Moodle 2.0 was released yesterday (Yay! Super-Yay!) so a small discussion starter into what I think Moodle might look like in the future is appropriate. Actually, the discussion continues from a couple of months ago, when discussed quite a bit in MoodleNews and on Twitter. (See also previous course editing prototype.)

I interviewed a Finnish polytechnic teacher back in July, and presented discoveries from that interview/brainstorming session in part 1. She uses Blackboard for her courses but is considering moving to Moodle. She is a bit confused when people around her are thinking of Moodle as more of a document repository than a learning platform. She acknowledges that there is probably more to it. Still, she thinks Blackboard better guides teachers who do not have a strong idea of their pedagogical approach, than Moodle.

How does Moodle encourage interaction? Currently a Moodle course UI front page, however well designed, implies staticness, a predefined list of stuff that students simply come to and start chewing over. The first impression of a course is that it is all predefined and coming from above. However interactive the modules behind the links are, you do not perceive that when you see a course front page, which can be overwhelming enough to stop you from exploring any further.

The challenge of Moodle course front pages comes in two parts. First, teachers need to perceive that a Moodle course is not just a list of documents, but something that can empower them to communicate with their students in a rich way. Then, I believe, there needs to be more vividness in a Moodle course also for students. To start with the former, I designed the below prototype for constructing courses (a “teacher” task).

Course design is a teacher’s core professional skill. But implementing the high level design of that course, once the teacher has their vision, is not in itself a very complex task. It involves adding items, and organizing them. In many cases it also involves setting some of the modules’ options, though most of the time the defaults could suffice if chosen well.

Currently the basic workflow is an obstacle. The teacher may need to go into the deeper configuration at will. By default they should not be continuously disoriented from their current task by forcing them through module configuration each time they want to add something to their course.

Moodle 2.0 empty course by default

When I ask people What is a Moodle course, the first idea that pops into most people’s minds is: A big list of documents. Moodle UX should actively demonstrate that this idea does not represent reality, that it is not what Moodle is about. At all.

A major obstacle in the current design are the elements themselves for adding content: the drop down menus for adding “resources” and “activities”. First off, you have to click the menu to see your choices at all. Even then the short phrases in the list do not really give an idea about what the activity in question is good for. When you give it a try, you find yourself not learning the idea of the module, but staring at a long configuration form. The design I propose relies on making choosing an activity more pronounced, and on getting immediate results in the same view – direct manipulation.

Mockup of a mode fluid course frontpage

A core goal of this design is to make the interaction more direct than it currently is. Long configuration forms may still be required for deviating from the default settings, but in order to allow the teacher keep their sense of context, to “keep them in the flow” so to say, we need to allow the teacher to complete a whole process of high level course design on the course front page, from start to finish. That is why the mockup suggests that simple module configuration (such as creating the question and the answers of a Choice) need to be dialogs on the course editing page, not separate forms. (Only when you want to tweak something, will you go on the actual configuration page.)

This is heavily about emotional design. Instead of making the building of courses – the core value provided by Moodle – a mundane and troublesome “editing” task, bring the affordances of Moodle readily available, and make them exciting. Moodle is all about empowering students through first empowering teachers. Currently Moodle makes that job too much like a “hard technology task” than it really is. It has to be obvious, low-fi design, like what the social web is all about, in the spirit of Everybody is a content creator, and there are no barriers.

Disclaimer: after having finished my Moodle master’s thesis this Autumn, I have been relatively inactive in the community, so many of the above ideas might have already come up. :)

Further details

I believe the challenge of getting teachers to experiment with courses and tools that Moodle provides for them is that we need to make it obvious, but it needs to remain a creative task. For creative tasks, a Wizard (often proposed as a solution for this challenge), easily gets too restrictive.

(Of course, once we get the actual standard UI for doing this right, something to hand-hold total novices will not hurt – if we still think there is a need for that after we get the standard UI right.)

Encouraging teacher creativity – that is, giving teachers a feeling of being empowered – is the reason I think a course should perhaps by default be a blank slate. It may be convenient that the sections are already there, but them already being there also may put teachers in a mindset that they are creating something that must obey Moodle restrictions, that this is a Moodle course and not theirs. If there are sections there already, the implication in the user’s mind can be that those sections are there for a reason, that at least technology novices should not remove them, even though their professional pedagogical vision would contradict that.

Still, it may make sense to have a restriction that course content must exist within sections. It seems banal, but it might make sense to have the first thing a teacher must always do is to add a section to the course. If it is an AJAX functionality (no page load waiting), adding that one mandatory section is not much trouble, and it serves as a first easy task for novices to get a feel that they master the UI and it is not hard. To get them going. In a similar sense, the current default “Weekly outline” should be instant and easy to take into use.

I would like to get to know teachers’ work more by doing a bit of informal contextual inquiry, watching them use different LMS’s in the phase where a course is created, for example, to learn more about the constraints and context of how teachers see course making in reality.