Our trainer, Mary Cooch, is just back from BETT, investigating Virtual Learning Environments. You can read her findings below:
I spent two intense days at BETT last week, investigating commercial VLEs. The reason? Because Our Lady’s High School, in which the OurLearning Training Centre is based, is exploring alternative Moodle provision and to make 100% sure Moodle is the right choice (which I firmly believe it is!) I was tasked with researching what other VLEs have to offer. It was a fascinating insight: I learned what the current trends are, what other VLEs do better; what Moodle does better and how things are moving forward. Below are some of my findings. Bear in mind that I was looking from the point of view of secondary education only, with the needs of High school teachers and students. I visited:
(A quick mention to IamLearning, which, although not a VLE, is a great game-based learning add on)
Each VLE had something cool I liked and something I felt was less effective than Moodle. For example, I thought Frog and MyLearning both had very cool, modern graphical interfaces that would immediately appeal to young students, but none of the VLEs came anywhere near the powerful assessment and reporting functionality of Moodle. Maybe that’s because Moodle has a very high FE/HE uptake, whereas the products I explored were for schools; I don’t know. A few comments:
Drag and Drop is the Future!
The overriding method of editing a page was dragging and dropping blocks (or widgets as some call them) Think Mahara pages and you’ll be there. The new version of Fronter even has drag and drop quiz questions (that reminded me a bit of Google forms) We need to get drag and drop into Moodle’s Myhome (My Moodle ) page and My profile page at the very least.
Personal spaces and Social networking
While you can customise your profile (if allowed) in Moodle to a certain extent, you don’t have any more options. If you want a Facebook like approach, again, you need to look to Mahara, where users can create their own pages, share with others at different levels. Most of the VLEs I looked at offered personal spaces (sometimes called portfolios) as standard, suggesting they combine into one the “work” functionality of Moodle with the “social networking” aspect of Mahara. This is a big plus for students who then feel they have ownership over a particular area. Whenever I introduce pupils to Mahara, the first thing they want to do is change their profile picture and write on walls (another feature offered by some of the above products) and whenever I introduce them to Moodle they immediately go searching the Messages block for elder siblings or friends to message. If we are to teach them safe social networking, we need something in school that’s user friendly and inviting. Moodle was created before the advent of Facebook and although you can use it in a similar way, it involves workarounds. (You can make a comments block on your profile as a wall for instance.) There is a desire for a new Edmodo-like social course format (see here ) and hopefully work being done at the moment on course formats should make creating this sort of thing easier – but we aren’t there yet. The teenage targetted offspring of a Moodle-Mahara union would be unbeatable; it would take over the world!
It’s all pictures and no words!
I confess: I am a words person! If I have the choice between clicking a text link or clicking on an icon, I will choose the text anytime. If i have to itemise stuff I will write a paragraph or a list instead of drawing a pretty table. But increasingly the world is going GUI – and every single VLE I looked at had bigger, brighter buttons than Moodle. For teenagers used to bright and shiny, this no doubt makes a seamless transition from home to school. You want to add an image to your page? You find the image icon block and drag it in. No letters of the alphabet needed. (We’re back to Mahara -style again) Moodle DOES have bigger and brighter icons in 2.4 and it’s great. But a lot of it is still text based. A colleague claims “Moodle’s meant for universities, not high schools and that’s why it doesn’t really look right for 11 year olds”. Does he have a point?
Continuing from before: what Moodle does better, and because of its open source nature, is allowing you to customise your site’s appearance. You want a primary school look? Get a primary school theme! I asked each VLE provider how much a school could personalise their “landing page” and the answers were mainly – just school colours and logo.(Itslearning offered WP templates for the front page, however )This is doubtless due to the fact that the products are hosted remotely: ItsLearning in Oslo for example, with each school like a subdomain on a big server. With Moodle, a school can have anything from going it 100% alone or being totally managed – and all flavours of customisation in between. Moodle doesn’t have to look like Moodle, whereas I suspect Fronter (for example) will always look like Fronter.
File upload, folder display, forums… the occasional wiki and various types of Quiz (sometimes called test) were the norm for all. The ability to connect with Dropbox, Google docs and so on was promoted – something Moodle’s been doing for 3 years now. And SSO to other sites… well, Moodle does LTI. A couple of demonstrators bigged up the ability for non-technical teachers to embed youtube videos without any coding – but I confess I think Moodle does that more simply than either. Mylearning (which probably came out top, if I have to declare a favourite) has some sort of copyright agreement whereby a teacher can find a youtube video and download it directly into their teaching space, thus overcoming any problems with youtube being blocked in school. That WAS cool.
As far as quizzes were concerned, there was nothing that came anywhere near the powerful functionality of Moodle’s quiz. But again, some might argue: do you need all that in high school VLE? Are all those question types, that Certainty based marking, those detailed reports necessary when all you need to know is: did your pupil do the quiz; what did they get right and wrong? Not sure. I suggested to my colleague you can just turn off the Moodle quiz functions you don’t need, but my colleague replied –why have them there in the first place?
Moodle calls work students send to the teacher for marking “assignments.” Other VLEs have different names for them but I felt most did a reasonable job of offering both text based and file upload options. Group assignments (now available in 2.4) seem to be possible in a couple of them, albeit produced in a slightly different way, mirroring for instance a Mahara group page which is then submitted. Once again I felt Moodle did so much MORE but once again my colleague wondered how much of the More you need for secondary schools. I’d have liked to have spent more time looking at the gradebooks. Fronter’s seemed to have loads of clicks to get anywhere, and while others were prettier than Moodle, I couldn’t get a real feel for a whole class as often the demo sites only had one student with one test assignment or quiz so you weren’t able to see examples after a whole term with lots of students and lots of assignments.
Mobile and tablet friendly
Everyone seems to have a mobile “app” these days, and all the companies I saw were confident their VLEs were compatible with all device types -or soon would be…. Frog and MyLearning boasted of their HTML5 prowess, Fronter said their product worked on everything except ipads (some java issue they promised would be sorted shortly) and Life(Uniservity) have got a mobile version in the pipeline. I was pleased to see Moodle partner Synergy Learning actually had Moodle Mobile in big print at the back of their stand – Moodle is well up in this area.
On a couple of occasions the demonstrator apologised for the wifi internet connection at BETT. No worries, but it reminded me that last year I did some Moodle demos with a Moodle site on my laptop locally and didn’t have to apologise once. Moodle has the edge in this respect because it’s possible to have it living on your school servers and then sent out into cyberpace out of hours so you get the best of both worlds. If you are tied to a VLE that resides in Berlin (for instance) you don’t get that benefit.
MIS Integration and Parental Access
This was available with them all – for some it was standard, part of the price, for others it was an extra. Either way, if you have SIMS (for instance) Jimmy’s classes will sweep beautifully into your VLE and your parents can see what Jimmy’s been up to . But hey, Moodle offers this too, as an extra. I know of at least three options (Schools ICT Z-Link, Overnetdata and Webanywhere) If you can’t afford it though you, do have a wide range of other authentication and enrolment options but getting Parents on and connected to their children is still a nightmare in a standard Moodle. (See this bulk add parents plugin however, if you’re interested)
Actually, not a lot in it. Of course if your network manager is tech savvy, she can set you up Moodle for free. But if you don’t want the hassle, then the prices I saw are comparable with those of commercial VLEs. It usually depends on your number of pupils (although Fronter required number of teachers too) Frog quoted £5K set up and £5K a year thereafter; MyLearning quoted £2.75 per pupil with a 50 % discount if you purchased 3 years. The others were somewhere in between. For Moodle it depended on if you wanted SIMS integration and /or Mahara, the level of support you required, and how many years you would sign up to, so it was hard to compare, although we are looking at a minimum £5K per year.
I didn’t get a chance to go and checkout Google but I took a brochure relating to a primary school using Google Apps for Education. I can see how this can be a winner and substitute VLE for many schools. Likewise, the free Edmodo. It’s basic but combines resource sharing, assessment and social networking – not to mention parental access. I’ve had minimal experience of it but pupils trialling it in our school have taken to it very positively. While I can see it being great for individual teachers, what I can’t picture so well is how it could work in a whole school, but maybe I should google that!
I am totally biased here because nobody will ever convince me that the commercial support deals or community support forums (apparently Frog’s is quite good) will match Moodle’s offerings. You can of course pay for support for Moodle ( you can even pay me!) but if you can’t or won’t, then Moodle.org’s support forums are open 24 /7 and that’s where I am heading now…
If you’d like Mary to visit you for consultation or training, get in touch with Paula at OurLearning here.