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  • Opinion: On Models and False Economy

    Posted on July 2nd, 2010 admin 13 comments

    These are three VLE related learning technology blog posts I have read and pondered recently:

    It is perfectly fine to reflect what is observed in models. It helps to take stock and put things in order and into perspective. In this sense, the models proposed by James Clay, David Sugden and Louise Jakobsen are entirely valid because they reflect fairly accurately what I currently see happening around me.  That said, I very much disagree that  these models make particularly good role models for developing a VLE.

    For me all three approaches fall at the very first hurdle:

    Stage 1: Upload to the VLE the course resources, handouts, assignments, scheme of work and links.” – James Clay

    Step 1: Encourage teachers to upload to the VLE all of their course resources: handouts, assignments, schemes of work, session/lesson plans, links and associated documents.” – David Sugden

    Step 1: The first step, of use, of an online environment, is the storing of basic course documentation, like the traditional ‘course handbook’ – often just uploaded as existing ‘print based’ files.” - Louise Jakobsen

    I simply cannot understand why so many teaching and learning professionals list “uploading” as the first step or stage, an entry point or the most basic thing that staff can master on the VLE to ‘gently dip their toes in’.

    Please don’t misunderstand me: I greatly respect and admire the work of all three of those bloggers. They inspire me, get me thinking, make me giggle and whatnot, but…

    Stop kidding yourselves!

    In the context of Moodle (at least), uploading and maintaining uploaded document content is one of the most round-about and time consuming things anyone can do. Allow me to illustrate my point¹:

    Uploaded documents consistently create more workload. So why is it that staff are encouraged to waste their time by uploading documents and then, at a later point, are expected to invest even more time into re-learning processes for doing roughly the same thing only more efficiently? Promoting the uploading of documents as a basic skill really drives me nuts! There, I’ve said it. And I am not going to apologise for doing so. Technology should save people time and not create even more work. And it is far harder to unlearn bad habits than it is to learn good habits in the first place!

    Sure, uploading a document seems like a good idea at the time – after all a lot of teaching content sits around on desktop PCs, shared drives and USB sticks. The trouble is that a lot of the time  this content sits in a disorganised document heap that follows no logical file structure or particular naming convention.  Then we teach staff to upload files to the VLE … and in no time they  have transferred their heap and bad habits onto the file areas of VLE courses. If, in addition to their own unique ways of filing things, they are not the only editing teacher on a course  then total chaos is almost guaranteed.

    Months pass without hitches. All seems well. Then it happens: the syllabus changes slightly. The problem²:

    It is at this point that staff find out the hard way that it is time consuming to put the chaos right. It’s a struggle to sort through the mess of course page links to documents that bear entirely different file names behind the scenes – and  of course the original staff member is no longer around to ask. Or they have forgotten the logic by which they uploaded, named and linked their content in 2005(!).

    These situations all too often give rise to the “I haven’t got time for this” and  the “Moodle is too complicated!” arguments. You know what? I wholeheartedly agree. Yes, used with this level of inefficiency Moodle is a painful beast to deal with and maintain. Let’s not bother if that is as good as it gets. As a learner, I download the documents  and PowerPoints once and I never have another reason to log in. There is no real online support there and nothing for me to do. The workload put in by the teacher far outweighs the level of VLE course interaction from students. The VLE is dead.

    The crucial thing to realise is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

    So what does my VLE model look like? Lazy answer: I haven’t really got one. Instead, in my opinion, every course at every phase of its lifetime should have these three key features:

    • something that allows course members (teachers and students) to communicate with each other (for instruction, continuity announcements (aka lesson plans, reminders, etc), feedback, reflection, support, advice, …)
    • something that makes learners want to access the course page repeatedly throughout the duration of the course (for inspiration, ideas, developing knowledge/skills, fun (!) …)
    • something that allows for assessment (How well am I doing? Am I on the right track? Who in my cohort needs more support? Who is doing well?)

    And these are my standards, no matter what the skill level of the member of staff is.

    There are low level ways of using any number of Moodle tools. It is not hard to accept all the activity defaults, click save and watch what happens. Here is an example for a low skill, minimum effort Moodle course:

    1. Learn how to set up and use Moodle gradable forums. Just by knowing how to do this one Moodle thing well all the above criteria could be satisfied to some degree.
    2. Why not click through the default options to set up a very basic Moodle glossary for students? Make it their weekly task to build up relevant content over the duration of the course. Let them own the course. Give them a chance to contribute.
    3. As for assessment, how hard is it to type (or copy and paste) an assignment brief into a Moodle assignment activity and select a deadline date? It takes all of two minutes!

    What you end up with is a mildly interactive Moodle course that ticks the communication, resource and  assessment boxes.

    A slightly more advanced approach, the next stage if you like, might be the use of embedded content, more elaborate glossaries, a chat room, choices and a variety of blocks. Further down the line, I would expect courses to contain Moodle lessons, a multitude of different quizzes, wikis and perhaps even databases. This is  the level where the creative teachers excel at repurposing the standard Moodle tools they have used all along to really make their courses shine.

    Let me stress again that I am not expecting members of staff to build fantastic Moodle courses full of multimedia rich quizzes, lessons with labyrinthine branch structures and a video library neatly arranged into a 500 entry large course glossary over night and without sufficient training and support. That is not what this is about. There is nothing wrong with the occasional spreadsheet or PDF: in some cases they are the best tool and it makes perfect sense to have them on the course page. But if you must use uploaded documents then please do yourself a favour and at least put the documents into directory folders instead of linking to each file individually!

    Uploading and managing documents is not the most basic level of a VLE course that every member of staff needs to know how to do to ‘gently dip their toe in’. This issue itches me so much because my experience  teaches me that the ability to upload something is all the skill folks need in order to stagnate, and getting staff to think beyond their physical filing cabinet becomes a task as  tricky as eating soup with a fork.

    And I do not blame staff for being stagnant, reluctant and unenthusiastic either: if someone trained me on a job that is alien to me, and after struggling with it for a while I finally ‘get it’ only to be told a little further down the line that I have been inefficient and that I need to learn means of doing the same thing in a different, more efficient way, I think I would be more than just a little miffed, too.

    Teaching members of staff how to upload documents just because their existing content is in document format is false economy. They can pick this skill up further down the line once they are comfortable with easy to grasp Moodle tools that lighten their workload. Let’s focus on creativity and teach the best tool for the job from basic defaults (‘novice level’) to wildly creative (‘tech whiz level’) right from the very beginning and save everyone a lot of headaches!

    ¹) Screenshot taken from eLearning and Moodle Essentials for Teachers and Course Administrators:  Session 2: Word or Web Page?

    ²) Screenshot taken from eLearning and Moodle Essentials for Teachers and Course Administrators: Session 2:  Why File Management is Vitally Important


    8 responses to “Opinion: On Models and False Economy” RSS icon

    • Some interesting points, most of which I agree with. 

      It is true that uploading documents if you are starting from scratch is not the best option for staff. I agree that any new document is much better done as a web page on Moodle. 

      This was echoed in a recent blog post in which I did wonder how sensible it would be to allow staff to save Office files direct to Moodle.

      It is entirely right that new documents are much better created straight on the VLE rather than as a document.

      However from the experiences at the college has shown me that staff who have documents already, uploading can be quicker than turning them into web pages. We have uploaded entire folder structures in one go by zipping the relevant folder. This is certainly not the best option for the learners compared to what it should be, but compared to having nothing on the VLE it is certainly a better choice.

      The model I put together is based on practitioners In my college moving forwards in using the VLE and showing other practitioners how they can move forward.

      I also quite like Weston College’s VLE standards model, the key being students engaging with the VLE not just what’s on it!

      What do think is that this kind of discussion on my blog and yours is a useful debate.


    • Hey James, thanks for your comment – much appreciated! A debate – yay!! Yes, let’s discuss this topic further!

      Perhaps I should have expanded my point about files a little further than I did: I am not against uploads per se, but all too often links to files are simply dumped on the course page without any kind of context. What good is a PPT without annotations or explanations to a learner who has missed several lessons due to illness?

      By contrast, a document or PPT attached to a forum post with additional instructions or lesson notes is far more useful. This way uploads do not clutter the course page with standalone links. Moodle also stores the attachment for the teacher, so there is none of this linking lark and mess of random files and folders.

      Those benefits are already huge. Now add to those benefits the following:
      - learners are able to ask questions or discuss the attachment in the context of the forum post
      - instructions and notes become searchable
      - forum contributions can be graded

      It is a complete no-brainer to use forums (or glossaries or databases) instead of uploads (single or bulk) to the file area of a course.

      When I train staff on Moodle file management, I tell them about sensible file names and folder structures; I explain to them what can go wrong if things get random and messy; I encourage and show them how to build their entire course area offline in sensible file structures, then zip at top level, upload and unzip at top level on the Moodle course. But even with training the reality is that old habits die hard.

      I have entire teams facing a mountain of old files where no one knows what is what, where it links to and why it’s even there. To them it feels like they are asked to climb Mt Everest, and in many cases the plan is to just scrap the dump courses for September and start from scratch.

      The truth is that a lot of courses have become millstones over the years that teachers drag around with them simply because no one ever dared to think outside of the filing cabinet and showed them efficient ways of doing things from the start. – And that’s my own Mt Everest I am now climbing, slowly undoing years of bad practice one training session at a time.

      I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a sparse Moodle course with one fabulously buzzing forum than a course page with 30 or more out of context links that students access once in a blue moon.

      Let’s keep talking!

    • Nick Sharratt

      I think the difference of opinion is because one is based on ease of use of the technology and the other on ease of overcoming resistance in potential users.

      The tech can be as simple as anything but if people “don’t get it” because it doesn’t fit their expectations or existing work patterns then it’s actually much less likely that they’ll engage with it.

      In that respect, James’ step 1 accepts that people new to using a VLE will almost certainly be of a mind set of creating documents and working with documents using a filesysten to organize them. Thus, simply translating that (simply in conceptual terms not practical) offers the lowest barrier to entry.

      A change in mindset towards creating “things” in some weird web based system that doesn’t fit their existing mental model of how computers work is a much harder step for many to take, and is likely to make them feel confused, uncomfortable and resistant because it is human nature to blame the tech as being at fault for making one feel inadequate.

      So, while I agree that technically creating assets directing in a VLE is usually simpler, culturally it’s a much harder process for the intended audience.

    • There is a plugin that allows opening from, editing, and saving to Moodle direct from within MS office applications. I don’t know if it has been publicly released yet, but I have seen it working and it really does help miss all those confusing time consuming steps.

      There is of course an issue in the logic (or lack of) of wanting to work on a file that’s in your Moodle and having to go into (for example) MS Word in order to edit it. The more time spent outside of Moodle the less the teacher is likely to be comfortable with Moodle – so this could be counter productive.

    • Hi Janina,

      First of all, thank you for the comment on my own blog and for the kind remarks in your own, above. Thank you.

      As you say to James ‘a debate – yeh!’

      Which is pretty much what I’d hoped to start with my own post. I have enjoyed reading your reply and agree as does James, with most of your ‘paper’. However, my starting point has to stay at the uploading stage (despite desperately wanting to agree with you 100%) for several reasons.

      First of all, many staff are just too frightened to start afresh on a VLE. They have no concept of what a VLE (or the VLE manager) hopes to achieve. It’s easier therefore, for them to be allowed to take their teddy-bear-like documents with them on their journey. The documents are purely comforters, there to help them take ownership of the process. It’s then my job (literally in this case) to help them to see the point of interactivity – how to make their existing 2 dimensional ‘stuff’ and turn it into engaging, well thought out activities that actually make a difference.

      That’s my main reason and it seems to be working for now, with the school-based team I’m currently employed to work with. They are using a far more complicated VLE than Moodle and can easily see the point of taking their ‘comfort food documents’ and making them engaging. When I then show them the in-built features of the VLE, they begin to see how much easier it is (will be!) to create from scratch.

      So (it’s Sunday and sunny outside, so I’ll stop now) I think that you are quite in order to oppose my own ideas – but there is room for manoeuvre hopefully, by each of us? Especially at this first step phase.


    • Hi David, thanks for taking time out of your sunny Sunday to comment here. :)

      I still disagree about the document issues, I’m afraid – sorry.
      “They have no concept of what a VLE (or the VLE manager) hopes to achieve.” – Precisely my point! I think it’s our responsibility as trainers and VLE experts to recommend the right kind of teddy bear from the very beginning.

      When I explain to staff how an aspect of Moodle can help them save time or hard work I do so in very simple non-technical, non-classroom terms. For example, I talk about trying to carry a loaf of bread, ten apples and a dozen eggs home from a shop without the help of containers or bags (‘files and ZIP files’). Suddenly the lights go on and even the newbies and computer phobes ‘get’ file management and why it’s a good idea to learn about it.

      Even just explaining to them what MOODLE actually stands for and how each of those letters has a specific meaning usually makes a difference to how staff view the ‘beast with the funny name that rhymes with noodle and poodle’. Suddenly Moodle is no longer abstract. They understand why cluttered course pages take longer to load than well organised ones (“Moodle has to go back and forth to fetch every item and check the label to see if you should have access to it before it can serve it to you…”).

      I said it in my post and my response to James’s comment that I do not expect staff to build very interactive courses when they are mere beginners. Instead, I focus on a very broad overview of eLearning and Moodle (‘a plate of nibbles’) to expose them to a large variety of options. Part of this approach is to get them to focus on the reasons for doing any task (whether document driven or interactive) as opposed to focusing on the tools they might use to get there.

      After the general overview I get staff to pick the ONE single aspect that they enjoyed the most from the plate of nibbles, the one thing that they think is going to be the most useful for them in developing their courses further. They then get an intensive hour of learning their chosen tool in the context of their own course. This can range from pure course layout options to directories and file management to quizzes and complex lessons. They choose their comfort zone. Most Moodle tools are flexible enough that, with a little creativitity, they can be bent and repurposed to fit in with my standard course requirements of communication/content/assessment.

      My aim is to make staff aware of the potential of Moodle and the power it can give them as teachers if they make the most of its features. At the same time their learning curve is fairly small because they only need to focus on becoming an expert user of one small aspect of it.’Tool experts’ are exected to support other staff and provide input in exemplars and show and tell sessions, which in turn gives them confidence and practice.

      Anyway, that’s the idea. A year of this approach seems to have started to get things moving (very slowly) in the right direction. Then again, there is only one of me and hundreds of staff…tune those violins, everyone! ;)

    • Hi Nick, thank you for your comment.

      I can see where you are coming from, but I think it is absolutely necessary to shake staff up to get them to see their lessons and materials from the position of their learners. It is their job to support their students’ learning, is it not? If a course page contains a handful of randomly thrown on there slideshows and documents, then staff need to realise how useless this is to a learner who has, for whatever reason, missed a few sessions.

      Also, if we insist on documents as a fundamental thing, then please let’s at least teach staff how to attach them to a searchable container, like a forum or glossary or database, so that the documents have some kind of context to them. Uploaded in this way Moodle takes care of the file storage aspect, so effectively it is even simpler and quicker than uploading and linking to files individually.

      Again, I never said that staff should be doing this without training and support. That is why institutions employ eLearning teams: staff could just spend 10 minutes of their time and ask for the best way of handling their content. I am here to advise and help them set up the best possible solution that is suited to their skill level. That is my job.

      Let’s keep the debate going!

    • Hi RoamingLT – thanks for the comment.
      The more time spent outside of Moodle the less the teacher is likely to be comfortable with Moodle – so this could be counter productive. – Talk about hitting the nail on the head! ;)

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