student problems, predominantly. With a little creativity and simplest of tools, Moodle can do that brilliantly. A humble three-click-set-up forum or not much more complex wiki can do that, not to mention other activities teachers and students can set up and run. Sure, they can that using external tools like Google Groups, Wikispaces and hundreds more but a quality, familar platform full of equivalents (highly modifiable, if needed) is kinda hard to beat.

2. Aim for perfect simplicity, complexity is easily added later. Most activities in Moodle run just fine with defaults, but you can always add things and layers of complexity the way you, the user want not how the system is set up. As Lisa points out, unlike Blackboard’s bells and whistles from which you then have to opt-out (but must look mighty impressive in a sales meeting), Moodle in an opt-in system. Start with bare bones then add what you need. Think of it as a toolbelt.

Chances are that solutions on the fly with free, open source system like Moodle (can be run by a single teacher) are also cheaper in money and time than using a very expensive, institutionalised, locked-down systems for which a ‘clear’, yet rigid idea (no matter how misguided) had to be produced before parting with tens of thousands of dollars to buy it then have it justified madly.

3. Now we come to the heart of it…

Pay most attention to the hardest and most rewarding thing to examine and change – pedagogies. I deliberately use plural because the ‘right one’ is only right in the context of a class, a student in front of you. Sometimes it takes a collaborative approach of wikis, sometimes a more ‘traditional’ quiz does the job beautifully.

Good teacher, just like a good parent, can and has to be behaviorist, instructonist, constructivist, connectivist or any other -ist in the given moment for the benefit of the students. Just like a parent, you don’t have to be perfect – just good enough. But just like at home, good enough primarily for the kids, your students, not the principal or the Minister for Education.

As an LMS, Moodle can help support all of these -ists. I don’t quite buy the technologically deterministic argument that certain technology has the power to change pedagogy on its own, that it has certain philosophy embedded into it. A knife, LMS, phone, car, Facebook or lawn mower may lend themselves to perhaps a more common use but they are not precluded to be used in different ways. Does that mean LMS can be used in way we don’t want it to be used? You bet. And it is, often. Yet it isn’t either. Often.

Moodle has and will be built with social constructionist principles in mind but one can hardly make people use it that way.

Unless we adequately provoke, stimulate, and guide novices (still the vast majority of users) to increasingly varied and flexible LMS like Moodle with samples of pedagogical approaches first, we run the risk of these novices slipping into mastery of a couple of tools that will simply allow them doing thins they have always done, just maybe a little faster and more efficiently. They will be happy but hardly stretching in the way the LMS like Moodle affords them to.

Before creating help desk for ‘how and what tools can do’ in an LMS, create a help desk to offer and consider what pedagogical goals can be achieved with it.

“It doesn’t matter what tools are provided if teachers don’t have a suitable philosophy of teaching to exploit fully the tools. An instructor well versed in constructivism can teach in a learner-centred way with an LMS such as Moodle, but a teacher with only a transmissive model of teaching will be lost with Facebook. So without a suitable understanding of pedagogy, it doesn’t really matter what tools you use.” (Tony Bates)

4. Do it as a community, with others. Walk the collaboration talk. Why?

Apart from the world valuing such approach more and more, because it is the easiest and the most lasting way to change the hardest things to change, mentioned above – the pedagogies and their underlying, internalised and normalised assumptions of what should be or happen in class (or not).

But when it comes to talking pedagogies, teachers are a lot more likely to put the walls up and say “don’t you tell me how to teach” (similarities with parenting again).

It’s “all that fuzzy philosophy stuff yet all I want to do is just teach, normally.” Pedagogy goes deep with people and it is best seen at moments of stress, when we reactively fall back probably on the ways we were brought up and familiar with (enter ‘little change’), unless we have the knowledge of alternatives, and the context, opportunity and safety to deploy them. Technology throws up many of such stresses, daily. Yet wise use of technology can also help us relieve them, even thrive on them.

Let’s look at the very useful TPACK model above. Now imagine you work closely in a team together with technological ‘experts’ (eg an experienced and creative Moodle user, let’s not forget students themselves here!!!), content ‘experts’ (eg a great historian with deep knowledge of Russian History you are working on in class) and ‘pedagogical experts’ (eg great at supporting and ‘provoking’ teachers to try a range of approaches and question, examine their philosophical approach to education). The roles here are purely illustrative because they morph constantly.

You are far more likely to change when challenged AND supported this way.

Then, let’s look at just one particular feature of soon to be released Moodle 2.0 – Community Hubs, described by Mark Drechsler. These are designed to support exactly what you see above among Moodle users (32 million registered worldwide and counting..)! Imagine being a part not of a Learning Committee but a Learning Community (more on that another time, have a post ‘in waiting’).

Not to mention the talk of Moodle 3.0 (few years away) that will again transcend this and adapt to be a platform supporting…whatever the trends may be then. I invite you to flick through Hans de Zwarts excellent presentation from the recent iMoot on this.

Yes, LMS designed and used in the way that my colleague showed me two days ago (Blackboard at a local university) should be dead.

But uncritically bunching LMS/VLE together and dismissing them as ‘dead’ is naive at best.

By all means, unlock and give teachers the freedom and funk to choose their tools. But no matter how shiny, ‘buzzy’ and ‘bleeding edge’ the tool – if they don’t know what the learning aim is, if they don’t have or see the need for the kinds of pedagogies most valuable to students, or they plainly don’t know what they are talking about, the chances of reaching the ideal, central intersection on the TPACK graphic above is remote.

Moodle ‘Teacher Apps’ anyone? A tool to drool but wasted on a fool?

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Author: human on March 10, 2010
Category: 1. Moodle
6 responses to “Tools, drools and fools”
  1. Jo Hart says:

    Hi Tomaz

    I so agree with you about an LMS and the “-ists”. OK my LMS is CE6 not Moodle because this is what our Dept of Training here in Western Australia provides for TAFE (Voc Ed). I don’t want to get drawn into the Moodle/Other LMS debate at this time because I have no “working with students” experience in Moodle. However with respect to the general LMS is dead/rubbish debate I do have quite strong opinions. I find the tendency of many of my colleagues to use it or any LMS simply as a repository for assignments, Word docs etc to be one of the things which gives LMSs a bad name. Getting CE6 to dance to your particular tune requires some degree of html knowledge. I use few ot the inbuilt Learning Module/SCORM type options. However because I work with Literacy/Numeracy students I do use the inbuilt Assessment development tools because scaffolding and stepping through process is important for my students in terms of ensuring that they don’t jump straight to assignments and set themselves up to fail. Many of the resources I use are external links to terrific resources available across the web, but I do this through structured html docs or folders not just a mass of unexplained links.

    A thought re the way most people use LMS – for many it is a substitute for conventional distance delivery through text based/printed materials. Others use it to supplement traditional face to face or correspondence. Very few use it, as I am doing at the moment, as the major component of their delivery. I am currently delivering Literacy/Numeracy and Study Skills (to regional/remote students) about 90% through LMS supplemented with virtual classroom sessions and use of email. It focuses the mind wonderfully! No two students have identical computer systems, some are on dial-up and many have low computer literacy. Yes I still have a few Word docs (where students need to complete templates, send me a copy and keep one for themselves. I re-format at need for those who cannot open Word docs.

    Sorry have just realised that this is getting far too long as usual I have got carried away – maybe I should have made it a blog post :)


  2. Hi Tomaz,

    I have to throw my hat in the ring here too…

    “(The LMS) is dead. (The LMS) remains dead. And we have killed (it). How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” – butchered from as Nietzsche spins in his grave…

    My point in misquoting Nietzsche is that the only way for the ‘traditional’ LMS to be dead is if we stop believing in it, if we stop needing it. For better or worse, nothing I have seen in the last two years travelling the country to all manner of Universities, TAFEs and other learning institutions (acknowledging that I don’t deal with many schools) has shown me that the need and hence belief in the concept of an LMS is appreciably diminishing. Granted, I do see innovators using more ‘cool tools’ a-la Hans’ presentation, but in my experience these are still in the overwhelming minority. The majority still fail to utilise Moodle and the many tools which can be used in teaching and prefer to remain with the ‘download a file, upload an assignment’ model, which is nicely served by having a tightly controlled LMS to operate within.

    Whenever I run Moodle training sessions I feel that I am on a bit of a razor’s edge between showing educators how to do in Moodle what they’ve always done elsewhere, and attempting to throw in new tricks that are little to do with Moodle and far more to do with extending an educator’s toolkit from a teaching perspective, with Moodle simply being the vehicle that can make these new tricks a little easier to achieve. This is, in agreement with your post, far easier when I can have pedagogical specialists in the room to take that role and let me focus on how Moodle works, but its generally a challenge.

    One thing that I have tried to pull together is the Masterclass at this year’s Australian Moot. I didn’t consciously use the TPACK model, but I did start out with the frustration that Moodle shown in isolation from pedadogy is somewhat pointless, and then came up with the idea of getting two ‘big names’ in both Moodle knowledge and progressive pedagogy together to run the Masterclass. What we came up with was Julian “Moodleman” Ridden and Curtis Bonk, who I can’t wait to see in action together.

    The missing link is the content, which is something we’re still working on to pull together some generic enough content that everyone in the session can consider themselves as somewhat of an expert. The concept then is to see if we can spend a day strumming all three of these strings at the same time to see if we can make something that sounds vaguely musical.

    Will it work? Ask me after the Moot. But it seems worth a try.

  3. [...] then brings me to the real subject of this post, which was inspired by Tomaz Lasic’s recent post on communities and pedagogy, namely the Moodle Masterclass we’re running the day before the [...]

  4. Dan McGuire says:

    The walled garden aspect of Moodle is important to those of us using it in elementary school, still.

    The App Store for Moodle is essential what Tomaz is creating. Keep at it; I hope to be able to add a couple of recipes soon.

    Moodle can and will likely become less dead when devices to access it become ubiquitous in classrooms. Of course, this is essentially the chicken and egg question – do we want a chicken first or an egg?

    This may sound antithetical to a ‘true Moodler’ but it would help if we started thinking ‘it’ as more than a VLE. It is also a potential standardized assessment tool – see There’s some heavy weight commercial competitors in that group.

    Moodle is also a tool to help assess teacher performance, something that no one I know of is really very good at, but everybody thinks they know how to do; just ask any parent watching a 1st grader at the park. We could actually use the Workshop Module to assess each others lessons. the obstacles here are in our own heads.

    Keep up the great work, Tomaz. Tell your nephew this is what I think about him, “Vi ste veliki voditelj.”

    • human says:

      Thank you Dan, appreciate it. Or should I say ‘hvala!’ :-)

      You know, Moodle 2.0 will have a much easier way to bring Web 2.0 into the ‘walled garden’ and push content out as well. Speaking of which, our primary goal as teachers is to make it a garden, open when it is appropriate to do so. But, as you and I who have work on the ground and with kids know, it is a matter of leverage and being wise, creative and prudent in the use of these tools. You will enjoy Mark’s presentation

      Hundred times ‘yes’ to your words about the obstacles in our heads!


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