Forum .LRN Q&A: Learning from Moodle

Posted by Bruce Spear on
Dirk and I attended a presentation of Moodle at the Humboldt University last week, connected with the local sysadmins and some of the users, and were impressed. We think much of what they do might be built into Dotlrn. More importantly, there is a strong user orientation and high level of user community participation that we could only envy. Though, under the hood, their system may not be as powerful as Dotlrn, it is plenty powerful. I am wondering how best to learn from and maybe integrate these systems and communities to our mutual benefit. We might adopt some of Moodle's successful elements, as I list below. We might also consider how to make it easy for users in one group to migrate to another -- and I am thinking in opposition to the one-way, monopolistic policies of commercial systems as I have experienced them, in both directions: not only for data transfer, but in developing a compatible interface design as well. Certainly we have a mutual interest in developing a mutually-supportive user and development community (as an alternative to commercial software): we are learning that all the Berlin universities are dancing with commercial software, but are under terrible cost pressures, and everywhere people are looking to open source solutions. We were gratified that the moodlers welcomed our presence, and we've promised to meet again soon.

So, I'm wondering what experiences/opinions Dotlrners have had with Moodle and what support we might find in our community for such cooperation as I've begun to sketch here.

Here's a quick tour of Moodle links I think relevant.

To start, there is the Moodle Home Page.

From there you might check out the Moodle course syllabus page as it displays course components in a very attractive arrangement by class and with icons suggesting the different kinds of course materials.

The survey page is very clean, and this example features an outline of pedagogical principles they suggest informs the application. Ditto, the attractive formatting of survey results.

I especially like their user-friendly way of explaining open source for those new to the business and think it instructive for both educational and marketing purposes.

The Documentation system is enviable, including a simple, extensible two-pane format. Help for specific components is offered in context-dependent help and written in a way that goes beyond simpy instructions, as in the "upload a file" demo.

The forum features contributor photos that suggest a nice warm, fuzzy, welcoming forum design. New users may find a number of friendly help files explaining how the system works, and this is based on a community members database that speaks clearly to the presence of an active user community. The opportunities to support Moodle are many, including the links to ratings, suggesting a strong grass-roots marketing strategy. The developer's documentation balances developer and user orientation as if all users were part of the developer community. Ditto the FAQ, which offers a fine way into installation and user problem-solving. Finally, at least for this short introduction, there is a very nifty media plugins feature.

2: Re: Learning from Moodle (response to 1)
Posted by Dave Bauer on
Hi Bruce,

Sounds very interesting. Interoperation is great for Open Source projects that are closely aligned. First thing is to find out what standards apply to the problem space. In this case I guess IMS is the first place to look.

You might be inspired by the example of OSCOM which is a group that supports interop of Open Source content management systems.

3: Re: Learning from Moodle (response to 1)
Posted by Malte Sussdorff on
At Linuxtag we had a heads on comparison between Moodle and .LRN. There was one sentence which came out in the end that struck me:

"Moodle is like a SMART car, small and suitable for modest needs. .LRN is more like a Unimog, which is large and bulky but can get you everywhere and is adoptable".

4: Re: Learning from Moodle (response to 3)
Posted by Bruce Spear on
Nice comments!

And I think this way of putting it very helpful, and accurate, and relevant for explaining the differences to others. To a couple of users I'd gotten used to variations upon Moodle as "accessible, but thin" vs. Dotlrn as "challenging, but deep, and with a formidable developer base and enormous potential". The problem with that is that my developer friends agree but my non-developer friends haven't the faintest idea what I'm talking about -- and they are the ones I am trying to convince to use the thing.

The thing is, I want to learn from Moodle and the rest so that my two cents of opinion to the developer community might actually be worth it, and as I began to list above, I think Dotlrn users can only envy Moodle's user-friendly help system, its simple text editors which allow users to dress up even the simplest messages, and the logical and attractive way it allows you to resent a course syllabus composed of 15 attractively blocked units with the various documents, forums, and links for each class meeting arranged simply and clearly. These elements are immediately grasped by my new users, and they say:

  • "Right! so as I see problems coming up I can quickly write up some tips and put them in a place where people will find it when they need it!
  • "Right! This makes it easy for me to put things in bold and make numbered checklists for students to check off!
  • "Right! This makes it easy for me to arrange the elements like I do when writing my syllabus in Word.

    I choose these three because I suspect they are not as expensive to implement as, say, the css/xhtml upgrade some of us have discussed, and yet offer a great return to users: they would be highly visible and immediately useful, tailored to instructor needs, and lead instructors to say "wow", that's something I can imagine putting to good use.

    For some developers, I can imagine, this is basic stuff and not so impressive. After all, my early adaptors modify their forum entries and course pages with a limited but powerful set of html commands, and for them a fancy editor is not necessary. But for those not so technically inclined, selecting text and pushing a button for bold is a miracle, and fun, and they want to use it like they have learned to use it in Word -- "intuitive", for them, is "just like I do in Word".

    So, I'm hoping that, after the push for the 2.1 release, we might have some energy here to discuss such features in such terms for the next release. I've been searching for a theme to call this little initiative, akin to "The Dotlrn Gardens Thing", maybe something like "The Up-Close and Friendly" theme -- though I don't know what music to set this to, but it's gotta have a a beat, you know, like, ... I'd give it a "7".

    Anyone got a better idea?

  • Collapse
    Posted by Jade Rubick on
    <rant>I think we should all read 'the lunatics are running the asylum'.

    I haven't looked at Moodle, but it sounds like it has a well-thought out design. We really have to focus on creating quality designs for what people most commonly want to do, and making the computer do the hard stuff. Unfortunately, the needs of the program design and the user design often are at odds, and it takes very careful and creative design to resolve the conflict.

    We do have a great architecture, but that doesn't mean anything unless we take advantage of it with a great UI. We're getting better, but really that has to be our primary focus instead of a secondary one.

    My grad school advisor used to put it this way: 'It doesn't matter if you have the functionality to do this or that in your program. What matters is if the user can find it before they get too frustrated and give up trying to find it.' I would add thta the user gets frustrated very quickly.
    We're moving in that direction, though.

    By the way, a good example of a web-based UI, IMO, is
    It's very well done.

    Posted by Jarkko Laine on

    You mean this? You're right. We should read it. Again and again.

    I couldn't agree more with your rant. To the user the UI is the application. He doesn't give a damn if the engine behind search results is using bitmap indeces or trained monkeys, as long as everything works as he expects, and reasonably fast. This is too often forgotten.

    Another good example of terrific UI design is the new design. The UI is very slick and rat simple, and still they have even the context sensitive help right in the forms.

    I agree that we're moving to the right direction but I think this is an issue that can't be stressed enough. I'm all in favor of Bruce's idea about creating a top-down process for package developing, starting from the functionality seen by the user. Current approach seems to me a bit too data-centric (i.e. bottom-up) to pay enough attention to really great interaction design. The deepness and powerfulness must not be an excuse for an overly complex UI.

    7: Re: Learning from Moodle (response to 1)
    Posted by Jarkko Laine on
    ...hopefully ending the header.
    8: Re: Learning from Moodle (response to 1)
    Posted by Matt England on
    Did any Moodle-specific cooperation/conversation come from this discussion/effort?  Is this even feasible between the 2 projects?

    Other then that, is dotLRN changing to address a different "user set"/market/application goals (ie, better usability) as described in the 'Inmate-running-asylum' comments?

    Any pointers or references to this sort of work that is not already here in this thread?


    9: Re: Learning from Moodle (response to 8)
    Posted by Bruce Spear on
    Thanks for the query, Matt!
    At least in this town, collaboration from one university to another and across systems seems, at least for the moment, to be foreclosed by institutional competition.  My idea was to let a thousand (or at least a few) flowers bloom on my own campus, and on that I think I've succeeded: that we have more than one system available for people of different needs and that we find a way, institutionally, to support people using more than one system and moving from one to another depending on their needs.
    The other open question, for me, is how we might learn from the competition, and I'm keen to see how the compelling parts of the Moodle interface might be adapted by Dotlrn to our purposes.  How is it that Moodle has generated such an enthusiastic user base?  How might we do so?
    On the question of Dotlrn development: now that much of the work on the "reliability release" of 2.1 has been done, some of us are hoping we can pay more attention to making Dotlrn more user-friendly and to do so, at least in part, by revving up these forums with more discussions of what people would like to see in it, and in this way, build a consensus for new feature lists, revising the Roadmap, etc.  Do you (does anyone?) have enthusiastic users that might enjoy being encouraged to take part in discussing their use of Dotlrn towards the end of improving it?