Moodle, What a Gold University Like UCLA Needs

Juan Felipe Guerrero C.
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Los Angeles, CA, United States

Nick Thompson is an IT manager at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) overseeing the Learning Management System (LMS) and learning technologies that connect to it. Locally, the system is referred to as CCLE (Common Collaboration and Learning Environment). Thompson believes his university enjoys so much prestige because it has implemented academic strategies and tools based on state-of-the-art technology. “There can be no doubt,” he says, “much of our university’s quality is reflected in the types of technology platforms we use to support our academic processes.”

On the other hand, Thompson is the founding chairperson of the Moodle Users Association (MUA) and has a long-standing involvement with Moodle and the Moodle Community. Nick is also heavily involved in other Moodle Community initiatives such as being a member of the Program Committee of the first to Official US Moodle Moots and as a Local Chairperson for the latest 2016 Moodle Moot in Los Angeles, California. His participation in the Moodle Community demonstrates his commitment and belief in Moodle and it’s importance in the e-learning environment and education as a whole.

What technology allows a school to maintain prestigious reputation? To answer that question, we must first understand how UCLA functions; in administrative terms, UCLA is decentralized, which means that each department is entitled to make its own decisions. The Medical School, for example, can purchase whatever Learning Management System (LMS) it wants that will best support its students. The same principle applies to the departments of humanities, arts, engineering, law and so on.

Consequently, this flexibility can quickly become problematic, considering there can be as many as 28 different LMSs within UCLA. This “Mission Impossible” was the task that Thompson faced: reducing the number of and consolidating LMSs across the UCLA campus.

Nick Thompson, Coordinator, UCLA Technologies Office. Photo: AFP Angela Weiss.
Nick Thompson, Coordinator, UCLA Technologies Office. Photo: AFP Angela Weiss.

UCLA faculties began to work with Moodle in 2008, and thanks to Thompson and the CCLE, the university was only using four different LMSs in 2011 compared to the 28 LMSs in operation four years prior. All technology systems, including LMS management, now falls under the general supervision of the CCLE, a learning management and administrative ecosystem within UCLA that uses Moodle as its central operating system. Moodle’s open source design and integration ability allows it to communicate with the school’s other systems seamlessly.

“It was a complex process; a big challenge. Everyone wanted something different, since each faculty has its own needs and demands,” says Thompson. “But that was where the advantages Moodle offers came into play, and was why we decided to adopt it as our central LMS: it can be personalized easily, from the most basic to the most technical levels.” Only the medicine and law and engineering faculties have not yet fully migrated to Moodle across the board, although adoption is steadily increasing in those areas.

The adoption of a single LMS doesn’t only benefit the CCLE

After all, it is the end users—students—who really benefit from the unified platform. “The feedback from our almost 45,000 students has been highly positive,” says Thompson. “Our platform has a visual aspect and is extremely easy to use, because both its development and its design have been highly personalized. This has pleased the student population, and we know this because we constantly conduct interviews and surveys and have focus groups, so as to be able to codify information and try to improve Moodle.”

Thompson not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. He has worked with Moodle developers and UCLA to create numerous plugins that have been contributed back to the larger Moodle Community. One plugin in particular, called Public Private, is a favorite of many of the 28 departments that have been working with Moodle for five years. “Public Private is fabulous: it’s attractive [and] simple, but that doesn’t detract from its efficiency. To a large extent, it has simplified online academic content management processes at UCLA,” says Thompson.

Our platform has a visual aspect and is extremely easy to use, because both its development and its design have been highly personalized.

The need for Public Private arose from the difficulty of changing viewing permissions for each individual piece of course content in Moodle. Consider, for example, a teacher who wants to make a portion of their syllabus and some assignments public to anyone who navigates to the course page while having a separate portion of the syllabus file and the rest of the course assignments private to enrolled members. This plugin enables the faculty to be able to do that.  “From what I’ve seen, it’s a bit difficult to do this in most of the LMS[s] I know,” says Thompson, “but thanks to the modification we’ve made to Moodle, if I activate ‘Private Course Material,’ I quickly have a list of course material available and I can change it to public or private simply by clicking in the check box.”

Leading the learning technologies department at a university whose students have included 13 Nobel Prize winners, three Pulitzer Prize winners and 250 Olympic athletes can be almost like a mission impossible. However, thanks to a flexible and responsive LMS, Thompson accomplished his “Mission Impossible” much like Ethan Hunt (although a bald version), and managed to emerge triumphant and unharmed.


* Nick Thompson, Coordinator, UCLA Technologies Office.


* AFP Angela Weiss.

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