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Moodle developments

This post was written by Paul Brown and Rick Morice and first appeared on the LINE blog on 25th October 2011.

LINE has been quietly and steadily developing advanced customisations into out-of-the-box additions which adapt Moodle for both social, mobile and blended learning programmes. Paul Brown, LINE’s Technical Director, sits down with our Lead Moodle Developer, Rick Morice, to get the latest on our Moodle developments.

PB: What are you working on at the moment?

RM: I’ve been working on a number of small things; LINE keeps you busy working on a variety of challenges. Currently my main project is a heavily customised Moodle installation based around collaborative learning and support.

The aim is to take a client’s existing Moodle installation that is used for basic LMS content delivery and expand this to solve a number of support issues.

To make things a bit more tangible – we’re making their Moodle into a social network in which the employees can offer support, ask questions and generally can assist each other in their roles. The client is a large multinational, and the aim is to make sure that employees have access to support and are not isolated from one another.

PB: You’ve been developing and customising Moodle to suit the needs of corporates. How ‘out-of-the-box’ ready is the open source Moodle platform?

RM: Moodle is a great product, but it has some notable drawbacks. It presents a very generic feel that is almost depressingly recognisable. That being said, Moodle is relatively easy to skin and fitting it to a corporate branding is easy. Of all the Moodle sites you see around the web, 90% look similar. I personally feel that spending some time on the skinning and look/feel is important to make a corporate site.

The site structure and process are also entirely based around an academic approach – in particular that of a school, which often requires a little “designing around” to fit a corporate agenda.

Those sticking points aside, Moodle is designed around an end user with low IT literacy. After some familiarisation and customisation, the usage is intuitive and simple. Most corporates are dealing with a large IT literacy range, and this ease of use is a great selling point.

At LINE we often deliver SCORM modules, and over the years I’ve had to firefight issues with Corporate LMS’s that simply didn’t do what they were meant to. Moodle SCORM handling is strong and reliable and this offers a good structure to work with.

Finally, and often importantly – Moodle is open source, and also is based on open source technologies. It is free for a corporate to acquire, with the only notable costs being server hosting and installation/development time. Being able to offer a client a cost effective solution is a strong advantage in the current economic conditions.

So, to answer your question more directly: Out-of-the-box Moodle looks clunky and is a little awkward for a corporate environment. However, given some skinning and configuration it can make a strong LMS.

PB: What key challenges are you hoping to see improve in future versions?

RM: Moodle has gone through quite a drastic overhaul between versions 1.9 to 2.x (latest version is 2.1.1). This has sorted many of issues out, including more improved themes and re-arranging some functionality from both a coding and user perspective. One of the main challenges with corporates is their resistance to upgrading to new software such as this.

Moodle has somewhat of a “Frankenstein” development history. Initially it was more of a collection of modules that had been stuck together. As the project has matured, this has become less true, but internal standards of coding do vary a little, and the Moodle community will have to work hard to keep polishing the internals of the system.

Moving forward though, I feel that there should be more offered in terms of mobile/tablet readiness. Moodle is effectively a “large screen” web based technology at the moment, which is a shame as many learning opportunities exist in the mobile arena.

PB: What are the five must have features and configurations that you get asked for?

RM: Nicely enough, Moodle has the majority of things covered at least in some way.
As I mentioned before, corporate branding is often paramount as is good SCORM compatibility.
Often an appropriate set of custom fields will be needed for practical business items – for example employee numbers, job description, list of managers etc.

Fitting an item into a custom block is also a common process. Simple items such as admin editable resource lists, through to more advanced features such custom coded tag clouds are all easily put and controlled from within these blocks.

PB: Describe the work you’ve been involved in extending the ‘programme’ capability to provide a learning architecture to support a dispersed community of practitioners.

RM: The latest Moodle work has been genuinely interesting for a number of reasons. People within the corporate world have a myriad of problems that are linked and related. Looking at software too, you see that a knowledgeable software user can solve vastly more than would be expected by a normal user. For example: MS Excel is used as everything from a presentation piece, a spreadsheet calculator, through to a database and much more. Often with LMS programs, the potential for them is huge and they are quite underused.

The current project is a classic example of this. A shift in the requirements from the client has occurred and to develop the Moodle installation away from its traditional use was the logical choice.

The new codebase offers a social networking approach to learning and support. The idea is to remove the perceived distance between departments. People in equivalent roles can easily help each other from the other sides of the globe using forums and messaging. People are kept aware of the chatter of people helping each other by a social networks style news feed and the look and feel have been changed to encourage interaction. So called ‘blue users’, who are experts in their field, have been set up within the company and they will moderate and stimulate dialogue.

Ultimately – this is a completely new approach to learning within an LMS. Formalised learning, while still available, is moved to the back. The focus is upon support and sharing of best practice within the business.

PB: If I was a global head of learning and development, why should I care?

RM: Clients are always after a return on investment. There are a number of nice side effects this development will produce – such as employee happiness in being supported, and a more personal feel within the LMS. However, the main advantage will a spreading in best practice, knowledge and resources within the business.

As an analogy – a Big Mac is the same anywhere in world. For any multinational, the same equal standards should apply to staff knowledge, staff safety, best practice and a whole host of vital things including the customer experience.

This will have a trickle down effect of reduced ongoing training costs.

PB: And finally, what do you see as the key advantages to users and L&D teams of upgrading to Moodle 2.0?

RM: Moodle 2.x is now established and stable. Moodle.org has a lot of documentation and support available. While not perfect, this is a strong resource base and is aimed at all levels. As time has passed, this documentation has become more aimed at the 2.x audience.

There have been a host of tweaks, security fixes and general development from 1.9 to 2.0 and this makes a logical aim to be moving toward 2.x. Features such as community hubs, course completion/prerequisites and conditional activities make for a more rich and flexible default learning environment.

It is worth remembering that the reason Moodle 1.9 is widespread is that it is a robust, well supported and stable implementation. Those reasons alone are enough to keep many companies sat on their existing codebases.

However – in summary, I’d recommend an upgrade.

The main reason is support: Everyone from entry level users through to admins and coders will have a wealth of online support available, and those who are left behind will find this support diminishing. This alone makes the client experience substantially better. Add to this the security tweaks, new features and so forth – and you have a good set of reasons to upgrade.

If you’re looking to upgrade from a previous version of Moodle, there is an excellent article here.