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August 2, 2005

Using Moodle: Using the Popular Open Source Course Management System

In recent years, Course Management Systems (CMSs) have matured to the point that they're now considered critical software for many colleges and universities. At a basic level, a CMS gives educators the tools to create a course web site and provide access control so only enrolled students can view it. Beyond access control, a CMS typically offers a wide variety of tools to make a course more effective: an easy way to upload and share materials, hold online discussions and chats, give quizzes and surveys, gather and review assignments, and record grades. In other words, it's a suite of tools that enhance teaching by taking advantage of the Internet without replacing the need for the teacher.

Moodle is the open source CMS used by more than two thousand educational organizations around the world. In Using Moodle (O'Reilly Community Press, US $39.95), author Jason Cole takes a hands-on approach to explaining how the system works, offering plenty of examples and best practices for its many features and plug-in modules. Available for free on the Web, Moodle can scale from a single-teacher site to a 40,000-student university. Its tool set and features are comparable to those of the leading commercial packages, and the system has the added benefit of being built on a sound education philosophy with a huge, active community that supports and develops it.

The name "Moodle" is both an acronym (Modular Object Oriented Development Learning Environment) and a verb (to let the mind or body wander and do something creative but without particular purpose). Martin Dougiamas, a computer scientist and educator who spends time supporting a CMS at a university in Perth, Australia, created Moodle. Increasingly frustrated with the existing system, Dougiamas learned that engineers, not educators, had designed it. He surmised that a system built by someone who started with the educational process, rather than an engineering process, would be infinitely better than what he had to work with, and so he began to develop Moodle.

Using Moodle is written for instructors learning how to use Moodle. The book is more than just a how-to manual; each chapter includes suggestions, case studies, and best practices for using Moodle effectively. The book also exposes little-known but powerful hacks for the more technically savvy users. "I've spent a lot of time working with teachers to incorporate technology into their classes. I've seen what works, what doesn't, and some of the pitfalls to avoid," says Cole. "I'm really an education geek. I love living at the intersection of technology and learning."

According to Cole, you can use Moodle to teach a course fully online or to supplement a course taught in a traditional setting. "We've run classes for thousands of years without the use of computers and the web," he notes. "Chalk and talk is still the predominant method of delivering instruction. While traditional, face-to-face meetings can still be effective, applying Moodle's tools opens up new possibilities for learning that just weren't possible a few years ago." For example, instructors can use the online environment for content delivery and save course time for discussion, questions, and problem solving. Or, students who are reluctant to speak up in class owing to shyness, uncertainty, or language issues can take their time to compose questions and answers in an online discussion.

"It doesn't matter if you teach at a primary school, at a secondary school, in higher education, or in a corporate setting, the tools and features available in Moodle can be used to create an effective class," Cole says.

Using Moodle is part of the O'Reilly Community Press series, which spurs the development of interesting technologies by making online documentation available in print. Key players in technical communities create and edit the content of O'Reilly Community Press titles, and O'Reilly manufactures and distributes the books. Each book reflects the knowledge and voice of the community that has created it.

Additional Resources:

Using Moodle
Jason Cole
ISBN: 0-596-00863-5, 219 pages, $39.95 US, $55.95 CA
order@oreilly.com
1-800-998-9938; 1-707-827-7000

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