12 May 2013

A Kvetch

The Technology Treadmill


And so another major change is coming my way. For years, we have been using Moodle as our classroom management system. Most teachers in our school just used it as a way for students to get materials they missed in class while some teachers were more advanced and used it to collect and grade some assessments.

A handful of us used Moodle to administer (and grade) multiple choice quizzes and tests. It allowed the randomization not only of the answers within each question, but also the randomization of the question order for each student.  Administration encouraged that use because it would reduce the use and purchase of the "bubble sheets" we use (at about a nickle each). 

Knowing that I would have such questions available for years in the future, I willing spent 5 to 15 minutes crafting each appropriate multiple choice question (see a previous blog post on that). Some of those questions had graphics in the question text and also in the answer choices. I also spent hours figuring out the Moodle way to include a semi-random number generator in my question text and how to craft appropriate formulae in the answer text, so that each student would see the same question, but with different values. For example, I could ask a typical optics question of calculating the image distance given a focal length and an object distance where the givens are random multiples of 10 or 20. I now have a growing collection of MC questions appropriate for my classes.

Just recently, administration has let loose through the grape-vine that we will be switching CMS's to Schoology. No teacher input. While it is claimed that the switch-over will be gradual (over the next academic year) and painless (supposedly we can just copy over our material from Moodle directly into the new), veteran teachers know that such major changes rarely go as smoothly as is claimed.  

I have had a brief chance to try the new CMS, Schoology. My first impression is that Schoology is designed to be easy for the 95% of teachers who use only the basic features. And that is where they are spending most of their development time. That makes sense for a commercial product. 

However, our old CMS (Moodle) is open-source and community supported. There are a large number of outside developed modules that vastly extend the basic product. For example, one person decided that it would be nice to be able to insert Geogebra interactive graphics easily. So that person spent some time, wrote a module to do so, and then offered it to the general public on Moodle. The Schoology is closed-source. So any new feature has to be begged-for and the company has to decide if it makes economic sense to work on that feature.

It is like the difference between Linux and Microsoft Windows. MS is easier to use, however, Linux allows you to do what you want to do if you are willing to spend some time modifying things. Windows is nice for the 95%, but Linux is better for ultra-power-users. And Linux users like to show off and share. Moodle is like Linux. Schoology is like Windows (or even worse, Apple).

For example, there is a very powerful feature in Moodle that allows a teacher to make a quiz with questions using random numbers or numbers taken from a dataset. Here is an example. "How far does a car go when it has a speed of 'x' m/s and travels for 'y' minutes?" I can chose to let 'x' and 'y' be completely random numbers, or random numbers in a set range, or numbers chosen randomly from a list I specify. Obviously, this feature is of interest almost exclusively to teachers of the mathematical sciences. It took me a while to master the syntax needed for these questions, but I found that feature a helpful one. I could tailor my online quizzes according to my educational philosophy on such assesments. Several people have asked for such a feature on Schoology for over a year, but there has been no response from the company. So, for me, a critical feature is no longer available.

Since it seems that the switch-over is going to happen, I tried the new site. Trouble. Quizzes transfered over with graphics only in the question text. No graphics in the answer choices. I also have several practice quizzes that were made as websites. As such, the files for question pages and answer choices have to have a specific file structure for the links to work. All the quizzes and all their supporting files were dumped into one file folder. The links are borked. So I will have to waste several hours recreating content instead of enhancing it. I haven't even looked at the questions where the answers are generated from a random value given in the question and an appropriate formula in the answer text.

I don't have high hopes that these problems will be fixed when we officially switch over. I am the only one at my school using these advanced features of our current CMS. I am sure the company at Schoology will look at the problem and then issue a shrug of the shoulders. It will be left to me to sort things out. So, instead of writing new questions that try to get students to think before reaching for a calculator, I will have to rewrite the old ones and try to figure out the Schoology way of doing things.

Frustrated teacher

There is one concession to my plight. Through a grant, my school is hosting a weeklong summer work session for a core of teachers to pilot this new CMS. We will get together and try things in a workshop setting, and we will get a stipend. So at least I will get some monetary compensation for my pain. I hope it works out to at least one-tenth minimum wage for all the time I will have to spend implementing the change-over.


The new CMS company does have a support site. I looked there to see if other users had some of the same concerns as I. Some do, however, it has been over a year since the first request was made for the random number use in quiz questions. Nothing yet. I have no hopes for the future. I

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