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Moodles are Good for Small Noodles

“I set up a forum where students could interact with one of their classmates who was taking his first trip to his China where his parents were from,” Lucas Kent explains. “The student kept us up to date on daily adventures, sent us pictures of animals he saw, food he was eating and sites he was visiting.”

“Students also sent him their questions about China and the thing he was doing, which he responded to on a daily basis.”

Kent, a Grade Six teacher at Burkevale Protestant Separate School in Penetanguishene, created the forum in his class Moodle, where he also puts websites, “prefabricated” lessons and materials he develops on his own.

Kent’s students receive, work on and submit assignments; write journal entries; blog; send instant messages; work together on projects; take quizzes; and access teacher-approved web content, all from the class Moodle.

A Moodle is a course management system (CMS). It resembles the content management systems that businesses use to manage workflow and knowledge. The actual software and data reside on a server that students and teachers (and in some cases, parents) access using web browsers.

Other CMSs exist, but Moodle’s open source roots mean no licence fees and other advantages that have led legions of educators to adopt it.

(Curious about the word itself? Quoting from moodle.org: “The word Moodle was originally an acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, which is mostly useful to programmers and education theorists.”)

“It’s a great tool for activities that teachers use to cement knowledge,” Cindy Levy says. Levy, a Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT) in the Program for Independent Development and Enrichment (PrIDE) in the York Region District School Board, partners with a colleague to deliver enriched programming to 240 students each week. “We have a Moodle set up for each grade,” she says.

Her use of Moodle mirrors Kent’s, and like him she easily lists the benefits for learners, teachers, school boards and other stakeholders.

For instance, Levy is bullish about cutting back paper use by increasing Moodle use this year. “Kids view the assignments online,” she said. “They view the rubric that we use to mark the assignments. And they have a space to upload their assignments directly to the teacher.”

Marking assignments during evenings and weekends has changed drastically for Kent. He signs on to his Moodle, marks each student’s work onscreen, returns it to them digitally, and signs off. “I don’t lug a briefcase full of paper home anymore,” he says.

Becoming a Moodler means taking on the challenge of learning a new tool, but there are shortcuts. Teachers like Kent download prefabricated, sometimes ready-to-use CMS components, thanks to thousands of other teachers around the world who share their own Moodle-based creations on the Internet. Even downloading something that’s close to complete gives teachers a valuable head start in developing the precise lessons they want for their students.

Why do kids like it? Perhaps Moodle.org says it best: “(Moodle is) also a verb that describes the process of lazily meandering through something, doing things as it occurs to you to do them, an enjoyable tinkering that often leads to insight and creativity. As such it applies … to the way a student or teacher might approach studying or teaching an online course.”

Lazily meandering online doesn’t always appeal to teachers, though. “Some younger grades think face-to-face is chatting in a computer environment,” says Levy. “We must balance this out in the classroom, get kids physically interacting face-to-face.”

Increased online interaction does have its place, according to Bev Freedman. “New technologies can support new forms of social communities and allow students across Ontario, Canada and the world to interact in a meaningful way,” she says.

Dealing with a Moodle’s shortcomings leads to lessons that businesses have long faced with their web-based applications. Helping customers switch, for instance, from bank tellers to bank websites when paying bills has led banks to develop user-friendly sites.

The experience must also be as secure as possible. Earlier this year, British periodical headlines announced “Porn infecting ‘thousands’ of elearning sites” and underscored the need for course management systems like Moodle to follow in online banking’s footsteps.

Moodle founder Martin Dougiamas was quoted as saying that affected pages aren’t accessible from within actual learning sites – only public sites supported by the Moodle showed hacker handiwork. Dougiamas also said that upgrading to the current version of Moodle would stamp out the vulnerabilities. Such reassurances aside, Moodles need the support and protection of IT professionals.

Levy insists that Moodles are a realistic option for teachers who are less comfortable with technology, noting that her board supports Moodles for use in classrooms. “It can be as simple or as complicated as you make it,” she says. “You’re only restricted by what you want to try with it.”

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