This was an article published in School Leaders Magazine in November/December 2008
The trick to using technology in schools is to properly integrate it, and to make technology a part of the learning process—not the end goal. For example, I have often seen students assigned a PowerPoint presentation at the end of a study unit. Too many times, the focus became the presentation and not the content of the material being studied. Students nervously await their turn to do their PowerPoint and are thankful when that experience is completed. What did they learn from this experience? How to create an animation, transition, or add sound to a presentation, perhaps. But what of the topic they were studying?
So when I came across Moodle in my graduate school studies, I was intrigued.
Moodle is an open-source (meaning the code is open –and not proprietary—and users can use and change the software, and redistribute it, if they wish) software that enables teachers to create an interactive classroom online. Teachers can post homework assignments, videos, lectures and podcasts; teachers and students together can post blogs or messages in forums. While many schools have pages on their Web sites that allow teachers to post homework or documents or links, one of Moodle’s strengths is how it can combine many tools. A big advantage of Moodle, particularly in these times when school districts are strapped for cash: it is free. Districts can learn more and can download it at www.moodle.org.
As a technology teacher, in the past, I have worked with teachers on creating web-based projects. For example, a few years ago I worked with some sixth grade teachers to create a web page for an endangered species unit they were teaching in science class.
But after looking into Moodle, I felt that using this program would allow the process with the teachers I work with to be much more collaborative. Key to this was having a program that teachers and student could easily use without needing to know how to code HTML or use a complicated software editor program, or needing someone to upload files to a server whenever the teacher wants to make changes to a page.
Here is how we set up a Moodle in Indian Hills Memorial School in 2006, and the teachers embraced it.
Getting Down to Work
The first step was to setup a Linux based Web site utilizing a web hosting service. (Moodle is primarily hosted on a Linux based server.) The website (http://www.techinedonline.com) would serve as the host for this Moodle collaboration. (Districts can also have another site host it, although that would involve some cost.)
When we returned to school in September, each collaborative teacher had a course setup within the Moodle. We set up time to allow an opportunity to meet with the teachers and to let them take a look at this “Moodle thing.” Once they saw it, they were hooked.
Why were teachers so enthusiastic? They appreciated the power behind the Moodle. In the early stages of development, they used it primarily as a repository for information related to their class. Teachers began by posting homework assignments, calendars of events, presentations given in class, links to other websites (including their on-line text book), RSS feeds, and Jeopardy games for students to prepare for tests.
But, as teachers became more comfortable with using the Moodle, they became more curious as to what more could they use it for. They discovered that they could setup forums that could be utilized for student discussions. Students liked the idea of participating in discussions but requested more input into what could be discussed. In searching the moodle.org website, a module was available that allowed students to create their own forums. One of the advantages of Moodle is that there are downloadable modules that allow users to customize the program.
Modules are add-ins that further enhance the features available for a Moodle. The module we used (Forum Plus) allowed students to create their own forums and gave them the opportunity to become active participants in the process.
As teachers would express a desire to use Moodle in a different way, other modules were added. For example, one teacher wished there was a way for students to be able to save files that they could move back and forth from home to school. Another module, My Files, was found and added to the Moodle. Another popular add-on was a module that allowed teachers to add YouTube videos directly into their Moodle course. My recommendation is for anyone establishing a Moodle site is to keep an open ear to what teachers are requesting and to encourage teachers to explore the add-in modules to see if one fits their needs.
Another great part of using a Moodle is the Moodle community. The on-line support is made up of other users. You can post questions to the various forums and people are very quick to reply. An example happened last year when a Language Arts teacher wondered how others were using a Moodle for novel studies. She posted a question in the Moodle in K-12 Schools forum at 10:48 AM and by 12:26 PM she got her first reply. Again, I encourage teachers to use the Moodle community as a great support system.
The ultimate goal is to move beyond simply having a Moodle site as a repository for classroom activities. Students wanted more of a real-time option to post questions to other students or teachers. We opened up a live chat for students to use. Students began to use this to post questions about homework. Some students even used the live chat to ask each other questions in preparation for an upcoming test. Another feature, Journal, allows students to have a one-to-one dialogue with their teacher concerning their writing. On-line assignments, surveys and questionnaires further enhance student interaction.
Where We Go from Here and Obstacles to Getting There
There are countless ways to further enhance a Moodle site to make it a truly interactive experience for students. When students become involved with the material, their motivation level is increased. For example, the sixth grade social studies class was putting together a podcast to post on the Moodle. We had a small group of students who were going to serve as the anchors of the podcast. Each day for several weeks, students would come to my room during recess and lunch to work on it. I didn’t have to prompt them or beg them to show up. In fact, there were times I was elsewhere in the building and would show up a few minutes late. There the students would be, waiting at my door impatiently tapping their feet.
I told this story a recent conference and the teachers were excited to hear how motivated these students were. Allowing students to participate in their own education reaps many rewards. Classroom management becomes less of an issue, students are actually learning and applying the material rather them simply memorizing and regurgitating onto a test, and teachers feel a renewed sense of connection with their students.
What stops more teachers from using a Moodle? The first thing is people not being aware that it even exists. That is why I travel around the country presenting at conferences. There are now over 330,000 Moodle users worldwide. Word is quickly spreading. I’ve setup my own Moodle site: www.techinedonline.com/moodle for educators to use. I now have users coming from as far away as Korea to participate in this Moodle.
However, the bigger obstacle to teachers using a Moodle, which is true of all technology integration, is the lack of professional development. Too often, I’ve seen districts purchase equipment that sits unused, or equipment that is used in a traditional teaching style where the teacher is in the front of the room with a PowerPoint presentation projected onto an Interactive Whiteboard, while the students sit there in a fog.
It has become clear to me that the way to truly integrate technology into learning is through professional development. Technology specialists need to get into the classroom with the teachers and work right beside them to better understand their world and how technology can be a part of the process of learning.
The excitement of the Moodle is real! I’ve seen the impact it has had with teachers and students. Once they begin to use it, the possibilities to expand are endless. I started off collaborating with three teachers in the district. Since then it has grown tremendously. I’ve trained close to 40 teachers in a district of just over 900 students. I’ve presented, and continue to present, to conferences around the country and I’m still amazed at the excitement that it generates.
Did I mention it is free?
Alan J. Taylor is lead technology teacher at Indian Mills Memorial School in the Shamong Township school district. He also runs the Web site Techonline.com and frequently presents programs on technology at educational conferences. Taylor is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at the University of Delaware; his specialization is technology.
He can be reached at