A Review of the “Moodle 2.0 for Business” Book

 

Moodle 2.0 for Business

Moodle 2.0 for Business

Packt is a new type of publisher. They have found a model that allows them to publish books (likely on demand) in what other publishers might call niche markets. They are usually the first publisher to have a book out about a particular open source product. They leverage the enthusiasm that exists in these communities in how they recruit writers, they stroke people’s egos by asking them to become (technical) reviewers of the books and they do most of the hard work that is necessary to create a book in countries that have lower wages than (Western) Europe and the United States. All of this means that the quality of the books is a bit hit or miss.

Another trick up their sleeves is the way they promote their books. They seem to understand the Internet well and offer bloggers review copies of books. I was offered a free copy of Moodle 2.0 for Business, Implement Moodle in your business to streamline your interview, training and internal communication processes by Jason Cole, Jeanne Cole and Gavin Henrick in return for a review. So here goes!

Most books about Moodle assume an educational setting. As I know a lot about Moodle and am starting to understanding corporate HR more and more every day, I was curious to see what I could learn from this title. The authors of the book have a very deep understanding about Moodle and have all used it for years (as they write “The authors of this book have collectively spent more than 5,000 hours experimenting, building, and messing about with Moodle”). They are active members of the Moodle community and work for a Moodle partner. In many places their hard-earned experience comes through like when they point out a fundamental flaw in Moodle richly complicated roles and permissions system on page 194. The books contains a few suggestions and warnings and I would recommend any reader to heed to them.

The books kick of by trying to to answer the “Why Moodle?” question. It nicely lists five learning ideas that form the core of Moodle’s educational philosophy (I must have mentioned them before many times, but they are worth repeating):

  • All of use are potential teachers as well as learners – in a true collaborative environment we are both
  • We learn particularly well from the act of creating or expressing for others to see
  • We learn a lot by just observing the activity of our peers
  • By understanding the context of others, we can teach in a more transformational way
  • A learning environment needs to be flexible and adaptable, so that it can quickly respond to the needs of the participants within

The authors also mentioned the 2008 eLearning Guild survey about Learning Management Systems: “Moodle’s initial costs to acquire, install and customise was $16.77 per learner. The initial cost per learner for SAP was $274.36, while Saba was $79.20, and Blackboard $39.06”. Even though I think the survey is comparing apples with pears, I still think it says something: Moodle could be a way to get more functionality out of the same budget. Another good reason to choose Moodle is is that it “makes it easy to try things, figure out what works, change what doesn’t and move on”.

The meat of the book is a set of chapters which look at different parts of the HR process finished with a case study of a company or organization which has done something similar (see here for an overview of all the chapters in the book). Through these chapters a lot of the different Moodle functionalities are explained in very concrete terms. Many of the examples make quite creative use of Moodle. One of the first chapters for example deals with the hiring and recruitment process. Moodle is used to capture people’s resumes, rate the resumes, let people choose an interview slot and assess people with a simple online test. The authors have a pleasant tone and are not afraid to share their own failures to make the reader learn (like when they set up quiz questions in the wrong way, page 47).

Some of the case studies give real insight into the path that these organizations have travelled. I particular like the enlightening example from the Gulf Agency Company (GAC) corporate academy starting on page 164:

After a less than successful strategy of purchasing off-the-shelf SCORM content, GAC has now move to developing courses with a combination of internal subject specialists, HRD e-learning consultants, and facilitators. The course content is uploaded into Moodle course page with GAC-specific assignments and discussion forums added. There is a clear strategy to ensure that the learner does not simply click through a series of screens without context or interaction. Interaction and collaboration in courses is now a fundamental part of the learning process, with the courses tightly integrating content, tasks, and collaboration.

Through these chapters we get some good explanations of functionality that gets glossed over in many of the other books on Moodle. There is a good explanation of the database module, outcomes (a Moodle word for competences) are explained, the new way of setting conditions for accessing particular parts of the course and for considering a course complete get good attention and they have found some useful examples for relatively advanced role configurations. On the slightly more technical side they give sensible advice on how to install modules (page 209) and I love the fact that they explain how you create your own language for the interface (something that is usually very hard to do in other systems) on page 285.

The book ends with a few chapters that show you how you can integrate Moodle into application landscape. There are some good explanations about using webconferencing/virtual classrooms, the portfolio and repository APIs are used and they show you the first steps towards integrating authentication and enrollment.

The book has some minor areas that could be improved. It is written by three authors and seems to keep switching perspectives between the author as “we” and the author as “I”. Also, ocassionally the case studies become too much of an advertisement for a Moodle partner: “The uniqueness, and in some ways, complexity of the project meant that A&L were keen to engage with a service partner that had extensive knowledge of Moodle to enable them to bring the project to a succesful completion. Ennovation not only had the Moodle knowledge and experience that A&L were looking for, but also a proven reputation in the legal sector with their long term customer, the Law Society of Ireland.”

There are also a few things missing that I was hoping to read more about:

  • The explanation of the portfolio and repository APIs wasn’t conceptual enough. I am not just sure that the average reader will be able to generalize from the exampls and see what a gamechanger this type of technology can be when it is embedded correctly in the organization.
  • There is small battle going on in corporate Moodle land. Multiple service providers are creating their own more commercial “distributions” of Moodle with extra functionality that is relevant for enterprises: Remote Learner publishes ELIS, Moodlerooms has joule and Kineo and Catalyst have come together to create the aggresively marketed Totara LMS. The book never mentions this (I can think of good reasons why this is the case), but it is highly relevant to know more about these systems if you are considering using Moodle in your organization.
  • Related to the previous point is reporting. Moodle is not known for its strong enterprise reports and this is something that many organizations commission some functionality for. It would have been nice if reporting had gotten a similar treatment as web conferencing. Maybe we can get that in the next updated version?

All in all this is strongly recommended reading for any curious person who uses Moodle professionally in an organization, no matter the level of their expertise.

Get it here if you want to let Packt know that you’ve read the review, they use this link to monitor which blogs give them the highest amount of traffic and might ask me to review another book if this link gets clicked on often. Get it here if you don’t want to pay any shipping costs and don’t mind me getting a 5% percent commission. Get it here if you like Amazon and don’t mind me getting a neglible commission. Get it here if you don’t like be tracked, live near London, love bookstores and are willing to call first to see if they have it in stock. Seriously, Foyles is a treasure.

Moodle Books from Packt Publishing

About a month ago I got an email from Packt‘s marketing department whether I would be interested in receiving a review copy of William Rice’s Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development. I said “yes”, so in the interest of full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book. As Packt also publishes a couple of other books on Moodle, I have decided to review these as well.

So what does one expect from a Moodle book? I think the spectrum that these book try to cover runs from technology to pedagogy. You want to know how to install Moodle on a server and make it run well, but you also want to know how best to use the tools in Moodle to achieve your teaching/learning goals. The easiest way for me to decide whether a book on Moodle is any good is to look at the topics that are notoriously hard for new Moodle users to understand: roles, the gradebook, groups/groupings and metacourses. I will look at each book in turn and give a short description of the book and what audience it is for, then look at each of the difficult Moodle topics and how they are covered in the book. Finally I will look at the pedagogical/didactical ideas in each book.

Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development

Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development

Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development by William Rice is an update for Moodle 1.9 to his earlier book on Moodle written in 2006. It is written for beginners and advanced Moodle users. It quickly runs you through how to set up your own Moodle site, looks at most of the configuration options and then tries to cover all of the course functionalities that a teacher can use. It tries to do this quite extensively (covering all options) which sometimes does not help making it an engaging read. The chapters on creating course content are split into three: adding static course material, adding interactive course material and adding social course material. This makes it easy to find certain information, but doesn’t make it easy to imagine how you could use Moodle in a real life course. When you read the book it is obvious that Rice has actually taught with Moodle. He manages to cover quite a bit of standard problems that first time Moodle user run into, although his solutions sometimes feel a bit idiosyncratic (e.g. using javascript to solve the problem of not being allowed to put a single course in multiple categories).

Roles are explained in the last chapter of the book. Rice does a decent job and does explain how you can override permissions for a single activity. Everybody should heed to his recommendations for working with roles (basically: start with the default system and only tweak when you actually want to change the default behaviour).  I wish he would have put a chapter on roles in the beginning of the book so that he could have explained later on how you can allow students to rate each others forum posts for example. Currently the explanation on how to let students rate posts is not correct, the screenshot seems to come from an earlier version of Moodle.

Rice used a beta version of Moodle 1.9 for writing this book. Apparently the current 1.9 gradebook wasn’t there yet, because the functionality that he describes only fits Moodle 1.8. This is a big omission: don’t expect to get any help on grading in the current version of Moodle from this book.

Groups are only mentioned when the course settings are explained (I couldn’t find groups in the index of the book). The concept is explained properly, but Rice does not go into the technicalities. Groupings are not discussed anywhere.

The concept of a metacourse is explained with a useful example making it clear for the reader for what it can be used. Rice only explains the first scenario from the Meta Course page on MoodleDocs. The second scenario, which can be genuinely useful too, is not explained.

Finally, the book gives scant pedagogical support. It has headings like “Why Use a Directory?”, “When to Use Uploaded Files” and “When to Use the Different Types of Surveys”; but these are few and short. It will not be easy for a new Moodle teacher to grasp the larger concepts on how he/she could use Moodle.

Moodle Administration

Moodle Administration

Moodle Administration by Moodle partner Synergy Learning‘s Alex Büchner is for “technicians, systems administrators, as well as academic staff, that is, basically for anyone who has to administer a Moodle system”. It is a big book (350 pages or so) trying to systematically cover all the relevant topics for an administrator using Moodle 1.9 (using the Moodle Admin menu as a guide). The depth of this book is actually quite amazing and I think there is no quicker way for a person with a technical (meaning non-teaching) Moodle related role to get up to speed. For example: Nowhere else can you find information on Moodle networking that is this extensive.

My favourite chapter is Appendix A, the Moodle Health Check. This is a set of over 120 tests related the performance, functionality, security and the system. Each test is linked back to the chapter which describes the actions you should take in more detail. If you follow all the advice you should end up with a healthy Moodle installation.

Roles (and permissions) have their own chapter in this book. It clearly describes the different contexts and permissions. It explains how permission conflicts are resolved and has an example of the non-standard parent or mentor role. The paragraph on best practice is a must read for anybody wanting to touch the role system.

Unfortunately the gradebook, groups and groupings are not discussed in this book. Even though strictly speaking it is not administration, I think it is important that any administrator really knows these topics so that he/she can help their teachers. Maybe something for a next version of the book?

The concept of metacourses is explained properly and describes both ways of sharing enrolment across courses. The book has no pedagogical support, simply because it isn’t aimed at a teaching audience.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Moodle Teaching Techniques is a slightly older book by William Rice (2007). The subtitle “Creative Ways to Use Moodle for Constructing Online Learning Solutions” conveys the aim of the book: provide the reader with solutions that help you make the most of the many features found in a standard Moodle installation.

The book starts with a chapter explaining some general well accepted instructional principles (e.g. Big Ideas, Distributed Practice, Guide Notes). These principles are then coupled with different Moodle features.

The book then has a chapter on each of the most used Moodle modules. The chapter on the forum module for example, describes how to create a single-student forum, how to motivate students to interact with a “best of” forum, how to keep discussions on track and how to monitor student participation in a forum.

Even though the book is written for Moodle 1.6, I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to be more creative in their Moodle teaching practice. A lot of the advice in this book can even be used in other virtual learning environments.

Roles and the 1.9 gradebook are not discussed (they didn’t exist in Moodle 1.6), groups are used in some of the examples, grouping and metacourses are not written about, but the pedagogical support of this book is great. I really wish more people would attempt to write a book like this.

Moodle Course Conversion

Moodle Course Conversion

The last book in this review is the very recent Moodle Course Conversion: Beginner’s Guide by Ian Wild. The author describes the audience for the book as follows:

If you are a teacher, lecturer, or trainer faced with using Moodle for the first time and you want to convert your teaching materials to Moodle quickly, effectively, and with the minimum of fuss then this book is for you. You may have toyed with the idea of using Moodle but you are not sure how to begin converting your face-to-face teaching online. If so, this book will show you how to create engaging and entertaining online courses. You may need to support your face-to-face teaching with online activities, including assignments and tests. In this book, we get you started with blended learning.

Wild has an entertaining style of writing and uses the most recent version of Moodle. The book is very hands-on with a lot of examples on how you would start putting materials online. Many teachers want to know how they can put Powerpoint presentations online, or how to convert a big document into a readable wiki. He is very tuned into what teachers would like to do nowadays. I especially like his paragraph on how you would embed a video from YouTube or TeacherTube into Moodle or his explanation on how to find images for your course (with a short chapter on copyright and a single mention of Creative Commons in the paragraph on Flickr).

Roles are only written about in a paragraph on assigning students and teachers to your course. The concept of a meta course is not explained. However the gradebook has some great paragraphs dedicated to it. Wild shows how you can add your own categories, move grade items into these categories and create your own grade items. It is a pity that he doesn’t go into the different aggregation options for these categories, because this is often the hardest part to understand for a new teacher (is the Moodle project sure that “Simple Weighted Means” is the best way of saying that the total course grade is the average of all grade items/categories?). Groups and groupings also get a proper explanation.

There is quite a bit of pedagogical support in this book. If you follow Wild’s advice you will end up with a significantly better course than most of what I currently see in the learning field. The book has some nice ideas that any teacher can follow up, however please note that most of these seem to be geared to secondary education.

To conclude: For teachers I would definitely recommend Moodle Course Conversion: Beginner’s Guide. Administrators should read Moodle Administration. Read both books if you want to understand roles, the gradebook, groups/grouping and metacourses.

I do think there is space for another Moodle book. Where is the author that starts with a social constructivist concept of teaching (we don’t currently have this in most schools, universities and businesses) and explains how this vision can be created with practical integrated Moodle activities?

A final note on Packt as a publisher. They seem to have interesting low-cost, print on demand, direct-marketing business model. Very often they are the first publisher to have a book out on a particular (open source) technology. When you buy a book from them you support the open source project:

Packt believes in Open Source. When we sell a book written on an Open Source project, we pay a royalty directly to that project. As a result of purchasing one of our Open Source books, Packt will have given some of the money received to the Open Source project.

In the long term, we see ourselves and yourselves, as customers and readers of our books, as part of the Open Source ecosystem, providing sustainable revenue for the projects we publish on. Our aim at Packt is to establish publishing royalties as an essential part of the service and support business model that sustains Open Source.

Their tagline really fits the title of my blog: “From Technologies to Solutions”.

I think it is pretty advanced marketing for them to contact a not-so-well-known blogger as myself to write a review for one of their books. They support user groups with free copies for prices and reviews. Their customer service is exceptional (from a Dutch perspective at least). When I asked them about the delivery of my Moodle Course Conversion book, I got the following reply:

Firstly please let me apologize for the delay in shipping the book to you. Usually all postal shipments to ‘ Netherlands’ are delivered within 18 days maximum. It appears that there is some delay in the shipping process. Since your book was shipped out via Royal mail ordinary post, it is untraceable.

However you need not worry, kindly email us if you do not receive your book by the 16th of January, I’ll be glad to help you.

For all the trouble this has caused you, I have placed a free eBook of ” Moodle Course Conversion: Beginner’s Guide” in your account. You can access this eBook immediately and meanwhile your print book should be on its way to you.

There is one thing I would love Packt to change: their layout/typesetting. When I read their books I get the feeling that MS Word was used for creating all the pages. I would love it if they would invest in some typesetting technology that would make the layout look less amateurish.

If anyone at Packt is reading this, I would be happy to receive any of the following books for review: User Training for Busy Programmers, AsteriskNOW, PHP Web 2.0 Mashup Projects, ImageMagick Tricks, Mobile Web Development and WordPress for Business Bloggers!