Five Steps to define your perfect Digital Learning Environment

Sometime ago, I ran into a quote about learning that sticks into my mind. There are a lot of quotes hunting the social media networks, but this one just didn’t want to go away. It was the starting point of a reflection on how to create a great learning experience for today’s learners. I end up with five simple but essential steps that I will share with you in a series of posts. We will start today with a short overview of these steps.  

Digital Learning Environment in 5 steps

 

This quote from Albert Einstein resonates to me like the perfect antithesis to most of the Learning Management Systems that I’ve seen up to now. In terms of technology and functionalities they are perfect, but there is no experience, no emotion when you use them. They deliver the exact opposite of what learners expect: they deliver just information.

Learning is an Experience

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Impressions from the Moodle Conference

The annual Moodle conference for the UK and Ireland took place at the Dublin City University,  March 11th to 14th, 2015. Due to the flu that got me down as I got back, this post comes with a slight delay.

The main topics of this years UK & Ireland Moodle conference in Dublin were Learning Analytics and the Moodle Association. Further notable topics were (the more technical) inclusion of Bootstrap 3 in Moodle, the working groups for the simplification of forms and for designing a student dashboard.

As Moodle HQ are in the process of taking ownership of a couple of key Moodle conferences (Dublin was not one of them, but there was strong collaboration), the new format of “working groups” was tested on a larger scale. The idea of a working group is for Moodle users to work on a a specific topic in order to come up with specifications for Moodle HQ to implement as improvements to the Moodle core. The topics here were “form simplification” and “student dashboard”. These working groups have a certain weight, as a delegate from HQ will take part, with the task to make sure the outcomes can (and will) actually be implemented. An interesting observation here was, that at the hackday at the end of the conference, as the working group findings were presented and discussed, the tasks were heavily challenged by developers who naturally prioritise and approach things differently. I could sense a bit of frustration there when a response from HQ representatives would be “this is what the working group was for and basically you’re too late now with your input”. I think it is early days for the working group approach and it will take some time to get used to it.

The most heated discussions were on the initiation of the Moodle Association, as presented by Martin Dougiamas. Martin has been looking for new ways to fund Moodle development for some time now and this is what he decided to do. The Moodle Association is a non profit organisation (and therefore excempt from taxation). It will be completely separate from Moodle HQ after the initial work necessary to launch it. The idea is, for members of the association to come up with specifications and funding for Moodle core development and then to contract HQ to do the work. Martin would like to see instituions to be members in order to comission large junks of development work. There will be a correlation between how much money an entity puts into the association and how many votes it will have. All projects will be up for the association members to vote on. The projects with the highest votes will have the association’s funds allocated to it and will be developed by Moodle HQ. There will be some sort of cap on how many votes individual association members can have.

The idea of this associations opens a lot of questions of course, especially on what it means for Moodle partners who are currently the sole source of funding for Moodle (10% of revenue from Moodle related work by partners goes to Moodle HQ).

The keynote on learning analytics by Bart Rientes from the Open University gave a very interesting insight into what Open University do with their attempt at predictive analytics. The idea there is to show learners which areas of the curriculum they should focus on for the best outcome, based on data analysis. This topic raised two main questions: How do students get to see and use this data and what are the questions we want the (analytics-) system to answer. In a hands-on example with Gavin Henrick I experienced how difficult it is to come up with this question. Without this question being sensibly formulated though, learning-analytics somewhat remains a buzz-word.

The best example of a customised Moodle was presented by Thomas Bell with the United for Wildlife MOOC platform they launched as beta on that day (…). The platform comes with a rather beautiful user interface. Check it out! learn.unitedforwildlife.org

David Mudrak gave a good overview of how the plugins universe works, with a plea for more support on reviewing third party plugins. This reminded me of our initiative to collaborate and publish security reviews of plugins we do for our clients. Somehow it seems hard to motivate developers or companies to collaborate on this.

Davo Smith eloquently convinced us how easy it is to use Behat testing and Dan Poltawski demonstrated how Moodle HQ do continuous integration.

The hackday brought some excellent discussion and follow-up work on the integration of Bootstrap 3 and the state of renderers and templates in Moodle. This was once again the most inspiring part of the Moot, there’s some very talented people that are passionately involved in making Moodle the best VLE out there. This is no easy task, considering the massive amount of code and all those legacy bits still lingering. One of the reasons Moodle needs more funding is to make it the best possible option on the VLE market. The competition is there and work needs to be done. The difficulty here is the generic nature of Moodle: changes need to work for all the users, not just one specific site.

Thanks to Gavin Henrick and the team for making this great MoodleMoot possible. And thanks to Liip for giving this little bit extra to allow me to travel to Ireland by train, bus and boat.

leaving Ireland on the ferry

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EdX Open Source Platform

Why edX?

Recently we decided to explore the edX platform. It’s an open source Learning Management System (LMS) and authoring tool. EdX is one of the most popular MOOC platforms alongside Coursera and Udacity, but unlike the two others their code is open source and you can host your own MOOC platform. EdX has been created by MIT and Harvard and is listing other well known universities as contributors. Also, in September 2013, Google, who was previously experimenting its own LMS (Google Course Builder), decided to join the open edX platform as a contributor too. The platform is implemented mostly in Python and they created their own component architecture called XBlock (https://xblock.readthedocs.org/en/latest/). On paper edX sounds great, but how does it compare to Moodle or Totara? Does it fulfill the criteria our clients are targeting?

First steps

Installing a local instance is fairly easy since they provide a vagrant box and the documentation is good. But on the other hand, you will need to run three different servers with three different port forwardings. One for the LMS, one for the CMS (authoring tool) and the last one for the forums (this one is written in Ruby). Moodle or Totara use the same tool for standard users and administrative users which can lead to a bad user experience. So having different tools can have advantages and disadvantages.

Managing users

One key feature Moodle and Totara are offering is the user management. This is also one of the first requests we usually receive when dealing with offers. With Moodle and Totara there are lots of ways to authenticate a user and also to enroll them to a course out of the box. You can also easily manage roles and create groups (even dynamic groups with Totara).
In edX a user can authenticate if he creates first an account on the platform but edX is built on Django so any authentication method from this framework should be available on edX too (e.g. LDAP authentication).
It was not so easy to find how you can restrict the access to a course, this seems to be feasible depending on different settings (they were not explained in the user documentation, but understandable from the code documentation). You can create groups but it’s not clear yet if you can have groups platform-wide too.
Inside a course it’s easy to manage your staff team, define your teaching assistants or other admin users. You can even add beta testers so that some students can test your course before its official public release. You can also have discussion moderators for your courses.

Multilanguage

Having the platform in several languages is possible, and courses in different languages too. But you cannot have the same course in different languages (which is the same for Moodle and Totara, you simply need to create a course for each language). A good and bad thing with the current state of internationalization is that it’s a work in progress. It’s bad because if you want a german edX platform, the translations are not finished yet. But it’s good because there are working on it and plan to finish it for the end of second quarter 2014 and they have a translation tool where anyone can contribute (https://www.transifex.com/organization/open-edx). By default, it would use the browser language, but if you’re logged in you can also have a user language (at least it’s configured that way on www.edx.org).
Hosting
Configuring manually your server to host an edX platform is really difficult, there are a lot of requirements and dependencies to install. For Debian some of them don’t even have a package. But they provide a way to install it using Ansible requirements which seems quite easy to do. They also provide some script to execute update which is nice.

Interaction between users

Like on Moodle and Totara, you can have discussion forums for a course. There is a nice WYSIWYG editor with the possibility to preview your post first.
A nice feature of edX is the ability to comment any exercise or theory page and allowing others to upvote/report those. It’s a pity though that the comments aren’t ordered by upvotes by default.
Students can find study buddies using Meetup communities. EdX can also integrate Google Hangouts.

Reporting

EdX comes with basic reporting tools. One can generate for example the list of enrolled students and the grade reports. Compared with Totara’s custom reports feature, edX has still plenty of room for improvement.

User Interface

Generally the interface looks very nice. The UX-UI concept is very strong and has a clear consistent interaction level. You can also implement custom themes as Stanford did for its own instance. Without going into details, it seems edX has a nice base theme and state-of-the-art Interaction Patterns but they don’t have a responsive theme – only the home page is responsive.

Learning experience

The learning experience is appealing and has the same feel as new online platforms (team-treehouse, codeacadamy, …). Courses offer a lot of options out of the box: video integration (via Youtube), multiple question forms (radio buttons, checkboxes, dropdowns, text, maths inputs, …), Google Hangouts, discussions, text, announcements, integrating an Iframe, full-screen images, zoom images, imaged-mapped input, drag and drop answers, electrical schemas, LTI integration, … but there are bad things too. For example, the grading system is not suitable for the usual Swiss grading system (grades from 1 to 6), it’s apparently made for the American grading system (from F to A).

Conclusion

EdX does less things than Moodle but does them nicely. It’s also better suited for open education which can be achieved in Moodle and Totara too but the user and learning experience seems to be better on edX. Sever configuration, user management, access restriction, internationalization and reporting, all those things are easier to set and ready to use out of the box with Moodle (reporting especially on Totara) and cannot be neglected. Some might say that Moodle does too many things but from a business point of view it’s easier to adapt client’s requests that way. Also the community around Moodle is bigger which is a great thing from a developer point of view. But to end on a positive note, edX provides a roadmap on what they are working or will work on, thus we will keep an eye on this innovative platform and check if their improvements could fit future client requests.

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1st Moodle MOOC starts 1. September

The first ever official Moodle MOOC Massive Open Online Course “Teaching with Moodle” is about to start. It is free and made by the people at Moodle Headquarters. The course facilitator is the fabulous Mary Cooch. Don’t miss this if you’re interested in teaching with Moodle!

At the time of writing there were already 4447 people enrolled. Impressive and exciting stuff.

moodle mooc screenshot

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Open Badges – Certificates for Today

It feels a little weird now, that when I heard about Open Badges a year ago at the MaharaUK conference* I didn’t really get what it was about. It is actually an intriguingly simple concept: A certificate issued online for achievements of any kind, professional or vocational, small or big. This certificate comes in the shape of a graphical image you can display on your blog, facebook, linkedin, e-portfolio, lms profile page etc. This “graphical image” is the badge. Clicking on the badge shows you information about the achievement behind it, who issued it when, possible expiry and a link back to the badge issuers website. On the badge issuers page you will find more information and verification about the reasons and the validity of the issued badge.

This system allows for a much more complete picture of your learning than the diplomas and certificates we are used to ever could. You can group your badges, to provide insight into your soft skills achievemts, like communication or leadership skills, specific technical achievements in a programming language for example, vocational achievements such as sports awards etc. Now if you put yourself in the shoes of someone working in recruiting, you can imagine the usefulness of getting access to a potential employees badges, grouped to fit the application submitted. You can actually verify the information contained in the badges and you get access to a much more specific and – at the same time – broader picture of an applicant’s skills.

The place to keep your badges is in the Badges Backpack provided by the Mozilla Foundation, the creators of Open Badges. The Backpack is the place where you can put your badges into groups and manage privacy settings of your badges.

open badges explained illustration

Illustration taken from “Open Badges One Page Summary” courtesy of the Mozilla Foundation https://wiki.mozilla.org/File:OpenBadges_–_One-page_summary.pdf

It helps to understand the three main roles in the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI); the earner, issuer and displayer. The earner is you and me, the issuer can be an institution, organisation, company etc. using tools like Moodle or Totara learning management systems or credly.com to issue the badges. Credly provides a service for institutions or individuals not using Moodle or Totara to provide badge issuing, display and the actual creation of badges.

The integration in Moodle and Totara makes it very easy to set up badges (provided you already have a graphical image for your badge). You drag the image into the designated area on site or course level, you enter a title, description, duration… All this will make up the meta data of the badge and you’re pretty much done. You can then decide on the criteria of how the badge can be earned.

There’s a pretty cool tool to create badges online too: openbadges.me

What helped me better understand the benefit of Open Badges is to see the system in action from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, take a look.

Badges come in the png format, with the meta data embedded in the form of json blobs. This means badges and the information associated within them can easily be downloaded and uploaded. It is however a format meant to live on the internet, i.e. in a digital environment and there’s currently no easy way to display and maybe print the information contained in the badge once it is downloaded as far as I know. The most valuable information in a badge is linked from it rather than embedded, pointing back to the badge issuers site, adding authority to your badge.

Although not central, there is an element of gamification in Open Badges. They can encourage a competitive element, the element of pride in what you achieved when you’re displaying your badges as you would your trophies or cloth badges earned in a swimming course, the scouts or at a Northern Soul night.

Open Badges is a great initiative from the Mozilla Foundation and I’d like to thank them for it.

I am also much obliged to Richard Wyles and the team at TotaraLMS and Mahara.org for bringing Open Badges to my attention and for the excellent integration work they put into Moodle, Totara and Mahara.

  • This year’s MaharaUK conference is on in Birmingham on July 4th 5th

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Moodle 2.4 released

Earlier this week, Moodle announced the availability of Moodle 2.4, with many new improvements, after almost 6 months worth of work since the release of Moodle 2.3 (in June 2012).
Within the e-learning team at Liip, we are very excited to see this new version of Moodle released for public consumption: it’s various new features and performance improvements will power all our next Moodle client developments.

Let’s review some highlights from the announcement:

New icons

During the 2.4 development phase, the Moodle HQ designers have worked hard to provide refreshed and modern-looking icons: this was long needed and will certainly help shifting the perception of Moodle towards a modern and nice-looking LMS.

See also:

Performance

The introduction of the MUC (Moodle Universal Cache) in 2.4 reportedly makes Moodle instances lighter on server resources and faster for user experiences. Its high configureability and flexibility (that allows the use of memcached, move session caches out of the database, etc), will allow us to fit its configuration to our various clients needs and we’re eagerly looking forward to that!

See also:

Assignment improvements

Moodle 2.4 has also received a bunch of improvements in the Assignment activity. With these improvements, teachers can now:

  • require students to explicitely acknowledge a submission statement;
  • grade assignments offline;
  • create “group” assignments (a work that has to be done by a group);
  • implement “blind” marking, where students and teachers are made anonymous to each other in the marking process.

All the rest

There are plenty of other changes released in Moodle 2.4 (see the huge release notes page) and this blogpost would be kilometrical if we were to list them all, but here are some highlights of things that will be important to our customers or to us, behind the scenes:

If any of the above change would look like an interesting improvement to your current Moodle installation, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the Liip e-learning Team to discuss this opportunity with us.

Cheers, Didier

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Thoughts on the MaharaUK conference

Returning from the rather excellent MaharaUK 2012 conference in Lancaster, I’d like to share some thoughts and findings.

Half a year ago we at Liip had the feeling Mahara wasn’t really going anywhere. We suspected there were not enough contributing developers and generally not enough interest in Mahara outside of New Zealand. The user experience and it’s tie-in with institutions (as opposed to easily available services like tumblr, wordpress, facebook etc) is not where it should be for students to genuinly embrace Mahara as their own. Also the underlying idea of Mahara as a platform for life long learning never really seemed to get a chance, due to the lack of independent Mahara instances actually providing a life long hosting option. The only option going in this direction now is the occasional allumni instance provided by some institutions.

There was one very positive signal recently to counter this impression of stagnating Mahara commitment: the quiet arrival of comprehensive documentation for users and administrators via manual.mahara.org. It puzzles me somewhat that there wasn’t more noise around this wonderful tool.

Then there was the release of Mahara 1.5 with important improvements that pointed in a positive diretion, coupled with the announcement of a faster, more regular release cycle and work on the next version advancing nicely. These improvements, the plans for the 1.6 release and some very interesting plugin developments were summed up passionately by Dominique-Alan Jan’s keynote presentation. One of them should make those people happy wanting to have more control over learning goals and outcomes: An adapted version of the Moodle checklist plugin to work with Mahara. The other was Extresource, making use of oEmbed which should make its way into Mahara core soon, to ease the use of embedding external content.

There were more positive examples of Mahara usage by Jon Bowen from St. Peter’s College in New Zealand, listening to Jon really made me feel Mahara was THE way forward for how pupils collect, display, discuss and submit their work from an early age.

A bit of a downer came from the brief discussion that ensued from Jon’s presentation about government backing of the NZ Mahara project, where Richard Wyles said after the recent departure by a key figure in the department of education the government backing was everything but certain. Both Richard and Jon assume the NZ Mahara project is now “too big to fail”. A lot of us had assumed the NZ nation wide Mahara project had been initiated and backed by the government from the start and could be used as a role model for other countries. Sadly this was never so. The project was driven by individuals from the start. I’m pretty convinced Mahara needs to be available life long from a trusted provider and I don’t see who else but governments could do this. In Switzerland I believe we still have a chance to get there, but discussions have been dragging on and I feel time is limited.

During the technical workshop we had some discussions about making adding and editing content more central, maybe by changing the look and feel of the TinyMCE editor or using a different editor to get a more modern look and feel. I think much work needs to be done on user experience and I saw some interesting work in that direction by Mike Kelly from the University of the Arts London and I hope he gets this into Mahara core soon! Mike also presented a new use or feature rather with the listings directory he built for the art students. Their site is public and well worth a visit on workflow.arts.ac.uk.
Gregory Anzelj presented his work on the repository plugin for Mahara which is almost complete. It allows the use of external repositories like Dropbox, Box.net, Flickr, Google drive, Windows Sky Drive, Picasa.
Simon Story presented the use of SimpleSAMLphp to integrate Mahara with other systems. I have yet to understand in what way this adds to, extends or replaces Shibboleth.

We often hear that Mahara’s too complicated for users. Again at this conference. I agree to an extent, there’s too many clicks involved for many things, you can get lost, adding content is not central enough. Inline editing would be great to have. Just click on a text you want to change and immediately start typing, including autosave. There was a good input from Steve Wright (trials and tribulations of using Mahara as PhD learning journal) suggesting a simple step by step wizard for first time users when logging in to Mahara to set up the profile, create the first entry, share.

I’ve heard the request for better mobile integration a couple of times from our clients, now there’s good news courtesy of Jon Sharp and Roger Emery presenting MaharaDroid app version 2 . Now you can do all the essential stuff like adding a journal, messaging etc from your Android device. There’s nothing for Apple’s iOS yet. The responsive theme I’ve been dreaming about might help there, but what users seem to want is a native app with on-screen “badge” notification etc. A good solution for the meantime would probably be blogging by email. This would be really helpful particularly for students reporting from work experience or research in the field.

It was a pleasant surprise to see a presentation of Mahara for midwives on the programme, as one of the universities we work with have shown interest in exactly this. I missed the presentation though because I was on the other stream with a refreshing presentation by Toshifumi Sawazaki on Mahara usage in a more rural part of Japan, where several universities and private colleges (!) have collaborated to create an e-learning platform using Mahara and Moodle inside a custom portal (F-LECCS). Apparently there is no Mahara partner in Japan, so there was a steep learning curve involved in setting up and maintaining this setup on university infrastructure.

One of the more stirring presentations was a remote one by Kristina Hoeppner on how new features make it into Mahara. She was presenting from Wellington NZ and a strong earthquake occurred in the middle of her presentation, throwing things about in the room she was in. Kristina was very brave in continuing her explanations on how to submit and track feature requests, development cycles, priorities and progress in Mahara development.

Richard Wyles presented the Open Badges project they’re working on in conjunction with the Mozilla Foundation. I have yet to grasp the use for this, but judging by Richard’s enthusiasm it probably makes sense :)

It was a good conference, I’m glad I attended and I hope I can bring the drive I now feel behind Mahara home to Switzerland and our new e-learning team at Liip so we too may innovate and commit to Mahara again. At the moment we’re swamped with Moodle V2 migrations, so it won’t be easy to keep up the momentum.

Thanks and respect to all the good people involved in organising MaharaUK 2012 and to those who presented, – great work.

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Packaging solution for (php-)projects

At Liip we have been relying on Debian and RedHat packages to deploy our web applications for some time now. For this we created or in some cases adapted some project/framework-specific solutions:

The existing solutions work very well but they’re also very specific. Since we don’t really want to reinvent the wheel for every new project/framework we decided to start looking for a more generic solution. The prerequisite was that it had to support Debian and Red Hat packages.

With fpm, by Jordan Sissel, we found a solution that can create either Debian or Red Hat packages. Basically, fpm just takes all the files inside a directory and creates a package from that.

Since the layout of the application in a development environment is usually different from the production system (on a dev environment you might have the project files in your home directory whereas in the production environment they should end up in /var/www/projectname) there was still some work involved beside running fpm. But we wanted something that was automated as much as possible: developers should only need to setup packaging once and after that they would only have to execute a simple command to build packages.

For this reason we decided to build a set of wrapper scripts around fpm. With these scripts, you just need to create a configuration file that defines the layout on the target system and some package parameters. Once you created the configuration file, a simple command creates a Makefile for you. After that, building your package is as easy as typing “make” in your project directory. What is really nice with this packaging solution it’s that it’s a) easy to use and b) platform-independent (for Debian packages at least) since you can use fpm on any platform you want.

We made the scripts available on github so other people can benefit from them. To help people get into it and demonstrate some of the possibilities of this solution, we created a demo project that you can try to package and deploy. If you just want to build Debian packages you can just install fpm and you should be good to go (it even works on OS X, so you don’t need a Debian machine to create packages). For rpm packages you unfortunately still need rpmbuild.

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Announcement: Symfony2 Application Deployment Infrastructure Released

Today Lukas and Penny are releasing their Open Source infrastructure for building Debian packages for deployment of Symfony2 applications.  This builds on the work done by Penny’s previous employer, Catalyst IT in New Zealand,  which was originally written for deploying Moodle applications.

This work was done for a client project, which uses a single Symfony2 project as the source package for multiple applications, to be deployed on different servers, each with their own distinct application profile, dependencies, cronjobs, apache config, etc.  Since Lukas hates perl and Penny hates documentation ;), it was a good division of labour.  It is now very well documented, with example config and in depth descriptions of how it works internally.  The perl is certainly not quite so nice as the documentation ;)

The basic idea is that the application maintainer writes a yaml manifest file to describe the different application profiles, and then a giant perl script parses it, and builds a .deb for each application.  These can then be placed into a debian repository, or installed directly on servers with dpkg.

Another feature that’s really neat is that for each application,  the packaging looks for a file, dynamic.yml.dist inside the config/ directory, and converts each key in the yaml file into a debconf question, which will be asked during installation time.

The first time you run the maketime.pl script, it will generate you skeleton templates of the metadata files it needs, so you can go through and fill them out.

This does rely on a quite specific project structure of the Symfony2 source, as well as some specific configuration on the target deploymetn server, both of which are also well documented.

It uses dbconfig-common, a database configuration abstraction layer in Debian, so theoretically supports multiple database types, but has only been tested with PostgreSQL to date.  It will work with local and remote databases.

Many thanks to Pete Bulmer, the original author and Francois Marier for the licensing.

The code is now on github, and it would be great to get more people playing with it and testing it! Have fun!

Invitation to the moodle 2.0 release party in Fribourg the 29th of November

The long awaited 2.0 version of Moodle will be released FORTHWITH!

As the official Swiss Moodle partner, we’d like to invite you to celebrate this event with us, together with our business partners and friends, and thank you for your cooperation with us at the same time.

The party is on 29 November 2010 from 6 p.m. at Rue de la Banque 1, to enjoy appetizers and drinks, and among other things, the legendary Moodle Mojito.

To register your intent to attend, we would be grateful if you would send a short email by thursday the 25th of November to charlotte.schlegel@liip.ch.

We hope to see many of you there!

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