There are definite benefits to using Moodle, especially at the CEGEP level, where something called Lea is much more commonplace. Lea is great if all you’re going to do is post a single slide show every week, but you’re in trouble the moment you want to distribute more information. Lea isn’t all that powerful (that’s my personal opinion, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong); and although it handles the basics very well, it’s not the best tool if you want to make full use of your online space. Moodle is much more versatile and you can organize documents, links, folders, and assignments via a more user-friendly interface.

The thing about Moodle though, is that “generation tech” doesn’t actually know what the hell it is. Which brings me to the latest fun fact I’ve learned while teaching: young people approach technology differently than I do, and not always in predictable ways. Those who grew up with cell phone technology – and who are now completely habituated to smart phones and tablets – all have the same reaction to hearing about an interface that they’re not familiar with: they go to the app store. I didn’t see that coming, even if I probably should have.

Unbeknownst to me, there is indeed a Moodle app, but why anyone would want to use it remains a bit of a mystery. Viewing documents and PowerPoints on an iPhone seems tedious and probably a little nausea-inducing. Moreover, the trouble one has to go through to download said app, link it to your school, and then to your student ID seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Not to mention the fact that, in an ideal world, students should read documents in settings that allow for more concentration and reflection than they are able to achieve while glancing furtively at their phones. I suspect that I’m just getting old, but I am strangely uncomfortable with the idea that my students are reading all their documents on screens that are roughly 2.5”x 5.”

Anyway… this means that if you do choose to use Moodle, you will have to explain not just what it is, but where to access it. Most students will need you to tell them that they should go to their student homepage (via the college or university website), and then to click the link for Moodle from there. They will be required to verify their email address, but it should be smooth sailing after that. Once on Moodle, students can do all the usual things – including retrieve readings, submit assignments, and post queries to the wiki.

What I like best about Moodle is the ease with which it lets you combine different formats. I can place a PowerPoint, a PDF, and a link to online content under the same heading, while stacking the syllabus and assignment sheets at the top. This keeps all class documents in the same place and reduces the number of student emails you get about lost syllabi; it also prevents students from complaining that they haven’t yet had time to purchase the course pack and/or that the Book Store is sold out. Moreover, it opens up the possibility of assigning video content in lieu of traditional reading materials from time to time, as you can link to YouTube, or upload a video file of your choosing. You can even use it to give quizzes, although that’s not something I’ve done as of yet.

Moodle, like all online tools, is also instantaneous. I can upload PowerPoints immediately after class, as promised – a habit I’ve taken because I strongly believe that students need to learn to take notes without having pre-printed slides in front of them. I can also hide assignments or readings if I want, revealing them only as they become relevant. And I can see who has logged on (yes, I know this is evil, but it’s still useful information), so I know going into the first real lecture who has accessed their readings and who has not. True, I don’t know if the people who’ve logged on have actually read anything or not, but at least they’ve made the token effort of stopping by.

Don’t get me wrong, Moodle isn’t perfect. Despite being an online interface, it doesn’t actually let you do much of anything via the internet. That’s why my Gendered World Views class this year will be using – a website that facilitates student communication between classrooms and across countries. Unlike Moodle’s wiki function, lets my students post things to the public (which includes their peers in other classrooms), while restricting comments to other Newsactivist users. It also protects my students’ anonymity through the use of pseudonyms. And, since it’s run by a fellow educator, I happen to know that it avoids the sort of data-collection and possible abuse of said data that one has to consider when asking students to join Facebook groups or use Twitter for similar purposes.

Using Moodle also means dealing with students who can’t be bothered to do their readings or look at their syllabus when they have to click through several screens (I guess this is where, maybe, I shouldn’t be so cranky about the app because it makes retrieving information a bit faster). For some people, multiple clicks is always going to be too much work, and this means that any online forum can cause a bit of trouble. Some students also still hate reading on screen, and thus have to find a way to print material, which is time consuming and irksome compared to purchasing a course pack.

That having been said, Moodle just seems better organized and more accessible than old-fashioned paper tools or other online systems I’ve used like Lea, WebCT, or MyCourses. It’s also a lot easier to use now that Moodle has finally adopted the “drag and drop” interface for uploading files. Pretty much the only thing that’s going to slow you down is modifying whatever template your school has put in place to help get you started.

Most importantly, students seem to like Moodle – at least once they’ve managed to find their way there for the first time. The interface is relatively intuitive for them, and collecting and returning assignments via Moodle also appeals because it creates more flexibility regarding the due date and even the hour at which the assignment is due. It also keeps students from having to struggle through the hand-written comments I used to leave on paper copies.

I would be curious to know how other people feel about online class forums. Do you have a favourite? And for all its pros, what do you think are Moodle’s biggest cons, and how do you work around them? Let me know in the comments below!