We are going to carry out a role-play activity. This activity will be geography-based, but the Moodle activities are the same for any subject. Hopefully, this will help you gain some ideas for your own teaching. Having learned about the course of a river and about the landscape at the location where the river meets the coast, the students are now going to be given the job of developers—planning and designing a riverside campsite. The students will undertake various tasks during the project, all of them within Moodle. We, the teachers, having set the scene, are going to sit back and observe their progress, online. When the entire mini-project is complete, we're going to get them to tell us, personally, how much they feel they have learned. We can use their responses to plan our future Moodle activities.
How do we do all this?
The words in bold above are examples of activities that we can do in Moodle. There are others too, but for you—as a newbie—these activities are more than enough. To set up any of them, we first need to turn editing on, either via the button on the upper right of the screen, or via the Administration block. Then, in the topic section where we want to add our activity, we click on the space next to Add an activity…. This will bring up a list of options, which might vary depending upon your particular Moodle course. The following screenshot shows some typical options that might show up when you click Add an activity....Be aware that Certificate and Game don't appear in standard Moodle courses.
Getting our class to reflect and discuss
Have you ever come across a child who is too shy to speak up in class but then produces the most thoughtful written work? Moodle is Godsend for these students, because it has a forum and a chat facility, both of which enable classes and their teachers to have a discussion without actually being together, in the same room. And often, the shy child will happily have their say online, where they can plan it out first and feel comfortable without the interference of their peers. We're going to set some homework where the students will discuss, in general, the kinds of things to keep in mind when planning a riverside campsite. Hopefully, someone will realize it's not a good idea to have it too close to the water.
Time for action-setting up a discussion forum on Moodle
Let's create an online discussion area for the students to share their views and comments. This discussion area is called the Forum.
- With editing turned on, click on Add an activity and select Forum. As a result, the following information will appear on the screen.
- In the Forum type field, click on the drop-down arrow and choose Single Simple Discussion (we'll investigate on the other options later).
- In the Forum name field, enter some text that will invite your students to click on it to join the discussion.
- In the Message field, enter your starting topic, with images and hyperlinks, if you wish.
- Change the option Force everyone to be subscribed to Yes, if you want people to get an email every time somebody adds their comments or suggestions to the forum.
- Leave the option Read tracking as it is, and people can decide whether to track read or unread messages.
- The option, Maximum attachment size lets you decide how big a file or an image people can attach with a message.
- Grade—alter these settings to give each post a mark. But be aware that this will put younger children off.
- You can put a number in the Post threshold for blocking option if you want to limit the number of posts that a student can make.
- Click on Save and return to course.
What just happened?
We have just set up an online discussion area (forum) on a specific topic for our class. Let's go back to our course page and click on the forum that we just prepared. The final output will look like this:
Our students will see an icon (usually with two faces) that will prompt them to join the preliminary discussion on where best to locate the campsite. They'll click on the Reply link at the bottom (as you can see in the preceding screenshot), to post their response.
How do we moderate the forum?
Hopefully, we can just read the students' responses and let them discuss the topic amongst themselves. But as a teacher, we do have three other options:
- We can edit the response posted by the student (change the wording if it's inappropriate).
- We can delete the post altogether.
- We can reply to it when we think it is really important to do so.
A student only has the option to reply (as you see if you click on Student view at the upper right of the course page). When we need to get rid of an unsuitable post, or perhaps alter the wording of something one of our students has typed, this extra power we teachers have is helpful.
For our starter discussion, we chose a Single Simple Discussion as we wanted the students to focus totally on one issue. However, in other situations, you might need a slightly different type of forum. So the following table gives a brief overview of the other kinds that are available, and explains how you could use them:
What it does
Why use it
Single Simple Discussion
Only one question they can all answer
Best for focused discussions-they can't get distracted
Everyone can start a new topic
More scope for older students
Q and A
Pupils must answer first before they can see any replies
Useful for avoiding peer pressure issues
Each person posts 1 discussion
Pupils can post ONE new topic only
Handy if you need to restrict posting but still allow some freedom
Why use a forum?
Here are a few other thoughts on forums, based on my own experiences:
- A cross-year or cross-class forum can be useful, as the older students can pass on their experiences to the younger students. For example, each year my first year high school students make a volcano as a homework project. As they enter their second year, they use a dedicated forum to pass on their wisdom and answer technical questions sought by the inexperienced first-year students—who are about to begin their own creations.
- A homework exercise could be set on a forum, as a reflective plenary to the learning done in the class. Once, my class watched a documentary based on the Great New Orleans flood of 2004, and the students were asked, on a forum, to imagine they had been there. They had to suggest some words or phrases to describe their feelings—which we then collated into the next lesson to make poems about the flood.
- Let's add a little bit of confusion. Instead of simply asking a question, why not make a statement that you know will inspire, annoy, and divide the students. As a result, you can see the variety in the responses. I once posted the topic: “If people live near rivers, and their homes get flooded out, it is surely their own fault for living near rivers. Why should the rest of us have to help them?” In response to this, some violently disagreed with the statement—quoting examples from developing countries, whereas some agreed with the statement—and were then blasted down by their classmates for doing so. But at least the forum got visited!
Carrying on the conversation in real time—outside of school
A discussion forum, as illustrated above, is a useful tool to get the children to think and to contribute their ideas. It has an advantage over the usual class discussion, in that the shyer pupils are more likely to open up in such discussion forums. However, there is no spontaneity involved. You might post a comment in the morning, and the response may arrive at dinnertime, and so on. Why not combine the advantages of online communication with the advantages of a real time conversation, and make a Moodle chat room? If your students live several miles away from each other, as my students do, and are keen to get on with the project, Moodle chat rooms can have real benefits. We can set a time for the chat—say, Saturday afternoon. This would be a time when we can be present too, if we wish, and the students can move ahead with their plans even though they're not with each other in the classroom. Even though this implementation has its own drawbacks, it provides us with a set-up. Eventually, we can see how it goes and then think about how best we can use it.
Time for action-setting up a chat room in Moodle
Let's create a chat room where the students can have a chat even when they are not in the same classroom. This way, they can share their views, comments, and suggestions.
- With editing turned on, go to Add an activity, and select the Chat option.
- In the Name of this chat room field, enter an appropriate title for the discussion.
- In the Introduction text field, type in what the discussion is going to be about.
- For the Next chat time option, choose when you want to open the chat room.
- For the Repeat sessions option, choose whether you want to chat regularly, or just once.
- For the Save past sessions option, choose how long, if at all, to keep a record of the conversation.
- It is up to you to decide whether to allow everyone to view the past sessions or not.
- For now, you can ignore the Common module settings option.
- Click on Save and Display.
What just happened?
We have set up the place and time on Moodle for our students to talk to each other—and even with us if necessary—online. Students will see an icon—usually a speech bubble—on the course page, alongside the name given to the chat. The students just have to click on the icon at the correct time for the chat. When the room is open, they will see this:
Clicking on the link will take the students to a box where they'll be able to see their user photo (if they have one) and the time at which they have entered the chat. When others join in, their photos will be shown, and the time of their arrival will be recorded. You talk by typing into the long box at the bottom of the screen, and when submitted, your words appear in the larger box above it. This can get quite confusing if a lot of people are typing at the same time, as the contributions appear one under the other, and do not always follow on from the question or response to which they are referring.
Why use Chat? (and why not?)
I have to confess that I have switched off the ability for people to use Chat on my school's Moodle site. Chat does have one advantage over the Forum, which is that you can hold discussions in real time with the others who are not physically present in the same room as you. This could be useful on occasions, such as when the teacher is absent from school (but available online). He or she can contact the class at the start of the lesson to check whether they know what they are doing. The students in our school council use Chat for meetings out of school hours, as do our school Governors. You can also read the transcript of a chat (the chat log) after it has happened. However, everyone really has to stay focused on the discussion topic, otherwise, you risk having nothing but a list of trite comments, and no real substance. I've found this to be the case with younger children. Personally, I find a single and a simple discussion in a Forum to be of much more value, than Chat. However, you can try using Chat and see what you think. Your experience could be different from mine.
Making our own class Glossary
Finally, the thinking part is over; now it's time to get started. Our campsite needs a name, and thirty heads are better than one. The next task will have the students suggesting interesting names for the site and the reasons why they think that their name should be chosen.
For this, we are going to use a Glossary, which is similar to an online dictionary. The only difference is that it is you (or the students) who adds all the information into the Glossary. You can add single words, phrases, or even images to a glossary. You can even set it up in such a way that when you use one of the keywords in your course, Moodle automatically makes a link to the entry for that word in the glossary. The students can then click on these links to learn more about them. Glossaries are useful for teachers who want to provide key terms for a particular topic, but students learn best from them when they build up the vocabulary themselves. We're going to get our students to add possible names for the riverside site to a Glossary. We want the students to think creatively and imaginatively, and to justify their choices.
Time for action-getting students to create their own Glossary
Let's create a Glossary where the students will be able post their suggestions. This will help us in understanding their choices.
- With editing turned on, select the Glossary option, within the Add an activity option.
- Provide a suitable name for the glossary in the Name field, and describe what the glossary's about in the Description text block.
- There are many options that you can specify for a glossary. To start with, just leave them as they are shown in the following screenshot:
If you want to moderate entries before they appear in the glossary, choose No in the Approved by default field. If you want to let students comment on entries, choose Yes in the Allow comments box.
- Click on Save and display.
What just happened?
We've set up an area on Moodle where our class students can add their suggested names for the campsite. We're using a Glossary which we could—under other circumstances—use as a collaborative dictionary, giving our students the task of building it up, and saving ourselves the effort. If we look at the finished article now, it will appear as shown in the following screenshot:
- In order to enter a word, or suggested campsite name, into the glossary click on Add a new entry
- In the Concept field, enter your word or term-in our case, the suggested campsite name
- In the Description field, enter the definition of the glossary term—in our case, the reasoning behind the choice of name
Don't be put off by all the tabs. As you get more into Moodle, you can investigate the glossary further. You can set categories for entries. For example, you can add keywords, that is, synonyms, that will be hyperlinked to our glossary terms wherever they appear in our course. We could also set a rating system for the glossary and allow our students to give points to the most popular names. For now, however, we just want our class to add words.
Showcasing the plans in a database
Let's assume that the students have decided on the campsite location and design. The students can make use of Microsoft Paint or OpenOffice Draw to draw and label their plans. They have to save their work as a .jpg file—in other words, as an image ready to be shared with others. We now need a space on Moodle where the students can send in their plans for others to see and to vote for. In this case, a Moodle database will serve our purpose well. Don't be put off by the term database. Being a non-technical person myself, the term database conjures up visions of spreadsheets and formulae to me. In Moodle, the database is merely a communal area where anyone can upload items or add information for others to view. However, as with the glossary, the Moodle database has a lot of extra features that we don't need yet—so we'll just ignore them.
Time for action-setting up a database
Let's create a database to which the students can post their designs.
- With editing turned on, select the Database option within the Add an Activity option.
- In the Name field, provide a suitable title for your database and, in the Introduction block, specify what you want the students to add—in our case, the image file of their campsite design.
- Don't worry about any settings that you're not sure of. For now, just click on Save and Display.
- Click on the drop-down arrow for the Create a new field field, and select Picture, as shown in the following screenshot.
Fields are simply bits of information, such as names, addresses, dates, and so on.
- In the Field Name field, enter a suitable title for the field and in the Field Description field, enter what you want the student to do (such as upload their campsite design). Set the image size, if you wish, by entering a width and height in pixels next to the Width and Height fields.
- Click on Add, and then select text area.
- Fill in the appropriate details, as shown in the following screenshot, setting a width and height for the text field depending on the amount of text that you want the students to enter (you might need to experiment with an optimum text box size).
- Click on the Add button to save.
What just happened?
We set up an area—a database—in Moodle with space for our students to send in their plans, and space for them to sell us their designs. If we look at our finished activity, we will see this:
Clicking on the Add entry tab will take us—and our students—to the upload area, as shown in the following screenshot:
Now, we need to wait until all the designs are in. Let's take a break here.
The aim of this article was to get our students involved—as our Teaching Assistant—in a project with Moodle. So far, they've made use of the Forum and the Chat room to exchange their initial thoughts and ideas. They've come up with the names for the site, which they've shared in a glossary, and also come up with the actual design, which they have uploaded to a database. They weren't tied to working in the classroom or during school hours. They didn't even need to be sitting side by side with their classmates to discuss. Just imagine—the students have set up the tasks, and they didn't even need us—the teachers—to be there (although it's important to keep an eye on their discussions). This is another attraction of Moodle; students can work independently, once they have understood what is to be done.
In the next part of this series, we will let the class vote the winner, evaluate the project by using a Moodle choice, mark directly within Moodle as an assignment and contribute by using a Wiki.
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