Tag Archive for moodle

50% More O’s Than Moodle

I first rolled out Moodle to a school in 2005. Since then, Moodle has admirably served the schools at which I have worked, providing a powerful, (cash) free, low-maintenance course web site system to teachers. Unlike many open-source systems, Moodle provided everything teachers required and just plain worked out of the box. Moodle became popular just as Web 2.0 began to go mainstream among teachers.

In the last few years, new learning management systems suitable for secondary schools have appeared, some substantially re-imagining what a 21st century LMS should do. During this time, Moodle has made only minor end-user improvements, failing to keep up with innovations in web site usability and organization. Over the same period of time, LMS use in secondary schools has become standard practice, so that schools are increasingly willing to pay for an LMS, eliminating Moodle’s chief advantage over other systems.

Next year, University Prep will replace Moodle with Schoology. Our evaluation also included Haiku, Canvas, Edmodo, and eBackpack. Our primary criteria were: 1) ease of use; 2) quality of Moodle import; 3) strength of iPad app. Schoology performed best in all three categories.

Schoology Haiku Canvas Edmodo eBackpack
 Ease of use  excellent  excellent  good  excellent  good
 Moodle import  excellent  good  fair  none  none
 iPad app  excellent  none  fair  excellent  excellent

Why were these three criteria most important to our school? We require all faculty to post syllabus and assignment information to our LMS, so it has to be straightforward for the less technically-inclined to use. This was unfortunately not the case with Moodle, leading to many complaints and limited use.

The new LMS needed to import Moodle successfully, because many teachers had put a lot of work into their existing courses, and it would not be acceptable to start from an empty course website.

The iPad app had to be very strong, because we are launching a 1:1 iPad program in the Middle School next fall. Our new LMS had to have both a great website presentation for the Upper School and a great iPad app, ideally including all of the features available on the web site.

The other LMS’s we evaluated were all excellent, and many schools might find them to be a better match, depending on their evaluation criteria. Haiku offered the best teacher control over the web page layout. Its block system allows one to place any kind of content in any location on the page. Canvas looked very solid in a web browser, but it imported Moodle content into the Modules category (instead of Pages), and the iPad app doesn’t yet support Modules. Edmodo offered a similar presentation to Schoology, but it simply did not import Moodle in any manner. eBackpack offered terrific document workflow for our Middle School, but its web-based presentation seemed inadequate for our Upper School.

Schoology both offers improved usability for core features as well as several very exciting enhancements that may allow our teachers to substantially advance their LMS use. Many of these address a central problem with Moodle: students don’t check it.

In Schoology, announcements and events have higher billing than course content. This is such a better match to how students think about their coursework. Who needs to see the entire syllabus every time you want to access tonight’s assignment? Course announcements can include text, polls, audio and video, making it possible to set up an engaging prompt to start homework or precede a class meeting.

Audio and video recording work reliably both in-browser and on the iPad, making a decade-long ambition a reality (who remembers NanoGong?). Language teachers in particular are very excited about video-based announcements and class discussions.

Students can control when and how they receive course notifications, for example through the web site, email, mobile app alerts, or text message. This should make it so much easier for students to stay abreast of the latest activity in their courses.

Schoology offers just one kind of assignment (Moodle had four). Electronic submission is easy to set up and use. The in-browser file viewer provides many tools for teachers to comment on student work: text, highlighter, strikethrough tool, sticky note, and pen. Our Upper School teachers will be able to write on student work with a tablet and a stylus! Very exciting. iPad users can open files in Notability, write on it, and then send it back to Schoology.

Schoology runs on iPad, iPhone, and Android, making it possible for students to submit work and teachers to manage courses from their tablets or phones. We know that many users work more actively online when they can access content using their phones.

Course migration takes place in July. I’ll let you know how it goes come September.



Moodle 2.1 Upgrade

I upgraded our Moodle 1.9 site to version 2.1 today on our Debian HyperV server. The process went rather poorly compared to my test upgrades in the spring. In May, I copied our entire site to a different server and upgraded it to 2.0 without difficulty. This time, I ran into more issues but got there by the end of the day. I gather this was largely due to changes in the installer itself from version 2.0 to 2.1.

Converting the database engine to INNODB as suggested slowed performance way down, and changing database collation to utf8_general_ci led to “mixed collation” database errors during upgrade, and I had more success with the original MYISAM engine and utf8_unicode_ci collation. I will need to find out how important those settings are to long-term site performance.

With these problems solved, the upgrade script could actually run. The first time through, it failed partway through, and the course files did not get converted. This caused all file links to break, so delete database, delete data directory, duplicate old site, and try again! It went smoothly the next time. Apparently, Moodle has changed the way it stores uploaded files and had to reshuffle all of the existing files to fit.

I am not so pleased with Moodle theme choices. My two favorite potential site themes so far are Accentuate and Créatif, but I wish I had more good choices. Do you have any? I may just install a few themes on the site and add Theme Selector so that people can make their own choices. It will be interesting to see whether the benefits of customization outweigh the potential confusion caused by people seeing so many different Moodle looks. Currently, our pages are very recognizable.

After I activate our new Google Apps domain, I will install the Google-Moodle integration plug-in and activate the Google Apps repository so that users may use the file picker to select Apps documents. Then it will be time to rewrite the assignment calendar plug-ins for Moodle 2.0 (or convince the school to adopt a commercial solution!).

Moodle 2.0 Test Migration

I successfully migrated a copy of our Moodle 1.9.9 site to version 2.0. We will go live this summer. The upgrade process took a couple of hours, including dealing with the following issues. The basic site functionality is working great, suggesting that the migration should be smooth.

Delete archive courses
Not required, but it was a good opportunity to delete three years’ worth of past courses. This sped up upgrade course conversion.

Truncate sessions2 table
To my surprise, Moodle had not been deleting old session entries, because PHP’s garbage collection was not running properly on our Debian server. As a result, it was taking a long time to migrate our 2GB database! I truncated session2 manually to reduce the database to a few hundred MB. We will have to restore automatic session trimming on the new web server.

Database Collation
Our database tables were set to utf8_unicode. I followed some helpful instructions at Moodle.org to convert to utf8_general. Moodle 2.0 requires a compatible utf8 format in order to upgrade.

My favorite new feature. I have activated Dropbox and Google Docs so far. Dropbox is broken, but Google Docs works now and should work even better if we point Moodle at our new SAML single sign-on system.

Theme Selection
As usual, this is going to be a challenge. Moodle has suffered for not providing enough choice in professional-quality themes. I found one I like (Créatif by Rolley Design) but am having difficulty restoring the three-column course view. The theme wants to cram all of the blocks into a single, right-hand column. I still have to run this by some users to see whether they like it. I also might want to use a theme that says “school” rather than “candlelit dinner.” I am considering providing a choice of themes and allowing user switching, but then I’ll have to troubleshoot issues across a number of themes instead of just one.

Moodle Teacher Share

We recently held the second of our faculty study group meetings on technology tools to enhance student dialogue. Two of our teachers shared their uses of Moodle courses with the group. Here are some notes on their presentations. Our Moodle installation is at insideCatlin.


Glenn never used Moodle before but found 2 minute moodles videos much more useful than Moodle’s main documentation.

At night, each student writes a memorable passage from the book, talks about the writing style in the passage, and thinks of a question related to the passage. Every student is responsible for coming up with a question. The next day during class discussion, a student group leader selects one of the questions to discuss face-to-face during the next class. Hybrid learning at its best!

Use a wiki to create a murder mystery with alternate storylines depending on where the reader clicks.

In-class forums have been the biggest success in facilitating student dialogue. Teacher posts the prompt questions, and students post replies and then respond to two other students. The next day, there was more to discuss, so teacher asked the students to respond to three more students and then add a question of their own to keep the discussion going. Class time was spent well, because students were all writing at the same time.

Because no other classes are using the Moodle blog tool, Glenn was able to use blogs to act as the students’ English journal. Better than separate forum topics, because they all appear in one place and are easier to review.


Students use discussion forums to reflect on the topic of the day. The warm-up for the next day is to spend time reading everyone’s reflections and looking for common themes and surprises. Students who need a little more time to process their thoughts do well with this system, because they have time to read other students’ posts the night before and think about them before having to speak to them the next day.

Every time there is a guest speaker, movie, or field trip, the students write a forum reflection.

You can easily review all of the forum posts that a student has submitted, in preparation for student conferences and narrative reports. Raises an opportunity for student-teacher dialogue. Will print them out more regularly and show them to the students. Helps students reflect on the depth of their responses, use of grammar in informal writing.

Lingt Classroom

This was a post about Lingt Classroom shutting down, but in fact only Lingt is shutting down, not Lingt Classroom. Confusing!

We continue to wait for the ultimate. web-based audio and video recording solution. Our language teachers just discovered Lingt, which allows teachers to easily record and post audio and review student-submitted audio clips — perfect for extending students’ speaking and listening practice beyond class time.

Confused about Lingt vs. Lingt Classroom? This graphic explains it all.

When will we achieve simple web-based audio recording? NanoGong looked promising for a while, but we had issues with the consistency and ease of use of the Java applet, and they are moving slowly to integrate with Moodle 2.0. Moodle fans are considering other options. Riffly looked terrific for a short time, but then the company apparently imploded. VoiceThread is terrific, but you can only use it their way, and the learning object structure does not match every teacher’s learning environment objectives. Students could record audio to their computers and then post the files, but this requires a lot more setup and troubleshooting than direct web recording.

When we do finally get there, the effect will be pretty significant for language teachers and learners.

Update: Jac directs us to Audio Dropboxes from Michigan State University

Moodle 2.0 not a slave to fashion

Moodle somehow continues to fly under the radar. Its features have consistently been designed and developed for teachers and learners, making it one of the pieces of software best matched to education. The latest version eschews recent Internet fashion trends — no social networking or microblog here. Instead, Moodle 2.0 focuses on sharing and accessing content.

On playing with a test installation, I find that three of Moodle’s new features really stand out.

Community hubs

Call this “sharing courses.” The hubs allow one to publish courses to the web or import courses as templates. This makes it possible for our school to be part of a community of schools sharing courses. It also lowers the bar to teachers getting started with Moodle, allowing them to start from a populated course template rather than a completely empty page.

Repository support

The “add file” and “add link” interfaces have been supercharged. Users can directly access local files, network volumes, Google Docs, YouTube, Flickr, and more. This is a major development! Users can create content in the tools of their choice or search for publicly available content to include in the Moodle. This greatly expands the range of learning activities that Moodle can handle. The interface is so easy to use. Bravo!

Portfolio support

Same idea here. Users can select items from Moodle to publish in external portfolio systems. This just makes sense. Use Moodle for the daily work of a class and then publish exemplary pieces of work to the portfolio system.

What doesn’t stand out? Graphic design and layout. Moodle will apparently always look like Moodle, notwithstanding the new themes that have been created for version 2.0.

Sustaining capacity during hard times

Like many schools, we  cut the school’s IT operating budget by 25% this year. To minimize adverse effects on technology use at school, we employed the following strategies.

Adopt open source

We have benefited tremendously from building expert, internal capacity for open source website development and web server software management. In past years, we launched and then grew a sophisticated intranet website at no cash cost to the school. This year, we built our new, public-facing website on Drupal, with existing personnel, for a total cash cost of $6,000.

I believe that every school should work toward mastery in one type of open source software that meets a current need. Our users and constituents demand increasingly sophisticated applications of technology, yet our budget will not keep pace with these expectations. We have taken care not to rush, building up internal capacity to master these tools over time. Were we to rely on external contractors to implement open source solutions, then it could have become at least as expensive as commercial products.

Other schools specialize in different money-saving applications of open source: desktop software, learning management systems, operating system software, office suites, and more.

Cut back on expensive, specialized solutions

Each Smart Board we purchase improves just one classroom. Each laptop computer we purchase is available to everyone. They cost about the same amount of money.

Also about the same price, an entire class may use a set of 10 Flip video cameras to collect footage for a great variety of different productive learning objectives.

Introduce some limits, while extending a helping hand

The cost of network file backup and tape storage has increased for us each year. We are now implementing 10GB primary file server quota while still storing and backing up all of the important school data we can identify. When a teacher or staff member hits the limit on the primary file server, we work with them to identify any duplicate, personal, or unnecessary files and separate changing, newer files from older, unchanging files. We move the older files to a second, archive file server that we copy to tape less frequently. In this manner, we consume far fewer backup tapes than before while still protecting the school from data loss and saving important files for the long-term.

Preserve or expand core network services

This is no time to cut back on servers, server software, and network infrastructure. We have cut end-user technologies before compromising on the core. Server and network functions affect every user every minute that they are connected to the network. Maintaining quality sustains everyone’s experience. We have kept servers on their regular replacement cycle and are just now considering virtualization for lightly used network services. Our next generation of wireless network and network access system will do more than the previous systems, with less management required, at a lower cost than before.

Strategically manage computer lifespan

This one has been tricky. We pinpointed very specific batches of computers to operate for a year longer than planned. We noticed that some users were pretty light on their machines and provided them with used computers instead of new. We stretched our lower school computer lab for an additional year, because they had had their motherboards replaced under warranty just three years ago. Otherwise, we have stuck to our normal replacement cycle, out of respect for the fragility of laptop computers in their fourth and fifth years.

Consider some new technologies

This is no time to broadly adopt new kinds of devices, but some new devices may replace the old, at a lower cost that before. We will consider wall-mounted projectors in locations where we would normally mount from the ceiling. We will pilot netbooks to replace one of our middle school mobile laptop carts, taking great care that we select a model that performs reasonably well compared to our current MacBooks. Otherwise, we find netbooks to be cramped and difficult to use, not a straight replacement for traditional laptop computers.

Break some old habits

Once-essential resources and services may have lost their value over time. We reduced the size of our upper school PC lab in half, redistributed responsibilities for our annual laptop technology fair, and removed Drupal from our intranet website. We continue to streamline purchase options for the upper school laptop program, now recommending the two laptop computer models that match the program, as opposed to offering every model available from each manufacturer.

Continue to plan well

Each year that we devote more attention to winter planning, spring and summer projects go more smoothly. This year, we started earlier than before and formalized biweekly planning meetings, and already we are purchasing and implementing network devices that will allow workstation deployment to start earlier. We have also lined up our best cadre of summer workers yet. This group of current students and recent graduates is key to our ability to touch all machines and improve our deployment strategies each summer.

Build one’s personal learning network

This year, I have formed new collaborative relationships with tech staff at other schools, without ever leaving campus. This has allowed me to gain feedback on my ideas and profit from the good work of others. As it is a slow year for conferences in Portland, I have so far avoided traveling afar for an expensive conference experience.

What, no Google Apps?

I appreciate that Google Apps has helped many schools provide the latest communication and collaboration tools at low cost. We decided to stick with Exchange Server because we had concerns about losing control of the school’s data, the inability to do anything during periods of downtime, and the hidden costs of migration, archiving mail, and supporting users.

Your turn

What are you doing to maintain quality and capacity during lean times? Please comment below.

Intranet Portal Version 7

Today, I rolled out a new version of our intranet portal home page to the school. The change was required since our main website gained social community features formerly on this site (blog, forum, directory, carpool map, photo galleries, video publishing, etc.). The site still runs Moodle and a number of custom Perl and PHP scripts, but it no longer runs Drupal or Gallery. I also took the opportunity to make it easier to read. Let me know what you think of the redesign. How do you manage your intranet portal?

The home page still shows different items depending on one’s Active Directory group membership.

My view

Typical student view

Previous versions





20100104-old insideUHS.png

Lightweight electronic portfolio

Fundamentally, an electronic portfolio allows students to publish their exemplary work, reflect on their learning, and invite comment. Some schools (1, 2) roll out full-blown electronic portfolio software that can access files from their learning management system. This may be a great approach if a school has adopted electronic portfolios as a major initiative for the year.

In our school, we have not yet explored the topic of whether we should all move to electronic portfolios. We have paper, in-person based portfolio exhibitions in third through eighth grades, but the high school does not, and faculty meeting time is fully consumed with other discussions about teaching and learning. At the same time, we have groups of students and teachers who want to publish exemplary work either to the Catlin Gabel community, project mentors from outside the school, or college admission offices.

In response to this level of interest, I decided to provide a very lightweight electronic portfolio tool. I used an existing feature in our Drupal website (rather than a new tool) to allow students and teachers to publish exemplary work in multiple media forms, reflect on their learning, and invite comment. Students simply create a blog post but then mark the item for inclusion in their portfolio. They can also make the item publicly viewable if they choose. The “portfolio” home page is really just the student’s blog, filtered by one or both of these flags. The way Drupal works, if a user is not logged in, they only see the items marked public.

blog checkboxes

So far, art seminar students have created public portfolios of their work, principally for the college admission process. Here is a portion of one. In May, all seniors will blog about their individual senior projects. Some may choose to make these posts public for their on-site mentor and others to see.

<%image(20091203-portfolio example.png|450|318|portfolio example%>

Techies out there may find the following Drupal module code useful.

function cgs_blog_form_alter(&$form, $form_state, $form_id) {
  if (isset($form['#node']) && ($form['#node']->type == 'blog')) { // apply only to "create blog entry" form
    // add a submit function
    $form['#submit'][] = 'cgs_blog_form_submit';


function cgs_blog_form_submit($form, &$form_state) {
  // load content access functions
  require_once(drupal_get_path('module', 'content_access') .'/content_access.rules.inc');
  // load node object
  $node = node_load($form_state['values']['nid']);
  // set anonymous user grant array
  $settings['view'][0] = 1;
  // change node access permissions for this node
  if ($form_state['values']['field_blog_public'][0]['value'] == 'Make this post public') {
    // add view grant for anonymous users to this node
    content_access_action_grant_node_permissions($node, $settings);
  } else {
    // remove view grant for anonymous users to this node
    content_access_action_revoke_node_permissions($node, $settings);


Writing student reports

As I write fourth and fifth grade student narrative reports for the first time, I am enjoying using Moodle‘s activity reports to add detail to each one. From the Participants list, I access each student’s profile page, which includes a tab for Reports. Moodle tracks every time a student views a resource or completes and online activity. I am then able to add comments like, “[student] played two games about online safety eight times!” I can also see what students are sufficiently excited by the website to visit it outside of class time. Our progressive elementary school does not have grades, so I don’t have much use for the grading and summary functions in Moodle. Go Moodle!

participants link

activity reports tabs

activity report detail