Using Your Moodle: A Virtual Learning Environment

Yesterday we looked at Blackboard Learn, a popular online learning tool from the Blackboard suite of education applications. Today we're all about Moodle, an open-source learning management system that offers many of the same features - for free. Schools offering Energy Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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What's a Moodle?

The name 'Moodle' comes from an acronym for 'Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment.' In other words, Moodle is a learning environment that can be built from different parts to be customized to users' needs. Moodle's flexibility comes from the fact that the underlying code is open source, so developers (or your school's tech support staff) can modify it according to their specific goals. And the best part? It's free.

Before we dive into Moodle's features, there is one point often made by its competitors: You get what you (don't) pay for. The quality of the product is world-renowned, and Moodle's creators strive to make it easy to use. But the level of support is much lower than with other learning management systems. Moodle provides detailed documentation and help forums, but when a school buys one of its competitors' packages it's also getting a team of people to install the application and train faculty and staff to use it. Institutions that want to use Moodle need to have tech-savvy staff on hand to download, install, train and support the product.

In addition to human resources, there are other hidden costs associated with Moodle. For example, schools must pay for a main server to host the application as well as a backup server to protect their course content. Still, when you look at the cost of Blackboard's licensing fees ($10,000 a year for the software, hosting and personnel training at small institutions) $0 up front starts to look pretty good - especially for institutions that have the resources to support the program.

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Moodling Around

Because one of the central properties of Moodle is being customizable, it's difficult to pin down a specific list of features. However, it does have four main functions:

Delivery of Learning Activities

Moodle makes it easy for your instructor to get your class content to you. That could be as simple as uploading a syllabus or as fancy as loading class activities directly into the application. For online students, the entire class experience may be within the Moodle framework. For on-campus students, Moodle can provide a 'class away from class' that can be accessed any time, any where.

Publishing of Resources

Moodle is also designed to allow users to publish class-related resources. These could be research guides, class portfolios or even multimedia files like video lectures.

Collaboration

One of the most useful features of any online learning community is the ability to collaborate from afar. Moodle offers several tools that allow users to manage projects and coordinate group research and coursework. Students can even collaborate on the instruction process by chiming in to answer one anothers' questions or pointing other students to useful resources.

Communication

Of course, without the ability to communicate, we couldn't collaborate. Moodle offers real-time interaction through the chat module, as well as forums for asynchronous discussions and even blogs so that individual users can share their reflections on the course materials.

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Bend It Like a Moodle

As mentioned above, Moodle's customizable nature makes it very flexible. The application is compatible with hundreds of different standards and tools, making it easy for developers to build plug-ins. Although Moodle is designed to allow user groups to customize the application themselves, many third party plug-ins are available for free. These include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • New resource types
  • New question types
  • Activities, including math and word games
  • Graphical themes
  • Different methods for enrollment

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