Moodle Magic – Thurrock & Basildon College

“I found I was spending too much time repeating information and tasks to students over and over again. My introduction to Moodle wasn’t an easy one at all – I took a lot of convincing. But my transformation is now complete and I couldn’t do without it now – it’s made a tremendous difference. Students are motivated, enthusiastic and in control of their learning.” Advice for others? “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. And don’t be put off by the technology – remember how hard it was when you first had to use a computer, and how effortless the basics are now…”

Sylvia Smith – Course tutor, entry-level retail

Creating advocacy

How do you turn a doubter into an advocate? Quite a fundamental question really and one to which all change managers and quality improvement professionals constantly seek the answer. But perhaps a more appropriate way of asking the question would be: ‘how can you create an environment in which doubters turn themselves into an advocates?’ This case study looks at the experience of Sylvia Smith, course tutor for entry-level retail students and self-confessed Moodle enthusiast, from Thurrock and Basildon College in Essex. What you don’t need to be able to benefit from this case study:

  • money, or an expensive VLE (Virtual Learning Environment)
  • advanced computer skills
  • significant amounts of development time.

What you do need to be able to benefit from this case study:

  • the desire/need to save time
  • the ability to see the learning experience you provide from your learners’ perspective
  • a passion for meeting individual learners’ needs.

Why not download the Q-box Action Plan for this example and make notes as you read? “My colleagues and I were made to go to a college staff development session on Moodle a few years ago”, says Sylvia. “We didn’t want to go. And when the presenters turned us off completely with their impenetrable technical language we made sure that within a few days of the course, all of the paperwork was safely in the bin.” If the college was guilty of anything, it was to try to ‘sell’ Sylvia a product rather than a benefit. For Sylvia, there was no vacuum for Moodle to fill or challenge it could help her overcome. However, as she now reflects back on those days, Sylvia is quick to admit that there were very real issues undermining her efficiency as a tutor and the quality of her students’ experiences – all masked by an ever-present passion to work hard and do the best she could for them. “I work with a group of 24 wonderful, but very challenging entry-level, Skills for Life students. Many have additional learning needs, low levels of literacy and numeracy, problems with short-term memory and poor listening skills. So I’d catch myself repeating the same information or task over and over again.” This was not only exhausting, but also costly in terms of Sylvia’s time. “Sometimes I’d get to the end of a day and realise that I hadn’t covered all the things I needed to.” A second Moodle staff development session was organised and whilst it still didn’t capture Sylvia’s imagination, it came with an essential task: to upload her course handbook. At this point, Sylvia realised that Moodle wasn’t going to go away so she began to experiment by uploading a few of her learning resources. The tipping point towards advocacy came when Sylvia’s students showed a surprising level of enthusiasm for the new system. And very soon, it became the centre of the whole course.

Entry-level independent learning

In readiness for the beginning of each week, Sylvia uploads all of the resources that the learners will need – hiding some until the day they are required. And now when a student asks for information? They are simply directed to Moodle. In fact, very few items of information are now given out directly – it is the students’ responsibility to visit the site very regularly to keep themselves up to date. The benefits of this one small change are significant. Sylvia has been relieved of her heavy role as ‘oracle’ and can now spend quality time with her students meeting their individual learning needs. “I also don’t miss anything out anymore, as it’s all on Moodle”, says Sylvia. But most importantly, the learners have developed greater independence – they now take responsibility for managing themselves. Parents can also play a much more active role in this essential personal management. As students access Moodle from home, their parents can help them with their time management and extend their learning out of college with study packs. Before Moodle, many students were very reluctant to do any homework, but now they not only access the resources in the evenings, but also at weekends, during their holidays and “even in their breaks between lessons!”, says Sylvia.

Having fun

But it is not the ‘system’ that the students love using, it is the resources it contains. Sylvia’s skill has been to blend the essentials of information and learning materials:

  • dates and venues for tutorials, reviews and trips
  • self-study packs
  • course-related material
  • literacy and numeracy skills development resources
  • The Friday Enterprise – the students’ rolling roles in the college’s work-experience retail outlet
  • Asda – essential information about the students’ main work-placement provider
  • job-search sites
  • employer talks and presentations;

with fun:

  • photographs of trips and celebration and awards evenings
  • fund-raising ideas and campaigns, such as Comic Relief
  • and most important of all, on-line games and quizzes.

And it is this last category which provides a constant, but ever-changing draw for the students. The students clearly love playing the quizzes and games which require surprisingly little effort from Sylvia. “I just type into the search engine what I’m after, such as ‘money quiz’ or ‘spelling game’, and have a play with the resources that are returned.” Sylvia tests all of the games linked to her Moodle pages to make sure that they are educationally sound and will help the students develop the particular skills they need at any one time. She also makes sure that they are fun.


With the norm now being that students access and complete their work enthusiastically, Sylvia is left to concentrate on those whose motivation slips or is lacking. The management information behind Moodle allows her to see when students last used the site, what they accessed and for how long. This enables her to spot any slippage in the learning journey before it becomes a problem – an essential element in any well-managed learning programme. The students also receive additional incentives to visit the site regularly. Each visit adds points to a programme reward scheme. There are monthly prizes for the most active Moodlers and an annual cash award for the students with the most reward points. A rather inspired move on Sylvia’s part is to offer the same incentives and rewards to the learning support assistants. And the impact? Since using Moodle, an increasing number of Sylvia’s entry level students are entering for the level-1 literacy and numeracy tests. With the aid of the many practice tests available on Moodle, they are better prepared than ever before, and last year, a record 50% of learners entered for the level-1 test, and all passed. “Moodle’s great. It’s easy to find anything you need to know and the games are a lot of fun!” Stuart, retail learner Statistics for the course as a whole are impressive too. In 2007/08, the retention rate on the BTEC Entry Level 2 & 3 Skills for Life Retail course was 100%, 37% above the national average, and the overall success rate was 79%, 19% above the national average. Says Andrew Blakey, director of information and resources: “When we switched our VLE to Moodle we had more hits in the first month than we’d had in the whole of the previous year on our old VLE.” It seems that Moodle is easy to manage, easy for students to use, and it’s free.