R&I started piloting a new Learning Management System (LMS) in Fall 2008 called "moodle". (what is an LMS, you ask? Our current LMS is BlackBoard, so an LMS is anything that is "BlackBoard-ish")
We're quite excited by it, for a number of reasons:
Reason #1 that we're excited by moodle: it is built with pedagogy in mind
moodle was built around a social constructivist pedagogical principles, in which "people actively construct new knowledge as they interact with their environments". moodle's creator comes from an educational background, and has explicitly laid out its learning philosophy.
Reason #2 that we're excited by moodle: it's open source
...and yes, "open source" does mean "free to download", although that is the amongst the least significant aspects.
"Open Source" also means that the product is meant to be tinkered with and modified. It is a design aesthetic that blurs the distinction between users and developers, which leads to a strong community of users (see Reason #3).
Reason #3 that we're excited by moodle: the community
The open-source aspect means that there is a huge community around moodle -- community to build, modify, discuss. While commercial products can also attract a community, open source projects tend to create stronger communities, because the users see participation as an important factor in the survival and improvement of the product.
And moodle has a great community, built of faculty, educational technologists, and developers -- all thoroughly grounded in education. In short, the community around moodle fits the Wheaton community quite nicely.
Moreover, for small institutions like Wheaton, having an open-source community is akin to pooling our efforts in support of each other. Our friends at Lafayette (a long-time moodle institution) very kindly consented to share their documentation, for example. To help integrate our moodle login with our email login, we used the code and expertise of colleagues at Oakland University in south-east Michigan.
Reason #4 that we're excited by moodle: it's flexible
moodle is built to allow for "plug-ins", which are small customizable components that you can load. You want a convenient way to email your class as a whole? There's a plug-in for that. You want to include a flashcard assignment? There's a plug-in for that. You want to include concept maps in your course? There's a plug-in for that.
As plug-ins are relatively easy to make, the moodle community is creating these plug-ins and (in the spirit of collaborative open-source) posting them for others to download for free.
Here's the list of community-developed plug-ins
Reason #5 that we're excited by moodle: it incorporates many of the exciting things that are happening on the web right now
The web is rapidly becoming a platform for collaboration rather than simply publishing. This is a rather huge paradigm shift, and forms the foundation for moodle's "constructivist" approach to building knowledge.
Wikis? Moodle's got them built-in. Blogs? Moodle's got them. Collaborative databases? Yes. Collaborative glossaries? Yes. There are many ways to distribute, collect, and collaborate through moodle.
So, at Wheaton, where's moodle at?
We've named our moodle installation "Wheaton onCourse", which can be found at oncourse.wheatonma.edu. As of the time of this writing (December 2008) we're entering our second semester of an expanding pilot. Feedback so far has been positive, and we're still learning about how we can best use moodle for what we do here at Wheaton.
If you're interested in finding out more about moodle and onCourse, you can do the following: