Moodle Habitudes - Constructing Online Learning Environments


Copyright 2009 Miguel Guhlin


"A habitude," shares Angela Maiers in her new book, Classroom Habitudes (http://www.lulu.com/content/4903951), "is the combination of habits and attitudes." Angela makes the point that as teachers, we often work from checklists. Instead she challenges her readers by asking, "Is the checklist we operate from, our scope and sequence of traditional; skills and lessons, enough for our students to invent, create, collaborate, and solve their own problems?" The 6 habitudes, according to Angela, include imagination, curiousity, perseverance, self-awareness, courage, and adaptability. Online learning environments seem to bring out some of these habitudes.

In an Introduction to Online Learning course I recently facilitated, here are 3 comments participants--some of whom had never participated in online learning--made and include the following:

  • "I realized that online learning gives those of us who work opportunities for continued education at our own time and pace."
  • "I know that I am an independent learner, but I also know that I am one to respond positively through active conversation with others. I felt that the only way to do that was in a traditional classroom; now I understand that I can have that active conversation through others' comments and postings."
  • "This introductory course has greatly influenced how I feel about online learning. Although I was very nervous at first it has clearly given me the self confindence to take on a course of this nature. In addition this course has given me the opportunity to reflect on my own experiences and evaluate those skills I already had. I encourage anyone who is skeptical about an online course to embrace it with open arms and reap the benefits it has to offer."

For each of these participants, there was a checklist about teaching and learning that they were working from. Such a checklist might be:
  • Traditional face to face workshops are the only way to learn.
  • I would not do well in an online learning environment because I am not that tech-savvy.
  • When you are online, you lose the affect of a conversation, you are distanced from other people.

Old habits have, perhaps, predisposed us to learning a certain way, or worse, limiting our understanding of what we believe we can do. This article seeks to share my perspective towards online learning environments in K-12 school districts. It is a practitioner's perspective and I suggest to you that learning online embodies the habitudes of lifelong learners.

QUESTIONS THIS ARTICLE ADDRESSES
As director of instructional technology, I have had the opportunity to set in place several Moodles. While I am deeply grateful to my talented team for their assistance, I have begun to imagine something more. With the backdrop of the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN), such imagination is easy. Some of the topics that come to mind when launching Moodle courses in the District include the following:

  1. Managing your Moodle installation
  2. Expanding the Capabilities of Moodle - Moodle Modules and Tips
  3. Finding development tools that enable one to create content and place it online.
  4. Where to Share Moodle Courses

Online learning is critical to our future, both for adults and children in K-12. I'd like to see a series of courses that go beyond how to design online learning--although that is certainly essential--to how to best manage resources to facilitate and enable online learning. As an administrator growing his own program, what planning do I need to put in place to ensure success for learners in K-12 environment?

MANAGING YOUR MOODLE INSTALLATION
"What is your vision for professional learning in the District?" It is a question that I have constantly asked myself. Now that I know how to setup a Moodle--course management system that allows you to facilitate online courses for literate learners of all ages--how can I combine what I know with what I want to do? I imagine online learning environments that scaffold both adult and K-12 learners as they learn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. First, let's consider what research has to say about professional learning:

Research (http://www.srnleads.org/resources/publications/nsdc.html) shows that "professional learning can have a powerful effect on teacher skills and knowledge and on student learning." Unfortunately, most teachers who need 50+ hours of professional learning around relevant topics only get 16 hours of irrelevant professional learning. The report goes on to say that for professional learning to be effective, it must meet 3 criteria. Professional learning must be 1) Sustained, 2) Focused on important content, and 3) embedded in the work of collaborative professional learning teams that support ongoing improvements in teachers’ practice and student achievement. How do you achieve this?

Moodle allows one to create a virtual learning space, yet what happens in that space is even more critical than what happens in physical space. When I try to imagine what online professional learning looks like in K-12 schools for adult learners, I find myself staggering from vendor to vendor, seeking what might work. For example, in my urban school district, I found that PBS Capstone's program was too difficult for the majority of the teachers who began the program. Although a minority of teachers completed the year and half long program, the majority dropped out citing the intensity of the program. What good is rigor if you lose the class? It's a question every teacher struggles with. Instead, we realized we needed to scaffold our teachers' learning and growth online. It has been the right decision for us but it may not be for district staff more experienced with online learning.

Here is what our trial-n-error yielded as a possible approach:

  1. Get staff certified as PBS TeacherLine Online Facilitators - this enables staff to better understand what is involved in facilitating an online course and gives you a standard framework to work from when designing a course. Also get staff certified as LOTI Mentors and National Mentors. Again, this builds a greater awareness of what online course facilitation is like. If I could, I would get staff certified via one of the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) providers to ensure a deeper awareness. This is an ongoing process.
  2. Construct an Introduction to Online Learning course--about a week long--that can be used as a pre-requisite for teachers who have never experienced online professional learning before. This enables everyone to start from a common perspective, building familiarity with Moodle course management system (which becomes your district standard) and opening teachers' eyes to power of a collaborative professional learning. No incentive for completion of this course except 6 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) and/or gifted and talented (GT) credit hours. If a teacher does not pass the course, they can take it up to three more times. Pass rate for this course is about 98%.
  3. Implement a technology integration lead teacher program (we call it "TILT") that grants incentives (funded by the State Technology Allotment) such as a laptop, digital projector, FLIP video camera, digital audio recorder, a 10 week online LOTI Lead Teacher course, and the opportunity to develop a Level 5 technology integrated lesson.
  4. Purchase online courses that are relevant to teachers' practice in ways that are relevant to the focus of your District. Since my focus is technology integration, I sought out courses that are relevant to achieving the Texas ePlan:
    1. PBS TeacherLine courses--available for a variety of areas, not just "technology"--for deployment in your district. These courses are 30 hours each, can be converted to Moodle format and deployed in your district. My district purchased 90 hours of content--3 courses--with unlimited rights and had them converted to Moodle format. Our goal is license the content for two years at minimum and offer the 30 hour courses in smaller bites. This is necessary because PBS TeacherLine courses, which run for 6 weeks each, are fairly intensive.
    2. LOTI Lead Teacher courses, which last 10-weeks, enable you to gradually ease teachers into the online learning environment. Frankly, teachers in my experience--myself included--have little stamina for length online courses. LOTI enables you to have conversations about learning and technology over an extended period of time without the rigor of a PBS TeacherLine course, which can be frightening for newbies. Furthermore, the LOTI (levels of teaching innovation) Lead Teacher course discusses how to "harness the power of your existing programs into one united effort to assess, plan, implement, and sustain a systems approach to improved student achievement using 21st Century teaching, learning and leadership." This can put online learning into perspective.
    3. Third party how-to online learning experiences are widely available. Whether you use InfoSource Learning's content, or Atomic Learning, the question to ask yourself is, "How easy is it to plug-n-play these technologies into my Moodle?" Will I be able to embed content from these tutorial web sites into my Moodle or will participants find themselves having to log-in to yet another system? It is this last question that encourages me to consider the next option.
  5. Create your own online courses. When I started creating courses, I found myself wondering, "Where are the templates for designing an online course? What are the standards?" Like any teacher developing a lesson, I wanted some framework, a checklist to follow. I recently had the opportunity to review an online course developed by another district on an important subject. I was disappointed at the design of the course. As a result, I spent some time working with two of my team who are actively developing their own courses for use in the District. We set out to developing and revising an Introduction to Online Learning course that truly reflected the values we had learned going through Online Facilitator Training. Our course design is modular (course content and activities like forums, assignments organized by topic), features a syllabus, assignment checklist, and is multi-modal (featuring videos, audio, and text). As we worked collaboratively to revise and design new courses together, it has been helpful to have a set of internal standards to adhere to.

When first launching Moodle, I was tempted to have one-stop shopping for courses and content. There would be ONE place to find everything. This was as a result of my experience as an electronic bulletin board system assistant systems operator (SYSOP). I had noticed that dividing up your discussion area into too many ways diffused discussion. I have since realized that this approach of clumping things will not work well. For example, we had professional learning for adults, support areas for groups in the District, and K-12 students. This presented an account management nightmare with thousands of users. Some were in the system for professional learning online, a thousand students participating in online literature circles, and others simply taking surveys.

As a result, I sought to re-organize our approach to Moodle--duplicating the entire Moodle, moving and renaming the databases, directories--into these fundamental areas, expanding on the recommendations of my team:

  • Professional Learning Center (PLC) - This is where adult learners can participate in either instructor-led or self-paced, 100% online courses and earn Continuing Professional Education (CPE) and/or Gifted and Talented credit hours. The GT credit hours are done in collaboration with our district's Advanced Academic Services Office, and the partnership with them has been well worth the investment of getting their staff trained in online learning.
  • K-12 Open Campus - The Open Campus, the title the idea of Sue Harris, facilitates 26 teachers (and growing quickly) as well as impacts 1,000+ students who are participating in online literature circles, classroom specific courses being facilitated by teachers, and more.
  • iTech - This is the Technology Center, a place where support areas and online communities for technology department initiatives are facilitated.

Finally, our next steps will include implementing 30-hour, PBS TeacherLine courses that have been converted to Moodle format. These courses will be rolled out in March, 2009, but as time progresses, I want to start chopping them into smaller segments. Shorter, 1 week professional learning opportunities are desired by teachers who want to use these hours to meet their GT hour requirement. I see these short ventures in online learning as a way to build their stamina for online learning. I hope to do the same thing with the LOTI Lead Teacher 10 week course our Technology Integration Lead Teacher program participants are going through...licensing the content, bringing it in house and customizing it for our population of educators.

It is critical to develop and codify a standard approach to course development. Failure to do so means that everyone will develop willy-nilly, ensuring that end-user experiences will not be as productive, as reflective as they could be. A clean window lets us see the light rather than obscures it. So should it be with Moodle courses. Of course, this is my perspective.

One of the most important steps that needs to be taken in is building capacity among curriculum and instruction department staff. It is critical because professional development needs are rising quickly and two curriculum specialists can reach many more people over a sustained period of time--which is more effective for professional development than the drive-by face to face workshops that characterize K-12 professional development--via online learning.

To accomplish that, we need to develop our own district culture specific courses, including the following:
  • How to Facilitate Online Courses in Our District
  • How to Develop Online Courses in Our District

The purpose of these two courses is to build capacity in our district teacher specialists to facilitate professional learning opportunities, as well as learn how to develop online courses around content that is important to the District. I am deeply grateful to Holly Custard (Director, PBS TeacherLine of Texas) for her support in this area since no one creates in a vacuum.

#2 - EXPANDING THE CAPABILITIES OF MOODLE - MOODLE MODULES
"I want students to have an ePortfolio that they can maintain while in my course," asked one teacher. Another asked, "Is there an easy way to organize photos of students engaged in class activities within the Moodle?" The answer is YES to both and many more through the use of Moodle modules, freely available on the Web.

There are literally hundreds of modules for Moodle, specific ways of expanding the capabilities of Moodle to be more effective. Amanda Hefner (Northside ISD) is someone I acknowledge as an expert in knowing which modules to choose and implement for specific online learning purposes. However, it was also Hefner who taught me by sharing a spreadsheet with many Moodle installs and the different modules installed on each. Every time Moodle is upgraded, all the modules have to be checked for compatibility. This means that modules, no matter how useful, can become sources of upgrade pains for your Moodle. As a result, I have decided to limit the modules in any Moodle installation to the ones shown below. That attitude may change depending on needs and challenges that arise. Consider this list a snapshot of recommended modules, a place to start; the list is as follows:

  1. Questionnaire - This module is one of my favorites because you can get online feedback--just like you would with SurveyMonkey type site--but it graphs the data for you as bar charts, which has been great for doing regular surveys, not just for use in courses. Unlike the built-in survey module in Moodle, you can create your own questions and questions can be labels, essay, text, multiple choice, Likert-type (rate 1-5), radio buttons, and Yes/No questions.
    Get it online at http://tinyurl.com/bxua9w
  2. Book - This module is great because you can create multi-page--just like a book with chapters and subchapter--resource that includes text, enables import of web pages, video embedding and more.
    Get it online at http://tinyurl.com/crngyd
  3. OUBlog - Desiring to organize your student blogs within Moodle but disappointed with Moodle's built-in blog feature? I know I was. OUBlog provides a nice alternative, that while not as rich as a dedicated blog platform like Multi-User Wordpress or b2Evolution, is usable.
    Get it online at http://tinyurl.com/ayvts5
  4. Lightbox Gallery Resource - While working with middle school teachers about to embark on a learning journey, it became advantageous to take photos of the students. The photos would end up as the thumbnail image that appears when someone posts a message in the forum, or simply, the students' profile. But how to display them within a course? The Lightbox Gallery Resource is easy to set-up and accomplishes this well.
    Get it online at http://tinyurl.com/devh2v

And, 2 additional modules that Amanda Hefner recommended--along with her comments albeit with slight edits--when I asked, "What Moodle modules do you recommend?"

  • Learning Diary - This module is used to combine the many Reflections into one ongoing diary, a much more efficient and appealing approach for adults. There are so many individual activities in each section that the list appeared exhaustive. It's a 3rd Party Mod not hosted on Moodle.org.
    Get it online at http://julmis.julmajanne.com/index.php/Learningdiary
  • Exabis ePortfolio - This module enables both Professional and Student Moodles as a repository for users' to store top projects and more importantly, to allow file-sharing to classmates/teacher for review, collaboration or comments. Check it out for broader use across courses. It allows for collection of files, notes, hyperlinks, etc. and exports to SCORM. Items can be shared to all site users, only those in a common course, or individuals.
    Get it online at http://tinyurl.com/bory4p

Of course, while these modules are standard on the Moodle installations in my District, consider that there are many more than expand the capabilities of Moodle in response to your needs. Just ask yourself, "Is this a module I want to keep track of for the long term or just use for a short project with definite start/end time?"

A FEW MOODLE TIPS
There are many exciting Moodle tips that I have learned over the last few months. To share them in this article would be to write a book (I recommend William Rice's Moodle 1.9:E-Learning Course Development from Packt Publishing...Full disclosure: They sent me a free copy of their book to review, but I'd bought it already!). As such, I encourage you to read these--and future--illustrated Moodle tips online at http://tinyurl.com/b5vy57

  1. Session Cookies - Have more than one moodle on your server? here's how to keep them from fighting over the cookies!
  2. Copying Content from One Course to Another - A walkthrough of how to import content from one course to another. Saves time and energy to do it this way!
  3. Adding a Photo Gallery - Walks through adding a photo gallery to your Moodle. Quite easy to use and impressive tool available.
  4. Removing "Topic Outline" and "Available Courses" from your Moodle - It can be annoying to see these words appear where you don't want them. Here are several approaches.
  5. Empowering Teachers to Create/Delete Users - Give teachers the authority only administrators have to create and remove students from their course, without giving them full admin rights.
  6. Quick Backup of a Moodle Database - Some tips on backing up your Moodle, especially on a Mac, using no-cost tools.
  7. Keeping Moodle Safe - Some accumulated tips on how to protect your Moodle against spam, etc.
  8. Moodle Cron Job Automation - Cron jobs make Moodle go. Find out how here.
  9. Handling Student Accounts and Email - Here are some suggestions on what to do about managing student accounts and email.
  10. 3 Tips for RSS Feeds - Want RSS feeds for your discussion forums? Want to remix Moodle Feeds or pull in remote RSS feeds? This is the entry to read!
  11. Moodle-Google Integration - Find out about how to integrate Moodle and Google, to simplify account management for students and educators using GoogleApps for Education.
  12. Finding Moodle Hosts - Can't host Moodle on your own server? Use one on the web.
  13. Reducing Spam Risk with reCaptcha and Spam Domain list - Some things you can do to protect against spam if you have to do email authentication/self-registration in Moodle.
  14. Top Moodle Blocks, Filters, and Modules - Enhancing Moodle is all well and good but how do you know what enhancements to make? Here are a few that I prefer and I'm open to suggestions.
  15. Free Themes for Moodle - As soon as I installed Moodle, I started looking for ways to "liven" it up and found a treasure trove of free themes.
  16. Enabling Embedding of Video Playlists - This tutorial shows you where to click to enable TeacherTube, YouTube videos, etc. and videos from various providers in your Moodle sidebar (or anywhere).
  17. RSS Feed Consolidation - This tip shows you how to take multiple Moodle Forum RSS feeds and consolidate them into one using free services, either as a new RSS feed to share or to display content.
  18. Embedding FLV Videos in Moodle Labels, HTML Pages - This tip documents how to enable the multimedia filter so that FLVs can be embedded in Labels and HTML Resources.

#3 - ONLINE CONTENT DEVELOPMENT TOOLS
When I first became aware of SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) as an easy way to exchange content, I imagined easy to create modules that could be embedded in a district learning management system (read this previously published article on the subject - http://tinyurl.com/5l6ddn). And, while sexual harassment materials created by my District are available online as part of our district's learning management system (e.g. Alchemy Systems' Avatar), I now have a more open approach to what constitutes an online content development tool.

Here are some of the tools that my team and I use to create content that can be put into Moodle, SCORM or not:

To create video walkthroughs, we use one or both of these products:
  • Adobe Captivate - While many are already familiar with Adobe Captivate, I have to confess to just learning how to use it at TCEA 2009 State Conference. It is incredibly easy to use and well-worth the investment for creating online learning modules that have substantial amount of content. Obviously, Captivate costs money, unlike the tools shared below.
  • Jing - This little Mac and Windows friendly tool--available from TechSmith, the makers of Camtasia, at NO COST--allows you to create SWF video files that are embeddable in Moodle. I have created many a video tutorial within its 5 minute limit that gets the job done for a quick intro or walkthrough. Pay $15 or so and you get the feature (the product becomes "Jing Pro") of saving your screencasts in MP4 format, a format that works in Moodle but also YouTube, Edublogs.tv, TeacherTube.com and other video sharing sites.
    Get it online at http://www.jingproject.com/

I highly recommend that both of these products be in your toolkit. And, a veteran of working with learning management systems (Rick Martinez, Assistant Superintendent for Technology in Southwest ISD), suggested using Course Lab (a no-cost tool available at www.courselab.com) to create SCORM modules that can be shared with others. Rick Martinez shared the following vision in an email for where we could go with SCORM modules and learning management systems. Even though your district may lack a full-blow learning management system, you could still take advantage of SCORM modules. Here is what Rick had to share:

As you know, the SCORM package is one that will talk to the LMS of your choice and transfer either a PASS/FAIL or a score. The content is customizable and is done in a WYSIWYG format in Course Lab. The software offers a variety of options for question types and allows for simulations as well as tests.

I see this being used in the development of the 8th grade [technology literacy] exam, proficiency programs, BloodBorne Pathogens courses, Bus Driver training courses, Testing requirements, etc. Once the course is developed, districts can share and modify as needed. They will only have to re-package it into a SCORM package, which is easy to do. I would see TCEA taking the lead in assisting with the warehousing of the packages as parts of the benefits of membership.

Moving forward into online learning experience is definitely possible with the wealth of free, no-cost tools available to us. Individuals like Ken Task and other members of the Strategic Open Source Special Interest Group (SOS-SIG) and many others in your TCEA Area are available to provide assistance in launching your own Moodle for your district, campus or classroom.

#4 - WHERE TO SHARE YOUR MOODLE COURSES
Social networking and connectivity make it incredibly easy to learn online from people, not just archived documents. Several of the Moodle tips shared in this article came about as a result conversations had via Twitter.com, reaching as far as London and Colorado, not to mention here in Texas. These learning conversations make it possible to practice what George Siemens termed "connectivism." Sharing the fruit of such conversations seems a natural next step.

But where do I go to share Moodle courses? Here is a short list to consider:

  1. SOS-SIG's Collaborative Moodle - http://sos.tcea.org/coloodle/
  2. K-12 Open Source Ning - http://community.k12opensource.com/forum/topics/moodle-courses
  3. Learning ISD - http://moodle.learningisd.com/moodle/course/index.php
  4. Moodle Commons - http://moodlecommons.org/

In truth, though, a central repository that has standards for course development--perhaps along iNACOL.org approach--is needed in Texas. As several Texas educators, myself included, have encouraged, that repository should be the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) which has the potential to move more nimbly than the Texas Education Agency (TEA) with its multitude of required, legislatively mandated tasks.

CONCLUSION
I occasionally encounter complaints from teachers like this one:

Our tech director refuses to even consider Moodle as a resource. He says it is too buggy (he has a prejudice against open source) and commercial products (none of which are in our budget) work better. How would you respond to those concerns?

A slow Moodle convert myself, the reasons for my slow adoption were not technical but rather intellectual and emotional. We need to embrace fresh habits and attitudes--or as Angela puts it, Habitudes--of imagination, courage, self-awareness, adaptability and perseverance. Implementing online learning environments in K-12 school districts requires cultivating "moodle habitudes" in ourselves and others.


About the Author

As director of instructional technology for a large urban district in Texas, past president of the state-wide Technology Education Coordinators group in one of the largest U.S. technology educator organizations (TCEA), Miguel Guhlin continues to model the use of emerging technologies in schools. You can read his published writing or engage him in conversation via his blog at Around the Corner.