Moodle Goes Corporate

By Sarah Fister Gale

Oct. 2, 2008

While many companies may be skeptical of the value of open-source or free downloadable software systems, Moodle, a learning management system, is proving that high value doesn’t necessarily correlate to high price. Moodle was created by a developer in Perth, Australia, and over the past several years has developed an almost cult-like following. It currently has more than a half-million users and developers who blog daily at about how they use it and how they can improve it. They also share best practices from around the world.

While Moodle’s foundations are planted firmly in academic use, more and more of its users are coming from the corporate world, and not just from startups. The software, which can be downloaded free onto any computer and can scale from one to 200,000 users, is now being used in global organizations, including Subaru and Cisco, as a platform for training and for building communities of knowledge to share best practices and collect corporate information for future training programs.

“A year ago most companies using Moodle were in the smaller scale,” says Jason Cole, author of the book Using Moodle and chief learning officer for Remote-Learner, a Moodle hosting partner in Denver. “Not anymore. Today there is an enormous range, from mom and pop shops to mega-companies using Moodle to create and manage course content.”

Subaru dealers bond via Moodle
    Automotive manufacturer Subaru is one large company that has embraced the open-source tool for training management. Darryl Draper, a national customer relationship and loyalty training manager for Subaru of America in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, delivers and tracks customer service training courses for more than 600 Subaru dealerships across the country using Moodle.

Face-to-face training in an industry where 300 percent turnover rates are not uncommon had become too much for Draper, and Moodle offered an alternative. “There were some markets where as soon as I finished training I’d have to go back again,” she says. “It was all reactive. I had no time to develop a strategic training plan.”

Instead she opted to develop online course content and deliver it to dealers via the company’s intranet. Subaru had been using another LMS package to track some course content, but it wasn’t flexible enough to do what Draper needed. “I wanted robust training where dealers could collaborate,” she says of her quest to find a new e-learning management system.

Moodle, with its open-source platform, gave her that flexibility. Using the software, which she hosts through Remote-Learner, she developed two versions of each course, giving users self-paced options with content and tests, as well as developing interactive communities of practice within the Moodle platform. In the communities, trainees have a place to study the course material while sharing ideas and questions with other users.

“The dealers love the communities,” she says. “They talk, and share information and develop best practices. There are a lot of robust dialogs taking place in those forums.”

Draper monitors the forums to make sure conversations stay on track and to collect questions and responses that she thinks will be valuable to other users, which she stores in wikis or glossaries at a separate internal Moodle site.

“We have a lot of executives who will retire soon and they have valuable knowledge,” she says. “The Moodle communities let us gather their best practices into a knowledge database.”

Cisco supports entrepreneurs
    Cisco, the global manufacturer of networking solutions, uses Moodle for its Entrepreneur Institute, which partners with organizations and governments to use Web 2.0 tools to deliver entrepreneur education and business planning skills. Cisco uses the LMS to offer self-paced courses, assessments, and registration options to users around the world, from students in Latin America to nonprofit groups in the EU.

“We wanted an open-source tool because the institute is a free program, and it’s in line with our community approach,” says Vito Amato, solutions architect for Cisco in Scottsdale, Arizona. “We also wanted to use something that our customers can replicate for their own businesses.”

Amato also likes the way Moodle integrates seamlessly with other systems, such as and WebEx, and that it is available in dozens of languages right out of the box. “That’s important for a project working in emerging markets,” he says.

But Amato is quick to point out that Moodle should not be ventured into without planning. “You need to understand what you want to accomplish from a business perspective before you choose any software tool,” he says, noting that too often users select technology solutions before they define their project goals.

“First look at how an application meets the needs of your business, then determine what software meets your needs,” he says. “It’s much easier to map the technology to the business than the other way around.” Like Subaru, Cisco also outsources the hosting of the Moodle system. It is using MoodleRooms, a Moodle service provider in Baltimore. Even though Cisco has a huge IT staff, Amato says the company would rather hire specialists to host and manage the Moodle system while his team focuses on the goals of the institute.

“It’s one thing to download and play with Moodle, but if you want to scale the application, it’s a lot more cost-effective to outsource,” he says. “I don’t have to spend time and energy worrying about managing the hardware or the software. I let the experts do that.”

PHS meets regulatory requirements
However, not everyone relies on outside experts to manage the Moodle technology. Pediatric Home Service, a small children’s at-home health care provider in St. Paul, Minnesota, hosts Moodle in-house. The company, which has 136 employees, uses it to deliver, manage and track all of its in-house competency training—a critical element of a home health care provider’s business, since competency training is closely monitored by regulatory groups including the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Moodle works not only to host training, but it also tracks user data for regulators,” notes Pam Clifton, senior vice president of operations for Pediatric Home Service. “We can generate reports on the spot to prove completion rates, or to zero in on test questions that are frequently missed,” she says. “Before we started using Moodle that information was all on paper.”

Pediatric Home Service started using Moodle three years ago after the training staff found it didn’t have the budget for an off-the-shelf LMS. “The others were cost-prohibitive, but with Moodle the price is certainly right,” says Carol Widstrand, training and technology communication specialist for the organization. Because the company has a strong IT staff and wanted to focus its training dollars on developing content, it opted to host the system in-house.

“We definitely started out slowly,” Widstrand says about the choice to keep the system in-house. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, Widstrand’s team rolled the system out to individual departments one at a time, and did not use all the features right away.

They have also come to rely on the Web site when problems arise. “It’s a very good resource. You can troll for information, pose questions and take tutorials,” Widstrand says. “When I post a question I usually have a response from someone within 24 hours.”

Regardless of the size of an organization, or whether Moodle is hosted in-house or is outsourced, most users agree that the key for organizations is to go slow and know what they are trying to accomplish.

“Start off at the 10,000-foot level,” suggests Becki Nielson, education manager for Pediatric Home Service. “Once you have a big picture of what the whole organization needs, you can think about how you will use Moodle in the long term. That has worked best for us.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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