Moodle: An Open Source Learning Management System
Today 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 www.Moodle.org. 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.