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Getting Our Hands Dirty

Getting Our Hands Dirty

There are any number of ways to learn something. Reading is one. Listening to a lecture is another. But perhaps the one with the longest history and the best track record is to just actually do it. At one point, you might have been called an apprentice. In higher education, this goes under the heading of experiential learning. In the modern world, this has the much more descriptive “getting your hands dirty.” Over the past few blog entries, I have been providing a lot of detail about what to look for in your processes and how to look for a learning management system (LMS) that will work with those processes and do what you need. Today, I would like to change gears and take a look at a real LMS we can touch and explore.

This is the first of several entries that will look at real LMS instances. In this first case, I will provide some links and some guidelines on how to install a local copy of Moodle. You will then have the ability to poke, prod, and use it as a learning tool.

First, some background: Moodle is an open source LMS that has its largest installed base in the academic community. Fortunately, there are also a significant number of business users, so I feel comfortable that this exercise will be worthwhile no matter where you are. According to the Moodle website, there are almost 73,000 sites in 227 countries, serving over 85 million users. The program is 10 years old, is supported by a core of developers who keep it up to date, and employed by a very active worldwide community.

If you wanted to implement a real version of Moodle, you would have two main paths. You could request that your IT people dedicate equipment (either a server, or part of a server), download the code, and then install and set it up. Alternately, you could contact one of a number of Moodle specific hosting organizations and have your site setup on a cloud server. In IT terms, there are a number of advantages and disadvantages to each method, and I will hold that discussion for a later time. The goal of this entry is to get you up and running with a copy of Moodle. To do that we are going to build an environment on your local machine, then install a copy of Moodle that you may access without fear or fee.

While it is possible to get very deep into the technical details of a server environment, the goal here is just to run our LMS. To do this, there are several bits of background that you will need to understand, but fortunately, you can get by with a 50,000 foot view of these. The main task is to understand the XAMPP environment.

Let’s start with a seemingly trivial question. How did this page get stored, get sent to you, and get displayed on your screen? In short, how does the web work?

The combination of several programs, working together is what brings the web to you. Those programs are:

  • A Web Server: a program that sits and waits and returns web pages when asked
  • SQL Database: a program that stores and retrieves content for those web pages
  • Script languages: programs that allow you to do things to the web pages, i.e. send a request for more information or post a comment on a blog. Some work in your browser, and others on the server.

This combination of programs is called a web environment, and the first step in installing Moodle is to build this environment on your PC. Fortunately, this is a relatively easy process if you go to the Apache Friends website and download the XAMPP environment (pronounced “shamp”). There is a video there that explains how to do it.

Once XAMPP is running, you next need to download and install the Moodle environment. Again, this has been made easy by the folks at the Apache Friends site.

In the next entry and once you have the appropriate environment running, I will provide some simple scripted tasks to get you started and give you a feel for the program. I will also provide some learning links that will help give you an understanding of how the program works and how the basic tasks can be accomplished.


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