Category: Open Source


Image representing Moodle as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Generally, I teach classes that are offered largely online.  We might have a weekend meeting once during the term, but the rest of the course is usually conducted online.  So, when I took over a face-to-face course for the first time in (*cough*) too many years, I naturally gravitated toward using online content organized using a course management system.

I’ve used many of them over the years.  In the early days, we used tools such as Top Class and Web Crossing (anyone remember them?).  Then came WebCT/Vista, Blackboard, and Moodle.  They all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Fortunately, I am rather fond of the emerging standard at our campus – the open source CMS, Moodle.

The Good

As a consultant, I’ve often been frustrated that faculty don’t seem eager to use the various tools that this – or most other – course management systems offer.  But, now that I’ve been on the other side again for a term, I have to say that using this online tool as the supreme organizer of topics, materials, and assignments – including collection of assignments electronically – made life a lot easier for not only me but also for (most of) my students.

I tend to organize my course chronologically.  That way, students have a ready check-list of what is coming up and know what to expect each week.  I created a module per week, therefore, and posted the topics we’d be covering, the readings, the lecture resources (such as my PowerPoint presentations and links to online videos), and assignments due.  This allowed students to read and prepare for lectures and to have the materials right in front of them on their lab computers as we worked in class.  Since seeing the board or the projected screen was difficult for about half of the class, this allowed them to see materials clearly …. overcoming some of the limitations of the room by using the room’s resources in conjunction with the online organization.  It also allowed me to adjust the class as we went – adding resources to meet student needs and interests, especially as they prepared to write their big research paper for the course.

The online, digital nature of materials was also very helpful to one of my students who was legally blind … he could use the digital copies along with text-to-speech software or ZoomText to access documents before, during, or after lectures.  Since I also gave the two tests using Moodle’s quiz function, we did not have to make any special accommodations for this student!!  He was able to be just another student in the class, making use of educational technology and universal design to access the class materials in ways that worked for him.

The Problematic

For this class, I did not have a book.  All materials were provided online.  For some students, this was somewhat of a challenge.  Despite the common perception of this generation as “digital natives”, many students expressed dissatisfaction with reading materials online for long periods.  They told me that they often printed out online readings and complained about printing costs and that reading online made them tired.

The Solution

Since I knew that some students did not have ready access to materials online, I always allowed for work and reading time during class periods and allowed students to submit printed …. rather than online …. assignments.  A few students did take me up on that option, and I accepted printed homework during the term.

To address the online reading problem, I taught students how to adjust fonts in Word documents and in web pages.  Most students did not know that it is easier to read sans serif fonts (such as Arial) online nor did they know how to adjust fonts.  Once we had made that change — and I generally remembered to change fonts in materials I handed out electronically — students found it much easier to do the reading for this class.

For those who still wanted to print documents in order to read them, I pointed out that, even at 5 cents per page, they would spend less in printing than they would have if I had made them by a text book.  The cheapest book I’d considered was $35, and they rapidly went up from there into over $100 per copy.  While I realized that this may not seem very student-centered, I was trying to save the majority of students money by offering all materials online.

But I also addressed ergonomic issues, such as asking them to be aware of lighting (to reduce glare) and their own posture when doing class work.  So much literature recently has been aimed at telling faculty how we need to catch up to students who “naturally” want us to adopt digital media that we forget how little students really know about managing their environment and habits …. even when online.

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Founded back in the relatively early days of the graphical interface web (1997), MERLOT (the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) remains something of a sleeper for classroom teachers.  I wrote about this 3 years ago, on its 10-year anniversary, and I am still finding teachers who have never heard of it.  This is not a comment on  the tech-savvy-ness of teachers but rather to difficulties of promoting truly useful educational technology resources to the people who could most use them.

The idea behind MERLOT is to allow free access to educational materials developed and rated by teachers – or alternatively, for them to share links out to useful materials that they have used in their work and rated appropriately.  Not everything linked or filed in MERLOT is necessarily free, but most is.  And don’t let the “online” part of their title deter classroom teachers from using the materials.  If your students can connect to the internet from your classroom, or you can access the materials and show them on a projector, you may still find these resources useful.

I confess that I still have difficulty finding exactly what I need sometimes, but that is no worse on MERLOT than it is on YouTube, for instance, and usually means that I need to refine my keywords for a search.  My strategy is to budget a limited amount of time (usually using Pomodoro methodology … i.e. 25 minutes on the kitchen timer) for searching this resource.  If I can’t find it in 25 minutes, I move on to a different site … or contact my friendly neighborhood spiderman librarian.

If you have found other useful learning object repositories, please let me know in the comments or send me an email!

Seems like we keep trying to get this idea up off the ground – a repository of learning objects that is freely available to educators but is still vetted and peer reviewed by …. well, our fellow teachers.

The latest offering in my email box is Curriki, developed and maintained by a nonprofit organization (Curriki.org) which includes staff to maintain and evaluate shared materials.
Read all about it at the MMISchools website.