Reflections on hosting MoodleMoot 2015

A recent EDUCUASE Report by Brown, Dahomey and Millichap (2015) estimates that almost 99% of higher education institutions support a Learning Management System (LMS); that is, a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for those living in the UK/Ireland/Europe. The same report claims that according to the first ECAR survey of faculty and IT in the United States, 85% of faculty use a LMS, with 56% using it on a daily basis.

What is clear is that the LMS/VLE has become an established feature of the digital architecture of today’s modern university and institute of technology. Although the LMS/VLE has many critics, and was recently described by Phil Hill as the “minivan of education” due to lack of style, poor fuel economy, uncomfortable seating, and because people are embarrassed to have one up their driveway, it remains an important platform for advancing and implementing a modern digital teaching and learning agenda.

In his critique of the above analogy, Stephen Downs prefers to think of the LMS/VLE as more like a ‘bus’ that we value as a core component of our public transportation system. While it may lack a bit of style and not everyone likes taking the bus, it generally runs on time, you know where it is going, what to expect, and very few people would advocate for its removal from an integrated transportation system, especially given the level of disruption that occurs when there is a major strike. In this respect the LMS/VLE is a tool that has an important role in the basic provision of  digital learning throughout the higher education sector.

IMG_7130Therefore, last week the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) was delighted to host 328 delegates from 26 different countries at the annual UK/Ireland MoodleMoot at Dublin City University (DCU). The event took place over four days and offered a lively mix of presentations, workshops, Pecha Kucha, posters, and physical and virtual discussions. Notably, approximately 2500 tweets were shared over the period of the event using the hashtag #mootieuk15.

After DCU’s President, Professor Brian McGrath, opened the conference, Dr Bart Rienties, a Reader in the area of Learning Analytics at the Institute of Educational Technology at the UK Open University, gave the opening keynote address. Bart’s keynote set the tone for the remainder of the Moot where pedagogical discussions rather than technical matters were very much the major focus of discussions. A video of Dr Rienties’ presentation will be available in the next week or so but in the meantime you may wish to view this recording from a previous visit to DCU in 2014.

Moodle HQ was well represented at the event and Martin Dougiama and Dr. Michael de Raadt did not disappoint in helping to keep a strong pedaogogical focus with their respective presentations on the importance of feedback and personalised learning. Throughout the event it was apparent that the decision by an institution or organisation to use Moodle needs to be understood as a strategic investment in supporting an open pedagogical and technological culture. In this respect, by analogy, in joining the Moodle community people and institutions have an opportunity to not only influence future decisions about the replacement of the current ‘bus fleet’ but also how to redesign the transport system to better meet our changing needs. That said, in his closing address, Professor Mark Brown challenged delegates to be more creative in their thinking about the LMS/VLE and to develop new metaphors for the future of teaching and learning through new digital technologies.


Finally, we would like to thank everyone involved in helping to make last week’s MoodleMoot so successful, especially Gavin Henrick and Dr. Mark Glynn. The following reflections from a number of NIDL staff who participated in the event provide further personal insights into some of the highlights of this year’s MoodleMoot.

Dr Eamon Costello wrote…

The theme of feedback which was central to Martin Dougiamas’s talk was a common thread that could be detected in most if not all of the UK & Ireland 2015 Moodle Conference presentations. Examples were presented of educational practices that utilised both new and longstanding tools from Moodle’s assessment toolset such as discussion post rating via scales, anonymous and double marked assignments, digital badges, student dashboards etc.


Indeed the Student Dashboard was the subject of one of the workshops on day one of the conference. The Moodle Moot was bookended by workshops/working groups. The day n-1 working groups acted as a form of user focus group for feature specification. A developer Hackfest was held on day n+1 at which code was written to implement ideas that had arisen from the workshop and the conference.

This year, as the Moodle Moot renewed its continuing association with Dublin City University, the decision was taken to take attendees out of the comfort (zone) of a hotel conference venue and plant them instead in the heart of the DCU campus itself – including eating lunch in the student canteen. Moving between buildings on the campus, to accommodate the large crowd for the keynotes, provided peripatetic moments to stretch the legs as well as the minds and put delegates into the physical student spaces. The link between the physical and digital learning spaces was made explicit by DCU President Professor Brian McGrath in his Welcome address where he outlined the University’s ambitious Digital Campus initiative.

An interesting backdrop was that conference took place within the context of a resurgent debate on the role of the VLE/LMS in the educational technology research community including an important recent Educause report. In his keynote Michael de Raadt Director of Research at Moodle HQ outlined his vision of how the VLE can enhance learning by outlining a view of personalised learning that foregrounds student diversity.

Technology is a strong focus of Moodle Moots and the pace of the development of the underlying technical infrastructures, platforms, programming languages, frameworks and development methodologies can be dizzying. Ultimately this all happens in the service of making Moodle more secure, robust, reliable and responsive, particularly regarding the diversity of UX designs in modern Moodle deployments including for mobile, MOOC and so on. The message of the Conference overall was a simple one: the call to continued enhancement of the learner experience. This mission is powered by a vibrant community comprised of specialists from intersecting fields and all anchored around a cornerstone of openness.


IMG_7170Dr Pip Ferguson wrote…

This was my first MoodleMoot and I was a little apprehensive about it possibly being dominated by ‘techies’ to an intimidating extent. I’m pleased to relate that this was not the case. There were lots of exemplars, case studies and stimulating conversations around the importance of pedagogy in the use of Moodle. I really liked the multicultural nature of the attendees and had great conversations with people from Denmark, the Netherlands, Egypt, the United States, England, and of course Australia and New Zealand. I found the conference inviting and friendly. The conference dinner was delicious and an opportunity to get to know other attendees in more depth. I also enjoyed conversations with some of the sponsors, whose products are designed to enhance the Moodle experience, even if DCU is not currently a user of some of these. I always try to engage with sponsors at conferences, recognising their generosity in supporting the event. The only minor criticism I’d have was the difficulty in moving from one stream to the other, given the fixed seating in lecture theatres. So I stayed in the education stream. I hope to pick up some items from the technical stream subsequently, and am chasing up the twitter feed for further ideas.


Noeleen O’Keeffe wrote…

Among the highlights of Moodlemoot for me was the presentation by Hiram Bollaert on the use of quizzes to teach statistics in Moodle, food for thought for our research modules in the Open Education Unit. From the presentations I attended, it is clear there is a lot of great work being done on improving the Moodle experience for both teachers and learners, with the development of some very useful plugins for instance. Of particular interest to me are the plugins on image copyright attribution mentioned in Nigel Owen’s talk which will be very useful when developing learning resources within Moodle. The ability to view a student’s complete submission, grade and feedback history is another nice feature presented by Jessica Gramp and Tim Neumann. It struck me throughout the conference that there was a great willingness to share resources and plugins among the attendees. Well done to everyone for a successful Moodlemoot.


Alan Crean wrote…

The event itself was extremely well run, well attended and had a rich variety of topic content. I attended the event in the vain of cameraperson. It was very much for me like a bag of Revels. By and large most presenters were intriguing and engaged the audience, yet a small few failed to captivate.

I think it’s a great thing to meet so many people from different countries with differing opinions and views and different techniques that have been put into practice. I have since made a new working relationship with a programmer from the Open University of Israel who is currently working on Moodle and Google Drive integration. The conference team worked hard and it showed. The schedule remained pretty much on time. Beverage and snack breaks boosted the energy levels regularly. The social event was amazing, really enjoyed the night… maybe a little too much!

Congrats to all who worked so hard to make it a success. DCU and NIDL should be very proud that such a successful event took place on our campus.

Developing a Shared Vision for Digital Learning

Back in early March the National Forum for the Enhancement for Teaching and Learning hosted a useful panel discussion on the theme of Strategic and Leadership Perspectives on Digital Capacity in Irish Higher EducationThis initiative followed the publication of a report by Jim Devine analysing institutional Compacts and interviews with senior leaders exploring strategic leadership initiatives in the area of Digital Learning. Amongst those on the panel asked to share their thoughts was Mark Brown who was specifically invited to provide a response to the statement:

“Developing a shared vision and goals for digital learning nationally – is this a realistic aspiration/how might it be approached?” 

NF Panel

At the time the following notes were prepared by Mark in his response to the above question. These notes were also provided to the National Forum on request after the event and can be downloaded at the end of this posting in a PDF format.


Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to today’s panel discussion. In many respects this is precisely the type of initiative required to help build a stronger sense of shared vision for Digital Learning in Irish Higher Education. In the short time available I would like to contribute three main points to this panel discussion.

However, before introducing these points, it is useful to anchor this discussion in a couple of key observations from Jim Devine’s (2015) recently published report on Strategic and Leadership Perspectives on Digital Capacity in Irish Higher Education. Firstly, based on the analysis of Compact Agreements, the report concludes that:

‘The overall pattern is something of a patchwork that does not present a picture of a higher education sector with a shared understanding or cohesive vision for [digital] capacity’ (Devine, 2015, p.8).

Following on from this observation, the report goes on to conclude from the sector interviews:

‘There is wide agreement that clarity is urgently needed about the vision and goals for digital learning in higher education nationally. Current initiatives are regarded as fragmented, piecemeal and unsustainable’ (Devine, 2015, p.18).

In many respects neither conclusion is particularly surprising. The report also makes the point there is confusion around terminology. Developing a shared vision is always going to be problematic when there is no agreed definition or understanding in policy or practice of what we mean by Digital Learning. In the interests of vision building there are some advantages of leaving this definition open for local interpretation and supporting a more organic approach, but this needs to be a conscience decision and the lack of common agreement is problematic when it comes to reporting on and monitoring of progress.

Focus on Digital Learning

My first key point follows on from this as to what extent should the focus be on digital learning? Is digital learning the end game or merely a key vehicle to achieving a much bigger vision? I think we should still leave open to further debate whether the benefits of singling out digital from a focus on learning and teaching per se outweigh the disadvantages. Some would argue our visions and strategies for the future need to be thinking post-digital rather than digital, as the latter is already the new normal. Perhaps we would benefit from shifting our current focus away from the language of ‘Digital Learning’ to an emphasis on our preferred learning or education futures? The guiding question could be restated:

How do we develop a shared vision and goals for the future of learning and teaching nationally?

Although a relative newcomer to Ireland, I would argue that a future-focused vision for Higher Education, which subsumes learning and teaching, already exists. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (2011), more commonly known as The Hunt Report, states:

‘In the decades ahead, higher education will play a central role in making Ireland a country recognised for innovation, competitive enterprise and continuing academic excellence, and an attractive place to live and work with a high quality of life, cultural vibrancy and inclusive social structures’ (Report of the Strategy Group, 2011, p.17).

In my view, this statement meets the definition of a vision as it grew out of a consultation process engaging a wide range of stakeholders and sets out our aspirations for the future. The National Strategy gives a sense of where we want to go in the future, with a moral purpose, and the smart thing for any emerging vision for digital learning (or Education Futures) is to ensure that it aligns with and can be mapped against this wider vision.

Education for Change

In my view the current discourse around visions needs to shift from the reactive language of Higher Education being in change to more proactive debate about education for change. This is my second key point. Adopting a wider perspective anchored in the language of societal inclusion, and the changes we are seeking to achieve, may help to overcome the problem that visions can be blinding, overly narrow and potentially hide competing change forces.

History is littered over the ages with people and groups who at times have had quite dangerous and morally corrupt visions. Hitler is usually cited as the most extreme example of this point. As the Digital Roadmap – Phase 1 (National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, 2014) rightly notes, digital learning is not benign. Some of the visions for the future being presented to us are infused with the language of globalisation, neo-liberal polices, and the increasing commercialisation of Higher Education.

This point recognises the debate in the educational change literature about the role that visions should play in successfully implementing complex change. Conventional change models advocated by people like John Kotter usually promote ‘vision building’ as the first step in successfully implementing large-scale organisational change. In contrast, Professor Michael Fullan (2007) argues in his seminal work on educational change that vision and strategic planning come later. Vision is what you end with rather than something you start with, and arises out of extensive consultation over a long period of time where resistance is valued as a source of insight. Put simply, you cannot mandate what matters!

To quote Professor Geoff Scott (2003), who with Fullan co-authored an excellent book on Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education, ‘Change is learning and learning is change’ (p.70). The lesson is that change is complex; change is a process; change is a journey not a blue print.

Situating Visions

My third key point is that there is an important difference between defining our vision and stating our respective missions. Arguably, at a macro-level vision is a process of identifying what matters most to people, making our choices explicit, and stating our preferred future(s). Mission is about how we get there and staying on track. In a complex and diverse sector each third level institution is likely to have a quite different mission. Your mission is inextricably linked to your institutional culture and the strategic goals you set for serving your students, stakeholders and wider community.

As noted in the Digital Roadmap – Phase 1 (National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, 2014), the ‘Innovative use of digital technology will vary in different contexts’ (p.16). At the meso-level what this point reinforces for me is that each institution must be given the opportunity to define its own path in this new and emerging context. That said, how you define and implement your institutional mission it is really important. In order for the mission to live in your institutional culture we need to recognise and understand the creative tensions between bottom up, middle out and top down approaches. Neither centralization nor decentralization works as individual learning and organisational learning are inextricably linked.

Moreover, at the micro-level every person is a change agent, a micro leader and they must be encouraged to become vision builders. It follows that we must not underestimate the importance of articulating, cultivating and influencing person visions.


In conclusion, the report on Strategic and Leadership Perspectives on Digital Capacity in Irish Higher Education (Devine, 2015) talks about adopting the metaphor of an Atlas rather than Roadmap. In many respects, I see the challenges and opportunities facing us more akin to steering a pathway through difficult and continually shifting terrain where there is no atlas or complete road map of the digital and post-digital frontier. What we need is a compass and a set of strategic tools to help guide us and explore beyond current practices and possibilities. Getting lost along the way may be a valuable part of the process, which contributes to the evidence base and new knowledge. With this point in mind, envisioning our Education Futures will always be a work in progress, as no one can predict the future and you can never reach the horizon. There is no end point to the conversation and this needs to be understood in the policy landscape and timeframes we create.

Suggested Actions

Finally, I want to conclude with three practical suggestions of what we could do to build a more future-focused digitally enabled Higher Education sector. These suggestions are offered in the spirit that the goals we set and initiatives we undertake should not be framed to manage digital innovations but rather to foster more digitally creative and innovative institutions, teachers and learners. To this end there would be value in sectoral collaboration to develop:

i)  A set of National Guidelines for Digital Learning.

– An inclusive sector wide process

– Articulate the types of questions we need to consider

– A common language for discussion and decision-making

ii)  A National Benching Marking Toolkit for Digital Learning

– Whole of system approach

– Strong focus on quality enhancement

– Build on existing toolkits recognising multiple stakeholders

(iii) An Education Futures Scenario Planning Toolkit

– A tool for planning in uncertain times

– Help articulate the options available to us

– Mature our thinking about our preferred futures


Devine, J. (2015). Strategic and leadership perspectives on digital capacity in Irish higher education. Dublin: National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.

Fullan, M. (2007). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. (2014). Principles and first insights from the sectoral consultation on building digital capacity in Irish higher education: Digital roadmap – phase 1. Dublin: National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.

Report of the Strategy Group. (2011). National strategy for higher education to 2030. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills.

Scott, G. (2003). Effective change management in higher education. EDUCAUSE, November/December, 64-80.

Click here to download a PDF version of the above response.