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Moodle: An Open Source Learning Management System

Vaccine Education OnlineToday we are interviewing Hiram Kuykendall, CTO of MicroAssist and Jacob  Williams, Senior Training Application Developer at MicroAssist about Moodle, an  open source Learning Management System.   Moodle is designed to help educators  create online courses with opportunities for rich interaction. Its open source  license and modular design means that people can develop additional  functionality.  MicroAssist is an experienced custom E-Learning company that has  a number of large Moodle installations.

Editor: What is Moodle?

Jacob Williams: Moodle is an open source web application designed to create a  collaborative online environment for students and teachers.

Hiram Kuykendall: In this case it is web based and as Jacob stated it is an open  source package.  The main Moodle site is  The only thing I would  add to that... is I would classify Moodle as a Learning Managment System (LMS).

Editor: What is a Learning Management System?

Hiram Kuykendall: A Learning Management System is software for delivering,  tracking and managing training. Jacob Williams: A LMS allows teachers to post  assignments, record grades and have discussions with and among the students in a  class.

Editor: What about the creation and management of content?

Hiram Kuykendall: One of the things I love about Moodle is there are so many  ways to create content. Built into Moodle are basic content management  components.  For example, you can create HTML pages on the fly.  Moodle also has  a host of Elearning specific modules that provide for training content delivery.

Jacob Williams: Much of the content for most courses can be created entirely  within the Moodle interface. It has easy to learn tools to create quizzes,  surveys, bulletin boards and events. It has an integrated WYSIWYG rich text  editor so that teachers can compose content in the browser as if they were  working in a word processor like Microsoft Word.    In addition to the built in  content authoring tools, content created for the Flash Player or with Java  applets can be uploaded and Moodle can record information about activity  progress and grading.

Hiram Kuykendall: You also have the ability to create assessments, post files  and a host of other options. The system has an interface to deliver SCORM  compliant packages.

Jacob Williams: SCORM is a more advanced content authoring framework.   It is a  standard for how a learning interaction communicates with the LMS. The great  thing about SCORM is that it is not Moodle specific. SCORM packages are used by  lots of learning management systems and Moodles ability to integrate SCORM  content allows it to use content that was created for any SCORM-compliant  system.

Editor: So you are not restricted to creating content in just Moodle, you can  create content using an external tools such as Flash and Moodle will manage it?  Jacob Williams: Right.

Editor: What are some of the collaborative tools available in Moodle?

Jacob Williams: The most commonly used collaborative tool is the Forum.

Hiram Kuykendall: There are forums, wikis and other collaborative tools.  There  are also advanced instructional design tools such as assignments and a way to  group students for various activities

Jacob Williams: It has most of the basic features of other online bulletin  boards, but adds a few e-learning specific features.

Editor: Can you give me an example of some e-learning specific features?

Jacob Williams: For example, when a teacher creates a forum post, they can specify  that  students not be able to see other students' answers until the student has  made a post of his own. This fits in with the theme that Moodle uses for online  collaboration -- encouraging participation by each of the students.

Editor: You mentioned Moodle is an open source software package.  What does this  mean?

Jacob Williams: The term Open Source actually can mean quite a few things. In  this case it means that the entire source code of the application is available  for download and anyone can modify it for their own purposes. To your average  user, that may not be useful, but the result is that developers around the world  that have ideas for making it better can make changes and submit them back to  Moodle and they may be included in future releases. So, instead of an expensive  proprietary system, you get a free system with thousands of developers  contributing.

Hiram Kuykendall: From a financial perspective, that means no per student or per  cpu costs.  

Editor: What are the disadvantages of the open source model?  Support?

Hiram Kuykendall: The key to working with open source software is to make sure  it has a robust and engaged community.  Remember, with open source you are  relying on community participation for support and new features.  When I  evaluate new Open Source products, I often just browse the support to see what  issues are posted and how quickly someone responds.  I have been very impressed  with the quality and quantity of support by the Moodle community.

Jacob Williams: There is no support disadvantage to the open source model,  inherently. But when using open- source it is important to make sure that the  product that you commit to has a large, diverse community.  Moodle, like many  other open source projects, also has available paid support. So if you don't  want to wait for a helpful person to respond on the help forums, there are many  commercial companies willing to sell their expertise. 

Hiram Kuykendall: Jacob, that is a great point.  Moodle does have a commercial  arm that lends stability.

Editor: Is Moodle viable for large learning projects with thousands of users and  lessons or is it more suited to small scale learning projects?

Hiram Kuykendall: From a technical perspective, Moodle is created in the PHP  language with a MySQL backend.  These technologies can be scaled to handle  thousands of users.   From a quality of software perspective, we have created  sites with hundreds of simultaneous users.   

Jacob Williams: Moodle is very scalable. From a performance perspective, the  application is built on what is called the L.A.M.P. stack. That means that it  runs in Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP. It is also fully compatible with Windows and  IIS. This architecture for web applications allows you to separate the jobs out  among multiple computers in a clustered system capable of handling an almost  unlimited number of users. 

Editor: What are some of the projects that you have used Moodle on?  How many  users?  How many lessons?

Hiram Kuykendall: We created a Moodle instance for DSHS with over 60 hours of  training for several hundred people.   Another recent addition was the Vaccine  Education Online site for HHSC.

Jacob Williams: Vaccine Education Online project has over 900 users.

Editor: What should an organization consider before deciding to use Moodle in  their environment?

Hiram Kuykendall: Hosting is a big consideration.  If you have in-house staff  with experience with web servers, PHP and MySQL, then I would consider hosting  it internally.  If this is your first rodeo, then I would really recommend  finding a hosted solution.  By taking the technology component off the table,  you can concentrate of the creation and delivery of your E-Learning endeavor.  From the technical side, you really have to know your technology.  Backing up  MySQL is more challenging that say Microsoft SQL server.

Jacob Williams: For a small Moodle site with around a hundred students enrolled  at a time, the hosting is very simple. If there are any experienced apache or  IIS administrators available, the setup is not very difficult. If you need to  reach larger groups of users with high availability, there are more  complications with designing web application clusters.  If you don't have a  crack team of web administrators with this kind of experience, it would be best  to find a hosting solution for someone who has some experience.

Editor: Needless to say both of you are proponents of Moodle.  What are  some of the problems or issues with Moodle that you have seen?

Jacob Williams: One thing that I would like to see some improvement in is  support for multilingual sites. It has great support for working in any  language, but it does not have great tools for managing content that is in  mulitple languages in parallel.

Hiram Kuykendall: As far as Moodle goes, I would like to see some additional HR  functions.  We have coded our own tracking so we can tell who has taken which  classes.  Of course that is the beauty of Open Source.  If it isn't there, you  can add it.  One last thought, we have had good success in making Moodle  accessible.  For many of our clients, accessibility is an important feature (and  required by law).

Editor: That is a great point, most people forget to consider accessibility and  it is becoming more and more important both by law and society

Editor: Great interview guys, thanks for taking the time.  Any final words of  wisdom for our readers regarding Moodle? Hiram Kuykendall: The main advantages  of Moodle:  Open Source, Multi-lingual and accessible.  The main disadvantages:  It requires a degree of technical expertise to get a basic site up and a good  deal of expertise to scale for hundreds of simultaneous users.

Jacob Williams: The most important thing to remember is that Moodle is a tool.  Great online learning requires quality content that engages the user. Don't  expect a tool to make everyone get excited about taking classes online. But  Moodle can take some of the hassle away from the teachers and content authors so  that they can focus on whats important.

Editor: Great point Jacob.


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