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16 April 2010, 16:04

Moodle: The free learning platform

by Robert Seetzen

Moodle , the E-learning platform, is one of the most significant and successful projects in open source. Despite its success, with hundreds of thousands of people being taught by courses written in Moodle, as a product it is not well known.

Moodle logo E-learning comes in many forms. For example math and vocabulary aids on CD-ROM or screencasts on YouTube are just two obvious examples from a large range of different options. Less familiar, since they frequently deal with specialised knowledge, are thousands of specific learning systems and managed online courses. Programs such as Blackboard, Sakai, the German Ilias, Dokeos or Moodle are used to create training platforms for personnel and to provide computer courses for schools and universities.

With well-known educational software, such as the previously mentioned vocabulary or math programs, teaching - imparting knowledge, is perhaps the only thing such learning management systems (LMS) have in common and their structure, methods and content can vary widely.

LMS can manage all of the processes associated with running a virtual school - including the management of students and courses, examinations and, where applicable, fee calculation and collection. Integrated modules such as forums or wikis can provide space for communication and collaboration. Learning contents may either created within the LMS or imported from different formats. Apart from the course content and management details no great expertise or deep specialist knowledge are required. General PC skills are all that's needed to make good use of the basic functions of current LMS.

Moodle's global success

Very often Learning Management Systems are all that makes certain public education programmes possible. LMS are of course available both as commercial software or under open source licenses, but free programs such as Moodle are particularly attractive to public programmes. Moodle certainly owes at least part of its early successes to the financial constraints on schools and universities. Today Moodle has long outgrown the stage where, as free software licensed under the GPL, it was sometimes considered a poor second choice to commercial proprietary learning frameworks.

With over 40,000 registered installations in more than 200 countries and an estimated 30 million users, Moodle is currently the most frequently used LMS. Many schools, and universities, such as the prestigious Humboldt University in Berlin, use Moodle. Another typical application is for staff training in medium and large companies and commercial providers of online courses often rely on Moodle. Almost half of the Moodle installation are used by groups with more than 500 members, for example the Open University with more than 600,000 students is one of the largest users.

Anyone who wants to use Moodle should have no concerns over support. There is comprehensive online documentation, a highly active community and if required, many professional support providers. There are also of course 'Using Moodle' entry level courses (generated, naturally, using Moodle). A brief internet search will show that Moodle skills are highly sought after and the Moodle jobs market is quite buoyant.

A portion of the fees from commercial uses of Moodle are re-invested into development. Those officially listed as a Moodle Partner, contribute ten per cent of sales to continue the progress of the Moodle project. Moodle founder and lead developer Martin Dougiamas is the Managing Director of Moodle Pty Ltd, located in Perth, Australia. The company currently employs 15 staff members, including eight developers.

A comprehensive set of tools

Moodle combines many different tools and teaching approaches under one roof. In the simplest case, a Moodle installation provides only prefabricated educational materials for download, for example in the form of PDF files, presentations or multimedia data. The integrated course and subscriber management ensures that registered users can quickly find and navigate the material provided uniquely for them.

Moodle provides tools to create static and interactive content for those occasions when specific documents on a subject are not available. The software, using PHP, runs within a users browser and can compete with the graphics and multimedia capabilities of authoring systems that run outside of the browser as stand-alone applications. While animations, video clips and podcasts can be integrated into courses, Moodle itself does not include the tools to produce them.

Although the learning design is limited to browser displayable content, some leeway remains for authors. A students knowledge can be tested using a number of different testing procedures, including multiple-choice among forms and gap texts. Existing online courses can be imported, including material in the SCORM format, a format supported by many learning tools for the exchange of structured content. Moodle users benefit both through access to ready-made content as well as through access to external use, SCORM compliant, authoring tools.

A LAMS interface offers another option to integrate externally generated content. A graphically oriented authoring tool written in Java using JBoss server is available. LAMS Moodle too has its roots in Australia and, like Moodle, is also licensed under the GPL.

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