Student Centered Moodle

Here is a rough draft of some ways that Moodle can be used for student centered learning. This is in response to criticisms that Moodle is teacher/course centered and not student centered. I am also presenting a session “Moodle: Your Web 2.0 One Stop Shop” in Napa in November and wanted to get some brainstorming going. Please comment so I can improve the list. Also see some great links at the end.

Quiz- Wait a second! A quiz can’t be student centered!

  • Free your mind grasshopper. Think about the importance of self assessment in independent learning. How does a student know what they have mastered and what they need to learn? Sure authentic peer assessment is ideal (see the workshop module). However an adaptive quiz with high quality feedback can promote learner independence. Also, research has shown that “assessments” are actually one of the best tools for learning. (a study mentioned in the article linked about) If we are serious about being progressive educators, we need to use the best tool for the job (and often a quiz is a great tool for learning)
  • Adaptive quiz used for instant feedback personalized instruction OR multiple attempts allow for ongoing personal assessment of learning
  • Pre assessment (based on results kids do different activities)
  • Have students write quiz questions in Aiken format then the teacher uploads those questions to create a class study quiz
  • Even a summative test is more learner centered if the student gets instant feedback (instead of waiting for the teacher o grade and return)
  • While a teacher still usually creates the content on a quiz, by using the ability to give instant feedback (which can be customized to each answer choice in a multiple choice question) is one of the best student centered learning strategies.


  • It doesn’t get more learner centered than this
  • (and just about any active online help/community forum) is a great use of an online space for learners to connect in a community of practice to gain and share knowledge and discuss. There is very little “course/teacher center” to the forums. If you have motivated students with a goal and a project then they can make great use of this online tool.
  • However, if you need to provide more structure than “Learn from each other” you can still use a forum as a learning centered tool.
  • Discuss current events (controversial topics in social studies and science are a great way to get students active in a forum applying content knowledge to real world questions)
  • Homework forum-encourage students to become online homework tutors for other classmates
  • Social forum to share their personal lives and opinions.
  • Class Blog/Journal-Have a student be the class blogger and record the days events from their point of view (for absent students and as another window into your class)


  • Advanced upload-give students an online file locker, just never grade the files they store there
  • Online text-Personal student journal which can be reviewed occasionally by teacher

Workshop (peer grading)-

  • Sure you need to be an expert (or at least willing to read the help pop ups) to set this up in Moodle 1.9, however once it is set up I have had 13 and 14 year old students peer assessing their work using an online rubric
  • The beauty is you can choose the weight that student assessment gets in the actual grade of the assignment.
  • Students can also get a grade for how well they assessed (how close to the average assessment they were)
  • The workshop in Moodle 2.0 looks vastly streamlined. Also there is an even simpler Peer Grading module available in the plugins database.


  • Very open ended student learner can occur here
  • Give each student a wiki and have then document a project or a unit.
  • Divide the class into groups to create an online textbook


  • Students define terms which then can appear in a side block on the course page (students are now directly contributing content to the main page of your Moodle)


  • Very similar to glossary, but can be even more flexible. Students can add entries to create a shared space.


Super easy way to let students pick their own topics and groups for projects

Upgrade Student’s Permissions Using Roles

  • Using roles you can easily allow students to rate (ie grade) forum posts, glossary, and database entries
  • You can even give students teacher rights over a particular assignment (but not the whole page) so they can assess their peers.

Catspajamas great handout on the uses of different activities

Teaching and Learning with Moodle-Tomas Lasic is as student centered as they get. Check out the recipes.

The teacher progression from

Social aspects (student messaging, blogs, tags, profiles)-blog post about our school’s use of tools in Moodle to create a student hangout.

Elluminate and Wimba Believe They Can Change Blackboard

I read a very nice set of arguments for the merger from an Elluminate employee here. However I believe the arguments have a few fallacies:

Argument that Elluminate is too small to compete and the only way to increase competition is to decrease the number of firms.

Sounds like reverse logic. In order to provide you with better options we need to decrease your options. This is fine if the single company can do a great job, listen to all their clients needs, and produce the perfect solution for every client. However, since we can’t trust that to happen, the best answer is to have multiple firms all trying to achieve happy clients. That way if one firm misses the mark, there are other firms ready to step in. Its called competition, its wasteful and redundant, but it seems to work better than a single monolithic big brother company. Speaking of competition and size, how do Sakai and Moodle compete against Blackboard in spite of Blackboard’s much larger size? Or better yet is there really any competition in the LMS market? If not, then how can the company that is responsible for that lack of competition in the LMS market (Blackboard) help bring about competition in the real time market?

Argument that education is poorly served by companies who are not education focused, so one strong education company is better than a bunch of weaker (smaller) education companies.

The post makes some good criticisms of competing corporate focused products. If customers care about those features then these corporate products should be out competed. The argument is that customers are presented with the choice between a flashy corporate style product (Adobe, WebEx) that will have short comings in educational use and a more homely product that actually meets the needs of their teachers and students (Elluminate, Wimba). What that argument means is that Elluminate doesn’t trust their customers to make decisions in the best interests of their students. I would agree that it seems that products are purchased without a sufficient trial period by the actual users and that technology purchasing decisions often rest with non educators. In my mind, this is how Blackboard has achieved such market dominance, a flashy sales pitch to a few key decision makers. I find it hard to believe Blackboard will change its approach.

There are other markets where corporate products are being used in the education sphere. MS Sharepoint is being used by some schools as an LMS (discussion forums, sharing documents, and sharing calendars). The feature comparison reveals that Sharepoint makes a poor LMS and so hasn’t been able to complete very well, however I welcome MS, Adobe, and Cisco WebEx attempts to enter the market and create products. These companies will push the education focused companies (I mean company) to improve the quality of their offerings.

Argument that the Elluminate and Wimba teams are full of committed educators and good people.

Guess what, so is Blackboard and yet Blackboard still has a reputation as a company that provides an inferior product with poor customer service at an inflated price. Why is that? I believe it is the focus on the corporate bottom line and their strategy of cornering the market. To me the belief that Elluminate can change Blackboard sounds kind of like a woman dating a man with a history of abuse and thinking that she is going to be the one to change him. The problem with Blackboard isn’t that it has bad people in it, the problem with Blackboard is that the corporate structure and strategy has made it mostly irrelevant to Blackboard if their ultimate customers (students and staff) are unhappy or poorly served. Also this argument makes me wonder, Why get involved with Blackboard at all? It implies that folks at Elluminate and Wimba are aware of the short comings of Blackboard and yet still want to partner with them.

I am all for hopeful optimism, but we are all trying to predict the future here. My argument is that Blackboard will prevail in decreasing competition (just like they did by removing WebCT and Angel as options for schools) and limiting the ability for other LMS’s to use their new real time product. The counter argument is that Elluminate and Wimba will prevail in opening up Blackboard. The piece of the argument that really lands me on the negative side is that Bb bought two companies at once (merging code is very difficult) and paid way too much for the companies (estimated $30 million value for $116 million). This screams of a business decision to create a monopoly. Elluminate and Wimba folks have quite a bit of work a head of them as Blackboard attempts to quickly turn a profit on their products and they try to change Blackboard.

The Case Against Blackboard

In reading the news about Blackboard’s take over of Elluminate and Wimba (on the heel of the take over of WebCT and ANGEL), I got a little fired up and decided to check out Blackboard’s public financial statements. I have prepared an argument against any institution choosing Blackboard based on this information:

1. Most of the money Blackboard charges a client is going to overhead and not into the value of the product itself.

In 2009 Blackboard took in $377 million and spent $98 million on sales, $56 million on administrative costs, $11 million on interest, and $10 million on patent issues while only spending $20 million on professional services (training), $45 million on software development, and $90 million on hosting/production costs. This means that for every dollar spent by a school on Blackboard $0.41 went to services provided and $0.59 went to sales, administration, overhead, and profit. Blackboard has 1,100 employees of which 370 are in marketing and sales, 183 are in administration, and only 270 are in development. Moodle HQ has 16 employees and yet still manages to create a competitive product.

2. Their business strategy involves take-over of competition, vendor-lock of clients, and up-selling clients on new products. I will let you read their strategy in their words first.

“Our Growth Strategy

• Growing annual license revenues. We intend to increase annual license revenues with existing clients through upgrades to current products, cross-selling of complementary applications and increased total license value commensurate with the value of our offerings.

• Increasing penetration with U.S. postsecondary and K-12 clients. We intend to capitalize on our experience in U.S. postsecondary and K-12 education to further enhance our leadership position.

• Offering new products to our target markets. Using feedback gathered from our clients and our sales and technical support groups, we intend to continue to develop and offer new upgrades, applications and application suites to increase our presence on campuses and expand the value provided to our clients.

• Increasing sales in our emerging markets. We intend to continue to expand sales and marketing efforts to increase sales of our various offerings within the less mature domestic and international markets we serve.

• Pursuing strategic relationships and acquisition opportunities. We intend to continue to pursue strategic relationships with, acquisitions of, and investments in, companies that would enhance the technological features of our products, offer complementary products, services and technologies, or broaden the scope of our product offerings into other areas.”

Why is this so insidious you ask? Well the cost to acquire new customers and develop new software is very high. A study in 2006 estimated the cost to Bb per new client was $250,000. Once a client has been established, Bb needs to recoup its losses from that sales process. That means preventing that client from leaving and cross selling that client upgrades and enhancements. Once the sale has been made to administration, there is inertia to stay with a product in spite of complaints about support, documentation, usability, etc from the users. Essentially Blackboard has become a giant software reseller. It purchases ed tech software companies (such as NTI Group->Connect) and then sells it to its existing LMS clients. It purchases competing LMS’s and then absorbs them into its single product offering. Blackboard has purchased two of the three major commercial LMS competitors (WebCT and ANGEL) and just purchased two real time web collaboration companies at once (Wimba and Elluminate). This has created a vertical monopoly in ed tech. There is no other vendor to go to, no other solution. (Except for open source).

Of course at the time of merger the spin is always, “You will experience no change”, “Our support will stay the same”, etc. But Blackboard buys companies in order to integrate and streamline them. That means cutting wasteful support staff and making sure that you can’t use one piece of software without the whole enchilada. There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING BINDING about verbal statements assuaging fears by any of the parties involved. You cannot get WebCT or ANGEL anymore, why would you think you will be able to get Wimba/Elluminate on their own in the future? Why are they buying two companies that produce the exact same product at the same time? Why are they paying $116 million in cash for expected revenue (not profit) of $30 million/year (which can’t mean more than a few million in yearly profit)? There is no way they are going to merge the code bases of these two products. They are sending a chilling effect to developers, “We own real time web collaboration”.

3. Open source options are equally reliable, usable, and feature rich. They have professional companies supporting/partnering with them to provide training, hosting, integration, and extensions. If at any time you choose to change service providers or software the open nature of the platform will allow you to get your data.

Check out to see that many institutions have evaluated the available LMS’s and found that Moodle and Sakai are both very viable. You can host open source yourself or hire any number of companies to do it for you for a very reasonable cost. Sure some places choose Blackboard, but once again think about that sales staff. At my district we “evaluated” Blackboard and Moodle. This meant that the Blackboard sales staff were in constant contact with administrators and then gave a professional presentation to a committee. Then on the Moodle side, a teacher (me) presented the software to the committee. The committee was told not to consider cost in the evaluation, even though Blackboard was 15 times the annual cost. Moodle won by a single vote. Since that time we have continued to use Moodle in spite of the recession and budget concerns. A cheaper solution means you can spend more on training (where the software meets learners) the and have a higher chance of weathering recession. (70% of all web servers run open source software Apache, Linux, MySQL – if its good enough to run the internet its good enough for your school). Great post about open source fears.

4. Why am I writing this?

I am not in the employment of any software company and not part of any software development. I am an educator (7 years science teacher, 2 years ed techie). I  truly believe that Blackboard’s business model is going to make it harder for schools to embrace new technology because Blackboard will prevent open standards and increase costs. The lack of competition means a decrease in innovation. I first used Blackboard as a student and really liked it, but I had no way to use it as an individual teacher. Open source software empowered me to use new tools with my students without needing top down buy in. I am not an open source fanatic, I use commercial software all of the time and understand you have to pay for development somehow. I wouldn’t mind if a company produced a nice, competitive LMS, however Blackboard has a habit of using unfair competitive practices to maintain its dominance. Think about the arenas where open source products have high market share, Open Office and Firefox jump to mind. Why isn’t there a company creating commercial competition for Microsoft Office and Microsoft Internet Explorer? Many people (including Anti-trust court cases) would say that there wasn’t any way a business could viably compete against a monopoly.

Don’t spend money meant for the education of students on Blackboard’s sales team and corporate merger fund.

Reflections on Eportfolios

Just finished a nice high school English e-portfolio project (I am going to drop the e for the rest of the post). Here is a page with links to the student work The project had two parts: a group portfolio, of mostly new work, and an individual portfolio, reflecting on work done during the year.

What was good about the project.

  • Students worked in groups to apply knowledge learned during the year. Most students picked a theme in literature they studied (such as Nature) and applied it to a work they studied in class. The twist was that they had to pick a new work/theme combo that wasn’t the focus of earlier discussions in class. The goal was to get students to see that themes are… well themes, and that they run through many works even if they aren’t explicitly the focus of the work. Other students covered a literary era and applied new themes to that era.
  • Students worked independently to reflect on and improve their own products. For their individual portfolio students chose projects/papers done earlier in the year and discussed them. They also had to correct any errors.
  • It was great to hear the groups negotiating how to divide up the tasks, planning multimedia and layout, and sharing resources as they worked.
  • As students were wrapping up, I mentioned that they could use this site in the future for other classes or for a resume to help with applying for scholarships, colleges, and jobs. (Hopefully it will catch on!)

We chose to use Mahara after also considering Google Sites, Wikispaces, and WordPress blogs for a few reasons:

  • It is tied into Moodle-no new accounts need to be made, the students already know where to go.
  • The drag and drop interface and ability to add and remove columns on the fly allows students to rearrange text, images, and videos as their pages evolve
  • Students could upload media directly or embed from YouTube
  • Students can reuse this content in a future portfolio
  • Students can export the pages as html files, so they can always have a copy of their work
  • It is nicely set up for groups to work together on a page
  • It has an awesome granular permissions system so students could keep work private, and/or share it with a few people before making it public (many students don’t want the world/their classmates to see unpolished work)

Things that weren’t great about Mahara

  • Students wanted to apply individual/group themes to their pages to change the look (coming soon?)
  • Multi-page views with navigation were a pain, students had to add a text box and copy it to each of their pages (coming soon?)
  • Embed code from sites like vimeo and myplaylist didn’t work

Why 21st Century Learning is No Good… Unless

This post is inspired by the comments by Mark who criticized 21 century learning and ed tech as hype on the blog linked below.  It started as a comment and then kind of grew, so I finished it here.
I think the very fact that I can read the blog linked above and write my own and Mark and Mary can post ideas and share links in the comments of Mary’s blog, shows some value to technology in communication and the world of ideas. If I find utility in this new medium I assume that my students will also benefit from this medium.

That being said, the key to making use of any medium is literacy. Books are great for learning, but if you can’t read critically and engage with the text then a book is just a time wasting vacuum (hence the complaint that book work is busy work by many students). Videos are great for learning, but if you don’t actively engage in the video, stop the video and ask questions, take notes, etc. then a video is just a hypnotizing device. When video first broke into education there was a hope it would revolutionize teaching and learning, and many people have tried to prove a “media effect”, ie the use a of a particular medium enhances learning even if all other things are equal. However, even though we know video is very powerful in our culture and has a profound ability to engage the human mind, we have yet to prove changing from books to video enhances education.

Why is that? I believe it is because we have not measured the information literacy of our students. In spite of being surrounded by video, they do not know how to effectively learn from it, and teachers do not know how to effectively teach with it. How many of us have taken a media studies class, a film studies class, an art or music analysis class, etc? The film studies class I took opened my eyes to how to approach interpreting a work of video. My wife and I taught an English class to smart 9th graders. One activity we did was to have them analyze images and video like books (style, themes, metaphor, symbolism, etc.). It was very hard for them to apply the critical thinking they used when using the written word to the new medium. So I assume that if I had studied their ability to learn via text or video the advantages of video as a medium over text (to engage multiple senses and directly represent objects instead of abstractly describing them) would have been countered by the practice students had with text and the inability of the mind to transfer a skill to a new medium. Compartmentalization of certain types of thinking is well documented as situated learning and by any science teacher who asks students to do a simple math problem and finds that though they can solve quadratic equations when in math class, they can’t do simple algebra in the context of science.

Therefore many people who use new media in teaching and learning (whether it is video or web 2.0/21st century technology) will not get a huge benefit, because the kids don’t know how to learn via new media. The question then becomes, what to do? Ignore new media is one option, however I feel that is a local minimum (while the easiest best solution in the short term, not the best solution in the long term). What we have to do is teach kids how to learn and critically engage with video and social media (blogs, wikis, networks, games). Then they will use these tools effectively in school and their use of these tools will be enhanced outside of school as well.

Final anecdote, we are hiring and some of the interviews have happened via Skype. The HR director doesn’t like Skype interviews because it is harder to get a sense of the person. In my discussion about the value of Skype (saves time, money, hastle) the HR director referenced a movie “Up in the Air” about a man who flies around firing people. The movie portrays using Skype to fire people as a bad thing (apparently after being fired by Skype a person commits suicide). Therefore, the old way of doing things is best. My ironic response was, “I don’t watch videos, I only attend live theater because it is hard to get a sense of the actors when all I see is a flat screen”. Somehow we have come to accept the paltry video screen and tiny speakers as acceptable compared to live theater and music. I admit, live theater and music is great, but it is not how entertainment is done anymore and that isn’t a bad thing. I admit, education without technology is great, but it is not how education is done anymore. No one doubts that glowing rectangles are great for entertainment, but many people question their use in education. No one doubts that office software and email are crucial for the work a day world, but I don’t see a huge sense that we need to incorporate these skills into education. No one doubts that video has changed the way we run elections and connect with the world, but we still see school video projects as cute little asides. We need to teach the literacy of the modern world to students.