One of the consistent themes that has emerged from my ‘roadshow’ of presenting the initial outcomes of my ALTC project on Web 2.0 applications is the need to think through the relationship of learning management systems and Web 2.0 applications, in their thousands, that are freely available. I once described LMS like Blackboard as dead (Teaching and Learning Forum, 2009 presentation) but which I now realise are just moving so slowly it can be hard to tell the difference. I mean by this that there is a lack of agility and responsiveness and innovation in such systems. Now, this view is probably true of Blackboard (despite the promises of change in its latest incarnation); but is it true of Moodle?
Moodle, of course, differs from Blackboard primarily in being an open-source development. Certainly, in its origins, Moodle was meant to embody better a student-centred constructivist approach to learning (side note: Martin Dougiamas was one of the people I worked with in the mid-1990s when first getting into online learning!). By now, however, my sense is that all learning management systems at least aspire to, or have some element of, this approach; we’ve also learned, in 15+ years of web-based online learning, that a constructivist approach probably comes from the teacher’s design of the study program and not the technology itself. So, in thinking about the speed and agility of an LMS, we probably need to focus more on the mode of production for Moodle, and not any inherent features if we are to see it as distinct from, and perhaps better than, Blackboard.
Open-source products are not, I think, better for being ‘free’ (for they are not; one still must support and host them even if they might be somewhat cheaper). No, they are better because, with distributed, local-needs based development and flexible architecture of plug-ins, open-source applications are flexible and adaptable, to a greater degree. They also, potentially, allow universities who use them to shape the product itself instead of fitting in with the architecture of the standard sofware. Thus, I am struck by how my approach to online learning and Web 2.0 (arguing for the complementary use of an LMS and independent sites and services for specific purposes) is challenged by the possibility that Moodle, plus the extent and array of plug-ins could provide the flexibility I seek.
However I remain confident that, while the plug-ins make Moodle a richer and more extensive application, the LMS remains a distinct, useful but complementary form of Internet use for learning. The key differences between the approach I and others am taking, in layering Web 2.0 services and sites into our teaching, and LMS-oriented development is that real-world tools and applications have:
- publication possibilities: they are part of online communication, can have audiences and work within a paradigm of ‘quality for others’ to enhance motivation
- real-world context: Web 2.0 services operate in the same environment as everyday and some professional knowledge work, thus increasing the likelihood of transferral of skills from learning to practice
- ease of use: the complex a system gets, the harder it is to maintain and plug-ins don’t necessarily all have the same standards and flexibility that real-world systems do
- suitability for blended learning: not all online learning requires an LMS – Web 2.0 approach designed for these situations.