Moodle LMS review in PCMAG

From pcmag by William Fenton

  • PROS
    Free and open source. Modular, plugin-based design enables administrators to add or create features as needed. Supports myriad activities, including peer assessment workshops, real-time messaging, and wiki forums. Generous progress tracking and reporting options. Unparalleled language support.
    setup is by no means turnkey. UI lacks the visual finesse of paid competitors.
    If you’re willing to shoulder some of the administrative burden, Moodle offers an entirely viable learning management service that is free, open source, and rapidly advancing.

BY WILLIAM FENTONAn acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, Moodle is an educational Learning Management System (LMS) that enables educators to level up features with various instruction, assessment, and reporting modules. Suffice it to say, Moodle is not your typical learning management system. First and foremost, Moodle is free. As an open source initiative, the LMS can be customized or modified through modular, interoperable plugins, and commercial and non-commercial projects can be shared without any licensing fees.

Over the past dozen years, the platform has accumulated an active and far-reaching cohort of educators, learners, and developers. Having attracted more than 70 million users in fields as wide-ranging as higher education (such as The Open University), medicine, and government from nations as varied as Spain, Russia, and Colombia, Moodle’s developer community has actively contributed to the project, including more than 120 language localizations.

Like other open source initiatives, Moodle entails compromises. Unlike a paid option such as Absorb LMS, Moodle is not turnkey. While administrators can enable advanced features such as Single Sign-On (SSO), they will need to perform granular configuration. Unlike Blackboard, Moodle requires that administrators host their LMS. The same principle applies to e-commerce. The LMS lacks an integrated marketplace, but users can distribute paid courses via CourseMerchantor enroll in courses via In this sense, Moodle isn’t a viable option for the small business owner who wants to create onboarding materials; however, Moodle is an exciting alternative for educators who can ask a Faculty Technology Center or IT department to help configure, support, and administer their LMS. Still, the free service offers enough potential and versatility to be named our Editors’ Choice LMS.

Dashboard, Blocks, and Themes
Moodle’s Dashboard is organized around content Blocks. By default, the Course overview block occupies the center of the screen, with left- and right-aligned blocks for navigation and news. Users can customize Dashboards by hiding, docking, deleting, adding, or moving blocks. For example, I deleted my news block, added one for messages, docked my badges (which pins a shortcut to the left margin), hid my upcoming events (which compresses a block into a single, expandable line of text), and moved my calendar to the right side of the screen. While I was able to reconfigure the screen as I wished, it wasn’t exactly drag-and-drop. Configuration requires practice, and even when you achieve your desired Dashboard, it isn’t exactly flashy. Moodle has about as much visual panache as Wikipedia.

Moodle offers two different themes. In addition to the standard theme (Clean), it provides a custom theme (More), through which administrators can tweak text and background colors and upload a custom logo or footer. If you’re technically savvy, you can produce a fairly dynamic-looking page.

However you choose to tailor the look and feel of your LMS, you can count on it remaining accessible. In addition to compatibility with every major browser and device, the interface will soon be responsive. Moodle also offers mobile apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.

Roles and Groups
Administrators may choose from a variety of roles, which often overlap in complicated ways. At the highest level is the Site Administrator and Manager, followed by roles related to course assembly: Course Creator, Teacher, and Non-Editing Teacher. Whereas Teachers can add or edit content of existing courses, Non-Editing Teachers can only post grades; Course creation is reserved for, you guessed it, Course Creators. Finally, there are two different types of learners: Students can access and participate in courses, whereas Guests can only view courses.

Educators can organize their learners using groups. The default mode of organization occurs at the Course level (editable via the Course administration menu), though educators can sort also learners at the Activity level.

Alongside groups and roles, Moodle supports blended and online courses with nearly two dozen course-related Activities. Similar to other LMS alternatives, Moodle allows administrators to upload SCORM packages as course content. In addition, however, Moodle offers an external tool through which administrators can add resources compliant with the IMS Global Learning Consortium Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard. In practical terms, that means a learner can share their Moodle course using Mozilla’s public Badges Backpack.

Most LMS alternatives include some kind of integrated message service or commenting tool. Moodle offers an all-of-the-above approach, with activities for conducting polls and surveys (Feedback or Survey), asynchronous discussion boards (Forum or Wiki), and synchronous discussions (Chat).

I could spend this entire review discussing assignments and assessments. (I’ll spare you, but encourage you to visit Moodle’s assessments page). In addition to submitting multiple choice or short responses, students can upload files such as documents, spreadsheets, images, audio, and video clips. (For sound and video files to load, an administrator will need to enable the Multimedia plugins filter). Teachers can comment on responses (Assignments) or organize a peer assessment activity (Workshop). Few LMS alternatives support peer review processes, and what I like about Moodle’s approach to the Workshop is that students can receive feedback on both their own work as well as their assessments of colleagues’ work.

Progress Tracking, Reporting, and Plugins
Moodle reporting can be augmented to satisfy the appetite of the most data-hungry administrator. By default, administrators can track learners’ progress related to activities, courses, or grades. However, baseline tracking can be greatly expanded through optional plugins: Administrators can add features such as progress bars, checklist modules, and even advanced integrations with Office365.

The same principle applies to reporting. In addition to course-level activity and participation reports, administrators can enable Statistics (via the Site Administration menu) to access user activity graphs and tables. Administrators can also run site-wide reports related to activity, performance, and security. If you crave still more reporting options, you may choose from dozens of plugins designed to address the most esoteric reporting queries, from listing all assignment files for a course or user (Assignment Files) to rendering a force-directed graph based upon a Forum activity (Forum Graph).

If you’re an administrator looking for a hosted LMS with 24/7 phone support and turnkey operation, Moodle is not for you. You already knew this because you’re likely already committed to an alternative such as Blackboard (in higher education) or Edmodo (as a K-12 complement). If, however, you’re willing to assume some additional administrative duties, Moodle could save you a lot of money, and let you create exactly the LMS you want. Smaller colleges are already voting with their feet, and I suspect larger universities will follow. Moodle earns our Editors’ Choice designation because it provides an entirely viable education LMS that is free, open source, and rapidly advancing. Universities deserve a choice, and I am eager to see Moodle, or some other organization that shares its values, jailbreak the corporate LMS market.

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