Unsucking Online Education, Part Two

By Michelle Boule | This is the second part of a series and long in coming. Apologies are in order, and I hope I will be forgiven. In the previous segment, I discussed the Five Weeks to a Social Library project and why offering free online education was important. Today, I want to highlight a few of the tools that can make creating a free or cheap online education portal possible.

Most of the options for course management, like WebCT and Blackboard, are very expensive and clunky. Institutions and organizations could reasonably charge students large amounts of money for enrollment and participation in an online course if they were using one of these two tools. WebCT and Blackboard are archaic structures that resemble how students learn in face-to-face environments. Continuing to build online education in ways that resemble the face-to-face environment harms our students and reflects poorly on us as educators. We should know better than to create a hostile learning environment. WebCT and Blackboard are still the norm in instructional design, but there is hope.

Today there are many options available to large and small organizations that vary both in price and functionality. There are a number of tools that are free, costing only labor and time, and can turn backflips over traditional software. These tools are more dynamic, have more flexibility, and better reflect the way people learn and create online.

I thought long about the best way to present this information. There are so many different kinds of tools to choose from -- from blogs, chat, and conferencing software to fully formed content management systems.  No list is really ever complete as people are building and sharing new things all the time. Welcome to the world wide web. Because of this dilemma, I am going to talk about three tools in particular, that, I believe, may change the way we think about designing educational content and web pages. If you want to know more about chat, web conferencing, blog, and wiki platforms, the ALA Emerging Leader Group P has complied a very nice and simple list.

Joomla and Drupal are two content management systems that are making it easier for people without programming skills to build robust, community driven web sites or class portals. A class portal can be, after all, a simple web site that allows participation. A content management system like Drupal or Joomla allows more flexibility than WebCT or Blackboard, and creates an environment in which students can contribute to their learning process. The third tool, Moodle, is an open source course management system that models the more traditional WebCT, but allows participation to students that WebCT does not.

Though Joomla and Drupal can be powerful for content management, they were not designed with class management in mind. When making a decision on what kind of tool to use for your class, keep in mind what you want the tools to do. If you want something that reflects the flow of a traditional class, then something like Moodle will suit your needs much better.

What can you do with Joomla and Drupal?

You can build a web site that contains forums, bulletin boards, chat rooms, blogs, media, document editing, newsletters, customizable RSS feeds, calendars, and much more. All of the different widgets and tools that can be added to web sites, like a chat room, are referred to as modules. These tools are open source, which means that the capabilities of these tools are always growing. Unlike traditional course management systems, Joomla and Drupal were created so that individuals and organizations could build portals for communities. The focus was not on learning, but on community. Some of the best learning comes from a community atmosphere. Drupal and Joomla build similar web sites, but the back end of the websites and the process of building them is different.

Drupal logoThe Five Weeks to a Social Library group used Drupal as the content management system for our web site. We chose modules that we felt would be important to our class, like a chat room, blogs, and static pages. Drupal, compared to Joomla, is much more flexible in terms of where and how things can be added to your web site. As a user, and not the builder of our site, I found Drupal easy to navigate. We were able to create a shell of what we needed and then populate it with all the class content, users, categories, and blog posts. We did have some issues with Drupal. We were unable to ever get the chat room's archive to save anywhere, but we were pleased overall with the way we were able to present the content for our course.

Joomla logoI am less familiar with the inner workings of Joomla and asked my friend, Jason Griffey, what he thought of Joomla. Jason is the Head of Library Information Technology at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga's Lupton Library. They recently redesigned their entire web site using Joomla.

What 3-5 features make Joomla a good choice for libraries or organizations that want to build learning portals?
Depending on the parsing of “learning portal”, Joomla has a very easy to use backend, with a rich set of tools for the management of web-based content. We chose it at UTC because it has fully-featured user permissions, which allowed us to set up a workflow that was comfortable for everyone. Joomla also has a rich development community with a lot of plugins and modules available that extend its capabilities to things like multimedia management, which would be useful for Web 2.0 type learning portals.
What are some of the drawbacks or difficulties you encountered (or things others might find difficult) when setting up and maintaining your Joomla site?
The biggest difficulty in setup is that Joomla doesn't let you create a menu without items of real content behind the links. In most web development, you decide on a menu structure, a user interface, and then fill in the areas outlined with content. With Joomla, you have to have the content pieces before you can create menus and such…that led to some difficulty in planning the pieces that we don't have content for yet! But the overall ease-of-use compared to dealing with manual HTML/Dreamweaver makes it worth it.

The benefits of using Moodle

Moodle logoMoodle, as mentioned before, was built as a course management tool.  It will run on any PHP system, and requires only a single database to run effectively. Moodle combines many of the social software tools we love, like RSS and wikis, with the functionality and layout of a traditional course management tool. Upcoming events, recent posts, wiki pages for classes, and the inclusion of outside RSS feeds, both text and audio, are all modules that can be included in a Moodle learning environment. Like Joomla and Drupal, Moodle is open source, which means it will only cost you time and labor to install and customize your learning environment. There is extensive documentation, support forums, and new modules being created for this tool.
Moodle Graph

Although open source tools are not ready "out of the box," they do allow for greater control, flexibility, and customization than any commercial tool. When making a choice about what type of tool you need to organize your online learning portal, you should consider the outcomes of your class, the content you are presenting, and the level of technical knowledge of your students.  Depending on how your design your site, Joomla and Drupal will often require more from your students. For the Five Weeks to a Social Library project, the goal was to teach librarians about social software, so requiring more participation in a content management environment was a better choice than Moodle, which is course oriented.

To get started and learn more about these tools, here is a small list of places worth visiting:

Joomla in Libraries - This is a Joomla site that has information for libraries who want to use Joomla as a way to redesign their web presence.
Joomla Support - A support site with a knowledge base and tutorials on everything from hosting, installation, and security.
Drupal in Libraries - This is a Drupal site that has information for libraries.
Drupal Support - This is the main support page for Drupal with links to documentation, forums, hosting services, and more.
Moodle requires that you create a free account before navigating in their various forums and documentation, but they can be found from the main Moodle site.