Doing the Moodle Mambo: Facilitating New Literacies

Copyright 2007 Miguel Guhlin
(Copyright is Creative Commons ShareAlike-NonCommercial)

How we read, write, and communicate has changed. This is an earth-shattering truth for people in any walk of life, but even more critical for educators to grasp. It is critical because educators are the ones charged with preparing children for the future.

The prevalence of the Internet forces these changes in what our definition of what constitutes literacy in our world today. Moodle, a course management system, can provide a solution that can be used to maximize the impact of new literacies while helping educators survive this 21st Century earthquake.

DEFINING LITERACIES

New literacies include—as defined by Leu, Mallette, Karchmer, and Kara-Soteriou in their 2005 book, Innovative Approaches to Literacy Education— the following:
…the skills, strategies and dispositions necessary to successfully exploit the rapidly changing ICTs continuously emerging in our world for personal growth, pleasure and work. These new literacies allow us to use the Internet and other iCTs to identify important problems, locate information, analyze the usefulness of that information, synthesize information to solve problems, and communicate the solutions to others.

In addition, citing Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, being able to create using these new literacies is of essence. In fact, it is not enough to be able to evaluate web sites, synthesize information, but important that we able to create and craft compelling narratives—digital stories—that encompass, as George Lucas shares, the “language of images and sound.” Text is no longer enough, and new literacies require a level of fluency that teachers today have not yet grasped systemically in K-16 education.
For people everywhere, these are defining literacies that must be learned. You either learn them, or risk a profound disconnect from the world.

THE TECHNOLOGY-LITERACY CONNECTION

In fact, many teachers, parents, administrators may be—dramatically—groaning in fear, gnashing their teeth at the need for new literacies. They see that the Internet, as its ubiquity increases, as it becomes an ever-changing tool molding itself to the mind of its users, now forces reading, writing and communication to be as changeable as the technology it is dependent upon.

The connection between reading, writing, communication and new literacies is multi-modal, engaging everyone as learners as a result of its constant, transformative nature. Multiple modalities go beyond traditional ways of communicating—such as pen and paper, keyboard and mouse—to combine old literacies with new ones. This results in increased usability, increased experience that engages learners.

The connection is also multi-directional, involving not just one or two people, but a global community networked together. As Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams write in their book Wikinomics, mass collaboration changes everything.’ Mass collaboration involves peer production, people partnering together to create content, remix it in ways specific to their situation yet useful to others connected via a worldwide network.

As new technologies emerge, how can any one “new literacy” be used to keep up with another? In other words, how can we use technology to help us keep up with the changes brought about technology?

OPEN SOURCING LEARNING

The term “open source” refers to free, open source software and the development process of software. It also highlights the transparency of access to view and modify the source code of software. The transparency of making the code available enables trust and collaboration that benefits the end-users. Could this kind of transparency be useful in education, especially day to day communications at the campus level?

This highly successful process has been suggested for use in education and several efforts are underway. Well known examples include Wikipedia, as well as the more curricular focused Curriki, an online, dynamically repository of educator-contributed content. This “open source” approach to learning enables a community of passionate, committed individuals to collaborate intelligently to produce a specific end-product.

Two of the key concepts of new literacy, according to Leu, et al., include the following:

  1. New literacies changes as new technologies require even newer literacies; and
  2. The relationship between literacy and technology is transactional. That is, technology “helps define literacy but new envisionments of literacy by talented teachers also redefine technology.”

How can any one teacher, or even a district of teachers, hope to keep up? In this environment, where literacy and technology are constantly redefining themselves in ways molded by the end-users, there is only one hope. That hope is to join the process of socially constructing meaning.

John Seelye Brown, proponent of passion-based learning, characterizes it in this way: “We are learning in and through our interactions with others while doing real things,” Seely Brown said. “I’m not saying that knowledge is socially constructed, but our understanding of that knowledge is socially constructed.”

Tools exist even now that are adaptable, flexible and changing as a result of user interaction. An entry point for teachers and administrators is Moodle.

THE MOODLE MAMBO: EXPERIENCE YOUR LEARNING


This dance of technology literate expression can find expression in tools like Moodle, a course management system. Moodle is often defined in a variety of ways, including the following:
Moodle is designed to help educators create online courses with opportunities for rich interaction. Its open source license and modular design means that many people can develop additional functionality, and development is undertaken by a globally diffuse network of commercial and non-commercial users, spearheaded by the Moodle company based in Perth, Western Australia. Source: Wikipedia

Moodle is often used as a “container” for teaching lessons, activities, quiz-based assessments, and more. Moodle was designed for teachers and students as a means for constructing something for others to experience. This makes it appropriate as a tool for apprhending new literacies since learning is socially constructed.

Yet, Moodle for all its beauty as an experiential technology tool and an interactive online partner that enhances communication can be used to develop more traditional literacies such as reading and writing. While some rightly point out that new literacies are not tested, there is no doubt that these literacies are recognized, if not yet valued, as essential for survival in the 21st Century. As Dan Pink writes in A Whole New Mind, information age skills are needed but insufficient. I am compelled to note that if technology is irrelevant to how you communicate and collaborate, then your classroom is irrelevant to your students.

MOODLE-IZING YOUR EDUCATION ENVIRONMENT

“Technological change,” shares Neil Postman, “is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything….” Moodle is one of those technologies. Disarmingly simple to use, once Moodle has been installed on a server (more on how to do that later) somewhere in your District, it is also deceptively complex. When you can bring in blogs, wikis, podcasts, when you can administer quizzes, take grades, institute online forums with attachments, organizing your courses online can be frightening. Like a mosquito in a nudist colony, as an old principal shared with me, where do you strike first? Where does one begin?

Knowing where to start is one of the primary challenges of using Moodle. In a world where every education vendor has a solution that has a cost sure to take a chunk out of your budget, Moodle can be one solution that brings transparency to decision-making at the campus and district level.

In that spirit of transparency and “open sourcing” learning, here are some quick tips on using Moodle in K-12 settings. They range from the big idea to the technical how-to, and include links to extensive resources on Moodle you can use right now to get started. But one thing is for sure, the change use of Moodle can bring about is ecological.

Facilitating Communications

“What is written clearly is not worth much,” shares Louis-Ferdinand, “it’s the transparency that counts.” No matter at what level of education I have worked—from teacher to campus/district leadership—one important lesson has served me well. The lesson? Transparency. The benefits of transparency in leadership practice include ‘’increased trust, effective collaboration, and overall better organizational health. And when people are allowed to see…undesirables and deficiencies, some likely will try to help to turn them around (Source: TRANSPARENCY: The Clear Path to Leadership Credibility’‘, Karen Walker and Barbara Pagano, http://tinyurl.com/36jsxq ).
Sidebar: Moodle Media
A collection of Moodle testimonials is available online at http://mguhlin.net/wiki Those shown below include podcasts, or audio, you can listen to.
You can also view screencast—short video clips—introductions to Moodle by Karen Richardson at http://k12online.wm.edu/moodle01/moodle.html
You may want to have VLC Media Player on your computer so that you can view/listen to these podcasts and screencasts. Get VLC Media Player online at http://www.videolan.org/vlc/
This is the power of conversations inherent in Read/Write Web tools, and Moodle has these tools in abundance. In chatting with Eileen Dunne (Abilene ISD) and the Instructional Technology Specialists, they shared some potential uses of Moodle that could help facilitate campus communications. Those included the following:

  • Professional Learning Follow-Up: The Abilene ISD staff recently participated in Dr. Chris Moersch’s LOTI Mentor training. This is described in the following way:
The LoTi Mentor Certification Process focuses on the four-stage LoTi Implementation Cycle: Assessing, Planning, Implementing, and Sustaining. This process will determine your ability to assess, plan, implement, and sustain high quality technology use impacting student achievement and classroom pedagogy. Source: http://www.loticonnection.com/loti_mentors/
Some of the challenges that they face AFTER the training is over is how, as Christy Cate shared with me, to create a “resource dropbox.” The use of such a tool is obvious, and the idea of creating one in Moodle that is specific to certain criteria (e.g. subject area, grade level, campus, etc) has merit. The ability to host a chat room for virtual meetings, house scope-n-sequence documents, as well as lesson plans organized by LOTI level, subject area and grade level within the built-in wiki available in Moodle also caught their attention.
  • Campus Technology Planning: In my own school district, during development of a Campus-based Technology Planning Guide, Moodle was used as a way to faclitate online meetings and decision-making through online polls or votes. The ability of adding a Moodle activity—such as a choice activity which works as a poll—and a forum for discussion about certain ideas is key.
What was not present during my District’s use of Moodle for technology planning was a wiki (check out Lee LeFever’s Wikis in Plain English video clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dnL00TdmLY). I quickly shared with Eileen in Abilene ISD how a wiki worked and she seemed intrigued. Such a tool could certainly be used in lieu of emailing MS Word documents back and forth between reviewers and authors.
Instead, Moodle’s wiki feature could be used to organize everything. What I liked about Moodle’s wiki is that, unlike some other wikis, it interfaced well with other Moodle features—so it’s not a standalone, yet another application you have to use or remember a password for—and that it possessed a graphical editor with bold, italics, etc.
  • Campus Communications: A wealth of information flies back and forth via email, and like Lee’s video on Wikis in Plain English, this is ineffective. Transparency of communications cannot be achieved in this manner. As such, I was pleased to see Ann Tawney share how she would use Moodle with her particular campus. A former Blackboard user, Ann sought to use Moodle to help the campus organize in the following ways:
    • Posting of announcements and bulletins
    • Minutes and documents related to Campus Improvement Committee Meetings
    • Sharing and review of the teachers’ handbook
    • General resources that staff could use
    • Surveys that could be conducted among staff.

Moodle’s ability to track viewing of important documents, print reports of participating subscribers, authenticate via LDAP (e.g. so that teachers need not remember yet another username and password), and make its content subscribable via Real Simple Syndication make it versatile for users (RSS…for more information, view another Lee LeFever video on RSS in Simple English at http://www.commoncraft.com/rss_plain_english).
  • District level book studies and conversations: Although one can easily imagine using online forums connected to learning management systems (which track professional development participation and certification) to facilitate specific discussions, there are a variety of district level planning sessions that could find their way into Moodle. The use of Moodle to facilitate these conversations is not to be under-estimated. Many times, I have seen critical conversations take place in email and then critical steps not taken since no one was exactly sure of what needed to happen next, or because a critical email was missed. Moodle can help “objectify” the presentation of this information and move it from user inboxes to one place.

Scott Floyd (http://txbluebonnetwp.org) shares about his conversion to Moodle:
We are part of a consortium of small schools that has what is considered the most successful virtual high school in the state (thanks to our work with Gov. Bill Ratliff). We (SUPERNet) have made the decision to change over from Microsoft Class Server (which we have used for four or five years) to Moodle.

Moodle in the Classroom

There are many teachers who are already using Moodle to enhance teaching and learning online with their students. Beth Knittle (http://www.bethknittle.net) writes, “In second and third grade the teachers use it for book discussions. In other grades it is an extension of the classroom, a place to put the resources and continue class discussions.”

High school English teacher, Tom Kennedy, refers to what English teachers are doing in their classrooms in this way: “They are extending classroom discussions in some cases using forums, or actually posting assignments and having students respond through Moodle. I plan to begin a project with a grade 8 class moving a bookstudy from phpBB to Moodle. We will explore some of the features that it offers beyond discussions.”

New Zealand teacher, Sharon Harper, whom I had the opportunity to meet when I travelled there in March, 2007, highlighted how Moodle can facilitate a teacher’s work. She points out that “One of the beauties of it is that it is so easy to revisit and review work that is already there.” Sharon invites us to visit her new venture with Moodle—a local Future Problem Solving team that you can access at http://moodle.mmc.school.nz

Finally, Anne Nicolson, a classroom teacher, addresses one of the key obstacles to seeing Moodle used in the classroom—Fear. “I use moodle for teaching physics,” says Anne, “media studies and remedial maths. It does everything I could wish for and just keeps getting better. The technology is pretty obvious and I’m always surprised that this is the bit teachers fear. Being continually creative and dealing with students individualities is the hard bit.”

There are many more testimonials available online from successful Moodle users, including students. If you have a bit of trepidation about using Moodle, remember that the kids are much more engaged in the content of their classes because of the discussion boards. They talk in class and outside of class (Source: http://davidwarlick.com/2cents/2007/04/23/bumping-among-learners).

How to Setup Moodle

Wondering how to get started? The setup of Moodle on a server can be quite simple and you can follow the steps online at http://mguhlin.net/wiki/index.php?n=Main.Moodleworkshopagendatechnical. This online resource will walk you step by step in the setup of Moodle on a Windows server. Although some may prefer Mac or GNU/Linux as a server—and there is no problem with that—these instructions are customized for Windows users.

A bigger obstacle may be obtaining support to setup Moodle and to use it with students. If you are a campus teacher, be sure to obtain principal support before asking your Information Technology Department to setup a computer as a Moodle server. You can assert with confidence that student work, forum discussions will all be held within a closed environment, a “walled garden” where only those with appropriate access can enter.

You are also encouraged to take standard precautions—obtaining parent approval for display of student work, images, and first name.
Sidebar: Moodle Resources - How to Setup a Server
A collection of Moodle resources is available online at http://mguhlin.net/wiki under the title of Moodle Mambo.
You can also access Atomic Learning’s collection of Moodle Tutorials.
Some folks are worried about how to setup PHP/MySQL. Although the setup process above assumes novice users to server setup, you may also want to take advantage of available resources on PHP/MySQL. Newly released texts are available online at:
Once Moodle is setup on a computer, play with the course options, modules and display features. Each of these possess a variety of alternative setups that will certainly match your particular situation.

Be aware that you can arrange Moodle courses in a variety of formats, including by week or topic. My preference is for topics because you can always adjust timelines rather than going by week. There are many online resources available, and I have compiled a short list of essential resources to read on the mguhlin.net/wiki for you to read, and screencasts/videos to review. And, for those districts that have Atomic Learning, you can now access their Moodle tutorials.

CONCLUSION

New literacies require us to better prepare ourselves and our students for a future where survival requires everyday technology use. Perhaps, the words of this student will help us all become more aware of the “global picture” when we consider what technologies to use—or not:

  • With our planet changing every day, Moodle is one step closer to eliminating the use of paper and textbooks. This is very promising because of the things happening with global warming, we need all the trees we can get. But saving the environment isn’t the only reason that Moodle is a great and useful tool. If you were to miss class one day then you can pick all the assignments up on-line and not get behind in class. Moodle is very helpful in-class as well, such as quizzes or in class activities that use the Internet. Overall, Moodle is a great program that is leading us into a future without wasting paper and providing a very unique, useful tool.
  • Source: 528 Digital Learning Blog

What better way to accomplish the introduction and practice of new literacies than to use Moodle, a technological teaching tool that changes as new literacies evolve and emerge?


About the Author

Miguel Guhlin serves as a Director of Instructional Technology for a large urban district. He shares his travels via his internationally read blog, Around the Corner-MGuhlin.net, and his workshop materials at http://mguhlin.net/wiki. Drop by or email him at “mguhlin@gmail.com”