Office 365 Enterprise Preview – hands on

I have to admit thus far I’ve been a bit disappointed with Office 365; at the time when SkyDrive was a standalone web service with no APIs or desktop integration the promise of SharePoint and a move away from LiveIDs sounded just the ticket. What arrived has been something that I can best describe as being “whelmed”… OK it’s not a real word but fits how I feel of not jumping for joy nor being completely critical.

Having tried various demos thus far of the 365 for Education plan a couple of issues always bugged me…

But there is hope on the horizon!

When poking around TechNet for a download of Office 2013 to drop on my x100e I found it’s been rebranded to Office 365 ProPlus Preview. Initially signed up for that thinking it’s been bundled in with an Office 365 subscription… close but not quite. What you need is the Office 365 Enterprise Preview

Having filled in the form and got my login I’m now much more impressed 😀

The service has had a makeover to bring it in line with the new \ SkyDrive \ Windows 8 visual style and looks a lot better for it. Commonly used services are easy to access across the top and you’re prompted to download Office 2013 from the welcome page.

Office 365 splash page

Jumping into email is pretty much as you’d expect, kind of a cross between classic OWA and the new Have to admit I prefer the email compose screen but that’s just personal preference.

OWA splash screen  OWA interface

As you can see in the 2nd OWA screenshot my Sharepoint space has provisioned while writing the post so time to take a look at what we’ve got…

Once your Sharepoint provisions you now get a News Feed appear when you first log in, definitely helps create a more user-centric feel rather than the rather departmental vibe I get from the current 365 interface. There’s the usual profile and picture options to fill in as you’d expect.

My Site provisioning  News Feed

Now for the good bit, SkyDrive Pro!

As per the start of the article I found Office 365 document creation rather painful from a UI perspective, luckily MS have realised this and made it nice and simple to upload and create documents. Either drag and drop existing documents from your desktop or click the easily visible New Document button

Creating documents

There’s also some element of drag and drop in terms of moving files into folders but this seems a bit iffy at the moment as I can’t see a simple way to drag between folders. I think the Files view needs an icon based management view a la Windows Explorer to be truly user friendly…

Files view  Drag and drop file management

There’s also the usual Sharing options, plus you can add Notes and Tags to a file. Editing in the Web Apps works well as you’d expect, they also seem a bit snappier to load up which is a bonus. Also just spotted a Sync button, which seems to tap into your local Sharepoint Workspace app. Haven’t tried this yet but will report back if \ when I do.

Final thoughts

Much, much better from Microsoft with this Office 365 Preview in terms of ease of user and functionality. Once it’s released I’ll start looking seriously at deploying it for our students… now if only I could have that Moodle plugin I’d be a very happy tech 😉


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…

Exciting times…

Getting towards summer now when many think of education getting quiet… for me it’s anything but, lots of new developments this week!

Moodle 2.3 finally landed and it looks to have been worth the wait. This one finally makes 2.x look like a finished product and sorts out the usability annoyances that have bugged Moodle users since the dawn of time. Drag and drop upload is awesome and combined with AJAX makes moving resources around courses so much simpler. The only gotcha to watch out for is that it’s not going to work on IE8 so XP users will need to use Chrome or Firefox.

Book module finally makes it into the core at last, had a little niggle with my Aardvark theme where in the name of clean design it hid the hide navigation menu but sorted that by adding a “post” region to the theme’s config.php file. Just checking back on the Moodle forum there’s a fixed config.php file available now that incorporates a couple of other pages that needed sorting, get it here

While at the JISC e-factor 2012 event I found out that a new version of the ULCC ILP block will be coming soon as well. Perfect timing for us as we continue to build our new Moodle and Mahara sites. Check out the e-factor site as there were some really useful presentations on the day which should be up there soon.

And finally as if that little lot wasn’t enough Microsoft officially released Office 365 for education, will be getting that on my demo domain shortly for more testing.

My initial thoughts are that it has potential and there’s some interesting products in there (Lync particularly has caught my eye) but that the amount of space per student (500MB!) is poor compared to Google. Some might say that’s still plenty of space for documents but after seeing some colleges using Google Apps as a student e-portfolio I think that space could get used up very quickly so will be interesting to see how it pans out.

Also a bit uncertain about the use of Sharepoint right now as the interface isn’t the friendliest out the box, although it does seem easier to get at from within Windows which is a bonus. Quite a few people on the web demos I attended were asking for Moodle integration… a repository API for Sharepoint would be perfect, just need someone to make it happen now (remember MS that you can do this very easily with Google Docs right now…)

Next week I’m hoping to have my production Moodle 2.3 + Mahara sites up and running ready to start building course category structures and update my training courses for staff… let the fun begin!

Shaun Daubney does it again… another awesome aardvark theme

It never rains but it pours… quite fitting that while it’s chucking it down outside I’m doing the same with Moodle theming posts!

I’ve taken my time getting into Moodle 2.2 as our 1.9 site had so much customisation I was finding it difficult to see something within the newer themes that would move us forward. Was considering just buying one in then saw the latest version of the aardvark theme (Blackbird) and the old enthusiasm came back 😀

I think Shaun should change his middle name to “Awesome” as that’s what I kept saying when I first loaded up the theme, really does look the part and gave me the base I wanted to start tweaking.

Additions so far…

  • silk icon pack (see previous post and SkyDrive for download package if you want it for your site)
  • subtle gradient background tweak (sorry Mr. Goldfish!)
  • minor text styling, spacing and colour tweaks to give a nod to our current theme

One thing I noticed when about to demo to a colleague was that the menu wasn’t appearing when not logged in (and in IE this also made the entire top bar disappear). After asking on I had a thought that it was probably an intentional choice rather than a bug and sure enough found the answer in layout/general.php

The bit in caps was added by me, as were the 3 lines commented out afterwards…



 /* if (!isloggedin() or isguestuser()) { */
 /* } */
 /* else */

 if ($hascustommenu) { ?>
 <div id="menuitemswrap"><div id="custommenu"><?php echo $custommenu; ?></div></div>
<?php } ?>
 <?php include('profileblock.php')

The menu now shows the entire time and displays correctly in IE, Chrome and Firefox

The profile dropdown is one of my favourite parts of the  theme, looking at the “TBC” block space it looked too tempting to not put something there so I took my SkyDrive \ Web Apps block I made for 1.9 and tried it in the gap… the result… very good 🙂

The SkyDrive icon came from the official Microsoft branding pack, get it here

One thing that’s driving me nuts is how to get the entire background of the icons to highlight (currently it only goes about half way up) and also need to add the auto hide function for non-Live@Edu users then I’ll put it in the usual place for anyone who wants it. Shame in a way that this will be replaced with Office 365, as yet no native Moodle integration exists (or seems to be planned) for the new system but if something appears I’ll be on it in a flash!

Office 365 now free for education staff… well done Microsoft :)

Just had this come through via email… good move by Microsoft to drop the charges for staff to use the system

“We are also excited to make pricing changes to Office 365 for education. In line with our longstanding commitment to education, we will make our “A2″ service plan free to not only students, but also to faculty and staff. A2 includes the core capabilities of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync and the Office Web Applications. Exchange Online and Lync Online are available today for academic institutions, and we’ll launch the full Office 365 for education service starting this summer. You can get more information on our Office 365 for education offering here.”

I’m attending a Microsoft event next week to get some more answers about where SkyDrive fits in with Office 365 and how the migration works then will start planning to see how it will work for us…

Moodle 2.2 is go!

After a very informative event from JISC RSC London yesterday I now feel that Moodle 2 is going to be on our radar very soon (as in less than 6 months soon!) At one point I asked the question whether the move from 1.9 to 2.2 could be done or whether to go and hide under a table and pretend it isn’t happening… you can guess what the answer was!


I was going to summarise the salient points about the upgrade but Mike Hughes has already done it so without further ado check out his post…

One of the best things from yesterday was finally an answer to the question I’ve had since 2.x was released…

“can you explain to a tutor, in less than 4 sentences, how the new file system works”

Cue Rebecca Barrington from South Devon College who managed it with a few words and some nifty elbow moves! Good news is that there doesn’t seem too much to worry about now the early issues and questions have been ironed out and thus far feedback seems to be that it “just works”… I’ll take that! With what looks like single-instance storage reducing file storage requirements as well it’s looking like win-win now.

On a similar note the long awaited SkyDrive API is now out there so maybe, just maybe we might finally see something to link it to Moodle via the repository function… maybe dreams can come true after all!

So getting back into the office today what happens next? From a personal point of view I think I’m going to go down the fresh install and re-import process. It’ll give us the chance to re-evaluate structures, clear out any crud and check all our users are accurate, plus leaving 1.9 there on the side “just in case”. Already put a request in for a 2.2 server which should be arriving sometime next week then let the fun begin!

After looking at our current site and furious scribblings from yesterday the initial plugin list is starting with…

  • Live@Edu plugin for 2.x (only released the other week and was a big worry for me)
  • ILP2, apparently new and much improved
  • OUWiki, sounds like a very nice bit of kit and much better than the standard Moodle module which has always seemed a bit underwhelming
  • Lightbox Gallery, was glad to hear this has been ported to 2.x as we make good use of it in our photography courses
  • Book, core feature wasn’t there early on but now upgraded
  • Course Awards with Moodle medals for high quality courses
  • Course Menu (looks like Moodle 2.x standard course navigation isn’t quite good enough without the additional block)
  • Spell check for HTML editor

First thing I’ll be doing is setting up the updated Live@Edu plugin to see what’s changed, hopefully they’ve used the newer Messenger Connect API to fix the irritating consent bug from the old system that’s been the bane of my life ever since putting it in! At the same time I’ll also look at updating my little Office Web Apps block to work in 2.x, hopefully shouldn’t need too much tweaking being a pretty basic item and when done will upload to the usual place 🙂

Once everything all up and running then we’ll need to update our Moodle introductory course to take advantage of the new funky features 2.x offers (conditional activities, completed items, new quiz types etc) to sell the vision to tutors and show them where we’re moving towards. Then there’s the small matter of deciding whether to keep with the portal strategy (website, intranet etc all based on Moodle) or split out into separate platforms (Joomla?) All this alongside moving to Windows 7, installing site-wide Ruckus Wi-Fi, implementing open-source MRBS room booking software and finishing off getting our last couple of physical servers onto VMware… it’s going to be a busy summer!

As always thanks go to RSC London for putting the event on and all those who shared their experiences for the greater good, this slightly wonky Moodle logo salutes you!

Live@Edu Moodle 2.x support

Great news this morning, looks like Moodlerooms have taken on development of the Live@Edu plugin and we will have a version for newer versions of Moodle by the end of the month 😀

Fingers crossed this might also mean Office 365 in the future as well… time to break out a new dev server I think!