Virtual learning environments are getting kids excited about education. Teesside pupils have developed an appetite for a piece of software called Moodle - and grades have improved as a result. Irene Krechowiecka reports
Tuesday October 4, 2005
When Darren Smith returned to work at Egglescliffe school in Teesside after a couple of months' absence, his pupils were pleased to see him, of course, but their most pressing question was would they be able to continue using Moodle? While Smith had been off sick he'd kept in touch with exam classes, setting and marking work remotely, courtesy of this brilliant piece of software. Brilliant because it's simple to use, is designed for educators by educators, has an ever growing range of powerful features and, perhaps most important of all, is open source (free).
"When I realised I'd be off for a while I decided using a virtual learning environment (VLE) would enable me to keep working with pupils. Moodle appealed because I could use it straight away without going through lots of sales. The pupils responded really well, with many spending considerable time out of school working through materials again and re-reading comments I'd made on their work. The results were good that year - in the GCSE class everyone got C or above and there had been several borderline students."
Teachers can use Moodle to publish course materials, set up discussions, send messages, hand out and mark assignments, create self-marking tests, and have live chats or one-to-one private discussions with their pupils. Students can access their courses from any internet-linked computer and everything anyone does is logged - even if they tell you they spent hours struggling with a task, there's a foolproof way of checking.
Smith was worried that pupils might find this intrusive but that's not so: "They see it as being of benefit. Moodle has now spread across the school, and resources and homework for most subjects can be accessed on line. Parents often worry that, when children say they're using the internet for homework, they're really playing games, but the Moodle logs show that's not the case."
The word, Moodle, is an acronym for modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment. But for its Australian creator, Martin Dougiamas, it's also a verb that describes "an enjoyable tinkering that leads to insight and creativity".
When Dougiamas started work on Moodle he imagined it would largely be used by higher education. So he's been surprised to find the biggest user group around the world are secondary schools. "They've turned out to be a vocal bunch and have driven a lot of the recent changes, which is great. Change, collaboration and learning from each other are very much features of any open source community. Software works better when it's free, a concept that can be hard to grasp if you're used to paying for it."
He's passionate about the idea of Moodle remaining free: "It feels wrong to put a cost on educational software. Not only does it open up experimentation and contributions from the community, but software costs nothing to replicate once you have written it. I prefer to find other ways to fund development."
The ethos of collaboration has spread to Moodle content, too. Darren Smith has made all the ICT courses he's created for years 7, 8 and 9 freely available for download from www.e-subjects.co.uk. These zipped files can be dropped into Moodle and Smith hopes that, as other teachers edit and change his work, they will likewise share, creating a repository of high-quality teaching materials.
Teachers involved in the new DiDA ICT qualification will soon be able to drop the free materials being developed by North West Grid for Learning into Moodle. The DiDA-delivered materials use technologies such as 3D Game Based Learning and chromakey video. To register an interest use the "contact us" section at http:// dida.nwlg.org.
In a virtual world it's easy to blur the distinction between who is the learner and who is the teacher; several schools have experimented by allowing pupils editing rights so they can work alongside teachers, creating and designing courses. At Perins school in Hampshire, Moodle courses are being developed by a team of students (gurus) and teachers (specialists). The gurus come from years 7 -11, and are led by year 10 and 11 ICT students.
Gideon Williams, head of ICT, says there is no problem with giving pupils full editing rights. "Students think it's a fantastic way to learn, and they provide great insight for the teachers because they know what works for them as pupils. We want to encourage independent learning and thinking, and Moodle is an excellent tool for this."
Amy Johnson, a year 11 guru, says she's really enjoyed working with teachers on the project: "We all learnt a lot about what lessons need to include and what students like in their lessons. Moodle gives everyone a chance to get their say about how and what they want to learn."
Colin Charde, the school's head of English, was suspicious at first. "I expected it to be another bandwagon, something I would forget about after the training, but it's not. It enhances teaching and learning and has become an invaluable tool."
Part of Moodle's appeal is its simplicity. It doesn't have special pages for editing purposes - as you're viewing a page you can make changes to it by turning the editing function on. Anyone who can create an email with an attachment has the skills to start using Moodle. As you delve into its potential there's more you'll want to learn, but it's extremely intuitive. The contextual help is excellent and the busy global message boards on the main Moodle site (http://moodle.org) provide answers to everything. For those who prefer their help notes as hard copy, Jason Cole's Using Moodle (O'Reilly Community Press) is a comprehensive guide. Buy it from www.helpusgettobett.com and you'll be helping the UK Moodle community's effort to pay for a stand at the Bett show.
Creating courses, no matter how intuitive the interface, is time-consuming. For those who want an easy introduction to the power of a VLE, Moodle offers some quick wins that save teachers time and extend their reach. Setting up message boards or chat sessions to support homework and revision takes little effort and is an effective way of providing out-of-lesson support - pupils often end up helping each other, with the teacher keeping an eye on what's happening.
At Parrs Wood in Manchester, Moodle was initially used to deliver personal development courses at key stage 3. Deputy head Jo MacKinnon chose Moodle because it was so user-friendly, quick to set up and adaptable. "We started using it to provide skills-based activities which students could work on in our independent learning centre when staff were absent. It proved effective and a growing number of teachers now use it for a range of subjects.
"This term we've moved to using it for all staff communication and the feedback from teachers has been very positive."
Parrs Wood also provides support to other schools interested in exploring Moodle through the Specialist Schools Trust ICT register (www.ict-register.net).