Open-Source Learning Management with Moodle

Combining the features of a content management system, bulletin board, and on-line grade book, Moodle meets a growing demand for on-line education.
Customization

Moodle comes with 15 themes that change the look of a Moodle Web site, and you can switch themes directly from the Configuration panel. It's easy to create new themes, too. Each theme is contained in a subdirectory of the main theme directory. To create a custom theme, copy one of the existing theme folders and give it a new name. The folder for each theme contains certain standard files, such as config.php and styles.php. The easiest way to change the look of the theme is to tweak the file styles.php, which modifies the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) used for that theme. Want to add a logo at the top of the page? Customize header.html. Any new subdirectory in the main theme folder automatically appears in the Configuration panel for themes. No special installation step is required.

Moodle's world-wide popularity—1,900 registered sites from 90 countries at last count—could be attributed to the fact that it is available in 40 different languages, from Afrikaans to Turkish. Similar to the plugin arrangement for themes, each language pack is a subdirectory in the lang directory. Switching languages is done easily through the Web control panel for languages. But, Moodle takes flexibility a step further by making it possible for an administrator to change all the phrases used in a language pack. For example, if you want to change the word “courses” to “classes” throughout the Moodle site, it can be changed once in the language pack. The terms in the language pack can be edited directly from the Web-based configuration panel.

The standard package of Moodle comes with over 15 modules for various activities, such as discussion forums, chats, assignments, journals, quizzes and surveys. Additional optional modules are available on the Moodle Web site. Installing a module usually involves copying the module's files into a subdirectory under the mod directory. Some modules come with related language files that need to be copied over to the appropriate subdirectory under the lang directory, depending on which language pack you are using. Using the configuration panel, it is possible to delete a module or change its default settings.

The Web control panel also allows the administrator to set up automated backups. Options control what is archived in the backup file and when. For example, you can omit large log files from being included in the backup. Teachers can make backups of courses, too. A backup without user data can be used to set up a course for the next semester. The backup file is in XML format, meaning your data is never locked in a proprietary format and you maintain control over your own data.

Why Moodle?

The Moodle Developers Manual lays out the development goals of the project:

  • Moodle should run on the widest variety of platforms.

  • Moodle should be easy to install, learn and modify.

  • It should be easy to upgrade from one version to the next.

  • It should be modular to allow for growth.

  • It should be able to be used in conjunction with other systems.

In our experience, the Moodle project has managed to stay true to these objectives even as it evolves rapidly. The quick pace of development is apparent in the frequent releases. For example, Moodle users had expressed interest in an integrated calendar, a feature that Moodle lacked. In January 2004, Moodle users and developers started discussing what calendaring features were needed and how they should be implemented. A few months later, the May 2004 release included an integrated calendar.

An often-repeated criticism of open-source software is it is only for IT experts and is too difficult for basic users to install and use. Yet, over 66% of Moodle users who responded to a Moodle survey identified themselves as teachers, on-line learning researchers or educational administrators.

Managing an LMS can be a complex task. What we like about Moodle is it does not hide this complexity. Its detailed on-line help, examples and sensible defaults assist the user in installing, administering and using the LMS. The greatest strength of Moodle is the community that has grown around the project. Both developers and users participate in Moodle's active discussion forums, sharing tips, posting code snippets, helping new users, sharing resources and debating new ideas. Moodle's low cost, flexibility and ease of use helps bring LMS technology within the reach of those with limited technical and financial resources. Moodle is a fine example of how and why open source works.

Resources for this article: www.linuxjournal.com/article/7817.

Abhijeet Chavan is the Chief Technology Officer of Urban Insight, Inc. He also is the co-founder and co-editor of Planetizen (www.planetizen.com).

Dr Shireen Pavri is an Associate Professor in the College of Education at California State University, Long Beach.

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