Virtual learning Environment, Moodle, Using Moodle, WebCT

One of the projects I am involved in is working with the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology to create a blended or online foundation degree. Much of what we do with this is going to be informed by the BA Learning Technology Research degree we are developing in the Ultraversity project, but of particular interest to me is the use of an alternative VLE to the university flavour.

Currently, Anglia Ruskin use WebCT for this kind of online delivery. Many departments across the faculties use the software, and the university has invested heavily in it. However, there are some key issues surrounding it and how it is used/perceived and these have meant I have had to find an alternative to WebCT.

Having looked at many, and indeed spent the best part of a day with the computing department team who are to use the VLE, we settled on Moodle. A year or so ago Moodle wasn’t really the right kind of environment – it lacked certain features and made it difficult to see how it could be used. However, a year or so on and the open source community have done wonders – Moodle is now at v1.5 with 1.6 due out soon. It is a very different beast these days and actually offers a great deal more than most. Particular interest is in the integration with other VLEs, but I note WebCT isn’t on the list of those (yet!).

A key concern for us is how we would deal with the registration of students and integrate this with the University’s registration procedures… and this is going to form the basis of the research we are going to undertake. Additional elements of that research will be to investigate the way Moodle encourages a social constructivist approach to learning rather than the more didactic or top-down approach which WebCT seems to offer. I think that the days of filling ’empty vessels’ with knowledge are long gone – but I see little to persuade me that WebCT is moving on from that. I have had a brief look at ‘Vista’ (we are currently using ‘Campus’ edition) and this does seem to offer more, but I can’t get away from the notion that the WebCT approach does not move people towards the more powerful learning opportunities available.

What is going to be interesting is to see how Moodle does this. I know that it will be a bit of a struggle to get people to universally abandon any ingrained teaching methodologies, or to move inherently away from simply putting content and resources on line without offering dialogue too. My early impressions of Moodle are that it *can* operate in this way, but the emphasis is overwhelmingly on *not* doing so!

With luck, the research findings will be used by the university in any evaluation of their online learning provision. There are far too many bottlenecks in the way the administrative tools of WebCT are centralised and moved out of the reach of individuals in the faculties -probably for very good reasons – but what we need now is for the university to take a very much more open minded approach to online learning environments, and consider for a moment whether an open source solution which is in good stages of development can offer anything more than their investment (thousands of pounds worth) in WebCT.

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