Back in 2013, the team at Sussex University wowed the Moodle community with the work it had done with their Moodle, “Study Direct,” in which they implemented features like the activity chooser, improvements to the display of course content, student dashboards, and more.
This is why it may come as a shock to some that Sussex recently announced they are moving to Canvas LMS.
What Went Wrong?
The biggest surprise to someone looking at the screenshots of Study Direct (in the blog posts linked above) would be to learn that all this (and more) was built in Moodle 1.9. To achieve this, the developers broke the first commandment of maintaining a sustainable Moodle installation:
“Thou shalt not modify core code”
It would seem that, having made so many changes, Sussex was not able to upgrade to Moodle 2. Within the space of a couple of years, their groundbreaking Moodle 1.9 site was behind the times compared to systems at other universities running higher versions of Moodle.
Personally, it is a real shame that Sussex decided to drop Moodle in favour of Canvas as most of the improvements they lead the way on are now available in Moodle core and some third party plugins. They could have migrated courses into a new cloud-based Moodle system, improving resiliency, availability, and support, whilst avoiding significant upheaval for their organization
Instead, after a lengthy process of moving content and retraining staff, Sussex will have a vanilla system no better or worse than what any other Canvas customer has. The majority of academic staff will then upload documents, embed the odd video, and manage assignments. A smaller number will create a quiz here and there, use peer work, and conduct other activities.
There is nothing transformative about swapping out your LMS, given the leading four (BlackBoard, Moodle, D2L, and Canvas) being so similar in what they do.
Study Direct for Everyone
In any case, those of us still using Moodle still have much to thank the old team at Sussex for. The activity chooser in Moodle, message and alerts icons in the header, several third-party plugins, and themes such as “Adaptable” and “Snap,” have all drawn on features of Study Direct over the past few years.
Today, anyone who wants to replicate the UI Sussex pioneered can do so pretty closely with just a few plugins and a couple of hours of configuration without writing a line of code. At the end of a few hours, the user could have an interface more lively and engaging than anything I have seen created in Canvas to date.