Strategic considerations if thinking of switching from Moodle to Canvas

Last week I attended a ‘Digital Innovation rOundtable’ meeting in London – this is an informal group of FE providers in the London area that meet regularly to discuss pertinent issues in the are of learning technology. Last week’s topic was around Canvas LMS – which caught my interest hence I decided to attend.

All of the providers at the meeting are either current or past users of Moodle, and 3 have made the change from Moodle to Canvas, and have been very pleased with the results.

The purpose of this post, is for me to reflect on the event and to provide some strategic considerations that need to be included in any decision making before switching VLE. I have met with various senior managers/leaders who have decided to make the switch, but the reasons they give are ‘we have heard it is better’, or ‘The college down the road is using it, so it must be good’, and these are not good reasons to make the switch.

At the meeting last week, many of the attendees were unhappy with their Moodles, but this isn’t the fault of the system, but faults in the way that it has been set up over the years, themed and supported. People were saying that they didn’t like Moodle because it doesn’t work well on mobile devices – when in fact if set up properly, Moodle works really well on mobile devices, and is one of its selling points. Other people complained that everything was too cluttered – but this again is down to the decisions made within the organisation. If a Moodle uses a 2 column theme like Adaptable, or the newer Boost them, then it isn’t cluttered at all.

During one of the presentations from an organisation that has switched, they kept highlighting things in Canvas that cannot be done in Moodle – but in fact most of these things, are things that can be done, and with the Moodles that I support are routinely done as standard, which highlights the problem isn’t with Moodle per se, but with the way that it had been used in that organisation. A lot of emphasis was made on the appearance and layout of Canvas, which for those that haven’t looked at it yet, is quite similar to the Boost theme in Moodle.

Advantages of Canvas over Moodle

  • The main selling point of Canvas is its simplicity – it is easier for staff and students to use, which is obviously a good thing, it has also been designed from the ground up based on the user experience, so is a lot less ‘clunky’ than Moodle (which having evolved over many years organically and by lots of different people , there are a few inconsistencies in the way things are done and the language that is used, which to an average tutor is confusing).

Advantages of Moodle over Canvas

  • Moodle has the potential to do a lot more than Canvas, with the huge number of plugins available, and its constant improvement, it is a far more powerful tool (in the right hands).
  • It is also a lot cheaper than Canvas. A typical sized college in the UK should be able to have Moodle externally hosted in the region of £5,000 – £10,000 depending in the specs, and levels of support etc. Speaking to people at similar sized institutions that are using or looking to use Canvas, they are being quoted in the region of £25,000 – £30,000, so there is a significant difference in cost here. If an organisation spent half of the difference between the 2 on training, external support etc. then they could make their Moodles work really well.

Breaking the decision making process down

Image of 2 characters looking at a signpostOne thing that became apparent at last week’s meeting, was the difference between people’s Moodles. Some are good, some bad, and some down right ugly. If you have a Moodle that is so ugly that people hate using it, it has a huge negative perception, then the decision to switch is going to be a very different one to if you have a bad or good Moodle, where investing a little time and money into what you already have is probably a better option moving forwards.

The first steps when considering whether to switch or not, is to consult as many stakeholders as possible – and for this I mean students, teachers, and whatever learning tech teams you have – find out what they like, don’t like, how they are using it, which features are widely used etc.

Then identify what you as an organisation need both now and in the foreseeable future. Many people are choosing options based on current behaviour – e.g. most teachers are sadly still using Moodle as a file repository for their learners, but as we move forward with the notions of blended learning, we need more than file repositories, and we have to be careful that switching to a ‘simpler’ system, may be a good thing for the current behaviour, but what about the expected and required behaviours in a few years time?

Thinking about the costs

As mentioned earlier, if done properly then Moodle should be the cheaper route to go down, which for FE providers at the moment, has to be a serious factor in the decision making process. When Canvas first appeared in the UK, it was seen by many as a cheaper option than Moodle. That is no longer the case, and what we don’t know is what the pricing will be in the future. I firmly believe that Canvas are not planning on following the Blackboard model, of hiking prices once people are committed to using them, but if in the future the company is bought out by a bigger company that does have different morals/pricing ideology then we cannot rule out this eventuality, and this has to be factored in as a potential risk (even if a small one). With Moodle being totally open source and free, there is no risk of a price hike – it will always be free, and if the hosting companies put up their prices, you simply move to someone else. From a risk management perspective, this is a significant advantage of Moodle.

[Edited on 17/01/2018 – Since initially releasing this post, Dave Perry commented that Canvas is owned by a venture capital company – as per this press release: https://www.instructure.com/news/press-releases/instructure-secures-pre-ipo-series-e-round so the risk of a price hike is slightly higher than I realised, as the venture capital firm is going to expect and demand a return on its investment]

Going back to earlier in the post, most people that are unhappy with their current Moodles, are due to poor decisions being made at various points in the set up and deployment, and probably associated with this, is insufficient money and support to get it right. I foresee that many organisations that got Moodle wrong, will see Canvas as a magic pill, that will solve all their ills, and will make the same mistakes with Canvas’ deployment as they did with Moodle’s deployment – the result will be, in 3 or 4 years time, we will be back again having conversations about the problems with Canvas and thinking about switching to whatever is next around the block.

Whether an organisations stays with Moodle or switches, then there has to be an additional internal investment to get the best out of either tool.

Strategic impact on switching

Something that is often missed during the decision making process, is the impact on the teaching staff. If all the teachers hate Moodle, then you don’t have a problem. However if you have some (even if only a few) who like it, and have used it effectively and over the years have invested significant amounts of time and love and energy into improving their courses, then they are not going to be happy to have to redo all that work again in a new system, and this has to be effectively managed. Thinking about myself as a former teacher and how I would react if this happened to me – I would be furious, and any future work that I do, I would make sure is more portable in case we change ship again, but in doing this I would be creating a weaker experience for my learners. If an organisation does have a few such teachers and decides that they are going to switch, my recommendation would be to set up a ‘super-user’ system. Any teacher can apply for this, you then select a handful of super users (based on their previous uses of Moodle). These are then given a single down payment to work an extra week in the summer holidays to transfer they Moodle courses into Canvas, and to use these as exemplar courses for others in the future.

Conclusion

Canvas and Moodle are both excellent tools, and I hope both will be around for many years to come. If an organisation doesn’t have a VLE or their Moodle is so horrendous then the choice of Canvas is easier. If an organisation has Moodle and is either Bad, OK or Good then the decision to switch needs a lot more thought. My instinct would be to first investigate what can be done with what you already have. I support various clients with their Moodles, and the ones where I have a high level of control, then the Moodle is clean, mobile optimised, has high levels of accessibility, a good user interface, and is a pleasure to use – so it is possible to create what you want with Moodle.

The decision making process about whether to switch or not, needs to be a properly run project in its own right, firstly to identify if to switch or not, and then what next steps to carry out to ensure that the development and deployment of whichever tool is properly managed.

Shameless plug

If an organisation wants an independent external person (who is a teacher by background, not a technical person) to come in and review what you currently have, what you could improve, and help you to make the sorts of decisions detailed above, then please get in touch. I have provided such a service for many providers, who have found the process extremely useful, and for many has resulted in significant cost savings, as well as the obvious quality improvements.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/away-fork-decision-waymarks-1020437/

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Of course it is possible for universities to run 2 year degrees

Earlier this week the BBC reported that the universities minister Jo Johnson, has proposed that some degree courses could be delivered in two years rather than three, which would save the students approximately £25,000 in total on their education costs. Since this announcement, I have seen lots of comments from academics, and universities themselves, saying that this is a ridiculous idea that cannot be delivered in reality – and this both upsets me and worries me.

Image of a lecture theatreWhen I worked for a university over 10 years ago, we carried out a feasibility study and a project looking into accelerated degrees courses, and concluded that it was perfectly possible to do this in a way that was sufficiently attractive to both the learner and the university. And that was 10 years ago – when we look at how much technology and our understanding has evolved in that time, it should be perfectly straight forward to do this now, especially if some of the degree is delivered online.

I am not saying that a 2 year degree is a good thing, there are many advantages of 3 year degrees, mainly that the student has time to challenge their own thoughts and beliefs and change them over time as their studies progress – but recognising that there are now huge financial burdens on getting a degree, I feel that socially there has to be progression into looking into more flexible methods of achieving a degree, either via accelerated courses over 2 years, or via more flexible elongated courses, allowing students to work and study at the same time.

But my main worry here, is the fact that so many people have stated that it isn’t possible. If we look back 150 years, manned flight wasn’t possible, space travel wasn’t possible, Climbing Mount Everest wasn’t possible, people owning their own computer wasn’t possible etc. Of course it is possible to run a degree over 2 years. Yes one would have to look carefully into the logistics, and the make up of the teaching personnel within a team may have to change slightly to accommodate different ways of working, but from a student’s perspective, many degree courses work on about 30 weeks of study a year, which leaves 22 weeks of non-study time, of which some could easily be used for extra work.

So why have individuals and organisations been so quick to dismiss the possibility here – and this is what scares me. I believe that the organisations realise that if it is better value for the students, then it probably means less money for them, hence the resistance towards it. If this is the case, then economically this would suggest that what universities are currently charging the students is more than what it actually costs to teach them.

Whether 2 year degrees are a good thing or a bad thing, isn’t the key here – the key here is that anything which increases student options is good – I expect that most students would stick with the 3 year model anyway, but for the few that do choose an accelerated degree it could mean the difference between doing a degree or not. I hope that some universities out there see this potential opportunity positively and do take up the challenge to deliver in this way.

Planning for ‘snow days’

About 5 years ago I was supporting an institution – who due to their geographic location, would have numerous days each year affected by snow. As an organisation they were determined to stay open as much as possible (otherwise they would go entire weeks without provision), and so they planned for ‘snow days’. These were a mixture of subject specific student paced activities that could be taught at any point during the calendar year, and then generic sessions teaching things like study skills, careers sessions etc. The idea was that if on a snowy day, half the teachers and a quarter of the students couldn’t get in, they could simple use these planned activities to provide education to the learners with the resources (teachers that had made it in). They even had a member of staff (who lived within walking distance) whose duty on such a day was to co-ordinate which students would get which activities to ensure they didn’t have wasted repetition. This model worked really well, the staff and students were used to it, and accepted it, and because the sessions had been planned in advance (and once planned are valid for future years) – they were quality sessions, not something thrown together at the last minute just to fill time.

Snow covered roadAbout 3 years ago, I was contacted by a college to provide training for some of their teachers. The idea being to improve their skills at creating ‘online’ learning activities that are self paced and can be run with minimal tutor interaction for that particular activity. The way that I ran the session, was to create online versions of the ‘snow days’. I had one attendee from each subject area, so the first challenge was to identify a part of the curriculum that can be taught in isolation to other parts, and most importantly at any time of the year between late November and the end of March. Once that topic was identified, it is then building the learning activities for that topic, usually in the form of 5 stages as following:

  1. Providing them with some content – e.g. links to websites, videos, or files.
  2. Asking them a set of challenging questions around that content, to help focus the learners on the key points, and to think critically about the content. Depending on the subject, these may be closed questions that can be tested with a quiz where the computer gives instant feedback, or open questions where students either discuss with their peers via some form of forum activity, or more individual questions, where the student either brings answers to a future classroom activity.
  3. Designing an activity in which the learners will use the information from the above, to do something creative. This could be designing a poster to explain the concept, writing a press release from the eyes of a certain person, creating a mind map of the key information, etc.
  4. Designing a ‘stretch and challenge’ activity – e.g. something optional that the more able students can do if they want, but are not obliged to. In simple terms, this is usually a challenging, discussion provoking question posted into a forum.
  5. Assimilating the above into an area on the VLE in a way that is self explanatory, can be hidden until required (and then un-hidden easily).

The idea here, is if the organisation has a ‘snow day’ or similar (flooding, swine flu etc.), they have something already planned, which is easy to administer, can be completed by both the students that have manager to get in, and for some of those that haven’t, and if the weather is such that it hasn’t been required during the year, the teacher can just run this anyway at a convenient time for them.

I have run similar training sessions with other providers since (including schools, and a University), and they have proved to be very successful – not just training staff in a different way of teaching, but at the end of the day they have a tangible product (a planned ‘snow day’), and for one organisation in particular, this was picked up favourably by a future Ofsted inspection.

If any organisations are interested in me running such training days for them, then please get in touch via http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php – I have already had 2 communications this morning, from teachers at organisations that will today be using the activities planned in these training sessions.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/winter-snowy-street-frozen-snow-1209348/

Respect for teachers

The following cartoon I think sums up the state of education in the UK at the moment.

Teacher Christmas wish

There are 2 issues identified here, one is the state of funding, which is widely recognised across the state funded sector as having gone down in real terms in recent years (despite the Government pretending that it has gone up!), but the issue I want to mention here, is the general lack of respect for teachers.

Education has always struggled with its position in society in terms of is it professional or non-professional? For someone to teach in a school, they should have passed through the respected rigour of a degree and a post graduate education course or equivalent, and as such they are and should be seen as professional. In FE it is less clear, but all people teaching should be adequately trained, and even if not should be professional in their behaviour, conduct and attitude, so again this should be straight forward.

However (and this is a big however), education itself is very good at behaving professionally when it suits them, but then behaving non-professionally when it suits them. For example if a member of staff is performing badly, and isn’t capable of doing their job properly (and young peoples’ futures are being damaged by this poor performance), then that teacher ought to be supported, given additional training, but if they are still not performing, then the professional thing to do would be to remove them, but in many cases the managers take the unprofessional approach of keeping them on, and ignoring the problem, or worse still promoting them out of the way.

Then to add to this, there are numerous Government driven agendas to standardise and in theory improve education, when really when unpicked they boil down to a lack of trust and respect for the teachers and head teachers, to do what is right, and the damage that this has, is it drives many good teachers out of the classroom, it increases the workloads of the remaining teachers, and ultimately weakens the education our younger generations need and deserve.

I cannot offer any magic solutions to this problem, some of it is rooted historically, and some is too heavily politicised to change – but as an individual, and as a parent, I have a lot of respect for teachers, as I know that teachers will be working flat out until the end of term, and many will be working over the Christmas break with marking, preparation, and many other things – when really a true profession would allow them the time off that they need and deserve to do their jobs effectively.

Adding a date picker to Excel

As a huge user of Excel, I am often entering dates into cells. Different versions of Microsoft have had date pickers as an optional add on, but they haven’t always worked for me with all versions or consistently.

I have however just discovered this free tool:
http://samradapps.com/datepicker/

Which is created by Sam Radakovitz , which does exactly what I want.

Once set up, if a cell in Excel is set as a date, clicking on that cell, will bring up a small calendar icon to the right of the cell:

Image showing the calendar icon to right of the selected cell

Which when clicked on, will bring up the calendar tool, making it easier to enter dates, and not have to worry about the correct format, or whether the spreadsheet has been set up in UK or USA format.

 

F

Full credit to Sam for this one, I am just blogging about this mainly for my own benefit so that I can relocate this in the future when I change computers.

Blended learning is not ‘new’ – and calling it so is damaging

I was recently in a conversation about blended learning with a senior manager of a college, who kept referring to blended learning as being ‘new’, or this ‘new way of working’ or this ‘new approach’. At first I accepted these slips of the tongue, as referring to the fact that it was new to him and possibly his organisation, but as the conversation developed, I realised that he was seeing blended learning as being new in general, which of course it isn’t.

I don’t want to try and pinpoint the exact point in history that blended learning started (many other people have done that) – as that isn’t the purpose of this post, the point here is that it clearly isn’t new. Although we didn’t call it blended learning at the time, I was doing a form of blended learning about 16 years ago. In 2007 I started working on the excellent AASE programme at Loughborough College – which was and still is a hugely successful blended learning FE programme, and I have been working on blended learning projects almost exclusively ever since. So for me that is at least a decade, which in education and technology terms, is a very long time, and certainly not ‘new’.

Going back to the conversation with the senior manager. He was clearly scared of this way of working, and a way of coping with that fear, was to somehow make it sound that this was an untested, or experimental way of working that hadn’t been proven, and in doing so justified his lateness when arriving at the party. But the problem here, is that this inaccurate fear, and his overuse of the word ‘new’ (I don’t think he was conscious how often he did it) – is going to have a very negative effect on his organisation. If he has to stand up and inspire teachers to change their ways of working, he will struggle to do so, as he hasn’t even convinced or inspired himself.

Image of 2 characters, one on an upward arrow, the other on a downward arrowI also expect that this situation isn’t isolated to him or his organisation, and is quite widespread through education in the UK, and I predict is an issue that may take quite a few more years to go away. What I do expect to happen is a greater gap between those organisations that do and those that don’t, as the organisations with senior managers who simply don’t get it, being held further and further behind, whilst others progress into the future.

I cannot offer any magical solutions to this problem, as I feel it is possibly ingrained within the ‘DNA’ of the individuals – I just hope that over time enough people come into the senior positions that do get these ideas and notions, that there can be the widespread cultural change to stop treating things that have been around for years as ‘new’.


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/white-male-3d-model-isolated-3d-2064871/

The future of flexible learning requires flexible working

A couple of weeks ago in the UK, the clocks changed. Most people in the UK rejoice at the October clock change as they get an extra hour in bed on a Sunday morning. Personally I rejoiced as it meant I could get an extra hour of work done on the Sunday morning. I appreciate that this makes me sound either very sad, or an egotistical workaholic – but one of the beauties of my work is that I have the ability to work flexibly, and can therefore choose what hours I work. I regularly get up early and do a couple of hours of work before breakfast, even at weekends, but then I take time off during the day which is much more useful to me and my family life. The key here though is about choice. Most weeks I take at least one half day ‘off’ sometimes more, and I try not to work too much during school holidays, so have about 12 weeks holiday a year – yes my income is reduced significantly as a result, but that is all part of the choice process that comes with flexible learning. As part of my work I support many clients both within the UK and globally – and subsequently, I regularly have to work at unusual times to account for global time variations, again this is part of the flexibility that my work requires and I enjoy.

Image of someone working on a computer outside on a bench with a cup of coffeeSo – coming back to the title of this post. We have identified for many years the advantages that flexible learning brings to the learners, but we don’t appear to have caught up yet, that to truly support flexible learning, requires better flexible working from the teachers. I regularly speak with senior managers in organisations about things such as blended learning, and often discuss options such as providing tuition outside of normal working hours – but I am often given the excuse that ‘Teachers won’t want to work weekends or evenings’. This is clearly nonsense, as any teacher or former teacher (like myself) will tell you, that they have to work weekends and evenings anyway to keep up with the planning and marking, as part of their job. Some teachers would welcome the option to work outside of normal hours to formalise the work they are doing anyway at those times.

What the real problem is, that many parts of education are still stuck in the factory/office mentality of working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. There is also an inherent and sad distrust, that if teachers were given more flexibility, they would somehow abuse this and not do the work (which is again nonsense) if they are not on the premises where they can be checked up on, these two issues are genuine barriers to organisations taking flexible learning seriously.

So – what do I propose? If a teacher is being expected to support a significant numbers of learners that are studying flexibly (by whichever means), I think that teacher should have one day a week where they have the option to not come into work on that day. In other words, the timetable is constructed such that, that teacher has no timetabled classes on that day, giving them the freedom to come in and work in the office, or stay at home and work, or do something totally different, and then work flexibly in the evening or at the weekend. I wouldn’t have any sort of ‘clocking in’ system – I would simply trust the teachers (who by default is already doing more hours in a week than they are paid for), for them to use their professional judgement, as to what needs doing, how much needs doing and by when.

If we take this model further – if an organisation sets up genuine hot-desking in an office (and I have worked at a college that has done this successfully) – you can get away with significantly smaller and more cost effective staff rooms, as you don’t need to provide a desk for every single person, only for that desk to be unused for about 70% of the week whilst they are teaching. Rather than sticking desktop computers onto the desks; you provide teachers with laptops, and have docking stations on the desks so they can use a proper mouse, keyboard and monitor when there. Get rid of the landline phones, and replace these with mobile phones for teachers (which I have blogged about previously – https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/if-you-are-serious-about-blended-learning-give-teachers-a-mobile-phone/)

This does require a major culture shift within organisations, and going back to the issue of choice, some teachers won’t want increased flexibility, which is fine, but for those that do – then now is the time to explore this way of working. If done well it will reduce costs, improve quality, keep teachers happier (which should reduce turn over rate of staff), and should increase the satisfaction of the learners.


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/laptop-notebook-work-keyboard-2443739/