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.

Why won’t the VLE die?

Ever since the inception of the VLE it feels like we have been asking ourselves this question. We await the next generation, the technology that will save us all from the tyranny of the VLE. VLE (or LMS for my American friends) systems are a divisive technology in education. Some people hate them, others love them, most tolerate them. The benefits of their use are still questioned and explored. So if we’re not convinced that they are beneficial, why won’t they die?

If you haven’t read this post, titled Christ, I hate Blackboard written by user Davenoon please do.  Not only is it hilarious, it demonstrates the level of loathing the VLE can produce.

“These are the words, if I could shit them into being, that I would use to catalogue the depth of my loathing for Blackboard.” Davenoon 2014

The comments that follow the article demonstrate the dichotomy of feeling that surrounds the VLE. This post will not debate the virtues of Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle. What I am interested in is why we are still using them. How, given the speed of technical innovation in all other areas, the VLE remains very much unchanged from where it began.

We are asking the wrong question

We constantly ask what the next generation of each technology we use should do. Therein lies my issue, what it should do. What features it should have, what functionality we expect. But this narrows our thinking. Boils learning to a series of tasks and processes. Learning is much more complex than that.

So the question ought not to be why won’t the VLE die, what the next generation should do; rather what do we want to explore. What pedagogies? What teaching methods and strategies? How will technology support or enhance those things?

We allow ourselves to be technology lead

This point really relates to the one above. We spend so much time worrying about the technology, why it doesn’t work, why we hate it, what we want to see, what’s next, that we miss the most fundamental thing.

Technology use is about people. Technology would be nothing if we didn’t use it. It is that interaction between teacher, technology and student that we should be concentrating on. How can technology help to facilitate this interaction, how can it support or enhance it? We should ensure that the technology enhances, not detracts, from the humanity of the learning process.

Technology is created the wrong way

We are feature focused. Probably because that is the way our minds work. We think about activities, “I want students to do x”, because really most technologies just replicate what we do. They rarely fundamentally change our activities, they might make something easier, sometimes technology even enhances an activity but it’s rare that it replaces it entirely.

It’s hard to escape this way of thinking and I’m not smart enough to suggest how we can do it. It is easier to think about features, “I want to be able to do x”, as that is how we are conditioned. Imagine if we could. If our ideas were unbound from reality, to what currently exists and what is currently possible.

When VLEs were first created I’m sure they were answering a teaching need, chiefly the ease of access to materials for students, sadly since then ‘the problem’ appears to have been forgotten and what has been created seems to be a feature heavy unusable beast. Lots of features are being added without rationalisation or thought about how people actually use them or how they interact with ‘real world’ teaching.

We like things that reproduce what we already do.

VLEs were supposed to be a revolution. According to many the VLE would replace the lecture and, in the opinion of many doom mongers, the lecturer too. Students would all learn online without once meeting face to face and the University would crumble in to oblivion. That hasn’t happened (yet) and I can’t see any evidence of an appetite for that amongst the majority of the student body.

Neil Selwyn, in his 2013 book Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitization, describes technology as replicating what we do in the real world. The thought had never occurred to me but as I reflected I realised how true that is. We do in class tests, now we do them online. We used to hand in paper assignments, now we do that online. We ask students to discuss topics in class, now we use online discussion boards. We carry out our lectures and seminars online using video conferencing but we’re still largely following the same format as a face to face session, it’s just online. Yes in all of these examples the technology may have brought some efficiency or flexibility but it has made little fundamental change to our processes.

Change is easiest accepted when it’s incremental and I have always found explaining the use of technology easiest when I relate it to something people are already doing. I’m not entirely sure we are ready for a revolution.

Adoption is a matter of culture change

Even if we had something different. We would need to change the existing culture and processes. If you’ve ever introduced something new in to HE, you’ll feel the pain of this process. It is not quick, it’s not painless and it certainly isn’t easy.

Because we will never win

Even IF we could think of something different, some incredible revolutionary environment, I can absolutely guarantee someone would say it doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t suit their needs or their teaching style. So what we end up with is a bloated, mangled, customised behemoth to make sure that everyone is catered for. Then we receive complaints that it’s bloated, mangled and customised and no-one wants to use it.

In my experience, when it comes to technology, we are never going to win.

ICT dictate what we do

Related to the points below, ICT in my experience largely dictate what we can and can’t have. Rightly so, they need to make sure it works with their infrastructure, is sustainable and reliable. But why should we be shackled by their infrastructure? Should we be held back because they do not have the staff with the necessary skills?

Controversial I am sure but it has to be asked. Why do ICT think that they are experts on the learning process? On teaching? On students? They are the experts on technology, on infrastructure, networks etc. but they have limited experience in any other area. If this is what we need to move forward why should they be allowed to hold us back?

Other technologies hold us to ransom

Related to the point above the existing infrastructure will often not allow us to explore what we need to. We are limited by student management systems, timetable systems etc. that we want to plug-in to our environments but won’t work with one another. This is the ICT departments headache and one of the reasons they can be dictatorial about what we adopt.

Our processes hold us to ransom

Neil Selwyn describes the VLE as a tool of management and surveillance. Another way for management to keep an eye on teaching staff. Again, I had never thought of it that way. It helps to explain the scepticism and mistrust that surrounds it. As the VLE has become part of management it has resulted in a high number of processes being integrated with the VLE. In many instances the VLE has become an absolute necessity for these processes to be completed. Once a technology is part of a process it’s very difficult to remove it and even more difficult to persuade people that they can change it. We are creatures of habit.

We don’t like change

And mostly because…

change