December 16

Now is not the right time to get rid of your Moodle – Dave Foord Moodle Q&A

minute read



In this video with Dave Foord from A6 Training, we explore the question of why now may not be the right time to get rid of your Moodle. This Q&A explored the topics that Dave had raised on his blog, 'Now is not the right time to get rid of your Moodle'.


  1. Interviewer: Chris Andre (CA) – CTO of Overt Software Solutions. 
  2. Participant: Dave Foord (DF) - Moodle Management Consultant.


(00:00) CA: Hi everyone and thank you for listening to todays Q+A. Today we have Dave Foord with us from A6 Training and this Q&A is in response to a great article written on Daves blog about Moodle and talks around the reasons why now might not be the best time to get rid of your moodle. So we thought it would be a good time just to quickly have a look at that maybe explore some of the key areas within that article. I was just wondering if you'd be happy to give us an introduction please Dave?

(00:21) DF: Welcome, my background is teaching, I was actually a PE teacher in a FE college, and I've used technology very effectively in my learning throughout. I've worked freelance since 2016 and I've worked with various organisations and in the last few years, because when I first started a lot of my work was about training so I was going into places to do training on all sorts of things to do with learning technology, but in the last 4-5 years the works really changed so it's become mainly Moodle focused. And I've been working either as a consultant or developing resources or doing training or simply managing Moodle environments on behalf of the client because they don't, for example, have an e-learning manager or similar within the organisation. So I work with about 15 clients that I'm actively working with at the moment both nationally and internationally, and it ranges across charities, sports governing bodies, government organisations, private sector, quite a wide gambit on organisations.

(01:31) CA: Brilliant, thanks Dave, and we've worked with you for some time now and have been doing a lot of training with you as well, that's been really helpful for our clients and so just to go through one of the first questions that I've got. There's a lot of other alternatives out there so theres Teams and Google Classroom and Canvas for example. So, what would you say the differences between those other alternatives and Moodle?

(01:52) DF: So, I see Moodle as really being kind of like the king of VLE's. The way it works is, obviously it's opensource and the code has been contributed too by 1000's of people all over the globe through both the core code and then what you have is the plugins. and by having all of these extra plugin's, it's like having a toolbox but then being able to go down and choose a whole selection of tools that you put into that toolbox to make the toolbox more useful effectively. and you have almost an infinite number of combinations that can be applied. and as I've mentioned I currently support 15 or so Moodle's at the moment and all of them look completely different from each other. None of them look the same, they all have a different combination of option and they've been themed differently. So when I've shown this to people, people ask, 'are you sure, that doesn't look like Moodle', and that because they will have been used to just using 1 within there organisation, they, therefore, think that all Moodles look like theirs. They don't realise that you can have all these different options. So I see that with that combination in the right hands is extremely powerful and that's obviously what I do in my work. But not everyone has the time or the passion and the experiences to necessarily do that.

(03:09) Something like Google Classroom. Now when Google Classroom first came out, I remember it's very first promotional video, and it talked about pushing content to learners. so their initial impact, their initial focus was the idea that the teachers pushed things to the learners. Which unfortunately is what a lot of teachers do. And what they do is their VLE is they upload files and for the learners to consume. And Google Classroom basically tapped into that and made that process easier. Now the VLE should just be about pushing files, it should be about integration and interaction between the teacher and the students and students and students. Now although Google Classroom has evolved over time to allow more of those things to happen. and some of the Google suite I think is amazing, I've been using Google products for years I think they're absolutely wonderful. But I still get the feeling that its underlying ethos is the notion of a teacher pushing content to the learners. Which I think lends itself to the school sector more so than let's say HE and FE within the UK. That's sort of my take on Google Classrooms. So if you're in a school Google Classroom works great if you're in a college or university it might work but I think you kind of need more of the interaction options that it doesn't currently have.

(04:32) Teams, I've not really used it in the way as some people are starting to use it as an alternative to a VLE. It's very much based around the communication mechanism, which in education is a good thing. I believe that education starts with a conversation, that's a quote from one of the Greek philosophers, I forget which one. But t doesn't have the tracking and doesn't have the functionality, it doesn't have the quiz functionality, which to me is one of the key elements of Moodle that I use extensively, to A. Check for understanding and B. Use it as a mechanism for/ as part of the learning process. So giving them feedback. So without that, I would struggle, and Teams doesn't currently have that. So it can do some of the other stuff, the sharing of the files, the ability to have the online classroom, your webinar type things, that actually works quite well, but it doesn't have the full functionality, and I don't believe, well it isn't a VLE. So some people are using it instead of a VLE and that's fine but they shouldn't say that it is a VLE. My view is that you should use it hand in hand with whatever your using, Moodle or something else.

(05:47) Now Canvas is relatively the new kid on the block. and has gained ground in what I thought was a pretty saturated market, so credit to them for achieving what they've done. Their main selling point is the simplicity of the interface, that's what is attracting people to it. A lot of people don't use the full functionality of Moodle and it becomes a little bit cluttered. And that becomes difficult for both the learner and for the teacher so having the simpler interface if Canvas for them is attractive. For me, I would struggle not having the full level of functionality that I have become used to over that last 10-15 years that I've been working with Moodle for example, and I know there are a lot of other people who are in a similar situation. And I don't have a problem, I'm not sort of wanting to pick on Canvas, but it works out as far as I can ascertain from conversations with people, a more expensive option than Moodle. So people are paying more money for a less powerful system and to me, that seems like a false economy going forwards, but that's one of those decisions.

(06:57) And then the other option is obviously Blackboard, which is well established but not many people are switching from things like Moodle to Blackboard. If you're already with Blackboard that's a different conversation. It's obviously a conversational system, it's mainly in the HE sector within the Uk, it's obviously quite big in America and Europe to a certain extent. But Blackboard ad Moodle have kind of gone in different directions to each other, and some people will love Blackboard and some people will love Moodle. But I don't think many people will change between the two now. They're both so established.

(07:35) CA:  Brilliant thanks very much for that Dave, that's a brilliant highlight of the various different options that are out there. We love Moodle at Overt Software because we're an opensource company so we love when there is an opensource option And obviously the benefit with Moodle is that there's no vendor lock in, you can move your Moodle around It's brilliant So we definitely see those strengths as well. 

(07:53) Just going back to something you mentioned, which was how extensible Moodle is with the various different plugins, is there a set of plugins that or a few different plugins that you would recommend for other peoples Moodle as a starting point?

(08:04) DF: Absolutely, and one of the first things that an organisation should be doing is going through and looking at which plugins to install. A straightforward out of the box Moodle with just the core plugins is okay, but you really need to put some others in. And it will be different for different organisations. When I take on a new client I usually have a long list of my prefered plugins which I get installed whether I think they need them or not just because I like them and I think that they will come in useful at some point. It's just easier to install them all upfront.

(08:35) One of the key areas for me is the quiz tool which I think is very powerful. you've got a set of core question times already, but there are additional question times that are not core. You've got the gap-fill question type I think is excellent, the OU multiple response is much easier to use for the multiple responses if you are doing multiple response questions, and you've got the drag and drop images and drag and drop marker. Some of these have become core, I forget which ones have become core, but they're really useful.

(09:08) In terms of the appearance you've got course formats, I quite often use the grid format with clients, people seem to like that. You've also got collapsed topics format. Theres tiles, which can be quite useful. So again, having a variety of formats, so you're not just stuck with topics and weekly and things like that is worth having.

(09:30) You also need to have a theme, so there's the boost theme which is kind of like the standard one. I've been using adaptable for the last few years because it allows me as, sort of a front-end admin, to make changes. But I've also for the last couple of projects starting using something called moove, which I'm finding is also quite a nice one. So I'm tending to use boost, moove and adaptable are kind of my three go-to themes depending on the requirements.

(10:00) And then there's a whole load of really good activity types. The journal activity is a really really simple activity, I wish it was core. Dead easy to be a teacher to use for testing and understanding at the end of a topic, so I well recommend that. The dialogue activity is used for one to one conversations, again that to me just seems to me, a really sensible option, again it would be great if it was core. You've got things like the OU blog, which is like a blog activity and you can have multiple blogs within a course, I think it works better than the built-in blog function which is more of sitewide blog rather than a course level blog. Questionnaire, is similar to the feedback but it has a different and a wider range of question options, so sometimes I use questionnaire, sometimes I'll use feedback.

(10:53) There's something called H5P, which is kind of like interactive activities, and I believe that has become core in the latest version of Moodle 3.9, but if you're on an earlier version it's a plugin and it allows you to create a wide range of interactivities. When H5P first came out I was a little bit sceptical in the kind of lower-level, let's say the quiz tool in Moodle, though what they do, do is allow you to embed what you create into other items. So I might have a Moodle book which has content but I just want to ask one question, I can embed an H5P activity question into the book so the student doesn't have to leave the book, they just answer the question and then move on. That is very very powerful, and that's only become possible relatively recently. and one of the activity types that H5P offers is interactive videos, for me with my PE and sports background this is just like brilliant, I wish I had had that when I was teaching. Have a video, play a part the video, stop it ask a question, play a bit more video, stop it ask a question, that is really really powerful as a teaching tool and learning tool.

(12:02) So that's kind of a synopsis of some of the key things, the other thing I suppose is making it easier for students to track their progress. There's the completion progress block, which is quite attractive. There's also the checklist activity, which can be useful for tracking how far people are through so that learners know what their progress is. Things like that. so...

(12:27) CA: They sound like some good plugins there's a few there that we use often as well. We love the moove theme here as well.  We've installed that on quite a few sites its seems to be a default pick nowadays as well because it's a really nice looking theme. I really like what you mentioned with the H5P with the new interactive video, that's really interesting especially as more people are consuming videos as its becoming the medium of choice now and being able to test on that is really useful.

(12:51) DF: And I think with video, people think that video because it's kind of multimedia, is therefore really really good. If you just share a video with the learners it actually because very passive, they're just watching the video and to be honest with you just sort of going off having a snooze, especially in this modern-day and age where learners are used to videos being 90seconds, but very punchy. So if you go and show a 5-10 minute video with them it might be a really really good thing content but they'll get bored. You have to get them to do something, not just watch this video because it's interesting, watch the video and ask them a question and either the H5P activity is very good for that or you can integrate it into lets say a discussion forum, so you have the video and they have to answer questions in the forum and then they can see the responses of other members of the class to see what they say. That suddenly turns your relatively passive video activity into a much more engaging and educationally high merit activity.

(13:52) CA: Definitely, that sounds perfect and really good tips to using the video with learning. So moving on from the plugins but still connected, how can people most effectively use their Moodle during the current crisis and increased usage.  With more people moving to remote learning are there some quick wins that can be put in place to make a Moodle more effective?

(14:10) DF: I think the quick wins is obviously... it's only in march when education was pushed into shutdown at relatively short notice. We kind of all knew it was coming but when it actually came, it kind of came as a bit of a shock. People then had to do emergency learning, they didn't have a chance to plan what they were doing, they just had to do what they could with what they had. We're now going into a phase of obviously a 2nd lockdown is likely to happen. Although schools, colleges and universities are exempt. I think the reality is that a lot of places for local reasons are having to face the reality of locking down. My son at the moment, he's doing his A-level's, he's having to isolate at home because somebody in his year has tested positive, so the whole 6th form has just been shut down and they're all being taught remotely.

(15:00) They key thing with any learning activity os not losing track of what the purpose of education is. A lot of teachers still think that they are the font of all knowledge and their job is to sort of get the information from their notebook into the learner's notebook and then they've educated them. That isn't the case. We need to get learners doing something, so that they are using the information that is being transferred. Therefore increasing their understanding, and therefore increasing their ability to use it. That's where your sort of 'Blooms Taxonomy' comes into play, moving up the pyramid towards the top, where you have evaluation and analysis, those sort of skills that come in. Just sharing a load of powerpoints with people isn't necessarily going to achieve that.

(15:46) So the quick win things are don't spend your time creating lots of presentation type things, whether it's PowerPoint or score or something similar. But create activities where the learners do something. Now I'm a big fan of the discussion forum because used effectively it can be a very powerful learning tool because it's very quick to set up. Yes, it will take a little bit of time to moderate, as you go through but it can be a very powerful learning tool. You have to get good at writing the questions, cause if you write a question that just can be answered yes/no that doesn't leave for a very good discussion. So you want to ask questions that are likely to elicit a response. And that might mean as a tutor you actually state a point of view that you don't necessarily agree with, but you know it's going to elicit a reaction, and then you unpick that reaction with the learner as they go forwards. So I think discussion forums is a really really good tool because it's quick to set up and very powerful and I've already mentioned one of the obvious ways is to have a video, watch the video, I want you to then answer this question. 'What has the person done wrong, and what should they have done or what would you do differently?' Or watch the video as say, 'what is, which psychological theory is this an example of and why?' So those sorts of activities are quite quick to set up, embedding a YouTube or Vimeo video is really really easy to do. And if you embed the video what it does is it stops, because you've embedded it you don't have all the YouTube distractions around the outside, so you don't have the picture of the kind of the dog on a skateboard, or the cat sneezing, and in my case, cause it knows what things I like, I'll have videos about like cricket because I like cricket. So I'm watching a video and theres all these distractions on the right-hand side, like Michael Holding bowling a 1970's wackshow, Ooo... I quite like that. So those sorts of things.

(17:34) Getting the learners to do things, the glossary activity, a lot of people don't look at the glossary activity, you can set the students a task, okay we're doing a bit on psychology for example. You can give each person a physiological theorist, so Floyd, Pavlov etc.. and then you can say I want you to research them. And they then have to enter a little bit of information about that person, into the glossary which the others can then see, and then they can comment on it and they can rate it. So in a matter of minutes, you've created quite a powerful learning activity, that can have quite good responses. If you get good at the glossary activity, the next step up is something called the database activity. It's a little bit trickier to use, but it allows you to have more fields rather than just the term and the definition. And if you get really good at that there is another plugin called data form, which if you really have time to work out how it works is again quite powerful, but it's not the easiest thing to use although it says it's easy, it isn't, I'm using it quite a bit but it's taken me a while to learn it.

(18:37) Writing quizzes is very powerful but it takes a lot of time. If you do happen to have a bank of lets say multiple-choice questions in a format there are tools where you can quickly upload it either to the Moodle quiz or into the H5P. So if you've got it in Excel or Word with a bot of manipulation you can actually import it and then it gives you at least a bank of questions. Much quicker than actually just typing them out, which can be quite time-consuming.

(19:07) So I think they're the sort of the quick wins, it is something that comes with practice. It is, if you've got somebody in the organisation who can offer help it's seeking that helps, just say, 'look I'm teaching this but it's taking me ages, have you got any ideas, can you help me?'. And if you don't have somebody in your organisation it's where reaching out to people outside the organisation either to do some training sessions forgetting someone outside the organisation to just work with one subject area and help them develop a product and then you've got that as an example that other people can then see to apply to their own examples.

(19:42) CA: Thanks Dave, I really like the idea of the discussion forum, that sounds like a really quick easy way to get some good discussion going And it's almost like self-directed learning it's a quick way to ask a question and then a lot of internal social discussion between the students.

(19:54) DF: And well when I was teaching, I used to sort of have within each week, I'd use the VLE quite a lot, even though I was teaching face to face, I was using the VLE as a support mechanism. I would have a certain structure, so with this topic, I was teaching biomechanics, which is basically the physics of sport, so we'll have a topic, lets say it's force, and we'll have here's some the learning materials, here's some sort of questions I've written and then I'd have for each week, I'd have a discussion activity where I'd actually ask a question related to that topic. Now some weeks the topic, the discussion forum didn't actually get any responses but I could check for the tracking data that they were actually reading it. Now they still, what quite often I was doing was using that as stretch and reach, so for the more able learners, the discussion question was more challenging. It wasn't, It was above and beyond what I had to do as the core curriculum. If they just read it and thought about it but didn't respond, learning is still taking place. So it doesn't matter that they didn't respond, I still persevered. And then there were some weeks when I did get responses and we did have a discussion ensue. And it didn't matter if people were lurking and just reading it, they might still be learning. But it's quite hard for teachers to keep creating forum activities if they don't actually get responses from the learners. One of the beauties of things like Moodle is you can set the tracking so that you can say you have to post at least one post or reply for this activity to be marked as complete. And you can actually say you have to do this before you get something else, so you can actually use a bit of carrot on the stick to encourage them to have a contribution but it would be very easy for them to put in a sort of silly contribution just for the sake of the tick. But it can be quite powerful.

(21:39) CA: Thanks very much for that Dave. And just moving on to the final question, when I was reading through your blog, and we'll make sure you put a link to that below this Q&A, and its really the main argument of your blog post was, you were saying that now is probably not the time to move away from Moodle. So, I was just wondering if you could maybe explain the reasons and your thoughts behind that?

(21:58) DF: I mean there are a couple of things. I'm hearing, when people say, 'we're thinking of moving', and then when they give the reasons, the reasons that they are giving are not good reasons, 'Oh we've just heard it's old hat' or 'we've heard that the college down the road has switched and therefore it must be the right thing'. That's not sensible decision making, in any language. The decision to move is not one to take lightly. It requires a lot of thought, you've got to think; 'Is what we are moving to definitely better?' 'What is the impact going to be for the actual process of the move?' it will be disruptive, both for the students and for the tutors, and 'We've got to work out are there going to be any negative effects?' and 'do the positives outweigh the negatives?'.

(22:40) You've obviously got the cost implications, it's not just to cost now but the cost in the future. Now we, if I use Canvas as an example, we don't know what their pricing model is going forwards. But what we can do is we can look back in the history, to what happened 20 odd years ago, when Blackboard, for example, came to the fore, they started off being very cheap and then once people had kind of got hooked they then put the price up because you were already committed to them. People would just pay that higher price, now I don't know if Canvas is going to play the same strategy as Blackboard did 20 odd years ago, but it is always a possibility. And you have to say if that happens 'are we happy to either pay that extra price or move again to something else?'. And they are difficult decisions, they're not easy decisions to make, and because we don't know what the pricing is. Whereas with Moodle, as it's opensource, we know what the pricing is, the product itself doesn't cost anything and if one host puts the cost up you just move to another host, as you say it's portable. So you know what the prices will be and to a certain extent Google Classroom and Teams are in the same sort of boat, I think we are pretty confident with those that the cost of them isn't going to change because of the nature of the way the business', they might do, but more likely.

(23:55) And then the second thing is, is we have no idea how this pandemic is going to play out and if we are, if online learning is going to become kind of the main method of learning, and face to face is going to become the minor element of the learning. Then what you need is the most powerful system that you can get and that is where the timings seems wrong to move away from Moodle, which as I mentioned, in the beginning, is the most powerful of the systems, because of the unique way that you can combine all the plugins in different ways. It is, it has to be the most powerful system. So to turn away from that, to me, it just seems like the wrong decision. Spend a bit of time and money and getting somebody in to;

(25:28) A. improve the appearance so that it looks better, it's easier and more user friendly. If there are features and functions that you don't need, then you turn them off. A lot of people don't realise, I mean there are certain plugins, okay the survey plugin, no sorry, it's not a plugin it's core, there's a survey activity, I think it's totally useless, so I turn it off. There's no point in showing something to tutors that they are not going to use and there's a few other things in there. If you're not going to use them, If you don't see a value in them, turn them off so that it simplifies the options and keeps things simpler. Similarly, there are a whole load of blocks which you just don't need, okay, turn them off at admin level so that teachers don't go around adding every block under the sun and making the course look really unusable. That'll make sense.

(25:30) Personally, I'm a big fan of the... I don't like the Atto editor, which has kind of become the default Moodle editor, I don't like it, I find it hard to use. I know some people do like it. So I tend to use the tinyMCE editor as my preference, but what I do is I actually edit the editor, so that it only shows the buttons that I want people to see. So a tutor has no need to change the font colour. They have no need to change the font style because that should be set by the theme and the CSS that's behind it. So I turn it off so the tutors can't do it. Okay, there's no point having the option, cause if they do change it they make the site less accessible, so that's why I turn it off. And by simplifying the options available it makes it much more amenable to the tutors. So when people go 'oh I've got these 3 rows of icons and I don't know which one does which', well, on the Moodles that I support we have 2 rows of icons case I got rid of about a 1/3 of them cause they don't need them. And I've changed the order so that they are in a more logical order in my opinion. But it's those sorts of things.

(26:29) Changing the language pack, people don't realise that you can go into the language pack. So where, things like the assignments, where it says 'submit assignment', it might be you change the text, so rather than it saying 'submit assignment', you can say 'submit for your tutor to look at' or 'submit for grading' or whatever. So you can actually change various language items to make it work more sensibly or more sensibly for you in your situation. To use local language, if you see the word unit or module or course, well we can change the language to reflect that at a higher level.

(27:06) It doesn't take much time to get these sorts of things sorted and that's the thing that sort of frustrates me. A couple of days with someone who knows what they are doing and you can really turn your Moodle around. And that should be a starting point.

(27:19) The second issue is investing time in the staff. And this is where again people who are switching because 'Moodle's too hard to use', well that's because you've not invested time in the staff. Going to another system, you've still got to invest time in the staff for them to use it effectively and if you don't you're going to have the same problem in 4-5 years time where whatever you move to isn't being used effectively. And you'll then be looking to switch again in 4-5 years time to something else and you'll again be blaming the technology rather than that you haven't invested in the staff. And I think we've had the same conversations with Powerpoint, people blame Powerpoint. Powerpoint, Powerpoint. Powerpoint is a wonderful tool, if you know how to use it. It's only because people haven't spent the time training people how to use it properly, and you only have to watch political briefings to realise that even at the highest level of the country people don't use Powerpoint properly. So we set an expectation and that is what Powerpoint does and that again is a real shame. The tool itself isn't to blame, it's the way that people use it that is to blame and it's the same with the VLE.

(28:24) CA: Thanks very much for that Dave Theres some really great points that have been raised there, and a lot worth thinking about before just moving over to another platform.So I think that's most of the content covered there Dave, is there is anything you wanted to add before we end the Q&A?

(28:36) DF: I think for people that are listening, with Moodle, in particular, it's worth.. well you've got various options, you can either host it yourself, perfectly viable. You can host it with another company for example, like Overt. And then you've obviously got, theres the Moodle partners. So people think that you have to do one of the 3, you have actually got quite a wide gambit of options. And there are advantages and disadvantages of each of the different approaches, and it's worth looking at each one critically before deciding what is the best option for you. Don't feel that just because you worked at a college where they self-hosted, if you then switch to another college, that self-hosting is the only way it can be done. There are different ways in which your hosting and the support from your host company can be managed. And it's getting that right, is part of the key I think. And in my opinion, it isn't expensive to get it right, if it's done properly by the right people. Okay, it's relatively an affordable solution for the tools that it brings. Do` have conversations with as many people as you can, external people like myself, who see lots of systems, we offer a lot of value. As well as speaking to the different host companies, vendors directly within the system. And just talking to your own personal networks, through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook etc... If you work in education you will have other people in other educational establishments that you are connected to and just get as many opinions as you can from as many people before you make a decision.

(30:11) CA: That's brilliant, thanks very much for that Dave And it's been great speaking with you today thank you for your time and all your valuable answers  And hopefully we'll continue with these Q&As in the new year.


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