roll your own moodle

A few months ago I wrote about how I missed using Moodle, and how it was way better than Sakai (which is ironically branded as “SmartSite” at UC Davis*). Partly as a result of writing those posts, I decided I couldn’t teach with Sakai anymore, and got myself my very own Moodle site, which I used to teach my courses this quarter. It was much easier (and cheaper) to set up than I would have thought. So, if you want to roll your own Moodle, here’s what to do:

  1. Rent some server space. I got everything I needed for $11 a month at Hosting Matters. I haven’t run into any space or bandwidth issues, even while hosting three course sites this quarter, one of which was taught synchronously in a lab (i.e., even with 25 students logging in at the same time). Make sure the server space you rent comes with what’s called the “Fantastico auto installer.”
  2. Register a domain name. I spent about $14 at godaddy to get “learningbox.org” for a year. Some names cost more than others.
  3. Set your name servers. Basically, you need to connect your domain name with the actual server where your stuff resides. Your server host will provide you the names of the servers you’re on, and you tell these names to the people you registered your domain name from. Sounds complicated, but it’s not.
  4. Install Moodle on your space. The Fantastico auto installer makes this a breeze. From the dashboard or control panel of your server space, find Fantastico, and tell it you want to install Moodle. It’ll do all the work for you, like setting up the necessary directories and databases. You can also install other stuff this way, like hosted wikis and blogs.
  5. Set up Moodle. It’s pretty much ready to go out of the box, and fairly intuitive. The help features are also useful, if you get stuck. I spent an inordinate amount of time picking a “look” for my site (from the available templates), but you may be less finicky.
  6. Teach.

There’s not much more to it than that. The only potential downside is that students aren’t added as participants automatically, the way they are with Sakai. Still, since students can register themselves with an “enrollment key” provided by me, the work is pretty minimal. Mostly I just had to manually remove students who dropped the course.

“Wait a minute,” you might say, “you payed out of your own pocket to run course management software?” Well, yes. And it was worth it. Running Moodle this quarter has only confirmed for me what a train wreck Sakai is. I figure what I saved in time and frustration more than made up the cost of it. I’d do it again, too, if SFSU didn’t already use Moodle (but they do, yay!).

* At the time, I avoided mentioning where I was, which was kind of difficult as it became clear to me that the local version of Sakai UCD uses is a part of the problem. I’ve decided I don’t care about anonymity anymore, if I ever really did.

moodle vs. sakai 3: the panopticon

One thing I really miss about Moodle are the tools for both monitoring and aggregating information about student activity. If I click on “Participants,” and then click on a student’s name, I get activity reports that tell me what the student has been up to. I especially like the “Forum” tab, which takes me to a page that shows all the forum contributions that student has made. This comes in real handy when I go to assign a grade to a student’s discussion forum contributions over the term.

I can also see when students have been on the site, their blog posts, and even what pages or texts they’ve looked at. I don’t use such information to grade students (since that would be capricious), but it’s useful to know if a student hasn’t been downloading any of the texts they’re supposed to be reading for class.

Sakai doesn’t have any features like this–at least not the version that we have at our school. As someone pointed out in the comments, some schools gimp features in local instances of the program. If that’s the case here, I’d love to know about it. If not, I think lots of teachers would appreciate having tools like these.

moodle vs. sakai 2

Since some Sakai folks were nice enough to comment on the previous entry in this series, I thought I’d tone down the snark a bit, and also start with something I happen to like about Sakai. I love the fact that when you log in to Sakai, what you see first is your own “workspace,” a kind of clearinghouse for the various classes or collaborative group you belong to. In your very own workspace you see announcements from the different courses or groups you belong to.

I like this, because it fits the ethos of participatory culture that characterizes how my students tend to engage with technology in extracurricular contexts. In other words, it’s like Facebook or Myspace. So, instead of having only strictly delineated course sites, where the instructor controls everything, these workspaces in Sakai give students their own spaces that are linked to their various courses. (Facebook, by the way, might eventually be an interesting alternative to traditional CMSs, though I think the “Courses” application has a long way to go.) Continue reading

moodle vs. sakai

At my old university, I was using course software called “Moodle,” which I loved for both its ease and its power. Now, at my new institution, I have to use course management software called Sakai, which is both very expensive and (as I see it) a whole truck-load of suck. This is my first post in a series in which I explore what I miss about Moodle, and what I dislike about Sakai.

For background, go to the Sakai website and watch (if you can stand all 11 minutes of it) the “Sakai Video Report” that’s featured prominently there. Note the weird mix of techno-babble and CEO-speak. Now, go to Moodle’s website, and look at their page on Pedagogy. Note how they actually have a page devoted to pedagogy! You may not completely agree with them about how learning happens, but it’s clear that Moodle was developed from the learner’s point of view. Where Sakai is a glorified version of Lotus Notes–the guy in the video admits as much–Moodle was built from the ground up on widely-accepted learning theory. Continue reading