Lots of work, but its done

Abstract: Personalized Learning, the ability for students to learn anything, anytime, anywhere, based on their desires and needs,  is expected to transform education. Many influential thinkers have already stated so and major corporations have already introduced Personal Learning Environments to make it happen. But what if you can not afford the current options? This paper examines the creation of a Personalized Learning Environment within the Open Source Moodle environment. It considers a design framework and and the existing capabilities to meet it. The paper concludes, that while a full scale Personalized Learning Environment may not be possible in the current Moodle ecosystem, a simpler Personalized Learning Environment is possible. Its creation and use may allow for the transformation of education in areas that can not currently afford it.

Today, what people call learning is forced on you. Everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. But everyone is different. For some, class goes too fast, for some too slow, for some in the wrong direction. But give everyone a chance, in addition to school, to follow up their own bent from the start, to find out about whatever they’re interested in by looking it up in their own homes, at their own speed, in their own time, and everyone will enjoy learning.” (“The Future of Education .. from Isaac Asimov, 1988” )

Since the days of the one room schoolhouse, both K-12 and higher education classrooms have been focused on a one-to-many interaction between a teacher and a group of students. All students receive the same material from a teacher in a lecture setting because individual attention for 30 or more is nearly impossible. But IBM and its education partners think the classroom of the future will shift from a one-size-fits-all model to a truly personalized environment. (IBM Research: The classroom will learn you)

One approach that I’m excited about is called personalized learning: combining digital tools, project-based learning, and traditional classroom work to let students move at their own pace, which frees up teachers to spend more time with whoever needs more personal attention. (The Vision Of The Future By Bill Gates, And How Moodle Is Building Towards It | Moodle News.)

Together, let’s explore ways to use technology efficiently to transform your learning culture to one that places the student at the center of a collaborative, engaging, personalized learning classroom. Better understand how to meaningfully align digital resources to standards-based lessons so technology is fully integrated, and not an add-on. Give students voice and choice in a their learning so they become empowered owners of their education. Pearson White Paper (Luckin, R., Holmes, W., Griffiths, M., & Pearson, L. B. F.)

When Bill Gates, Pearson Inc., IBM, and the late Issac Asimov all agree, one should certainly take notice. Personalized learning has the opportunity to fundamentally transform education. Many are working in the field and there are many working definitions. Generally, however, Personalized Learning is defined as:

“Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.” (International Association of k-12 Online.)

In general, due to the enormous amount of resources and flexibility needed, Personalized Learning takes place within a online Personalized Learning Environment (PLE) . A PLE can be defined as a “system that help learners take control of and manage their own learning”. (Innovative Methods for Award Procedures of ICT Learning in Europe)

The clear transformative power of this type of educational method, begs the question of when it will be easily available. Lots of people are working on this and a few sites have already cropped up that advertise Personalized Learning within a Personalized Learning Environment. Knewton and MyLabs from Pearson are  probably two of the leading examples.(Knewton)(Pearson). However, the inability to easily find pricing for these Personalized Learning Management Systems suggests two things: there proprietary and probably costly.

So as a Problem of Practice: How can the average teacher take advantage of this methodology? This paper suggests that a Personalized Learning Environment can be created within a no cost/ low cost Open Source Learning Management System.

Before laying out how to do this, a few caveats. This paper will show how to create a simplified PLE. Unfortunately, a low cost/no cost open source LMS can not build PLE’s on the scale thats currently being dreamed of. The accessibility and integration of Artificial Intelligence, the engine of large scale personalization, to Open Source LMS’s do not seem to exist. Some researchers have tried adapting existing capabilities of  LMS’s to mimic Artificial Intelligence but it does not seem to be currently as robust as it needs to be. ( Zhang)( Butoianu)( Caputi)(Garrido) (Mesquita)(Limongelli) Additionally, the number of activities, lessons and assignments needed to create a full scale PLE is enormous. While the number of  available open source educational activities, assignments and lessons continues to grow in places like the OER Commons, there seems to be no clear standard for organizing them into learning pathways and many would need modifications to address the needs of differentiation. (OER Commons) This is a massive undertaking and would need the concerted effort of some sort of national teacher network. This is not to say that these obstacles can not be overcome, but at the moment we are pretty far from them and thus a full scale, low cost/no cost, open source Personalized Learning Environment is not currently within reach.

With that said, at the simplest level, and Open Source LMS can be used to make a Personalized Learning Environment where student centered and personalized learning can occur. The rest of this paper will look more closely at this possibility.

There are many different LMS’s available today but the LMS Moodle, with its widespread use, commitment to Open Source, and its available no cost/low cost solutions, seem to make it the logical choice for  the purpose of this paper. (Moodle – Open-source learning platform | moodle.org.)

There’s quite a bit of discussion and literature about the characteristics and design of a Personalized Learning Environment. Among the best is Altwells’ “Understanding Personal Learning Environments: Literature review and synthesis through the Activity Theory lens” ( Altwell) and Educause Learning Intitaives’ “Seven Things You Should Know About Personal Learning

Environments” (Educause Learning Initiative ) The plethora of views is best shown in another site consulted that had dozens of diagrams of proposed PLE’s. (Edtechpost – PLE Diagrams)

To get a handle on the basic elements of the PLE and to move forward, it probably best to go back to the definition of Personalized Learning. It seems to suggest that a PLE needs to be able to deliver differentiated content and be able to flexibly assess the  mastery of standards. Additionally, a PLE needs to provide support for these processes. To do so, this paper proposes that the Moodle PLE framework should have seven broad structures that could be identified as different zones within the site. They are:

  • A Knowledge Zone
  • A Work Zone
  • A Collaboration Zone
  • A Research Zone
  • A Communication Zone
  • A Portfolio Zone
  • A Teacher Zone

To design this within Moodle, the zones in fact will need to be different interconnected individual Moodle courses. Fortunately, a recent update within Moodle allows for the publishing of any course as a Inter-operative Learning Tool more commonly known as an LTI. (“Publish your course as an LTI tool with Moodle 3.1 – moodle.com.” ) Thus any Moodle course can be made up of many, many different courses. In fact courses can be nested within a course and then again nested further into a parent course and so on. In this case, the different zones would be nested within a Parent course known as the Personalized Learning Environment. What follows in a more detailed description of each zone.

The Knowledge Zone

The Knowledge Zone would be a course where the delivery of content knowledge and content assessment would take place. As previously suggested this area would include many additional nested courses and would in the end need to be quite massive. Its interesting to ponder what Personalized Learning  would look like in a contemporary educational institution. It seems fair to think that we would not give students complete freedom to learn what they want. Requirements to obtain proficient knowledge within long standing academic disciplines will most likely remain. This leads to the question of where personalization will occur? The key here is choice. Students need to be able to choose how content is delivered an assessed based on their interests and needs. Most LMS’s allow for a variety of learning modes. Content embedded into text, images, audio and video are all relatively easy to deliver and teachers should make them all available to each student. Assessment as well should have alternative modes and again most LMS’s allow for assessment in a variety of ways. Teacher grading time restraints may inhibit and limit choice, but teachers should allow for some options.

Content Standards of course are not the only thing necessarily assessed within a content area course. Personalized Education is often associated with Competency Based Education. (Patrick, Chris) Content and Performance based competencies can now be created and assessed within the Moodle LMS.

A recent Moodle update allows for the importing and creating of Competency Standards. Many standards are embedded within this resource, like the Common Core standards, and can easily be imported. Once these standards are imported they can be attached to Courses and to individual activities.  Furthermore, once this has been put in place, Learning Plans for individual or groups can be created. These plans allow student to, in a sense, map there own  Learning Path allowing them to make choices about how these competencies will be met. (Competencies – MoodleDocs)(Learning plans – MoodleDocs)

Another important aspect of the courses within the Knowledge Zone is the standard ability within Moodle to restrict access to activities and resources by permissions and/or prerequisites and the certifying of activity completion. (Activity completion – MoodleDocs) (Restrict access – MoodleDocs) Permissions could be configured based on things like learning styles or interests, directing students to some activities and not to others. Restricting by prerequisites would require students to achieve certain content knowledge, competencies or activity completions before being allowed to open actives that require such content competencies or completions.

So what does the Knowledge Zone look like in a Moodle Personalized Learning Environment?  Either by choice, interest or direction, students would find themselves navigating to specific and nested content areas. There they would have choices about how to access the content  and how they would be assessed. Upon completion of activities and/or competencies further activities and competencies within the content area would be opened. Furthermore, completion of competencies would be forwarded to the individual student’s Learning Plan and this may open up higher level competencies in cross curricular situations.

The Knowledge Zone tends to focus on content standards and content based competencies. Certain competencies, however, are not necessarily content based. A place to work on these is within the Work Zone.

The Work Zone

As the name suggests this is an area for students to individually work on and to submit specific assignments tied to Non-Content Competencies and Performance Tasks and if needed Content Competencies as well. In general this is achieved through three subsections: Assignments, Tools and Storage.

Assignments found exclusively in this zone are Non-Content Competencies and Performance Tasks. Similar to the Knowledge Zone, it is comprised of nested courses tied to specific competencies. These activities and assignments do not necessarily require specific content but when completed successfully meet other desired competencies. In this sense, they may be offered as a more student centered approach and may allow students to meet competencies based on their own interests.

Perhaps the most important section of this zone is the Tool Section. The integration of tools in a Personalized Learning Environment is a relative thing. Some outside tools provide LTI plug-ins for LMS’s and thus the use of these tools allow the student to stay within the LMS platform.(External tool – MoodleDocs) Other tools require students to leave the LMS platform and these will accessed through links provided on site wide menus. Two other elements should be added to increase the functionality of this zone. First a site news feed (RSS) should be included that can introduce students to unknown, new or recommended tools. (RSS feeds – MoodleDocs) Secondly, a student maintained wiki or blog should be made available so that students can create links to tools not included within the sites standardized menus. (Blogs – MoodleDocs) (Wiki activity – MoodleDocs)

Storage space or access to storage spaces is the last important element of the Work Zone. Like tools, some storage sites have LTI’s for LMS integration. For those that do not, menu links could be made available. Additionally, Moodle offers a private file storage area for students. (Private files – MoodleDocs) Though this is disabled by default, site administrators can activate it and increase or decrease the limits of the storage space. Work however is not always done in isolation.

The Collaborative Zone

The importance of students working with others is a well established educational principle. ( Social Development Theory) One of the most exciting things that can be included in a Moodle based Personalized Learning Environment is a space that could encourage and allow for collaboration. In fact, collaborative spaces could be created that would allow for students to collaborate within a classroom, within a school, within a nation or even to collaborate globally. Working with others with similar or complementary skills or similar or complimentary interests would certainly be motivational. Being able to work with others outside of your school would be transformative.

Essentially, the collaborative space would be similar to the workplace. Assigned activities would be tied to certain competencies and or performances. The difference is the inclusion of others. This is achieved by the publication of the Collaborative Zone course as a LTI tool. With proper installation, the LTI course can be installed as an External Tool on other and outside Moodle sites.(External tool – MoodleDocs) When accomplished this could connect students from many separate Moodle Installations.

A few other thing need to be built into the Collaborative Zone to make it functional. First, is a way to connect students. Several Moodle functions could make this happen. A database activity could allow students to create a profile that identified their interests and ability. Additionally, this database could be searched by students to find others with specific abilities or interests to collaborate with. Another way to accomplish is to allow the creation of Interest Forums or Blogs. (Blogs – MoodleDocs) (Forum activity – MoodleDocs) Discussions and posts here could lead to finding collaborative partners. Secondly, once collaborators are identified the internal Moodle messaging system needs to be activated so that it could be used to allow for communication. The last thing that needs to be into the collaborative zone is an ability to form groups. This can be accomplished by using the Group Choice plug in. This allows students to form groups and once formed they can access the collaborative assignments available in the Collaborative Zone. (Group choice activity – MoodleDocs)

Research Zone

A Research Zone would be configured much like the Tool space within the Work Zone. It would contain links on menus to a variety standard research sources and a student maintained blog or wiki for students to store links to resources they have found and want to preserve. Another important element discussed in Saadatmand and Kumpulainen’s “Content Aggregation and Knowledge Sharing in a Personal Learning Environment: Serendipity in Open Online Networks” is the creation of  Personal Learning Networks. Perhaps the best way to accomplish is though linkage or the embedding of online rss readers. Moodle has a way to include rss feeds but they are not student created. Available online rss readers would allow students to configure their own. Another important element of the Research Zone would be the ability to bookmark. This does not seem possible in the current Moodle system but again could be accomplished through linkage to, or the embedding of, online bookmarking sites. Lastly the linkage to or the embedding of online citation generators is another important element that needs to be available in the Research Zone.

The Communication Zone

Another obvious requirement in a Personalized Learning environment is the ability to communicate. Once again we may choose LTI integration, embedding sites on pages or Menu links to a variety of services. Additionally a student maintained blog to store links as well should be included.

There are three basic needs within this zone, the ability for students to communicate with each other, the ability for students and teachers to communicate, and a way for students to communicate with the outside world. Forms of communication also needs to be addressed, especially from an accessibility point of view, so that text communication, audio communication and video communication are all possibilities.

The Internal Moodle messaging system can handle student to student and teacher to student communication  in a textual mode.  For students to email text out from within the system it probably would best be achieved through a link to gmail or another online email client. (Messaging – MoodleDocs)

Audio and video communication can be achieved in all three areas with the Moodle plug in for Skype. (Skype module – MoodleDocs) Another obvious solution would be a simple link to Google Hangouts.

The Ubiquitousness of Twitter, Facebook and other Social Media sites for communication would suggest that links or the embedding of these services should be included as well.

The Portfolio Zone

The ability for students to have there work seen by others in recent years has grown in importance. Many suggest the use and value of portfolios and in this case e-portfolios.

Many LMS’s including Moodle have the ability for students to create portfolios. When Portfolio is enabled in Moodle, students see an export to portfolio button in most assignment activities. The biggest question here is who gets to see the portfolio.(Portfolios – MoodleDocs) Moodle does have the ability to give portfolios outside access but if not, public portfolios can easily be achieved using most blogging sites. With these simple solutions the Portfolio Zone is perhaps the easiest to provision.

The Teacher Zone

So far we have covered what the Personalized Learning Environment would look like for the student, now a quick discussion of what it would like for the teacher. As suggested in the beginning, Personalized Learning will be transformational but not for the student only. Will you teach a subject? Have a class? Perhaps you will be just given a cohort and tasked with monitoring and supporting their Learning Paths.

Regardless, its pretty evident that you will need information and the Teacher Zone will rely heavily of Learning Analytics. Moodle has a decent, though limited, built in ability to acquire Learning Analytics. (Learning analytics – MoodleDocs) Some plug ins expand this built in capability. Two outside agencies Intelliboard and SmartKlass have created LTI’s for Moodle, though they come at a cost, that are expanding learning analytic capabilities within the Moodle environment. (SmartKlassTM – The Learning Analytics Plugin) (Moodle plugins directory: IntelliBoard.net – Reporting and Analytics Tool for Moodle)


Hopefully, this paper makes clear what Personalized Learning and a Personalized Learning Environment is and hopefully convinces that its adoption will be transformational. Due to the problems of cost for existing PLE’s, this paper has explored the possibility of creating a Personalized Learning Environment in the Open Source LMS Moodle. It suggested a seven part framework for creating the environment and discussed Moodles’ capabilities in achieving them. In the end, while suggesting that a full blown Personalized Learning Environment may not be possible currently with Moodle, it does show that a simple Personalized Learning Environment is possible.The implications for this is clear. Teachers can, at little cost, develop a Personalized Learning Environment to provide Personalized Learning for their students. Furthermore, with lots of teachers, effort and further Moodle development it is possible that one day Moodle may be able to provide the Personalized Learning Environment that many have dreamed of.

Special Note on UDL and the SAMR model

Directions suggested that this be placed in the Abstract but I did not believe it made sense there. It certainly however is important to address. At its core Personalized Learning requires a Universal Design for Learning. Everything should be based on a students needs. Moodle additionally does a pretty good job of UDL accessibility. Tanya Elias’ “Universal instructional design principles for Moodle” give a great overview of current capabilities. (Elias)

The SAMR model suggest the transformation of education through technology. This paper has in a sense has looked at that in reverse. Personalized Learning itself is transformational and this paper has looked at ways that technology can support it. With that said, I think for the most part, what has been discussed is on the SAMR level of “Redefintion”.

Works Cited and Consulted

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Altwell, Graham,Buchem, Ii., & Torres, R. (n.d.). Understanding Personal Learning Environments: Literature review and synthesis through the Activity Theorl Lens. Proceedings of the The PLE Conference 2011, 10th – 12th July 2011, Southampton, UK.

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Butoianu, V., Vidal, P., Verbert, K., Duval, E., & Broisin, J. (2010). User Context and Personalized Learning: a Federation of Contextualized Attention Metadata. Journal of Universal Computer Science, 16(16), 2252–2271. Retrieved from http://jucs.org/jucs_16_16/user_context_and_personalized/jucs_16_16_2252_2271_butoianu.pdf

Caputi, V., & Garrido, A. (2015). Student-oriented planning of e-learning contents for Moodle. Journal of Network and Computer Applications, 53, 115–127. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnca.2015.04.001

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edtechpost – PLE Diagrams. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2017, from http://edtechpost.wikispaces.com/PLE+Diagrams

Educause Learning Initiative (n.d.). Seven Things You Should Know About Personal Learning Environments. Retrieved from www.educause.edu/eli

Elias, T. (2010). Universal instructional design principles for Moodle. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 11(2), 110. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v11i2.869

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Garrido, A., & Onaindia, E. (2013). Assembling Learning Objects for Personalized Learning: An AI Planning Perspective. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 28(2), 64–73. https://doi.org/10.1109/MIS.2011.36

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Knewton. (n.d.). Knewton | The Best in Adaptive Learning Technology. Retrieved March 11, 2017, from https://www.knewton.com/

IBM Research: The classroom will learn you. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2017, from http://www.research.ibm.com/cognitive-computing/machine-learning-applications/decision-support-education.shtml#fbid=Z0dSY0L9oQQ

Innovative Methods for Award Procedures of ICT Learning in Europe. (n.d.). PLE and PLEI | Imaile. Retrieved March 11, 2017, from http://www.imaile.eu/about/ple-personal-learning-environments/

International Association of k-12 Online. (n.d.). What is Personalized Learning? – iNACOL. Retrieved March 11, 2017, from http://www.inacol.org/news/what-is-personalized-learning/

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Luckin, R., Holmes, W., Griffiths, M., & Pearson, L. B. F. (n.d.). Intelligence Unleashed An argument for AI in Education. Mesquita, A., Moreira, F., & Peres, P. (2016). Customized Learning Environment : A new approach, (June), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1109/CISTI.2016.7521621

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Saadatmand, M., & Kumpulainen, K. (n.d.) Content Aggregation and Knowledge Sharing in a Personal Learning Environment: Serendipity in Open Online Networks. https://doi.org/10.3991/ijet.v8iS1.2362

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3 thoughts on “Creating a Personalized Leaning Environment using the Moodle Learning Management System

  1. Wow you certainly did a lot of work. I won’t pretend I understand everything you talked about, but I know i would love to be able to set up my classroom in such a way that allows the students to learn at their own pace. Personalized learning and a personalized learning environment re exactly what is needed to be successful at that. My problem of practice was to add video games to my math classroom and i had a comment from another classmate about gamifying my whole room. That too sounds challenging, but i am always open to new ideas and to trying new things. I will definitely be looking into Moodle! Thank you for all your great ideas, explanations and suggestions! I will be printing your paper and using it when i am digging deeper into the ideas!


  2. David,

    It seems that you have delved in quite deeply in your problem of practice and created a solution that circumnavigates the commercial offerings available without negatively impacting your content. Identifying the Seven Zones in which the technology would best serve its “consumers” is an incredibly clarifying way to illustrate the success of the solution. You have gone into such depth that I think you may have reached a significantly higher order solution- that it doesn’t rest in your classroom, but as a tool to inspire and energize educators in using your solution. I think that it would be powerful for you to investigate preparing a presentation that offers a “how to” approach for educators to take advantage of your approach.




    1. Hello Dave,

      I really enjoyed watching your video. I have to admit that I am not familiar with Moodle or Personal Learning Centers (PLC). I teach elementary school and while some of this would not be appropriate for my students I believe some of this absolutely would. Although is would look a bit different for elementary than higher education, I pictured a space where young students could explore their interests, communicate with me and display their independent learning.

      I appreciated the layout of “zones.” I thought perhaps the knowledge zone would be the perfect place for some explicit instructions recorded by podcast or video from the instructor. This idea reminded me of the flipped classroom that I have read about.

      You did an extraordinary amount of work here and I learned something new. Thank you for the introduction PLC’s in a format that I somewhat understood.

      All the best,


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