A garbage can Moodle of organizational choice

October 6, 2009 at 5:10 am 3 comments

| Gabriel |

My university recently switched from our in-house course management system ClassWeb, to the off-the-shelf course management system Moodle. I thought ClassWeb was fine but after a few hours of working with Moodle, I wrote to our IT people and asked them to let me just hand-code my own site (using html so primitive that it’s more optimized for Lynx than Firefox). Part of this is that I hate the Moodle GUI (I would say that a GUI for web design is a bad idea but the WordPress GUI is great) and part of it is that Moodle is structured to encourage a kind of course website that I think is silly for a traditional course (though probably excellent for distance learning).

I know that my complete opt-out is a bit extreme and I don’t think many other people are likely to do it, but on the other hand neither do I think many faculty are likely to use the system in the way its designers intended. I browsed through a few of my colleague’s course websites and most of them have just posted the syllabus to the main page, maybe a few readings links from the weekly subpages. Only one page that I saw seemed to be using it with anything remotely approximating the ambition for which it was designed (though it’s hard to tell because Moodle defaults to walled garden for everything beyond the main page). Thus we seem to have a case of partial adoption with most of the faculty going along with it, but only in a superficial way.

So what are these features for which it was designed? To caricature it slightly, Moodle is premised on the idea that your course website should be Facebook (which I also hate, as it strikes me as the re-AOL-ization of the internet). There are plenty of discussion forums and the whole thing is based on a plug-in API designed for extensibility. Some of these things seem to be pretty useful, for instance the course Moodle pages here automatically link to the course’s reserve reading page at the library. Many of the features are things that were probably exciting to code and/or relevant to distance learning but don’t fit well into traditional pedagogy. For instance, Moodle can host quizzes, something that sounds useful but it will snow in Hell before I assign quizzes to be done at home. There’s so much of this sort of web 2.0 gee-whizzery that other things that are highly salient to the faculty (like, oh, the syllabus) are pushed into a fairly inconspicuous place.

All this is to say that Moodle is the answer to a question that the faculty didn’t ask. Now college faculty have a lot of highly salient pedagogical issues. We complain that students don’t do the reading, that they don’t pay attention in lecture, that they don’t engage in discussion section. I recently spent over an hour discussing grade-grubbing with a colleague. However I have never heard any professor complain that our students don’t create enough user-generated content on the course website. Broadly speaking, I think it’s fair to say that most professors expect the course webpage to be just a place where they can post the syllabus and other materials, basically a replacement for handouts (and the need to give replacement copies of lost handouts).

In contrast if you read much about the Moodle philosophy you’ll see an explicit rejection of the “I teach – you learn” pedagogy and an emphasis on the teacher as a guide for student self-development. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

The stated philosophy of Moodle includes a constructivist and social constructionist approach to education, emphasizing that learners (and not just teachers) can contribute to the educational experience in many ways. Moodle’s features reflect this in various design aspects, such as making it possible for students to comment on entries in a database (or even to contribute entries themselves), or to work collaboratively in a wiki. In Moodle, standard features often provide for a greater degree of learner-generated content than is found in other learning management systems. For example, the glossary tool can be configured to allow students to actively collaborate and contribute content.

If you read some stuff by some of the university IT advocates for Moodle (but not I should note those at my school)* it gets a bit more blunt. For example the InsideHigherEd Technology and Learning Blog writes:

We see the lecture system of teaching as a remnant of a pre-Guttenberg economy and social order of information scarcity. We believe that people learn by doing, by creating, and that the lecture system of passive note-taking and information regurgitation is about the poorest method for learning ever invented.

Oh, I see. I have my doubts about this as an issue of pedagogy (for most types of material), but let’s put aside the question of technical efficacy and consider it as an issue of diffusion in an organizational context. So basically, the IHE guy is suggesting that the organization’s central stakeholders do something that requires acquiring a new skill set and making a substantial time investment which if successful will undermine their status claims. It’s not that I expect most of the faculty to actively resist this, but I highly doubt that they are going to actively embrace Moodle and foster the kind of web-centric constructivist pedagogy it expects us to.

So here’s my confident prediction. Moodle will become increasingly popular because IT people see it as practical (it’s a standard and it’s free) and/or a way to leverage status claims (it implies that the faculty ought to aspire to being web developers soliciting user-generated content instead of lecturers relating their expertise).** Ironically, because most of the faculty don’t care that much about the course website they will go along with Moodle, but only in a very superficial way. The constructivist pedagogy people will claim success on the basis that there are umpteen million Moodle-based pages without noticing that almost every one of these pages consists entirely of a syllabus and a bunch of completely empty discussion forums, weekly subpages, etc.


* I don’t think that the IT staff here are trying to push a particular pedagogy on the faculty. From talking to them and reading the relevant documents I get the impression that they mostly see switching from ClassWeb to Moodle as an issue of harmonizing technical standards and providing capability (including special grants) to those faculty who choose to do an ambitious web 2.0 website. I should also add that our IT people have done a pretty good job of creating tools to migrate content from ClassWeb to Moodle and to make Moodle more closely match the design aesthetics of my school.

** This is an analytical point, not a put-down. One of the running themes of this blog is that I admire techies and think more social science academics should learn how to program. If it’s a choice between Randy Waterhouse and GEB Kivistik, I’m with Randy in a heartbeat. One of my problems with Moodle is it seems to be a case of the Randys embracing their inner Kivistiks.

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  • 1. Noah  |  October 6, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Gabriel, I heard from a TA last year that one of the things we were experimenting with for course web pages was setting up gated access to see if students had gone through the gate. In other words, this TA was able to check and see if students had gone on to download that week’s reading. Does Moodle have that capability? Of course, there’s a big difference between downloading or printing a reading and, you know, actually reading it.

    I’m curious what our students think of the new interface.

    • 2. gabrielrossman  |  October 6, 2009 at 6:17 pm

      i don’t know about moodle but it wouldn’t surprise me as it’s technically feasible and i know there is course management software that does this. fwiw, wordpress has something similar in that it shows me what outgoing links from this blog were clicked (but not by whom).

    • 3. Elizabeth  |  October 9, 2009 at 8:33 pm

      Blackboard (which I loathe) does this. Of course, students may occasionally (rarely, it’s true) read one another’s printed copies of articles — I’ve done this, to save printing, for papers I needed to read once but didn’t care about enough to keep my own extensive notes on.

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