Open source e-learning: In the moodle

Open source software has made a huge impact in the software market. One such product could be about to revolutionise e-learning.

To quote a well-worn adage: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. There are some exceptions though and the free-to-download course management software, Moodle, that also allows users to build e-learning courses and communities, could be one of them.

In the learning sector, Moodle, developed in Australia by the educator and computer scientist Martin Dougiamas, is probably the most high-profile piece of free open source software (OSS). In simple terms, OSS is software that is developed through public collaboration because anyone can have access to the source code and therefore modify or extend it to suit their needs.

Minimal risk

“Moodle has allowed many organisations to explore e-learning with minimal risk,” says Dick Moore, director of technology at Ufi and a trustee for The Association for Learning Technology.

While Moodle’s ease-of-use has ensured it earns the lion’s share of attention in the learning sector, there is a raft of OSS projects aimed at education if you hunt around.

A browse through the 5,500 projects listed under education on the SourceForge.Net open source website reveals Segue, an open source content management system designed for e-learning that integrates the flexibility of weblogs for creating course, Dokeos, a content management web application that is translated into 31 languages, and testMaker, which facilitates web-based assessment.

Although many of these projects still sound like the preserve of hardened IT people who would rather stay in and tinker with code than go the pub at lunchtime, it serves to show there is no lack of open source development for the learning sector out there. While we wait for one or more of these projects to make their mark, however, we have Moodle.

Pedigree

Ray Lawrence, managing director of Telford-based HowToMoodle, which provides training, consultancy and development services to help users get the most from the software, says the free tag may be what attracts people initially but it is the product’s “pedigree” that is also fuelling its take-up.

“Moodle was developed for educators not just people with software skills,” he says. “People in learning and development quickly see that it works.” Those who want to find out more about the pedagogical principles behind the software can do so at www.moodle.org.

Partner companies such as HowToMoodle give the ‘top slice’ of their revenue from Moodle projects back into the software’s development. “It’s a virtuous circle and it is what keeps Moodle alive and sustainable,” explains Lawrence. “It’s also what sets it apart from some other open source software because it means it has a steady flow of income.”

Lawrence adds that while it is easy to get carried away with the idea that Moodle is free, part of his company’s role is to ensure the software is right for their requirements. “It is always important to carry out a training needs analysis,” he says.

Similarly, while Moodle makes it easy to upload content, it is also important to structure the learning activities so they are appropriate for the learner. “The platform can support communication and reduce administration,” says Moore. “But the most critical factor is the quality of the content and course design – that’s the differentiator.” Moore adds that to get the most out of it, it is also necessary to have staff who understand the platform at a technical level.

Distance learning

Among HowToMoodle’s clients is The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which wanted to run distance learning courses on an e-learning platform and develop its own e-learning material, as well as drive down costs.

CIH believed an open source solution would suit their needs and discovered Moodle. It has since built a Masters degree-level e-learning course to be launched this autumn. It is also looking at how Moodle could be used in other ways, such as using its e-portfolio space for members to provide evidence of their competence for chartered status.

“Our aim is to raise the bar on assessment criteria through the use of Moodle,” says Mary James, IT manager at CIH. “We’re investigating how using electronic methods of learning can raise standards of learning compared to classroom environments. Moodle will transform the CIH in ways we are only just beginning to understand.”

Currently, Moodle has around 40,000 registered sites worldwide, many of them private sector companies.

Lawrence says Moodle has given e-learning a welcome shot in the arm. “A lot of organisations tried e-learning and went through the mill,” he says. “This time they want to get it right.”

And what better way to dip their toe back in the water than via a piece of free software?

Case study: Customer 1st International

Customer 1st International in Wiltshire produces learning materials and resources to help businesses improve their standards of customer service. It needed a learning management system for overseas and UK clients, as well as a tutor-led interactive programme that could accommodate learning logs, action plans and assessments.

It was aware of Moodle and worked with the consultancy HowToMoodle to create an online version of the Best Practice Guide for Customer Service Professionals. HowToMoodle built the course and provided training so Customer 1st could maintain the course and site after the handover.

It is now being sold to major blue-chip companies in the UK and abroad. “Moodle delivered exactly what we wanted,” says Customer 1st managing director Stephanie Edwards. “It means we have raised the game and can talk about customer service at a higher level.”

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