Thursday 31 July 2014

Why do so many Moodle courses suck?

Moodle is a magnificent free product and has the potential to enable schools and teachers to build wonderfully unique interactive online learning courses in which learner interaction can be tracked, measured and responded to. Despite this the vast majority of Moodle courses I see are a long list of Word and PDF documents with at best a few forums that enable a minimum of human social interaction.

Given the state of many of these courses, it’s no wonder that drop out rates for online learning are so high. And of course Moodle isn’t the only culprit. Many of the other commercially available LMS (learning management systems) and VLE (virtual learning environment) platforms aren’t doing any better.

Moodle has been around now since 2002 and research carried out in 2013 showed that more than 7.3 million students had studied in more than 83 thousand registered sites.

Image from ELTPics:

So why is it that so little progress has been made in developing innovative courses that really generate interaction with media rich content?

The problem surely isn’t Moodle, because the platform is capable of delivering all of the above.

The reality is that there are a number of causes:
  • I think it’s fair to say that Moodle isn’t the most intuitive of platforms to work with. A lot of progress and improvements have been made, but it’s inevitable that a product with multiple modules constructed by different people is likely to result in some inconsistencies of look and feel.
  • The fact that Moodle is seen as a ‘free’ platform and so a ‘cheap’ way to get learning online is another factor. Schools start using the platform with the impression that it won’t require much financial backing and that once they have provided the platform teachers will just be able to get their classes online.
  • This brings me to the next point and that is lack of training. Most teachers I have met who use Moodle do so with only the most minimal and basic training and again this comes back to the perception that Moodle is a cheap solution. Many school managers seem to think that a few hours of training is enough to get their teachers designing great online courses. It’s not! Training to use Moodle effectively takes considerable time and needs to be constantly reinforced and renewed.
  • A second element of training which is often overlooked is instructional design. A teacher may well be marvellous at developing and delivering their own materials in the classroom, but when it comes to converting those materials into effective online learning units there is a new level of skill and understanding that they need. Understanding the instructional design potential of an online platform and how to structure materials so that students progress through an online environment requires training and experience.
  • Another factor in this mix is that the Moodle platform is often seen as the ‘property’ and responsibility of the IT department and as such they make the platform as secure as possible. Often this means that teachers’ access to many of the different features and potential that Moodle can deliver are hidden from the teacher and they don’t have the opportunity to experiment with the platform and learn for themselves.

So given all of these problems is it worth using Moodle or any other platform to develop online and blended learning for your students? 

The answer is of course a resounding yes. To ignore the potential that online learning and new technology has to offer is to be like King Canute trying to order back the sea.

But to use technology effectively education establishments have to approach online learning with their eyes open.
  • It isn’t a cheap solution.
  • It will require a significant investment in training for teachers
  • Teachers won’t just construct wonderful online courses in their free time. Developing good online materials takes time. More time than it takes to develop paper-based face to face materials, so they will need to be paid for this time.
  • Teachers need to be trained at all levels of the platform including the admin level, not just at teacher level.
How about ready made courses?
Knowing all of this schools may be tempted to by an ‘off the shelf’ solution with all the content ready made, but I would be wary of this type of ‘one size fits all’ content. In many cases the content has just been adapted from a course book with a copious amounts of drag and drop and gap-filling activity mixed with a little multimedia and very little student - teacher or peer to peer interaction built in and no sign of any authentic materials or personalisation. These courses are often dull beyond belief and fail to engage the students.

The best online courses, just like the best face-to-face courses, are usually designed by teachers who have developed an understanding of the needs and interests of their students and can choose content which they will enjoy and find engaging.

So, if platforms like Moodle are really to be used to develop effective and engaging learning which realises the potential of online and blended learning modes of delivery, then we must have managers who are willing to invest in developing the skills of their teachers and teachers who are willing to meet the challenges of new technology head on  and accept their changing and more diverse roles as teachers, mentors and instructional designers.

For teachers who would like to try to develop their own Moodle skills.
You can register for a free Moodle platform at: It takes a few moments to register and then you have your own Moodle platform to use as a sandpit.

Here are a few quick video tutorials that can help get you started.
I hope you find these videos useful and enjoy making a start at using Moodle to create more engaging materials.


Nik Peachey

Saturday 15 March 2014

Creating social phrasebooks with Phraseum

I spend a lot of time looking at different web-based tools and apps and thinking about if and how they can be used for learning. Sometimes it takes some thought and at other times it’s really obvious. With Phraseum it was instantly obvious that this was a really great tool for learning.

Phraseum allows you to collect words, phrases and sentences from anywhere on the web while you you browse and organise them into social phrasebooks.

Phraseum is a browser-based tool which can be activated from your browser toolbar. Simply create an account and then drag the ‘Clipping button’ bookmarklet to your favourites bar on your browser.

Once that’s done you can just collect any words or phrases that you find online by highlighting them and then clicking on the bookmarklet. This opens up a window where you can add tags to the phrase and add your own private notes and annotations. The tags could be a definition, translation, part of speech or something about the context in which it could be used. You can then save the phrase into one of your phrasebooks. The phrases and phrasebooks can be private or they can be made public and so shared with others.

If you want to include specific words or phrases from a word document or PDF, you can also just type in the words or phrases you want to include in your phrasebooks, but if you save them from the web then Phraseum also stores a link back to the original source, so you can go back and see how the word or phrase is used in context. You can also get a link from the phrase to a translation from Google Translate.

Phraseum is social, so you can share phrases and phrasebooks with anyone else on the site and follow other people if you like the kinds of things they are saving and sharing. You can also click on any of the tags on your phrase to find other related words or phrases which have been saved by other users and add those to your own collection.

If you use social media with your students you can post the phrases you save through various social media channels so this is a great way to feed information and activities into something like a Facebook group or page or a Twitter feed that you use with students.

All of the entries you make to Phraseum can be edited and changed, so students can always add additional tags, change them and add the same entry to multiple phrasebooks.

Phraseum also enables you to follow people in a similar way to Twitter or Pinterest. If you follow people you can see their public phrasebooks and keep up-to-date with what they are saving.

This is really useful if you are using it with students, as by following them you can easily monitor their work and use the comments feature if you need to help, support or encourage your students.

Here are a few examples of phrasebooks I've created:

How to use Phraseum with students
  • You could get started just by creating a few of your own useful phrasebooks and sharing them with your students.
  • If you like to pre-teach vocabulary, a good way to do this would be to create a vocabulary phrasebook from a particular online article you would like your students to read. They can look at the phrasebook before they read and check they understand the vocabulary, or use it as a reference while or after they read.
  • You could also collect a phrasebook with a collections of more random words and phrases and see if the students can predict the genre or kind of text the phrases came from.
  • You can collect phrases into a phrasebook and ask students to suggest appropriate tags to add.
  • If you train your students to use Phraseum then they can start using it to create phrasebooks while they read. They can sort new words into specific groups. They could be grouped according to the source or topic or they could group words according to word classification such as parts of speech or types of collocation.
  • You can get students to share phrasebooks and crosscheck so that they share vocabulary and check that they have similar definitions or translations of the words.
  • You can send students on treasure hunts for specific things, for example searching for business related collocations. If they use this as the tag they will then be able to share their results together (any tag you click on shows you all other words and phrases which share that same tag).
  • Get students to use the phrasebooks to revise and review their vocabulary.

What I like about Phraseum
  • I love that it works in the browser tool bar. This makes it really easy and quick to access at any time you are online.
  • I really like the social aspect too. Being able to share and compare phrasebooks with other people is really useful.
  • It’s great that it makes it easy for students to go back to the source of the word or phrase.
  • Saving phrases really encourages students to think about words within lexical chunks rather than as independent entities.
  • Phraseum can be used in multiple languages.
  • It’s free.
I think this is a great tool to support more of a lexical approach to online learning. It can also support students digital literacy and study skills. I hope you and your students find Phraseum useful. Be sure to share in the comments any ideas you have for using it with your students.

Related links:
Nik Peachey

Friday 31 January 2014

Managing behaviour in the digital age

If you ask most teachers, especially newly trained ones, what one of the biggest challenges of teaching is, they would probably say managing student behaviour. Especially as class sizes grow and more students are bringing along potentially distracting digital devices, making sure you are keeping students on task is becoming ever more important. If this is something that concerns you, then read on.

ClassCharts could be the solution to your problem. ClassCharts is a digital management tool which can help you, your students and their parents to track and improve student behaviour across the whole school.

Using ClassCharts you can set up seating charts for every room in your school and create a profile for each student. Teachers can then use ClassCharts to monitor and reward positive behaviour as well as track negative behaviour. As the teacher builds up data across classes they can start to understand how different seating arrangements and student pairing and grouping can impact on behaviour, then generate seating charts for students that group them in ways that help them to work more efficiently and harmoniously.

So how does it work?

Well one of the first things to do is to add seating plans of your rooms. This is easy to do and you can drag the virtual desks around into whatever configuration you have in your classroom.

Then you also need to upload your students. What I really like about ClassCharts is that you can also upload a photograph of each one, and this can be really useful if you have large classes and lots of students names to remember, especially when it comes to writing reports.

You can then either manually assign seats or generate a random seating chart. During the class you can use ClassCharts acknowledge a range of positive and negative behaviours. These behaviours are all customisable so you can create your own or use the default ones.

ClassCharts uses html 5 so should run in any modern browser whether it’s a laptop, iPad or Android tablet, so the teacher can use an tablet during the class to instantly update behaviours.

Either before or during the class the teacher can also shuffle the class seating depending on a number of criteria from things like attainment targets to gender or previous behaviour.

One of the real time-savers of ClassCharts though is when it comes to report writing time. Each students’ behaviour has been tracked through their various classes and teachers can get a detailed report, including dates when different behaviours were recorded.

Both students and parents can also access live reports and monitor progress throughout the term, so students and parents know how they are doing and parents don’t have to wait until the end of term to find out what’s been going on with their child.

This helps to share responsibility and makes it much easier to get parents involved in dealing with any negative behaviour at the earliest possible date.

Although ClassCharts is free and has been designed so that a single teacher can set it up to track their own classes independently, the real power of the platform is its ability to work across the school and track student behaviour in every class. To make this easier ClassCharts also interconnects with a range of other educational management software systems, from simple tools like Edmodo to more complex ones like SIMS and PowerSchool.

What I like about ClassCharts
  • I’m really impressed by the fact that such a powerful and well designed tool is free.
  • It’s great that a system like this and the data it collects can be applied and shared across a whole school.
  • I really like that you can see the student and access a range of information about them from targets, to behaviour and even a little about their background.
  • Great to get parents involved and students monitoring their own progress.

What I’m not so sure about
  • This is quite a complex tool and creates a lot of data, so I think it’s going to take a bit of getting used to for teachers and perhaps a bit of training too.
  • It does produce a lot of data and you can easily get a bit too tied up in this and forget about the person.

Well I hope you find ClassCharts useful and give it a try.

Related links:
Nik Peachey

Thursday 9 January 2014

Publishing 3.0 - A new model for independent educational publishing

My New Years resolution this year was to start work on a series of ebooks for iPads, e-readers and other digital devices. This has been my ambition since I published my first book Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers back in 2009, but I’ve never felt that the time, the technology or the market was at the right place.

Significant changes over the last couple of years though have led me to believe that now is the time to look at a new model of ELT publishing, at least for the realm of teacher development books.

The changes I mention above include
  • A proliferation of increasingly low cost e-reading devices and tablets.
  • The development of powerful free software and applications such as iBooks Author for the development of media rich ebooks.
  • The combination of these applications with secure and reliable marketing platforms, such as Lulu and iBookStore.
  • The development of crowd-funding platforms such as KickStarter and Indigogo.

I believe that the combination of these developments is now enabling individual teachers to write develop and launch their own products to the market on a commercially competitive basis with established publishers.

So why is this a good thing?
Well anyone who has ever approached a publisher with an idea for a book will know how difficult it can be to get it accepted. The established publishers are, by necessity, cautious about taking on new, innovative or risky projects. Producing and distributing paper-based books is a hugely expensive endeavor and in the case of teacher development books, the returns are likely to be small for both the publisher and the writer.

The changes I mention above, however, have the potential to liberate writers from the established publishing process and give them the freedom to develop their own projects and products independently.

  • The proliferation of low cost mobile devices such as e-readers, tablets and iPads provides a really useful and accessible medium on which to publish teacher development materials. Instead of having your books at home on the bookshelf you can now carry them around with you on your device so they are on hand at the moment of need.
  • These devices and the applications used to develop content for them are capable of providing a media rich experience with colour interactive images, audio, video and a range of interactive learning apps, none of which is possible in a traditional paper-based book.
  • The combination of these applications with established secure marketing platforms means that writers with the commitment to see their projects through to completion can easily market them internationally and actually get a reasonable financial return on the work they put in.
  • Crowd-funding platforms like KickStarter and Indigogo enable writers to raise the funds they need to develop good quality professional products that the market wants.

I’ve put the crowd-funding platform at the end of my list, but really it should be at the beginning, because crowd-funding doesn’t just supply the money to launch the product, it also acts as a market research tool to see if there really is a market for the product. If the people for whom the product is intended aren’t willing to invest in it to get it created, then it’s likely that there isn’t really a viable market for this product.

So this brings me back to where I started with my New Years resolution. I have launched my own crowd-funding project to try to create the first in a series of ebooks in a series that I intend to call The Digital Classroom. The first of these will focus on the use of online video as a tool for learning.

You can find out more about this project by following this link Digital Classrooms - Online Video or watching the video below.

If you think this is a product you would be interested in having them please do support it buy either buying and advance copy of the book or by sharing the link with others you think may be interested.

You can also get an idea of the kind of content the book will cover and even contribute your ideas for what the book should contain, using the crowd-sourcing questionnaire below. Just add your ideas and vote for the things you would most like included in the book. That way you can ensure that I produce the book that you need to help support and develop your teaching.

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You can also follow the project on Facebook by going to The Digital Classroom and clicking on 'Like'.

I hope you find the project interesting and that this post gets you started thinking about how you can produce your own book too.

Nik Peachey

My eBooks and Lesson Plans