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Recommendations for Moodle HQ

This blog post comes on the back of the Moodle moot conference we attended in Edinburgh this month. As in most conferences we received many comments from the Moodle community such as this one by Mark Andrews, University of Cambridge:

Sussex University seems to have sorted out all the problems we have with Moodle

Well Mark, of course we haven’t, but we have made steps in the right direction.

Mark’s and comments like this led us to believe it would be useful to offer some recommendations for Moodle HQ. This post offers advice based on our experiences of working with Moodle in an HE institution for the last 10 years.

1. You don’t need more PHP developers you need more designers

The strength of our Moodle install is not a result of the strength of our development team. We have only ever had two developers. The strength of our Moodle comes as a result of listening to the advice of someone with design, user experience and generic content management system expertise.

In 2010 we hired Stuart Lamour who was a UX designer with large amount of experience in web based CMS such as WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. Working with Stuart we were able to identify the key factors about our Moodle install which made teachers create online courses that were little more than long lists of attachments with links to an occasional activity.

We were then able to identify key changes to the user interface design which would change the teachers workflow and improve the Moodle courses that they created.

It wasn’t difficult to change Moodle to work as we would have liked – it just needed a little inspiration and common sense advice, which wasn’t nearly as common as you might think.

If Moodle takes the advice of a similar UX designer they will be able to produce a highly usable Moodle that works for all sectors of the community.

2. Follow the Market leaders of social media

Social media is adopted by people because it is easy and enjoyable to use. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ are used because they have the user interface right.

In contrast, enterprise systems are bought by purchasers and managers who often don’t use the system. Using enterprise systems is often unintuitive and wastes employees’ time as they wrestle with them. Employees are paid to use them, but their user interface often stinks. When was the last time you were frustrated by your institution’s finance or student record system?

Moodle is an enterprise system. It has been adopted by a critical mass. It won’t go anywhere soon, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be improving its usability. Our tutors deserve an interface that is intuitive so that they can focus on teaching and not Moodle course administration.

3. Focus on Moodle core functionality

Moodle core needs to be consolidated because the core of Moodle still isn’t as good as it should be, including many of the “social constructivist” activity modules.

It should not spend time focusing on non-core features such as messaging and further integrations

Remember, the core Moodle function for the core of Moodle adopters is to make it easy for non-technical teachers to create online content and activities from which students can learn.

4. Consider Moodle courses as a bespoke textbook

At all levels of education, teachers refer to textbooks. The strength of systems like Moodle is that the non-technical teachers can create their own online textbooks, specifically for the curriculum they intend to cover.

Textbooks usually include activities to complete at the end of the chapter. In VLEs like Moodle, the activities they set can be varied, social and dynamic – more so than activities in a traditional textbook.

Martin D commented that our Moodle courses were just like the Book module. My reply is:

Yes, and this is no surprise – we consider Moodle courses to be online textbooks tailored to the needs of the course’s curriculum”

5. Navigation needs to be clear and clean

Like textbooks, Moodle courses need a contents page and chapters.

These elements of a textbook match to the Moodle navigation block and Moodle sections.

What do content pages of books look like?

book contents page

They are clear and clean! Moodle’s navigation block needs to be the same.

What do book chapters look like?

Well, we’d say they are clearly demarcated areas with related content.

This leads us to argue that Moodle sections (chapters) need to be clearly separated on different pages with introductions to each. And this does not need to be another configuration setting – it just needs to be so.

We’d also recommend that Moodle does not need the option to pre-specify the number of topics in a course. You start with one. If course tutors need more they will add them.

The principle is the creator of a textbook  doesn’t start with ten chapters they need to fill. They start with one and go on from there.

It is as well to remember that non-experts do not like deleting things, so if you create a course with ten sections there will remain ten sections and some will be empty (and by the way, that means you should also start courses with the minimum number of blocks).

And again “no” – we don’t care that this is a configuration setting at the site level – it shouldn’t be. Which leads us to our next point:

6. Stop the proliferation of configuration variables

While some configuration variables are needed, others simply indicate software designers not being able to make a decision. We need to be decisive and focus on our core functionality and core user sets. Other configurations of Moodle can be catered for by plugins or flavours. However, until Moodle is really an industry standard VLE/LMS, we need to keep focused on the core functionality and core user groups.

7. Moodle course administration needs to be improved

Course administration in Moodle is just another block. It shouldn’t be. Course administration needs a clear separation from the course creation and design. It is ontologically different. In most systems, including our own now we have modified it, it is called a “Dashboard“.

Like in other content management systems such as WordPress, Blogger and Tumblr administration pages do not need to look anything like the course pages. In fact it probably helps if they look different because they will need their own navigation elements.

8. Make it easy to make content

We used to complain about the Moodle “scroll of death”. Then infinite scrolling came along and we questioned if our complaint was valid.

It was.

Unlike social media platforms’ scroll Moodle courses usually lack interesting content. It is just a scroll of anonymous links.

This is still a reality for many Moodle users today, but not so in our Moodle install. We changed the interface in line with social media platforms so teachers intuitively create content-rich courses for their students.

Here are some of the tactics we employed:

Changes such as these have made our teachers more likely to create Moodle courses which are attractive and rich in content.

9. Have notifications

Modern systems have notifications of important, relevant stuff to the user.

Moodle is their online space for their educational journey. It needs to feel alive, not dead. This is done by making updates obvious and not something they need to search for.

Notifications of relevant information, changes and social exchanges make the system a dynamic and addictive interface.

In our Moodle for example:

  • Students are notified about recently released feedback on their assessments from the front page
  • Students are notified about upcoming deadlines to assessments from the front page
  • Students have a weekly timetable, including teaching sessions and locations from the front page
  • Students are notified about additions of resources and activities to course in the user bar available from all pages – with a count of all unread additions.
  • Social elements such as tutor or peer engagement in activities also appear in the user bar – with a count of unread forum posts.

Users do not have to drill down into courses to search for what is important to them or what has changed in the system. These updates indicate to the student that the system is a rich, social hub – relevant to their learning journey.

10. Create a Moodle Lite

This may seem like a lot of work. We’ve done it and it isn’t that hard – it just needs some inspiration. But our final recommendation will help Moodle handle the transition – create a Moodle Lite.

A Moodle Lite would include a front page, a user profile, a course page, a navigation block, core modules including resource, label, quiz, forum and assignment and a dashboard for general settings and enrolments. Bang!

Everything else is a downloadable plugin including the institution’s choice of authentication system.

Once these core elements are as slick as they could be, then, and only then, should Moodle HQ start improving the plugins.

Summary

We are passionate about education and supporting student learning through online tools. We really want Moodle to be an industry standard product that can meet the needs of educational institutions such as ours. We believe it has a long way to go, but that it can yet achieve its goals. We have confidence that the lead developers will start making the right decisions and taking it in the right direction.

As always, please leave any comments below and feel free to contact us.

11 Comments

  1. Posted May 13, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    A really great summary of our design philosophy, nice one Paolo

  2. Ross Manson
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Recommendation 4 seems doubtful. If I wanted a place to put “bespoke textbooks”, I’d use a simple CMS (as in content). Moodle offers the chance to build courses that promote high-level learning behaviors. The collaboration and student content creation activities are what makes Moodle special, and the underlying constructivist philosophy means questioning, sharing, rich-tasks, student-centered learning, and creativity take their rightful place a the head of the pedagogical hierarchy. More tools, more activities… Less text.

  3. Mark Andrews
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi Guys,
    Wow i’m really touched that one of my comments would form the basis of a blog post! – very honored.

    For a while I’ve been thinking how you guys take a really good no-nonsense approach to user centered design and come up with really sensible, possibly evidenced based solutions.

    I wonder how many other people in their institutions and companies are all tackling some of these issues in their own way. So my question really was: ‘You guys have got a lot of this sorted – how can we help these ideas and developments go upstream into moodle’. 

    Paolo – I look forward to continuing the conversation
    Stuart – I look forward to seeing more of your direct no-nonsense posts in the moodle forums

    All the best
    Mark

  4. Posted May 15, 2014 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Nice read. I’m all for making Moodle better. Kudos to the UOS team and Stuart Lamour. I’ve worked on a Moodle placement test (Quiz) for my organisation and I would say that time-wise I was spending 50% of my time on CSS, 30% on Javascript and 20% on PHP coding. The UI was almost EVERYTHING! Also, please make it simple to add and move quiz questions in a quiz activity. Do we really have to click that Up Arrow and Down Arrow to move a quiz question around? It’s time to go drag and drop when arranging quiz questions in a Moodle quiz. Overall Moodle HQ, I am pleased with Moodle and enjoy the programming challenges along the way. Here’s to Moodle’s evolution with every improving features! Cheers, Frankie Kam.

  5. Kael
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Social media is about the person who does the sharing, not about the others on the network reading it. The tools are great, but how I want information presented is up to me. I’m sure we all organise out VLEs how we would like to be taught, or how we would like to read/watch. We do the same on our facebook (groups, pages, most recent v top stories) – it’s what WE want to see, and HOW we want to see it.

    In my ideal VLE, the content is curated on an individual basis by the learner. It could be as a to do list, or as a web page, or like a newsfeed, or as a textbook – or any number of methodologies. The teacher creates great content, uses meta data to link other content, additional activities, reading material etc, but the presentation of that content is up to the learner.

    I have to admit my heart sinks a little every time i go to a Moodle course with a single topic view – it’s not how I work. But other hate seeing all the topics and having a scroll of death. Personal preference is good usability.

    2 cents!

  6. Posted May 15, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Nailed it Paolo!

    On the navigation front, we’ve found the Course Contents block (https://github.com/mudrd8mz/moodle-block_course_contents) to be a wise replacement for existing navigation interfaces in Moodle. We will be removing the Navigation block entirely prior to migrating to 2.7 and rely primarily on Course Contents and some 1st and 2nd level navigation we devise ourselves. I think this is the way forward.

       

  7. Derek Chirnside
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    :-)  I think some of this may gain traction if developers were using Moodle with a real course and real students for a month.  Pipe dream I know. 

    A post worth reflecting on.  

    -Derek

  8. Derek Chirnside
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    @Cathal, check out also https://moodle.org/plugins/view.php?plugin=block_course_menu the course menu.  Also the Awesome bar https://moodle.org/plugins/view.php?plugin=theme_decaf

    Interesting comment by Kael.  Someone who likes the Scroll of death!!    

    As I said in Moodle.org.  I wonder if anyone with influence is listening?

    Good luck Paolo abd Stuart and team.

    -Derek

  9. Guy Duescher
    Posted May 16, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    From Sussex’s point of view, could there be a dialogue with Moodle HQ to get their completed enhancements integrated into the main codebase? Has this discussion already taken place and been rejected by the Moodle Devs? Or is this post a opening offer from Sussex Devs to add to the development effort?

    Would love to see your changes integrated as they always seem so obvious and sensible.

    Guy

  10. Ian Franklin
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post Paolo. I like the idea regarding notifications. You may be interested in taking a look at MooScope, a Moodle dashboard for Facebook. The dashboard enables students to receive Moodle updates from their Facebook accounts. You can find out more here: http://www.twoscope.com/mooscope.aspx

  11. Posted September 25, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Great Blog! In this post i have got great knowledge and the first two recommendations are very necessary that we don’t need more PHP developers we need more designers , and other one is we have to Follow the Market leaders of social media . 

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Recommendations for Moodle HQ – E-learnin... on May 13, 2014 at 11:02 am

    […]   […]

  2. By Recommendations for Moodle HQ – E-learnin... on May 13, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    […] This blog post comes on the back of the Moodle moot conference we attended in Edinburgh this month. As in most conferences we received many comments from the Moodle community such as this one by Mark Andrews, University of Cambridge: “Sussex University seems to have sorted out all the problems we have with Moodle“ Well Mark, of course we haven’t, but we have made steps in the right direction. Mark’s and comments like this led us to believe it would be useful to offer some recommendations for Moodle HQ. This post offers advice based on our experiences of working with Moodle in an HE institution for the last 10 years.  […]

  3. […] On the heels of their experience at the Edinburgh Moodlemoot, the Sussex eLearning Team posted 10 recommendations to Moodle HQ regarding the future development of the worlds leading open source LMS. It’s well worth the full read if you have an interest in Moodle: http://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/elearningteam/2014/05/08/recommendations-for-moodle-hq/ […]

  4. […] wonderful folks over at the University of Sussex wrote an impassioned blog recommending a series of changes to Moodle, and advice on developing Moodle for the […]

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