What makes a great Moodle course? Part 1 – What is a course?

What is a course?

Introduction

Reading Wikipedia like Britannica sucks. Reading Wikipedia like Wikipedia is mind-opening.

Cory Doctorow (http://www.edge.org/discourse/digital_maoism.html)

What is mind opening about reading Wikipedia? Click ‘Discussion’ on a popular or contentious Wikipedia entry and you’ll see. The history, variety of views, contributions, changes, updates, the links, the enormity of effort across even one entry will (probably?) ‘hit’ you. It’s free, intellectually brawling, universal, instantaneous and pretty damn accurate (I won’t elaborate on ‘truth’ of either – more on that some other time, blame the French πŸ˜‰ ).

To borrow Doctorow’s quip – reading Moodle like a textbook sucks. Reading Moodle like Moodle is mind-opening. But how do you read Moodle? How do you know a good Moodle site or course when you see it (beyond a pretty theme …)? What set of skills and understanding do you need to read it? Create it?

These questions will be the focus of the next few posts, a series loosely called ‘What makes a great Moodle course?’ The aim is to flesh out a few core questions to help Moodle users not just create and participate in courses but to support and enhance sharing of courses through Moodle 2.0 ‘s new feature called Community Hub. And please, this is only a ‘thinkaloud’ …

The first post will explore a (not ‘the’) definition of a ‘course’ and invite you to ponder a particular view, long held by Martin Dougiamas, the creator and lead developer of Moodle. The next post or two in the series will explore the convergence of technological, content and pedagogical expertise in a great Moodle course, then imagine a great Moodle course as primarily a communication and creation tool. Finally, we will bring it all together and suggest some ‘point format’ guidelines for developing, nurturing and appraising Moodle courses.

Now, this may seem like an individual effort but I would hate it to be so. I would love to hear what YOU think makes a great Moodle course and share it in probably the easiest way possible by contributing to our SynchIn pad (a version of the old beloved Etherpad) or, of course, in the comments below. Because β€œwe” know a lot more than β€œme” on this one πŸ˜‰

So … what is a course?

When asked this question, most people would probably answer something like β€œa course is a structured body of content and activities that students enrol in, complete tasks and get graded by the teacher to see how well they have done at the end of it.” Yes? No?

But what if you see a course essentially as a community (Martin’s remark that has lingered with me since my first few days at Moodle HQ). What if you even replace the word ‘course’ with the word ‘community’? A few things change …

Whether online, blended or offline, communities, particularly the most successful ones in terms of participation and engagement, have a lot in common:

  • They are not inert, linear, static, fully set and pre-determined things.
  • Roles of members are defined but flexible enough to cater for changes should the circumstances require so.
  • There are understood rules and consequences for breaching them in order for all to feel safe.
  • In a community (unlike a network, more on that perhaps another time…), one cannot just ‘(un)friend’ or ‘(dis)connect’ but learn to deal with, work things out.
  • Its members are responsible to each other in pursuing a common set of goals. Interdependence through contribution and participation is implicit and made explicit in its design.
  • There are multiple channels of communication, not just top-down announcements.
  • Participation and learning are active, done mostly through challenges, feedback and mastery not by passively going through the laid out material.
  • Changes, adjustments, improvements are essential and welcome at different levels and different areas – everyone improves, not just one type of members at one thing.

Sound like qualities of a good Moodle course? Well, sounds a lot like a party too… as Lee Lefeever of the CommonCraft fame explains the thing about online communities in his usually succinct way:

A blank Moodle course (well, an entire site really…) is essentially an incredibly versatile wiki, hence the Wikipedia reference at the start. By design, a wiki is a platform for a community. If imagined this way, the question then becomes not whether a (your?) course is a community or not, but rather how does a (your?) community cater for its members and their needs, passions, welfare and interests by using Moodle.

And when you see it like THAT, the imagination and mindset matter more than the technical skills. And so they should.

13 comments

  1. Mark Drechsler

    Since it looks like most are writing in the SyncIn pad I thought (for a change – ha) I’d be different and leave a comment here.

    As always, I pre-empt this with the statement that I tend to operate mainly in the Higher Ed sector, and I get to talk to quite a few T&L groups and lecturers within Australian unis, so my thinking in certainly skewed by that context.

    When I look around my client base and think about the term ‘course’, the definition seems to fall into one of two broad categories, namely

    1. Courses which are clearly defined bodies like you defined in your opening comments, and which align 1-1 with whatever is coming from the course handbook. There is little room within the construct of many Uni’s current delivery models to shift too far away from this, so even though there may be some flexibility in where the boundaries of the course lie, its usually pretty well locked down. Of course posts like http://bit.ly/dvQ12T highlight how the entire higher ed world is going to be turned on its head one day soon (with no disagreement from me), but I haven’t seen any local evidence that this is happening in any systemic way, and until it does the course handbook is still going to be the thing driving the definition of a ‘course’ (even if in higher ed they’ll call them Subjects or Units in my experience – just to make life confusing for Moodlers).

    2. Courses which are more intended to create communities of practice, and which are far more open in their structure and content than the aforementioned ‘locked down’ courses. Its also been interesting to see the cogs turning inside people’s heads about whether Moodle is the best tool for these kinds of ‘courses’, or if other tools like Mahara (using groups) or other social networking tools can do a better job. This most definitely fits in more closely with your thoughts on a course being more flexible, participative and user-driven.

    In terms of what makes a ‘good’ course, I’ll always argue that it depends on the kind of content and how best it can be delivered, and this will vary the level of constructionism and user participation accordingly. Now before I get gunned down in flames, I’m by no means defending the ‘download these PDFs and upload your assignments’ methodology which still plagues every Moodle site I see, and I do think that any attempt to make a course interactive should be taken.

    What I am saying though is that there will be courses where the ‘old school’ model where the lecturer *is* actually a subject matter expert and does need to ‘transmit’ their knowledge to students still applies – particularly in specialist or R&D fields in higher education. In this case I think a ‘good course’ is where the content is presented in a way which is engaging and accessible, and where this is supplemented by ways for students to further interact with the subject matter expert lecturer (and any others in the field) through things like forums, chats and online classroom sessions.

    Parties where people get together in a community to interact, learn and have fun may be common, but we shouldn’t forget that every once in a while a concert will come to town where people actually do want to focus their attention on the star performer rather than listen to what the crowd are talking about.

    Ultimately though, “the imagination and mindset matter more than the technical skills” regardless of the learning scenario, something I doubt Tomaz and I will ever disagree on!

  2. Mark Drechsler

    Since it looks like most are writing in the SyncIn pad I thought (for a change – ha) I’d be different and leave a comment here.

    As always, I pre-empt this with the statement that I tend to operate mainly in the Higher Ed sector, and I get to talk to quite a few T&L groups and lecturers within Australian unis, so my thinking in certainly skewed by that context.

    When I look around my client base and think about the term ‘course’, the definition seems to fall into one of two broad categories, namely

    1. Courses which are clearly defined bodies like you defined in your opening comments, and which align 1-1 with whatever is coming from the course handbook. There is little room within the construct of many Uni’s current delivery models to shift too far away from this, so even though there may be some flexibility in where the boundaries of the course lie, its usually pretty well locked down. Of course posts like http://bit.ly/dvQ12T highlight how the entire higher ed world is going to be turned on its head one day soon (with no disagreement from me), but I haven’t seen any local evidence that this is happening in any systemic way, and until it does the course handbook is still going to be the thing driving the definition of a ‘course’ (even if in higher ed they’ll call them Subjects or Units in my experience – just to make life confusing for Moodlers).

    2. Courses which are more intended to create communities of practice, and which are far more open in their structure and content than the aforementioned ‘locked down’ courses. Its also been interesting to see the cogs turning inside people’s heads about whether Moodle is the best tool for these kinds of ‘courses’, or if other tools like Mahara (using groups) or other social networking tools can do a better job. This most definitely fits in more closely with your thoughts on a course being more flexible, participative and user-driven.

    In terms of what makes a ‘good’ course, I’ll always argue that it depends on the kind of content and how best it can be delivered, and this will vary the level of constructionism and user participation accordingly. Now before I get gunned down in flames, I’m by no means defending the ‘download these PDFs and upload your assignments’ methodology which still plagues every Moodle site I see, and I do think that any attempt to make a course interactive should be taken.

    What I am saying though is that there will be courses where the ‘old school’ model where the lecturer *is* actually a subject matter expert and does need to ‘transmit’ their knowledge to students still applies – particularly in specialist or R&D fields in higher education. In this case I think a ‘good course’ is where the content is presented in a way which is engaging and accessible, and where this is supplemented by ways for students to further interact with the subject matter expert lecturer (and any others in the field) through things like forums, chats and online classroom sessions.

    Parties where people get together in a community to interact, learn and have fun may be common, but we shouldn’t forget that every once in a while a concert will come to town where people actually do want to focus their attention on the star performer rather than listen to what the crowd are talking about.

    Ultimately though, “the imagination and mindset matter more than the technical skills” regardless of the learning scenario, something I doubt Tomaz and I will ever disagree on!

  3. human

    Yes, a lot of this will be fleshed out in the coming post, particularly the balance between transmission and co-creation.

    A copy from the ‘pad’ I wrote in reply to another person as your were writing your comment here (damn multiple places ;-))…:

    “I am not promoting one particular theory of learning, but a deep reflection on what is it that students and teachers REALLY need as sense-makers. Sometimes, the more traditional, ‘transmissionist’ approach is by far the best (even without using Moodle or any digitial tech!) … but not all the time. As you say, Moodle can accommodate a range of these approaches, it is really about how skilfull educators put them to good use! THis will be a focus of the next post in the What makes a great Moodle course? series. Thank you.”

    Constructionism/constructivism used poorly sucks as much as ‘transmissionism/instructionism’ used poorly.

    Thanks mate, appreciate you comment!

  4. human

    Yes, a lot of this will be fleshed out in the coming post, particularly the balance between transmission and co-creation.

    A copy from the ‘pad’ I wrote in reply to another person as your were writing your comment here (damn multiple places ;-))…:

    “I am not promoting one particular theory of learning, but a deep reflection on what is it that students and teachers REALLY need as sense-makers. Sometimes, the more traditional, ‘transmissionist’ approach is by far the best (even without using Moodle or any digitial tech!) … but not all the time. As you say, Moodle can accommodate a range of these approaches, it is really about how skilfull educators put them to good use! THis will be a focus of the next post in the What makes a great Moodle course? series. Thank you.”

    Constructionism/constructivism used poorly sucks as much as ‘transmissionism/instructionism’ used poorly.

    Thanks mate, appreciate you comment!

  5. Pingback: What is a course, and the tools to have a great one (Part 1) « Moodle: The user's experience
  6. Pingback: What is a course, and the tools to have a great one (Part 1) « Moodle: The user's experience
  7. Pingback: What is a course, and the tools to have a great one (Part 1) « Moodle: The user's experience
  8. John Morrison

    useful to think about the basic different types of learning: acquisition, participation, creation. Participation – the “home” of learning as community can be further divided as community for the purpose of inculcating novices into a field or for the purpose of supporting the development of the field (typically this is not an activity for novices)

    Thinking about what is the primary type of learning, implicit in your goals, will bring clarity to your pedagogical design.

    See Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), pp. 4-13 at https://www.msu.edu/~sfard/two%20metaphors.pdf and Models of Innovative Knowledge Communities and Three Metaphors of Learning by Sami Paavola, Lasse Lipponen and Kai Hakkarainen in REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH Winter 2004 vol. 74 no. 4 557-576 (just abstract here – http://rer.sagepub.com/content/74/4/557.short)

  9. John Morrison

    useful to think about the basic different types of learning: acquisition, participation, creation. Participation – the “home” of learning as community can be further divided as community for the purpose of inculcating novices into a field or for the purpose of supporting the development of the field (typically this is not an activity for novices)

    Thinking about what is the primary type of learning, implicit in your goals, will bring clarity to your pedagogical design.

    See Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), pp. 4-13 at https://www.msu.edu/~sfard/two%20metaphors.pdf and Models of Innovative Knowledge Communities and Three Metaphors of Learning by Sami Paavola, Lasse Lipponen and Kai Hakkarainen in REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH Winter 2004 vol. 74 no. 4 557-576 (just abstract here – http://rer.sagepub.com/content/74/4/557.short)

  10. human

    Great references, thank you kindly John.

    Even the categorisation (and subsequent restriction, dangers of which Sfard probably points at, yet to read the paper) into ‘basic different types of learning’ can be tenuous, can it not? Starting with an idea is important indeed, more important is adjusting as learning develops and grows.

    Regards

    Tomaz

  11. human

    Great references, thank you kindly John.

    Even the categorisation (and subsequent restriction, dangers of which Sfard probably points at, yet to read the paper) into ‘basic different types of learning’ can be tenuous, can it not? Starting with an idea is important indeed, more important is adjusting as learning develops and grows.

    Regards

    Tomaz

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