E-Learning Environments team blog
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    We support Staff and Students using technology to enhance teaching & learning.

    Here you'll find updates on developments at UCL, links & events as well as case studies and personal experiences. Let us know if you have any ideas you want to share!

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  • The future of Moodle is well within our grasp

    By Matt Jenner, on 17 September 2012

    Moodle is open source software and is used by millions of people around the world. Open source allows anyone to tinker with the code; adding new things, changing existing & ultimately deciding which direction their Moodle heads in. Many of these changes are shared within the Moodle community for others to freely use – this leads to the core software being developed, extended and reformed in many directions. Keeping a steer on this is Moodle HQ, a group of 20 ‘core’ developers and, tightly connected, many global developers, testers, documentation writers, really helpfulers (people who help the community on Moodle.org with problems) and many others. What’s sometimes lacking with Moodle is the input, or link to education research including academics, learners, administrators, developers, testers, researchers and everyone else.

    1st Moodle Research Conference

    Blogging from Crete – Greece, this post attempts to summarise two days of the 1st Moodle Research Conference. The conference was the first iteration of an event unlike other established Moodle, or educational meet-ups. Sold as “a unique event dedicated to the research and development (R&D) on learning and teaching carried out with Moodle”. What that actually meant evolved right though the two days as the conference delegates shared, talked and discovered the direction Moodle is heading in.

    The international conference had around 70 delegates from 22 countries. There were 23 presentations showcasing developments, case studies, new tools, learning designs, learning analytics and addressing challenging issues and introducing new ideas; all for Moodle. Additionally there were seven posters, three meals, one panel discussion and one keynote – from Martin Dougiamas, the man who invented Moodle. If that wasn’t enough, we were also in the Creta Maris – a somewhat splendid and slightly distracting conference venue with the Mediterranean Sea lapping at our feet, the sun beating down and wild cats meowing for scraps of lunch.

    The aim of the conference, at least from my perspective, was to see how educational research was influencing Moodle development. After all, we have this tool which is designed around teaching and learning but it also continual evolves. To ensure it changes along with established understanding of how people learn and what affordances technologies can offer, we must ensure a cyclic loop exists, with each feeding in the other. Or, at least that’s the idea.

    User-centred design

    Often is the case that developers say they wish to just get on with developing and that theorists are too theoretical (with their heads in the clouds). The crux of the issue seems to be that established and ratified theory must influence design, design must influence development and developers must do the same.

    User centred design (SAP, 2012)

    One argument against Moodle is that it’s not intuitive, this may be most strongly felt by academics as they mutter that Moodle doesn’t quite map onto teaching, takes too much time and isn’t always an environment which encourages alternative approaches to learning and teaching. Instead, and this is something I’m happy to agree with, Moodle is technology, this is akin to something ‘that doesn’t work yet’. If Moodle ‘worked’ we wouldn’t need so many people helping with it, it’d just ‘work’. To keep things simple, I don’t remember the last time I explained how a chair works, which was once a technology itself.

    Moodle is over 10 years old now, and along the way many innovative additions have come to the software. But, also over the years sometimes developments have not always been linked to the research and, unfortunately the emergent disconnect between designers, practitioners, theorists and everyone in the middle appears. This has resulted in both innovation and disruption. Moodle development is the output of highly skilled and passionate people all contributing towards something they want to improve. What’s being addressed here is slightly more complex, with so many developments it’s often hard to see where the edges are. Further, developments are not necessarily tied together, and we end up being back outside the cyclic process shown above.

    While there is plenty of time to disseminate the talks in the conference, I felt this blog post was better positioned to give a higher level view into what’s happening with Moodle. The simple fact is the web is evolving very quickly, start-ups can build, destroy and rebuild with minimal fear of reprise. This could be because they promote agility in their staff and in their product, or because they are nowhere near as established as something like Moodle where agility can have a negative impact for a large community of users.

    What is Moodle now

    Essentially a lot of Moodle is internally facing, tools are developed to be a part of the ecosystem of Moodle.

    What will Moodle become?

    This is harder to describe, but the value of tools external to Moodle are immensely useful. Linking intelligently to these is important, and focusing on strengthening the internal tools make sense, rather than necessarily diversifying them by adding many more. This is just one view, the route is still to be defined. The important thing is to consider Moodle as the base, the developments focus around educational developments and the wider tools linked in, rather than reinvented.

    The next direction?

    What’s most important is that the developments are fed back from users; that’s all types identified. The next few years are going to be important for Moodle, for UCL and the wider community. At some point will come the dreaded system review, comparison and evaluation. It will have to stand up against the changing landscape of tools and environments for online learning and teaching. By concentrating its developments around the best understanding of relevant pedagogical research, it’ll hopefully retain Moodle’s strength, improve the system for everyone and keep Moodle aligned as one of the world’s best learning management systems.

    Well, that’s the current plan. 

    References

    SAP (2012).  Principles of UI Development, SAP Community Network. Last accessed 17th September 2012 from http://wiki.sdn.sap.com/wiki/display/BBA/Principles+of+UI+Development

    Moogle Analytics

    By Matt Jenner, on 20 April 2012

    We have had UCL Moodle linked to Google Analytics for the past three or so years, the data this allows us to see about Moodle usage and browsing habits is getting increasingly interesting. The concept of looking into data for measuring learning is obviously bonkers, no amount of pure data of browsing behaviour of Moodle will give indication about any actual learning taking place. Observe a classroom or people on the bus, you can see how many people are there and what they’re doing, but you won’t know what they’re thinking, what connections are being made etc. But, do not despair, there is a reason for this post – albeit it’s a bit dry and technical…

    What Google Analytics does is give us an anonymous view into what happens when someone comes onto Moodle. For example, you do this:

    1. Browse to the Moodle homepage
    2. Login
    3. View a course
    4. Send a forum message
    5. Log out

    Data Trail

    You’ve just left a data trail behind you about your computer (not you). This trail isn’t used for snooping on you personally, it’s anonymous, it also isn’t used for snooping at all. What it does, and I hope you believe me, is leave data tracks telling us something useful. For example, let’s look at the above and break it down.

    You and your browser

    Google analytics can find this information out:

    • Web browser (Internet Explorer 9)
    • Operating system (Windows 7)
    • Device-ish (only really useful for mobile devices like smartphones)
    • Rough location (London, UK)
    • Internet Provider (University College London)
    • IP Address (your computers’ address to the internet)
    • Web software capabilities (Flash, Java, Javascript)
    • Some other stuff (passport, NI number, date of birth, name – all not included!!!)

    Don’t be scared about this, none of the data can be used to identify you. As a side note: if you’re worried about UCL Moodle collecting this data, remember that for other sites (such as the big ones outside of UCL which you may use daily) your data is their product, and you give them nearly everything about you, this data is only about your computer, but let’s not go down that route, this is about learning…

    Other data collected

    Google’s Analytics also collects data about your pages you view; so for example each page you load is marked as a ‘view’ on that page. Pages with higher numbers of views are clearly more popular, for whatever reason. Then there’s unique views, one person viewing a page ten times means one thing, ten people viewing the page once each means something else. Adding to this there are other metrics, such as time on page, page exits (if they leave the page, can we see where they go) and eventually building pathways through a site.

    So, what’s my point?

    What Google reports is really hard to read into but there’s a few changes to Moodle code (really small changes) which makes this data far more useful. Over the coming year I hope we can make these changes, and next year, report back on what the data says about Moodle usage. We want to know what’s popular (read: working) and what isn’t (read: not?).

    Informative and technical links:

    Perhaps mostly useful for the technically inclined, but it’s what we work with to make Moodle more useful for you.

    More soon!

    Using files in Moodle 2

    By Jessica Gramp, on 27 March 2012

     

    How has file management changed in Moodle 2?folders

    • You only upload files as you need to link to them.
    • You must choose a license every time you upload a document.
    • A copy is made every time you link to a file.
    • This means you can’t currently link to one file from more than one place.
      Note: The ability to link to the same file from more than one place is in development.
    • You can not view files outside of the linking to a file / folder / image areas.
      I.e. there is no ‘files’ link in the Administration block.
    • The files in Moodle 2 are more secure.

     

    Why has this changed?

    Moodle is not a file repository. Only files being used in your course are retained in Moodle 2. Files not being used will be automatically removed, unless they have migrated over from the existing UCL Moodle – in this case they will be available in the Legacy course files area in the Administration block.

    Tips

    • You can easily find current files using the Recent files area in the new file manager.
    • You can use your private files area to store files that only you can see – until you are ready to use them in a course.

    “But I like the old Moodle file manager!”

    There is a workaround – speak to the LTSS if you would like to know how to continue to share your old files amongst staff or follow these instructions:

    1. Go to the Legacy course files area in the Administration block and [Download all files].
    2. Create a hidden staff only area in the last topic of your course homepage – click the eye so it is closed and everything inside the topic will be hidden from students – be careful all course editors know never to make this area unhidden area, otherwise students will be able to see the files.
    3. Add a folder to this area (you can hide this too to make doubly sure students can’t see it)
    4. Upload the zipped folder (must be smaller than 160MB) and unzip.
    5. Delete the zip file.
    6. You can now share files between staff in a similar way to before.


     

    Making Moodle Beautiful – Part 2

    By Matt Jenner, on 15 March 2012

    Following on from a previous post we have been working hard to deliver a Moodle that’s designed for everyone and looks functional, modern and reflects UCL’s style and quality. We think we’re quite close so here’s a little more detail on what’s coming, and what our pilot users are using right now and giving us feedback on.

    Functional design

    Following on from mapping the functionality of Moodle and comparing it against many other Moodle’s from across the world we came up with some prototype designs from our designer – Huw Jones from Photographic and Illustrative Services, ISD – a group of people at UCL who can do print, web, illustrative design and photography. This design was then implemented into Moodle. A lot of [on-going] tweaking later, we have something we’re proud to show.

    New homepage

    The new homepage for UCL Moodle

    The homepage is very important, we want a simple route for UCL people to log in but we also have a space for Guests, important news and making Moodle more of a showcase of research or local imagery and promotion of interesting areas within Moodle for users (such as courses on academic writing, induction courses, staff development and more).

    Note the Help & Support button – this slides out and provides information for people who are unable to log in or looking for support.

    Once logged in - My Home

    Each person is taken to an areas entitled My Home - this is a personalised and custom space containing your courses enrolled in and some useful blocks on the right side, details below.

    My Home - a personal space

    This area contains a few things, most notable are the three navigation buttons on the left side. Help, My Moodle and Settings are used all across Moodle and are essential for getting around, changing things and getting support.

    In addition this area has:
    • My courses – a list of all the courses you are enrolled on (staff or student);
    • Search courses – find more courses to browse or enrol on;
    • Logged in user – your details (you may want to update them if they’re incorrect or add a profile image);
    • Calendar – retrieves all important dates across all your courses, such as assignment deadlines, Moodle examinations or scheduler appointments – they’re all displayed here;
    • Private files (not shown) – store temporary files on Moodle such as assignment drafts or important documents – like a USB key in the cloud (but limited to 30Mb for now);
    • Latest news (not shown) – important news and announcements from the Learning Technology Support Service about Moodle and related services;
    • Messages (not shown) – private messages from friends, colleagues and other people at UCL.

    Looking at a course

    The Student Moodle Inductions course in new Moodle

    My Moodle menu

    My Moodle is used to get you around the site, navigate to My Home, your profile and if you like, other courses.

    Settings menu

    The Settings menu is used to edit the place you're in, such as courses, your profile or a resource/activity

    Going fixed – reducing wide screen courses

    One change most will notice is that Moodle is now fixed in size, this means that it will always be the same width and doesn’t just stretch to the size of your monitor. This was a difficult decision to make, because it means some courses don’t display wide images or content as well as they used to. The reason why we did this was primarily based on accessibility; not everyone has a widescreen monitor and so while what you have made might look OK for you, it may look terrible, or worse, illegible on other computers. By having a fixed-width which accommodates to a maximum width specification it means Moodle will look as expected on most sized screens. The BBC and Facebook, for example, both do this, it’s fairly standard web design. There’s lots of ways we can quickly fix up courses which may look a little skinny from this change and more details will emerge over the coming months.  We’re also looking at a user-based width expansion button – but this is still in the early stages.

    A few notable comments

    Making Moodle look ‘beautiful’ is hard work, firstly everyone uses it differently, which is great, but it means we need a platform which can accommodate all this creativity. While this is the kind of challenge we enjoy, it means that the end results always scale differently in people’s opinions. The response we have had already is ‘much cleaner’, ‘really easy to visualise my future course developments’ and even ‘looks like facebook’ – which we’re not sure is a good thing. We’ve also already had the  ’urgh, sicky green’ – which is a fair comment and that green colour may change to something different.

    Towards Part 3, and beyond

    Changes are still taking place, so this is not the final design. We’re also working with a few Moodle quirks which are working themselves out. Stay tuned, or get in touch with your feedback on moodle2@ucl.ac.uk

    Part 3 coming soon-ish

    Making Moodle Beautiful – Part 1

    By Matt Jenner, on 13 February 2012

    Update 15/3/12

    Second part now also on the blog – Making Moodle Beautiful – Part 2


    We’re not shocked to hear that UCL Moodle isn’t the prettiest of websites. Our philosophy may be more about function than form but it would be too expectant for us to presume everyone thinks this way. So, coming with the June 2012 upgrade of Moodle we’re also working on making Moodle beautiful. There’s a lot of background work in making this happen, so if you’re interested in this please do read on. If you’re expecting to see what we came up with, I’m sorry but you’ll have to wait a few more weeks while the ‘computer-magic-stuff’ happens. We shall be sure to post here again with an update.

    Background

    Some components of Moodle are over 10 years old. This is a long time for anyone, let alone in terms of web development. UCL has had Moodle for many years, officially since 2006 and as the primary online learning and teaching environment since 2008. Throughout that time it’s still changed in appearance a bit:

    Moodle in 2006

    Moodle in 2006

    Moodle in 2007

    Moodle in 2007

    Moodle in 2007-2009

    Moodle in 2007-2009

    Moodle in 2010 - 2012

    Moodle in 2010 - 2012

    So we can see that there’s been a steady movement towards beauty, but we’re not quite there, yet.

    Feedback from around UCL

    "Moodle could REALLY use a GUI facelift! It's awful!" - Student's don't hold back with their thoughts

    Student's don't hold back with their thoughts

    We rarely ask if people think Moodle looks good, we’re painfully aware that some don’t like the look and others are put off even using it partly due to visual appeal. This is disparaging, we want a system which everyone at UCL wants to use so if this is important to our users, then it’s important to us too. Feedback from the 2010-11 ISD student survey highlighted serveral key comments about Moodle’s aesthetics.

    Opportunity knocks

    When we planned the upgrade of Moodle in June 2012 it was decided to also refresh how Moodle looks. While this is not the main focus by any length, it was important to address and this was the perfect time to do it. We enlisted local graphic designer, Huw Jones from ISD and an external Moodle developer to begin our design work. Before they set about designing Moodle we want to create a functional specification to ensure no functionality is lost or disrupted during this process.

    What do other Moodle’s look like?

    Moodle is a configurable system so the first part was to investigate what other universities and organisations do with their Moodle. In total we found 66 homepages to take some inspiration from, the video below is a compilation of all these homepages:

    A small group looked at each homepage and decided what we did (or did not) like to try and emulate small parts of the design into our Moodle. All were publicly available and so we hope we’re not breaking any rules by posting it on YouTube (excluding comments!).

     Functional design

    From looking at what’s new in Moodle 2, we also felt compelled to re-consider some long-standing gripes with Moodle. The main ones being mobile access (more info in a mobile preview here) and the navigation. Moodle is an important system for many people, so it’s got to function correctly as a priority, looking beautiful is just a bonus. The three images below show some of the tasks employed to create the functional specification for our next iteration of Moodle:

    Homepage - technical design

    Adding all the elements of function needed on the Moodle homepage

    The header and footer are on every single Moodle page. They needed to be branded and functional.

    MyHome is a new space in Moodle which brings a much more personalised experience

    Design phase

    Once the technical bits (i.e. the buttons, boxes, icons and other visual components)  are specified our designer Huw had to go off and work his magic. It’s sadly at this point we must leave the blog post as his work is still in progress. We can confirm what we have already is looking very good and the effort was well worth it.

    Next step

    User feedback – we shall be in touch. If you want to give your views then you’re encouraged to sign up to the Moodle User Group, more information here:

    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/isd/moodle2/getinvolved

    Or keep an eye out on this blog, more is on the way!

    Moodle on your mobile – preview of what’s to come

    By Matt Jenner, on 6 February 2012

    In June 2012 UCL Moodle is being upgraded. One new feature will be mobile device support. This preview will give a five minute demonstration of what’s coming to a mobile near you:

    (more…)