Let's sit back and really reflect on the pedagogy that is at the core of what we, as online educators, are trying to do.
Definition of Pedagogy
One definition of pedagogy in Wiktionary says
- The profession of teaching
- The activities of educating, teaching or instructing
Wikipedia has a much longer page on Pedagogy. At one point it said Pedagogy is the art or science of being a teacher, generally refers to strategies of instruction, or a style of instruction. The word comes from the Ancient Greek παιδαγωγέω (paidagōgeō; from παῖς (child) and ἄγω (lead)): literally, "to lead the child”.
Moodle in three short paragraphs
The heart of Moodle is courses that contain activities and resources. There are about 20 different types of activities available (forums, glossaries, wikis, assignments, quizzes, choices (polls), scorm players, databases etc) and each can be customised quite a lot. The main power of this activity-based model comes in combining the activities into sequences and groups, which can help you guide participants through learning paths. Thus, each activity can build on the outcomes of previous ones.
There are a number of other tools that make it easier to build communities of learners, including blogs, messaging, participant lists etc, as well as useful tools like grading, reports, integration with other systems and so on.
For more about Moodle, see http://moodle.org, and particularly the main community “course” called Using Moodle. It's crowded and busy these days, but jump in and you'll soon find interesting stuff I'm sure. The developers and the users are deliberately forced to mix in the same forums. The other great place to start is our online documentation which is a community-developed wiki site.
Social Constructionism as a Referent
I have these five points on a slide which I use in every presentation I do. They are useful referents taken from research that apply to education in general, boiled down into a simple list that I carry around under the moniker of "social constructionism".
- All of us are potential teachers as well as learners - in a true collaborative environment we are both.
It's so important to recognise and remember this.
I think this perspective helps us retain some humility as teachers and fight the (very natural!) tendency to consolidate all your history and assume the revered position of “wise source of knowledge”.
It helps us keep our eyes open for opportunities to allow the other participants in our learning situation to share their ideas with us and to remind us to listen carefully and ask good questions that elicit more from others.
I find I need to constantly remind myself of this point, especially when the culture of a situation pushes me into a central role (like now!)
- We learn particularly well from the act of creating or expressing something for others to see.
For most of us this is basically “learning by doing”, and is fairly obvious, yet it's worth reminding ourselves of it.
It's surprising how much online learning is still just presenting static information, giving students little opportunity to practice the activities they are learning about. I often see online teachers spending a great deal of time constructing perfect resources for their course, which no doubt is a terrific learning experience for them, but then they deny their students that same learning experience. Even textbooks often do a better job, with exercises after every chapter and so on.
Most importantly, such learning is best when you are expressing and presenting posts, projects, assignments, constructions etc for others to see. In this situation your personal “stakes” are a lot higher, and a lot of self-checking and reflection takes place that increases learning. Seymour Papert (the inventor of logo) famously described the process of constructing something for others to see as a very powerful learning experience, and really this sort of thinking goes right back to Socrates and beyond.
- We learn a lot by just observing the activity of our peers.
Basically this is about “classroom culture”, or learning by osmosis. Humans are good at watching each other and learning what to do in a given situation through cues from others.
For example, if you walk into a lecture theatre where everyone is sitting in seats, facing the front, listening quietly to the teacher at the front and taking notes, then that's most likely what you are going to do too, right?
If you are in a less rigid class where people are asking questions all the time, then it's likely you'll feel freer to do so too. By doing so you'll be learning about both the subject itself and the meta-subject of how learning occurs from overhearing the discussions of your peers and the kinds of questions that get asked, leading to a richer multi-dimensional immersion in learning.
- By understanding the contexts of others, we can teach in a more transformational way (constructivism)
As you probably know from experience, advice from a mentor or friend can provide better, more timely and customised learning experience than with someone who doesn't know you and is speaking to a hundred people.
If we understand the background of the people we are speaking to then we can customise our language and our expression of concepts in ways that are best suited to the audience. You can choose metaphors that you know the audience will relate to. You can use jargon where it helps or avoid jargon when it gets in the way.
Again this is a pretty basic idea - every guide to public speaking talks about knowing your audience - but in online learning we need to be particular mindful of this because we often have not met these people in person and don't have access to many visual and auditory cues.
- A learning environment needs to be flexible and adaptable, so that it can quickly respond to the needs of the participants within it.
Combining all the above, if you as a learning facilitator want to take advantage of your growing knowledge about your participants, giving them tailored opportunities to share ideas, ask questions and express their knowledge, then you need an environment which is flexible, both in time and space.
If you discover that you need to throw your schedule out the window because your participants know a lot less than you'd expected when you first designed the course, you should be able to readjust the schedule, and easily add new activities to help everyone (or just one group) catch up. Likewise, some great ideas for a simulation or something may have come up during discussions, so you should be able to add those later in the course.
Timewise, your participants may be spread over different timezones, or maybe they live in the same timezone but have differing free time, so you should be able to offer asynchronous activities where people can work together but at different times.
Jason Cole from Open University recently referred to these as “Martin's five laws” (ha!) but really they are referents: guiding concepts that I personally find useful to refer to whenever I need to make a decision in any given educational situation. In particular I find them useful for building communities of learners.
I guess you probably find a lot of this familiar, even if you use different terms. If not there is a lot of research about constructionism, constructivism and social Constructionism which you can find out more about in some of my more formal papers.
How Moodle tries to support a Social Constructionist view
I'm going to go through the earlier list again, this time pointing out existing features in Moodle. Pedagogy and software design are closely intertwined in online learning - the "shape" of the software can help or hinder the teacher in what they are trying to do.
- All of us are potential teachers as well as learners - in a true collaborative environment we are both
Many of the activities in Moodle are designed to allow students to control common content, such as forums, wikis, glossaries, databases, messaging and so on. This encourages students to add to the total course experience for others.
We made a huge step with a Roles implementation which further breaks down the distinction of teachers and students, allowing Moodle system administrators and teachers to create new roles with any mix of capabilities they like. If you want students to be allowed to facilitate forums, create quiz questions or even control the course layout then you can. There is a very fine degree of control – for example you can allow students the ability to delete posts in just one single forum if you like.
I hope that people will take these features and experiment with control in their courses, allowing students more flexibility to do things that were previously thought of as something teachers should do.
- We learn particularly well from the act of creating or expressing something for others to see
Moodle has a wide range of ways in which people can create representations of their knowledge and share them.
- The course structure itself is terrific way to construct a shared and active representation of the learning journey that everyone is going through.
- Forums of course are the core of this, providing spaces for discussion and sharing of media and documents (using the media plugin filters, attachments or simply links).
- Wikis are collaboratively-built pages useful for group work and other negotiations.
- Glossaries are collaboratively-built lists of definitions that can then appear throughout the course.
- Databases are an extension of this idea allowing participants to enter structured media of any type (for example a collection of digital photos or a library of references).
- We learn a lot by just observing the activity of our peers
The participants link in the navigation block is the main place where you can see everyone in your course. It shows a lot of information about your participants and how recently they've been there.
An Online Users block is the best way to see everyone else who might be on right now.
The Recent Activity block shows a great deal of information about what has happened recently, and via link you can see reports with more detail. Things that happened not only include changes to the course and forum posts, etc, but also things like assignment submissions and quiz attempts. Students can't see the results that other students got from these activities, but they do get some sense that everyone is submitting Assignment 1 now and this peer pressure hopefully helps those who need it.
Finally, almost all the modules will "tag" an entry or change with the name of the user, so that you can see who did what and when. For example, wiki pages all have a history link with full details on every edit.
- By understanding the contexts of others, we can teach in a more transformational way (constructivism)
There are many different ways to find out about people. Access to these can be decided on a site basis (different sites have different privacy policies):
- The user profile contains several fields where people can provide information about their background, etc. In particular there is a user profile photograph, which appears throughout Moodle whenever that person writes something. The photo links back to the profile page.
- A compendium of forum posts (and discussion starters) by that person in that course (or across the site).
- Individual blogs allow people to express things in a public but reflective way, often providing access to thinking that might not normally expressed in, say, a forum. Others can give comments on the blog posts.
- Overall activity reports show all the contributions from a user in a course, including assignment submissions, glossary entries, etc.
- User log reports show detailed logs of every action taken by a person in Moodle, as well as graphs showing overall activity statistics.
- The survey module provides a variety of proven questionnaire instruments for discovering interesting information about the state of mind of the group.
- A learning environment needs to be flexible and adaptable, so that it can quickly respond to the needs of the participants within it
- The course page itself is the main tool for a teacher, allowing them to add/remove and structure activities as necessary. Changing the course is one button click away at any time, so the teacher can change it on a whim. We have AJAX features, so that activities, sections and blocks can all be simply dragged-and-dropped. Access can be restricted according to time, conditions or user profile fields.
- Roles can be applied individually in every context across the site, and can be further tweaked with overrides. So if you want to create one single quiz where everyone has access to everybody's results, or allow parents of students to see parts of your course, then you can.
- Navigation around the course and site is automatically generated.
- The gradebook is automatically maintained, and reflects the activities in the course at any given time.
- There are preferences for many aspects of appearance and behaviour, at site, course and activity levels, allowing educators to fine-tune the behaviour of Moodle in many ways.
- External systems can be integrated easily, to maintain authentication, enrolments and other things, allowing Moodle to react smoothly as data in other systems is modified.
Finding a balance
Before I talk about where we are going, let me talk a little about the balance that a Course Management System (aka VLE) like Moodle needs to achieve. One thing I found out quickly in a community like ours is that people have a wide range of expectations of online learning.
At the authoritarian extreme there are those who want students to be highly controlled: reading resources that are revealed at set times and later sitting quizzes to prove they read those resources. I call this the rat-in-the-maze approach, or dump-and-pump.
At the techno-hippy end of that spectrum there are those who want to devolve management completely, with every user running their own portfolio site, streaming blogs and files to each other using RSS and trackbacks. It's an interesting dream that really opens up thinking about education but I think the problems to be solved are many (such as security, accountability, the structure of institutions etc).
The vast majority of people that I meet fall somewhere between these two extremes. Many of them are new to online learning, and are looking for the next step beyond what they were being paid to do offline, while being accepting of gentle guidance to improving their online techniques. These people are on a steep learning curve already without facing the aggregation of 100 different blogs.
Moodle needs to be flexible to cater for a wide variety of needs while remaining simple enough for ordinary teachers to start making good use of the power of the internet for community building and collaborative learning. My hope is that Moodle can be seen as a toolbox where they can start simply and naturally, and then progress to more and more advanced community facilitation over time. Ultimately, we'd like to see teachers being involved with and supported by a community of their peers.
Let's look at a typical progression that a teacher might go through as they learn to use the Moodle tools:
- Putting up the handouts (Resources, SCORM)
- Providing a passive Forum (unfacilitated)
- Using Quizzes and Assignments (less management)
- Using the Wiki, Glossary and Database tools (interactive content)
- Facilitate discussions in Forums, asking questions, guiding
- Combining activities into sequences, where results feed later activities
- Introduce external activities and games (internet resources)
- Using the Survey module to study and reflect on course activity
- Using peer-review modules like Workshop, giving students more control over grading and even structuring the course in some ways
- Conducting active research on oneself, sharing ideas in a community of peers
Repositories and Portfolios
Special-purpose repositories are a growing area, and it means institutions can keep their valuable data where they want to, even if they switch front-end systems like VLEs. Most importantly, this will allow the development of e-Portfolios to explode, and these are something I think a lot of us really want to see as a very positive pedagogical enhancement.
We want to improve the way teachers and users of Moodle communicate with each other, not only about e-learning and Moodle, but also in their subject areas. For example, imagine a Biology 101 teacher finding a "community search" block in their course, taking them straight to a place where their peers are all discussing best practice for teaching Biology 101, sharing and browsing repositories of course materials and learning designs.
The creation of networking between Moodles allows anyone to turn their Moodle site into a Moodle Community Hub. Login between Moodles is transparent but secure and fully controlled by site administrators. The peer-to-peer nature of the design allows all sorts of interesting scenarios to develop.
Interaction between tools
By piping all the messaging from throughout the system via the Messaging module that we already have, users have a much finer control over exactly what sorts of messages they want to see.
Metadata and outcome statements
Moodle has a mechanism so that:
- admins can import a long list of outcome statements (as tags)
- teachers can relate a subset of these to their course
- teachers can connect each activity to an even smaller subset
Progress Tracking allows these things to be guided by individual learning plans for each student.
Role-playing and scenario simulations
A popular and effective technique in face-to-face teaching is that of role-playing in scenarios, and this can be difficult to do online. You could imagine an Environmental Science course running a role-playing simulation where some students play the government, some as Greenpeace, some as industry for a particular scenario.
The plans for this have been around for a long time, but I hope it can be developed soon. It would be a module where people can be assigned roles within a simulated situation and appear to others anonymously in those roles, interacting in forums, wikis, and all the other tools in Moodle according to the rules of the simulation.
What else would you like to see?
I hope this has stimulated some thoughts about the sorts of things you would like to see in your ideal online learning environment. If so, please join in with the discussions on http://moodle.org and let's brainstorm them a bit. I hope we can come up with some new ideas to put in the Moodle Tracker, or at least some support or modifications for old ones.