Moodle is a free, open source learning management system that enables you to create powerful, flexible, and engaging online learning experiences. I use the phrase online learning experiences instead of online courses deliberately. The phrase online course often connotes a sequential series of web pages, some images, maybe a few animations, and a quiz put online. There might be some email or bulletin board communication among the teacher and students. However, online learning can be much more engaging than that.
Moodle's name gives you an insight into its approach to e-learning. The official Moodle documentation on http://docs.moodle.org states the following:
"The word Moodle was originally an acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, which is mostly useful to programmers and education theorists. It's also a verb that describes the process of lazily meandering through something, doing things as it occurs to you to do them, an enjoyable tinkering that often leads to insight and creativity. As such, it applies both to the way Moodle was developed and to the way a student or teacher might approach studying or teaching an online course. Anyone who uses Moodle is a Moodler."
The phrase online learning experience connotes a more active, engaging role for students and teachers. It connotes, among other things, web pages that can be explored in any order, courses with live chats among students and teachers, forums where users can rate messages on their relevance or insight, online workshops that enable students to evaluate one another's work, impromptu polls that let the teacher evaluate what students think of a course's progress, and directories set aside for teachers to upload and share their files. All these features create an active learning environment, full of different kinds of student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions. This is the kind of user experience that Moodle excels at and the kind that this book will help you create.
For those of you who are interested, the underlying learning philosophy for Moodle is that of "connectivism." Basically, it means that people learn from one another, and Moodle's framework is structured to maximize interactivity with other students and the content itself. When Moodle first debuted, the philosophy usually involved forums, with some potential for real-time chat. However, with the ability to include webinars using BigBlueButton and other add-ins, the possibilities of synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous interactivity have expanded.
One thing to keep in mind as you develop a course that incorporatesconnectivistm as learning philosophy is that you'll be working with the affective (the emotional) as well as the cognitive domain. This means that you will be engaging the emotions (which is good for motivation). Connectivism also means that you can also encourage the sharing of experiences and allow people to build on prior knowledge and experience. In fact, building courses that allow students to scaffold their knowledge with experiential and prior learning can give rise to a very solid approach. Your students will be able to do more with the knowledge, particularly if the course has to do with applied knowledge and skills.
In this chapter, we will learn the following:
- How to launch a plan to create your learning site
- How Moodle's philosophy of connectivism creates conditions for learning
- The fundamental architecture of Moodle
- The way people learn with Moodle
- What makes Moodle unique
Whether you are the site creator or a course creator, you can use this book to develop a plan to build your courses and curriculum. As you work your way through each chapter, the book provides guidance on making decisions that meet your goals for your learning site. This helps you create the kind of learning experience that you want for your teachers (if you're the site creator) or students (if you're the teacher). You can also use this book as a traditional reference manual, but its main advantages are its step-by-step, project-oriented approach and the guidance it gives you about creating an interactive learning experience.
Moodle is designed to be intuitive to use, and its online help is well written. It does a good job of telling you how to use each of its features. What Moodle's help files don't tell you is when and why to use each feature and what effect it will have on the student experience, and that is what this book supplies.
One of the most exciting new developments with Moodle is that Moodle now has a cloud-based virtual learning environment (VLE), which is called MoodleCloud. It is free for you to use if you have fewer than 50 registered users (students, instructors, and so on). You can still customize the course, and you can build in a great deal of flexibility and functionality. It does not have the same number of options as an on-premise local installation, but it saves a great deal of time and money. MoodleCloud allows you to experiment with designs and also to start small, with the intention of growing. It also makes it easy for individuals and organizations to develop new kinds of training, collaboration, and education, and then scale up when needed.
When you create a Moodle learning site, you usually follow a defined series of steps. This book is arranged to support that process. Each chapter shows you how to get the most from each step. Each step is listed with a brief description of the chapter that supports the step.
As you work your way through each chapter, your learning site will grow in scope and sophistication. By the time you finish this book, you should have a complete, interactive learning site. As you learn more about what Moodle can do and see your courses taking shape, you may want to change some of the things that you did in the previous chapters. Moodle offers you this flexibility. Also, this book helps you determine how those changes will cascade throughout your site.
Every learning management system (LMS) has a paradigm, or approach, that shapes the user experience and encourages a certain kind of usage. An LMS might encourage very sequential learning by offering features that enforce a given order on each course. It might discourage student-to-student interaction by offering few features that support it, while encouraging solo learning by offering many opportunities for the student to interact with the course material.
In this chapter, you will learn what Moodle can do and what kind of user experience your students and teachers will have, using Moodle. You will also learn about the Moodle philosophy and how it shapes the user experience. With this information, you'll be ready to decide how to make the best use of Moodle's many features and plan your online learning site.
Chapter 2, Installing Moodle, guides you through installing Moodle on your web server. It will help you estimate the amount of disk space, bandwidth, and memory that you will need for Moodle. This can help you decide the right hosting service for your needs.
Most of the decisions you make while installing and configuring Moodle will affect the user experience. Not just students and teachers, but also course creators and site administrators are affected by these decisions. While Moodle's online help does a good job of telling you how to install and configure the software, it doesn't tell you how the settings that you choose affect the user experience. Chapter 3, Configuring Your Site, covers the implications of these decisions and helps you configure the site so that it behaves in the way you envision.
In Moodle, every course belongs to a category. Chapter 4, Creating Categories and Courses, takes you through creating course categories and then creating courses. Just as you chose site-wide settings during installation and configuration, you choose course-wide settings while creating each course. This chapter tells you the implications of the various course settings so that you can create the experience that you want for each course. It also shows you how to add teachers and students to the courses.
In Moodle, course material is either a resource or an activity. A resource is an item that the student views, listens to, reads, or downloads. An activity is an item that the student interacts with or that enables the student to interact with the teacher or other students. In Chapter 5, Resources, Activities, and Conditional Access, you will learn about the settings that are common to all resources and activities and how to add resources and activities to a course.
In most online courses, the core material consists of web pages that the students view. These pages can contain text, graphics, movies, sound files, games, exercises—anything that can appear on the World Wide Web (WWW) can appear on a Moodle web page. Chapter 6, Adding Resources, covers adding this kind of material, plus links to other websites, media files, labels, and directories of files. This chapter also helps you determine when to use each of these types of material.
In this context, interactive means an interaction between the student and the teacher, or the student and an active web page. Student-to-student interaction is covered in a later chapter. This chapter covers activities that involve interaction between the student and an active web page, or between the student and the teacher. Interactive course material includes lessons that guide students through a defined path, based upon their answers to review question and the assignments that are uploaded by the student and then graded by the teacher. Chapter 7, Adding Assignments, Lessons, Feedback, and Choices, tells you how to create these interactions and how each of them affects the student and teacher experience.
In Chapter 8, Evaluating Students with Quizzes, you'll learn how to evaluate the students' knowledge with a quiz. The chapter thoroughly covers creating quiz questions, sharing quiz questions with other courses, adding feedback to questions and quizzes, and more.
Social course material enables student-to-student interaction. Moodle enables you to add chats and forums to your courses. These types of interactions will be familiar to many students. Chapter 9, Getting Social with Chats and Forums, shows you how to create and manage these social activities.
Moodle enables students to work together to create new material. For example, you can create glossaries that are site-wide and those that are specific to a single course. Students can add to the glossaries. You can also allow students to contribute to and edit a wiki in class.
Moodle also offers a powerful workshop tool, which enables the students to view and evaluate one another's work.
Each of these interactions makes the course more interesting but also more complicated for the teacher to manage. The result is a course that encourages the students to contribute, share, and engage. Chapter 10, Collaborating with Wikis and Glossaries, and Chapter 11, Running a Workshop, help you rise to the challenge of managing your students' collaborative work.
Chapter 12, Groups and Cohorts, shows you how to use groups to separate the students in a course. You will also learn how to use cohorts, or site-wide groups, to mass enroll students into courses.
Every block adds functionality to your site or your course. Chapter 13, Extending Your Course by Adding Blocks, describes many of Moodle's blocks, helps you decide which ones will meet your goals, and tells you how to implement them. You can use blocks to display calendars, enable commenting, enable tagging, show navigation features, and much more.
Moodle offers several tools to help teachers administer and deliver courses. It keeps detailed access logs that enable the teachers to see exactly what content the students access, and when. It also enables the teachers to establish custom grading scales, which are available site-wide or for a single course. Student grades can be accessed online and can also be downloaded in a variety of formats (including spreadsheet). Finally, teachers can collaborate in special forums (bulletin boards) reserved just for them. This is a part of Chapter 14, Features for Teachers.
Moodle is designed to support a style of learning called social constructionism. This style of learning is interactive. The social constructionist philosophy believes that people learn best when they interact with the learning material, construct new material for others, and interact with other students about the material. The difference between a traditional philosophy and the social constructionist philosophy is the difference between a lecture and a discussion.
Moodle does not require you to use the social constructionist method for your courses. However, it best supports this method. For example, Moodle enables you to add several kinds of static course material. This is the course material that a student reads but does not interact with, such as the following:
- Web pages
- Links to anything on the web (including material on your Moodle site)
- A folder of files
- A label that displays any text or image
However, Moodle enables you to add even more kinds of interactive and social course material. This is the course material that a student interacts with, by answering questions, entering text, or uploading files, which includes the following:
- Assignment (uploading files to be reviewed by the teacher)
- Choice (a single question)
- Lesson (a conditional, branching activity)
- Quiz (an online test)
- Chat (live online chat between students)
- Forum (you can have none or several online bulletin boards for each course)
- Glossary (students and/or teachers can contribute terms to site-wide glossaries)
- Wiki (this is a familiar tool for collaboration with most younger students and many older students)
- Workshop (this supports peer review and feedback of the assignments that the students upload)
In addition, some of Moodle's add-on modules add even more types of interaction. For example, one add-on module enables the students and the teachers to schedule appointments with each other.
As Moodle encourages interaction and exploration, your students' learning experience will often be non-linear. Moodle can enforce a specific order upon a course, using something called conditional activities. Conditional activities can be arranged in a sequence. Your course can contain a mix of conditional and non-linear activities.
In this section, I'll take you on a tour of a Moodle learning site. You will see a student's experience from the time the student arrives at the site, enters a course, and works through some material in the course. You will also see some student-to-student interaction and some functions used by the teacher to manage the course. Along the way, I'll point out many of the features that you will learn to implement in this book and how the demo site is using those features.
Probably, the best Moodle demo sites are http://demo.moodle.net/ and http://school.demo.moodle.net/. Many of the screenshots in this book are from http://school.demo.moodle.net. The contents of that site are graciously offered by Moodle Pty Ltd, under the Creative Commons—Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Alternatively, you can allow the anonymous visitor to see a lot of information about the site on the front page, which is what I have done in the following screenshot:
One of the first things that a visitor will note is that you can search for courses to download and use. You can enter keywords, and you'll be able to select from different options. For example, I entered the word
literature, and I was able to find a number of modules that I can use in my courses. All I have to do is provide proper attribution. Several options are available, as seen in the following screenshot:
Moodle has created a cloud-based Moodle, which allows you to set up courses, develop a sandbox, and launch the courses. It is located at http://www.moodlecloud.com, and, depending on the number of users, your cost can range from absolutely free to higher costs, seen as follows, and also as described on the information page at https://moodlecloud.com/app/en/:
Free: It allows you to develop as many courses as you'd like and develop as many as 50 users. Your idle courses are not archived, so you need to log in often. Your account will be deleted if you do not access it regularly.
Starter: It allows you to have the same number of users as the
Freeoption, but you also have access to more applications such as document converters and certificate generators. However, you're limited with respect to themes and other utilities. It costs 80 AUD per year.
Moodle for School: It has different levels and pricing, depending on the number of users and storage space. With packages that can scale up to 500 users, it's ideal for a small school, but does not work for a large school.
Logging into MoodleCloud, note the
My new Moodle site in the upper-left corner in the following screenshot. It includes
Site pages, and
My courses. It tells the user about the courses you have created and also those made available by Moodle. It includes
Introduction to Moodle, which is an introductory guided tour that all new users should explore.
In Moodle, the icons tell the user what kind of resource will be accessed by a link. In this case, the icon tells the user that the first resource is a PDF (Adobe Acrobat) document and the second is a web page. Course material that a student observes or reads, such as web or text pages, hyperlinks, and multimedia files, is called resources. In Chapter 5, Resources, Activities, and Conditional Access, you will learn how to add resources to a course.
In the side bars of the page, you will find
Blocks. For example, the
Tags blocks. You can choose to add a block to the front page, to all the pages in the site, or to an individual course.
Other blocks display a summary of the current course, a list of courses available on the site, the latest news, who is online, and other information. At the bottom-right side of the front page, you see the
Login block. Chapter 13, Extending Your Course by Adding Blocks, tells you how to use these blocks.
Site Description or
Course Description can contain anything that you can put on a web page. It is essentially a block of HTML code that is displayed on the front page.
You can choose to display the available courses on the front page of your site. You can also customize the appearance of your front page. You can do that by clicking on
Dashboard and then customizing the descriptions of the courses, and you can also indicate whether you want to make the default page your home page. If you do not, you can search for a different page and select it.
The following screenshot shows what your dashboard looks like after you've clicked on it and how to customize the descriptions:
When a course is displayed in a list, clicking on the information icon next to a course displays its
Course Description in a pop-up window. Clicking on a course's name takes you into the course. If the course allows anonymous access, you are taken directly into the course. If the course allows guest access or requires registration, you are taken to the login screen.
We will be examining the typical elements that you'll find in a course, starting with the navigation used to help you move through it. Then we'll look at blocks, sections, and the places where we can put content.
In the preceding screenshot, the user has logged in as the
Administrator and entered the
Trends in Tourism course. Note the breadcrumbs trail (the
Navbar) in the top-left corner of the screen, which tells us the name of the site and the short name of the course.
At the upper-right side of the screen, we see a confirmation that the user has logged in. That is not a part of the
Navbar, but it usually appears next to it. There is also a box that allows you to turn on editing.
Navigation block shows you where you are and where you can go in the site. In the demonstration, you can see direct links to the topics in the course. This enables the student to jump to a topic that is much further down on the page, without scrolling.
At the bottom of the
Navigation block is a link to the
My courses page. If you click on each course link, you will see an outline of the main units in that course. It helps the student navigate quickly and easily.
We will cover how to create assignments in Chapter 7, Adding Assignments, Lessons, Feedback, and Choices.
Moodle enables you to organize a course by
Week, in which case each section is labeled with a date instead of a number. Alternatively, you can choose to make your course a single, large discussion forum. Most courses are organized by
Topic, such as the one seen in the next screenshot:
Note that the first topic is not numbered. Moodle allows you the first topic as the course introduction.
Teachers can hide and show sections at will. This enables a teacher to open and close resources and activities as the course progresses.
Topics are the lowest level of organization in Moodle. The hierarchy is
Course Category |
Course Subcategory (optional) |
Section. Every item in your course belongs to a Topic, even if your course consists of only
Clicking on the link for any discussion takes the student into the forum. Clicking on a
Discussion thread opens that thread in the forum. You can see, in the following screenshot, that the teacher started with the first post. Then, a student replied to the original post:
As Moodle supports an interactive, collaborative style of learning, students can also be given the ability to rate forum posts and the material submitted by other students. You'll find out more about forums in Chapter 9, Getting Social with Chats and Forums.
Next, the student will enter a workshop called
Attracting Passionate & Quirky Affinity Groups: Save the Sea Turtles, Stand-Up Paddleboarding, ZombieNights, and more.
In this lesson, the learner works through different kinds of course materials and assessments. The lesson starts with an article and then includes a multichoice activity to assess the student's mastery. Note that they must go through the content in the proper sequence:
In this book, we will go through the creation of lessons as well as the individual components, which include Content and Activities. Note the online editor that the student uses to write the assignment. This gives the student basic What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) features. The same word processor appears when the course creators create web pages, when students write online assignment entries, and at other times when a user is editing and formatting text.
Moodle can be configured to use several different kinds of editors. Depending upon your exact version and how your site administrator configures your site, yours might differ slightly from what is shown here.
When a Guest user or a registered student browses through your learning site, Moodle displays the pages normally. However, when someone with a course editing privilege enters a course, Moodle offers a button to switch into editing mode:
Turn editing on puts Moodle into editing mode:
Let's walk through the icons that become available in editing mode.
Clicking on the Edit icon enables you to edit whatever that icon follows. In this example, clicking on the Edit icon that follows the paragraph enables you to edit the section description. An example of a description is shown as follows:
Clicking on the Edit icon takes you into the editing window for that quiz. In that window, you can create, add, and remove quiz questions, change the grading scheme, and apply other settings to the quiz.
Clicking on the Delete icon deletes whatever item the icon follows. If you want to remove an item from a course but are not sure whether you'll want to use it later, don't delete the item. Instead, hide it from view. Hiding and showing are explained in the next paragraph.
I call these the Hidden/Shown icons, instead of Hide/Show, because the icons indicate the current state of an item, instead of indicating what will happen when you click on them. The Hidden icon indicates that an item is hidden from the students.
Clicking on it shows the item to the students. The Show icon indicates that an item is shown to the students. Clicking on it hides the item from the students.
If you want to remove an item from a course while keeping it for later use, or if you want to keep an item hidden from students while you're working on it, hide it instead of deleting it.
The Group icons indicate what group mode has been applied to an item. Groups are explained in Chapter 12, Groups and Cohorts. For now, you should know that you can control access to items based upon which group a student belongs to. Clicking on these icons enables you to change that setting.
The course material that a student observes or reads, such as web or text pages, hyperlinks, and multimedia files, are called resources. Course materials that a student interacts with, or that enables interaction among students and teachers, are called activities. Now, let's look at how to add some resources and activities to your Moodle site or course.
Selecting an item brings you to the editing settings page for that type of item. For example, selecting
URL displays the window seen in the following screenshot. Note that you can do much more than just specify a hyperlink. You can give this link a user-friendly name, a summary description, open it in a new window, and more.
Every resource and activity that you add to Moodle has a description. This description appears when a student selects the item. Also, if the item appears in a list (for example, a list of all the resources in a course), the description will be displayed.
When building courses, you will spend most of your time in the
Edit settings pages for the items that you add. You will find their behavior and appearance to be very consistent. The presence of a description is an example of that consistency. Another example is the presence of the help icon
next to the title of the window. Clicking on this icon displays an explanation of this type of item.
Also, the edit settings pages are divided into sections. Some sections are present for almost every resource and activity that you add. These sections are covered once in this book, to avoid repetition.
The following screenshot shows the teacher's view of the
The choices on this menu apply to the course itself. If a teacher, administrator, or course creator selects an activity or resource in the course, the user is taken inside that activity/resource. Then, the
Administration submenu for that item will appear. In the example seen in the following screenshot, the teacher has selected an assignment and is looking at the
Administration submenu for that assignment:
This short tour introduced you to the basics of the Moodle experience. The following chapters will take you through installing Moodle and creating courses. If you work through those chapters in order, you will discover many more features that are not mentioned in this tour. Also, because Moodle is open source, new features can be added at any time. Perhaps, you will be the one to contribute a new feature to the Moodle community.
Moodle runs on any web server that supports the PHP programming language and a database. It works best, and there is more support, when running on the Apache web server with a MySQL database. These requirements—Apache, PHP, and MySQL—are common to almost all commercial web hosts, even the cheaper ones.
The Moodle learning management system resides in three places on your web host:
- The application occupies one directory, with many subdirectories for the various modules
- Data files that the students and teachers upload—such as photos and assignments submitted by students—reside in the Moodle data directory
- Course material that you create with Moodle (web pages, quizzes, workshops, lessons, and so on), grades, user information, and user logs reside in the Moodle database
For example, the
admin directory holds the PHP code that creates the administrative pages, the
lang directory holds translations of the Moodle interface, and the
mod directory holds the various modules.
index.php file is the Moodle home page. If a student was browsing my Moodle site, the first page that the student would read is the http://moodle.williamrice.com/index.php file.
As each of Moodle's core components and modules are in its own subdirectory, the software can be easily updated by replacing the old files with new ones. You should periodically check the https://www.moodle.org website for news about updates and bug fixes.
Moodle stores the files uploaded by the users in a data directory. This directory should not be accessible to the general public over the web, that is, you should not be able to type in the URL for this directory and access it using a web browser. You can protect it either using a
.htaccess file or by placing the directory outside of the web server's documents directory.
While the Moodle data directory stores the files uploaded by students, the Moodle database stores most of the information in your Moodle site. The database stores objects that you create using Moodle. For example, Moodle enables you to create web pages for your courses. The actual HTML code for these web pages is stored in the database. Links that you add to a course, the settings, the content of forums and wikis, and quizzes created with Moodle, are all examples of data stored in the Moodle database.
The three parts of Moodle—the application, data directory, and database—work together to create your learning site. Backup and disaster recovery are obvious applications of this knowledge. However, knowing how the three parts work together is also helpful when upgrading, troubleshooting, and moving your site between servers.
Moodle encourages exploration and interaction among students and teachers. As a course designer and teacher, you will have the maximum number of tools at your disposal if you work with this tendency, which will make your learning experiences as interactive as possible. Creating courses with forums, peer-assessed workshops, surveys, and interactive lessons is more work than creating a course from a series of static web pages. However, it is also more engaging and effective, and you will find it worth the effort to use Moodle's many interactive features.
When teaching an online course in Moodle, remember that Moodle generally enables you to add, move, and modify course material on the fly. If it's permitted by your institution's policies, don't hesitate to change a course in response to student needs.
Keep in mind that if you're using the cloud-based virtual learning environment version of Moodle, MoodleCloud, you will have built-in options and may not be able to modify the course in the way you could if you had a custom or local (on-premise) installation.
Finally, learn the basics of Moodle's architecture, and at least read over the installation and configuration in Chapter 2, Installing Moodle. Don't be afraid of the technology. If you can master the difficult art of teaching, you can master using Moodle to its full potential.