Moodle: A Question of Change

Moodle LogoWe’re continuing to play with and research both Moodle and Blackboard. There’s no question that Moodle is stronger and more useful than in the past, but we admit that the Content Management System options in Blackboard are very interesting as well.

One question we have concerns change. With our other databases on campus (Blackbaud, Senior Systems, and FileMaker), there are always “risk elements” when we apply patches and upgrades. It is actually common for slight glitches to appear with certain subsets of features after upgrades, and if this occurs we contact technical support and sometimes another patch is needed or our data needs alteration. Generally, the more rigid the database (meaning less customization by us), the easier the upgrades are.

With this blog, for example, I’m running WordPress version 1.5.1. There have been updates for this software about every two weeks, and now the 2.0 update version is out but I haven’t applied it. Why? Basically, because I’m worried about things breaking. This is a simple blog, but I’ve used a custom theme, built my own classes, tweaked code in the appearance, and other alterations. The question is– how many will break if I upgrade?

Now, I know there is a path for this– create a duplicate site with the same content as this blog and run the update on it. Back up the theme and modifications, put them back in again, test, test and test. In the end, the process might be fast or slow, depending mostly on luck. Meanwhile, I’m not doing it because of a lack of time and a sense that the blog is fine for now in its software and functionality.

Now, what if we had a full-blown Moodle site for all US teachers and students, and all courses? What if we customized add-in modules for picture galleries and other unique features. Maybe we’d allow teachers to apply and tweak their own themes? We’d brand the site, of course, with our own look and feel. Lots of customization, which is good in many ways, but then the upgrades come. Maybe we don’t need them at first, but then there’s new functionality we want. Also, we can’t run on the same software set forever.

At that point, we need to do the duplicate site, test upgrades, testing and trouble-shooting on our own, and going through dozens and dozens of sites and features to find out what broke could be a massive job. Even if we did it only in the summer, how much would we miss, and how ticked off would teachers and students be when they found the flaws in the fall.

So, I’m not an advocate of commercial packages, but I have to admit that these risks have me concerned. A member of our tech team used a district Moodle for working with other teachers, and he found it cranky, slow and outdated compared to the new Moodle version, but one has to ask why didn’t the district upgrade if the software is “free.”

We also investigated the links provided by Michaelp in his comments in an earlier post, and in particular we looked at schoolengine.com. Schoolengine is interesting because they appear to provided a hosted, standardized package and they are in charge of updates, but it’s not clear how much customization we could do, or how fast new modules and features would be added in.

So, fascinating issues. No criticism is intended here of Moodle or any open source software– just concerns about long-term growth and use.

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