E-Learning professionals are constantly looking for new ideas and for successful online learning solutions, especially cost-effective ones. The open source software community claims to have a great, low-cost system for learning management or course management. It is called Moodle, and it may be well worth your consideration.
Editor’s Note: Parts of this article may not format well on smartphones and smaller mobile devices. We recommend viewing on larger screens.
While there are several open source Learning Management Systems (LMSs) available today, we are focusing on Moodle because of its rapidly growing presence. We also chose Moodle because a global community of professionals and educators who are very passionate about promoting free software and improving the online learning experience supports it.
In this article, we look at the growing acceptance of Moodle and we answer a few key questions:
- What is Open Source Software?
- What is Moodle and why should I use it?
- What about Moodle and instructional design?
We’ll also touch briefly on who is using Moodle, on Moodle upgrades, and on Moodle demos and other resources.
What is Open Source Software?
Any discussion about Moodle should begin with a brief introduction to open source software (OSS) and the OSS community.
OSS is a collective name for software code that is freely available and distributed. In contrast to proprietary or commercial software, anyone may copy, modify, and share open source code without paying royalties or fees. The software often evolves through community development, contribution, and cooperation.
The Open Source Initiative (OSI) (http://www.opensource.org/), a non-profit corporation, requires that the distribution terms for open source software must, among other things:
- Permit free redistribution of source code
- Allow derived works
- Ensure integrity of the author's code
- Not discriminate against persons, groups, or fields of endeavor
- Share licenses
The growth of open source software and its benefits
Over the past few years, OSS has risen from obscurity, and has largely overcome early criticism and skepticism. It now enjoys enthusiastic support and adoption by organizations around the world. Along with these changes, attitudes are also rapidly shifting about the use of open source learning management systems (LMSs).
Positive perceptions about using a low-cost LMS have resulted in the introduction of such systems into more and more institutions, organizations, and businesses. Open source learning management systems have already significantly penetrated into higher education, and are making inroads in the corporate sector, especially for small businesses.
Advocates suggest that a desire to avoid higher costs, inflexibility of commercial or proprietary products, and increased dependence on LMS vendors have greatly influenced willingness to choose open source software. Many organizations find that open source software brings other benefits. For example, it is advantagous if an entire school district, university, federal agency, or small business can install a LMS without having to purchase multiple per-seat or site licenses.
Some objections to open source software
Critics suggest that OSS may be too risky to implement because products may not be proven. There is also fear that open source software may be too costly to administer, if it depends on a large pool of changing resources, if there are hidden costs, and if there is a need to manage evolving upgrades and patches.
We suggest that you need a strong application development group, or additional IT staffing, or third-party organization support to maintain an enterprise OSS solution. In other words, OSS can become just as inefficient as proprietary software if it is not a mature, well-tested product, and if it is not managed appropriately, efficiently, and cost effectively. Evidence from experience suggests that open source applications are, in fact, less costly to acquire, install, and customize compared to commercial or proprietary applications.
What is Moodle?
Moodle, which stands for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, is an enormously versatile system for course and learning management. According to The eLearning Guild Research 360°Report on Learning Management Systems, published in May, 2008, many Guild members value it. (Editor’s Note: This report is available for download as a PDF file by Guild Members, Members Plus, and Premium Members, and by Associate Members who participated in the survey upon which it is based.)
Moodle development started as doctoral research by an Australian, Martin Dougiamas. Today, Moodle has attracted a long list of developers devoted to Moodle improvements. Figure 1 shows the Moodle site at www.moodle.org, where you will find additional information about developers and users, as well as links for downloading the application itself.
Introduced in 1999, Moodle has enjoyed tremendous growth in the last couple of years (see Table 1).
Growth has been especially fast within the higher-education market. More recently, Moodle is finding increased adoption outside the education sector. Guild research shows that Moodle is making its greatest penetration in the small-to-medium business market. Figure 2 shows the usage reported by Guild members in the last 12 months for the education market (668 higher education and K-12 institutions), and Figure 3 shows the usage in the same period for all business organizations (1,932 organizations).
In the previous 12 months, Moodle’s “grand total” in the education market was only 34.1%. Its growth in this sector came at the expense of Blacboard and “Developed in house.” In the business market, the change was even more spectacular. For the previous 12 months, Moodle had a market share of 18.6%, in second place behind “Developed in house,” which at that time accounted for 24.4% of the business organization installations. Moodle appears to have gained market share, not only against the homegrown LMSs, but also against SumTotal Systems and Saba.
In the previous 12 months, Moodle’s “grand total” in the education market was only 34.1%. Its growth in this sector came at the expense of Blackboard and “Developed in house.” In the business market, the change was even more spectacular. For the previous 12 months, Moodle had a market share of 18.6%, in second place behind “Developed in house,” which at that time accounted for 24.4% of the business organization installations. Moodle appears to have gained market share not only against the home-grown LMS, but also against SumTotal Systems and Saba. (Editor’s Note: Readers who have access to The eLearning Guild Research Real Time Direct Data Access to the 360° Reports can view this data online.)
But is Moodle ready to take on the enterprise-wide needs of a large corporation? It is important to keep two things in mind as you look at the market share figures. Typically, in large organizations and corporations Moodle use is restricted to departmental, divisional, or experimental use. And among Guild members in the education sector, Moodle rarely impacts as many learners as a commercial product, such as Blackboard.
Whether you work in education, government, or the corporate sector, you cannot ignore Moodle’s penetration into the LMS market. While Moodle isn’t about to replace proprietary enterprise-wide products like Saba’s Enterprise or SumTotal’s TotalLMS, Guild members are using and liking Moodle a lot.
Why do organizations choose Moodle?
In the most recent LMS 360° Report, members who tried or adopted Moodle report high satisfaction rates, low costs, and easy implementation and use. Ninety-five percent of the users indicated they did not intend to find an alternative solution.
In ten years, Moodle has already attracted a large and diverse user community. There are 345 sites with more than 10,000 users. Moodle’s obvious appeal is that it has the potential of creating cost-effective online learning communities, in rich and poor countries alike.
In higher education, Moodle’s reputation also stems from the academic community’s values of freedom, peer review, and knowledge sharing. Supporters say that Moodle helps educators create an effective collaborative online-learning community using sound pedagogical principles for a very low cost. You can easily and quickly install it, it can scale up to accommodate a large user base, and it provides typical LMS features present in most similar commercial products. Moodle updates are common, the development community is very supportive, and its universal use is providing reliable learning solutions.
Most of these considerations apply as well to business organizations, especially small ones.
How are educational institutions using Moodle?
There are many educational institutions using Moodle, some on a very large scale. A good example of a large Moodle implementation site is the Open Polytechnic in New Zealand. This institution has deployed Moodle across eleven polytechnics and three universities, along with several Government departments and a growing number of schools. In 2007, in recognition for its work in open source software development and collaboration, the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand won a prestigious $100,000 award from the United States-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The school’s Moodle site is at http://campus.openpolytechnic.ac.nz/moodle/.
As another example, the Open University has announced a $7,390,000 OpenLearn initiative that offers 900 hours of e-Learning available on their new Moodle platform for over 180,000 students. Canada’s Open University, Athabasca University, has switched to Moodle for developing an effective learning management system that serves over 30,000 users for eleven undergraduate and graduate courses.
What are Moodle’s advantages?
Surveys, including those done by eLearning Guild Research, describe a variety of advantages and disadvantages for using Moodle. Advocates highlight important advantages, such as:
- Lower total cost for ownership
- Higher levels of security
- Peer review
- Greater flexibility
- Ability to customize by modifying code
- Audit ability and code availability
- Technical support
- Well-tested updates and plug-ins
- Variety of capabilities and tools
Many say that cost savings is not the key Moodle advantage, but it is rather access to various innovative tools that interface with the Moodle platforms. Others like the adherence to open standards, and the promotion of interoperability, roles and user management, use of innovative plugins, and the support from online communities of practice.
Others like the large user community that fosters review, quality, reliability, accuracy, accountability, collaboration, and greater communication. Moodle users find that the breadth of talented people available is so great, that they can communicate with a developer or download a patch at any time of day, anywhere. Moodle is helping the education world set, follow, and maintain standards. Others suggest that Moodle developers are leading the way in e-Learning technology innovation because they can work as a community with common interests, and foster collaboration in the pursuit of knowledge sharing and rapid development.
Finally, Moodle is available in many languages, thereby greatly increasing the reach of the LMS to educators everywhere. Anyone (students and teachers alike), can choose to view a Moodle site in a different language simply by selecting the language from drop-down menu on the upper-right corner of the screen. For example, if you selected Chinese, the interface of the site (menus, tabs, and other labels) will change into that language. Educators can easily enhance learning based on local preferences. Note however, that Moodle does not translate the content itself. Any user-generated content remains in the language it was entered in.
What are Moodle’s disadvantages?
In contrast, Moodle critics mention many of the OSS criticisms. For example, some feel that Moodle is not quite “enterprise-ready,” nor able to support “mission critical” programs. Some suggest that Moodle is not truly free, and is only as good as the expert support available. Problems may occur with too much customization. Other common criticisms are that Moodle lacks:
- The ability to integrate with human resource systems
- The ability to integrate well between student administration systems and Moodle student information
- The ability to support specific and complex business-process models
- The ability to use a distributed administration model to support multiple “schools” and “departments”
- The polished look of proprietary software, (it has a flat structure for organizing and navigating learning materials)
- Sophisticated assessment and grading capabilities
- Efficient use of space, e.g., a fixed block at the top that wastes valuable screen “real estate”
With respect to cost, 64.8% of Guild members who implemented Moodle report that the total cost to acquire, implement, and customize the LMS was under $10,000. The average total cost of ownership per learner for the 18 Moodle implementations that reported this data was $16.77, the lowest of the top 11 systems (not including the “built-our-own” responses. The median cost of the 18 was $5.83, the second lowest (lowest was IntraLearn, at $5.32).
Nowadays, W3C capabilities that provide new techniques to improve accessibility and use of dynamic Web content area helping to overcome many of the other criticisms of. Moodle Partners, companies who provide a range of commercial services to support Moodle use, are helping their clients deal with these and other more common issues, such as hosting, remote support, customization, training, and integration with other systems (e.g., ERP Systems). A list of the Moodle partners is online at: http://moodle.com/.