Moodle tackles e-learning muddle

An open-source application has quietly sneaked into schools and universities across the UK to become the de facto platform for online learning
Written by Cath Everett, Contributor

Last year saw the meteoric rise of an open-source e-learning environment called Moodle. A rise so swift in fact that, despite being almost unheard of five years ago, it is now the system of choice for 56 percent of all further-education institutions in the UK, according to a survey released last year by the Open Source Software Advisory Service.

An e-learning environment is basically an interface that allows teachers and educators to manage disparate teaching applications and resources to create online courses. Hundreds of e-learning resources exist, so the ability to have a common entry point into at least some of them is a vital but relatively new area. Up to now, most of the approaches have been proprietary but, given academia's natural affinity with open source, it was only a matter of time before a community-based system emerged.

There are currently more than 20,200 registered Moodle installations worldwide, which serve the requirements of about 8.3 million users in 169 countries. But as Mark Aberdour, a technical producer at e-learning consultancy and content provider Epic, points out: "It's an open-source thing that's risen from the grass roots rather than being introduced from the top down. No-one's really gone out and sold it to educational establishments. People have just heard about it by word of mouth, used it initially in small-scale ways and seen its value, so it's penetrated into organisations in a slightly different way from normal."

Moodle, which stands for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, is the brainchild of Martin Dougiamas, founder, lead developer and managing director of services company, Moodle Pty Ltd.

In Steve Hargadon's webcast, Dougiamas indicates that he "began development in the 1990s out of frustration with WebCT", a commercial virtual-learning environment, now owned by rival Blackboard, that he was trying to install in Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia.

His irritation with being unable to access source code to help him fix problems was one spur, while another was cost. In his opinion, software should be free as long as a way can be found to pay for development. "The thing about electronic data and software is that production costs are zero after you've produced your first working copy", which to Dougiamas means that to "charge a lot of money for a stream of bits seems ridiculous".

Translated into a Moodle context, this means that, in addition to the wider open-source community contributing development work for free, contract programmers are also given the option to get involved in paid projects. They choose from a list of modules and features that customers are prepared to pay for, but which will be merged back into future versions of the system, and agree a fee and deadline for completion with Dougiamas upfront.

For the first job payment is sent when the work is done, but with subsequent projects 50 percent is paid in advance and the rest on completion. Dougiamas also employs a handful of developers and a couple of operations staff, whose salaries are funded by users who choose to pay into a specially set up Moodle Trust.

The Moodle system itself, meanwhile, is written in PHP and its underlying structure reflects the work that Dougiamas undertook during his Masters degree and subsequent PhD in education, which he "synthesised into the idea of social constructivism" or learning by doing.

This means that the system is very collaborative in nature and geared for high levels of interaction between tutors and students, providing functionality such as forums and discussion threads, instant messaging-based chatrooms and support for wikis and blogs. Like most systems of its ilk, it does not include content, although authoring tools such as Articulate Presenter are available on the market for about £600.

Steven Rayson, managing partner at Kineo, an e-learning consultancy and services provider, says: "Moodle's functionality is very rich, more so than most other systems on the market. The Open University chose to go with it a year or so ago and that was without reference to cost — just functionality, although it was cheaper than commercial systems. Capita has also started to use it and once you see organisations like them moving in, it starts to generate more confidence."

The Open University invested £5m in the project, which involved using Moodle as the foundation of its new online student learning environment. The initiative commenced in November 2005, the first version of the system was released in May 2006, and it is expected to be fully operational for use by 180,000 students from February 2007.

While it was this project that really made people sit up and take notice of Moodle, the system is still used primarily in the further-education space as a course-management system — although it is now vying with commercial leader Blackboard for dominance of the sector.

However, says Aberdour: "It's not that big in primary or secondary schools yet because Becta, the government agency that outlines procurement processes, has not really engaged in open source as yet, but that is starting to change."

Aberdour does indicate that Epic has won a couple of public-sector contracts elsewhere, and he believes that interest in Moodle is growing in this market, especially as the government has advised public authorities to at least...

...consider open-source during procurement. One of the deals involves developing Moodle courses for Bro Morgannwg NHS Trust, which is delivering content to the NHS Wales' Moodle site. The other is to provide courses for a not-for-profit organisation, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, which was set up to help deliver on the government's nationwide waste strategies.

The area in which Moodle is struggling most appears to be the corporate arena. The problem here is that, in general terms, the requirements of the academic market and its approach to learning are very different from those of the business world. The terminology varies too — while in education, such offerings tend to be called virtual learning environments, in the corporate space, they are referred to as learning management systems.

Chris Howard, director of research at analysts Bersin & Associates, explains the difference between the two worlds. "Education is very structured and collaborative. A subject-matter expert such as a professor takes you through the entire learning process and, in many instances, it's the focus of students' attention over long periods of time," he says.

In the corporate world, however, the emphasis is different. Although the collaborative, in-depth approach is appropriate in certain areas, such as management training or specialised technical education, in most cases it is more about obtaining information quickly before being tested to see if it has sunk in.

"Companies don't want people to sit there for hours when they could be working, so it's about going in, taking the test, and getting out. It's not about collaboration. It's very much about transaction capture and management and is much more about the data behind it than delivering and managing the instruction itself," Howard says.

Despite the hype, Moodle is unlikely to replace existing commercial systems on a wholesale basis or be adopted on an enterprise-wide level, although it may appear in certain departments and in certain contexts to augment and complement incumbent environments, adds Howard.

Another inhibitor to uptake is the fact that Moodle is an open-source environment. Although the number of Moodle service providers in the UK and elsewhere is rising steadily, there is still some reticence around open-source adoption in the corporate space. In Moodle's case, this is not only due to the system's look and feel, which is not the slick, branded interface that commercial organisations are used to, but also because of generalised perceptions around lack of available support.

Keith O'Loughlin, head of technology services at e-learning services company Intuition, elaborates: "The cost of the software may be minimal, but implementing and maintaining something like Moodle takes time and resources and while academics may have that, most corporates don't."

This is of particular relevance in a business area that is typically given low priority, is under-resourced and has very little ready access to IT expertise. To make matters worse, however, it is also currently difficult to integrate Moodle with existing HR suites, although Dougiamas says that the community is currently working on integration with best-of-breed repositories, portfolio systems, administrative systems and the like.

Dougiamas also points out that it was never his desire to take over the world anyway, and that he is happy to have made a positive impact on the education market: "Becoming a market leader has never been my ambition and still is not," he says. "My ambition is to help improve education in general by making the best free software that I possibly can. I'm fascinated with that idea and work daily with hundreds of developers and thousands of teachers who share and drive that vision."

Nonetheless, Aberdour does expect to see some take-up in the small to medium enterprise space over the year ahead. Few organisations have invested in learning management systems in this segment to date because of the high cost of leading commercial offerings, such as those provided by Saba and SumTotal, Aberdour says.

Because Moodle is modular, it is possible to switch functionality off and on and, as a result, one of Epic's clients is using it as a low-cost and simple course delivery system without exploiting any of the more complex collaboration features.

Kineo has likewise installed the software at about 18 commercial sites over the last year, predominantly in specific contexts such as to support sales academy training.

Howard concludes: "In education, it's clear that Moodle will remain popular, which could have a significant impact on companies that service that market in a commercial way. In the corporate market and that includes the public sector, which has similar dynamics, I see some reason for adoption in certain circumstances, but I don't see it dominating. Instead it will augment what is already there."

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