Don’t get me wrong – you may be thinking that I think that this whole blended learning thing is a breeze.  It’s not.  It’s a lot of work.  It’s a lot of trial and error, and sometimes it’s a lot of staring at the screen shaking your head, wondering “but how do you do that??”.

That was me, a few days ago, after about the fourth time watching the Stage 3 video, and countless times going through the manual.  I was missing something so basic that I didn’t want to have to ask the trainer.  I “ordered” my course.  It comes with a number of units already set up and ready to go.  The instructor can pick and choose the elements he or she wants for their particular learners.  Well, I was staring at the screen, looking for what I thought would be a no-brainer – “add topic”.  It didn’t seem to exist.  I finally did a search on moodle and figured it out – you don’t actually add a topic in moodle; rather, you change the number of topics in the settings (administration block).

So, let’s say that your pre-ordered course comes with 10 units.  You would like to add a few of your own ideas and material, web links, etc.  You go into the settings in the admin block, find where it tells you how many topics you have, then you add as many as you want.  These appear at the end of the topic list.  Then, if you want to move your topic up the list, you just choose the arrow.  It moves up one topic at a time.  This part is painstakingly slow and annoying – it could be improved.  I have about 30 topics now, so if I add one, then I am moving it up the list one topic at a time.

I still think that moodle is better than D2L, but D2L does have a better interface.  It looks nicer, and more organized than Moodle.  Also, I saw the other LMS, can’t think of the name (Web 2.0?) that Western University uses, and it was nice looking as well.

So now, in order to become more Moodle-proficient, I will enroll my learners and use the program starting next week.  I have already loaded a tonne of information on the site.  I have to remember to book the computer lab for twice a week (sometimes three times).  I ran into my learners who are just finishing up their co-op placements at Home Depot and one of the things they said they would have liked, was to have had more time in the computer lab.  Well, they were pre-LMS, and we only used the lab for research and for some navigation exercises.  I like the idea of rolling this out with the SLT group, because they are very workplace focused and recognize the need to have these skills.

Anyhow – about the training.  I am in Stage 3 of the CIC funded Moodle training course.  There is some PD available for successful completion of each stage.  We are required to do some reflective writing on the process.  I understand how this is necessary, and I predict that Stage 3 will take me until November.  There are 4 stages, and I hope to get to Stage 4 by the 2014.

But forget what’s in it for me!  This LMS will give the learners enhanced opportunities to review classroom material, and chances to do extra work should the learners finish tasks quickly.   Computer skills, online web navigation, teamwork, all of these are skills needed in the workplace.  The learners will use WIKIs; they will post ideas and opinions in the forums; they will keep a reflective journal of their  journey in this program using the Blog tool.  They will have a chance to try out customer service lines, and record themselves for instructor feedback (the oddly named “Nanogong” tool).  The group will also be responsible for up-keeping a classroom glossary.  Oh, and did I mention, the instructor can keep track of grades, quizzes, etc.

Note to self – can I use the Clarity SCORM in Moodle?  I don’t see why not.  I’ll just have to figure out how I did it in D2L.  Probably the same kind of procedure.

I’ve also been reading up on blended learning. I can see why some instructors would be reluctant to use an LMS in their classrooms.  It takes a lot of work to set it up (unless you are only using the LINC material, then it’s ready to use). It takes time to work through the stages of LearnIT2Teach; in other words, you need the stages.  You can’t just expect to be plunked into Stage 3 and start your course.  There is method to the madness. And you can’t expect not to be frustrated from time to time, or for everything to work exactly how it’s supposed to.  I know that some of us think that there are those in our profession always trying to find the newest best thing, the thing that’s going to revolutionize ESL, and well, not everything new is practical, useful, or even always a good idea.

You want to pilot an LMS in ESL?  Well, do we have enough working computers?  What about the school’s bandwidth? What do we do with the one-fingered typists? How do we ensure that the instructors have support they need and don’t feel overworked? And what if an instructor very plainly mistrusts computers, and is disinclined to want to use them in her class?

Moodle vs. Desire2Learn

You may have wondered where I’ve been lately.  Or maybe not.  Remember the LearnIT2Teach resource I mentioned earlier?  They offer 4 Stages of training for the MOODLE Learning Management System.  I completed Stage 2 this week and am about to dive into Stage 3.

What can I say about Moodle?  Well, first of all, Stage 1 was quite easy.  That’s not to say you didn’t have to think, but it was a basic introduction to the LMS and showed the participants what the students’ perspective would be.   A lot of times instructors/teachers ask learners to do a particular task that they themselves have not done.  Stage 1 uses the LINC courseware and asks participants to complete a number of assignments that the learners would typically be given. I think that this is brilliant, and when more instructor/teachers take this training (and they will, no doubt about that), they are going to see the merit of actually doing the student task before assigning it to the student.

Another great thing about Stage 1 is that it subtly assesses other aspects of technology use, and it doesn’t call the “quizzes” quizzes, it calls them “confidence builders”.  I’m a grade junkie.  I admit it.  If there are 100 marks to be had, I want the whole enchilada.  If a mistake is made, I immediately analyze the question for defects.  Then, because I can, I re-do the “confidence-builder” (after reviewing the course material, if there is a point I’m not clear on).

Moodle Vs. Desire2Learn

I’ve now had some experience with both LMS’s (note, punctuation aficionados, an apostrophe can be used in an acronym ending with “s” to indicate plural, not possession. Adding the apostrophe reduces confusion.)

Now, which one do I prefer?  Well, both LMS’s have pros and cons.  Let me start with what I know (remember, I still have to dive into Stage 3).  Both LMS’s have many of the same features, such as quizzes, blogs, forums, etc.  Moodle kicks D2L’s virtual butt.  Moodle is better in a number of key areas, but most importantly with regards to user friendliness.

Another key point is the Help Desk.  If you’ve read the rest of my blog, you know that I’m not shy to call the Help Desk.  In fact, I ended up logging about 2 dozen calls over July-August, and got to know Help Desk staff by first name. (Sid, by the way, you really need to do something about the 2+ minutes of awkward phone silence when you’re dealing with frustrated instructor/teachers…).

D2L staff were fairly knowledgeable, but passed the buck a lot. Also, on more than one occasion, they gave me wrong information (like about the blog tool; they told me that my DELC would need to enable the tool before learners could access it.  It was actually there all along, in profiles.  I stumbled on it in the last week of class.)

Moodle support has been awesome.  Granted, I have not called Jim, but I have emailed him at least a half-dozen times now.  Despite it being prime vacation season, he always replies within the next business day.

Another major advantage of Moodle are the tutorials.  I looked far and wide for help with D2L (videos, pdfs, anything).  There was nothing cohesive; a bit here, a bit there…  Plus, the “help” that was available to us could have been better.  An email I sent re: the blog tool wasn’t answered for over 2 weeks.  Our “training” on the LMS consisted of an open lab, and this well-thought out question: “So, what do you want to do?”.  Moodle, on the other hand, has very specific, step by step instructions plus practice.  You do the task.  Moodle holds your hand,  and gives you a virtual fist-bump when you do the right thing (well, it says “good job”.  I like the immediate feedback).

For ESL instructors, it’s got to be Moodle.  I still need to start creating material, but D2L pales in comparison. More specific comparisons to follow shortly.

Anyhow, more to come with Moodle.  ImageImage

Final Thoughts

The course finished a week ago (has it only been a week?  It feels like a month.)  I am glad that I was able to get my feet wet with a blended learning class, because at least now I have some practical experience with using an LMS.   So what do I think?  I bet you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to hear my “final thoughts” (sounds so dark and morbid!)

There is a lot of potential for using an integrated Learning Management System for Newcomers to Canada.  First of all, the learners WANT this experience.  They recognize the need for it.  Even the learners who struggled the most said that they know these are skills that many, if not all, workplaces demand.  The learners that persevered through the program were happy with the experience, even if they didn’t progress in their benchmarks (very few of them did).

The time commitment was one of the bigger challenges (lack of techno know-how being the main challenge).   Learners honestly had not been prepared to put in the time at home to complete the assignments, do the readings, etc.  When they began to fall behind, it was almost impossible to catch up. Overall, we had 14 assignments that students needed to submit to the course dropbox.  One student submitted 100% of what we asked for; two students submitted 90%, and then it drops off dramatically from there.

I think that most students had thought they would be able to complete all tasks during class-time on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  That’s not how a blended learning course works.  You need to produce in the classroom component and show what you have been e-learning.  I think that my colleague and I did far too much presenting of the work that was meant to be done at home during the in-class time.

Another challenge that we had was the compressed time for the power-course.  Normally, a CLB writing course takes place over 10-12 weeks; we had 4.

Overall, I’d gladly do another blended course; however I think that the biggest thing I will take out of this experience is an appreciation of the possibilities that this kind of technology brings to the learning environment.

So, during my last week of the course, I stumbled upon LearnIT2Teach, a CIC funded initiative aimed at doing just this sort of thing, using the LMS called Moodle.  You know moodle – I think I’ve mentioned it before.  LearnIT2Teach has developed 4 stages of training for LINC teacher/instructors and will (get this) SET UP and ADMINISTER a Moodle platform for graduating teacher/instructors.  Hello?  Really?  And here I was about to try to learn code this August and buy a domain for my own Moodle platform.

So, guess what I’ve been doing?  I completed my Stage 1 yesterday and am about to jump into Stage 2.  It’s not a cakewalk – you have to exercise your brain and pay attention. (Unlike the safety videos we are required to “watch” for work) (Uh, if my boss is reading this, I do actually watch the safety videos…) (most of the time) (parenthetically speaking of course).

My plan is to do the stages, do them well enough to be prepared to start my courses in September.  I’m glad I stumbled onto LearnIT2Teach and am kicking myself that I hadn’t found them before (I had heard the term, but always thought it had something to do with real IT, as in the computer guys at work who fix stuff).

Final thoughts and words of wisdom…

If it’s not loading, hit F5.  If that doesn’t work, go get Firefox. There is a reason why the Techies use and swear by the Fox.

Jennfire, out.  For the moment.  I will continue this blog on IT.  So, readership of 2.5, keep checking back for updates (The .5 is my mom; she just shows up to look at the pictures.)Image