Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why Moodle Instead of Blackboard?

Jethro over at Mr. Jones' Education Blog asked why I thought Moodle was better than Blackboard. I'm glad to answer but first must say that my Moodle is just MY Moodle. I've never run one for an entire school or entire district. I've never tried to make it talk to the Active Directory. I'm speaking only from a classroom teacher's point of view.

Last year found me back in the classroom after four years as a tech specialist in Malaysia. Being back in the Minnesota public schools was a rough transition. I was in a new school and all the curriculum I was teaching was new to me. I had also switched from teaching wealthy children to teaching children with a much lower socio-economic status. The challenges that poverty brings often left them with little attention for classroom learning. But that's another story.

I set up my Moodle to try to make some of my tasks easier to accomplish. I first bought web space from Go Daddy but didn't have time to learn how to work with the back end SQL (or was it Php?) databases for the Moodle, so I jumped ship and signed up with BlueHost instead. They've been awesome, but originally I chose them based on one good review and because they have Fantastico. That is a helper application on the Bluehost servers that let me install Moodle in just a few clicks. I know it would be FAR wiser to master enough of those databases to be able to install it myself, but being in a new job, time was my least available resource (along with sleep) so I went with easy and it worked. Later in the year I was even able to use Fantastico to install the upgrade and it did so flawlessly. I was probably just lucky, but it worked. And they now have 24/7 live customer support so even if I had trouble here in Singapore I could get support.

My Moodle worked well last year and I didn't really think much about Blackboard until January or so of 2007 as I finally had enough mental space here in Singapore to dig in. I've used Blackboard before when teaching university classes. I've also taken class there with it. In both of those situations, I was using it in a prescribed way so I didn't think much about what else it could or couldn't do. If you want to know how I used my Moodle, just go back and skim my blog starting in January 2006.

Now as I look at it, I'm most disgruntled about the following things. Possibly you can purchase add-0ns or configure the Blackboard in different ways that overcome these problems. These are just the problems as I see them.
  1. No built in options for blogs, wikis, journals, etc. How can something that costs so much not offer those basic tools? And yes, you can purchase add-ons from third-party vendors, but they are expensive and are rudimentary at best, lacking the granular control that a teacher should be able to expect to have by now. For example, there is no draft area for the blogs where only the teacher or a group of reviewers can conference with the blogger before the post goes live. That's a pretty basic requirement and the vendor didn't even see why we'd need that when we spoke with him. There are all sorts of other things I expect from a student blogging platform, but I won't go into them all here. I haven't checked out Moodle's blogs, but I did use its wiki and journal and they worked well for us.
  2. No place for feedback on assignments. With Moodle, I'd have students draft their writing in a word processor and then paste it in to the Assignment module. I could then score it and give feedback. Finding time for meaningful writing conferences with upper elementary students is different. Their writing is getting longer, and more complex. And my group last year was rarely just working quietly while I conferenced with one student. And even if they had worked quietly, it would take days to conference on just one assignment. Writing comments in the evenings in Moodle and then spending class time in the lab really worked. Students would have my comments in the top half of their screens and the piece in the lower half and for many of them, that really worked. It was much more effective than face-to-face conferences, or notes written on their paper. And it persisted. Both the student and I could go back, read my earlier comments. I really miss this feature now that I'm back in Blackboard. Yes, third party add-ons can give Blackboard this ability. But for what Blackboard costs, I think this obvious feature should be native since it is a learning environment. and you could use email, but my students don't have it and the comments wouldn't be right with the assignment.
  3. Journals. Yes, I mentioned this above, but I should clarify. One way I build rapport and encourage students to write is to journal with them. They write to me and I write back. In the past this meant 25 notebooks and lots of me flipping through the books and writing by hand. I HATE writing by hand. It is slow. I make spelling mistakes. I struggle to write neatly. In Moodle I set up each student as their own group. Then we had a private space for journaling. No more me lugging notebooks around or staying late to write in them. Students could (and did) write from home. I could sit with my feet up and the cats curled up nearby and write with 24 on the television. Much better than my classroom where the heat went off at 4 pm. Admittedly, there may be a way with groups to make this happen. Maybe you can set up groups and then journal in the same way. Since I'm not a classroom teacher this year, I didn't check that out.
  4. Easier to navigate. It sure seems to take a lot of clicks to get to where I want to be in Blackboard. My Moodle was more flexible and quicker.
  5. Avitars. Yep. They are a bother, but kids really loved being able to have some way to express their individuality. Moodle lets you have a tiny avatar alongside your posts.
  6. RSS- Why doesn't Blackboard let me set up RSS for the different modules? If it can't do that, why doesn't it at least email me? It has my email address.
If I were still using my Moodle daily, I'm sure I could be much more persuasive. And I'm not using the newest version of Moodle which probably has even more Web2.0 goodness embedded in it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Movies or Essays?

Still making movies with kids. Still loving it.

Still slightly amazed at how quickly most kids have taken to it. Makes me think back to last year when my students were writing their DARE essays. Essays are clearly not something my students spent time reading, which made writing them very difficult. In constrast, my students have been exposed to a great deal of video. I suspect that is why they found this so easy.

And it was the kiddos who had struggled most this year, the ones who still haven't grasped that ALL their documents are stored in their My Documents folder, that made the biggest gains. So many of those kids are the ones who actually got hold a digital camera and used Legos or Bionicles, candy bars or army guys or rubber ducks as their subjects. They took photo after photo of these subjects in different positions. They found a way (CD-ROM, thumb drive, Blackboard, bringing in the camera) to get the photos to school. They narrated the entire video, usually with different voices for different characters. They searched through our collection of royalty-free music to find just the right sound tracks.

All the children seem to enjoy this unit, but these kids are especially delighted and amazed by what they have created. They sit and watch the video again and again. They keep going in and making small tweaks to make the video just right. They are focused and animated in a way I haven't seen all year, although I glimpsed it during our web page unit.

My next step is to put the videos in a location where the classroom teachers can reach them, and offer the viewing of the videos as an activity for those last few days of school. I hope the teachers are as delighted and amazed as the children and I have been. I hope it sends the teachers off on the summer vacation thinking, "I wonder how I can use student-made videos in my curriculum next year?" I'll be asking myself the same question.