Distance Learning Training and Resources for Educators

Archive for February, 2008

NCADL Conference Presentation 2/08

Before I dive directly into the Moodle or Not to Moodle issue. I’d like to address some broader issues concerning distance learning in general. I think we as educators need make an effort to rise above what CMS (Course Management System) we are using and/or adopting at our colleges and begin to realize it is NOT the instructional delivery system we are using, but HOW we are using any given system to TEACH our students in the online environment.

If Course Management Systems were cars I believe Blackboard would be an SUV and Moodle would be a Volkswagon.
Think about it? Most people in this room would have no problem getting in either car and driving away. Sure it may take you a little while to get used to it, BUT if you’ve been driving for awhile you most likely would feel comfortable with either vehicle in a short time. That’s how I see teaching online and CMS’s in general. Its not the vehicle…its the way you drive it. In other words…if you can teach effectively on one CMS you should be able to transfer your online teaching methodology to another platform in a relatively seamless fashion. One thing is for certain what it comes to teaching in the 21st century and that is CHANGE is inevitable and something we all MUST embrace and not be afraid of.

class_50.jpg I’ve been teaching at Carteret Community College for 22 years. In fact, I have taught Photography in some capacity for over 25 years. Education has changed dramatically since the first day I walked into a classroom/lab. To think that can sit in a coffee shop on the coast of North Carolina checking into my Art and Photography classes with my laptop computer. I can pick up a wireless signal and meet my students in a discussion about art with a group of student 8 hours away at a college (SWCC) in the mountains of western North Carolina.

If you would have told me I’d be able to engage my students, teach my students, connect with my students and help them learn a variety of college level subjects without actually seeing them 10 years ago I would have thought you were absolutely crazy. Now it’s an integral part of what I do as an educator. Online education (distance learning) has been accepted and embraced by high schools and colleges around the world. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s good online teachers and bad just like in the classroom. It takes a completely different approach to be an effective teacher in the online environment. It’s almost as if you become a moderator / facilitator instead of a didactic talking head standing in front of a group of students (sage on the stage) imparting your knowledge to them.

Good teaching is still good teaching whether its in the traditional classroom or in the online environment. Good teaching is proactive, dynamic, engaging and takes a certain amount of empathy and compassion. Good online teaching also takes innovation, creativity and a willingness to think (and communicate) in completely new ways. I truly believe it really doesn’t matter what CMS you are using (Moodel or Blackboard) – its HOW you use it and the sound methodology that you incorporate into your online classes.

Distance learning empowers teachers and students in a variety of ways and offers so many more options and alternatives to the traditional instructional model. Teaching online has reinvigorated me to literally reinvent myself as a teacher, in addition to making me think about (and teach) my subject matter in a whole new way. In other words it forces me to be a better instructor because I MUST rethink and retool every aspect of my teaching strategy and methodology to be effective in the online environment. The other part of this equation is our students. Especially the ones coming out of high school. Most of them are very comfortable working, communicating and socializing online and they expect their educational experience to be every bit as dynamic, interactive and sophisticated as their other online worlds such as My Space and Face Book.

myspace.gif Its like anything else in this world. People evolve, cultures evolve, society evolves and nothing truly stays the same. That certainly goes for the learning process.

Lately I have been thinking back to when we didn’t have the internet, e-mail, cell phones or computers.

digtlwrksh2.jpg We taught our students in classrooms “face to face” without anything more complicated than overhead projections and slides. There’s no doubt that we as college teachers in 2008 are working harder and longer trying to keep up with the various software, hardware and course management systems that constantly are getting upgraded with new and more sophisticated versions. Sure, I’m a strong proponent of distance learning and incorporating technology into my photography and art courses, however I think it’s important for educators to step back every once in awhile and remember that our primary focus should always be on teaching students. We’re dealing with human beings and it’s very easy to lose sight of the human element when we are all caught up (and stressed out) by the various dynamics and challenges of incorporating technology into our teaching.

digitlwrkshp3.jpg I will admit I am a little nostalgic for the days when I spent hours in the darkroom and studio with my students – now I teach digital imaging, graphic design and commercial illustration (for the most part) via the internet and blackboard. So the questions is….HOW do we as instructors keep and nurture the HUMAN ELEMENT in our courses? That I believe is our challenge as we forge ahead in this new millennium. Not which course management system to use. I can drive a SUV just as good as I can drive a Volkswagon and you can too!

To Moodle or Not to Moodle – That is the Question

I’ve been teaching on Moodle for 2 semesters now. I still teach most of my courses on Blackboard, but wanted to see what it would be like to teach on another delivery system. I was introduced to Moodle at a workshop this past summer conducted at Pitt Community College. I must admit, at first I was a little hesitant to even consider using another CMS beside Blackboard because I have been using Blackboard since its inception (8 + years) and feel very comfortable creating courses and teaching on it. With that said, I tried to keep an open mind and got enough training at the workshop to migrate one of my Art Appreciation classes over to the Moodle platform. This in itself took me about 20 + hours because there is no easy way to export course content directly from Blackboard to Moodle. They are two very different learning platforms, so I basically had to rethink how I would teach the class on Moodle and then copy and paste my weekly modules (assignments, lectures, discussion topics, podcasts and external links) over manually. I would imagine most online courses would not take this long because I have thousands of art images, graphics, audio and video files to migrate.

The only way to truly learn something is to teach it so I volunteered to teach a section of my Art Appreciation class for Randall Shearon at Wayne Community College. After having two colleagues look over and critique my Moodle class, I then went back and edited and revised it based on their feedback. Once I went through and fine tuned the course I was ready to teach it.

The most difficult thing for me the first week of class was breaking myself away from my Blackboard teaching methodology. Moodle is very different from Blackboard and as an online instructor, I had to modify my teaching approach because of the way Moodle is configured. Now after almost 2 semesters of teaching on Moodle I can honestly say I like it and am starting to feel very comfortable teaching on this “open source” CMS. In fact, it seems to be as intuitive as Blackboard and I have had no real technical problems, unlike the issues of slowness, pages timing out and various glitches I find on the discussion board and grade book at some schools I teach for.(that is another issue I will address at the end of this presentation)

I find it easier to grade weekly homework and weekly discussions on Moodle and it handles audio, video files beautifully, although BB 7.3 has better functionality with rich media content as well. The other thing I noticed was how quickly my students learned how to use it. Most of them had been taking classes on Blackboard and were in the same boat as me as far as never having taught or taken a course on Moodle. I made it very clear that I was new to this and asked my students for patience and told them I would also have patience with them as we all climbed the learning curve with Moodle.

I have mostly positive things to say about Moodle after working with it daily for over a month. As a Director of Distance Learning at Carteret Community College I plan on incrementally exposing my faculty to Moodle over the next few years, although I am well aware their will be lots of dissent and resistance due to the amount of time it takes to migrate Blackboard content over to Moodle. This may be the biggest issue to overcome when selling the idea to faculty. There is no getting away from the amount of time it takes to copy and paste course content over from Blackboard to Moodle, in addition to having to absolutely re-think the instructional design and teaching methodology of your online course.

With all that said….before making any BIG decisions about switching from one CMS to another…

We better ask ourselves WHY do we want to use one CMS over another? Sure…cost, technical support and functionality are huge factors to consider. Many of the questions, issues and concerns in distance learning center around maintaining systems, hardware and database knowledge – that behind the scenes (under the hood) stuff.

Whether it’s Blackboard, Moodle, or WebCT, when online education is growing as quickly as many of the DL programs within NC Community College System, it is critical to make investments in solid infrastructures and skilled IT staff to continuously monitor and maintain these systems. If this doesn’t happen no CMS is going to run well. That’s a fact!

More importantly, the end users – people like you, me and our students don’t really care about the back end (IT) stuff. Most of use don’t care that much about what’s under the hood.
We just want it to work effectively. I believe before any college or system invests time and money and human resources in making drastic changes to technology and invest in other CMS’s, I think they (we) have to take a look at the bigger picture and not just blame any particular CMS software. Its like I said at the beginning of this presentation.

Good online teachers should be able to teach on any viable CMS – just like good drivers can drive an SUV as well as a Volkswagon. It’s really all about your methodology and connecting with the HUMAN ELEMENT – your students.

To Moodle or NOT to Moodle…that is the Question. I believe the answer partly has to do with the type of CONTENT you are teaching. What do you as the instructor feel more comfortable using as your learning environment? What CMS compliments your particular style (methodology) of teaching? Which one best helps you CONNECT and ENGAGE with your students and enables you to reach out with that human touch. Remember..the teacher is the primary catalyst for learning.

As we have heard again and again these past 2 days. The bottom line is..it’s all about LEARNING. It’s all about VALUE. It’s all about making a difference in the lives of each and every one of your students. Will your students leave your class with more knowledge and understanding about your course content?

In all honesty I really don’t thing it matter what car we drive – what CMS we use. Learning a new CMS is the easy part. Good teaching is what really matters!

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