We need to talk about Jisc

See Speak Hear

Jisc has been a huge part of my personal and professional development. Jisc offers us access to a wealth of expertise and has created networks of professionals that would otherwise be unlikely to exist. But in the last year or so, I have begun to worry about what Jisc is becoming.

Like all things in the public sector, Jisc are having to reduce their costs and align to other external priorities. Which is likely one of the main reasons for the change in the organisation that are visible to those who work closest with it, and rely on it.

Let me be very clear. This is not an attack on the individuals who work in Jisc who, in my experience, are extremely dedicated, hard working and knowledgeable. They continue to work to aid the sector but like all of us, they are subject to the priorities and values of their employer. When they change, they must change with it.

We are not blameless either. For years we greedily lapped up their funding and, more often than not, did very little of value with it. We took and took and took. We benefited from their experience, from their networks and their prominence.

I was one of these of people. I have benefited from their free pilots, their development programmes, from their free visits and most of all, from their expertise. I have taken everything I can and given nothing back.

The irony is, we’ve taken everything we can get but the minute Jisc asked us to pay for some stuff, we lost our sh*t. We became so used to taking from them. “But Jisc stuff has always been free” we exclaimed. “Where’s the funding? Surely, there’s some funding? Won’t somebody think of the funding?” we cried. I defended Jisc when they began charging for a VERY worthwhile development programme. I have no problem with that and Jisc should be able to charge a reasonable amount for this aspect of their work.

They have now moved in to being a service provider and charging for those services and this is where I become troubled.

Jisc has some…interesting…partnerships with vendors.

Jisc feels like a vendor.

If you want to know how I feel about vendors, read this.

Take for instance, the Digital Capability tool. I used it, read about that here, and found it useful. We raised some good conversation, we found out some useful information. We had a 25% response rate. Feedback was mixed. It hasn’t changed much since. Would I pay for it? No. (I’m not speaking on behalf of my institution here, after all, who’s going to listen to me!?) It’s a survey with ‘personalised’ results. Yes, you can customise it, bla bla bla but it doesn’t do anything I couldn’t do. I would rather spend the money on doing something about the things I already know need attention. I know there are areas for improvement, what could it tell me that I don’t already know? What does it tell staff? Our feedback was, not a lot. Jisc has fallen in to using the ‘problematise a thing and make a thing to fix it’ technique of the vendor. The project was built on sound research by people I respect. They continue to work hard. If this were the old Jisc and a vendor were peddling this solution, would they support it? I don’t think they would.

I valued that Jisc was on our side, they represented us and fought for our interests. Now, I feel their interests are in making profit whether or not that’s in our best interest.

I valued Jisc’s impartiality. Now, I feel their need for profit has put impartiality at the bottom of their list of priorities.

I valued Jisc’s criticality. They wouldn’t recommend something they didn’t believe in themselves. I don’t think that’s the case now. It’s all a forced positive message. Even the people involved with them temper their criticism when talking about projects they’ve been working on.

I valued Jisc’s knowledge. Where is the understanding of higher ed, where is the scholarly approach, where is the grounded thought leadership? Where have all the people who worked in education gone?

I valued Jisc events. I have been to many Jisc events over the years and there was always an element of self-promotion. Rightly so, since they were funding them for free. But now there’s more sales than value. It’s soundbytes, stats and the same faces.

I’m sorry to be so blunt but I miss the old Jisc. I worry about the talented people who work there and most of all, I worry that education is losing one of its most important allies.

*** This post reflects my views only.

The trouble with Moodle…

I ought to have called this post ‘The trouble with VLEs’ as everything here applies to the VLEs I have experienced. This post has arisen from my moving institutions, and VLEs as a consequence, and attending MoodleMoot last week. It was my first Moot and an ‘interesting’ experience.

MoodleMoot 2017

This was my first visit to MoodleMoot. The conference does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a 3 day festival of Moodle. There has always been a ‘those who use Moodle and those who don’t’ mentality in VLEs. If I had a pound for every time I heard Moodle is better I would be a millionaire. I used Moodle for several years, used Blackboard for two and am now back with Moodle again. I expected MoodleMoot to convince me of the superiority of Moodle. I expected to be indoctrinated in to the Moodle cult.

Was I indoctrinated? No. If anything MoodleMoot served only to highlight the issues inherent in Moodle (and other VLEs). I saw people doing interesting things, clever things but I saw nothing that wowed me or anything ‘new’. Nothing persuaded me of its superiority (I know this is not the aim of the conference but that’s the culture that seems to surround Moodle in my experience). It struck me that much of what was presented at MoodleMoot was the work people had done to get Moodle to do what they needed it to do.

We are the wrong people

There were no students and very few teachers at MoodleMoot. I know we technologists are an important community to engage with but I can’t help feeling we are the wrong people.

I can see when something doesn’t work. I can see where things can be improved but I spend my time telling people how to use Moodle. I know how it works and I tell people how to work within the system. I don’t use it in earnest. I don’t teach. I don’t set up and manage multiple sites. I don’t support hundreds of students. I don’t use it along side my other duties (it is my job). I don’t submit assignments. I don’t mark assignments. I am not a real user.

I know how to use the system so it’s quirks make sense to me. I know ‘that’s just how it works’ so I don’t always consider how it could be improved. I don’t do the same processes over and over again so I don’t see the ways it could be made more efficient. Our students and our teaching staff do. Perhaps they are the people we should be speaking to?

The Learning Enhancement and Development team from City, University of London did a very interesting presentation on their review of Moodle with staff and students. They ended up with 95 recommendations on a variety of improvements to their Moodle which included changes to the theme amongst others. They have made their slides available here. You can look at that number in two ways, one ‘they just don’t know how to use it’ or two ‘there are still a lot of usability issues in Moodle’. I look at it as the latter. Yes there is something to be said for training but isn’t there even more to be gained from getting it right the first time, rather than training people around the problem?

A review is time-consuming, it’ll throw up things we can do nothing about whilst inadvertently raising expectations. So we don’t do them. I wonder whether the answer would be for MoodleHQ to arrange a review with users from different institutions (not technologists, actual teachers and students) and listen to the right people. Something to assist in the focus on usability of existing features promised for 3.4 perhaps?

Held to ransom

A lot of the presentations were about developments institutions had made to their Moodle installations. Lots about improving assessment processes and grading for example. One presentation talked about syncing Moodle with SITS the student record system, something we’d all like to do. So if it’s a problematic area for so many then why are we all doing our own thing? When asked whether people were able to share (a principle on which Moodle is based) they couldn’t because it was so highly customised to their own environment. We are duplicating efforts! MoodleHQ these are issues can they not be fixed at source?

Moodle survives largely because of a community of selfless and dedicated developers who maintain it. It is a free, open source VLE but free never really means free. Someone has to sacrifice something. So developers create plugins, fix bugs etc. but they have no responsibility to do it. So many things go unfixed and undeveloped. MoodleHQ has added more and more functions (like badges and competencies) without improving the fundamental tools. This is not intended as a criticism of the developers who contribute to Moodle, I am grateful for their work and I contribute nothing, but we are held to ransom by the way Moodle is developed.

If MoodleHQ don’t see something as important then nothing is done. If the community of developers don’t have time to maintain Moodle and plugins then nothing is done. That’s not to say a paid for service is any better. Having used Blackboard I can confirm they are not better. You have to wait for the next update for things to be fixed and the ‘support’ is flaky at best. Usually problems will be fixed in the next update, by which point you have 100s of helpdesk tickets, annoyed staff and students, or you fobbed off with ‘it’s your configuration’. It wasn’t quick or responsive either. So I assure you that support and maintenance are not just a problem in ‘free’ tools.

There are attempts to make the way developments are dealt with more joined up through initiatives like the Moodle User Association but MoodleMoot seemed to be more of a celebration of the things Moodle isn’t doing than what it is doing well. So MoodleHQ ought to look at MoodleMoot as their opportunity to identify and prioritise issues. Adopt developments other people have made in to core. Come on MoodleHQ there’s a pool of stuff out there already being done, stop introducing new features and make the ones we have better! Other people are doing it! To the Moodle community, let’s work together to get those major issues fixed, let’s stop working in isolation and only coming together once a year. Let’s share.

Core vs plugin

Moodle, for those that don’t know, is made up of core tools and plugins. This flexibility is lauded by the community but it has its disadvantages as mentioned above. Many very useful plugins that are highly used should be part of core but aren’t. A lot of plugins are no longer being developed. A lot don’t quite integrate with core. MoodleHQ need to develop a ‘plugin to core’ development life cycle so those plugins that are found to be useful can be adopted and developed as part of core.

Blackboard vs. Moodle

I think this argument is a little redundant now. The issue goes beyond this silly rivalry. That’s why Jisc started the #ngdle discussions and a debate at Digifest17. The problem is not about which one has the best features, we need to talk about what we want from our VLEs. Do we even want them anymore? Do they still serve a purpose? Are they supporting and enhancing learning?

I can assure you they both have their advantages and disadvantages. I used to long for Moodle. Now I find myself occasionally longing for Blackboard.