Molly Tipton failed at her first try last winter at putting classroom resources and homework assignments online—via a class MySpace page—after parents said they feared their children might get into trouble on the popular social- networking site.
But the 8th grade teacher has had more success this school year, with her second try. Last fall, she started using Moodle, an online course-management system that is stored on the El Paso,Texas, school district’s computer server, with access controlled by student passwords.
Through Moodle, Ms. Tipton now posts reading passages and links to Web sites that are related to her lessons. She also has set up a popular online chat room for her students and posts homework assignments online, a feature that students as well as some parents have embraced. Moodle’s online capabilities, she said, are making her social studies classes a hybrid between traditional and online courses.
Ms. Tipton is part of a growing number of K-12 educators in regular classrooms who are using course-management systems to share assignments, homework, classroom assessments, and other information with students and their parents. A course-management system is a software program that allows controlled exchanges via the Internet of just about any kind of information related to a course, although the features of individual products differ.
Moodle is perhaps the most popular rival to the course-management system sold by Blackboard Inc., the dominant company in the U.S. market for e-learning tools in higher education. The for-profit Washington-based company is trying to expand its foothold in what Blackboard officials call the emerging K-12 market.
Blackboard, which in 2006 bought its main for-profit competitor in higher education, WebCT, says that 400 precollegiate schools or school districts use the full or partial version of its academic product.
The company says it welcomes open-source competitors like Moodle, because interest among schools will help expand the use of course-management systems—a market that company officials believe they will dominate.
Next week, Blackboard is launching an enhanced version for small schools and districts, for an annual flat fee starting at $10,000, including online hosting and training of personnel. That rate is substantially lower than what larger institutions pay.
Still, cost remains a formidable obstacle in many school districts, and that’s one reason why Moodle is creating a buzz in the school marketplace. The software is free, with a modular design that allows educators to start using a few tools, while working gradually to add more.
The software has been developed over the past nine years by a global community, of both commercial and noncommercial users, led by Moodle, a company based in Perth, Australia. Under the terms of Moodle’s open-source license, users or their contractors may use the software on an unlimited number of computers and modify the program to add unique or specially tailored functions at will.
Yet while Moodle is free, it is not without cost. Those costs include computers, networks, and personnel to install and maintain the hardware and software, as well as the cost of training teachers, though some or all of these requirements can be outsourced to outside providers.
“It is free like a puppy, not like a beer,” says Trish Hart, a facilitator and instructor at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, a state-run postsecondary school that uses Moodle extensively.
The school, in Seward, Alaska, offers online courses for students and teachers statewide, including professional-development offerings for secondary school teachers and advanced courses or electives for high school students. The Moodle system is run from a commercial host server in Virginia.
Outside hosts and programming companies specializing in Moodle can provide schools with technical skills that their own technology personnel may lack, though a global community of users can also be tapped for assistance.
Commercial firms offer customized versions of Moodle, as well as hosting services. For example, Moodlerooms, a systems-integration company based in Baltimore, charges schools a fee to create customized versions of Moodle’s grade books, repositories of learning resources, warehouses for student data, and tools for real-time learning activities. The company also hosts Moodle systems for schools for an annual fee of $1 per user.
EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of information technology in education, provided a definition of course-management systems in a paper on the topic prepared in 2003 by the group’s Emerging Technologies Committee.
“At its simplest, a course-management system is a tool that allows an instructor to post information on the Web without that instructor having to know or understand HTML or other computer languages. A more complete definition of a CMS is that it provides an instructor with a set of tools and a framework that allows the relatively easy creation of online course content and the subsequent teaching and management of that course including various interactions with students taking the course.”
Moodle is not the only open-source, online course-management system, or CMS. Another is the Sakai Project, a free educational software platform, developed with leadership from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with an original grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, based in New York City. The software supports online document distribution, a grade book, discussions, live chats, assignment uploads, and online testing, among other functions.
All told, at least a dozen different online course-management systems are used in schools around the world. Confusion about the term CMS exists, though, in part because of similar and overlapping technologies. They include LMS, or learning-management system; VLE, or virtual-learning environment; and LCMS, or learning-content-management system, among others.
The Teacher Education Center at Illinois State University notes that most online course-management systems include:
• Asynchronous discussion boards
• Synchronous chat room
• E-mailing (internal) and/or external accounts
• Online journal
• Document sharing, including digital pictures, audio, and streaming video
• Team areas that include tools for collaboration, managed by instructor
• Quiz, test, and survey options
• User-activity reports
SOURCES: EDUCAUSE; Illinois State University
“There are a lot of labels to describe this [market] space,” said Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the president of Blackboard K-12.
She said that Blackboard, which began by producing software for managing the operation of online courses, now supports a “mosaic” of functions, including interactive learning; synchronous, or realtime, learning; and asynchronous learning, in which students participate at different times.
“In its most simplistic form, we are focused on delivering an engaging, effective, and increasingly individualized learning experience to learning constituencies, including students, parents, teachers, and administrators,” Ms.Woolley-Wilson said.
Blackboard will work with schools, she said, to tailor its product “from 100 percent virtual, which includes data collection and data analysis, to using technology to help lighten the load and help teachers get back to teaching,” by helping them create, manage, share, and organize course content.
Amy W. Junker, a senior analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co., an investment- research firm in Milwaukee, Wis., said she expects the K-12 market for course-management systems to expand. High schools, in particular, may see them as a way to help prepare students for higher education, where online and hybrid courses are common, she said.
“Certainly we’re going to see greater adoption of course-management systems in the K-12 market,” Ms. Junker said.
In her view, the ability for teachers to conveniently post homework assignments online—giving busy parents a better ability to keep their youngsters on track—might be the “killer application” that turns the systems into a must-have for many schools.
Some companies offer other services that can be added either to Blackboard systems or the open-source alternatives such as Moodle.
For example, Elluminate Inc., a Canadian company that has its U.S. headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., provides live Web conferencing that is tailored to school functions, such as professional development for teachers. The live-video capability and moderator tools can be integrated into the use of Moodle or Blackboard.
The new Blackboard School Central service—for schools and districts with no more than 2,000 users—is a more robust package than the Blackboard Gateway product it replaces, but at a comparable price, the company says.
For an annual fee starting at $10,000, Blackboard will host an e-learning system, with software and training included, for an unlimited number of courses, including professional-development sessions.
The company said it could not provide the price for Blackboard’s Academic Suite, the comprehensive e-learning platform used by large districts or higher education institutions; that price is based on many factors, such as student enrollment, the number of users, and the services included. But Ms. Junker, the Baird analyst, said larger institutions typically pay annual fees ranging from $25,000 to $75,000 for the full suite.
Ms. Junker said that tightening school budgets and the costs of absorbing the company’s acquisitions may mean that even with the new lower-cost offering, Blackboard’s growth in the K-12 market will be tempered. She lowered her rating for Blackboard stock in November, advising investors to maintain but not increase their holdings. Still, she said, the company’s long-term prospects are bright.
Whatever course-management system they select, of course, busy educators must carve out the time to learn how to use it.
For Ms. Tipton of El Paso, learning how to use Moodle took about a day of practice last summer.
Soon afterward, she starred in an instructional video that introduces educators to Moodle, which the 64,000-student district made to interest other El Paso teachers. The video is also posted on the Teacher-Tube and YouTube video-sharing Web sites.
Ms. Tipton has plans to ramp up her own use of Moodle, first by putting podcasts of her lessons on her Moodle site to give students another avenue for learning class material, among other ideas.
She also is looking for grants to buy a classroom set of 30 laptop computers, so her students can use Moodle in class without going to the computer lab. And she plans to help train other teachers in the district.
But those projects will have to wait till summer, she said: “Once the school year has started, we have no time to try anything new.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week