How Thom Rawson uses Moodle to empower educators in Japan

April 23, 2018 By

It’s Monday, which means we have the opportunity to learn more about a Moodler who’s doing awesome things with our learning platform!

This Moodlers Monday we’re in Japan to speak to long-term Moodler and edtech extraordinaire, Thom Rawson.

Let’s find out more about Thom’s Moodle journey:

Moodle HQ: Hello Thom, thank you for taking the time for talking with us today.

Can you start things off by telling us a bit about yourself, how you first got connected with Moodle and what you’ve been doing with Moodle?

Thom: Hi! I’m Thom Rawson. My hometown is near Boston, Massachusetts in the USA. However I have come to live in Nagasaki Prefecture in southwestern Japan. I began working in the Information Technology field in 1991 and spent about 10 years as a programmer analyst for various companies some of which include IBM and Ericsson.

In 2001, I decided to take a break from it all and took a job teaching English in Japan on the Jet Programme. I ended up meeting my wife in Nagasaki and one thing led to another and now its been about 17 years of living and working in Japan. I worked at elementary and junior high school for a few years, the high school level for a few years, and took a job as a university teacher in 2008. That’s when I discovered Moodle.

Since I had the technical background, I was always looking for things to challenge my EFL students with online. Moodle allowed me to give students activities to do outside of class and also allowed me to track their activities and give them feedback.

By using Moodle, I discovered the greater community growing in Japan — the Moodle Association of Japan — and in 2011 I attended my first MoodleMoot in Kochi Prefecture. Martin was in attendance at a presentation I was part of and that was very exciting for us to have the inventor of Moodle seeing our creative use of Moodle and multimedia. I think he said something like, “you have done some very interesting things,” or something which kind of sounds pretty plain but actually motivated us to try harder to help our students using Moodle.

Moodle HQ: You recently visited Moodle HQ in Perth, Australia.

What were you looking forward to achieve during your visit with us, and what were the outcomes?

Thom: The main purpose of my visit to Perth was to present the outcomes of a 5+ year research project I have worked on with some Japanese colleagues on using Learning Management Systems to connect students in different institutions to perform collaborative activities.

The project finished on March 31, 2018 and was funded by a public grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences. What we did was to try and link up to 5 universities together using Moodle and get the students involved in collaborative activities. At first, we used Mnet technology to do single sign on (SSO) and those activities were pretty successful. In Moodle 2.2, Learning Tools Interoperability — an IMS Global Consortium standard for tool connectivity — was added to Moodle, so our research naturally progressed into using that method to connect the universities.

As a final step in the project, I proposed presenting some of our success and some of the challenges we faced in doing this research to the Moodle HQ development team. I was fortunate that Moodle HQ was willing and able to allow me to do that which fulfilled some of the requirements of the grant funding we received.

Other side things I hoped to learn on the trip was related to Moodle development processes so that I could contribute more to the Moodle community. I even completed my first Moodle tracker issue. I learned a lot from many of the developers and staff at HQ so I’m really grateful for that opportunity. I’d like to give a big “thank you” to everyone there.

Moodle HQ: On the subject of LTI research, can you share with us your work on this front?

Why do you think it is important to the future of Moodle and education as a whole?

Thom: Moodle is at its core a tool which allows for people to go online in a common space and work on educational activities either individually or collectively in groups. The Internet — while seemingly open and freely accessible to anyone — tends to create these silos or ecosystems of websites and tools of which many are excellent resources individually but lack that collaborative connection for the end-user overall.

By supporting LTI as a provider of tools, these individual resources can be collected and evaluated in one place in a Moodle classroom. This gives the user a one-stop-shop for their educational portfolio all within Moodle. On the other hand, Moodle as a provider can share activities and courses in a way that creates a kind of “open source” model of education.

LTI also breaks down the barriers between Learning Management Systems by offering a common connectivity protocol. This helps tools “play nice” with each other and removes the expensive costs of customized integrations.

Also, the “fear” that student privacy might be compromised if we share login details with many different websites is sometimes a concern here in Japan and, as I imagine, other places throughout the world. Administrators can provide tools that can be shared between many different places without giving up the protection institutions promise to offer their users when they enroll in an online system. Students can then collaborate with other students online in a safe and controlled environment whether or not they are attending the same institution, and this is a powerful thing in my opinion.

Moodle HQ: You are also a member of the Moodle Users Association and Moodle Japan Association, can you tell us about why you joined the Associations and share any highlights?

Thom: The Moodle Association of Japan (MAJ) works to promote the use of Moodle in Japanese institutions and to support research and development both using Moodle and of the Moodle code itself. MAJ donates 50% of its annual income to Moodle HQ for Moodle development and support. The remaining 50% is used for both hosting the annual MoodleMoot (10%) and giving local grants (40%) to support the further development of Moodle specific to Japan. Did you know that the cost of an annual membership in MAJ — which includes the registration fee for the MoodleMoot — is just 10,000¥ (120 AUD)? We’re able to keep our Moot costs lower because we host our Moots at different universities around Japan who donate space to us for very little or no cost. I think this makes MAJ a good model for a Moodle Association anywhere in the world.

I’m also part of the MAJ R&D committee and this past year I was nominated to be the MAJ representative to the Moodle Users Association. Using our Gold Member votes, I was able to join the MUA committee and somehow got nominated as the secretary. This has been a very big learning experience for me and I’m thrilled to be a part of the action. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by Moodle users who know so many things about Moodle and have given me many ideas for my own use of Moodle. Plus the open source community has that huge “I wanna help” mentality that is completely contagious in my opinion.

Moodle HQ: As a long-time Moodler, you have been able to experience how Moodle has changed over the years.

In your opinion what has been the best improvement and what would you like to see in the future to make our learning platform even more powerful and accessible?

Thom: This is a difficult question. There are so many things I love about Moodle. Whenever I come up with an idea for an activity for my students, the best part of Moodle is that there always seems to be something Moodle can do which supports my idea. I think one of the best improvements in recent times is the Moodle Rubric system in Assignments module. This helps me to give valuable feedback to my students in a timely manner — a key for learning in my opinion.

For the future, I would like Moodle to make the experience for new teachers using Moodle for the first time to be much simpler — I struggle to show new users in a short amount of time how to start using Moodle and this seems to really put them off of using it. I know Moodle HQ developers have worked so hard to make everything as smooth as possible, but for those new users we need a process after first login that is as simple as 1-create a class, 2-add students, 3-make an assignment, and away you go. All of it should be doable by a non-technical person in 15 minutes or less. This would really help bring onboard a lot more users.

Thanks for the chance to write about my experiences. Take care and Happy Moodling!