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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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‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 5 – Making it happen

This is the 5th and final post in my series on the notion of the flipped classroom. So far the previous posts have been:-

So if  an organisation wants to start using the flipped classroom, what are the considerations?

To me the most important point, is to think this through strategically. This is not something that can be taken on lightly or whimsically and without proper planning. We have to think about which courses this would be suitable for. As I mentioned in the second post in this series – not all learners will want this mode of delivery and especially if students are paying to study (at HE) if a course is going to be taught this way, I think it should be upfront and advertised so they can consciously choose (or not choose) to study there. In the past Universities in particular have had the freedom and mindset to change the way that they deliver without consulting with the students, and without any real comeback. Now that the fees are so high, we have to treat the student more as a customer, so cannot do this.

If a course decides to use this model of learning, we have to think, do we do this for all units or modules, or just some. Or do we experiment with one term or half term first and see how it goes. The key here is that students have to be clear what is going on – we cannot keep chopping and changing as we go along, and for the idea of the flipped classroom to work, it has to become embedded within the students experience – so we cannot just do an odd session here or there – we do need to give this a significant amount of time for the students to settle into it. This area is where the process needs to be closely managed, and is where I think the biggest risk of failure lies. If for example students are studying say 6 units at one point in time, and 1 of the 6 wants to use the flipped classroom ideology. The process will need to be managed to ensure that the students have the time to be able to do the preparatory work required. The problem lies in (typically) week 7 of the semester when 3 of the remaining 5 units have submission deadlines – and the students spend their ‘free-time’ working on this rather than the other units, they then turn up to the ‘flipped’ seminar not fully prepared and the seminar makes no sense.

Another issue is how do we create (or locate) the content that the students will be accessing. One option is for the tutor to create these as they go along – which as long as they stay 1 or 2 weeks ahead of the learners is OK. Many don’t like this idea as they see it as risky, but from my experience it was no different to how many face to face lecturers work, so is an option – as long as the tutor recognises the time required and can factor this into their weekly schedule. The other option is to create everything up front – which requires a bigger amount of initial investment, and is seen by many as less risky but if you choose a style of content packaging, that when you use it with the learners doesn’t work very well, your initial investment will have been wasted, as the packaging will need to be retrospectively changed.

Another issue to consider is the quality issue. When we watch video we tend to judge the quality of the video against the quality that we see on TV, which is professionally produced (at huge cost), and delivered in HD onto your expensive 40″ flat screen – as a result most videos that an educational organisation produces to support teaching and learning will be inferior quality, but this is OK, and we are lucky that videos that apear on the Khan Academy has set a benchmark for us. For years we have talked about elearning or ILT as a method of getting away from ‘chalk and talk’ – and yet ironically the Khan Academy videos are basically just that (they even have a black background – like a chalk board), and although not everyone likes them – we cannot deny that they have had a huge impact on many people.

So if a tutor is creating video clips as part of the flipped classroom process – we can use screen casting software – some of the free ones being perfectly adequate. It doesn’t matter if we occasionally cough in the audio, or things aren’t really slick, as the Khan Academy has shown. If we want to use handwritten notes, then I would be inclined to invest in a digital tablet that allows you to write with a pen rather than the mouse, or if we know exactly what we are going to write then we can prepare these as typed boxes that we just drag into view during the process e.g. like in this video, where I have created a revision activity.

When I created this, my kids (and 2 others) were in the house making noise – I didn’t realise how much noise as I had my headset on – but you can hear them in the video. My initial instinct when I played it back was to re-record it, but I didn’t because I wanted to show that for teaching and learning purposes, this would be OK – we need to concentrate on the quality of the content and the way that it is presented – rather than spending hours and hours making the very little tweaks that although improve the quality doesn’t justify the time.

I have worked with a few organisations recently which seem to want to go for a wholesale blanket change of delivery to this new ideology – which worries me somewhat, especially as they seem to be doing this because there are problems with the quality of teaching and learning and they see this as a way out of trouble – however I am concerned that the current problems with teaching and learning will only be exaggerated by this process not solved.

Another problem is the support needed. Most organisations will have some form of central team that can help with the production of elearning content or videos, but it is highly unlikely that any could fully support an entire organisation switching in one go. If the flipped classroom is ever going to be a long running success, it will require tutors to be given the tools, time and support for them to create the bulk of the content themselves, with the central teams working in a support capacity, rather than a doing capacity.

And as I end many of these blog posts – the need for good quality CPD (and strategically delivered) is paramount. This isn’t just a 2 hour session in July to introduce them to the ideas – we need to learn about the differences between online delivery and face to face delivery, where and how to find appropriate images, how to capture effective videos, and probably even little bits of html so that we can put this together within the VLE.

If we get it right it could be great. If we get it wrong, it will be a disaster. The flipped classroom is definitely not a short term cost saving practice. If we are serious then we need to think it through strategically and carefully, and not just jump on the bandwagon because it is passing….then next one is probably just round the corner.

‘Flipping eL’ – ‘The Flipped Classroom’ – part 2 – One size doesn’t fit all!

In my previous post I introduced my opinion on the notion of the ‘Flipped Classroom’. In general I think this is a model that may have potential for certain learners on certain courses in certain situations, the problem is there are many situations were this won’t work, and my fear is that organisations will try to implement a 1 size fits all approach which invariably becomes a 1 size fits none.

Different sizes of boots

One size doesn’t fit all

For the flipped classroom to work, the notion has to be fully embedded, understood, and embraced by the tutors and learners to be successful. When I was at school, doing my GCSE subjects, we had a homework timetable where on each evening we would have 3 different subjects worth of homework – each 30mins long, and as students we did this without exception – so in this situation the flipped classroom could work – however I was lucky enough to have passed my 12+ and ended up at a very good Grammar School. I don’t think this model would work with schools that have less motivated students, or ones where students have less supportive family home lives. If you have a mixed group of students, where some do the necessary preparatory work, and others don’t the risk is that parts of the face to face sessions, would be spent trying to ‘catch up’ those that didn’t do their prep work – which would annoy those that did and seriously weaken the model. There will also be a fear from the school managers of the impact on league table positions, which I would see resulting in extra work for the teachers as they try to accomodate the needs of the less motivated students, to ensure they don’t do worse than the previous model.

If we look at HE, hopefully learners are more self motivated, better at managing their time and want to learn – so again there is potential that this could work – but I think we would need to advertise clearly before students enrol on a course, that this is the intended model, so that they can make a conscious decision as to whether they would prefer this model or not, and if not they then choose an alternate provider. If students have signed up for a course at an institution, and then suddenly we introduce this model without discussion with them, then I would expect an element of dissatisfaction from them, and if they are paying up to £9K per year for the privilege then in my opinion, dissatisfaction just isn’t an option.

The most interesting area for this model is FE – which is where I started my lecturing career. The norm within traditional FE is that students don’t get ‘homework’ the same as they did at school, so there isn’t the culture within FE for students to do out of class hours (unless it is an assessed piece of work). Many doing FE courses also have part-time work, and those on courses like BTECs will have huge amounts of coursework to negotiate leaving them no extra time for this model. The only way that this time could be created, would be to reduce the teaching timetable – but the risk of that is the learners just spend the time doing more part-time work, or other distracting activity, so I foresee the need to have ‘monitored’ class time where the learners sit in a classroom doing their prep – but this then self defeats the point of the process.

Where this model may work very well within FE is if learners actively choose to study their courses via a mixture of face to face and online delivery methods – This model had been difficult in the past to achieve as the funding model required a recording of the guided learning hours, so it was very difficult to quantify and record the proportion of time spent on the online elements – and because the college didn’t want its funding reduced had to deliver the same full number of contact hours. Changes to the funding mechanism in recent years means that FE qualifications will have a notional numbers of hours from which the funding model is based, however these hours do not have to be accounted for down to the last minute as was previous. This opens a lot of potential new avenues for FE colleges and Work Based Learning providers in particular, but from my experience as a freelance consultant, most organisations are not moving forward quickly in this area – one exception is Loughborough College, and in particular the sport courses – with whom I have been working on these things for a few years now. They have been delivering online learning at FE level very successfully for about 5 years, mainly to elite athletes for whom the demands of training and competition prevent them accessing a traditional face to face based course.

In a subject like sport there is always going to be a need for some face to face element, in order to access specialist equipment, in order to teach elements such as coaching, massage etc. and for a tutor to accurately assess the practices of the learners. So if a learner is choosing a course such as sport but they want to learn primarily through online learning – then this is where the flipped classroom can work. If the online content element of the course is thorough and well designed, then it is possible for the majority of the teaching and learning to take place via this medium – then learners come together at key times (e.g. for an intensive days or days) in which to cover the practical elements – but hopefully with some pre-knowledge so their time in the lab or gym is maximised.

The problem that most organisations face, and FE colleges in particular – is the diversity of the types of the courses offered (and the types of learners that study them) – means that each course would need its own unique model of doing this (if they went down this route) – but that is harder to roll out, and harder to manage. I have worked with a couple of colleges recently who are seriously looking at the model of the flipped classroom, and I am concerned that they are trying to enforce a model of ‘1 size fits all’ onto all of their courses – which I think will result in problems.

My next posts in this series will be trying to analyse some of the benefits and problems that this model would bring, and look at how an organisation could go about implementing this model if they do go with it.