For most of the last 15 or so years, the VLE market in the UK was dominated by 2 choices: Moodle or Blackboard. Blackboard being a commercial offering which had dominance in the HE sector, and Moodle is an Open Source offering having a significant presence within HE, and for many years accounted for about 80% of FE college providers. In recent years, Google Classroom and Canvas have entered the market, and Microsoft Teams is now being used by some instead of a VLE, giving organisations a wider choice of platform(s) to use, which is, of course, a good thing, and each platform will have certain organisations for which they are the best choice, however, there seems to be a huge desire by organisations to switch at the moment – some for financial reasons (moving to a cheaper option), others are spending more to move to another system that they think is better – but I think these decisions are sometimes ill-founded, and the current situation with Covid-19 appears to be rushing some people into making decisions, and potentially very bad decisions.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I use Moodle a lot, and I support various clients with setting up and running high-quality Moodle environments, that look good and work well. Unfortunately, a lot of providers haven’t invested the energy and passion that I do into the environment, resulting in set-ups that are often clunky, not very attractive and as a colleague of mine once described it, ‘it contained some really good stuff, but finding the good stuff was like rummaging through a badly laid out jumble sale.’
Moodle is open source, and therefore the actual software is free, but, this does not mean it is a ‘free’ VLE. To use it properly requires an investment in time – it doesn’t have to be a huge investment, but it does need someone to:
- Identify what you are wanting to achieve and then work through the settings to get it to behave as you want it.
- To get it to look good.
- To identify and install the correct combination of plugins that will really make it sing.
- You then need to make an investment in the staff using it, it is a very powerful system – but if people don’t know how to use it, it will be a bit like my washing machine that has about 160 different programs but I only ever use 3 of them.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of organisations don’t make the necessary investment in the above points. The first 3 points take very little time at all, so there is no excuse for them not being carried out, the last point is the big one which does require a real investment, which some don’t see the value of.
The consequence of this lack of investment, is Moodle is unfairly getting a bad name, which is causing people to look elsewhere – I don’t have a problem with people changing system if there is something better out there, but a change in system has to be thought through carefully, and sadly I am hearing reasons and excuses for changing that don’t sound very strategic to me – and especially with the current situation that Covid-19 has thrown up, we shouldn’t just be thinking about the here and now, but we should be thinking about the uncertain future that we currently have.
There has been a significant movement of organisations from Moodle to Canvas, who are attracted by the simpler interface that Canvas offers both teacher and student, but this simpler interface is only possible because it is a significantly less powerful system. For most educators (probably over 95%), who were only using the basic features of the VLE, this isn’t an issue for them – Canvas offers them everything they need, so is great, but the 5% of ‘Power users’ will struggle not having the advanced features they have been using. One positive that may come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, is we will hopefully get more ‘Power’ users of VLEs.
I am currently working with one provider, where I have been hired to develop a high-end course for them, which we have done using their native Moodle, this course is key to a potentially very profitable area of work for them. Unbeknown to me, or my contact at the organisation, the senior management there have made a knee jerk decision to switch to Canvas, I am told because they ‘have heard everyone else is switching to it, therefore it must be better…’. The course that I have created with them, is a complex course using a mixture of activity types, plugins, and some ‘Dave Foord magic’, and it cannot be transferred over to Canvas. This means the organisation now has the decision of scrapping the (significant) investment they have made in this course (and forfeiting the future profiability that it would bring) or setting up a small scale Moodle just to support this particular area of work. I am hoping they do the sensible thing and go for the latter option, as absurd as it may seem, it will bring the most financial reward. Another colleague of mine is working at an organisation which has recently switched, and although most staff are happy with the change, there is one particular team that had been using Moodle really effectively who are now very upset with the switch, as they had invested a huge amount of time (most of which their own time) in creating some really effective learning, which hasn’t (and cannot be) transferred over to Canvas. They are getting no support or sympathy from the senior management, who are simply expecting them to reinvest more of their own time to recreate things in Canvas, and to further complicate the issue – the developments they had made in Moodle had actually made it possible for the same number of teachers to educate a larger number of learners. They are now being penalised as they have more learners and therefore more support/marking with the system to support them.
Other providers are switching to Microsoft Teams as an alternative to a VLE, which again may be suitable for the present, but lacks a lot of the features of a VLE that I personally think are essential, so this again may come back to bite people. My view is that Teams should be integrated into and be part of the VLE, not be the VLE itself.
I don’t know what the future will throw up, but I think it would be a safe bet to recognise that blended learning is likely to play a bigger part of this, and if there is going to be a lot of remote learning taking place, having the ‘right’ VLE is essential, and I think the extra power that Moodle has (that most people don’t use), is going to have significance, and for this reason, I don’t think now is a good or right time to move away from Moodle – instead invest some time and money into looking at how you can improve it. Yes, it is prudent to be constantly challenging yourselves and evaluating what you are doing and checking that the systems in place are doing what is required – but any change has to be really well thought through, you have to check what the impact will be from all stakeholders (including the entire teaching team), and make sure any such decision is being made for the right reason, and the full consequences have been thought through and all options explored first, and whilst the future is so turbulent and uncharted – I don’t think it is possible to make a fully informed decision – so holding fire for 12 months or so, seems the sensible option to me.