IGT: Learning Management Systems

Reviving “Interesting Google Trends”, I thought I’d post this based on a conversation with Rob Schoch about Learning Management Systems (LMS’s, e.g. Moodle). I’ve been following these trends for a few years now but haven’t posted anything before this.

Google Trend since 2004 for Moodle…

There is a lot to unpack with this.

  • The first observation is that the jagged nature of the search popularity is likely caused by summer/fall. Searches go way down when school is out, then skyrocket as students try to find their LMS’s when they get back to school.

  • Moodle popularity peaked in 2014/15, but has dropped to 1/4 of that popularity (100 to 25) in the past 5 years.

  • Minnesota (likely due to District 287’s Northern Star Online) is the 4th most popular state for searches for Moodle. Go District 287!

The first question that comes to mind is what’s causing the decline? Things get more interesting when you add other popular LMS’s like Canvas (red) and Blackboard (yellow).

Here we can see the rise of the Canvas LMS over the past 5 years, and this would correlate with a number of Minnesota districts and schools (like U of M) who have switched from Moodle to Canvas. I didn’t include Schoology, which comes in third now but has largely plateaued in growth.

(There is an assumption here we’re making in that the “canvas” graph also contains searches for “canvas” the material and that the growth in searches is caused by the LMS. If we look back to 2004 we can see that even then “canvas” was more popular than moodle. Not until we get to 2007/08 can we see the search term “canvas” following the same shape as the other LMS lines.)

I don’t intend this thread to be a bashing of Moodle, as I love all the features it brings and how our district has tweaked, refined, and improved the experience over the past years. I’m very comfortable with Moodle and it serves us well.

Having said that, I get concerned that we might be ignoring some of the writing on the wall when I see how usage has shifted to Canvas and declined with both Moodle and Blackboard. Two years ago Canvas surpassed Blackboard as the most commonly searched LMS. So much of open source development depends on a vigorous community. I wonder if that be changing?

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To start my own discussion…

  • I’m not implying that we should follow the “popular” choice. We didn’t go with Blackboard when most of the world was going with Blackboard, because Blackboard was lame and Moodle was good. We didn’t go with Schoology when it was an up and rising LMS because we knew Moodle could do more and was better. Google Classroom (which isn’t an LMS) would be an equally poor choice for us to shift too as an institutional LMS.

  • One question I have in my mind is whether the Moodle community going forward will continue to be able to support the platform. I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve seen similar things happen with web development and social media. Joomla was robust and popular as a web development platform 15 years ago, but started to loose ground to Drupal then got swept aside by WordPress. Now developing in Joomla is incredibly hard because the platform just isn’t active enough to respond to user needs. Twitter would be a counter example of a platform that continually gets surpassed by other platforms, but just keeps on plugging along because it’s been able to retain an active enough user base. If Moodle could hit and sustain a point of equilibrium so that it continues to be a robust and thriving platform, then I think we might be fine. If not, we could be in a rough place in five years.

  • I do sense in conversations with people from other schools that their impression of us is different (and dare I say lesser) when I say that we use still Moodle. It usually goes like, “Oh, yeah, we used that but (insert one of several reasons) but we shifted to Canvas because (insert counter reason).” Explaining that our version of Moodle is so far beyond the vanilla version that we really like it tends to fall on deaf ears. They have an impression of Moodle and nothing I can say generally changes it.

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This topic really moved to the forefront of my consciousness lately for a number of reasons.:

  • I have had a number of parents asking me how they could see their students grades. Unfortunately there is no parent portal in Moodle, so the short answer is… they can’t. That answer doesn’t resonate well with parents, especially for students who are at risk of not graduating. (Moodle isn’t integrated with our SIS and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.)

  • It’s been slowly building up, but this year was the first one in which every student remarked that they had never used or interacted with the Moodle platform before. Students used to say that it was used at their old school, or that they used it in middle school but I haven’t heard that response even one time this year. While I know that we have tweaked it and we don’t use the off the shelf model it still seems like shoeing a horse in the era of automobiles. Seeing new teachers attempting to use and learn Moodle makes me realize that it’s clunky, not intuitive or user friendly, and it doesn’t play well with other apps.

  • I do wonder about Mike’s point regarding ongoing support for a platform that is declining in use. While we could sit on our haunches with the excuse that other platforms like Canvas and Schoology are just a trend, we can also think about the idea that Moodle was just another trend and realistically no LMS will last forever.


I’m sure Mike knew I’d jump in on this one as our resident Moodle person. I don’t think that the trends are the things to look at. I think we’re better served by thinking about what it is we need from an LMS. I develop regularly in Canvas and in Schoology as well, so I have my likes/dislikes of all platforms. I can say a few things about why we’re still on Moodle, though I would suggest that we stop naming the tools and focus on phrases like LMS.

  • Accessibility - this is one of the most important reasons to stick with our current platform. Canvas is the only other LMS that approaches what we have done to make for a fully accessible platform, but their code isn’t open. We make changes as we see the need and having the ability to affect those changes through coding, or CSS has been a lifesaver for us and some of our staff/students.

  • Open Source - Being tied to the Open Source community assists us with OER development and how we share materials with other districts and beyond. It also allows us to customize to suit our needs like the circumstances above.

  • Configurable Reports - Because we have access to our backend database, we can create all kinds of queries to speed up teaching/grading. NSO utilizes quite a few of these that we can bring over to the 287 LMS. One click to show you everything that needs grading saves teachers around 6 clicks per assignment. This is still problematic in other LMS. We have written reports to identify content in Flash, user progress, ungraded assignments, etc. This has transformed our practice for NSO and would make teaching face-to-face courses even easier.

  • H5P - Creating interactive content using H5P tools in the LMS has transformed a few NSO courses. We’re really excited about where this could go.

  • The sheer list of demands we have of an LMS are significant and no vendor tools offer what we need. NSO connects it to their SIS; Our West Suburban Summer School uses it tied to an SIS for enrollment; we automate enrollment via LDAP to our PD; we offer courses that users create their accounts for and use PayPal integration to pay; the MN Partnership for Collaborative Curriculum relies upon it to export courses in platforms all LMS will accept. We customize roles for students on IEPs to revise permissions/settings to keep them in courses with their peers; I’m probably missing some more as well.

I need more information about this. Every LMS comes with a learning curve. Every year, we make the platform easier to use and we have videos for pretty much everything at this point. Which apps do we need it to work with? If people don’t ask, there’s nothing we can do. In many cases, we can figure out how it will work.

The user community is still quite strong, and in other countries with more involvement in OER/Open Source they still use it to innovate. Moodle has more developers than ever and there are various avenues for support. Having said that, we’ve not really utilized them and continue to support our own development and hosting at a fraction of the cost of the others available. Not sure I agree that evolving platforms are trends because every year they add new features. Because of the worldwide community, I’d guess that Moodle is around for the foreseeable future, as will Canvas be. I’m not sure about Schoology because they’ve been so resistant to customer concerns about new features/accessibility.

So having said all that…

Not that it’s my call, or that anyone asked but…I like Canvas well enough. It’s not quite as flexible, but it’s no easier to use. Schoology is DOA because of the lack of features. Blackboard, D2L are too expensive and Google Classroom, as you say, is not an LMS.

Every district suffers from lack of implementation with their LMS. Everyone struggles with how much to show parents and give access to. All I’ve ever asked for is what people want to do with it and I am not sure if we’ve ever said, we can’t do that. We pretty much always figure out a way.

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Oh yeah, and LTI integration to vendor courses, other platforms and NROC/EdReady.

Wait, there’s a parent portal!? Who, what, when, where, why, how? I’ve been asking about this since I started with the district. The parent/guardian can login with one password and view all of their students grades easily? I would love, love, love training on this. I clicked on the video link but it wasn’t really helpful since there is nothing about creating the login and I cannot find anything like the “parent access” block.

Feel free to ask me about LMS questions. We’ve always been able to do this, but very few have ever requested as far as I know. Here’s what I need…

I need you to fill out a copy of this spreadsheet template with the required info:

The email address will also serve as the username.

Share your file with me and I’ll get them uploaded and send the video you can send parents that shows them how to access the grades for student classes. Keep in mind that when we do this, that parent will have access to all of his/her student’s course gradebooks/feedback. It’s something you might want to run by any coworkers first :wink:

Just a reminder to any who see this…

If you want to be able to do something with our LMS, please reach out and ask. We can very likely get you what you need. I’ll start updating our tutorial videos, but they will likely show the NSO site since that’s where we do most of our instructor support and customizations. What we learn there is then transferred to the district site. The only difference will be the branding/colors.

Is Canvas more intuitive for teachers to use? I get A LOT of pushback from my peers re. moodle. For what ever reason, many are very uncomfortable using it.

On the topic of user-friendly LMS, I’ve recently run into some PD modules online that are built with this: https://www.thinkific.com/

I really like the visual simplicity and intiutive layout of the modules I’ve seen so far.

No one LMS is inherently more intuitive than another. I have used quite a few of them in my work related to curriculum and PD development. I’d be curious about which aspects your peers are struggling with. We can make all kinds of tweaks based on what people want to do.

In terms of accessibility, sharing, levels of access, grading workflow, nothing really comes close to what we have done in our customized system. I believe that there is negative prior experience with Moodle and that people aren’t aware of the level of improvements that continue to be made.

Not to mention that Canvas and Schoology have a lot to answer for in terms of data privacy and how they monetize student behavior/data. They have each now been swallowed up by larger corporations who are interested in tying these tools to other products. I take serious issue with our students being used and targeted in this way.

I think Moodle struggles in this area, to be honest. I often find its design structure counter-intuitive, clunky, and sometimes idiotic. One quick example of off the top of my head is how broken Moodle feels when you’re trying to rearrange multiple topics and items on the front page of a course. Something that should take a couple of minutes can often be an exercise in frustration even if you know the shortcuts for moving things around.

Default Moodle’s grading experience is poor as well. I can understand why organizations would move away from Moodle if the only thing available was the out-of-the-box Moodle grading management system.

From a student perspective, I take courses on Coursera, EdX, and Udemy, and their user experiences are easier to navigate, more intuitive, with features that are at best awkward in Moodle, but more often not present. One example, when I log into a course in Udemy, it takes me to the last thing I was working on, to the point of how many minutes into a particular video I was watching. That’s super helpful in most cases.

I haven’t seen stories that Canvas or Schoology is attempting or planning to use student data in this way, and doing so be illegal and subject them to lawsuits. It would be suicide as an LMS so ingrained in K-12 and higher ed. Are their pending lawsuits or claims? That would be disturbing.

This brings up an important distinction, in my mind. Our Moodle installation, thanks for the work of Jon, Jim, Matt and many others, is far beyond what out-of-the-box Moodle can do. Our grading flow now is superb, highly efficient, and so much faster than what it was just a few years ago. It’s several levels above what default Moodle can do. They’ve also made countless changes to remove button clicks, make things flow better, and make learning and building with the software easier. Even more important, the work is ongoing and things get better at a steady pace.

The challenge comes in that many people who have experienced Moodle in other places bring those perceptions to our Moodle installation, which makes it a hard sell here. And that I think is Moodle’s greatest challenge at this point: ease of use and getting started. Moodle is much more powerful than Schoology (which would be a poor choice to shift to) and more powerful than Canvas, but the wealth of features and abundance of possibility make Moodle hard to get up to speed with. It should be easy to make a quiz in Moodle—without help and training—for example, but it’s a struggle for any first-time user because of the way Moodle allows for question banks and categories and all sorts of features that are super helpful to have once you have a course with hundreds of questions and quizzes. But making that first quiz feels like climbing a mountain, and when easy things feel hard they discourage use.

Gosh, I’ve already gone on much too long…

All in all, while I’m definitely not on the Moodle party bus, I’m happy with our Moodle and confident that builders can use it to make good, easy-to-use stuff for students and teachers to use. I’m less convinced that it will become an easy tool for the average teacher to use to develop course materials. I think it takes a teacher with above-average technical skill, some time, and a willingness to learn to become adept at building with it.

I’m not yet convinced either that switching to something like Canvas would be better. I’d expect it would likely bring its own set of limitations and issues, and we’d give up a lot of control with a switch. From a personal perspective, I think I’m not yet qualified to speak to this, as I’ve only spent a few minutes poking around Canvas at conferences. I probably should explore building something with it, and checking out the user experience more.

I guess rather than go over these point by point I would suggest that if any teacher is looking to build something from scratch then I would point them to the Interactive Content module which allows you to create any of the H5P modules. That’s where I see content development heading anyway. And since it’s built into our platform and the integration will only improve as it becomes part of Moodle core, it’s going to be around for a good long while.

The H5P content is really good, yes. And we’ve had luck in seeing people new to Moodle just pick it up and run with it, too. Once you get the basics down it’s pretty straightforward to build with.