Tech review: Havering Asks 2016

img_20161130_140105With a few hours to go before the end of the year I thought I’d do a quick review of our last event of the year – our TV production “Havering Asks”.

It’s part of our live TV week, where media students produce their own shows as part of their course programme. We then live stream it on YouTube and via the website

I’ve been helping with the technical side for 4 years now and each time we try and add something extra. In the past that’s gone from live streaming across college, then online with Planet eStream then using multiple input streams with vMix and a Datavideo capture server.

This year on top of our now business-as-usual vMix setup we wanted to add a live videoconference link so I went away to gather some kit and ideas…

Skype for Business prime time

We already use Skype for Business within college in some of our conferencing rooms and ah-hoc usage on staff PCs so my first thought was if we could use it here as well. I did also consider Google Hangouts on Air after being on a Google conference a few months back but found out it was discontinued in September, which was disappointing as the YouTube replacement didn’t fit our needs.

I gathered a few of our newer loan laptops (Core i5, 8GB RAM etc.) and headed down to set up, realising we’d need to make some adjustments to get this to work…

  1. The output from our mixing desk was via SDI cables so I dug out a USB capture card that we keep for occasions like this, first problem solved with the help of a phono adapter
  2. An audio input from the mixing desk was also required, our sound engineers sorted that out quickly and made sure there was no feedback while mics were active
  3. Our large screen TV was at the front of the set but the mixing desk at the back. Given we don’t have any wireless HDMI extenders the only option was to stitch together a long cable or two to get from the back of set to the front via some neat use of rubber cable mats!

In the end Skype for Business proved to be a good call as it accepted our decidedly non-standard video input without a grumble whereas the consumer version of Skype refused to connect to the capture card. With the cabling out the way we used the now-standard federation from Skype for Business > Skype consumer to invite our guests to the show.

For the purposes of the event a dedicated Office 365 account was created so the branding would look right on-screen. Radio presenter Iain Lee was first up and I’ll admit it was a relief to see the full screen conference up and running when he dialled in 🙂

Havering live TV week Skype video call

Twitter wall

On the day of the main Havering Asks event I was also asked to set up a Twitter wall for viewers to interact with the show via our hashtag #haveringasks

In the past we’ve used Zoomph with great results so I was pleased to find they have a free option for up to 250 posts, which was fine for the needs of this event. The display was placed at the entrance to the show and also via our digital signage screens using Planet eStream.

Havering Asks Zoomph Twitter wall display

Plans for the future

In the end the TV went really well and it was another great experience for the students, who excelled with the quality of this year’s show. The video conferencing went down well too so I’m sure that will return again next time round, maybe we’ll go for multiple remote guests to keep things interesting!

I’m hoping that by the time we run our next show we might get some shiny new mixing kit to work with. The current setup has done a great service but would be good to move into the world of 4k, perhaps with some (very nice) Black Magic kit … Santa any chance of some additional presents? 😉

and finally…

Wishing you all a Happy New Year and best wishes for the year ahead.
Recently hit 300k views on here now so thanks for reading and hope to see you all back in 2017!


Attack of the Chromes: a Google Apps adventure begins

I’ve been watching the growth of Google’s Chrome OS for some time now – scarily about 4 years have gone by since they first appeared on the radar.

Recently I had the chance to get some in to work with first-hand as part of our STEM Centre project. It’s a new modern learning space and part of that vision involves the effective use of mobile devices.

Dell Chromebook 11 ready for action

Why Chromebooks?

There’s no denying the price point and simplicity of the Chromebook model so even though we’re an Office 365 site at present it would be foolish not to try the Google platform, especially with many of our courses already using online resources via Moodle and similar web platforms. This post covers our first steps along the way and a couple of tips and tricks to get you started if you’re in a similar position 🙂

The Chromebook is an interesting product for education and one that’s been discussed at length over at the Edugeek forums. First revisions of the platform weren’t quite there but looking at Chrome OS now it’s a lot more mature in terms of both concept and implementation. The hardware available has also moved up a level in terms of performance and quality as manufacturers have perhaps shown more faith in the Chrome OS platform.

One interesting point from the past that still hasn’t quite been resolved is Android vs Chrome OS, as it stands still two separate products but with some interesting convergence ideas showing through. On one head there’s ARC Welder allowing Android apps to run in Chrome and then there’s the Microsoft Surface-inspired Pixel C hybrid that could be an effective vehicle for either platform. Just to add another option into the mix you can also now get touch-screen Chromebooks (!)

Which device?

After a video conference with our Google Account Manager to discuss the platform in more detail we decided to get a couple of different devices in on trial. This included the HP Chromebook 11 and 14, plus the Dell Chromebook 11. The latter is particularly interesting as it’s built with the education market in mind and should be a bit more robust in the long term, as proven by this teardown article that pitches the Dell device against the equivalent Acer model:


One word of advice that we were given is to pay the little bit extra for a 4GB RAM model to avoid performance issues when browsing media-rich sites and \ or using multiple tabs. Thus far the Dell Chromebook 11’s haven’t skipped a beat in use thus far so I’d agree with this recommendation.


The HP G3 14″ is an interesting device for its larger screen size, although from reading around I had some performance doubts related to the ARM Tegra processor. We’re not yet sure if 11″ is enough screen estate for students to work comfortably but the pilot projects will give us some feedback on that front. A 13″ device would be ideal, Dell are launching one but it looks somewhat more expensive than the 11″ version and aimed more at business customers.

In the end we bought in 6 Dell Chromebook 11’s from Haptic Networks to use in the STEM centre alongside a parallel trial of Microsoft Surface 3 tablets (more on that another time).

Thus far the people I’ve shown them to have been impressed by their lightweight sturdy build and solid keyboard (something that’s not quite up to the same standard on the HP devices). Battery life also looks very promising.

The only gripe I have with the Dell units is the fact someone, in their infinite wisdom decided to place a grinning lizard as a non-configurable logon screen wallpaper. There’s currently no way to change it from the Chrome admin console and it seems Dell aren’t too bothered about providing a solution either. I’m just glad the logon box covers up most of the image but even so… a lizard… why?!

Getting started tips and tricks

Although Chromebooks are pretty simple to get up and running using the online management portal there’s a couple of tips I’ll share from my initial experiences

Update in Guest Mode before doing anything else

Although our batch of Dells arrived in one shipment they all had different versions of Chrome OS installed where they’d been produced at different times. The visual differences are subtle but noticeable when all running side by side.

The quickest way I’ve found to get them up to date is to log in using the Guest mode option, preferably on a direct Internet connection then navigate to this URL in the browser:


Of course you can do this through the menu but this is so much quicker than pointing and clicking 😉
On two of our devices with the oldest out-the-box OS versions the first update run didn’t get them up to the newest Chrome OS so you may need to repeat the process.

Retrieving device MAC addresses

You may need to retrieve the MAC address of the devices for your Wi-Fi system or asset management records. The GUI way of doing this is a bit click-heavy and requires you to be connected to a network first. Alternatively you can do it a quicker way:

  1. in the browser navigate to chrome://system
  2. do a CTRL+F on the page and search for ifconfig
  3. the MAC address is listed under HWaddr

Resetting a device ready for enrolment

If you receive your Chromebooks before having completed your Google Apps registration it can be tempting to sign into the Chromebook with a consumer Google Account to try them out. This works OK until you then try to enrol the Chromebook as a managed device, at which point it promptly fails as per Google’s documentation below. The KB article also explains how to completely wipe the device using Developer Mode so you can repeat the out-of-box setup process.


Enrolling a device is simple using a keyboard shortcut that will soon become muscle memory CTRL + ALT + E


Proxy problems

unnamedA page about cloud services wouldn’t be complete without a proxy-related caveat and the Chromebooks are no exception. Initially none of them connected after they switched networks from the direct-connected (NAT) temporary SSID I’d used for setup to the proxied one defined in the policy manager.

My first thought was to switch from Auto Detection using WPAD to a manually-specified proxy address. That change worked wonders almost immediately and I soon had login screens instead of connection failed errors… apart from two devices…

After putting all 6 Chromebooks in a line and rebooting them at the same time I soon found the same two devices failed every time. As far as I knew everything had been updated so it didn’t initially make sense why two were behaving differently from the rest.

After double-checking the Chrome OS versions it then became apparent two hadn’t fully updated and were sitting on Chrome OS 45.x instead of the new 46.x release. After moving them back onto the direct connection for another round of updates they then started behaving.

Moral of the story comes back to my first bit of advice: update, update, update!

It’s also worth running the Chrome Connectivity Diagnostics app on your devices if you suspect any network-related issues:


Next steps

Now the devices are up and running we need to start provisioning users into the Google Apps tenancy. For that we’ll need to install and configure GADS and GAPS to sync users and passwords from Active Directory. For now Gmail has been turned off until a decision is made about where email lives in future (as it’s not something we’d change part-way through an academic year).

Now just a matter of waiting for some initial user feedback to see how they get on with the Chromebooks and in what contexts they become an effective learning tool 🙂

The making of HC Radio

hcradioFollowing on from previous success we’ve had live streaming our Havering Asks event our media block wanted to try going one step further by running a student radio station, permanently live with both audio and video streams.

From a technical and e-learning perspective it sounded a great way to get students interacting with the technology available and also provided another way to get value from our Planet eStream solution, which already provides our video content repository, TV recording server and digital signage across the college.

As always though nothing is ever completely straightforward, especially as we kept trying to push the bar a little further by adding more features without breaking the bank!

Video stream

The video side was in theory the easy part as it’s something we’ve done before and only needs the Planet eStream encoder and a capture device with composite input. Simple? Of course not!

One idea was to have two cameras: one showing the students in their broadcast studio as you might see on Kiss FM or Capital and then another one directly above a mixing deck for certain radio show features.

The next fun part of the requirement was that the cameras would need to be in a physically separate location to the PC used for streaming due to space restrictions, which also makes things a bit more… interesting….

IP camera

The camera to be used for the studio ideally needed to be mounting in the ceiling to get the right kind of angle to get everyone in shot. Now although we could run composite cables through the building that really didn’t seem a sensible option as there was a very conveniently placed Ethernet port nearby, an IP camera made perfect sense.

I had a look around at the BETT show and various suppliers but found many devices were way too overpowered for our needs (read expensive!) or there were cheap and cheerful cameras at the polar opposite end of the market on Amazon, eBay etc. which didn’t seem to have a great track record for reliability.

We wanted something in between to provide HD quality video, which was when I remembered that Ubiquiti Networks also sell IP cameras alongside their Unifi wireless range (which we’ve had good experiences with recently).

$_35 (1)

Eventually I found their Unifi Video Camera Dome product, which looked solid, was made for ceiling mounting and came in just under £100 – sold!

RTSP stream

After receiving the camera I ran through the configuration steps then had a look around for how to get an RTSP stream I could enter as an input for Planet eStream. However I soon found out that this isn’t possible straight from the camera, but can be done via the free NVR recording software that comes bundled with the device.


The RTSP stream option needs to be enabled per-camera, which then provides a unique link that works perfectly in the eStream encoder. For simplicity I installed the NVR software on the streaming machine so the RTSP stream comes from the loopback address. The host machine runs on an i5 CPU and hasn’t showed any performance issues running both pieces of software at the same time.


ubnt rtsp

Mixing software

Now we had two cameras in place we still had a requirement to solve in terms of how to switch between them. If possible some form of branding \ overlay was also mentioned.

Spending any form of significant sum on software was out of the question so I hit Google hoping for something good and wasn’t disappointed, enter vMix:

The basic premise of the software allows you to live produce video by switching and overlaying various inputs to create your output stream. I really like the interface – everything just seems to be “there” and it also contains all the transitions, overlays and controls you’re likely to need…

…oh and did I mention the free version? 🙂


Two capture inputs plus two more from title sequences and overlays was a perfect fit for our needs. Yes there is a resolution limit but to get the project off the ground it was a compromise we’re willing to make. In the future I hope we can at least get to the Basic HD or HD package.

At the time I sent a quick question over to the ever-helpful eStream support team to find out how best to connect vMix to the eStream encoder; in a strange twist of fate it turned out they were testing it at the same time! All you need to do is click the External button in vMix, which then creates a virtual capture device that eStream can see and stream.

We’re using the eStream encoder rather than broadcasting via YouTube at present as it’s simpler for us to push the video internally to our signage screens on Planet eSign. However I may need to change this in the future depending on traffic, if our video stream starts getting a lot of hits it may be easier to let YouTube take the load.

hcradio screen
one of our screen layouts showing dual camera inputs via vMix

Audio stream

I was also asked to provide an audio-only stream so we could offer the channel up as an Internet Radio station. All the necessary licensing was already taken care of so it was time to find another technical solution that would do the job.

The students already do all the creative work using Virtual DJ software in the radio studio then we split the output into multiple signals that are used to play the station inside the media building as well as providing a 3.5mm jack for the streaming machine.

Icecast immediately looked to be the front-runner to encode the audio stream although it needs something else to act as a front-end. After a bit of searching I settled on an unfortunately named but rather good (and open-source) program called Butt.

I configured Icecast with its own dedicated external domain name and after trying a few different format settings went for an MP3 stream at 192Kbps.

Getting the stream to embed nicely took a few tries too, mainly down to how picky browsers are about what code and tags are used. Eventually settled on the format below which plays on most devices using an HTML5 player:

<audio name="media" autoplay="" controls="">
 <source type="audio/mpeg" src="http://yourstream.domain.tld:8000/mountpoint"></source>

This embed code generator may also provide useful

The end result

We now have a website up and running that hosts both video and audio streams, along with the usual smattering of social networks for audience participation.

TuneIn_Logo_2000pxAnother upshot of setting up the audio-only stream was that it’s recently become the source for our upload to TuneIn radio

Students broadcast their shows throughout the week and we’ve now partnered with some other stations and even celebs to raise the profile of the station.

Now we’ve done radio the next challenge lies ahead; HCTV will be coming soon as part of a TV week that will include Havering Asks and a couple of new shows, watch this space!

BETT 2015 tech highlights


After what felt like a very quick year the BETT show has come (and gone) around once again.
This year a couple of things caught my eye so thought I’d summarise them below…


Created with Nokia Smart CamNever saw this one coming! I originally went to the SMART stand with my colleague to check out their E70 replacement interactive screen but saw the curiously-named Kapp mounted on the wall behind us. Intrigued we had a look and found a product that’s almost done a full 180-degree spin back to its low-tech roots yet looks rather useful!

The basic premise of the Kapp is the simplicity of a dry-wipe (yes, marker pen!) whiteboard but with the benefits of technology. Tutors can write on the board without worrying about a PC, screen orientation or specialist software but can still save notes at the end of their session to store on Moodle, Office 365, Google Apps etc.

The cost of the board is much lower than your average IWB setup (£849 for the 84″ model) and much less to go wrong as well, which could be ideal for less technology-friendly environments. SMART do catch you on software licensing if you want lots of students watching a “live” view of the notes but I think we can live with the free 5-user limit for now.

Check it out at

Updated interactive flat panel screens

As mentioned above we’ve had some interactive panels installed in a couple of classrooms to compare them against the traditional IWB + projector setup. The new 6000 series did seem to have a smoother surface and better pen than the E70 although writing still had a bit of lag, which I was surprised about as it can be a bit off-putting at times.

Interestingly the best writing experience I’ve seen so far came from a smaller manufacturer’s board where there was no lag at all, plus they’ve even invented a telescopic pen for those hard-to-reach corners!

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Office 365 Moodle plugin

I’ve been hoping for a complete integration for Moodle and Microsoft’s cloud services for nearly 5 years now (going all the way back to the Live@Edu days!) and it seems finally Microsoft have delivered with the help of Moodle partner Remote Learner. Single sign-on with Office 365 and the ability to upload assignments directly from OneDrive for Business will make the two platforms knit together much more closely, which can only benefit the end-user experience and help increase take-up of both services.

From skimming the documentation it looks as though we may need to do a bit of work to set it up so will spin up a test instance of both Moodle and Office 365 to try it out and hopefully report back 😉

Check it out at the Microsoft Open Technologies blog

Enhanced Planet eStream Moodle integration

A nice new addition from the eStream development team is a video assignment plugin for Moodle. This allows students to upload a video then have the tutor watch and grade it all within the Moodle interface, plus it means no more fiddling around with permissions and schemas in eStream, making life much easier!

Also looking forward to have the updated interface rolled out across the eStream product so it matches in with the lighter, clean look of the Boostrap-based theme we use on our site.

See more on the Planet eStream blog

Intel Compute Stick

intel-compute-stick-pcNoticed these a week or two back but was good to see some in action, basically a PC in nothing more than an HDMI-sized stick.

Makes for an ideal low-cost machine to use for low-power tasks such as kiosks, digital signage or even basic office tasks. The pricing looks very competitive too, might end up with one for home as well!

Stone hyper-converged server

The infrastructure part of the Stone Computers stand had some interesting items last year and this time round they brought along a hyper-converged storage \ compute system they’ve built.

Along with the rapidly-improving Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V Replica \ Storage Replica it looks an interesting route to consider for future systems. Dependent on how slick the end-user side of a pure Microsoft solution would be perhaps it could also be a base for a more cost-effective VDI system?

Finally, some decent Windows 8 tablets at BETT (plus other goodies)

Yes it’s that time again, BETT has been and gone for another year! For those who haven’t heard of the show it’s the yearly edu-tech pilgrimage many of us make to check out what’s new on the horizon and maybe on our order forms over the next couple of months. I always tend to come away with a couple of items that grab my attention and this year was no different.

Windows 8 tablets finally come of age?

lenovo-thinkpad-8-full-2Lenovo was one of the first stands I found (big ceiling signs do help I guess). Last year I was keen on their Tablet2 and Helix from a design perspective but neither quite hit the price \ performance sweet spot but this time round I think they’ve got some killer products coming up.

First and foremost was the ThinkPad 8 demo unit their technical guy brought over, apparently only just been released for trials (indeed the sticker on the back stated the demo unit hadn’t been approved yet). It’s a very slick 8″ tablet in the Toshiba Encore mould but with noticeably nicer build quality.

Coupled with a quad core Bay Trail Atom it looks a much more usable device for day-to-day workloads than previous attempts that really suffered on a performance front.

Even better news that 10″ and (?) 11″ versions will be following soon as I’m still a bit unsure about whether Windows with legacy apps can really be that productive on an 8″ screen.

Elsewhere wandering through the Dell stand I spotted what looked from a distance like a Microsoft Surface on the table. Going for a closer look it turns out to be the Dell Venue 11 Pro, which judging by Google results has been out for a month or so but had snuck under my radar. Again with the quad core Bay Trail it’s hitting a much more acceptable price point but with a similar design to the Surface range and that’s a great combination in my book.


Alongside Windows 8.1 we’re finally seeing the Windows tablet market in the way it needed to be a year or so ago. Sales figures for this year will be very interesting reading in 12 months time I think as the barriers that have held back Windows tablets until now are disappearing fast. Whether it’s happened too late remains to be seen…

Goodbye Smartboard, hello touchscreen?

Looking around the various AV stands large touchscreen displays also seem to be maturing to the point where installing classic whiteboard \ projector combos may soon be a thing of the past. Side by side the screens give a much crisper, brighter image, better contrast and (supposedly) 50,000 hours life. The manufacturers reckon they’re strong enough to withstand flying objects too (hopefully we won’t have to find out!)

The two manufacturers that stood out were Smart with their E70 and CTouch with a range of devices.

The E70 is a very slick device and as expected comes with the well known Smart Notebook software as part of the bundle. Touch worked well and comes with all the connectivity you’d hope for with HDMI and suchlike on the back. When you see the screen side by side with a projector the difference in image quality is really noticeable, although I guess that’s why Smart did it! CTouch were interesting in that they have a very solid line-up of screens of varying sizes with built-in PCs so the whole thing is ready to go. The only downside would be the need to buy a Notebook license as I’m no t convinced putting a copy we use elsewhere would be in the rules.


One thing I was hoping to see was one of these screens also packing Wi-Fi connectivity so they could function as an AirPlay (and Miracast?) receiver for tablets to broadcast their display on. This would save buying an Apple TV or similar for each screen whilst giving staff and students an easy way of presenting from their own devices. The search continues…

e-learning extras

The new update to Planet eStream with a more modern, customisable interface looked useful, as did new abilities within the digital signage side of the product. Will be keeping an eye out for when that gets released in the coming weeks. They also had a rather nifty motorised stand for tablets that tracks  a hand-held microphone, perfect for shared Lync conference calls we’re trialling at present… might have to get one of those in on trial.

Moodle 2.6 seems to be the next release on the radar for us to aim for. My colleague spotted a useful-sounding student portal add-on and coupled with the more recent touch-friendly themes becoming available it should keep us moving forward nicely 🙂

Unusually not much to report on Office 365 from the Microsoft stand, it seems like the future is small but regular feature updates rather than a Wave 15-esque release. Personally I’m hoping for some updates to SkyDrive Pro and SharePoint to make them a bit more user friendly and flexible but more on that another time.

Automating Lanschool deployment and setting channel with Powershell


We use Lanschool as our classroom management software and as part of our Windows 7 deployment needed to reinstall the client on all our re-imaged desktops. In the past this was done manually by visiting each room after the OS had been installed. This time round I wanted to try and remove the manual work and find an automated method instead – the installation itself is bread and butter MSI silent install, however setting the correct channel for each room was slightly more challenging.

If you’re reading this you already know that Lanschool uses “channels” to decide which PCs are controlled by the teacher machine in the room. The problem for us was that Lanschool uses purely numeric notation for this whereas our rooms are a mix of letters and numbers.

Having sat down for a while trying to figure out a formula or numbering convention it was soon obvious that method wouldn’t work… back to the drawing board! The next idea I had was to create some sort of lookup table containing all our classroom names and then assign a unique channel for each one, easy enough with Excel auto-fill 😉

After a couple of minutes I had a suitable listing created and saved in CSV format as I figured it would be the easiest format to work with, now onto the Powershell. Initially I wasn’t sure how to read the file but after a bit of Googling found what I was looking for, the aptly named import-csv function. I specified the header values here rather than in the CSV file itself to keep the source data as simple as possible. The last part of the code grabs the channel number for whatever value resides in the variable named $WorkStationRoom

$channelvar = Import-Csv C:\setchannel\lanschool.csv -Header Room,Channel | Where-Object {$_.Room -eq $WorkstationRoom } | Select-Object Channel
$channel = $

Because I base the script around the location of the machine I’d already read this into the $WorkstationRoom variable by grabbing it from a custom location I make in the registry during our naming process while imaging. To read the registry use the Get-ItemProperty function. Obviously how you get this data will depend on your naming convention and \ or what data you have available on the machine to get the room number from but the example below should give an idea of how it’s done.

$RegWorkstationRoom = Get-ItemProperty -path "HKLM:\Software\HCFHE" -name "WorkstationRoom"
$WorkstationRoom = $RegWorkstationRoom.WorkstationRoom

At one point I wondered if I was going about actually getting a value in a clunky way as I always needed the second line, however it does seem to be the right thing to do. There’s a better explanation of why on this thread (see the post by the user named Graimer)

“First we get an object containing the property we need with Get-ItemProperty and then we get the value of for the property we need from that object. That will return the value of the property as a string.”

Now we have our channel number we need to set it, fortunately Lanschool provide a utility called setchannel.exe that does exactly what it says on the tin! It can be found in the utilities folder of the Lanschool install files. More info on page 29 of the Lanschool manual. Call it from Powershell like this, using the WaitForExit method as it takes a few seconds to process the channel change…

$ChannelCommand = "C:\setchannel\setchannel.exe"
$process = [Diagnostics.Process]::Start($ChannelCommand,$channel)

To build some validation into the process I check to see if there actually is a value in the $WorkStationRoom variable before running setchannel. If the variable comes back with a null value I set the channel to an arbitrary value I don’t use elsewhere (in this example 999). I can then use ZCM to query the channel value stored in the registry in HKLM\Software\Lanschool\Channel to find any machines that haven’t got a “proper” value set.

Note: you’ll need to check for this as any machines that get set to the “failed” channel number will all be controlled together, regardless of where they are!

if (!$channel)  {
    Write-Host "*** ROOM NAME INVALID ***"
    Write-Host "Quit imaging, check room name and restart"
    Write-Host "channel number set to 999"
    $channel = 999
} else {
    write-host $channel

To finish off the installation make a quick update the registry to disable the annoying “would you like to register Lanschool?” dialog box that insists on popping up at every boot.

Use your preferred method of updating registry entries (in our case it was an action in the ZCM Bundle) to change the teacher.exe entry in HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run to add the IgnoreRegPrompt parameter at the end of the executable path…

C:\Program Files\LanSchool\teacher.exe IgnoreRegPrompt

When done go to the teacher PC, hover over the Lanschool icon in the system tray and you should see the channel number from the input file in the popup panel… ans there you have it, zero-touch Lanschool deployment that works a treat 🙂

Moodle 2.3 in production: theming and customisations

Having finished the Windows 7 upgrade for our classroom machines and being satisfied with the setup it’s been time to put the spotlight back on Moodle and get some polish to the new 2.3 site our tutors will be using from… well today really

The core of the theme was done in the prep work I’d done before the start of summer, along with a matching Mahara theme so was more of a tweaking exercise than full redesign.

First step (sadly) was to remove the Live@Edu links from the top bar as we’ve had to drop it for now due to Office 365 migration, which is a lot more involved than simply shifting to a newer platform. The authentication and access to 365 is a lot different to the old LiveID \ SkyDrive features and rather than have a half-baked implementation I’m leaving it for now.

Our users found the file storage and web apps the most useful part of our Live@Edu integration and until I can do something similar with 365 \ Sharepoint it seems to be easier for students to use their personal accounts and the newly revamped SkyDrive, which has a funny irony about it somehow!

I’d also noticed Shaun has released a new version of his aardvark theme but having looked through the changes I’m sticking with our fork of blackbird for now as I’d made similar changes initially, along with some custom CSS to use my favourite blue gradient background and don’t want to do it all over again… maybe I need GitHub to keep track of it all? However I did nab the new social network icons though as they fit with the style Microsoft and co seem to be going with at the moment.

Moodle2 front pageThe front page of the site then got a quick spruce up, added some new graphics into the tabbed image slider, a funky new logo and put Moodle \ network news along the bottom.

Also note the Google Chrome download link in the footer, without doubt the best browser for editing Moodle courses so should help staff working from home (and students who want to be freed from the clutches of IE!)

Coming back to the drop down bar, with Live@Edu removed there was an empty space on the left hand block area, fortunately I had an ideal replacement; a Mahara SSO link so users have a quick entry point to their portfolio

The My Moodle page was an interesting case, on one hand I was pleased to see I could drop an HTML block into the middle content area to act as a welcome banner without needing to edit the Moodle core code but then found one irritating change.

Previously when setting the default My Moodle layout and blocks in 1.9 it would apply to all users and update as the admin made changes. This doesn’t happen in 2.3 (probably the same in other 2.x releases) and seems to make a custom setting for each user with whatever the default layout was at the time. I noticed this when changing the logo and finding it wasn’t updating for certain users, who are now stuck with either a broken image or the wrong welcome message. There’s a kludge to reset the My Moodle page via MySQL but I don’t like messing with database tables unless I have to, fingers crossed the Moodle devs will get this sorted sooner rather than later.

A couple more screenshots of the finalised My Moodle portal and our matching Mahara theme are below for those who want a closer look. Yes the tile logo is Windows 8 inspired 😉

My Moodle portal  

This post has grown a bit larger than I first thought so will split into a new one for the first thoughts from a course design and creation perspective, which should be up soon…