Although the market is more developed than when I started looking at and learning about VLEs about 3 years ago it’s still very confusing. In the UK there are approximately 10 Becta approved learning platforms (note that’s learning platforms rather than VLEs). There’s also probably another 10 or so out there that I’ve looked at and probably many more I’ve never heard of. If you want to compare features and costs you need to invest a considerable amount of time phoning round or getting in demos as these things aren’t always clearly published.

The wonderful community at Edtechroundup are compiling a table of VLE features and costs and Andy Kemp has written an excellent summary of different systems he’s experienced.
Ivan Langton jumped into the debate with his blog post “Is Moodle the Volvo of VLEs” which has a pop at Moodle’s old fashioned and blocky design. This debate is great and important but I feel a couple of important points have been missed.

1. Most schools do not know what they want!

Some of us now have a bit of experience using VLEs but I doubt there are many of us who have seen a school with a fully integrated VLE (I reckon 2 more years and I’ll be close!)  Even those of us who know VLEs and who use VLEs probably haven’t used all the features or worked out how every subject can or should integrate them into lessons. For those schools who have less experience a table of features is likely to mean even less. Looking at features and costs can be misleading. Schools need to look at what they have and what they need. Here’s a few commonly mentioned features that I’ll try and put a contrary view on.
MIS Integration: What are you going to use it for? Does your MIS system need to know how a student has done in a VLE quiz? Do you need to see attendance records from your VLE? I decided not to worry about this as the cost wasn’t worth the benefits for us and we already have web access to the MIS without a VLE.

Single Sign On: How many systems do you use in school? Can you combine them all? If you get single sign on working how many other systems won’t work with it? I wanted single sign on but it wasn’t realistic to start with. We also have so many web systems staff and students use that 100% single sign on would be impossible. Right now I’m prepared to wait until a better system comes around that’s more comprehensive.

Creating User Accounts/Class Groups Automatically: This kind of falls into the above two categories. How will you create user accounts? Will they come from the MIS or from a single sign on system? We created manually in the end which took a technician a small amount of time to extract the data from the MIS.

Online Markbook: Is this essential? How many staff will use it?

Included Resources: Some commercial VLEs come with resources such as Brittanica (that I’ve heard great things about). Do you need these included resources? Would you prefer to spend the money on just the ones you want?

Curriculum Mapping: Some VLEs allow you to map or tag your resources to parts of the National Curriculum – are your staff going to want to do this?

Features and Tools: Eg Wikis, Forums, Blogs etc. Are there better online tools to do the job that staff are already using? Does a specific VLE offer an implementation that is so good that it stands out? Is this really what is going to be your deciding factor? Probably not!

In summary most staff will only use parts of a VLE. The expert staff who you may expect to use more may prefer to use other tools such as a blog on blogger, a google sites website or a wiki on wetpaint.

2. The Main Cost isn’t the hosting and technical expertise but the time for training and creation of content.

Many people comment that Moodle can be expensive in terms of setup. I believe this time for setup is the same for any VLE. For £500 a year my school has fully hosted, functional and supported Moodle installation from ECognition . We needed to create user accounts, courses and resources. This is the same for any VLE. Your commercial package may include setting up servers, single sign on and user accounts – but this will surely also need time from people in your school, such as you or your network manager. The real cost though is in creating materials, courses and training staff. It doesn’t matter what VLE you have, creating courses and resources takes time – teachers don’t have much time.

So why have I fallen for Moodle?
1. You can spend money on the bits you want to spend it on rather than on software licenses. It may be in house training and taking teachers off timetable. It may be getting external trainers in. It may be paying someone to integrate your moodle with your MIS. It may be buying laptops to use the VLE in school. It may be buying resources to add to the VLE and many more options.

2. You can start small and grow organically. If you spend £30,000 on a VLE there’s some real pressure to use it even when it isn’t the best solution to your problem. Forcing people to use a VLE can cause resentment both amongst pupils and staff. With a smaller investment in Moodle I am equally happy when staff use other web tools or our Google Apps  installation to do things how they want.

Bigger costs require bigger benefits and create bigger pressures

Flexibility breeds creativity.

8 Responses to “VLEs, costs, features and why I’ve fallen for Moodle”

Your points 1 and 2: So why have I fallen for Moodle? Very well made! I agree!

Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

Allen Taylor

We have been travelling this potholed path for over a year now and would agree with the overall theme of the post. Only I would also add, that the ability to customise an open source product is perhaps more a part of the agreement than a propriety solution.

MIS is important, but will it always be through a VLE or alongside a VLE?

Dont forget the community behind Moodle is extremely open and supportive. This years Moodlemoot was an excellent example of this.

Food for thought Dan as I embark on my new job in September. They use the LEA VLE at the moment and are far from happy with it. Whilst free this year, the thought of paying for it next year may mean my first and biggest job will be looking for a new VLE.

Do you think your school would be well placed if you moved on? One concern of Moodle that I see is the problem of retaining the technical skills required to maintain it, something that comes as part of the support package on the more expensive options.

Dan

Will my school be well placed if I move on? Well leaving aside my unique and unsurpassable skills and dynamism… yes I think they’ll manage. Although I have the understanding of the technical knowledge I’m not running the Moodle our host is so no problem there. If we move it in house ever it’ll be the network manager doing it not me. One of our network technicians has been doing the uploading of usernames so we’re okay there. What’ll be missing is my overall vision of how things should be but that’s no different from a commercial system. It all depends how many people you train up. Some commercial providers suggest putting a senior management member and a network manager through their courses – you could do this with moodle just as easily. I really don’t see a difference from Moodle to the commercial options in this respect. If you’re single handedly running moodle on your own personal server somewhere then maybe – but if you’re doing that it’s hardly moodle to blame, it’s the person implementing it!

Dan, this is a an interesting and thought provoking article. As someone who has used moodle for several years (and done a fair amount of theming,hacking and plugin coding for it), but then having moved school to a school without Moodle I have been forced to rethink my thoughts and preferences in regard to VLEs.

I agree moodle has a lot going for particularly if you are looking to ‘dip your toe’ in the muddy waters that are VLEs… For me the benefits of moodle were the community and the ability to tweak it to do whatever I want… However I felt I spent as much time ‘tweaking’ as I did creating teaching resources! But that may say more about me than moodle!

For me the overriding concerns about moodle are the ‘easy of use’ issues… As you say training is essential, but the problem I have always thought is getting staff to want to be involved and willing to attend this sort of training… Also I still find creating resources for moodle quite a time-consuming process…

This is true for many, but not all VLEs. One of the reasons why I liked Frog when we tested it (I should add we haven’t chosen any solution yet), was the speed with which I could create content. Also when I asked less techy friends to explore they also found it quite easy to use without formal training…

I completely agree with you though that comparing features is often a slightly futile exercise, most do basically the same thing in most cases and as you say some features are just not necessary for everyone… The crucial thing is for schools to assess where they are and where they are going and ensure they choose a solution which matches them and gives them the scope to grow in the way in which they wish to…

The MIS integration is really being pushed by the government targets which say that schools should provide real-time reporting, and many schools are thinking we don’t really want another package to add to the many different packages they run and would like this to be integrated into their VLE. Which I have some sympathy for…

I have similar concerns to those expressed by Dan Stucke about what happens when the moodle evangelist moves on… In many schools (although you do sound like you have a good balance) moodle is driven by one or two members of staff, and because of the of the open-source nature these individuals often have done a lot of tweaking and hacking of the code which can create problems when upgrades come round… With a managed solution (which could be moodle) you can avoid this problem, but the flip side is you loose some of the flexibility…

My other concern is related to the applicability of moodle to the younger end of education – our school is looking for a solution to use across our entire campus which includes 4 separate ‘schools’ covering an age range from 2-18+ and we really want to find a ‘one-size fits all’ solution…

Also I have a lot of sympathy for Ivan’s comments about moodle having a bit of a boxy feel. Despite the general quality of themes improving for moodle they still seem generally a bit drab and boxy.

I still think moodle is an excellent solution for many people in lots of situations, and am even running a departmental moodle as a temporary solution at school why we explore solutions. However I do think there are some scenarios where a purchased solution may make more sense…

Anon

Moodle has really inspired and changed my life!
for more information visit http://demo.moodle.org/

Shizue Larance

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