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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 their 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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My first experiences with a VLE

In my last post, I talked about ‘What got me started in online learning?‘ with my first foray (in the late 1990s) into this area of work being the use of a joint drive to share files with learners, so that they complete self directed tasks – either assignments or other activities.

Although OK at the time, the obvious drawback of this technique was that the learners had to be in the college to be able to access the resources – what I wanted was a mechanism to give them access outside of college – the idea of learning anytime and anywhere! I spoke to the then college webmaster @KirstieC, who put me in touch with @Lesleywprice  who was at the time responsible for the online courses that the college was running, and for that they were using a VLE called LearningSpace by Lotus (although I think we referred to it as an MLE back then). I quickly saw the potential of this way of working, and set up areas on there to support my face to face teaching (which not many people were doing back then).

At first I added things to the VLE in a very Ad-hoc fashion, so there was no continuity, things took ages to upload, and in hindsight the software can only be described as a complete dog to use. However I persevered, and in my next year of teaching, I was a little cleverer – rather than adding files ad-hoc, I created a ‘template’ for each week or topic that I taught – this was a simple table that contained a box for key things such as a presentation, notes, web links, tasks for the students to do, a challenging question, and joke of the week (which I have blogged about previously – https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/using-bad-jokes-to-get-learners-to-engage-with-a-vle/ ).

All I did was copy this template then add the files and hyperlink them to the relevant area. This wasn’t rocket science but it made my life easier as was quicker and made the learners lives easier as they knew where to look for things, and in many ways I use the idea of creating a template to this day with my VLE work.

What I was doing at this time, was definitely revolutionary, as wasn’t the norm by any means, but there were still many problems:

  • Learners had difficulty getting logged in – for some reason the software was a bit clunky and flakey and sometimes students could login, other times they couldn’t.
  • Learners would get confused with login details – when this was set up we didn’t have single sign on, so learners had a different username and password to their college login, which confused them no end and if they changed one they assumed it changed both.
  • I had to manage enrolments – The system was such that users had to be manually set up on the system, which meant sending details to a techy who was very good at spelling their names wrong and associating them with the wrong courses, and often taking 2 weeks to do this. This caused huge headaches at the start of term, and put many off before they had got going.

Although there were many problems, and in reality I expect very few learners actually accessed the resources when off-site – this period was an important area for me, in my understanding of VLE use, thinking about the purpose of why to use the VLE, and recognising the real factors that stopped the VLE from working.

In my next post in this series, I will detail the next stage of my journey which was to stop using the ‘purchased’ VLE and instead make my own, to overcome the problems listed above.

Return to Washington Square Park, Aug 2009 - 69

The idea of a learner being able to learn where ever and when ever was best for them as per the picture above, always appealed to me as a teacher.

 

There is no such thing as ‘virtual learning’

This morning a respected twitter colleague Craig Taylor, tweeted that he felt the need to write a blog post on this topic – which being something that I agree with passionately thought I would do the same, so we can then compare posts.

Since people have used computers, the term virtual is often used to identify something that isn’t physically touchable. e.g. Email is an example of virtual mail, in that you cannot physically touch it the same way that you can with a letter dropping through the letterbox of your front door.

Cerebral lobes

We then have the term VLE or Virtual Learning Environment, which some people misread as being an environment where ‘virtual learning’ takes place, and the term ‘virtual learning’ then gets misused by some to define learning supported by technology. The problem is there is no such thing as virtual learning. Learning is a complex mechanism that takes places in the brain and is a process of connections being made between neurons in a way that connects prior knowledge (from memory) to new information to create new knowledge and understanding (apologies to any psychologists or similar for the gross over simplification here), so learning is learning – it doesn’t matter how or where that learning takes place; whether it is in a classroom, a workplace, in front of a computer, watching TV or reading a book – learning is learning.

Some people think that when we learn via online technologies (e.g. via a VLE) the learning process is different – the actual mechanism of learning (the formation of connections between neurons) is exactly the same – what changes is the environment in which this takes place and the mediums used to help the learning to take place.

So going back to the idea of a VLE – I mentioned earlier that it is not an environment in which Virtual learning takes place, instead it is a virtual environment (e.g. you cannot touch the walls, seats, tables) in which learning takes places. Maybe the acronym would have been better if it was a Virtual Environment for Learning or VEL – but VLE seems to have established, and personally I am not too bothered about the semantics of whether it should be a VLE, MLE, LMS, CMS etc. what I am interested in, is that people use these tools effectively and efficiently to enhance the business that we are in, and that is as facilitators of the process of learning.

Why I don’t like ‘pet names’ for VLEs

Most educational organisations have a Virtual Learning Environment or VLE. If an FE college most likely Moodle, if a University probably either Blackboard or Moodle. If a school, it could one of many possibilities including Moodle, Frog, Fronter, and the list goes on.

Some organisations call their VLE by their proper name, e.g. they call it Moodle, or Blackboard of Frog etc., but other organisations decide to give their VLE what I call a ‘Pet name’ – things like LearnSpace, Myzone, LearningStuff, TheZone, Rex, Ginger, (OK maybe not the last 2), but basically an alternate name for the VLE. Now I don’t like this (in fact it is a pet hate of mine) for a couple of reasons.

Firstly when you do have an alternative name, invariably there will be confusion within the organisation as some people will call it one thing and others will at times call it the other, and if someone works at more than one organisation they will definitely get confused (and confuse other people) as they forget which name to use.

Secondly (and more importantly), when I work with staff I try to encourage people to try to find answers to problems themselves – e.g. ask Google the question and see what comes back. The problem with giving your VLE a pet name, is people will include that pet name in such a search (rather than the VLEs proper name) – and not suprisingly they don’t get much sense back. This is something that I have witnessed on many occassions, and frustratingly replacing the pet name with the real VLE name in the search criteria, has yielded the information they wanted. Another situation that I witnessed that saddened me, was a student was accessing the VLE and got stuck with something, so they used the inbuilt help tools within the VLE. However when they started reading the information because it used the VLE’s proper name rather than the pet one, they didn’t think it was referring to what they wanted so closed it down, even though the help function would have helped their query.

So if we want teaching staff and students to start taking responsibility for their own support, then can we please stop this obsession with calling our VLE by an irrelevant pet name, and call it what it is. Otherwise we are denying our users (both staff and students) the wonderful support mechanism that is the web and its many contributors.

Unless anyone can present a better argument for having these pet names….?