I am not your enemy

I am not your enemy. I’m the mug who has been thrown into the lion’s den covered in rump steak, to demonstrate the VLE. I don’t know what I’m walking in to. I do not make decisions. I do not create policy. Frankly, there are times I don’t care if you use the VLE. I’m just here to show you. I am not the enemy.

I should be clear that strong anger and hostility is rare.

VLEs are a bit disappointing

To be fair VLEs are a bit of a disappointment. Actually, let me qualify that. Technology is a bit of a disappointment. As David White says “if you go to technology to be the solution…everyone will be disappointed”.

I think we all hope that technology will just work with very little/no interference from human beings. At least sometimes that’s how I think academics hope it works. I may be being unfair here but there are times I see the “oh I have to do something with this to make it worthwhile” look in their eyes. Sadly the VLE does not know what you want to teach. It cannot absorb your teaching materials through osmosis and organize them correctly for you. It cannot create a quiz for you. It can’t facilitate a forum for you.  It can’t decide the best way to present your learning materials and activities to best aid student learning. Unfortunately, like all technology, it requires some human intervention. More importantly, it requires human intervention to make it meaningful. Technology on its own is meaningless.

Technology gives the impression that anything is possible. That’s true to an extent. Technology has opened up endless possibilities. In a way that is a blessing and a curse. Reality does not always live up to expectation. I hear “surely it can do this”, “surely they can do that” but the reality is there is a LOT of work behind even the simplest idea. You don’t see that, perhaps we ought to show you more?

VLEs are designed to do a job. You might be able to plug stuff into it. You might be able to adapt it but on the whole, it does what it does. Can they be better? Oh of course. But they serve a purpose and do that adequately. I hold out for something better but I can guarantee no matter what comes I’ll still be asked: “can it do this”.

Can it do…

Whenever I demo the VLE it get’s compared to other systems. Can it do x? Can it do y? Can students see z in here? I find myself saying no a lot in these situations. Usually because rather than looking at the VLE for what it is and what it can offer, it’s compared to existing systems, some wholly incomparable. I sometimes wish I had that device on Men in Black so I could remove their memories of whatever system they were using previously so they could look at the VLE with fresh unprejudiced eyes. I don’t have that.

I should add that I always want to hear these questions, as they feed into ongoing developments.

We’re doing everything we can…

Sometimes I feel like people assume the reason it can’t do something is that we can’t be bothered to make it do that. We can. We want to. But what they don’t see is the huge amount of thought and work that goes into every decision around the VLE. Even seemingly simple things like turning on plugins. Although sometimes the functionality just isn’t possible or doesn’t exist. We have to consider each request on its merits. It’s not like switching on a light switch. I wish it were quicker. I wish it were simpler but NOTHING about technology is simple (despite what the marketing people would have us believe).

I promise you it’s added to the list. We’re trying to get through the list but it only gets longer. That’s the problem with technology the work never stops. Everyone wants something, because “surely it can be done”.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Unfortunately, we often become the focus of anger for decisions that we have nothing to do with, made by people we have nothing to do with over which we have absolutely no power. Do I think you should use the VLE? Yes because it can do great things when used well and consistency is something students want and deserve. Do I care if you use it? Ultimately no, that’s your choice but you’re missing out on something. Or more accurately your students are.

I didn’t say you had to use the VLE. Someone else did. Sorry. I’m just here to show you. Am I really the person you should be angry with? Do you really think I can do anything about what’s happening to you? Do you think making me feel uncomfortable will help? Do you think talking down to me will help? Do you think it will help to make me feel small?

No. It won’t help.

Why are people still hostile?

The world of ed tech seems to believe that everyone wants to use technology. That it’s obvious that people should and those who don’t are Luddites and dullards. Often anyone who dares questions the use of technology in education is met with much belligerent, disapproving responses. They are an enemy of the state who must be indoctrinated.

The reality is there is still resistance. People do not believe in the use of technology without question. Unlike the majority in the Ed Tech world, they look at it with a critical mind.  There is legitimate criticism of the VLE (not that anyone can agree on the perfect alternative). They are bloated and feature heavy. They never quite work how people want them to. There’s always something missing. Put enough academics in a room and they will find a reason to dislike it. I believe there is legitimate criticism of the use of technology in education. In fact, I think we are obliged to consider every aspect of technology positive or negative.

I suppose we need to change our sales pitch from “you can do a quiz” to “you can scaffold student learning by creating a formative test each week and displaying feedback and content based on their results. The data can also be used as an indicator to show which concepts are proving difficult to understand and may need to be covered again the following week”. There’s a longer blog post in the “can do, should do vain”.

So what do we do?

We grit our teeth and we bear it. If there was universal acceptance they wouldn’t need people like us. Try to always be their champion. Listen, really listen. Respond when they ask you a question. Remind them that you’re here to support them, not get in their way. Smile. Respond kindly. Be patient. You don’t know what might be driving their behaviour, it could be wholly unconnected with you or what you’re there to talk to them about.

Always, always remember:

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.