Published on November 20, 2008
Open education as a practice Introducing Moodle in the Digital Cultures Program at the University of Sydney Chris Chesher, Director of Digital Cultures firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/digitalcultures
From Brugger, Rolf (2000) 'Web Based Course Environments: an Overview' http://diuf.unifr.ch/people/brugger/papers/00_flashinfo/wbc-environmentsEN.html
The Quadrangle, University of Sydney by i.say http://www.flickr.com/photos/myflickrbox/1758919815/
Graffiti Tunnel, U of Sydney by adpal3180 http://www.flickr.com/photos/adpal80/450349014/
Open education as a practice Introducing Moodle in the Digital Cultures Program at the University of Sydney Chris Chesher, Director of Digital Cultures email@example.com http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/digitalcultures 1 This short talk tells the story of our experience introducing Moodle as the main learning management system (LMS) for Digital Cultures at the University of Sydney. I'd like to frame our experience with Moodle as an example of how open education is a practice rather than a thing. Learning is an event, and not an object. It is an ongoing relationship between people and artefacts. I also want to address the question of why institutions resist adopting open source software, and how spaces can be found.
2 From Brugger, Rolf (2000) 'Web Based Course Environments: an Overview' http://diuf.unifr.ch/people/brugger/papers/00_flashinfo/wbc-environmentsEN.html However, I want to start with why we looked for an open source software solution for our teaching. Our main initial motivation for looking to open source was dis-satisfaction with the dominant LMS, WebCT. WebCT organises learning resources into functional clusters: course materials, assessments, course materials, and so on. Elements of different kinds cannot easily be grouped or linked. This structure doesn't follow the way I teach, or how students learn. The look and feel of WebCT was, and remains, very dated, belonging to the Windows 3.1 / CD-ROM era. Its esoteric aesthetics and operation shouted out that education is a strange and special space, away from the world outside.
3 Without a compelling LMS, we continued the practice of building our own sites, using whichever tools we could master. In Media at UNSW we published these sites on the open web. This meant we could show others our teaching materials. We built connections with others teaching in our area. We built relationships and reputations. It also exposed the University to the risks of openness: our IP might be stolen; if any of us used copyrighted material we might be sued, we might defame someone, and so on. Our biggest worries, though, were the time it took to develop skills, and build and maintain sites.
4 When I moved to University of Sydney in 2005 I found a similar story to UNSW. WebCT was the standard. I tried using it, but again I was not happy. Many advocates of WebCT thought that academic resistance to WebCT was technophobia or curmudgeonliness. I believe it's WebCT. At that stage I knew that Free and Open Source Software existed, but didn't know what it could do for me, let alone what I could do for it. So we held a forum called' Learning from Free Software' (we were known as Arts Informatics until 2007). This was valuable not only for what we learned, but particularly for the connections we made: especially Pia Waugh and Geoffrey Robertson.
5 For not much more than petty cash, Geoffrey established a Moodle install for us at an external domain artsinformatics.com. Initially this was simply a quick and dirty sandbox for experimentation. Gradually, however, it became our standard LMS. I prefer Moodle's way of organising courses as a series of lessons (with or without a date, or even in social mode, with no actual lessons). Each lesson can include any number resources, activities and explanatory text. There are many activities supported: real time chat, wikis, glossaries and databases, as well as more familiar forums, quizzes and assignments. Moodle gave us not only more features and better (if not perfect) look and feel, but also all the attractions of open source community.
6 After Digital Cultures had used moodle independently for a year, the eLearning people in our Faculty saw that it had become central to our teaching, and arranged to install it on a University server. Others in the Faculty also took up Moodle, including Peace and Conflict Studies, Yiddish and Archaeology. Some needed Moodle's special features. Digital Cultures legitimately argues that we need wikis, real time chat, and so on because of what we teach. Yiddish needs an LMS that supports special characters. At the moment, though, we're at a point where Moodle is more than a special case. In this past semester there were over 500 students enrolled in units of study using Moodle. This level of use means Moodle may attract formal recognition.
7 The Quadrangle, University of Sydney by i.say http://www.flickr.com/photos/myflickrbox/1758919815/ At this stage it is unlikely that Sydney, or other Universities, will move away from standardising on the merged WebCT/Blackboard as the learning management system, which now has no commercial rivals. Universities have committed millions of dollars to this platform already. Licences for WebCT are in the order of $1 per student. In addition, at Sydney there are 23 staff in the unit that supports WebCT. WebCT gives a consistent user experience for teachers and learners. It is embedded in many University intranets. It adheres to risk management principles and accountability to the Academic Board. It is the LMS of the institution.
8 Graffiti Tunnel, U of Sydney by adpal3180 http://www.flickr.com/photos/adpal80/450349014/ However, there are still spaces within Universities in which outside practices can emerge and thrive. At Sydney this is symbolised in the well-known graffiti tunnel: a pedestrian tunnel on campus where it is acceptable to draw, spray or brush on anything on the walls, floor and ceiling. Spaces like these are models for how things can be done differently. However, as I have argued, open education systems are often better, and certainly far cheaper to install and support than the dominant systems. While Moodle is not without its problems, it is remarkably stable and accessible, attracting enthusiasm, or at least respect, from students and teachers alike. Introducing Moodle to Digital Cultures requires a practice of open education: with pragmatism, improvisation and willingness to experiment.
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