Friday, March 29, 2013

Online Course Delivery: What platform should you use?

I have always been a proponent of the idea of using "technology as a means to an end, rather than the end itself." After a recent job change which prompted an LMS switch from Moodle to Blackboard (yes, I have gone over to the dark side), I found myself asking the question, "What platform should you use for online course delivery?" I began comparing the features and layout of Moodle to Blackboard. Should I have been asking this question at all? Well... let's not get ahead of ourselves too much. First, my musings from the question.

Moodle LMS

As many know, Moodle is a LMS that is open-sourced and created from the student perspective. By keeping this key philosophy in mind, Moodle has stamped out a place in the world of accessibility and ease of use for students. However, this can create a disadvantage for faculty members creating a course (f-2-f, hybrid, or online). Many improvements have been made with the recent release of Moodle 2.x that improves usability. Some notable improvements are: drag&drop, navigation block, activity chooser. The new file structure has thrown many veteran Moodle users for a loop, as it completely changes the way they approach building a course. I must say that I am a fan of the new file structure, as it increases security of files, reliability of course backups, and stays consistent with Moodle's student-centric philosophy. If a file is meant to be part of a course, put it in the course where it should be! The overall layout of a Moodle course is fairly straightforward. Moodle 2.x allows different middle sections (topics/weeks) to be displayed on separate pages is desired. These sections appear as navigation options in the navigation menu. That is the setup I took, which is shown in the screenshot below. Each of these sections or "weeks" as I name them, expand to display that week's work.

In my previous life, I was a Moodle Administrator. I was supported by another Network Administrator (who I swear had a magic wand!) who handled the majority of the back-end technical details such as server issues. My main responsibility was user support and heading off technical problems that arose. It took me at least three months to feel confident in my Moodle capabilities, which is a pretty steep learning curve for a tech person. Now granted, I had never been exposed to Moodle before that AND I was dabbling in learning from an administrator perspective rather than a faculty perspective. I could  probably cut the learning curve time down to one month for a typical faculty member to be well versed if I account for all of that. From the student perspective, I would have to say that it would only take 1 day to understand Moodle due to it's ideals of transparency.

Blackboard LMS

Blackboard... oh how you have already begun to warp my mind. Blackboard Learn is the platform that I have recently switched to. As many of you know, Blackboard is a tried and true LMS that has attempted to create a monopoly of the market. Many buy into the franchise, while many others throw up their hands in dismay. I'm fairly impartial, as I'm not writing the check for the LMS or responsible for the administration. Blackboard was created from a teacher-centric philosophy. The LMS is extremely intuitive for faculty members in the creation of their courses. I had dabbled in it for an internship during my undergrad, and have rarely looked at it since. After an afternoon of training, I feel pretty comfortable with my knowledge of course creation. For a first time user without any LMS background, I would put the learning curve at about 2 weeks for a faculty member. Student learning curve? Now that is a good question... The screenshot below is from where you can create a course using the newest version of Blackboard Learn. This one is fairly easy to navigate, but I don't see any one area that contains all the information needed by students. They are tasked with jumping from chapter material to discussion forums and so on.

There is the ability to have folders inside of folders that sometimes contain folders! The maze of things for students can quickly spiral out of control. Not to mention the navigation between different weeks is often not broken up into separate menu buttons. The one benefit for students is that once they successfully complete one online course (with likely much pain in figuring things out) all others will immediately make sense and be a breeze. I could quickly see how these layers both make sense from a faculty perspective but could cause confusion for students who are unfamiliar with the LMS.


Canvas? Google Sites? Blogs?

After musing about the differences between Moodle and Blackboard, I was lucky enough to have a sister who was considering using Google Sites to deliver her Summer online course for University of Southern Indiana (USI). I had previously worked with her on delivering the entire course through her Blog. USI currently uses Blackboard, and she is not a fan of the LMS, so we have continuously pushed the boundaries in thinking about how she could deliver the online course. This made me come full circle in realizing that the platform used to deliver the online course is relatively irrelevant. Whether you use Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, Google Sites, Blog, or any other platform that you can think of, there will always be some type of learning curve for both the faculty member and the students. The important thing to consider is what you are wanting to accomplish.

Once you know how you would like the course to function and progress, then it is easy to figure out which tool will work best for you. I had forgotten my own mantra, "Technology as a means to an end, rather than the end itself." This made me realize how quickly we can get wrapped up in the differences in technology, rather than exploring and pushing boundaries on course delivery and course content. I would encourage you to keep pushing boundaries and exploring new ways of delivering information to your students. As long as you are transparent in how the course is set up and should progress, students will surprise you in how adaptable they are to technology.

I will be posting in the next few days about the way my sister and I went about using Google Sites to deliver her course.

Happy eLearning!