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Category Archives: Moodle

Which LMS?

As the year trundles, or rather hurtles towards its end I find myself with an agonizing decision to make. Do I stick with my current Learning Management System, Moodle, or join those in my school, who have turned to Google Classroom? This is not something I have thought about since adopting Moodle – it seems a life-time ago now. I am a happy Moodle user, indeed an enthusiast. It is not that Moodle has dropped off in performance, in fact quite the opposite, it has been improving substantially! Is it that I have become smitten with Google Classroom? No, not at all. Google Classroom can’t set a candle to my Moodle!

So why am I considering writing a Dear John letter to my beloved LMS?

The school where I teach is currently rolling out a new IT policy, which has greatly upped the ante, and meant that the vast majority of staff have adopted Google Classroom as their platform of choice. Although Moodle, Classroom and Edmodo all have their adherents, both the older platforms have lost significant support to the new-comer! All our devices are now synched to Google drive so the weight of institutional support for a Google environment has meant that Edmodo and Moodle users have found themselves rapidly depleted in numbers.

I ran one of my classes on Classroom this year to see if I could live with it, and found that although the platform has none of the raw power of Moodle, or none of the appeal of Edmodo, it is easy enough to use, and is improving with time and exposure. What at first I found very counter-intuitive has become tolerable enough to consider moving in together! I’ve gotten used to the hairs in the sink, or the lipstick on the tea-cups, so to speak.

I had a long think about it this week, while invigilating exams, drew up a mental list of pros and cons. My list looked something like this:

Moodle Google Classroom
Pros Cons Pros Cons
Can do just about anything. Like Mary Poppins it is practically perfect in every way!

No, seriously, it is custom made for classroom management and handles these things very well indeed!

Can do groups, sub-groups, peer assessment, online quizzes – everything!

Assessment using rubrics

As fewer staff are using it, it is less familiar to students and harder for them to use

It takes up local server space

Integrates well with Google Drive which is very useful for online collaboration tasks

Easy to mark written work using comments

Integrates with your email well

Can’t do groups

Doesn’t notify you of new submissions or re-submissions o you have to check everything to see if new works has been submitted

So, after reflecting on this for the length of an excruciating invigilation session, it seemed to me that for my computer skills classes I simply could not give up Moodle as it gave me the ability to assess using rubrics, and to create groups and peer assessment effortlessly. For my English class, however, the affordance of easily linking to Google docs for collaborative writing was irresistible, and despite all Moodle’s benefits, I actually preferred Google Classroom.

Looks like I will end up being unexpectedly promiscuous next year!

 

 

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Do Androids Dream of an LMS?

androidThe three major LMS platforms teachers are using at our school are Moodle, Edmodo and Google Classrooms. These days it is increasingly essential to be able to monitor your Learning Management System 24 hours a day. All three of these platforms have mobile apps. But how do they stack up? I have an android device so I used that, but I assume other platforms will have similar apps. Do you really need a mobile app for your LMS though?

In reality I am so frequently at my computer, both at work and at home, that I use that to access my teaching platforms all the time. When I am away from school, or from home, my view is that I am not working, and don’t have to access my LMS at all! After all, is anything that one uses an LMS for so vital it cannot wait a few hours? In terms of normal operations, probably not! However, I do find it useful to monitor what is happening, or to access resources saved on my LMS if I need to. On days when assignments are due I often get frantic messages from students about the status of their submission, and a quick check is helpful.

I can well see that being able to access the LMS on a phone or tablet might be extremely useful in some situation, or for some teachers. One does not. of course expect full functionality from an app, but I think it is fair to assume that at minimum, a teacher should be able to receive notifications and reply to messages, be able to view classes, students and assignments, add new assignments and mark assignments that have been submitted. Students would expect to be able to view resources and assignments, and submit their assignments online if possible.edmodo mobile

Edmodo Mobile

The rating on Google Play is 4.1. The number of reviews indicates that a great many users are satisfied with the app, and that it clearly serves a purpose.

I have to say that the reservations I have about it are mostly due to my feeling that Edmodo itself lacks some of the features I absolutely require. But this is not a fair issue to raise when looking at the effectiveness of the app itself. I could do pretty much everything that I normally do on the web, on my phone. I was able to create new assignments, grade work submitted by students and receive notifications and alerts as normal.

The app interface is attractive, clean and easy to use. Were I an Edmodo fan I would definitely use this app all the time. And I think I could, at a pinch, pretty much use nothing but my phone to run my Edmodo classes should I wish. The app then gets a five-star rating from me!

*****

moodle mobileMoodle Moblie

The rating on Google Play is 3.1. It has been reviewed very few times, however, which probably reflects the fact that Moodle fans will find less use for this app.

Moodle’s great strength is its versatility and power, virtues which do not translate well into scaled down apps. While I could do pretty much everything I usually do on computer using Edmodo, the difference between the computer-based and app-based interfaces on Moodle is huge! I could view courses, and course content, something students would find very useful indeed. I could access student profiles and assignments, and download and view their submissions, but I could not find a place to submit a grade. This is a huge pity, and detracts from the app considerably.

I was able to upload content to Moodle, but I could not find a way to create or add to assignments. This again, is a serious limitation. In essence it means that a Moodle enthusiast has no real need to use the app, probably why its rating is relatively low.

The look and feel of the app is clean and attractive, and it is easy to use, but ultimately, I’m not sure I’d ever really use it except in an emergency, and I’d have to go back and access the platform via computer later anyway. I’d give the app a rating of a poor three stars.

***classroom mobile

Classroom Mobile

The rating on Google Play is 4, and this reflects the easy way in which the mobile interface reflects the functionality of the platform.

I can instantly see why this is the case. You can pretty much do everything on the mobile app that you can on a pc. I was able to view and create assignments, view content, add courses and content, and grade student submissions. The interface is clean, attractive and relatively easy to use. As with Edmodo, I felt that I could use my phone to run the LMS should a computer not be available. A five star rating is thus appropriate.

*****

Summary

Overall I felt that all three apps were useful, and well designed. The Moodle app was the only one which featured severely scaled back functionality, both compared to the platform itself and to what one might want to do with the app. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I feel that it is not really that imperative to upload content or grade student submissions via a phone: the area where Moodle lacked functionality. Personally I would normally only ever want to view content or check for messages or notifications. As such the Moodle app does a good job. But I do recognise that man others may want this functionality and in this case the Moodle app does suffer by comparison.

Do Androids dream of an LMS? Hell, yes!

 

In Search Of The Holy Grail – How do ICTs foster Critical Thinking?

DSC00161The Holy Grail of ICT integration in the classroom is that almost mythical quest for the application of ICTs to foster critical thinking. The assumption that the introduction of ICTs would somehow magically transform teaching practice, leading to more learner-centred, problem-based, cognitively rich classrooms has not borne fruit. I am not saying that ICTs have not had an impact, or that they have not been used properly. There are many excellent examples of good practice, and yet the effective use of ICTs to uniquely engender critical thinking is far rarer. Critical thinking is extremely hard to define, and happens far less frequently than we would like to think in any case. Kahneman’s notion of fast and slow thinking: system 1 thinking which is based on intuition and emotion rather than system 2 thinking which is more deliberate and logical, illuminates the problem. Most of our thinking is rooted in fast, quick reliance on assumptions and pre-digested opinions rather than consciously working through an argument and examining evidence.

In the classroom much of what passes for critical thinking is actually firmly rooted in the rehearsal of handed-down opinions and prejudices. I would contend that the prime characteristic of critical thinking is that student’s assumptions are questioned, the reasons for believing something are examined, and that arguments are unpacked and critiqued. I’m not convinced that this happens as often as we would wish, and sometimes it is not happening even when we think it is.

Actually this is very rare in life as well. Most of us live inside a universe of comfortably held views which are seldom questioned, and outside of which we seldom step. The problem is not really that ICTs have been ineffective. The problem is that we just don’t think enough! We never have.

Can ICTs be used within a classroom to change any of this?

I would argue that just as the Holy Grail is chimerical, so is the search for any single tool or application that will uniquely foster critical thinking. Just as a piece of paper and a pencil can be used to write meaningless doggerel or a thought-provoking essay, the tools themselves are not guarantees of any result. You can use Skype, for example to talk to your granny or to Stephen Hawking, and the likelihood of any serious critical thinking emerging is based more on the content than the tool. And yet tools do have affordances, properties which enable certain types of interactions. Because Skype enables communication, it can certainly enable critical thinking. Because Google docs enables synchronous collaborative writing, the likelihood of greater reflection in the writing process is increased. Tools may not guarantee any result, but they are not neutral, as is often claimed. ICTs do have a role to play in transforming our classrooms into thinking spaces.And yet no single tool can be claimed as the holy grail of critical thinking!

The greatest exemplar of critical thinking that we have is probably the Socratic method, a pedagogical methodology in which the teacher challenges a student through dialogue, to question their own thought and develop more rigorous and robust arguments. The teacher will help the student expose weaknesses and contradictions in their thought, highlight contrary evidence and scaffold the process by probing and questioning, as well as modelling thinking. The key feature of the Socratic method is dialogue, that the student develops their ideas under the mentorship of a teacher who teases out the student’s thought, and offers input from a more experienced standpoint. Dialogue is essentially the bringing together of interactivity, of communication, with collaboration, the joint development of an argument or idea.

Socrates had the luxury of a one-on-one engagement with his students, and was free from the need to pursue an imposed syllabus or common core standards, or to produce a battery of continuous assessments. He didn’t even have to coach soccer to the Lower Vs! I’m not saying that the Socratic method cannot work in a whole class situation, but it’s application is constrained, and often truncated by the annoying ringing of bells or the intervention of another student. Our schools are simply not set up for prolonged interrogation of thought. Our schools are predicated on system 1 thinking, the acquisition and memorization of second-hand ideas presented in bite-sized chunks called lessons.

Some have argued that a key affordance of ICTs is that they might enable greater personalization of learning, that students could progress on their own individually tailored learning paths. This idea, while seductive, is tantalizingly out of reach currently. The Personalisation by Pieces approach offers insight into some of the ways it might work – through skills ladders and peer mentorship, and we should be vigorously trying to find ways to make this work. But for a classroom teacher in 2015, it appears as far away as it was when the idea first came out. Students are kept so busy in any given school day that the kinds of solutions teachers can apply such as using technology to add remediation and enrichment tasks are difficult to apply in the face of a relentless syllabus. Unless the entire system swings over to a personalised approach, individual teachers’ hands are tied.

Nevertheless this does open up the question of the centrality of infrastructure and architecture. Perhaps we should look at the role of ICT infrastructure and the types of classroom interactions that can be supported through this architecture. Perhaps the unique contribution ICTs can make to thinking lies not in individual properties, but in the aggregation of their affordances. Put another way, perhaps it is the ability to bring together communication and collaborative tools which uniquely affords critical thinking in the classroom? Stevan Harnad’s notion of a fourth cognitive revolution brought about by the bringing together of the immediacy and interactivity of oracy with the reflective power of literacy in the nearly synchronous world enabled by the Internet is an idea which is pregnant with possibility. The unique enabling of communication and collaboration through a networked society is a powerful notion which has inspired many classroom interventions. But the mere addition of near simultaneous communication and collaborative tools does not guarantee critical thinking. And most classrooms are not routinely connected in this way. If it is to happen it must be through the provision of an adequate architecture.

A Learning Management System is a must for any teacher seriously engaged in integrating digital tools within their classroom. Digital tools mean digital output, and imply the need for some interface for pulling it all together. That interface is effectively your LMS. Teachers who simply ask students to email them their digital assignments and then record assessments on a spreadsheet are using Outlook and Excel as their LMS. Those who use Moodle, Edmodo or Google Classroom will have custom-built tools to achieve classroom routines such as instruction, assessment, feedback or discussion. Most LMSes are pretty good at hosting digital SCORMs, podcasts or videos to supplement instruction, and of enabling assessment of digitally submitted assignments using rubrics or online annotation. Feedback is also a common-place function, but discussion is currently a weakness in most LMSes. Chat and forum modules are usually built-in, but do not generally commonly foster genuine discussion.

Much the same could be said of classroom discussions as well.How much of it is on topic? How much of it is insightful rather than trivial? The problem is not with the tools – it’s with how we use them. The average classroom already enables communication and collaboration. Put the chairs in a circle and students can discuss and collaborate. What is lacking though is the ability to delay and reflect. Immediate synchronous discussion has huge power, but students quickly move on to the next task, and seldom revisit a discussion, and lack the means to do so because oral discussion is ephemeral. An LMS which is able to record and store discussion for future reflection would go a long way towards enabling critical thinking.

I would like to argue then, that a necessary first step in creating a situation where ICTs can meaningfully foster critical thinking, is to focus on how we can bring together communication and collaboration. A focus on individual tools and applications is fine, but it needs to go beyond that to look at infrastructural issues. None of the major LMSes truly achieves this key affordance effortlessly and fluently. I would argue that the infrastructure really requires a space which allows students to effortlessly upload recordings of face to face discussions for future reference, to discuss in writing collaboratively and to edit and update files at any time. Currently all the major LMSes view the assignment space as a single upload without any linked discussion space. Google docs offer the ability to mutually edit, to comment and to chat! But then Google Classroom does not incorporate this feature in the assignment module. And You cannot set up groups. Moodle allows groups, even peer assessment, but does not allow for mutual editing and commenting on a document. Edmodo allows for groups, but similarly misses out on any collaborative features.

It may not bring the Grail Quest any closer, but for me the sine qua non of any LMS needs to be the enabling of a space where students can work in flexible groups, able to edit, comment and chat about any kind of file or files they are working on, seamlessly and synchronously or asynchronously.

 

 

 

Moodle vs Google – King Kong vs The Kraken

gc3In a previous post I compared Moodle and Edmodo. I’ve been playing around with Google Classroom and would like to make a preliminary comparison. First off I must declare my bias towards Moodle, which I have been using for many years. When Google Classroom arrived last year, with much fanfare and great expectations I felt, for the first time, that it might seriously challenge Moodle for my affections. It had so many potential advantages, after all – the weight of Google behind it for one, and the hopes that the collaborative power of Google docs could be leveraged behind a Learning Management System which could offer a serious alternative to Moodle.

I have to say that it hasn’t quite panned out that way. Although Google Classroom is clearly evolving, the same is true of Moodle, so one can only compare where they are currently, and I have to say that I am somewhat underwhelmed by Google’s offering. Moodle is often criticized for having a clumsy interface, and yet one of the most annoying features of Google Classroom is that you have to poke around Google Drive to even find it! Maybe I’m just a wee bit stupid about using Google Drive, but I find it hard to find stuff that I haven’t bookmarked. It’s almost as if the seamlessness of integrating Classroom into your Google experience is a bit too seamless. I end up using the URL to get there, as I do with Moodle, so despite the potential advantage, for me at any rate it’s honours even in terms of finding the page.

moodle1Creating a Course was easy, though: considerably easier than with Moodle, which requires the Moodle Administrator to set one up for you! However, this ease of use is balanced by a severe inability to customize the course! Moodle gives you many options, and with a bit of HTML you can tweak the page to suit your needs. Classroom lacks all this – what you see is pretty much what you get! You can choose a theme, and that’s about it really! And this goes to the nub of the difference. For those who need a quick, painless LMS, easy to use but light on power, I suspect Classroom is a God-send, but for those a little braver in their approach to technology the power of Moodle will undoubtedly prove more attractive.

Adding Announcements and assignments to Classroom was extremely easy, and again edges ahead of Moodle, although the greater number of options available in Moodle counter-balance this. One thing which annoyed me about Classroom was that one attaches resources such as files, video links and URLs to a single assignment. In Moodle one attaches resources and assignments to course segments, which appears far more logical to my mind. I teach in units, which contain resources and assignments, input and output if you wish, and each unit can be as small as a single lesson, or as large as a term’s work! Moodle is very flexible in this regard, while Classroom is not! This, to my mind is what ultimately puts Moodle out in front. It works the same way teachers think.

While Classroom has the supreme advantage of integrating well with your google account, a point I grant despite my own struggles in this regard, it does raise some issues. Our school runs a Windows environment with roaming profiles allowing students and staff to log on to any computer on campus or via the wi-fi using their device. In some instances this creates problems using Google Chrome as Internet Explorer is automatically set as the default browser over our network, something my network administrator tells me he cannot change. This means that on occasion Google accounts do not log off, or Chrome will not access the Internet. I cannot pretend to understand the whys and wherefores of this, but it does complicate matters., Having said that, our school Moodle is also offline occasionally, and so it’s pretty much honours even there too!

In summary then, on Classroom I found I could easily set up a course, invite students to join, add an assignment and make announcements, and attach resources to both. I could view student’s uploaded work and grade it, and download the grades as a csv file. The grading was somewhat clunky and awkward, however, and not that intuitive when all is said and done. What I couldn’t do, as I can in Moodle, is organise students into groups, give a single grade to a group, and enable peer assessment. I could not set up conditional loops, activating certain follow-up assignments when students failed an assignment, or activating enrichment tasks when they passed, for example.

Classroom has nowhere near the power of Moodle, but I can’t help thinking that with the weight of Google behind it, Classroom might well represent something of a slumbering Kraken, waiting to be roused from its sleep!

 

 

 

Flipping Your Feedback!

memoThe Flipped Classroom is a model of classroom management which is gaining traction. Much of the focus has been on transforming instructional input – using “lecture” style videos, podcasts or documents which are posted online and viewed ahead of class so that classroom activities can be freed up to embrace more intensive and personalised interventions safe in the knowledge that the content has been explained.

A somewhat neglected aspect of any classroom routine has been the feedback part of the loop. Sometimes it is extremely useful to go over a test or assignment in class, unpacking the questions carefully. Sometimes, however, it is not necessary to do so. Where answers are either right or wrong, it is probably best to post a memo online rather than waste time in class poring over it.

I would argue, however, that online feedback can also be beneficial where more intensive analysis of an assignment is needed. Just as the ability to stop, rewind and replay a video “lecture” is valuable, so too with feedback. In my computer skills classes, for example I make a memo video using videopad and debut screencasting software to go over any test. I post this on my Moodle page and make access to it dependent upon completing the test. In other words it is available only after the student’s work has been assessed. This system seems to work well. As soon as a student’s test or assignment has been assessed on Moodle, the memo document or video for feedback discussion becomes visible to them. Feedback is thus as instantaneous as possible. It does not mean that student responses will not also be discussed in class, but it does mean I do not have to go over the assignment in detail, I can highlight key areas of concern, safe in the knowledge that students can access a complete break-down online.

In my English classes I usually hand out the printed memo when handing back assignments. This memo discusses not only model answers, but approaches to answering that type of question. For open-ended assignments I prefer to use student feedback in the form of questions and discussion after a presentation.

Flipping Feedback is not something I would do all the time, but it does add a useful string to my bow. It also adds variety, which as we know, is the spice of life!

 

 

 

The Multi-Layered Classroom

DSC01927When you are using ICTs in your classroom, the classroom automatically acquires a few extra layers. There is of course the physical layer with the teacher and students, the desks and tables, pens, paper, books and scissors. This layer is the most important layer, and sometimes it gets forgotten in the rush to adopt digital practices. Computers cannot replace teachers, at least not until they pass a great deal more than just the Turing Test! But increasingly other layers are added to this.

The second layer consists of the World Wide Web, which is now accessible via smartphones if the classroom has WiFi, and even if it has not, if the students have data bundles. Gone are the days when you needed to ask students to look something up after the class. Now you just say, “Can someone look that up!” This layer adds almost instant access to information of all kinds and is a complete game changer as the focus moves from learning content to learning what to do with all that content.

A third layer consists of your Learning Management System, which is being deployed by an increasing number of teachers. In my school Moodle, Edmodo and Google Classrooms are all used. Using an Interactive Whiteboard, or through students’ devices this layer is increasingly accessible to all students at all times. Both Moodle and Edmodo have apps for smartphones, and with iPads or laptops work can be accessed readily off the LMS. This allows for paperless submission of work from within the classroom, and for discussions and content to be available at all times. The interesting thing about the LMS layer is that it extends the physical classroom into virtual time as well as virtual space, leaving the classroom open 24/7.

A fourth layer is the Communication layer. When I was a student most classrooms had intercoms and lessons would be interrupted for announcements. These days many teachers send notifications via email or whatsapp groups! This layer runs like a vein through the life of the school. Being able to email parents straight away when there is a problem also extends the classroom into the home. I just received a whatsapp from my son at school when he got locked in a music room when the handle came off in his hand on the inside! My wife telephoned the Music Department secretary and he was liberated from his sound-proofed cell! This anecdote illustrates quite well how vital this layer can be!

The fifth layer is the back channel.While many students raise their hands in class, many do not, and yet still have questions or comments they would like to make.Back channels from useful ways of including these in the cut and thrust of classroom discussion. For example I use twitter to encourage students to ask questions or post interesting links, answer questions or polls before, during, or after a lesson. The twitter feed is available on my Moodle page, and if this is up on the Interactive White Board, using a hashtag these tweeted responses become available to the whole class effortlessly.

There is also, I believe, a sixth layer, an ill-defined entity, which will become increasingly important as time goes by, and that is the virtual reality layer, or games layer. There are some times when students are playing an educational game, or using Second Life for a pedagogical purpose where the classroom itself may host a virtual classroom environment, where students may interact with each other and the teacher via their avatars. This may sound all a bit Science Fiction, and little of the software exists currently outside of environments like Second Life, but gamification, even at a low tech level, involves the creation of a virtual games world where students and teachers role play.

What fascinates me is the ways in which these layers increasingly interconnect, through QR codes, augmented reality, in class research tasks or back channels. One of the core skills of a 21st Century teacher will surely be the ability to integrate the layers within the classroom seamlessly and meaningfully. It is going to need to become one of the core criteria in teacher pre-service and in-service education.

 

 

Running a Book Club using Moodle & Goodreads

bookwormsAs an English teacher I have always run book clubs as a way of encouraging reading for pleasure. Some kids loved it, some hated it, and the logistics were always messy and complicated. Kids would forget to bring in a book on the right day, and it never really had the effect I wanted – getting kids to read more. A few days ago I had a bit of a brain wave – why not create an online book club? After a bit of research I decided to use Goodreads. You can set up a free user account, and can even add an app to your phone which allows you to scan the ISBN number to call up all the details of a book. Users can rate books on a five-star system, add reviews and share recommendations. The site also allows you to set up private groups so it is perfect for a school.

Better still you can generate a widget which you can post on your blog, website or moodle page which pulls through books being recommended by group members – keeping the book club visible at all times. You can also run discussions, events and polls within the group. I have only just  set up the group, but already I can see that its potential far outstrips the once a term bring in a book to share approach I had been using before.

What sites,and apps like Goodreads does so successfully is bring together the real and digital worlds in a seamless manner. I have no doubt that the students I teach will do a great deal of reading online, but I do not believe that print books will die, and research seems to indicate that the cognitive benefits of print reading are enormous. Print supports sequential reading, the development of a coherent argument. On screen reading can be sequential and narrative, as in reading a novel on your kindle, but print seems to encourage a sense of knowing where you are in the logical train of thought. Screen reading also supports hypertextual readings which allow people to rapidly assimilate a wide range of inputs and get a sense of a field. The future will be one in which both types of reading, sequential narrative reading largely done on paper, and hypertext readings largely done on-screen, both have a role to play. Reading for depth, and reading to synthesise large amounts of information are both important cognitively and are supported by different delivery systems.

What I think an online book club adds to the mix is a commitment to valorizing both page and screen and making reading accessible to the ways in which we share our ideas via social media, and how this can be connected to the classroom.

 
 
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