Moodle Course Design

In her book Learner-Centred Teaching [1], Maryellen Weimer discusses five key changes to teacher practice that can lead to improved outcomes for learners. We consider each of these in turn and their possible relationship to the implementation of an LMS such as Moodle or indeed a number of related tools, such as Google Apps.

The Balance of Power

Teacher-centred classrooms are power-based classrooms. This conflicts with the notion of empowering the students, giving then some autonomy, as a means of motivation. Providing resources on Moodle and then requiring students to take the responsibility of studying, commenting, re-working and discussing them with peers will help shift the power base.

Of course, these activities can be carried out in the classroom in the presence of the teacher – as is often pointed out – but this kind of activity has a very different flavour when done autonomously under student control. A specific example might be using a Glossary. In a teacher-centred classroom we might see the teacher give out a list of terms or words for students to study. Another way to handle this is to have the students find definitions for the terms and create their own glossary entries. These can be commented on by other students and the teacher.

Careful intervention and facilitation by the teacher will achieve the original objective but the students will feel more “ownership” of the result. As with many activities this not does absolutely need to be carried out online – it could be done with paper and pencil. However, the ubiquity of web access means that students are free to take a look at a time convenient to them.

The on-demand vs the broadcast tv model at work.

The Function of Content

This is problematic because, in schools, the content to be covered is generally out of our control. It is set by external bodies such as examination boards and national curricula. In today’s narrow view typically this is also controlled by national and international standardized assessments.

The need to cover content and to recall it under examination conditions can work directly against the development of creativity and higher order thinking. Importantly, in his book Teaching for Tomorrow [2], Ted McCain describes methods for delivering content together with problem-solving skills, improved engagement and active learning strategies. All aimed at giving students “real-world” skills.

Adapting this process from an active classroom to a Moodle course is a real challenge – especially if Moodle is used merely as a content repository and later chapters will discuss some strategies that can be used. One simple example of McCain’s method might make use of a Moodle forum.

The teacher takes on the role of an international consultant and sets up a scenario in which the students pose as members of a globally-distributed problem-solving team. Using the forum they discuss strategies for dealing with pollution in a lake, say. Such an activity would ideally require students to research the background issues (using the required curriculum content) as they work together to solve the given problem.

The Role of the Teacher

As well as maintaining the power balance, the teacher also makes many other decisions in the classroom to the point where most students may well accept that the teacher knows everything that the student needs to know (to pass an examination for example) and the learning process is one of simple transmission.

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown [3] write that the education system “has been built on the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning” and they argue that an “environmental view” is need rather than a mechanistic one. In this view, our Course Management System is a garden where learning is nurtured rather than a factory where learners are processed or battery reared. Students tend not to question the strategies that a teacher may use, even when the teacher’s style doesn’t correspond well to their own preferred learning style.

A course management system can provide for different resource types (readings, videos, interactive games) and different activities (group-based, individual, self-paced, guided), so that the students have more ways of accessing and working with the content. Students who have never been given this freedom may well find the change difficult to grasp even threatening or unnerving and teachers need to be prepared for this. As an example, merely adding a resource such as a forum to a course will not, of itself, produce peer interaction between students. Once again active teacher intervention will be required.

The questions set up by the teacher in the forum are vital – particularly at the start – they must be easily accessible to students, not set initially at a high cognitive level for example. Once students enter and contribute, the teacher’s role is to thread and connect the ideas as they develop – where errors of fact or grammatical errors do occur, these will quite likely be corrected by other contributors avoiding having the teacher take on that traditional role but allowing them to support those who take care to be correct.

The Responsibility for Learning

The responsibility for learning has traditionally been that of the teacher – indeed teachers are often harshly criticised by parents, politicians and news media as being “bad teachers” – one rarely hears of the student’s responsibility to learn.

The use of Moodle to provide resources and activities that may be carried out independently of the teacher can shift the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student. For teachers, a very important, but perhaps often overlooked, point is that the teachers do indeed retain important responsibilities and providing motivation and engagement is high among them.

A course in which there is reading after reading, a couple of images, a YouTube video and then a quiz is not very exciting either online or in the classroom. A quick Poll (or Moodle Choice) can be used, not only to gauge retention of “facts” taught in the classroom but also as a tool to promote reflection, perhaps by asking questions to which there is no single correct response. Having asked a question such as: Which is the most effective way to secure a house?

  • Locking the door
  • Closing all the windows
  • Leaving a pair of boots on the doorstep
  • Emptying the post box every day

When a new topic is introduced will give students time to think through concepts and ideas associated with a subject before any content is presented.

This also encourages students to make active contributions to an online course and begin to get them involved. In other words it provides the opportunity to develop a “community of practice” where students begin to take ownership through individual and collective contributions.

The Purpose and Processes of Evaluation

Weimer mentions three assumptions that are commonly made about grades: They “measure learning precisely”, “objectively” and they “promote learning”. In the current system, grades are generally awarded by the teachers of a course, there is little in the way of peer assessment or self-assessment – at least in terms of grades that “count”. That is, grades which get students into tertiary education or meaningful employment. Peer and self-assessment promote learning and higher order thinking skills.

Focus on grades which come from external assessment leads to a focus on content, recall of facts, recall of procedures, rote memorization of solutions to problems and other low-order activities. These types of knowledge tend not to be retained long after the examination.

Weimer is far from the only observer to have noted the disparity between the organisation of many schools and the requirements of education for the Information Age. Writing about the “creative workforce”, Erica McWilliam [4] characterises schools as “a top-down hierarchy of command and control” where teachers work as “content authorities” and “students may well be living in a parallel universe”.

One of the dangers pointed out by McWilliam is that the dominant commercial learning management systems (Blackboard and Web CT at that time) were being “repurposed for old ‘transmission’ teaching”. Moodle can be misused in the same way and one of the central ideas of this post is that it should not be. Moodle supplies tools such as the workshop, rubrics, marking schemes which allow for more complex and more meaningful means of evaluation and assessment and which promote the higher order thinking skills that our students will need to succeed in a rapidly changing world.


1: Learner-Centred Teaching, Maryellen Weimer, Jossey-Bass, 2002. ISBN 0-7879-5646-5.

2: Teaching for Tomorrow, Ted McCain, Corwin press, 2005. ISBN 978-1412913843

3: A New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, 2011, Self-published, ISBN: 976-1456458881

4: Erica McWilliam, The Creative Workforce, UNSW Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1921410222

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