Using Moodle round the wrong way – an exploration of lessons and conditionals

A while ago now I wrote this post outlining a few ideas on using gaming principles to inform staff training. Those ideas are now becoming reality, and I’m in the midst of designing the Moodle Dailies – a training site for both staff and students. The idea is informed conceptually by WoW daily quests (short 10-15 min tasks that keep you familiar with the environment, increase skills/reputation etc etc) and structurally by Angry Birds (a structured sequence of levels that you must pass to unlock the next level, and each level can be passed with three varying levels of skill). Where the site is really out of left field in terms of traditional training is in the fact that no how-tos or other skill-based information is offered – a goal for each level is defined, but participants must source their own information and develop their own skills. Just like in a game, really.

To build a Moodle site structured like this, I’m really reliant on the use of conditional activites (to allow levels to be ‘unlocked’ and so on). The addition of conditional activities in Moodle 2 has been a bone of contention with many educators. Initially designed to echo the ‘selective release’ of other LMS systems, conditionals give you the ability to dictate a student’s progression through your course. Advocates of authentic, constructivist and self-directed learning argue that student progression should not be dictated, in favour of a more exploratory model. I’ll admit I initially had similar thoughts. Mark Drechsler’s recent (and excellent) post on open source ecosystems covers some of the issues in LMS feature sets here. However, I think to argue that conditional activities don’t create an effective educational environment is only seeing half the story. Like most tools, the devil is in the details – use it poorly, with a restrictive, transmissive approach in mind, and it will be a poor learning experience. But use it creatively, with an explorative and self-directed approach in mind, and the game changes. I’ve found that trying to structure a game-like environment with conditionals really makes you think about progression, motivation and metacognition. If your design is based on goals and not information delivery, there’s ample opportunity for authentic, exploratory learning. All you need to do is think a bit backwards.

The big sticking point for me in the design of the Dailies has been level completion. One wishing to provide level scores and conditional progression in Moodle has several options at their disposal. For practical reasons that I won’t go into here, quizzes, choices and feedback modules were vetoed in favour of the lesson module. However, the wrangling of lesson modules has been a small adventure – it is a fickle and convoluted mistress. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve arrived at an ideal solution. The idiosyncratic scoring and jump structure mean that you are forced to ‘feed’ responses to some extent (ie someone who attempts the level once can see very clearly what they need to do to get higher scores next time), and irritatingly, in order for the lesson to log a grade or a view, you are forced to display an ‘end of lesson’ page that is clunky and non-customisable. I found out the hard way that there’s only so far you can hack a module before you have to start playing by its rules. That said, there’s still a lot of scope for designing disruptive use of modules that were probably initially designed for transmissive, information-push delivery.

I think what has stood out for me the most in this design process is that, while there might be particular design elements inherent in a system, particularly when features are requested by the community to meet certain needs, there’s no real restriction in this. Pedagogy can be rethought infinitely within the technical bounds of a system. So to those who are wary of conditional activities (or anything else for that matter), may I suggest you just spend a while with it trying to use it around the wrong way, for an entirely unintended purpose, and you may find yourself a fan after all.

4 Replies to “Using Moodle round the wrong way – an exploration of lessons and conditionals”

  1. Hey Sarah,

    Love the post. “Fickle and convoluted mistress” is a very polite way of putting it – I’d have gone with “cantankerous, ugly, she-bitch”. Look out for some improvements in the Lesson module now that we’re past the 2.0 release – I think this is a prime candidate for some work by HQ on improving the usability of this high-potential/low-usability tool.


  2. I have not really enjoyed my interaction with the lesson module either, due to its single endpoint restriction.
    I think that using the conditional activities (which are so much more powerful than in certain other LMSs), the entire course could be a lesson module, as you say, and become a choose-your-own-adventure.
    Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

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