What is Moodle?

What is Moodle?Moodle is my learning management system (LMS) of choice. I’ve contributed two widely used plugin modules to it (the SWF Activity Module and the Media Player module) and use it with groups of volunteer students for my research in course content development and online learning approaches and strategies.

What is Moodle?

Moodle (abbreviation for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) is a free source e-learning software platform, also known as a Course Management System, Learning Management System, or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). As of October 2010 it had a user base of 49,952 registered and verified sites, serving 37 million users in 3.7 million courses.

Moodle was originally developed by Martin Dougiamas to help educators create online courses with a focus on interaction and collaborative construction of content, and is in continual evolution.”

Source: Wikipedia.org

Why Moodle?

There’s a wide and varied selection of LMS’ available. I chose Moodle because it’s built around the Social Constructivist theory of learning, the most widely used, has the largest online community of users and is open source, meaning that I can use the software without paying anyone licence fees and I can modify the source code and add to it in any way, for example the two plugin modules I’ve developed and contributed to the project. It also has a large library of other plugin modules that can provide most of the functionality I need for learning and teaching with second language acquisition.

Where can I find it?

My R&D Moodle is at matbury.com and includes a demo course (Login as a guest) where you can find examples of the SWF Activity Module and Media Player modules in action as well as a selection of my Flash applications.

EFL elearning course content design criteria

Elearning presents new challenges, both technological and pedagogical, to EFL course content developers when transferring their knowledge and skills to on-line learning. In all learning, there are critical considerations to take into account when developing effective, motivating and engaging courses. However, it’s easy for teachers and content developers who are unfamiliar with web technologies to feel overwhelmed and for these critical considerations to get marginalised or even left out of the design and development process altogether.

The following article is not intended to be a “How to…” guide or instructions but a list of some of the critical considerations that should be at the core of developing effective, motivating and engaging courses.

“Anything that a learner can do and should do and that we do for them, takes away an opportunity to learn responsibly.”

Gene Bedley

The list…

  1. Synchronous activity vs. asynchronous activity
  2. Individual activity vs. collaborative activity
  3. Single approach (production and/or test) vs. iterative approach (prototyping)
  4. Summative assessment vs. formative assessment
  5. Accuracy (form) vs. fluency (meaning)
  6. Exercise vs. task
  7. Deductive learning vs. inductive learning
  8. Implicit vs. explicit knowledge
  9. Variety vs. cognitive load

1. Synchronous activity vs. asynchronous activity

Synchronous activities are where a pair or group of learners log in and participate simultaneously and would normally be expected to interact with each other, in real time, in some way. These generally work best for collaborative and/or competitive tasks.  Examples would include:

Some activities can be synchronous but over a longer period of time, i.e. learners participate in the activity for a specified period of time but may not necessarily be on-line at the same time (semi-synchronous?). Social networking and collaboration platforms lend themselves to this well. Examples would include:

Key questions:

  • Do learners really need to log in at the same time in order to successfully complete the task or exercise you have set?
  • How are the activities scheduled? i.e. How do learners know when to participate or submit work?
  • How do learners determine when an activity has been completed/finished?

Asynchronous activities are where learners can log in at any time that is convenient to them. These generally work well for  individual tasks and support exercises. Examples would include:

  • Self-study exercises
  • Tests and exams
  • Submitting assignments and projects (text, audio and/or video)

Key questions:

  • When is the deadline for completion?
  • How and when will learners get feedback?
  • Can learners resubmit?

2. Individual activity vs. collaborative activity

All teachers in all areas of education are familiar with individual activities – writing assignments, grammar and vocabulary exercises, workbook materials, CD-ROM activities and tests. All of these are fairly straightforward to transfer to on-line resources and there are many advantages to doing so. For example:

  1. Learners can do these activities any time, anywhere and so, in the case of blended learning, valuable classroom time can be freed up for activities that make more productive use of face-to-face time.
  2. Learners and their teachers have a permanent record of their activities and can track their progress. This can be particularly useful for developing personalised learning strategies and creating personal learning plans.
  3. Individual activities that have only one or a narrow range of “correct” answers can be marked automatically and instantly, giving learners immediate feedback on their performance. An added benefit is that teachers spend less time on marking and can dedicate more time to liaising with, guiding and mentoring learners, thereby providing a higher quality educational service.

Just about any task can have a collaborative element incorporated into it. For example, learners could compare and discuss their ideas and plans for a writing assignment. Other activities may require learners to agree on delegating responsibilities and developing strategies and coordinating their efforts to complete a given task, for example, preparing for a class debate or proposing solutions to a given problem.

Collaborative learning tends to be far more effective when learners develop their interpersonal and language skills sufficiently to work together. Additionally, it’s also more reflective of real world jobs and tasks where people are expected to work in teams. In Tools for Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2009), Barbara Gross Davis says:

“Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more and demonstrate better retention than students taught in other instructional formats. Students who work in groups also appear more satisfied with their classes, and group work provides a sense of shared purpose that can increase morale and motivation. In addition, group work introduces students to the insights, values, and world views of their peers, and it prepares students for life after school, when many will be working in teams (Astin, 1993; Barkley et al., 2004; Johnson et al., 1991; Millis and Cottel, 1998; Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005; Prince, 2004; Slavin, 1996; Springer et al., 1999).”

Key questions:

  • Do learners have the required language skills to successfully participate in the group activity? If not, how can they develop them?
  • Do learners perform the task or exercise individually or in groups?
  • If they work individually, can they ask each other for help?
  • If they work in groups, how will individuals be assessed?

3. Single approach (production and/or test) vs. iterative approach (prototyping)

Again, the single approach is what most educators and learners are most familiar with: set an assignment, project or test, receive submissions, assess them, and give learners a grade. Single approaches are usually applied to measure knowledge acquisition, retention, understanding and application by assessing examples of learners’ production. The typical instructional format for this approach is lecturing or “tell and test”, also the test-teach-test and teach-test-teach models promoted by the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA, and Trinity College CertTESOL and DipTESOL teacher training programmes.

People involved in the creative arts are well versed with the iterative approach to learning, AKA prototyping. Experimentation and play are the key factors that lead to discoveries and “aha” moments. Typically creative musicians, painters, sculptors and writers spend hours engaged in playing and experimenting with their craft without feeling the need to produce a final product. Additionally, athletes and sports people spend many hours honing their abilities and acquiring new skills. The aim is to master particular techniques or ideas so that they can be easily incorporated into their repertoire of skills.

Key questions:

  • Do learners complete the task and get a grade (single) or do they have several opportunities to respond to feedback and edit their work? (iterative)
  • If an iterative approach is used, how will learners be encouraged to reflect and think analytically about their efforts?
  • Will learners be assessed on their final outcome/performance or on evidence of developing individual learning strategies or both?
  • Will learners be rewarded for not playing safe and stretching their abilities even though they make mistakes?

4. Summative assessment vs. formative assessment

Formative assessment is closely related to iterative approaches to learning. A combination of an iterative approach and formative assessment can be used to encourage mastery and is where learners can repeat an activity until they feel satisfied with their performance. They should feel comfortable and secure enough to experiment, play and make mistakes without fear of prejudice from teachers or peers, and therefore formative assessment should be factual observation without prejudicial language such as “good”, “adequate”, “bad”, “well”, “improve”, etc. and learners should be rewarded for effort, tenacity and using their imagination and creativity rather than the outcomes.

Summative assessment is what most learners are most familiar with, often equated to bands, grades and percentage marks. They can include giving learners reports on their performance at an activity over a succession of attempts. For example, in a skills based activity, as they attain mastery, learners will expect to see the quality of their performance increase while the time taken and cognitive effort made decrease.

Key questions:

  • Do assessments give learners a band, grade or percentage (summative)?
  • Do assessments give them meaningful observations to help learners to learn from previous attempts/submissions and modify subsequent attempts/submissions (formative)?

5. Accuracy (form) vs. fluency (meaning)

Accuracy is learners’ ability to reproduce language patterns a closely as possible to those of a native speaker and their language output can be regarded as “authentic”, although this definition is hotly debated, especially in English as an International Language (EIL) circles. Examples of accuracy focused activities are:

  • Grammar exercises
  • Vocabulary exercises

Fluency is learners’ ability to use language patterns to convey meaning and express themselves effectively, regardless of non-impeding errors. A key aspect of fluency based activities is that learners have to continuously negotiate meaning, i.e. check understanding and clarify and expand ideas. Examples of fluency focussed activities are:

  • Reading – reflecting on, reviewing and discussing text input
  • Writing – chat and forum discussion and role play, transactional letters and compositions, etc.
  • Listening – reflecting on, reviewing and discussing input from presentations, audio and video recordings, etc.
  • Speaking – authentic role play, presentation and dialogue tasks

Key questions:

  • Is the primary aim correct grammar, syntax, lexis, etc. (accuracy) or is it communication and meaning, i.e. the ability to use language to perform functions effectively regardless of errors/inaccuracies? (fluency)

Paradoxically, research indicates that some of the most effective development of accurate language production occurs when learners engage in extended reading activities such as book clubs or reading groups (Y.O. Lee, Krashen, and Gribbons, 1996; Stokes, Krashen and Kartchner, 1998; Constantino, S.Y. Lee, K.S. Cho and Krashen, 1997; S. Y. Lee, 2001).

6. Exercise vs. task

An exercise is where learners apply a formula, i.e. They follow instructions on how to do something. Exercises are typically designed so that there is a single or a narrow range of “correct answers”. Exercises lend themselves easily to self-study and form focussed approaches.

“Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is rapidly becoming the new orthodoxy in language teaching. Ministerial guidelines in countries as far apart as China and Spain set down TBLT as one of the key guiding principles for language curricula.”

David Nunan

A task is where learners are presented with challenge or situation in which they’re not given any instructions on how to do it. In some cases, learners may be provided with far more resources and evidence than are necessary and are expected to discriminate between those that are relevant/useful or not. Learners are expected to develop their own way of completing tasks and a variety of techniques and strategies are possible.

Key questions:

  • Does the activity prescribe a methodology or format to be used, i.e. How to do it? (exercise)
  • Is there a single or small number of “correct answers” (lower level thinking skills = exercise) or are there a variety of techniques, strategies and possible ways to successfully complete the activity (higher level thinking skills = task)?

7. Deductive learning vs. inductive learning

Deductive learning is where teachers present language patterns, such as grammatical tenses, and de-construct them. Learners are typically expected to observe and remember the form of the language patterns and be able to reproduce them in a variety of contexts. The typical thinking skills involved are lower-order (Remembering, Understanding and Applying).

Inductive learning is where learners are exposed to examples of  language, typically in context and with an emphasis on their function(s), i.e. It’s meaning based rather than form based. Learners are then expected to find (observe) language patterns that are common among given groups of examples and test their observations to form grammatical rules. The typical thinking skills involved are higher-order (Analysing, Evaluating and Creating).

8. Implicit vs. explicit knowledge

Implicit knowledge is where learners are expected to reproduce language effectively and accurately. Typically, they can speak and write and make themselves understood but may not necessarily be able to describe, explain or define the form(s) of the language they’re using. Implicit knowledge is closely associated with inductive learning.

Explicit knowledge is where learners have memorised descriptions and/or explanations of the forms of language patterns. They can perform well in single item tests, such as gap fill grammar and vocabulary activities but cannot necessarily express themselves or communicate effectively. Explicit knowledge is closely associated with deductive learning.

9. Variety vs. cognitive load

This consideration is about achieving an appropriate balance of providing a sufficient variety of types of activities against the cognitive load and acquisition time in learning how to participate in and/or complete them successfully. On the one hand, if you provide too little variety, the course will feel repetitive and unchallenging, and learners will become demotivated. On the other hand, each type of activity will take learners (and teachers) at least some time to learn the rubric and how to participate (monitor) effectively, so too much variety will reduce the effective learning time and may leave some learners confused.

Key questions:

  • How much time will learners spend on learning the rubric of each type of activity?
  • What are the learning outcomes in comparison to the time invested in learning the rubric?
  • Is the course relatively short, requiring fewer types of activity to provide sufficient variety, or is it long, requiring more?
  • Is elearning a component of a broader learning strategy, i.e. personal professional development, blended learning, etc., where it, in itself, provides an element of variety (the medium).
  • Are different rubrics necessary or could there just be different modes of learning resources, i.e. text, audio, video, photos, illustrations and infographics?

Further reading/viewing:

Media Player module now supports HTML5 video

Media Player module now supports HTML5 videoThere has been a lot of debate about Flash and HTML5 video ever since Apple and Steve Jobs took the decision to block Flash from their iOS operating system. Currently, iPhone and iPad users can’t view video or audio deployed on Moodle. Now the Media Player module for Moodle brings support for HTML5 video tags to resolve this issue.

What’s the Media Player module?

It’s a Flash based activity module for Moodle 1.8 and 1.9 that plays a wide range of media formats without the need for any special programming skills. Flash has been the de facto method for deploying audio and video on the web for at least the last ten years. Everyone uses it because it’s more stable, less intrusive and works in more browsers and on more operating systems than any other method. Basically, if you want the maximum number of users to be able to view your video content, Flash is the best choice.

Not only does it guarantee the best compatibility available, it also has all the other advantages and advanced features of Flash. At the heart of the Media Player module is a stable, powerful and feature rich Flash based media player. It can play a wide variety of video formats and play video streamed from a media servers (RTMP) including live feeds and can switch between high and low definition video streams according to users’ available bandwidth. It supports a variety of playlists, Flash animations, audio, thumbnails and poster images, external caption files, external audio tracks, animated and/or interactive overlays and full-screen display mode. This is what sets the Media Player module apart from other methods of deploying media.

Why include support for HTML5?

A short while ago, Apple Inc. took the decision to block Flash from all their iOS mobile devices including iPhone, iPod and iPad. This means that Apple iOS users can’t view video on the majority of websites. Unfortunately, this also means that learners who have Apple iOS devices can’t view video or listen to audio deployed on Moodle. Subsequently, I have received a lot of requests for the Media Player module to support HTML5 video. Initially, because I designed the module as an advanced, interactive activity module for video, I didn’t think it was appropriate to support HTML5 video. However, on reflection, I’ve realised that the Media Player module is now the only viable way for non-developers to deploy video in Moodle to accommodate learners who have Apple iOS devices.

What can we expect from HTML5 video?

HTML5 video is a simple and quick way to deploy simple web video on browsers that support it. These currently include MS Internet Explorer 9 (but not IE7 or IE8), Apple Safari, Opera, Google Chrome and Firefox. However, HTML5 is not Flash and so we can’t expect the same advanced features. HTML5 supports RTMP streaming in theory but it’s dependent on users’ web browsers supporting it which, at the moment, most don’t. That brings me to two main caveats of using browser based video playback.

For one;  it’s dependent on browser support and how the web browser interprets the HTML5 scripting. Different web browsers interpret the same HTML, HTML5 and Javascript code so that it can appear and behave differently.

The other; there’s currently a conflict between some powerful interested parties about which video CODEC to use. Firefox is pushing for the open source Ogg, while Google would like WebM and Apple and Microsoft would like to push H.264. Currently, this means that if you want to deploy video across all the main browsers using HTML5, you have to provide at least 3 versions of each video file: One as Ogg, one as WebM and one as H.264, tripling the required storage space for video on your servers. Luckily, it’s only Apple iOS that blocks Flash and Flash supports H.264, so if you deploy videos with Flash with H.264 and provide an HTML5 fall-back, you only need to provide one video file so you’ll get fully functioning interactive Flash video on all other desktops, laptops and mobile devices, and simple HTML5 video on Apple iOS devices; iPhone, iPod and iPad.

And in the future?

Hopefully, the conflict between Firefox, Google, Apple and Microsoft for a video CODEC standard can be resolved and web browser developers can move towards more standardised interpretation and support of HTML5 video. There are also several projects under way for providing more feature rich video experiences and I expect that deploying web video without Flash will get easier.

Further reading about HTML5 video: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTML5_video

Media Player module for Moodle project site on Google Code: http://code.google.com/p/moodle-mplayer/

Making the transition from the classroom to on-line

Making the transition from the classroom to on-lineAs elearning becomes more popular and more learners’ expect elearning in some form as a part of their course, more schools and academies are thinking about adopting a learning management system to meet their expectations. So how does an organisation make the transition from the classroom to on-line learning activities?

What can you successfully transfer to on-line activities now?

There’s tremendous scope for exploration and letting your creativity run free, but you have to start somewhere. There’s so much to choose from and so many possibilities, so where do you start? Well, a lot of teachers already use email to keep in touch with learners and allow them to submit writing assignments. They might be using or at least recommending blogs, wikis and forums for learners to practise and study very productively. The majority of EFL/ESL course books now come with CD-ROMs and accompanying websites for learners. Your organisation might already be using elearning without you realising it and your teachers may have some useful expertise at setting activities and tasks for their learners to do on-line.

So why not start with what you already have? Ask your teachers what they’re using and what they’re doing with it. Get them to meet and share ideas and help each other to make their activities as effective as they can be. This is an opportunity to create not only learning communities among your students, but also teaching communities among your staff.

Give yourself and your staff enough time to prepare

Formally adopting elearning and using an LMS is a very steep learning curve and I guarantee you’ll make a fair number of mistakes and go up a few blind alleys along the way. It’s a normal and inevitable part of the learning process. You also have to consider how many people have to learn to administer the system, train staff, design, develop and deploy courses, deal with teachers and learners, collect feedback, and design or adapt activities so that they are more suitable for elearning. To this end, it’s worth getting started on using an LMS as soon as possible. LMS’ are incredibly useful resources in themselves and open up new possibilities in ways that would be difficult to foresee.

You don’t have to jump in at the deep end

Do you really want to take all this on at once? Why not take a gradual approach? You can start by using your chosen LMS as a communication system to organise meetings and professional development sessions, and share ideas and original materials. After all, it’s your teachers who will have to engage their learners on-line so why not give them a taste of what it’s like to be the learner? They’ll also learn a lot about how the LMS works and what it can do to make their lives easier and help their learners learn better.

As for getting learners on board, start simply and understandably. For example, give learners straightforward tasks that they can see immediate benefits from, such as writing assignments that they can hand in and get feedback from their teacher before the next class. As I said before, some teachers probably already do this via email and the transition to an LMS means that you can also set deadlines, inform learners about assessment criteria and have a well organised record of submitted works, assessments and grades given that are accessible at any time to learners, teachers and DoS’. You can also analyse results and records for general learner performance and inter-rater reliability in great detail. It’s a definite step up from the possible confusion and “muddiness” of using email for this purpose.

And talking of detailed analysis, how about giving tests on-line? You can potentially free up a lot of valuable classroom time by giving at least some of your progress tests on-line as “open book” tests. Since a larger proportion of learners’ production will be available for teachers to see and hear on-line, continuous assessment also becomes a more viable option. Again, traditional issues such as inter-rater reliability can easily be resolved when teachers have access to other teachers’ results and assessments from other classes. Additionally, most LMS’ have quite sophisticated tools for doing item analyses on tests to make sure they’re no longer than they need to be (take out redundant questions and tasks) and find out how accurately they’re testing what learners are being taught (or learners are being taught what you want to test them on).

Social networking

As I have previously alluded to, elearning becomes most effective when we create on-line communities; both communities of learning and communities of teaching and, to this purpose, most LMS’ today have well developed social networking and collaboration tools at your disposal. I mentioned that some teachers use or at least recommend blogs, wikis and forums to learners. Why not use these tools productively as part of your curriculum? Teachers can set discussions or projects rolling and only have to moderate and finally assess the learning outcomes. Peer assessment and learner created tasks and tests can be powerful learning tools too. A complete record of the entire process, along with assessments, is always available to learners, teachers and DoS’. And then, there’s nothing quite like hind-sight for everyone to learn from.

What business are you in?

One thing to decide is where your expertise is and how that can be successfully transferred to elearning. Most EFL/ESL schools, academies and organisations adopt curricula and syllabuses developed by the major publishers and other 3rd parties. They’re not publishing houses and they’re definitely not IP companies nor should they try to be. It’s tempting to think, with all your talented teaching staff, some of whom might be good writers, orators, actors, etc., that you could author enough content for an English course or two. It’s true, you could produce some very good prose, monologues, performances, etc., but think about it again, what would you really have to do? Texts have to be carefully selected so that they’re not only interesting and engaging to learners, but also so that they’re on the desired topic areas and at an appropriate level of reading proficiency. And the same goes for audio and video resources: Do you really want to become a story and script writing agency, and an audio and video production studio too? Don’t forget all the equipment, software and especially expertise necessary for audio and video editing and pre- and post-production. You’re already taking on a lot by adopting elearning, do you really want all of this on top?

Know your limits and go with what works best

So rather than turning your first experiences with an LMS into an insurmountable burden, start with what you know, what you know will work and what will make everyone’s lives easier. If everyone gets off to a positive start, they’ll be more likely to overcome negative preconceptions or apprehensiveness they may have towards elearning. Your learning and teaching communities should start small and tentatively, learning and adapting as they go, and eventually flourishing into sophisticated, varied, stimulating and engaging centres of learning. Keep it relevant, keep it purposeful, keep it fun!

Book review: Moodle 1.9 for Second Language Teaching

Book review: Moodle 1.9 for Second Language TeachingMoodle 1.9 for Second Language Teaching

By Jeff Stanford

522 pages

Moodle is the world’s most popular and widely used open source learning management system (LMS) in the world today with over 45,000 registered sites, 32 million users, 3 million courses in over 200 countries in 75 languages. In his book, Moodle 1.9 for Second Language Teaching, Jeff Stanford introduces Moodle as an easy to use, highly adaptable and very effective platform for teaching second languages.

What is it?

First an foremost, Moodle 1.9 for Second Language Teaching is an instruction manual and whether you’re new to Moodle or not, in my opinion, Jeff Stanford has done an excellent job with it. It cuts right to the chase with plenty of examples, scenarios, clear, concise explanations and step by step instructions and illustrations. It’s laid out in practical mini tutorials, organised into the following chapters:

  1. What does Moodle offer language teachers?
  2. Getting started with Moodle
  3. Vocabulary Activities
  4. Speaking Activities
  5. Grammar Activities
  6. Reading Activities
  7. Writing Activities
  8. Listening Activities
  9. Assessment
  10. Extended Activities


The book faithfully follows the recommendations outlined by Professor Jack C. Richards in his paper, Communicative Language Teaching Today [pdf]. Most of the activities are learner centred and designed to develop learner autonomy. It leans heavily towards collaborative and project based learning, for example, using the Glossary module for learners to create their own class dictionaries and using the Wiki module for similar formal group learning activities. He also describes techniques to encourage self and peer assessment to further increase learner independence and a stronger sense of participation, ownership and belonging. In other words, the techniques described in this manual are highly motivating. To quote Barbara Gross Davis in her book, Tools for Teaching (Jossey Bass 2009);

“Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more and demonstrate better retention than students taught in other instructional formats. Students who work in groups also appear more satisfied with their classes, and group work provides a sense of shared purpose that can increase morale and motivation. In addition, group work introduces students to the insights, values, and world views of their peers, and it prepares students for life after school, when many will be working in teams.”

Who is it aimed at?

If you are a DoS, Academic Director, Head of Faculty or a teacher who is interested in learning how to leverage the powerful tools for learning available in the Web 2.0 environment, this book is an excellent starting point. It gets you up and running in no time, whatever your previous experience of using web based learning tools might be. The format is open and modular so that you can adopt Moodle 1.9 as a platform for your elearning requirements in steps and at a pace that is comfortable and practical for your organisation and your learners.

About Jeff Stanford

Jeff Stanford is an Associate tutor in Applied Linguistics for the University of Leicester and a teacher trainer on Cambridge ESOL courses. He also does training consultancy work for organizations such as Anglia Assessment, Fintra, Pearson, and the British Council.

His website: http://moodleflair.com/