MoodleMoot UK 2010 – review
I spent 13th and part of the 14th of April at MoodleMoot UK 2010, the annual cross-sector conference about our Virtual Learning Environment, Moodle (branded at Goldsmiths as learn.gold).
By way of background: Moodle is open source software. Developed and owned by its community of users, it is free to download and install, and can be locally adapted (resources allowing). Goldsmiths was an early adopter of Moodle, and before my time, John Phelps was a presenter at an early Moodle Moot 2004. Since, Moodle has taken off in the Higher Education sector. The Open University has ploughed £5m into developing Moodle and has given these developments back to the community. Among many others, LSE, Essex, Liverpool John Moores, City University London, and the University of Bath chose Moodle.
I went to specifically find out about the coming version – much-anticipated ‘Moodle 2’. This new version is expected to be a departure from current versions, taking on more of a Web 2.0. You can read about progress updates on the Roadmap pages at moodle.org.
Sadly, I was scheduled to be at Goldsmiths for a meeting at the time that Moodle’s founder and principal character Martin Dougiamas was scheduled to speak.
Happily, he was presenting from Sydney Perth, so presumably it was captured and will soon be available on the conference site.
An overview of some of the presentations I attended follows.
Our departing Warden Geoff Crossick gave the opening keynote (he’s incoming VC of the University of London; MoodleMoot took place at Senate House). This began with a sad prognosis of the HE sector – not for much longer a life-course stage for school leavers, in competition with other private organisations with degree-awarding powers, explicitly hitched to national economic ambitions interpreted as standardised skillsets, with speculative (“what if”) research and teaching an increasingly elite niche within the sector. Then with some well-chosen adjectives, he made Moodle at Goldsmiths sound amazing. Finally a caution to the custodians of Moodle – learning technologists and academic developers – that e-learning would be eyed as a way to save money, and e-learning as an enhancement would require robust defence.
Sugata Mitra spoke about the Hole in the Wall project, which began with a computer embedded in a wall in a New Delhi slum absent of good teachers, and culminated in some astonishing findings, including that Tamil-speaking children can teach themselves GCSE-level genetics in English on a computer (I simplify – you can read more at his page, and there’s a forthcoming BJET paper he said he had a job to get past the reviewers because they couldn’t quite believe his findings). Relating how scores of children self-organised to share a single computer, he was very amusing on the emergence of an administrative class and the harnessing of boffins. I wonder if this man has some magic about him – how on earth did he manage to persuade his educational studies department at the University of Newcastle to go along with a research project to find out if school children require teachers? He ended with the idea of an army of volunteers from affluent countries in the ‘cloud’ helping learners in disadvantaged parts of India via web video linkup.
Mahara – what I took from this session was mostly reassurance that many institutions are at the same stage with Mahara (learn.gold’s social networking, personal learning environment and portfolio counterpart, available from the bottom right of the learn.gold front page, once logged in). With portfolios on institutionally-hosted systems, it’s important to be able to get to them after graduation. Derren Thomas talked about the Leap2a standard which puts the ‘port’ back in portfolios and allows them to be packed and unpacked across different online portfolio systems rather than being tethered to a single one. ‘Friends’ was thought to be an inappropriate blanket term for fellow learners in a learning environment. And I found that there really isn’t yet a way to add students to groups other than one by one – this is bound to change in the future because it’s the source of a great deal of frustration. Note to self – try out the CV builder. Also good/frustrating to note that other people experience the same style-sheet problems as we do, namely squidged-together heading lines and occasionally overlapping layers. This would put off a lot of prospective users who are working visually rather than textually and depend on layers behaving themselves. But we like Mahara.
Ross McKenzie of the Open University made a very informative presentation. The OU set out to rectify their “shoddy performance” on taking from the Open Source Community and giving little or nothing back. They invested £5m in Moodle (most of which, as Martin comments below, was spent on implementation – as a distance learning institution Moodle is the main learning environment). Their installation contains 2,000 separate localisations (code they script to adapt Moodle from the standard installation) and the scale of work to maintain these is quite significant given that the OU upgrades 4 times annually on principle (“release early, release often”) to avoid having to download patches all the time. Their gantt chart (parallel development model where they are adapting for the coming version almost as soon as they have installed the current one) was incredibly busy-looking but their team is probably the biggest in the UK (remember that the OU is a pioneering distance-learning institution and Moodle is basically the long and short of their entire learning environment). They are very user-centred – each quarter they gather requirements, begin a 3-month period of development (i.e. coding their localisations on the coming version), followed by functional testing, then pre-release testing. I can never remember which number version of Moodle we’re on here – the OU name theirs after malt whisky. Oh, and they recommend to resist the temptation to install a beta release and always go with the stable version. Also of interest on the subject of roll-over, the OU keeps all course in read-only mode for 3 years after graduation. Other recommendations: tirelessly promote to colleagues what Moodle does and will do, or they’ll never know. It was interesting to hear him talking about Moodle 2.0 – the localisations are very much tied to earlier versions and the OU has to basically choose whether to a) resource their remaking for the radically new version b) have fewer localisations or c) fork the Moodle project (i.e. not upgrade to Moodle 2.0 but take the existing Moodle in a direction convenient to them, given their localisations).
Next I squeezed into Moodlenomics, an economic compare-and-contrast of different models of open source software production, from centralised hierarchical models like MySQL where contributors and users have little say, to sponsorship models (e.g. Apache server technology used by governments, institutions and banks all over the world) where you gain influence through making valuable contributions, and donations do not buy influence relative to amount donated. Moodle is developed within what the presenter called the ‘Trademark model’. There are some donations – money and developer time – and some direct commissions but the main business model is for Moodle Partners, commercial enterprises which sell technical services to institutions. The general feeling (unfortunately resonant) was that “Moodle is too big to fail” i.e. if – heaven forfend – a meteorite was to obliterate the Sydney Perth premises, the University of London Computer Centre (which hosts Moodle for U of L institutions and others) would step in, or somebody else. Apache had a staggeringly small outgoing last year of £210k. What Moodle’s is I forget – but it’s quite dinky.
I don’t have much to say on the other presentations I attended, which tended to be either sector-specific, generally visionary, or at a different stage of Moodle adoption. This was my first Moodle Moot. It was pretty much about reconciling Moodle with institutional practices and vice-versa – practicalities and logistics. I’d look forward to it maturing, as ALT-C is reputedly beginning to do, into a conference about learning.