No, I am not a defender of Learning Management Systems. Au contraire. In fact, I have attacked them on numerous occasions as nasty silo software that encourages closed teaching, bad pedagogy, and the use of poorly designed defaults by novice web instructors.
But I am not a novice. I’ve been using Moodle for years, but this time wanted to be more open. So I put my syllabus and all the “presentation” aspects of my classes on the open web, on what I thought were well-designed tabbed web pages (here’s an example from my History 104). The tab that contains the entire class is the syllabus, an interactive syllabus where everything is linked. I am practicing what I (and my colleague Pilar Hernández ) preach. Then I put the forums and exams (just graded items) into Moodle, but students access these also from the syllabus. I need this bit of LMS because I have six sections of students and I need some automated grading and some easy see-all-the-essays options, and the gradebook. I hid all of the items in Moodle by simply putting them in Topic 2 and changing the setting to have only one topic, so they are available but no one can see them (including me) till they click the link and log in (here’s a post about this). In addition, I opened a Facebook group and linked to it as an option, also from the syllabus. I sent all students the URL to the main page, and linked to it from both Blackboard (where the college insists we must all have a site for every class) and Moodle, in case they logged in there.
In other words, I had a well-researched pedagogical design, definite instructional goals, and good support for students from the beginning (while Admissions was panicking because other teachers’ online students who hadn’t even heard from their instructors and didn’t know where to go were being dropped as no-shows).
But for the first week, it seemed to be an unmitigated disaster. My email, the Facebook group, the Help forums, were filled with students asking the same questions, just phrased differently. They couldn’t figure out what to “do”, where the “assignments” were. I found myself typing over and over that everything is on the syllabus. They kept assuming the entire class was in Moodle, and didn’t seem to actually be looking at the web pages at all. Maybe they weren’t clicking the tabs?
I created a video tutorial and posted it everywhere. It got 13 hits in the first hour. Things started to calm down (no one was so lost they dropped, and I responded to every single problem), but even now a question will pop up in Facebook, despite the fact that scrolling down to an almost identical question would net an answer.
Now, it could be that this many students get lost every semester, but they are so lost they can’t find the Help forum to post. Now that they have both that and Facebook, they post in Facebook. I’m not actually sure, then, that more students are lost than usual. I frequently have students lost in Moodle, not because it’s Moodle, but because I use the blocks for the various information in the class, with a weekly layout format. If I used Blackboard, I would similarly customize it and they would complain also. In both cases, there are two arguments:
(1) We should be teaching students that there is variety to both learning method and technology, in order to foster the kind of adaptation they will need both at university and in their jobs and careers, which will not use Blackboard, and
(2) By about the three weeks in, most students realize exactly what’s going on and are very grateful to have the class organized by week instead of type of assignment.
But, the system isn’t working so well for me either. I have to open two browser tabs for every class, the open web site and the Moodle class. I can’t get anywhere in the Moodle class either, and have to remember to click from the syllabus. With no friendly Moodle icons, the interactive syllabus is text-heavy (despite my little images). And reading across a chart may not be as intuitive as reading down a list of weeks in Moodle. In addition, because I have the assignments in a hidden topic, I can’t see them with the students’ profiles, so it’s hard for me to view their class activity at a glance.
So in this case, the advantages of using Moodle for the whole class would have been:
- Expectations fulfilled of the class being in an LMS (harumph)
- Easier integration and access to graded items
- Easier navigation for me
- Better (yes, I’m saying it) management
And the only disadvantage would be:
- It isn’t on the open web
When I mentioned this in my hybrid class, students did not know what I meant by the “open web”. I said I had thought it would be easier for them if they didn’t have to log in to do the class. They looked at me in that tolerant way — you know it.
So although I’ve fought the idea of an LMS as “familiar” territory (especially with so many Blackboard-minded students who approach any other system with trepidation), perhaps the very idea of an LMS is somehow reassuring. Perhaps all web information now needs a frame, like they have in Facebook and other closed sites. Without the frame, they can’t find “the class”, no matter how many markers I use. (I went ahead and opened up that Topic 2, so we can all see the graded tasks in Moodle now, but I can’t make a radical change three weeks in.)
But I won’t do this again. I actually heard myself say to colleagues, “Next time, remind me to us an LMS.” I must be losing my mind.