Custom menu items Moodle 2

[pulledquote]I love Moodle, there I’ve said it! This feeling is far from being shared by all, and I have quite a few colleagues who cannot stand the beast. Whilst some teachers do not like Moodle because they have an aversion to using technology altogether, there are also ‘technophile’ teachers who simply do not like Moodle for other reasons (interface, clunkiness, etc.). In this post aimed at Moodle admins/enthusiasts, I’ll share some tried and tested techniques (in no particular order) to get ‘them’ to use Moodle.[/pulledquote]


1. Do some of the work for them

Don’t you love it when you come back to a hotel room to find out that it has been tidied up for you, bed made and a chocolate left on the pillow, maybe even some cool towel art? Before creating new Moodle courses for teachers, I ask Heads of Department/Faculty for their unit/subunit titles for each course. I then create the course ‘shells’ or ‘templates’ with this tool (disclaimer: it is my tool), so that the first time the teacher logs in to their course (even if they are first time Moodle users), they feel as though they are in known territory, as their syllabus is there right in front of them looking all pretty. This is more inviting than a blank page (which is scary) and could make the difference between a teacher using Moodle or not. It does take me a few minutes extra per course but our curriculum tends to not change very often so I can recycle courses at the end of the academic year. I also think there is some sort of guilt feeling involved – colleagues would feel bad not using the courses after I have put work in for them. Because of this, quite a large number of colleagues end up using Moodle.

Course template for Moodle

2. Make it look pretty

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. I find Moodle ugly in its box standard version, and it seems I am not the only one. I understand that design is being worked on and there is a push from Moodle HQ to make Moodle look a little less… industrial. In the meantime, there are dozens of themes made available by third-party developers, which will make Moodle a little sweeter on the eye. I personally love the Aardvark post-it theme, but it is far from being to everybody’s taste. I am currently not super happy with the look of our Moodle installation and I am running a house competition to get a new logo and design ideas. I’ll post on this in the coming weeks. Some of the themes, on top of looking great, add functionality to Moodle to make it a little more user-friendly, such as the top bar in Aardvark or the ‘Turn editing on’ button in Rocket. Creating sub-themes for each subject is somewhere at the bottom of my to-do list, not sure I’ll ever get to it.

Standard theme for Moodle 2 Rocket theme for Moodle 2

3. Make it easy to navigate

Every time I sit down with a beginner Moodle user, I realise how steep the learning curve actually is. I recently asked a colleague if it would be okay for me to sit next to them and observe them try to use Moodle without helping – it was rather instructive and I will probably write a post about it in the near future. One thing that was clear is that they found it difficult to understand how Moodle is ‘compartmentalised’ and how to get to their ‘Moodle page’. I strongly recommend the following:

  • Enable the ‘Custom menu items‘ in your theme settings and create a ‘Courses’ drop-down box (see below for example). This will require a bit of housekeeping at the beginning of every school year but is extremely useful.
  • In schools where there are young-ish children, on the homepage I use icons for subjects (categories) with some tooltips to show subcategories and direct link to courses (see below for example). If you attended this year’s iMoot, you will most likely have attended Mary Cooch’s excellent presentation telling you not to do this. I’ll have to disagree with Mary on this one (never happened before in years, sorry Mary ;)), as it works great at my school and provides a familiar way for students to get to their courses. This will require maintenance every time you add a course (only a minute or so each time).
  • Have the ‘My Moodle‘ link in that menu bar, right next to ‘Courses’ – this is also very useful and require no maintenance on your part.
The first two recommendations provide teachers & students with a one-click access to their courses, while the ‘My Moodle’ option is a two-click process but is more powerful. Try it, it doesn’t cost anything aside from time – if you (or your users) don’t like it, then you just take it down (I’m sure you won’t :)).

 Use of icons for subjects in Moodle 2Custom menu items Moodle 2CSS to access subcategories in Moodle 2

4. Listen to teachers

Some of my colleagues have lost faith in the use of technology in or out of their lessons for several reasons. To name a few, reliability issues, lack of training, companies going bust, new software to learn, lack of human touch, etc. The only thing I would recommend with these teachers is to simply talk to them. Ask them for 10 or 15 minutes of their time to ask simple questions, finding out why they don’t use technology, etc. Some will refuse to even talk, and that is simply rude – not much we can do about that… Most will have a chat and you will find out a bit about them and their issues. Some teachers simply don’t want to change the way they work because they have done so for 20 years and get great grades. To incite those teachers to use Moodle, you have to tie it in with services those teachers have to use (e.g. email, Turnitin, Google Docs, etc.) as per school policy. For example, my current school uses Google Apps and a lot of our communication, even with the students, is done through emails. The main problem is that groups are not setup by the IT technicians, yet teachers want to communicate with their classes/groups. As the groups are already setup in Moodle, they can use the ‘People‘ block to email groups of students. This requires no setup/maintenance on their part and gets the job done. Same goes for Turnitin – we must check work for plagiarism for exam purposes but groups are not setup in Turnitin. As the groups are setup in Moodle, teachers can create Turnitin assignments with minimal setup. These first steps in Moodle might invite teachers to give Moodle a chance for other tasks.


5. One login, please

Somehow you have to tie in Moodle with an existing authentication system. I chose LDAP so that teachers use the usernames and passwords they use to login to the computers. Try and have as many services using the same login/username combination. There are plenty of authentication options you could use.

6. Provide food & drinks in your training sessions

Unfortunately I don’t have a great deal of dedicated time to train staff on Moodle and other technology topics, and I therefore have to run training sessions at lunch time and after school. Those sessions are voluntary and colleagues give up some of their ‘free-time’ to attend the sessions. I try to provide a little something in the way of food & beverages for teachers who turn up to the sessions, nothing fancy mind you – just some biscuits and such. It sounds silly but it helps, not quite sure why but it does.


7. Upgrade to Moodle 2.3

As mentioned in one of my previous posts, Moodle 2.3 focuses on usability and there are some killer features that teachers will simply love. The top 1 request from my colleagues has always been the ability to upload multiple files at once. This is now possible in Moodle 2.3, by simply dragging and dropping files from your desktop directly into Moodle. Quite a few Moodle novices I have worked with want to start using Moodle as a file repository. While a lot of Moodle evangelists will say that this is not good practice and would recommend teachers against this, I wholeheartedly disagree with them. If a teacher wants to ‘find their feet’ using Moodle that way, then it’s fine by me. At the end of the day, I would rather they used Moodle for that than not use it at all. I find it much easier to train people on features such as forums, blogs, wikis, etc. if they are already familiar with the system. Remember the old adage, you have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run…


8. Play the ‘Environment’ card

I am absolutely shocked at the amount of printing & photocopying at my current school (and the previous one for that matter). I once tried to calculate the amount of paper (and money) we use every year on photocopying but I stopped as I am not so good when dealing with such large figures. A significant part of that printing could be avoided by placing files on Moodle or, better, turn worksheets into self-marking quizzes, presentations into lessons, etc. Students, parents, management are increasingly putting pressure on teachers to photocopy/print less – time to get Moodle to the rescue and show colleagues how easy it is to save on printing using Moodle.


9. Use the students

As more and more teachers use Moodle, students will be quick asking the non-users to start using it. I have witnessed this happen quite a few times, mainly in IB Diploma classes, or IGCSE’s in the final year of the courses. Not all teachers will agree to it, but I know some colleagues who have been ‘encouraged’ by students to start using Moodle because of students’ pressure. I imagine this can only happen when Moodle has reached a certain ‘critical mass’ in a school.


10. Use allies

I recently reintroduced Moodle at the school I work at. Moodle suffered from a bad image as it had been introduced to staff as thismagical tool that would make their life better, with no appropriate training or support. I spent 6 months working under the radar, forging good working relationship with colleagues who were keen on using Moodle, and using it well. Those early adopters became somewhat of Moodle evangelists and have been helping me get other colleagues on board. I have found that ‘reluctant’ teachers are more likely to follow advice from someone they see as being a non-technical person. Having non-techies on board spreading the love is the best thing that can happen to you  as a Moodle administrator.


11. 100% uptime

Yes I know, I have gone ‘Spinal tap’ on this ‘Top 10’ list. Teachers who are not so keen on using Moodle will ditch it forever if it ever fails on them. You will gradually lose other colleagues if the your server is unreliable. Work with your system administrator (if you have one…) to make sure Moodle can cope with the demands of your school/organisation at all times. Easier said than done I know, but it is vital that teachers feel they can always rely on Moodle – it should never crash, ever.

Those are just some of the techniques I have used in the past 5 years as a Moodle administrator, and they have worked well for me so far – I’m not saying I get everyone on board but I get some that wouldn’t otherwise. Please feel free to share your own ideas in the comment section.

Moodle 2.3 activity chooser

[pulledquote]I very first started using Moodle back in the days of Moodle 1.4 and, although its feature set was ‘limited’ its potential to positively influence teaching & learning was already obvious.[/pulledquote]

Moodle HQ has been keeping on track with its 6 month ‘major’ release calendar since Moodle 2.0 was released last year and Moodle 2.3 will be released on June 18th 2012. The emphasis for this version was placed on usability, which is the main teachers’ complaint in every school I have worked at as a Moodle administrator/trainer. During his presentation at iMoot 2012 last night Martin Dougiamas’ went through all of the new features/improvements in Moodle 2.3. I have compiled my top 5 most expected features for this release.

1. Drag’n’drop upload

Davo Smith contributed a fantastic plugin to the Moodle community – the drag’n’drop upload block. He, along with other developers at Moodle HQ have integrated drag’n’drop functionality throughout Moodle and it simply is awesome. I know quite a few Moodle gurus who are less than impressed with teachers who use Moodle as a file sharing area. Truth is a lot of teachers (including myself) teach a content heavy syllabus and, whether we like it or not, we have a ‘duty’ to make a lot of files available to our students. Quite a few schools use Moodle and do not provide their teachers with adequate training, and they start with making files available on Moodle as a first step. The fact that we can now do that extremely quickly and effortlessly will encourage teachers to use Moodle more often and give them more time to discover and try some of its more ‘advanced’ features. I know a lot of colleagues who hate Moodle (yes, hate!) because it is clunky to place files on it – Well, no longer will there be hatred!

2. ‘Quick-rename item’ icon

Although drag’n’drop is awesome and allows you to add hundreds of files to your course in minutes (if not seconds), it brings its own problems to the table. We sometimes use naming conventions that we understand but that may be a tad cryptic to our students. Renaming files/activities in Moodle is no fun as it requires a page refresh every time you want to rename a file (well, up until 2.2 that is). The new icon does away with this issue as you can now rename your files/activities very easily, without requiring a page refresh. This is a ‘small change’ that makes Moodle such a nicer piece of software to use, and it is obviously a great time saver.

3. Activity chooser

One of the first hurdles that colleagues new to Moodle have to overcome is whether they should be adding a ‘resource’ or an ‘activity’ to their course.  The second one is to choose what they need to perform what they want to achieve. For example, quite a few colleagues find it difficult to remember what a ‘Workshop’ is and does, or what the differences are between ‘Choice’ and ‘Feedback’ or ‘Questionnaire’. Those things might be obvious to people who use Moodle on a daily basis, but this is hardly the case for everyone. To help with those issues, Moodle 2.3 boasts a brand new ‘Activity chooser‘. There is now only one link ‘Add activity or resource’ at the bottom of each section – clicking on it pops up the activity chooser, where you can click on a resource/activity type and it will display help for it. This will really help clarify things for users who are not so comfortable with Moodle. Just one thing I have thought of – why not add a ‘How-to’ video below the help section for each activity/resource?

4. A better file picker

Although I have pretty much stopped using the file picker altogether since I installed the drag’n’drop upload block, I still use it occasionally to add the odd pictures to my courses. The file picker has been given a much needed face lift and has gained both in looks and functionality. You now get thumbnails for your pictures and the other filetypes are now easy to identify with big beautiful icons (Barbara Ramiro has done some awesome work). The most important gains are in terms of functionality though, you now get icons view, table view with sizes and dates, or a hierarchical list view to navigate your files. Files are no longer buried within folders and subfolders and you can now create aliases, allowing you to use the same file more than once in a course. For example, you can now upload one image and use it on 3 different courses using the same copy. If you ever decide to update that photo, you don’t need to re-upload all 3 activities as the aliases will update automatically. I must say that the Moodle team really has pulled it off, after receiving a large amount of ‘complaints’ from the community – Thank you for listening.

5. ‘Force save’ before leaving a page

This one is buried under ‘Other highlights‘ of this release and I feel sorry for it a little. If I was given a penny every time I was told by a teacher, or student for that matter, how frustrated they were when their work ‘hadn’t saved’, I would be a few Pounds richer. There are a quite a few pages in Moodle where you have to save your work  if you want changes to stick (file upload being the main culprit). There is now a popup box which alerts you that you cannot leave the page without saving your changes. This is a ‘small’ feature which will save me a lot of heartache and that’s why it has made my top 5.


There are lots more new features/enhancements made to Moodle 2.3 and some of you might think I am mad for not including things like the new course ‘format’ to combat the Scroll of Death, or even the new assignment with marking guide, or even the book module making it to core, but this is all I have time for tonight as I’d like to catch up some more iMoot sessions before I go and get some sleep!

I have been testing Moodle 2.3 and it feels like a mature product, so much easier and nicer to use than any of its predecessor – this really is a major release. It feels more like using WordPress, which I view as an exemplary web application in terms of usability. Almost 2/3 of all Moodle registered sites are still on 1.9 version and I strongly believe this version will compel a large proportion of those organisations to make the move to Moodle 2.x (even those awaiting for some their third-party plugins to be updated). Moodle HQ won’t leave it at that though, Moodle 2.4 will improve usability even further and should be released in December – will all of our Christmases come at once this year?

Big Blue Button Welcome screen

[pulledquote]I have used my trusty iMac 24″ for over 4.5 years with no issues whatsoever, until today that is when the heat got the better of it for a few hours. Fortunately all iMoot sessions are recorded and I was able to view some of the presentations that I missed.[/pulledquote]

One of the presentations that caught my eye was about Big Blue Button, an open-source online conferencing system that “enables universities and colleges [and schools] to delivers a high-quality learning experience to remote students”.

Those of you who follow my blog know I used to teach at a school in Thailand that had to close down during a period of political unrest. Although Moodle helped us function as a school during that time, teaching & learning would not have been impacted on as much had we had the ability to interact ‘face-to-face’ with our students (some of us used Skype but it was less than ideal). Big Blue Button would have allowed us to provide students with a quality education during those unsettling times.

It is unlikely that my current school will be closing due to political unrest (I now teach in Hong Kong), but I am still keen to install Big Blue Button as I have a few ideas up my sleeve (more on that in a future blog post). This open-source software clearly has hug potential for training & tutoring.

The Big Blue Button team reckon that you’ll be able to install their software on your server ‘within 30 minutes, or your money back’. Obviously the software is free (the team don’t even accept donations), which is good for them otherwise they would have had to give me my money back. It took me about 90 minutes to install Big Blue Button following the relatively easy, and detailed set of instructions. The only issue I ran into was my fault, as I was trying to run Apache alongside Nginx (silly me!). I now have a working server but have not yet had time to test it – that’ll happen tomorrow so stay tuned.

I’m off to catch some of the iMoot 2012 sessions I missed today, with the air conditioning on to make sure the trusty iMac makes it through the evening. On a side note, Apple please refresh your iMac line up, I need a new one!