In my last post, I discussed Bodington’s unique access control system and how this affects teaching affordances. I started there deliberately and at the suggestion of my Bodington expert and guide, Oxford University’s Paul Trafford. Today, Stephen Downes comments sarcastically, “Yes, that’s what we all look for first when trying to decide whether an LMS is worth the effort.” And that’s exactly the point. Bodington’s most compelling strengths as a learning environment are precisely not what we tend to look at first when “trying to decide whether an LMS is worth the effort.” (Not that assessing whether Bodington was “worth the effort” was my goal in any case.) As we all know, seemingly subtle implementation details can have disproportionate impact on the quality of the learning environment. Permissions is one of those unfortunately obscure areas that LMS developers often get wrong and, as Paul had suggested would be the case, I immediately saw that Bod’s system opened up pedagogical possibilities that are not practical on other systems. For example, Bodington appears to support very sophisticated multi-role groupwork, including but not limited to simulations, that would be much harder to do in learning environments with less flexible permissions systems. Is this difference important enough to look at first? I guess that depends on what you are looking for.
Be warned: I’m going to continue my review by looking at other aspects of Bodington that are also not the kinds of things people typically look at first when trying to decide “whether an LMS is worth the effort”. If what you’re looking for is a generic LMS review, then don’t bother reading further and consider starting at the Edutools page for it instead.Unlike many LMS’s, which tend to lock down at least some of the top-level navigation, Bodington essentially gives you a blank canvas. If you think of Moodle’s top-level page for a course (from a faculty member’s perspective), you get the general idea. Like Moodle, Bodington provides a great deal of flexibility in layout, allowing faculty to arbitrarily sequence content and activities on the page rather than, for example, forcing all discussions to be in the “Discussions” tab, the syllabus to go in a special slot, and so on. My sense was that Bodington’s layout tools in this regard are not quite as polished and easy to use as Moodle’s but, since I am not an expert in either system, please take that observation with a grain of salt. Regardless, the end result is roughly the same, i.e., users have tremendous flexibility in the layout of the “course” page.
I put “course” in quotes because, believe it or not, Bodington does not have an explicit course level built into the system. Instead, they use a geographical metaphor. There are four levels of organization–“buildings,” “floors,” “suites of rooms,” and “rooms”. (I’m told that it’s not difficult for programmers to add additional levels; for example, Oxford created a “village” level above “building.”) Think of each of these four levels as a container, like a folder. Each container level can contain both other containers (e.g., a building has several floors in it) and objects (e.g., text on the page, or a shared file.) So each level has a Moodle-like layout manager. Courses are typically (though not always) created as “suites of rooms.”
I was prepared to dislike this metaphor but, much to my surprise, it worked for me. When we use the typical course/module/lesson taxonomy, we tend to end up with linear, syllabus-driven structures. (And if what you’re trying to do in the environment is not a traditional course, you often have to work around the organizational structure of the software.) The geographical metaphor avoids that problem. At the same time, it gives the user more navigational cues than nested folders, which are so generic that there is no inherent meaning to the user to be, say, two levels deep in the hierarchy (as opposed, say, to being on the home page of a particular “floor”). And because the metaphor isn’t used heavy-handedly or taken too literally in the interface design, it doesn’t seem to get in the way. Equally importantly, I strongly suspect that the spacial geography helped the programmers avoid making unnecessary limiting assumptions about what should happen on, say, a course or a group level.
To sum up, like the access control system, Bodington’s geographical metaphor, 4-level hierarchy of nested containers, and flexible layout manager seem to be designed so as not to get in your way. As Bod’s web site puts it:
A common approach in the design of VLE tools has been to first conceptualise ‘the course’ and then encapsulate the concept in the software. In the case of commercial products the concept of the course is often that of a corporate training scenario, i.e. materials to study plus quizes and no interaction with other students, tutors or formal assessment. In the case of free software born out of an academic scenario the concept is often based on the particular high-level educational theory favoured by the architect, i.e. both prescriptive and proscriptive. Consequently it is common for a university or college to either run many different products to suit the needs of all departments or to force departments to adopt teaching methods that suit a single product
That sounds about right to me. To be honest, it’s different enough from any system I’ve used before that I’m not sure what it would be like to teach with. But I’m certainly curious.