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.

Reversing the order of a Moodle Course

Many years ago, when I was teaching at a college, and at the same time responsible for the ILT/e-learning provision within that area, I used to hold regular course rep meetings with students (I would give them a free lunch as an incentive) so that I could find out things about what they liked or didn’t like about the things we were doing. These proved really useful meetings and many things were changed or implemented as a result.

Picture of someone doing a headstand in front of a frozen waterfall

Upside down

One thing that came up in a meeting, was a student suggested that it would be better if the content on the VLE was displayed in reverse chronological order – e.g. the most recent stuff appeared at the top and older stuff moved down accordingly. At the time I had never seen this done before and the other students thought it was a stupid idea, but I saw where he was coming from, and as services like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, News Feed etc have evolved the norm is for the most recent content to appear at the top of the list and everything else to move down – so it makes sense that the VLE could do the same – if a course is 30+ weeks long, why are we asking the learners to scroll down through content and resources that they covered 9 months ago?

I have tried this technique with a few courses that I have been involved in, and I think it is a better way of working – the only problem was that within Moodle there wasn’t an automatic way to do this, I either had to pre-create my weeks in reverse order and then set the restrict access settings for each week to make them appear at the right time, or I would create the weeks content as I went and would manually drag this topic to the top of the list when appropriate. Neither solution was ideal and not something that most teachers would have the time or inclination to do.

However – whilst searching for something else on the Moodle plugin site I came across something called ‘Weekly format reversed’ a plugin that will do exactly what I want – automatically reverse the course for me. I haven’t tried this yet as none of the moodles that I am working on at the moment want this approach, and looking at the comments it looks like there were a few bugs, but hopefully if enough people use and contribute to this plugin they will get sorted out. This way of working may not work for all people, but is certainly something that is worth trying, and things look very different when viewed the other way up.

If nothing else – this reduces the need for excessive scrolling, which is one of the main considerations when designing a VLE area.

Adding files to Moodle in multiple formats

In my previous 2 posts I have talked about:

Wordpress icon Adding a file into a content area in Moodle 2

Wordpress icon Adding file type icons to Moodle

Another consideration when using files within any VLE system, is there is now a strong case to upload content in more than one format to take account of the fact that there are many different systems out there, and not all file types will be accessible from all computers or mobile devices.

e.g. a word document if opened on something like an iPhone or iPad although it will open, the layout and formatting may be changed and may make it unusable. If the word document is only ever going to be read and not interacted with by the learner, then the sensible thing is to save the file as a PDF – which will work on any device and will appear exactly as you want it. If I want the learner to edit the document – then I upload in both Word format and PDF format.

Again PowerPoint does not always work well on a non-microsoft device. If the presentation is very static with no animations or enhancements, then I will save this as a PDF and upload in that format instead. If the PowerPoint does have things like animations then I will upload this as a PowerPoint show – so that those with PowerPoint have the benefit of this functionality, but I will also upload a PDF version immediately below it – the animations won’t work, but they will be able to read the content on the screen – and if the presentation is well designed then they will still be able to access all of the information. Hyperlinks within PowerPoint will still work when exported as a PDF – although is complex hyperlinks have been created from non-rectangular shapes, then these will be converted to rectangles which may reduce the functionality.

This is where using the Adding file type icons to Moodle technique really comes in as it becomes clear to the user which file they want to download.

I have tested this method on various projects and the feedback from the learners has always been really positive.

In my next post, I will talk about another way to add links to files within Moodle.