My Back Pages: Moodle Past Units

What could providing students with access to subjects they've studied before, not just the ones they study now, mean for course design, assessment and professional development at Monash University?

What is a "learning management system"?

Few of us could describe first encountering a book or a pen.  But if you're gifted with a long memory, you may still remember the first time you consciously used Moodle, or one of countless other products and systems that work in a similar way.

Perhaps, if someone explained the system to you, they might have said something about its affordances, "cool" things about it that create 'action possibilities' (Antonenka, Dawson & Sahay, 2017).  Or maybe - more like my own experience - your first introductions were more like walking in, announcing yourself and starting to think about what to do with what you found.

For me, that was setting up a community for students with a very keen theoretical interest in the study of literature.  I still remember thinking: maybe people who don't like speaking might prefer posting online.  (They sometimes did.) And maybe, this is a way for students to share texts and commentary across the group - a little like what we now call an open educational resource.  (It was, for a while.)

As a lecturer, I can't recall the precise moment when I stopped having to enrol students manually. Still less, the moment when the unit - that fuzzy thing that used to live somewhere between faculty noticeboards, readers and ring binders on people's shelves - became the LMS.  But I do know that there was a point where I stopped thinking about the possibilities, mentally banked the efficiencies in the system as a windfall in my time-overdrawn teaching week, and moved on.

In "Education 3.0: breaking the mold with technology" (Watson, Watson & Reigeluth, 2015), the authors encourage us to look back over more than a hundred years of learning systems (De Vaney & Butler, 1996).  They also sub-divide learning systems according to the many different and sometimes conflicting things they can do, from allowing students to manage team projects to communicating grades and issuing certificates.  We should remember, say the authors, that there was a time when a university LMS wasn't the textbook - maybe with a few sticky notes or empty pages for students to leave work.

Monash Education Innovation asks the question: Should we give students access to past units?

We recently contacted Australian and New Zealand universities to see how many provide their students with access to LMS units or subjects they've studied before - as some of our Faculties already do - not just the ones they study now.

The responses made for absorbing reading.  Firstly, at Monash we are cautious: only one of the institutions who responded restricts unit access to current units at a whole-of-system level, as we do. Within Moodle there are lots of possibilities for linking units across a course over time that we don't tap into right now.

Secondly, it is risky, but only in the sense that any education is risky.  Once you open up a possibility, to judge from what our respondents said, people find ways to understand and respect what it is there to do.  Our worries - possible privacy breaches, student complaints about content not being updated, unauthorised access to assessment items - were reassured, not reinforced, by what other universities have told us.

First and foremost, though, the goal matters.  In some cases, the reason for past unit access was administrative - perhaps to meet an archiving requirement or support student appeals.  We had no doubt that these were legitimate, critically important uses of an LMS.  We noticed, though, that these universities seemed less committed to retro-access than respondents who saw learning in the totality of the system, not just in the unit.

All those replies have taken me to my Moodle back pages.  I thought about what past unit access might do - for course design, assessment, professional development.  I imagined students being able to make connections across subjects, educators knowing more about what other units are about and how they work, even students being able to look forward as well as back and work ahead of their peers.  Most of all, I started thinking about possibilities again.


Antonenko, P., Dawson, K., & Sahay, S. (2017). A framework for aligning needs, abilities and affordances to inform design and practice of educational technologies. British Journal of Educational Technology, 48(4), 916-927.

De Vaney, Ann, & Butler, Rebecca P. (1996).  Voices of the Founders: Early Discourses in Educational Technology. In: Jonassen, David H. (ed.) Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology. Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 3-45.

Watson, William R., Watson, Sunnie Lee & Reigeluth, Charles M. (2015). Education 3.0: breaking the mold with technology. Interactive Learning Environments, 23(3), pp.332–343.

Mike Bryant, Director Learning Transformation