Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Mandatory Moodle?

Should every professor on campus be required to use the college’s LMS system, whether they’re teaching online or not?

Lasell College in Massachusetts is trying that.  It’s requiring its entire faculty to use Moodle.  (I have to admit scratching my head at the headline: “getting its money’s worth.”  Moodle is free.)  The story doesn’t actually give a reason, so the reader is left to guess.

Off the top of my head, I could come up with a few:

- Disaster preparedness.  When snow days or other natural disasters strike, you can minimize disruption to classes by having a robust online presence.  If students are capable of shifting to online mode when classes can’t meet physically, then you have improved the continuity of instruction.

- Reducing printing and photocopying costs.  

- Speeding the development of entirely-online curricula.

- Ensuring/improving accessibility for students with disabilities.

- Nudging curmudgeons to retire.

I can’t imagine getting away with something like that here.  

The boundaries of where administrative jurisdiction ends and individual faculty jurisdiction begins aren’t always clear or obvious in online classes.  With traditional classes, certain rules are clear.  The administration selects the time, days of the week, and location of the course, and the instructor does the content.  So if you have, say, a Math 101 class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 in room 144, the content the professor chooses to fulfill the goals of the course fall under that professor’s academic freedom.  But if the professor just decides one day to switch the location and time to something more personally convenient, the administration has the right to put the kibosh on that.  Students build schedules around expectations, and there’s a finite number of classrooms to go around.  The traffic cop function -- this class meets here and that class meets there -- properly belongs to administration.

With online classes, it isn’t that easy.  We’ve had cases in which a professor who teaches in, say, Blackboard at another local college doesn’t want to learn Moodle for us; in those cases, we’ve taken the position that the LMS is analogous to the classroom.  It’s where instruction happens.  If you teach online for us, you use the LMS we use.  That way we can be sure that we can provide technical support and ADA compliance, and students don’t have to learn different systems for each class.

But to my mind, there’s a difference between saying “all online classes must use Moodle” and saying “all classes must use Moodle.”  The former strikes me as reasonable and sometimes even necessary, but the latter seems like a stretch.  

The way to go, I think, would be to make the universally-relevant parts of the LMS ridiculously easy to adopt.  Putting up the syllabus means not having to bring spare copies with you all the time for students who lose theirs.  Having a quick way to contact every student at once comes in handy for days the instructor is absent.  Give faculty a way to get some of the low-hanging fruit with minimal effort -- there’s always some, but it’s getting easier -- and over time, I suspect, most will.  

That said, I’ll admit being intrigued.  Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Would it make sense to require some sort of standard online presence for every class?

My CC tries to make it 'mandatory', but then doesn't have sufficient IT support.

Coincidentally, just the other day, our division dean asked us to post our departmental updates on the division's Moodle page. Interestingly, even though I have been full-time for 7+ years and use Moodle for some of my classes but not all, I haven't been given access to the division's Moodle page. I can't even see it when I go to the spot for my classes and groups that I belong to.

Using it for continuity in the case of inclement weather would be good for some classes but would still be problematic for any science/studio laboratory courses or clinicals. Using Moodle doesn't cut printing costs, it merely shifts them to the students. Even though I have handouts and syllabi on the Moodle site, most of my students still have the expectation that I'm going to bring copies with me to class. (This has been true at my CC as well as a four year school that I teach at occasionally.)
My CC also tries to make a Moodle-type program 'mandatory'. The problem with our mandatory use is there is a lack of enforcement. There are many faculty not using it and there are no ramifications for that. I think 'mandatory' without enforcement is really just a 'strong suggestion'.

We are in a rural area so if the school is closed for inclement weather most students are not logging on. They either can't afford internet, don't have electricity owing to the weather, or will use the school being closed as reason not to bother with the school website.

I use it to send reminders for labs and if class is cancelled because I am absent. I also post all assignments, handouts given in class, the syllabus, and my contact information. I don't know how much it helps but I like no carrying folders full of paper that I don't need.
I'm working on the idea that the online/onsite dichotomy misses the point. Use the right tool for the right purpose. An LMS is not the best place to give an objective test or hold a class discussion. Demonstrations or lectures can be captured and posted online. Meetings in classrooms still have value.

I'm especially bothered that we're still discussing the role of Moodle and Blackboard. WebEx-type online classes, lecture capture and 3rd generation LMS's like Canvas are far more interesting.
It may not be feasible to mandate the use of Moodle for instructional purposes, but my CC is making it mandatory for record-keeping purposes come Fall 2012. All faculty will be required to keep attendance and grades on a class Moodle page (basic documents like the official course syllabus, academic integrity policy, and, ideally, the instructor's course outline and calendar will also be found on that page). Final course grades will be pulled directly from the Moodle gradebook, so there's not much of an issue of "enforcement." I'm sure that some of our older faculty will kick a bit, but it strikes me (someone usually hyper-sensitive to overreaching on the part of the administration) as a perfectly reasonable policy. Of course, I've been using Moodle every semester for ten years, so I may not be the best judge.
I don't like the "mandatory" nature and can see it backfiring in all sorts of ways. I say that as someone who uses a LMS to varying degrees for every course I teach, whether online, hybrid, or traditional.

For me: the online gradebook is a pain in the rear, although it is also a convenience. I've had my grades suddenly "disappear" from the system more than once. I do keep backups, but many of my colleagues are so used to/dependent on the LMS that they do not. I'm just waiting for an entire college or division to experience catastrophic data failure, here.

As for requiring the system for every class - good luck with that. We're reasonably smart people and will find work-arounds. Many faculty will have a bare-bones page that has practically no relevant info on it, but they will be in compliance with the letter of the policy. This is silly - there must be better things to spend people's energy on.
At my last college, faculty in the traditional ugrad to use Blackboard for at the least attendance and grading. The students liked the grading aspect because they could keep track of them. It forced some of the slow graders to keep up on things. The accelerated and graduate programs were already hybrid by nature. Some ugrad faculty decided to use it for submission of work which had the added benefit of accurate time stamping.
"The story doesn’t actually give a reason, so the reader is left to guess."

The story DOES give a reason:

"Lasell’s push to get 100 percent faculty usage of its learning system by the end of 2012 is tied to another of its strategic goals for 2017: “Institute [an] online undergraduate and degree completion program.” ... The idea behind comprehensive LMS usage is both to increase the existing teaching tools for faculty and also to prepare them to teach online, says Alexander, the president."
Tech note: There is a standard format (akin to csv) for export and import of CMS courses. If respected, it partly solves one problem you mention.

Define "require". Yes, you define the room and time on campus, but student-centered faculty can still cancel class or hold a party or let out early or whatever.

I see a problem with only having electronic copies of certain records and understand why my Dean wants every student to get a print copy of the syllabus. File systems do crash and files can be updated with the original version gone forever unless a secure version management system is used. Even then, it would be rare for anyone without "root" access to see those files. My Dean can't see anything on faculty Bb sites, but that might be a local management decision.

And grades directly from a CMS strikes me as highly dangerous for many reasons.

PS - Your math class should be in room 1729. Google "1729".
Just a comment about what "free" means -- (I am not sure who to attribute this to because I have heard it so many times) "Open source software is free in the same way that a free puppy is free." And many Moodle institutions use a vendor for hosting/support, so you can end up spending a fair amount of money regardless of whether anyone is using the system or not. Encouraging use of something you are already paying for (as opposed to different depts. or divisions buying bits and pieces of other small tools) can certainly be more cost effective.
We have Blackboard for all our sections, online or face-to-face. I have been using it for the past couple of years, at least to post syllabi, and student grades throughout the semester and the final exam grade. Students love having online access to their grades, as they seem to be tethered to their mobile devices. Since I've started using Blackboard for grades, I get a lot more inquiries earlier in the semester from students about how they're doing in the course.

Our university, like most I suspect, does not mandate this. But I think it should be mandated, at least for grade information. The LMS technology is a real no brainer at providing some feedback to students. This is not about academic freedom - students have the right to their grades on assessments - so I really don't understand the objection. Interestingly, the third tier college where I teach has the type of students who are the most in need of this type of feedback. And most of our non-publishing faculty are the first to object with the battle cry: "but I have academic freedom" .
"Putting up the syllabus means not having to bring spare copies with you all the time for students who lose theirs."

Oh, please. Why should faculty members, particularly faculty members who might not even have office space, as is probably the case for many readers of this weblog, schlep around paper copies of anything just on the off chance that someone whose life management skills are probably as deficient as his preparation loses something ... or, more likely, misses the first four class meetings and shows up expecting to be brought up to speed in five minutes.

Northern Illinois went to Blackboard ostensibly to reduce duplicating expenses at the department level ... only to discover that students use the university computer labs to get hard copies of the items the departments used to provide.

More recently, once the faculty learned all the features of the first version of Blackboard, some REMF decided that a new version had to be installed. I have yet to find a colleague that likes the change, even though the various tabs and content categories have the latest College of Deaducation approved verbiage applied.

Just let us teach and do our research, and stop pretending that these content management services enhance productivity.
Others have touched on this, so I'm not sure there's much to add. Anyway...

Define what "must muse Blackboard" means. I don't think you can mandate the use of technology. When tech is useful, it gets adopted without anyone forcing anybody to do it. Take the old overhead slides thing -- when you put computerized projectors in classrooms so profs good give PowerPoint presentations, did you have to mandate that they use those and not the old overhead projector with transparent slides? Likely not, for obvious reasons. Did you have to force profs to get an email account?

But I just don't see the same thing with BB and the like. It makes sense where it makes sense, and it doesn't where it doesn't. If you mandate use of it where it doesn't make sense, presumably, you're just getting in the way and creating unnecessary work. Call it an unfunded mandate if you will. (If it was a net positive benefit for the costs incurred, do you need the government to *make* you do it?)

Final thought: Requiring it for the sake of getting your money's worth out of it is actually a straw man argument. Let's assume that there are varying prices per user license depending on how many licenses are purchased. If you make the whole school get on board, you can claim your average seat cost is $X. If you don't, and only half the school voluntarily adopts it, then your average seat cost is 1.5*$X. How much did you save? I'd argue that forcing people to use it when they don't want to actually *costs* money. Your total costs in this example are actually cheaper if you paid the higher usage fee for a smaller number of licenses, even though it's marginal cost is more expensive. Here, total cost is what matters.
On the one hand, as a student of the internet age, I literally can't imagine how not having the syllabus online can be justified.

On the other hand, I have had classes (canoeing 101, I'm looking at you) where it makes essentially no sense anything other than "email the professor and have the grades and syllabus online" features available.
I just started using my university's LMS this semester (Sakai). There was a bit of a learning curve, although the university offered a 2 hour course that did a good job of covering enough basics to get us going. In terms of mandating its use, my experience is that most of the pressure has and will continue to come from the students. Once a critical mass of other courses uses the system for distributing information and keeping their grades, students simply take it for granted that all their courses will use it. One reason that the university has been pushing hard for keeping grades in Sakai has to do with FERPA requirements for preventing inadvertent release when laptops or flash drives are lost or stolen. We are now forbidden to have this information on any portable storage unless it has been encrypted.
Our institutional stance is that we support one LMS. No one is required to use it (even people teaching on-line; to my knowledge, however, everyone teaching an on-line course does use it). I know that some people use open-source platforms (some actually use Facebook for everything except their on-line gradebooks, some use Moodle, some use other things). That's not prohibited, but if you do that and run into technical difficulties, you get no institutional help. And you're required to tell students up-front that if something happens with the LMS you're using, there is no institutional support. That does minimize use of outside platforms, I think.
Let me provide a different perspective. I am involved in academic and learning analytics, and those functions require data. The LMS is the first and easiest source for that kind of data.

An example of the type of program I am talking about is the Signals project at Purdue. Students are presented with a red/yellow/green assessment of how they are doing in their course and their likelihood of passing with a C or better. This begins early in the semester so that the student can seek help (a study group or tutor) or change their behaviors if they are in danger.

Rio Salado in AZ is doing something similar. I developed a similar model for a for-profit (although it is currently in bureaucratic purgatory and therefore not implemented yet). [If you are interested in learning more about that model, email me at protoscholar at gmail dot com and I will send you an in-press paper on the topic.]

These types of early warning systems can prevent student failures, spot drastic changes in behavior that a single instructor may not notice and provide an opportunity for the university to either help a student or gracefully disenroll them, thereby minimizing future gpa issues.

But doing so requires data. Lots of it. At a minimum, tracking things like attendance and grades in the LMS offers a good chunk of the major indicators. Add in things like providing access to the syllabus and you can start to measure things like engagement (did they look at it right away or did it take them a week to open the file).

Right now most of that data is stashed in individual faculty members heads, notebooks or non-existent. While these models are imperfect, they present an improvement over haphazard identification of issues and surprise failures.
We switched to a new LMS two years ago which is ugly as all-get-out and, being designed for the K-12 market, really doesn't fit our needs. I went to training which gave me nothing. I'm a power-user who mostly has to train myself or rely on the kind souls befriending me on Twitter who really know the software.

Even now, the grading system gives me kittens. I prefer my encrypted spreadsheet - it's more malleable and more reliable.

What really gets me is that no one in the administration and few on the faculty understand that there's an enormous education gap to be bridged. Faculty need to learn how to use these systems. Even an upgrade comes with huge costs of time and effort to learn the differences. And we're all education professionals (at least in part). We should know that learning isn't without cost.

Nevertheless, time and time again, I see system designers, sales agents and administrators promoting some LMS as an easy solution to every educational problem. They're neither easy nor are they universally effective!
We've had three LMS systems foisted on us in the last three years. (Once one is introduced the administrator who championed it gets a promotion, so the next person brings in a new one to demonstrate their initiative.)

After having complete courses wiped out with only a weeks notice (in the middle of finals) to archive data — and no way to do that except manually save each document and print each web page — most of us are rather reluctant to put any time/effort into using the flavour-of-the-year. The systems also don't interface with the grading database, so grades and attendance still have to be manually entered anyway.

It's indicative that the administration talked to 'experts', but didn't talk to the folks in the trenches about what we really need.
It's worth noting that my institution has encouraged us, at the same time that they want us to use Blackboard (though insert any CMS here), we are also DISCOURAGED from keeping the grades available there through the very end of the semester, because now that we have online student evaluations, the only incentive there for students to do evals is to threaten them with not knowing what their grades are for a few weeks. Um.
Get rid of the curmudgeons, I say!!!!
Fascinating discussion.

I guess there might be some value in putting grades on the CMS if it is a class where students only care what their grade is and have no interest in learning from their mistakes. Some semester I might try getting that group to turn in a form that says "I only want to know my score" and see if they fail more often. I don't see such a system as facilitating "learning" in math or science classes.

One thing I like about a CMS is the ease of distributing spare copies of some key documents and tracking their use, as S Karlson points out.

What I hate is that any records I want have to be archived on my computer because it all vanishes within a year. Good luck if the files get purged during a grade appeal that is submitted just before the deadline and the prof doesn't find out until after the files are all gone, or if a file simply vanishes during the semester, as it sometimes does.

A bigger problem is that our system (Bb) cannot handle non-trivial grading formulas. I'd still have to run a spreadsheet and just upload the final answer.
CPhysicist--Thanks for mentioning how the grading system works on these platforms, because I had a hunch that it wouldn't be useful for my grading algorithms, either, as I wouldn't be able to use it directly. I'd be curious to see for how many faculty this is true.
Yup - same issues with the grading system. For example there is no way to make it drop the lowest score in a series of quizzes. So I end up doing final grades in excel and then having to hand-enter them into the CMS anyway (grr).
I also use an excel spreadsheet to calculate final grades and manually enter them into BB. Pain.
The public high school where I teach doesn't "mandate" it, but I think every single course has a moodle, and using it is part of developing student responsibility for their own learning. Forgot to write down the assignment or lost the handout? It's your job to figure out the information you need from the moodle rather than asking the teacher or waiting until the next class to get what you need.

Why NOT make at least a basic "class calendar and handouts online" moodle mandatory?
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