“The more things change, the more they remain the same” MoodleMoot Ireland and UK Online 2021

Last week I attended the IE&UK MoodleMoot which was, of course, held online this year.

My feelings about the presentations will sound something like a follow-up to my “not all innovation is created equal” post which itself was triggered by the global MoodleMoot last year. Why? Well, while Covid loomed large over this year’s event the ‘transformation’ taking place all sounded very familiar.

The change

The opening keynote pointed out the scale of change in the last year, and the scale of global challenges beyond Covid too. The growth in online learning in the last year set out via a particularly striking metric:

Whilst this might be expected given the Covid situation it is perhaps still impressive that that many people have launched Moodle sites during the period. Whilst Moodle offers a low cost solution there are, of course, plenty of other options out there so that growth is still impressive IMO. It is perhaps also worth pointing out that the growth will be across multiple types of organisations whilst this MoodleMoot was primarily university focused in terms of the presentations (and I would imagine the audience too).

I did have to agree with some of the keynote points, for example Martin Dougiamas stressed that too much of the pivot/transformation has simply been video based learning sessions, webinars, etc. He also, I think, agreed with me that it has really been a time of reinvention, not a revolution, for him and others who have been in the industry a while. Overall, the lessons learned in the last 20-odd years are clearly inconsistently applied in the world of online learning.

The same

As with the global MoodleMoot much of what was being discussed has not really changed in the last 10+ years. This might be a sign that digital learning is now mature in further and higher education (and elsewhere), or it might just be that the agenda for the event did not really get beyond the basics as many presentations were by people being pushed online by Covid. In fact, away from those ‘this is how we responded to Covid’ type sessions, the agenda was quite sponsor heavy – it is perhaps difficult to sell presenting at user conferences if it doesn’t involve a day out of the office?

In no particular order here are some items I took away from the event, as always accuracy is reliant on my memory and note taking, and (as I have said) a lot of these points are far from ‘new new’:

  1. Moodle is only part of the solution. The opening keynote stressed Moodle’s role is to build a learning system, it is not a learning system in itself. This is probably not the way Moodle has been sold to many educators but should be remembered. The great desire in education institutions has always been to have ‘a size fits all’ solution but Moodle has 200+ plugins and, of course, most people will be reliant on various other tools (from Microsoft to Articulate and beyond). I have grouped some of the other related content/conversations to this as #12 below, not to mention different learning/teaching approaches (see #2).
  2. Social construction. The keynote also reinforced the point that Moodle was designed for social learning. We heard some presentations where the transformation has been little more than moving from Moodle as a file store to Moodle as it was intended to be used (i.e. as a platform with active discussions, activities, etc). Better late than never I guess but it also really depends on what else you are using this matters or not (see #12).
  3. Moodle 4.0’s promise of improved visuals and UX could probably have been from any point in the system’s version history. Obviously these changes are continuous, and needed, but 4.0 probably shouldn’t be oversold given this conversation is certainly a ‘deja vu’ topic. Fingers crossed 4.0 is a big leap forward though.
  4. Brickfield’s accessibility checker. This tool sounds really useful but long overdue given Blackboard, for example, has had Ally for a while (this could be seen as a comment on commercial vs OS development – however, Brickfield’s full offer is still commercial as a plugin/partner). Related to #1, you would likely need to invest here to extend Moodle into a full offering that meets modern accessibility requirements.
  5. eAssessment. Whilst I would have thought most universities had an online LMS/VLE pre-covid they may not have ‘pushed the button’ on online assessment before being forced to in the last year. Catalyst did a good presentation on the need to consider various things before launching eAssessment, including making sure the load on servers is not a problem – something I suffered the pain of with Blackboard hosting back in about 2010. Obviously we often rely on trial and error in tech but in high stakes assessments this is not really an option. Catalyst were selling their hosting and load testing services but you can argue for a move away from this simultaneous style assessment to other models.
    • Gradescope, now part of the TurnItIn group, looked good as a way of getting written exams and non essay exams into a digital tool – this in part tackles some age old questions such as how to deal with diagrams and maths in eAssessment. However, at the same time, a lot of what was being talked about (rubrics, etc) is, again, not really new. Related to #1, you would likely need to invest here to extend Moodle into a full offering if you are in an assessment heavy sector.
    • Poodll also showed some nice functionality in this area, although they advertise as focused on language learning I would say their tools could be used wider – for example, with the rise of voice operation over typing you could author questions in different ways.
  6. Plugin evaluation. UCL presented a few sessions, including one on their new-ish plugin evaluation process. This was all fairly straightforward and I would imagine many orgs have something similar, either for Moodle, Blackboard building blocks, etc. etc.
    • Of other plugins and themes mentioned, the Moove theme sounded great for simplifying the user interface – it was mentioned by Hibernia College (interestingly they have 17[!] in their Digital Development team).
    • Hibernia also mentioned the MyFeedback [?] plugin which sounded good for one of the problems I have with Moodle – namely the need to better aggregate, for the student, a view of their gradebook across modules/courses.
  7. Studygroup pre-arrival course and course development processes. This is a course that can be licenced for institutions to help international students know more about their new location pre-arrival, including some of the cultural differences they might want to be aware. As with pre-start date induction materials in workplace learning this looked a good idea.
    • In terms of the design process discussed (Aims > Pedagogy > Limitations > Content Development > Content Transfer > Test Systems > Amendments) it all made sense and not a bad model for others to use.
    • Bolton Uni did a session later on developing a Masters course during lockdown, the most interesting bit for me, again, was their approach (Pedagogy > Design and Structure > Validate > Upskill Staff > Deliver, Support and Track > Enhance). Bolton admitted they were “new kids on the block” for online learning development but this seemed to be working for them (I presented on something similar in 2011).
    • I liked an example from Nottingham of a different type of learning activity, namely an attempt to create an escape room type experience made up of video, puzzle quizzes and other Moodle elements. Overall, this was a nice example of thinking ‘outside the box’ when faced with the Covid challenge.
  8. Global search engine. Another UCL session, this showed their results in comparing three global search tools (Azure, Elastic and Solr?). The presentation was good in showing the different findings in terms of the indexing impact and the search results across the three tools. Content management and discovery have long been problems in learning platforms and a solution to this really should be in the core code. Indeed I have found such a search tool useful within Totara in the past, not least as the logs are illuminating in what your users are looking for.
  9. Upgrades. UCL also presented on a move to continuous release upgrades. This was an interesting one given the problems VLE upgrades have long caused. Higher Ed having long relied on the ‘big’ summer upgrade. However, this also goes against the desire for permanent online learning and avoiding downtime. The UCL session got into some of the management of code and cloud vs local data integration. Overall, one for hosting teams but also highlights the issues for teams like UCL to be managing this versus using external hosting services.
  10. Moodleboard development from DCU. More the kind of thing I like from user conferences – how to do something new. In this case it was ‘boards’ via a tool developed as a new plugin that does some of what popular external tools (like Padlet) can do but all internal to Moodle and keeping the data your own.
  11. Tile format for courses. A lot of the presentations either mentioned this specifically or were clearly using it. Very interesting from a “the same” perspective as, in many ways, it goes back to the same logic as the old WebCT UI just with a more modern look. Some of the examples looked good – for example the Royal College of Midwives managing to move their 3 day residential programme to an online course looked like a real achievement.
  12. What data where in the ecosystem. An OU session looked at the new options related to user profile fields in release 3.11. Overall this really felt like it came back to the age old question of what systems you have, where the data needs to be, etc. There are clear use cases here, for example creating additional fields that could then be used in different ways – for example the old Blackboard community system allowed you to filter what users of that system saw. Examples of what this would allow included employer sponsored students being able to see their company content. Other use cases include changing what a fully online student sees in their dashboard versus a blended or campus-based student, etc. by their profile fields. As someone who has completed an online MSc this is the kind of functionality universities could get a lot better at to personalise and filter out the noise.
    • Dundalk presented about moving their student support hub online, I would imagine many institutions would have offered this for a while but how they do it, and what is on Moodle versus other parts of an ecosystem, no doubt varies. Indeed having to navigate a university student record system, VLE/LMS, intranet, website, library and elsewhere for information (rather a simple single Google-style interface) is a well documented challenge for online education providers and a great example of service providers often carving customer experience up by their departments rather than what a customer needs. Indeed Dundalk mentioned a major drive for the move was student feedback that their Moodle was a logical place for more than just modules and programmes.
    • For many, a key part of their ecosystem will now be webinar and virtual classroom tools so it was good to see BigBlueButton still being plugged in the face of Teams and Zoom becoming so dominate (at least in my experience).
  13. Academic staff upskilling and PD. Most of the sessions touched on this and no matter how many learning technologists, templates and other aides are in place most academic institutions presenting still seemed to have the model of tutors being the end user and that they ‘own’ the digital space. There are, of course, debates to be had over the rights and wrongs of this.
    • It was interesting to see Birkbeck deciding to go back to the drawing board for how to go fully online (decisions > policy [including adopting basic standards for Moodle and ABC Learning Design] > roles).
    • Gallway showed some nice use of using H5P to teach academics how to use H5P – there seemed to be some clever setup tricks in their approach that would be good to see shared in a way that others could use. However, it seemed like it would need quite a lot of setup – indeed the presenter mentioned it was being used for small groups (of 5) as would be in a face-to-face workshop, rather than something that could be used more widely at a larger scale[?].
  14. Data analytics was considered in a few presentations, including with regards to search (#8) and in terms of the wider ecosystem (#12).
    • Intelliboard presented on how to use data for early intervention, proactive advising and more. Much of this sounded very familiar to what I got excited about with Starfish’s solution at BBWorld in 2009.
    • Chicester showed some interesting work in rationalising module evaluation to cut the number of templates to allow comparison across departments/schools and how they have used templates and question banks to do this. There were some nice displays of data with the chart.js plugin [?] but overall it was a little mind blowing that a university would have, until recently, been doing this on paper and not in a consistent way.
    • There was also some data analysis and consideration of machine learning models from a Hungarian institution that looked interesting for what it might mean for the metrics being used.
    • Another session from Intelliboard was good in showing the research and data related to online learning and how there are many things we do know, for example the correlation between perceived instructor competence and if the instructor is seen as caring about the student [i.e. we give a perception of competence to people we like!]. Homophily, the perception of time (i.e. you need to answer student queries quickly), etc. were also considered in this.
  15. Video sharing from OneDrive. This was a practical and super simple presentation – I would hope no one who would attend this event actually uploads directly to Moodle and would imagine most organisations will have a video platform to use (which is probably preferable to the OneDrive examples shared).

The future

I am well aware that we all take our own things from such events – for example, there were more developer/technical focused sessions during the conference which are not related to my area of expertise but would have been of use for others and I did not get to attend everything due to other events, emails, etc.

Therefore, I appreciate me complaining about basic Moodle operations is unfair given this is new to many. What is more worrying is that the beginners and basic stuff in some of the sessions originate from higher education institutions that are really behind the sector overall and will be continuing to waste tuition fees and government money in various areas.

The real change going forward might be with Moodle’s model itself. The creation of Moodle US alongside the monetization via Moodle Workplace and Mobile are interesting changes for what is theoretically still an OS project. Of course it is also a fair point to say one shouldn’t criticise the project if not contributing financially or via time (such as in testing or development).

My main takeaways

  1. We need to challenge ourselves to not just learn from the last 20-odd years but also apply those lessons.
  2. There were a few plugins and themes for me to look into (those I have taken time to highlight above).
  3. Moodle 4.0 is a huge opportunity but probably one not to get too excited about.

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader (I.gardner.gb) and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

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