Moodle 1.9 Teaching Techniques

By Susan Smith Nash , William Rice
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  1. Developing an Effective Online Course

About this book

Moodle is the world's most popular, free open-source Learning Management System (LMS). It is vast and has lots to offer. More and more colleges, universities, and training providers are using Moodle, which has helped revolutionize e-learning with its flexible, reusable platform and components. It works best when you feel confident that the tools you have at hand will allow you to create exactly what you need.

This book brings together step-by-step, easy-to-follow instructions and learning theory to give you new tools and new power with Moodle. It will show you how to connect with your online students, and how and where they develop an enthusiastic, open, and trusting relationship with their fellow students and with you, their instructor. With this book, you'll learn to get the best from Moodle.

This book helps you develop good, solid, dynamic courses that will last by making sure that your instructional design is robust, and that they are built around satisfying learning objectives and course outcomes. With this book, you'll have excellent support and step-by-step guidance for putting together courses that incorporate your choice of the many features that Moodle offers. You will also find the best way to create effective assessments, and how to create them for now and in the future. The book will also introduce you to many modules, which you can use to make your course unique and create an environment where your students will get maximum benefit. In addition, you will learn how you can save time and reuse your best ideas by taking advantage of Moodle's unique features.

Publication date:
January 2010


Chapter 1. Developing an Effective Online Course

Welcome to Moodle 1.9 Teaching Techniques! Moodle offers teachers and course designers a toolbox full of online teaching tools. This book shows you how to use those tools to create effective learning solutions. These learning solutions are based on proven, accepted instructional principles, and traditional classroom activities.

Moodle is a Course Management System (CMS) for producing web-based courses. It is a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which means you are free to use, modify, and redistribute it as long as you:

  • Provide the source to others

  • Do not modify or remove the original license and copyrights

  • Apply this same license to any derivative work

Under these conditions, thousands of developers have contributed features and functionality to Moodle. The result is the world's most popular, free, and feature-packed online learning system.


The Moodle advantage

Many of the features in Moodle are carefully chosen to support a philosophy of learning, called social constructionist pedagogy. Simply stated, this style of learning and teaching is based on four concepts, which are constructivism, constructionism, social constructivism, and connected and separate:

  • Students acquire new knowledge as they interact with their environment, your course activities, and other students.

  • Students learn more when they construct learning experiences for others. You might be familiar with the "learning pyramid" which states that students remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what is demonstrated to them, 50% of what they discuss, and 75% of what they practice. That same pyramid states that students retain 90% of what they teach others. You can check the learning pyramid at:

  • When students become part of a culture, they are constantly learning. For example, you and your partner would probably learn more about ballroom dancing when you're in a dance class, versus watching a video together. The interaction with other students and possibly a variety of teachers would enrich and accelerate your learning process.

  • Some students try to remain objective and factual, some try to accept more subjective views, and others try to integrate both approaches. Constructed behavior is when a student can choose whichever approach is more appropriate.

You are probably not accustomed to an application's features being chosen based on a philosophy. Usually, features are chosen based only on what is technically feasible and what customers are willing to pay for. These certainly are factors for the Moodle developers. However, the educational philosophy behind Moodle is also a criterion for adding features. This gives Moodle a tremendous advantage.

As Moodle is designed around a well-defined educational philosophy, its user interface is very consistent. I don't just mean in the traditional sense, where you compare the icons, colors, menu actions, and layout on each page to ensure they match, but as you go through a Moodle site, things look, feel, and function consistently. More importantly, you interact with each activity, your classmates, and the teacher in a consistent way, whether it's in the chat room, a forum, or by leaving feedback on a workshop. When interaction becomes easier, the student can focus more on learning, and less on the software.


What will we accomplish with this book

As teachers begin to use an online learning system, the first thing most of us do is explore the system's features. We discover it has online forums, electronic flashcards, interactive quizzes, Wikis, collaborative workshops, and other features. Our question now becomes, "How can I use this feature to teach my course?" or "What features of this software can be used to effectively teach my course?" For example, we discover the software has an Assignment module and ask, "How can I use online assignments in my course?". We start by exploring the software and figuring out how we can use it to effectively teach our courses. When given a new tool, it's natural to explore the tool's functions and think of ways to use it.

This book gives you solutions that help you make the most of the many features found in a standard Moodle installation. Some of these solutions require several hours to build, while others are just a matter of selecting a single option in one of Moodle's setup pages.

Effective learning and teaching principles are not just for academic teachers. If you're a corporate trainer, your students will benefit from the learning solutions in this book. These solutions are based on instructional practices that have been proven to work for young and adult learners.


Some Moodle requisites

You don't need to be an expert Moodle teacher or course creator to use the solutions in this book. However, this book assumes that you can use Moodle's basic features. You can learn Moodle before reading this book or learn it as you practice implementing these solutions.

For example, one of the learning solutions in this book is "Group Project". This solution uses Moodle's standard wiki module. To implement the solution, you should know how to create a wiki in Moodle. You could learn how to create a wiki from another book on basic Moodle usage, from the online help, or from the forums. However, this book will not give step-by-step directions for creating the wiki. It will give directions for adapting the wiki for Group Project.

If you're new to Moodle, consider practicing on the Moodle demonstration site at


Standard modules

Moodle is an open source software, so new modules are constantly being developed and contributed by the Moodle community. The modules that are a part of Moodle's core distribution are covered in this book. Moodle's capabilities are enhanced by additional modules, which enable better learning solutions.

Some of the techniques in this book are workarounds that could be directly accomplished by adding a third-party module to your Moodle site. However, as each new version of Moodle is released, only the standard modules are guaranteed compatible. There is no guarantee that a third-party module that you have installed will be compatible with future versions of Moodle. This can hold back the upgrade process for your site.

All of the solutions in this book can be implemented with Moodle's standard modules. I encourage you to explore the add-on modules available on the site


Instructional principles and activities

The solutions in this book are based on accepted, research-based instructional principles and traditional learning activities. Learning principles can be applied to a wide variety of activities. For example, the principles of Distributed Practice and Immediate Error Correction can be applied to Quiz, Lesson, and Assignment activities in Moodle. When we step through the solutions for quizzes, lessons, and assignments, we will briefly discuss how to apply these learning principles to those activities.


How does learning take place in an online course?

If you are new to e-learning, you might think of an online course as something that involves a great deal of reading, and perhaps a certain number of videos in which you watch a professor delivering a lecture to a group in a traditional classroom, as he/she etches something you can't quite see on a dusty chalkboard. The dominant mode in such a setting is passive, and the very idea of this experience may give you a bit of a sinking feeling. How can you learn if you're falling asleep?

Well the good news is that you're likely to be kept wide awake in e-learning courses, both online and mobile. You're going to be engaged and active in ways that you may never have expected from an educational setting. All the things you love about learning, connectivity, social networking, and Web 2.0 applications can be found in a well-designed course that uses Moodle as its learning management system.

A course that has been built in Moodle encourages learners to engage with the material on many different levels. Learning takes place in many ways and in many places, and above all, there is a built-in flexibility that allows the learner to approach the material in ways that work for him/her.

Keep in mind that each learner has his/her own style, and the best learning programs accommodate learning styles and preferences. So, whether or not the participants in the course are auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners, they must be taken into consideration, and the instructional activities as well as assessments should reflect those possibilities. Learners have options, not just with the course content but also in the approach they take to the material and to their peers.

Once the decision has been made to employ an instructional strategy that accommodates multiple learning styles and preferences, then it is possible to move forward to the next steps.

How people learn

Cognitive psychologists have researched how people learn and, in doing so, have developed a wide array of models that provide explanations of how people learn, and have mapped the processes in ways that can be utilized to create effective learning experiences, in both formal and informal settings.

Categories, classifications, schemata

One of the most fundamental ways in which people learn is to create mental file cabinets, which cognitive psychologists call "schema" or "schemata". The approach is not new—you may be familiar with Aristotle's development of categories, and later, the classification system that the botanist Linnaeus developed. Categories and classifications help people file, sort, retrieve, and talk about things and concepts.

Not only do the schema work effectively in keeping items well organized, they can help people learn to make connections across categories, and to compare and contrast the items.

Further, as learners begin to identify, discuss, and evaluate the items, they also practice taking the items in and out of working memory, and thus the approach of classification helps in developing memory skills as well.

Social learning

According to many psychologists, our culture constructs us and we learn from the environment and from each other. According to the Russian theorist Vygotsky, who developed his theories in the 1920s while working with school children in group settings, knowledge is transmitted (or created) by the culture and the group. This may seem obvious, but the implications are rather dramatic, particularly in the case of e-learning. The group establishes what is knowledge and, by the same token, also determines what is not considered knowledge at all. An excellent example of social learning in the e-learning space is a wiki.

Of course, the major wiki that people are most familiar with is the online collaborative encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Think of how many numerous authors contribute to a single Wikipedia piece, and the same who contribute can also delete or challenge an item. The group decides what is knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, what is not. The Wikipedia item is always in flux, and ideas about what a thing is or is not are subject to constant discussions, debates, negotiations, and mediations. The socialization process that occurs in the discussions is also a part of the social learning equation. If you don't post in Wikipedia in the correct manner, you will quickly be informed of the correct rules and approaches.

Vygotsky points out that people who fail to accept the process quickly find themselves outside the group. They may seek their own group of like-minded people. But even in this case, knowledge is constantly in flux and people gain knowledge and learn acceptable behavior from the group.

Emulatory learning

We learn from each other and our leaders. We watch and we copy what we observe. You may wonder how this is different from social learning, and certainly there are areas of overlap. However, the idea of emulatory learning is much more basic—we see, we imitate; we hear, and we echo.

You may be familiar with the "Bobo Doll" experiments of the early 1960s. In this experiment, Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura asked a teacher to hit a life-sized clown shaped blow-up doll named Bobo. The teacher was filmed as she hit the Bobo doll with a stick.

Later, children around the age of five were required to watch the film of the teacher hitting the Bobo doll with a stick. Then each child was put in a room alone with only a Bobo doll and a stick for company. Researchers observed the children's behavior behind a two-way mirror and they also filmed what transpired. What they found is that the children invariably picked up the stick and then used it to hit the Bobo doll. The interesting point is that the children seemed to enjoy the experience, which is illuminating and disturbing at the same time. The children imitated what they saw, and they did it with relish.

Lesson learned? Be careful about the behavior that you are unconsciously modeling. Someone will learn from you. They will imitate you, which is either a very good thing or potentially harmful. In the e-learning space, it's an invaluable thing to keep in mind as you model positive behavior which will then be imitated.

Making sure that the courses include a good guide and a model to follow is important. Not only will learners imitate the behaviors, they will start to feel comfortable with the processes. In the e-learning world, Bandura's notion of emulatory behavior is a cornerstone to learning in Moodle, which contains a high level of interactivity.

Communities of practice

People who share interests and skills like to work together. They share similar interests and have a strong sense of affiliation, which is often based on trust and a firm sense of mutual comprehension and acceptance.

Communities of interest are sheltering, nurturing, and liberating. They allow freedom of expression, which is simply not possible in the world at large. People (and learners) thrive when they can work in a friendly, non-judgmental environment. This is almost axiomatic with e-learners and at-risk populations (which often comprise a large segment of the online learning community).

Communities of interest that arise from shared prior knowledge, commonly held beliefs and cultural values, and shared experiences are often powerful because they motivate learners to stay as a part of the group. They provide a strong sense of affiliation. An e-learning program that builds communities of interest around cohorts can achieve great success.

Social practice

You've probably heard the term, "learning by doing" many times, but have not really considered how it relates to e-learning. The key is application. Applying the concepts by doing activities is one way to keep the learning experience from becoming passive. In an ideal e-learning environment, application of concepts would occur often, and the big chunks of content are broken down into small chunks, to be followed by exercises and activities. Many effective practices involve collaborative activities that encourage learners to share and build on prior knowledge.

Experiential learning

People sometimes wonder if the virtual world has any connection at all to the experiential world—the world of phenomena. It is easy to argue that there is no connection at all between virtual and real, particularly if it's a matter of role-playing in simulations that are not grounded in a corresponding real-life scenario.

However, when serious games, simulations, role-playing, and other virtual world activities have a corresponding counterpart in the real world, then it is possible to have experiential learning. Further, experiential learning that has taken place in the real world and then is reinforced by role-playing, simulations, or serious games, can be highly effective.

Experiential learning in Moodle can take place in a traditional e-learning space and it can also occur in a mobile learning environment. When the course content connects concepts to one's prior learning, or involves actual field work, data collection, and peer interaction via a mobile device, the experience can be quite powerful. For example, a course on environmental management could incorporate the use of mobile devices in conjunction with GPS. The GIS information could be collected, photos taken and tagged according to latitude, longitude, and time/date, and then the details could be shared with group members. The concepts, the practical application, and social reinforcement would happen in a single learning event.

Another possible way to share experiential learning would be to post videos to share, and then to post "response" videos. The "conversation" that ensues crosses disciplines and learning modalities, and it enables students to feel they are working with a live document and a dynamic process, rather than the static experience that characterizes much of traditional learning.

Conditions of learning

In order for the mind to be receptive for new ideas and to start the learning process, it is necessary to capture the learner's interest. Gagne and other researchers investigated the problem of getting learning started, and they found that unless certain "conditions of learning" were met, it would be very difficult to assure that learning takes place. One of the most important elements was to have an engaging experience. There must be spillover from the affective domain to the cognitive domain. In other words, learners must feel emotionally engaged in order to have ideal learning conditions.

In an e-learning course, there are several ways to create conditions of learning. One can engage the learner by making them feel curious, puzzled, or emotionally connected to the course content. You can relate the content to their lives and to current controversies or contemporary issues. You can use sound, color, design, and animations to keep the course lively (without being too distracting).

One good way to start a course or a unit is to kick it off with an illustrative scene or a case study that resonates with the learner's own experience of life. One might use the strategy of in medias res —jumping in the middle of things, for an emotional appeal. Remember that you're using a sound rhetorical strategy—one that Aristotle referred to as "pathos", and which is one of the most effective strategies for gaining and keeping other's attention.


Operant conditioning has a place in e-learning. We're not really talking about conditioning as basic as Pavlov's dog, but it is important to keep in mind that positive reinforcement works wonders in e-learning.

There are several ways to build in positive responses to desirable behaviors. For example, feedback from the instructor can be timely and always start with a positive note. Students can be guided to provide positive responses in collaborative work. In the case of automated activities, responses can be built and information provided is in a positive way.

Course-building components in Moodle

As you start to build your course in Moodle, you'll have a number of components to choose from. As in the case of all formal learning programs, it is important to start by identifying course outcomes and learning objectives.

After you have finished learning objectives and course outcomes, you will develop a plan to build your course, which maps the Moodle components (resources and activities) to your learning objectives. How to create effective course outcomes and learning objectives will be dealt with in a future chapter. At this point, we'll simply list the materials you have to work with in Moodle. You will come to appreciate and enjoy the variety and flexibility.



As you build your course, you may wish to start clustering your readings, links to outside resources, and media. The Resources group, with all the tools associated with it, will help you do so. We are not going to go over every resource tool in Moodle. We'll just start with the most popular ones. We will discuss more complex tools in future chapters and sections.


The Book tool allows you to create a collection of digital assets that you can bundle together in order to create the instructional content for your course. In Moodle, a "Book" is not an e-book, a pdf, or any other kind of rigid content item. Instead, it is a dynamic collection of digital objects that come together as a kind of repository for learners.

The "Book" is generally a collection of web pages, and so what students will see is a set of links, usually with descriptions and perhaps brief instructions. This repository constitutes the core knowledge base in your course and from it, learners should be able to define, describe, list, and recognize key concepts.

Link to a file or website

Perhaps the most used instructional content tool besides the Book tool is the Link to a File or Website tool. This tool allows you to create a link to outside web-based resources and to incorporate a description and guiding materials.


Many instructors like to organize their course chronologically, not only because it is practical, but also because the tools lend themselves to the sequential presentation of material. Once they have their basic structure in place, they then add Resources and Activities.

Many Moodle users like to build their courses on a foundation of Forums, and then, when they feel more comfortable, take advantage of the more complex resources such as Books, Assignments, Choices, and more. Keep in mind that in Moodle, the resources are added by using the tool of the same name. So, if you want to add a Forum, you would need to use the Forum tool. This section lists many of the popular Activity tools and provides a brief overview of each to give you an idea of how to use them.


The Assignment tool is where the instructor defines a task that the learner must complete. It often links back to study materials (which have been created in using the Book tool).


The Choice tool allows you to create multiple choice questions. They can be used in both reviews and assessment. They can also be used for creating polls and questionnaires for students to indicate interest and for the instructor to find out important things about his/her group.


The Database tool allows instructors and students to upload information. It is a great way to share resources, and makes it possible to ask students to give final presentations (using presentation software), and to develop engaging assignments and final projects such as student galleries and portfolios. It is also an excellent way for students to share resources and to evaluate the reliability of online sources they have found.


The Forum tool will allow you to create dynamic and highly engaging collaborative learning activities. You can develop discussion boards, peer review areas, and also group project spaces.


The Glossary tool is excellent for courses that require students to be able to identify and define a broad range of items, and to be able to master and use a new vocabulary. If designed well, activities that employ the Glossary Tool can help students develop schema-building approaches.


Moodle allows you to use the Hot Potatoes Quiz builder, an open source product that contains a wide array of quiz types and formats.


The Journal tool allows students to keep learning diaries and to update journals as living documents.


The Lesson tool is an organizational tool that allows you to organize the elements, list key concepts, and to provide unit overviews and learning objectives.


The Wiki tool is often used when collaboration is needed because it is a bit more flexible than the Forum tool.

Course Timetable

This tool is one of many that is excellent for assuring student success.

Instructional principles and activities mapped to Moodle features

The following table maps Moodle features to their instructional functions.

Moodle feature

Instructional function

Learning theory


Knowledge base, core instructional material, content repository, and comprehension




Conditions of learning


Interactive, collaborative learning, comprehension, and evaluation

Social learning, communities of practice, and Emulatory learning


Classification, application, analysis, and comprehension



Analysis and collaborative learning

Experiential learning and social practice


Collaborative learning, analysis, and synthesis

Social practice, communities of practice, and experiential behaviorism


Comprehension and schemata-building

Schemata and conditions of learning


Comprehension and analysis

Schemata, emulatory learning, and behaviorism/ operant conditioning


Collaborative learning, application, synthesis, and evaluation

Social learning, social practice, and communities of practice


Application and evaluation

Social practice and experiential learning



Conditions of learning



This chapter presented ideas about how people learn in an online environment, and it provided a brief overview of the functions and features of Moodle. Some of these features include book, chat, assignment, quiz, wiki, workshop, and more. These constitute building blocks that allow you to create unique courses that you can easily replicate—thanks to the object-oriented philosophy of Moodle.

The chapter also discussed competing theories about how people learn and why that matters to the instructor, and also to the instructional designer who is building the course. The chapter also presented basic information about how Moodle is organized, and what type of resources it has that can be used by instructors to build the kind of courses that they find useful. Finally, the chapter described a strategy for getting started that helps instructors develop a course which facilitates the learning process and also helps create a learning community.

About the Authors

  • Susan Smith Nash

    Susan Smith Nash has designed, developed, and administered numerous online programs and courses for more than 15 years. She has experience with many different platforms and applications, with uses in higher education, training, and organizational development and leadership. Her latest books and videos are on Moodle and Canvas.

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  • William Rice

    William Rice is an e-learning professional from New York City. He has written books on Moodle, Blackboard, Magento, and software training. He enjoys building e-learning solutions for businesses and gains professional satisfaction when his courses help students.

    His hobbies include writing books, practicing archery near JFK Airport, and playing with his children.

    William is fascinated by the relationship between technology and society, how we create our tools, and how they shape us in turn. Married to an incredible woman who encourages his writing pursuits, he has two amazing sons.

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