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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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Stop blaming the tools, and invest in CPD

There seems to be a recurring theme in education, where tools are blamed for poor practices. PowerPoint, Interactive Whiteboards, Tablet devices and various VLEs have all fallen foul of this phenomenon, and yes the tools themselves may contribute, but in most cases it is the way that they are used that is the problem.

If I use a sporting analogy – if I play cricket and I get out cheaply bowled (which is sadly too common an occurrence) it is not due to the fact that I have a cheap bat that is over 20 years old – it is due to the fact that I swung the bat and missed the ball. I would never blame my bat for my inability, nor would I head to the local cricket store and spend £200 and expect to suddenly start scoring 100s – I would still get bowled cheaply, just with a more expensive bat for decoration.

Image of computers in a skipGoing back to PowerPoint – the staple presentation giving technology that is used and abused by many, and yes sadly there are many low quality presentations out there – but then you look at some of the things that I (any many others) have done with PowerPoint, and realise that it can be an excellent tool. So what is the difference? Well usually having the time, desire and opportunity to learn how to use it effectively. When I first started working freelance just over 10 years ago, I was regularly running training sessions on the effective use of PowerPoint – but nowadays, I run very few, as people think it is ‘old-hat’, everyone knows how to use it (which is clearly not the case) and it isn’t seen as fashionable to run this sort of training. People have tried using or encouraging others to use different tools such as Prezi, Keynote, Google slides, Sway etc. but without investment in CPD in these, the same problems will occur. Rather than people creating bad PowerPoints, they just create bad Prezis (which is like a bad PowerPoint, but additional sea sickness thrown in), and so these tools will get blamed for the poor use, and we will switch to the next ‘new’ miracle tool, and around we go again.

We currently have a similar situation appearing within the VLE market. For many years – the two heavy weights were Blackboard and Moodle, but Canvas has arrived on the scene with a bang, and many institutions are switching to it. It’s main selling point is its simplicity of use, which is obviously attractive, but talking to decision makers in organisations that are switching, I am again sensing that people are switching because they are blaming the previous tools, rather than the lack of CPD opportunities about effectively using the tools. My prediction for the future, is there won’t be enough CPD for the use of the new tools, they therefore won’t be used as effectively as they could be, and in 4 or 5 years time, they will switch again.

The decision to change VLE tool, is a huge decision for an organisation to make – there is the cost involved, the disruption, the transferring of existing courses etc. so not a decision that should be made lightly – but my current fear is that people are making the decision for the wrong reason. A more sensible approach would be to invest more in the CPD of your existing tools from the start, so that they can be used effectively, rather than blaming the technology.

So please, can we stop blaming the tools, and focus on the CPD?


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/computer-scrap-technology-garbage-2049019/

The 4 stage model for use of a VLE

A major part of my work at the moment, is working with and around VLEs, either by creating content and activities, or providing training to teachers or learning technologists in the effective use of the VLE. As part of my work in this area, I have identified that there are different steps to go through for the effective use of a VLE, which I have simplified into the following diagram, and which (I think) has huge significance strategically for organisations that are trying to get teachers in particular to make better (or at least more) use of the VLE.
Set of steps, which are labelled from bottom to top as; Managing, Designing, Building, RepurposingThe 4 steps are:

1: Managing

Many of the clients that I work for, hire me to design and create the various activities that form the backbone of a course on a VLE. The teachers then become skilled at managing these activities – e.g. pointing the students to quizzes at the appropriate times, moderating and encouraging forum based activities, providing constructive feedback for formative assessment activities etc. These teachers in the main are not involved in the design process, and certainly not the building/creating process.

2: Designing

Once a teacher has worked with and managed activities that has been created by someone else, they start to understand how such activities work, what the important ingredients are, and why and when the activities are used. They can then start to design new activities – this may be sketching out the ideas or concepts on paper, it may be creating source information in Word, PowerPoint or Excel – the information then goes to a learning technologist who turns their ideas and content into the actual activity.

3: Building

The third step is the actual building or creating of the activities, i.e. using the VLE tools to actually create the books, quizzes, assignments, forums etc. from this content.

4: Repurposing

Once someone has become proficient at building activities, they can then start to repurpose existing content, and hand in hand with this, build content in a way that makes it easy to repurpose in the future (either by them or someone else).


Some organisations have a centralised learning technology team, which is great, as they can help teachers gradually work their way up through the steps. When a teacher is new to this area of work, the learning technology team can do the building for them, allowing the teacher to concentrate on managing and designing. Then as the teacher becomes more proficient, they may start to do some or all of the building, and later repurposing.

However, there are many organisations out there that don’t have such a support mechanism, or the team is too small to be able to effectively meet all the building and repurposing needs of the organisation, and this then forces steps 3 and 4 onto the teaching staff, often without them having worked through steps 1 and 2.

I don’t have a magical answer to this problem, as money is tight, and organisations cannot just create large support teams out of nowhere, but if we think about this 4 step model, and identify the necessity for teaching staff to work their way up it, it is possible to rethink a little about how we do things. I have worked with some organisations recently where I have been asked to come in and run training, where I have had a few hours to try and get teachers jumping straight into step 3, and without any central support for the staff once I leave at the end of the day. This is always going to be tough for those staff. What would be really good is, if there is a mechanism where staff can manage some existing content first, then design some basic activities which someone else creates for them, and then they receive the training in how to build/create content etc.

Within FE and HE at the moment, there are huge pushes to get people using learning technology more (and in many cases the VLE)  – and what is very noticeable is the very different approaches that organisations offer in the way of support, and more significantly the different levels of understanding from the decision makers in these organisations.

Creating a YouTube based discussion activity in Moodle

I run a lot of training on effective uses of a VLE (usually Moodle) and one of the easiest activities that I show, is finding a video on YouTube, and then embedding this into a forum activity within the VLE.

The reasons for doing this are:

  1. By embedding the video (rather than simply linking to it) – we remove all the distractions, adverts, etc. that appear on YouTube around the edges.
  2. By adding this as a discussion activity, we ask the students a question – this will focus their attention whilst watching the video, rather than just passively  ‘absorbing’ it.

It doesn’t matter if students don’t actually post their answers to the forum (although useful if they do), as they will still benefit from watching the video with the question in their mind.

The following video goes through the steps of how to embed the video, and the basic settings within a Moodle forum activity.

And if you want to only show a portion of the video you can always identify the exact start and end points that you want to play, by following these instructions:

https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/cropping-a-youtube-video-before-adding-to-moodle/

Ask staff what they want their VLE to be able to do

Yesterday I was running a series of training sessions for a college starting to use Moodle as their VLE. At the end of the day I set up a very simple activity (using the Database activity) where I asked the staff to identify “Wouldn’t it be great if Moodle could….?”. I asked them to try and think outside of the box – e.g. what would make a huge difference to their teaching, but you don’t think Moodle can do.
wishing tree
I then quickly went through all the suggestions (8 in total) and explained which were or were not possible. Of the 8 suggestions, 6 of them were possible – this had a wow factor with the staff, most of whom had suggested things they didn’t think could be done. I then tried to reinforce the idea that you start with identifying what you want to do, rather than what you know how to do.

Of the suggestions, one of the ‘not possible’ ones, was taking the dogs for a walk. From the 6 possibles – ideas were things like:

  • Ability to set up a blog for them to carry out reflective practice (achievable with the OU blog plugin).
  • Ability for students to store files on the system (achievable with the Private files function).
  • Include an online video meeting space (achievable in various ways with a web conferencing tool).

This is the first time I had tried this activity. I set it up expecting some of the suggestions to be possible – I wasn’t expecting 75% of them to be possible. I will certainly be repeating this activity in the future.


Phote source: https://flic.kr/p/8ouCLT

Using discussion forums to create ‘Stretch and Challenge’ activities

I am currently working with various different clients, helping them to develop their use of the VLE system Moodle.

Discussion icon One of the techniques that I show people is how a discussion forum can be used to create an effective ‘stretch and challenge’ activity. Stretch and challenge, is a term that is used by Ofsted, and relates to ‘does the tutor provide an opportunity for the more able learners to be sufficiently challenged – beyond the core learning objectives that they expect everyone in the class to meet?’ A few years ago – this area of work seemed to be one of the key questions being asked by inspectors, and something that caused many tutors problems. Other factors in the Ofsted inspection regime are currently more important, but stretch and challenge is still observed and commented on.

When I was teaching, I used the VLE extensively to support my delivery. I would organise each course by topic, which was often (but not always) structured with 1 topic per week. Within each topic, I would provide certain common items – e.g. some notes related to the topic, relevant links, some form of activity and as the last item within each topic, I would pose a challenging question related to that topic. For this I used the discussion forum mechanism to pose the question. This was for me a convenient mechanism as easy to set up, and I was providing an opportunity for the learners to engage in discussion during or after the session. In reality – in most cases no actual discussion took place within the forum itself, however this didn’t matter – as I knew from observing the students behaviour and from verbal conversations that took place during the session or at the start of the following session that they had read the question, and some had thought about an answer to it. On some occasions discussion within the forum did take place – which was great as it gave the ‘quieter’ learners a chance to air their opinion, as well as giving learners access to other learners opinions (which then helped with their assignment writing where they had to present a balanced viewpoint on a topic – not just their own viewpoint).

Examples of some of the questions that I used in my teaching were:

  • There were discussions in the media about sexual inequality within sport, and it was highlighted that women tennis players at Wimbledon got paid significantly less than the men. Tim Henman then contributed to this debate, by stating that it was right that men get paid more as they play best of 5 sets, compared to women playing best of 3. I was able to use Tim Henman’s opinion as an opener for the discussion – which did evoke a huge response from both the males and females in the group – without me having to offer my opinion on the topic.
  • In biomechanics (science of sports movement) I carried out an experiment to estimate the force that the bicep has to exert to move the forearm. The reality is that the muscle itself has to exert a much greater force than the end movement (as this is a type 3 lever which gives mechanical disadvantage) – so the challenging question was ‘Why has the human biceps muscle evolved as it has which gives such huge mechanical disadvantage – which hasn’t evolution moved the muscles attachment to the forum further from elbow, which would allow greater forces to exerted by the forearm? (Please comment on this blog post if you want to offer an answer).

The hard part of this process was thinking of a good challenging question, here are a few tips:

  • When starting a discussion, making a statement and then ending it with the word “discuss” – often doesn’t open a discussion. Instead ask a more specific question to open the discussions.
  • If applicable – asking topical questions (e.g. relating to something currently in the news) will more likely evoke a discussion.
  • It is possible to ask a question from a viewpoint that isn’t your own – which allows you to ask more ‘risky’ questions (see the Tim Henman example above).
  • Asking a question from someone else’s viewpoint also allows you to ask a question that is more likely to create an emotional response – which in turn is more likely to attract an answer.
  • If students do post – you can contribute to the discussion to further develop it, explore other avenues/opinion, reference articles or webpages that are relevant.
  • If you do respond to posts – be careful not to ‘kill’ a discussion by giving the students the ‘correct answer’ straight away, instead try to lead them through further questions.
  • Questions don’t have to have a right and wrong answer (again, think about the Tim Henman question.
  • Think of a series of questions in one go – rather than one at a time. This is much quicker, and it is often possible to relate questions together. Most VLE systems will have the option to time release the dicsussions, or you can manually hide them, and make them visible as required.

If  you can think of other tips, then please add to the comments below.

Using my phone to record audio for Moodle

This blog post is about how a mobile phone and a free internet service called iPadio, helped me to recover an awkward situation by recording audio from my phone – then adding this to a Moodle course.

I was running Moodle training for a client in Worcester. The day that was arranged I had access to my car so planned to drive – however due to the floods we had to postpone the training to a different day when I didn’t have my car, so had to rely on the train network. I was a little nervous as had to catch 3 separate trains, with not much time for changes – so if any of the 3 trains were delayed I risked turning up late. The client accepted this risk – so we went ahead.

As it happened my nervousness was justified as my first train was significantly late, meaning that I knew I would be late for the training. Many people in this situation (including me a few years ago) would at best find this distressing and at worst enter a mild panic – but I was able to execute a plan:

Robin Hood (1922) - Allan Dwan

Because the first part of the Moodle training involved attendees accessing an ice breaker activity – this could be started without me – all I needed to do was introduce myself and session to the delegates, and luckily I own a phone that gave me all the tools that I needed.

I used a service called iPadio (I have blogged about this in the past on numerous occasions) – this is a free service which I had previously subscribed to – and it allowed me to record an audio file simply by dialling a London phone number (therefore free to me as part of my minutes allocation) and talk to an answerphone to record my welcome message.

As soon as I had finished recording, I went to the iPadio website (via my phone) located the recording, and copied the URL for that recording. I then went into the Moodle course that I was using during the training and added this at the top of the course as a link. Ideally I would have downloaded the audio file, and then uploaded it as an MP3 file to the Moodle course,  but I couldn’t quite do this from my iPhone – so had to settle for linking to it instead

Then the final part of the plan was for me to phone my contact at the centre – explain the situation, and ask them if they could start the session for me – by simply finding the Moodle course, and playing the audio message I had left for them.

All of this I completed in less than 10 minutes from my phone whilst stood on a cold and windy platform at Leicester Railway Station, and I hadn’t even had breakfast or a cup of coffee at this point (and those that know me well, know that I don’t function until after my second cup of coffee)

Although not an ideal way to start a days training – it did show the attendees one of the powers of Moodle – to be used in situations where the teacher isn’t present (either planned or not planned) but where the teacher is still able to influence the class.

Usually when I do audio recordings, I am sat in my quiet office, with a headset on and using either Audacity (PC) or Garageband (Apple) – which gives me good quality audio recordings, however there are often situations when I want to record an audio recording when I don’t have this set up, and for this using iPadio is great – as all I need is my phone, the final file will be an MP3 which is the best for most purposes (if I used the built in sound recorder in my phone, it saves it in a proprietary format that can only be accessed by people with the same make of phone), and I can do various things including downloading, linking to, or embedding which covers all possible bases.