CCSU Professor Seeks Out an Alternative for Learning Delivery

Moodle molecule analysis
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In the modern day and age, technology has proliferated and innovation in the classroom has become a considerable topic of interest in education. While most professors work with the tools they are given, some go a step beyond to find alternative solutions that enhance the overall learning experience for students and help them learn more efficiently.

One such professor is Dr. Tom Burkholder, professor of chemistry at Central Connecticut State University. Dr. Burkholder is an early adopter of Moodle, a learning management system or LMS, which he has been using to deliver course content to his students over the past twelve years.

At CCSU since 1992, Dr. Burkholder has encountered multiple learning management systems at the university. With a background in computational chemistry – a field in which one uses computers to calculate the properties of molecules – Dr. Burkholder found himself unsatisfied with non-user friendly LMS interfaces and their limitations. So the professor decided to seek another option that allowed him the freedom to teach students more effectively.

In the early 2000s, Dr. Burkholder transitioned his courses’ content to Moodle, a free and open source LMS, and he hasn’t looked back since. Dr. Burkholder has used Moodle to overcome the shortcomings of other platforms and better deliver complicated chemistry concepts to his students. “There are many available plug-ins for Moodle that allow you to do different things,” the professor stated. “For example, I use a plug-in that allows me to interactively display molecules to students. So not only is a student able to look at a picture of a molecule, but they can actually rotate it, expand it, change labels on it, and analyze the material from different perspectives.”

Dr. Burkholder also uses a plug-in that allows him to format and display complex mathematical equations, a function that isn’t possible with most software. Students may not realize it, but when professors are able to present different types of material in different ways relative to the subject matter, they are much more likely to understand and retain the material.

“Some faculty members have used blogging plug-ins that allow students to create individual blogs within Moodle,” Dr. Burkholder elaborated. “And because the software is open-source, I’m able to add almost any plug-in that faculty need to better deliver their courses.” For some, this might be a display of grade distribution in the Moodle course gradebook, for others, it might be a way to embed course-related videos into a Moodle course page.

Plug-ins are just one of the benefits of Moodle that allow professors to better present the material that they’re teaching to students. “Compared to the usual software that most universities use, the default settings on Moodle make a lot more sense,” the professor commented. “In fact, a lot of people who work on or contribute to Moodle either teach or have taught before, and I’m not sure if the developers of other learning management systems have done that. Moodle just makes more sense from a teaching standpoint.”

As of March 7, 2017, there were 10,204 Moodle sites registered in the United States alone. And though Dr. Burkholder uses Moodle to teach chemistry, the software isn’t limited to any department or subject. “If someone wants to add a course, they just ask me and I create a course shell for them. It’s that easy. So it’s a more user-friendly alternative.” Moodle allows professors to deliver assignments of many types in one central location. For his chemistry classes, Dr. Burkholder delivers quizzes and has students submit lab reports. Once students submit reports, he is able to annotate and return them, with grades attached, all in one convenient place.

An additional benefit of Moodle is its multi-lingual capability. “There are some faculty members who teach languages that use it and they can choose to change the language for a particular course. So if you teach Spanish, you can change the language to Spanish. Currently I’ve only installed English, German, and Spanish, but there are thousands of languages available on the server.”

Dr. Gustavo Mejia, a professor of Modern Languages, attests to this benefit of Moodle. “I have used Moodle for several years as a complement to my on-site, undergraduate courses in Latin American literature,” the professor stated. Dr. Mejia uses Moodle to keep in close contact with his students, and notes its ease of access as a central place to submit assignments and allow students to exchange ideas and interact with other peers. Dr. Mejia has found that “Moodle provides many opportunities for communication with other students and myself. Moodle has made it possible for all of my students to engage with course content, including those who are too shy to participate orally in class.”

Dr. Mejia also uses the LMS for an online graduate course on Research Methods in Modern Languages. In addition to the benefits he has observed in undergraduate courses, he has also been able to use Moodle to post pre-recorded lectures and links to required course readings. Moodle satisfies another great need specifically related to online courses: “In the case of an online course, it is of utmost importance that students can form a sense of community, and Moodle provides them with many opportunities to do so.”

Dr. Burkholder has several hundred students and about thirty faculty members teaching on the software so far. “Moodle isn’t a widely known alternative, so I remind faculty that it exists and that it’s another option. There have been other faculty who come to CCSU from other institutions, who were using Moodle before, and they’ve been really happy that it is available at CCSU as one of their preferred teaching resources.” Increasing numbers of educators across the US, university professors and K-12 educators with limited resources alike, have been choosing Moodle for its ease of use and low cost of operation.

Moodle operates on open-source code and is freely available to all, which means that the customization possibilities are endless for meeting the educational needs of students and professors. As a courtesy to his colleagues, Dr. Burkholder has set up test pages for other faculty members to experiment on so they can make an informed decision before making the move. He also estimates that there are about 900-1,000 new student users accessing the CCSU Moodle sites per year. “Students don’t have any difficulty using it. In fact, I’d say that if they’ve used one software, they’re able to use the other, so it’s pretty interchangeable.”

Dr. Burkholder maintains CCSU’s Moodle technology in collaboration with the Instructional Technology office. In the beginning, the professor ran the software from a small server in his office, but since then usage has grown and required him to expand his server’s capacity. “The IT department hosts the Moodle data on the server and I administer the server. They back up and patch the server regularly, and I maintain the Moodle side of it, updating the software and keeping everything up-to-date so that we can keep everything working.”

When it comes down to it, Dr. Burkholder considers time spent outside of classes working with Moodle as a small price to pay in order to provide innovative and alternative learning solutions for both students and educators.

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