Moodle, the UAL’s new virtual learning environment (VLE) has been operational for about a year now. Each course has a site, and students can use it to check timetables, download files or access a brief, for example. To introduce a VLE into any institution at a time of rapid socio-technical flux can be problematic, especially with so many competing digital platforms vying for students’ attention, such as Facebook, Google Tools, Twitter, or blogs.
In this article Sarah Kante takes a look at the user experience of Moodle, asks a range of students – the primary audience – how they use it and what they think of it, and tries to understand how this very important educational tool might be improved.
Theoretically Moodle is very easy to use. Its website is effusive about the simplicity of the platform and claims that basic browsing skills are all a user needs to get going. Yet it doesn’t seem to be true in practice. Its info-mapping and navigation appears to be lost on students, at least in my somewhat unscientific study.
The user experience
As a UAL graduate myself, I have never used Moodle as my course was using the previous VLE, Blackboard: admittedly we all complained about it at the time, but looking back, it did its job, i.e. the information was there. Whilst my peers and I checked Blackboard as little as possible, we could catch-up on missed lectures, and get quick information about interesting opportunities or timetable changes without having to email every tutor each week. To understand the student experience of Moodle, and how it differs from the old system, I asked some current students to share their thoughts:
BA Culture Criticism and Curation
Moodle is helpful, I use it to download files and check the course handbooks. I guess I don’t use it as much as I could, as I don’t really need to. The main communication with my peers and tutors are through emails, and our Facebook group.
MA Fashion Retail Management (LCF)
I use Moodle to download files for lectures, and to review units. I wish we could have some kind of feature to connect with other students, a group feature, or something to enable us to chat with specific people in a group. It would also be great to have a ‘useful and relevant articles’ archive managed by staff. Our tutors ask us to post links sometimes, but it doesn’t feel very helpful when it’s done by peers.
The user experience… well, it is a bit complicated to be honest. When I first saw it, I was completely lost. We should probably have some kind of guidance, or an induction to use it. You see it’s clunky and not very clear, there are so many functions! On mine, I have links to courses I would never interact with, and units that are not relevant to what I study.
What would be great would be something clearer, with fewer possibilities, and maybe better adapted to each course. I’d quite like my Webmail to be on there too. It’s not very convenient at the moment. It’s contradictory as I recommend fewer functions – but could we add a Webmail tab?!
BA Fashion: Fashion Print
I do not use Moodle that often. We receive emails with interesting placements with links to Moodle, I check and download lectures and notes, especially for cultural studies: I think the platform is very good for academic resources.
To be honest, I find Moodle fine. It does its job. The system is down quite often, which is annoying, and the navigation could be better. It doesn’t look that great either, especially since we are an art school! It takes a while to go around and find what you want, but it’s really not that hard. Yes, there are too many clicks, but frankly, I find it easy enough.
A group of four students from MA Applied Imagination gave me their feedback
We use it quite regularly, once a week or so.
It’s good to check uploaded documents, like lectures. We also use it to find contact information for peers and staff. It’s hard to find what you want on there. We get lost fairly often.
One student tells me: It took me about one hour to find a contact…
We have two sections on ours, and one doesn’t work! Why is it there?!
If we could redesign it, we’d change the navigation, the layout and information architecture. We’d make it simpler, clearer… There are too many things, too many information about different disciplines on one page. It needs a rethink.
Whilst all these insights are really useful, I wondered whether a design student would have a different point of view, or maybe solutions to make the unsatisfactory user experience more pleasing.
BA Graphic Design
I use Moodle to look at briefs, and to check schedules. I am on there quite often, even though it is a bit disorganized. It’s quite hard to know what is actually on Moodle and what isn’t.
The part of Moodle I would redesign is the navigation! It is way too complicated and divided into slightly irrational parts. I used Blackboard before, and I think Moodle is probably worst. At least on Blackboard, everything was in one section. Moodle is very fragmented, there are so many clicks to go through before getting to the information you need! The UX really isn’t very well thought out.
Asked whether he could think of ways to improve the interface, this design student was at a loss.
Designing for education
Moodle’s main problem seems to be how complicated it appears to its primary users. The main complaints are to do with its confusing information architecture, the massive amount of options available, and the limited use of these multiple features. So, with this in mind I decided to turn my attention to the people who developed the system to try and understand what Moodle actually is. Moodle stands for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment. It was originally developed by Martin Dougiamas to help educators create online courses with a focus on interaction and collaborative construction of content, and is in continual evolution. The first version of Moodle was released on 20 August 2002.
Moodle is open source, and has a community supporting, coding and sharing behind it.
Its main features are typical of e-learning platforms:
- Assignment submission
- Discussion forum
- Files download
- Moodle instant messages
- Online calendar
- Online news and announcement (College and course level)
The Moodle website states: ‘Because it is open-source, Moodle can be customised in any way and tailored to individual needs. Its modular set up and interoperable design allows developers to create plugins and integrate external applications to achieve specific functionalities. Extend what Moodle does by using freely available plugins and add-ons – the possibilities are endless!’ In a nutshell, Moodle is completely customizable: each College may install (or not) some or all of its features, and can create or add plugins as they please. This is why, even though many educational institutions use the platform, the UAL Moodle does not look like the London School of Economics Moodle, for example.
The main problem, at least for UAL students, seems to be its most attractive feature for institutions: many possibilities, plugins, add-ons, functions… Let’s remember ‘The possibilities are endless!’ What makes for a very flexible and customisable tool for an institution with a plethora of courses can become a bit of a nightmare for a student with a deadline, who gets lost in a labyrinth of information when trying to find a brief or a handbook.
Wondering what the general College feeling towards Moodle was before its full implementation I stepped back to an earlier article for Digital Present, when editor Rita Fernandez asked a couple of CSM staff ‘early adopters’ to give her their thoughts. The one thing that came out was the excitement to be able to use a new platform that felt customizable, and more like a blog than Blackboard – which is referred to as a teaching platform, as opposed to Moodle, referred to as a learning platform. As we have seen though, whilst Moodle is likened to a blog, it is far more complex than that. It tries to integrate and present as many features as might be needed for a successful virtual learning experience, and in the process, seems to confuse or put off many of its users.
Improving the user experience
As we have discovered, too many options, and too many clicks to get to the information needed are the two main problems. Because we use many other platforms to exchange information on a day-to-day basis – such as courses having their own Facebook groups, blogs, websites… Moodle may feel redundant, unnecessary, or downright annoying to use. The problem might not be so much Moodle as the way its users perceive it. Thinking back, Blackboard was a constant subject of complaints even though nobody really knew what to do to make it better.
It is also worth noting that it is very hard to generalize about the students’ experience of Moodle as I have learnt that each course uses it differently. For instance Culture and Enterprise courses do not use the platform in the same way that Design courses do due to subject area, course size and different levels of staff interest or ability in using the new VLE: the Graphic Design and Communication programme, whilst having only two courses, has more students than all the Culture and Enterprise courses combined – and some courses may still use platforms previously in place before the implementation of Moodle to communicate with students.
It seems that one thing that could make Moodle a better user experience would be to strip out some of its functions. However, as we have discovered that individual courses use their Moodle sites in differing ways and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unhelpful, my one real contribution to improving the Moodle experience for students is to suggest that each course asks its own student cohort to help develop the site, and agree what they wish to have available to them on the VLE. If two or three students per course then had administrative rights for Moodle, they could be empowered to design and implement a much better user experience for their peer group.
Moodle hasn’t really found its place yet, being used differently by different courses: is it an active platform for live communication or a stable carrier of information, an archive of sort?
It might take time for Moodle to win our hearts, or at least for users to find their feet and know exactly where every piece of information is stored. Let’s remember that it is not only students who need to get to grip with Moodle, staff also need to decide how they use the platform, and agree this with their students. Ultimately, Moodle is a work in progress.
At this point I should acknowledge that the institution has worked hard to get the Moodle roll-out and implementation right, and there is a super helpful specialist at CSM who supports staff teams. Moodle is a new platform and its deployment across the University is only about a year old. We might, as a University, have been a bit over-excited with all the features it offered and maybe we tried to use all of them at once, when simplicity might have been best. Moreover, users are never kind to new looks, platforms, or experiences – every time Facebook changes something, my feed is inundated with angry shouts of ‘bring back the old look’, only for most people to just get used to it and forget what it was like before two days later. The user experience will get better with Moodle, as long as we are all prepared to feed in to how it evolves – the staff and student voices need to be heard, at the broad university level, as well as the local course level.