My Very Own Moodle

Here’s what my Modern World History class looks like on my school Moodle in Grid Format.
At my school we use Moodle as a virtual extension to our classrooms. Unfortunately, we don’t have guest access so I’m not able to demo how I set up my Moodle classroom. I jumped on that problem this weekend by setting up my own Moodle instance (at my web hosting service. I then exported my two Moodle classes from my school Moodle and imported them to my personal Moodle. I’ve only spent about two hours from setup to import, but the experience has highlighted to me how Moodle is not a simple drop-in replacement but rather an organic, dynamic, and temperamental beast – quite similar to many other pieces of open-source software.

Take the installation process, which is not terribly complicated but demands familiarity with the command line and basic web hosting tools. It’s along the lines of doing a manual WordPress install – not terribly complicated – but I had to install an older version (2.2.5), migrate my MySQL database to use UTF-8, and edit the .htaccess file to change the PHP version to make Moodle compatible with the environment provided by my host, 1and1. I’m used to having to dig through mountains of forum posts when doing anything Linux-related, so it wasn’t a big deal – I was able to find a post that exactly outlined the steps I needed to follow.

Then to the installation of plug-ins. WordPress makes it easy – log in to the web interface, go to the plug-ins section, paste in a URL, and bingo – WordPress will download and install the plugin for you. Moodle makes you remote into your server, wget the plugin, unzip it, manually move it to the appropriate directory (which could be any one of five or six locations), go to the admin interface, and then complete the install process. Furthermore, plug-ins don’t appear to be rigorously tested for compatibility: the Grid Format plug-in recommended and used by my school and adopted enthusiastically by myself for its visual literacy-friendly paradigm actually breaks the backup function, at least in Moodle 2.2.5. So I had to revert my course to the Topic Format, back it up, restore the backup to my own Moodle instance, and then re-enable the Grid View.

I like using the Grid Format, but it doesn’t play nice with some basic Moodle functionality. Here, my own Moodle instance has the Grid Format plugin installed, but the images are all broken.
And voila – my courses have appeared, albeit without the cover images for each Topic, which is a feature specific to Grid Format. Given that Grid Format breaks the backup function I’m not surprised they didn’t make the transition, and upon uploading new images I’ve found that every image is broken. So that’s where I am now.

Moodle reminds me of my experience with Ubuntu five years ago. It was powerful, fast, and had some really neat features, like display spanning and workspaces – but a typical install meant finding drivers, manually tweaking the XOrg.conf file, and generally spending a lot of man-hours to make everything work as it should. Sure, OSX cost about $130 at the time, but it installed in an hour or two and didn’t require you to piece together your own manual from six different forum threads.

Here’s hoping that Moodle quickly matures. It’s an ornery beast right now, but what scares me more is that it’s apparently miles and miles ahead of its commercial competitor, Blackboard. My advice to you: if you’ve got Moodle at your school, set up a dev environment inside a virtual machine and only roll them out to production once you’ve thoroughly tested (it’s best practice anyway, and a copy of VMWare Workstation is well worth the cash). At our school, the Moodle admin needs to make changes live, and doing that is not for the faint of heart.

2 thoughts on “My Very Own Moodle”

  1. So would you say you prefer WordPress to Moodle? (that is, if your school wasn’t already using it) I’m wondering if I should make the switch. I really like how non-schooly WordPress is though (if that makes any sense).

    1. Does your school already have a CMS like Moodle or Blackboard? If it does, I would use that. If it doesn’t, I would probably use Edmodo – it’s set up like a public Moodle that anyone can sign up for, and is ideal for teachers wanting to use a CMS but at a school that doesn’t have one.

      As far as “non-schooliness” goes, yes, we need to meet kids where they are, and I could see WordPress + Disqus (a must for commenting systems) work as a class website solution. But kids also like separation between school and personal lives; I’ve asked kids about setting up a Facebook page for the class and they aren’t super keen on the idea. It’s hard to strike the right balance between “removed from personal life” and “easy to access,” especially for this generation.

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