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Using Moodle, 2nd Edition by Helen Foster, Jason Cole

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Chapter 1. Introduction

If you teach, you’ve probably heard for years about the revolution the Internet was supposed to bring to teaching and learning. As with so many promises of revolution, the changes haven’t materialized. Instead, there has been a slow evolution toward using the Web to enhance teaching and learning. A suite of tools called Course Management Systems (CMSs) supports this new practice. You can use CMSs to enhance your teaching by taking advantage of the Internet without replacing the need for a teacher.

What Is a Course Management System?

CMSs are web applications, meaning that they run on a server and are accessed by using a web browser. Your Moodle server is probably located in your university or department, but it can be anywhere in the world. You and your students can access the system from any place with an Internet connection.

At their most basic, CMSs give educators tools to create a course web site and provide access control so only enrolled students can view it. CMSs also offer a wide variety of tools that can make your course more effective. They provide an easy way to upload and share materials, hold online discussions and chats, give quizzes and surveys, gather and review assignments, and record grades. Let’s take a quick look at each of these features and how they might be useful:

Uploading and sharing materials

Most CMSs provide tools to easily publish content. Instead of using an HTML editor and then sending your documents to a server via FTP, you simply use a web form to store your syllabus on the server. Many instructors upload their syllabus, lecture notes, reading assignments, and articles for students to access whenever they want.

Forums and chats

Online forums and chats provide a means of communication outside of classroom meetings. Forums give your students more time to generate their responses and can lead to more thoughtful discussions. Chats, on the other hand, give you a way to quickly and easily communicate with remote students. They can be used for project discussions between groups of students or for last-minute questions the day before an exam.


Online quizzes can be graded instantaneously. They are a great tool for giving students rapid feedback on their performance and for gauging their comprehension of materials. Many publishers now provide banks of test questions tied to book chapters. A professor teaching a marketing class at San Francisco State uses weekly mini-tests to keep students engaged with the lectures and reading. He then uses proctored online testing to give the final exam using the same question banks.

Gathering and reviewing assignments

Online assignment submissions are an easy way to track and grade student assignments. In addition to grading student assignments yourself, research indicates that using an online environment for student peer reviews increases student motivation and performance.

Recording grades

An online gradebook can give your students up-to-date information about their performances in your course. Online grades can also help you comply with new privacy rules that prohibit posting grades with personal identifiers in public places. CMS gradebooks allow students to see only their own grades, never another student’s. You can also download the grades into Excel for advanced calculations.

While you could find or write programs to do all of these things on your own site, a CMS combines all of these features in one integrated package. Once you’ve learned how to use a CMS, you’ll be free to concentrate on teaching and learning instead of writing and maintaining your own software.

Over the past eight years, CMS systems have matured rapidly and are now considered critical software for many colleges and universities. The CMS market is now a multimillion dollar market and is growing quickly.

Why Should You Use a CMS?

Good question. After all, we’ve run classes for thousands of years without the use of computers and the Web. “Chalk and talk” is still the predominant method of delivering instruction. While traditional face-to-face meetings can still be effective, applying the tools listed above opens up new possibilities for learning that weren’t possible twenty years ago. Currently, there is a lot of research into how to effectively combine online learning and face-to-face meetings in what are called “hybrid” courses or “blended learning.”

Hybrid courses combine the best of both worlds. Imagine moving most of your content delivery to an online environment and saving your course time for discussion, questions, and problem solving. Many instructors have found they can save time and increase student learning by allowing students to engage in the material outside of class. This allows them to use face-to-face time for troubleshooting.

Online discussions give many students the opportunity to express themselves in ways they couldn’t in a regular class. Many students are reluctant to speak in class because of shyness, uncertainty, or language issues. It’s a boon to many students to have the ability to take their time to compose questions and answers in an online discussion, and instructors report much higher participation levels online than in class.

There are a number of other reasons to think about using a CMS in your courses:

Student demand

Students are becoming more technically savvy, and they want to get many of their course materials off the Web. Once online, they can access the latest information at any time and make as many copies of the materials as they need. Having grown up with instant messaging and other Internet communication tools, many students find that online communication is second nature.

Student schedules

With rising tuition, many students are working more hours to make ends meet while they are in school. About half of all students now work at least 20 hours a week to meet school expenses. With a CMS, they can communicate with the instructor or their peers whenever their schedules permit. They can also take quizzes or read course material during their lunch breaks. Working students need flexible access to courses, and a CMS is a powerful way to give them what they need.

Better courses

If used well, CMSs can make your classes more effective and efficient. By moving some parts of your course online, you can more effectively take advantage of scheduled face-to-face time to engage students’ questions and ideas. For example, if you move your content delivery from an in-class lecture to an online document, you can then use lecture time to ask students about what they didn’t understand. If you also use an online forum, you can bring the best ideas and questions from the forum into your classroom. We’ll discuss lots of strategies and case studies for effective practice throughout the book.

You probably heard all of this in the early ‘90s. So, what’s changed? Today, CMSs are more mature and easier to use than they’ve been at any time in the past. The underlying technology is becoming more robust, and programmers are writing good web applications. In the past, most systems were built as departmental or even personal projects and then commercialized. The leading commercial package, Blackboard, started out as a small college project and has since grown to be a market leader.

However, market leadership does not automatically mean that a given application is the best or most reliable piece of software. Driven by the need for increased profitability, the market leader has struggled to manage its growth, and some would argue that product quality has suffered as a result.

What Makes Moodle Special?

We’ve both spent time researching different CMSs, and we have become fans of Moodle because it is open source, is built on a sound educational philosophy, and has a huge community that supports and develops it. It can compete with the big commercial systems in terms of feature sets and is easy to extend. Let’s take a closer look at some of these advantages and why they are important to you and your institution.

Free and Open Source

The phrase “open source” has become a loaded term in some circles. For those who are outside of the techie culture, it’s hard to understand how powerful this idea has become, and how it has forever changed the world of software development. The idea itself is simple: open source simply means that users have access to the source code of the software. You can look under the hood, see how the software works, tinker with it, share it with others, or use parts of it in your own product.

So why is this important? For one, open source software is aligned with the academic community’s values of freedom, peer review, and knowledge sharing. Just as anyone can download and use Moodle for free, users can write new features, fix bugs, improve performance, or simply learn by seeing how other people solved a programming problem.

Secondly, unlike expensive proprietary CMSs that require license fees and maintenance contracts, Moodle costs nothing to download and you can install it on as many servers as you want. No one can take it away from you, increase the license cost, or make you pay for upgrades. No one can force you to upgrade, adopt features you don’t want, or tell you how many users you can have. They can’t take the source code back from users, and if Martin Dougiamas decides to stop developing Moodle, there is a dedicated community of developers who will keep the project going.

Educational Philosophy

Martin’s background in education led him to adopt social constructionism as a core theory behind Moodle. This is revolutionary, as most CMS systems have been built around tool sets, not pedagogy. Most commercial CMS systems are tool-centered, whereas Moodle is learning-centered.

Social constructionism is based on the idea that people learn best when they are engaged in a social process of constructing knowledge through the act of constructing an artifact for others. That’s a packed sentence, so let’s break it down a bit. The term “social process” indicates that learning is something we do in groups. From this point of view, learning is a process of negotiating meaning in a culture of shared artifacts and symbols. The process of negotiating meaning and utilizing shared artifacts is a process of constructing knowledge. We are not blank slates when we enter the learning process. We need to test new learning against our old beliefs and incorporate it into our existing knowledge structures. Part of the process of testing and negotiating involves creating artifacts and symbols for others to interact with. We create artifacts and in turn negotiate with others to define the meaning of those artifacts in terms of a shared culture of understanding.

So how does that relate to Moodle? The first indication is in the interface. While tool-centric CMSs give you a list of tools as the interface, Moodle builds the tools into an interface that makes the learning task central. You can organize your Moodle course by week, topic, or social arrangement. Additionally, while other CMSs support a content model that encourages instructors to upload a lot of static content, Moodle focuses on tools for discussion and sharing artifacts. The focus isn’t on delivering information; it’s on sharing ideas and engaging in the construction of knowledge.

Moodle’s design philosophy makes this a uniquely teacher-friendly package that represents the first generation of educational tools that are truly useful.


Moodle has a very large, active community of people who are using the system and developing new features and enhancements. You can access this community at http://moodle.org/ and enroll in the Using Moodle course. There you’ll find people who are more than willing to help new users get up and running, troubleshoot, and use Moodle effectively. As of this writing, there are over 300,000 people registered on Moodle.org and over 30,000 Moodle sites in 195 countries. The global community has also translated Moodle into over 70 languages.

The Moodle community has been indispensable to the success of the system. With so many global users, there is always someone who can answer a question or give advice. At the same time, the Moodle developers and users work together to ensure quality, add new modules and features, and suggest new ideas for development. Martin and his core team are responsible for deciding what features are mature enough for official releases and where to go next. Because users are free to experiment, many people use and test new features, acting as a large quality control department.

These three advantages—open source, educational philosophy, and community—make Moodle unique in the CMS space.

In the rest of the book, we’ll discuss how you can use Moodle’s many features to enhance your teaching and provide your students with a powerful learning environment.

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