In the mood for Moodle

Royal Roads University, formerly Royal Roads Military College, has embraced the high-tech version of peace, love and understanding.

Royal Roads, which became a university in 1995, is converting 76 of its online courses to the Moodle platform over the next six months.

Moodle – modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment – is an open source software package used by more than four million people in 150 countries. It is designed to enable users and educators to create online courses quickly and easily.

Carrie Spencer, acting CIO at Royal Roads, says the university delivers its graduate and undergraduate programs online and in short residencies to students around the globe. It had been using a system it had developed inhouse, which worked well enough until recently, she says. But it wasn’t sustainable, so Royal Roads went to the open source community for a solution. It didn’t look at any proprietary systems, she says, because it knew there was nothing available that met their needs.

Moodle fit the bill, she says, because it has a large and growing community of both developers and institutions.

“Therefore it was the kind of product we thought could continue to grow and build and be vibrant.”

Frances Long, a virtual team leader at www.knowplace.ca, an online training provider, describes Moodle as a learning management content system. Using such systems, she says, anything you can do educationally in the face to face world you can do online.

That includes things like online community centres, part-time courses, discussion groups, quizzes, tests, blogs and wikis.

Moodle even has podcasting capabilities, she says, although it’s still in the beta stage.

“People have different learning styles so you need to develop different tools,” she says. 

Long, who likens the open source movement to the hippie movement of the 1960s, says Moodle has a huge following of programmers and developers who are constantly working on improving the platform.

“People freely contribute their time to make this program better and when did that happen? In the 1960s. It’s a different way of thinking.” 

That element of open source — the free contribution of time and effort – is one of the reasons Royal Roads was interested in exploring open source, says Spencer. She says she believes it will be more cost-effective for the school in the long run, although there were some costs involved in the customization of the Moodle interface.

At the same time, Spencer says she recognizes there is a counter-argument to using open source.

“It’s fairly new and I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of exhaustive studies on the cost of open source.” 

But, she adds, “If a community like Moodle is vibrant and growing, you’re tapping into a huge essentially free group of developers. You would always have to maintain a certain staff within the institution that would integrate those into the platform and upgrade it and that sort of thing, but our estimates have that as quite a bit less expensive than going with a proprietary product.” 

Cost wasn’t the only reason for choosing Moodle, however, she says.

“The motivation is more the flexibility of a product like this. When you buy a proprietary product you’re waiting for their next release or upgrade and those don’t always come out when they are scheduled to come out. This way you can be quite responsive either by creating or adapting a new learning technology yourself inhouse or continually monitoring the Moodle community for new technologies you might want to incorporate.” 

For organizations looking to adopt Moodle but cautious about the skill level required, there are alternatives. Tavistock, Ont.-based Open Knowledge Technologies, for example, is a Canadian firm that specializes in a commercial distribution of the Moodle platform.

Mike Churchward, president, says OKTech provides a turnkey hosted Moodle service.

“You call us and the next day you can have the Moodle site up and be teaching,” he says.

Churchward says while many institutions are interested in Moodle, not all have the resources to forge ahead on their own.

“There’s a lot of effort involved in that and they would prefer to have us do it for them, and have someone to call, and someone they can blame,” he says.

Sometimes customers will opt for support contracts only, in which case they can buy blocks of help desk time to be used whenever they need it. 

While it’s more expensive to use a commercial distribution, organizations that don’t already have an inhouse team of programmers and developers will still find it less expensive than buying proprietary software licences, he says.

“Let’s assume you don’t need any custom work and that you’re going to run it out of the box,” he says. “You’re going to need someone who is a server expert at your end, which you may already have. Then you’re just going to need your training staff, the staff that actually uses the application — they don’t even have to be the same person — and you could set up an administrator who is responsible for adding users.

“Our entry level package for hosting and support is $1,400 and if you go to the very top level system … that is $18,000 per year.”

Some clients he has spoken to have said their proprietary systems were costing them $80,000 a year. 

Sebastien Ruest, vice president, research services at IDC Canada Ltd., pegs the online learning market at about $460 million a year in Canada.

Open source is one trend he sees. Another is the convergence of learning and human capital management. That trend, she says, “moves learning from a piecemeal solution in the more traditional HR functions … to a much more cohesive organizational approach which treats HR as interdependent processes comprising broader workforce alignment.” 

Content providers generate about 50 per cent of that annual revenue, while infrastructure providers and services providers generate about 10 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.

Ruest, who calls Moodle the Napster of the e-learning world, says he doesn’t think it has made many inroads in the corporate world. 

That’s not how Churchward sees it, however.

“Our customers include public schools, high schools, colleges, universities and a large number of training institutions,” he says. But, he adds, “We probably have more corporate clients at the moment. I think that’s largely because a lot of education groups still have contracts with things like BlackBoard.”

Churchward predicts that as more educational institutions finish their current contracts with proprietary vendors, more will switch to an open source platforms such as Moodle.

“We’re finding more people getting are into it,” he says. “We’ve found it’s a combination of different reasons. A lot of people are doing it to provide a distance learning environment so people don’t have to go into the classroom, but there’s probably an equal or larger number who are using it in addition to distance learning. One is in the class itself as an extra learning aid or as something they can do after class.

“The testing period is done. There were all these doubters. I think that has been proven now and people are ready to make that change.”

To increase the level of awareness of Moodle, knowplace.ca’s Long is working on organizing a Canadian conference.

“We have to bring people together from the basic user through to programmers,” she explains. “To do it online is great and easy, but a lot of users are still very nervous and they like working face to face, so we have to have a conference.”

To do so, however, she’s hoping a university steps forward with offers to host the conference and provide computers.

Re: info@itbusiness.ca

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