BETT 2015 tech highlights

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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…

SMART Kapp

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 http://smartkapp.com

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 https://msopentech.com/blog/2015/01/19/moodle-office365/

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 http://planetestream.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/moodle-gradebook-assessment-plugin.html

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?

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Taming Google Chrome for Windows and Moodle

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Seeing as IE9 doesn’t support the very handy drag and drop features in Moodle 2.4 and IE10 has a habit of breaking other internal web services we’re installing Google Chrome on our Windows 7 image this year. On the face of it the installation and configuration is pretty simple but there are a couple of tips and gotchas to watch out for…

Auto open attachments

Love them or hate them Office files still exist in Moodle courses in terms of providing resources to students so we wanted to check what Chrome’s behaviour would be when they’re clicked. In IE you get the classic “Save or Open?” dialog box but Chrome just plonks the files in the Downloads folder, no questions asked.

That’s not so good as it means users have to hunt around for files and manually open them, not liking that at all so set out to find a better way. Nothing in the standard preferences GUI but a bit of research found that it is possible to set certain attachments to auto-open by using a file called master_preferences which you can find in C:\Program Files\Google\Chrome\Application

Ref: https://support.google.com/chrome/a/answer/187948?hl=en
Ref: http://www.chromium.org/administrators/configuring-other-preferences

The master_preferences file is in JSON format and any slight typos will stop it working so use something like http://jsonlint.com/ to verify your finalised settings when done.

The setting you want is called extensions_to_open and looks something like this:

"extensions_to_open": "doc:docx:xls:xlsx:ppt:pptx"

Note: some of the settings you can enable in master_preferences are better to configure via the Group Policy ADM files as preferences are exactly what they say on the tin and as such won’t prevent the user from changing them.

A sample version of the master_preferences file we used can be found in SkyDrive

Disable access to C: drive

Most admins know about the standard Windows GPO to disable browsing \ access to the C: drive but what you may not know is that Chrome basically ignores it and still allows users to access the local HDD by typing file://C:\  into the browser window!

Fortunately my colleague Barry Whitehouse found a setting in the Chrome ADM to disable this but it’s not immediately obvious:

Computer Settings > Administrative Templates > Google > Google Chrome > Disable URL Protocol Schemes then enter file in the settings box

Desktop shortcut

As we’re using ZENworks to push out all our desktop shortcuts we didn’t want Chrome creating its own one, in theory this should be controlled via master_preferences but there’s an outstanding bug in the code that means Chrome ignores the setting. Hopefully will be fixed in the future, the just a matter of keeping an eye on the dev forums for when it finally gets sorted.

How to: find block names in Moodle database & set default layout

A common request on a new Moodle site is to set up a standardised block layout for new courses. This helps to ensure a consistent look and feel, as well as reducing clutter for teachers using Moodle for the first time.

Setting the layout is fairly simple and requires a couple of lines to be added to config.php

http://docs.moodle.org/23/en/Block_layout

If you’re only setting standard blocks you can pretty much set up from the examples in config-dist.php but what about contributed blocks? Sometimes the block name you need to use in the config file isn’t quite what you’d expect, which can be a pain!

Luckily it’s easy to get a list of all the block names from the Moodle database – I’m using MySQL Workbench but you could could do the same with phpmyadmin etc…

moodle block names mysql query

Dear Santa: Moodle wish list 2012

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Yup it’s that time of year again, the Christmas trees are appearing and you can’t escape those songs on the radio so I thought it’s a good time to jot down my personal Moodle 2.x wish list 🙂

None of these features exist yet (as far as I know) but I think would make an impact on usability in a positive way…

#1 Moodle Course repository

One of the great things with using an online learning platform is that tutors can share resources between courses to save duplicating content and improving the quality of what’s already there (making static resources interactive and so on). Problem is sharing these resources is still somewhat clunky. OK Moodle has support for some open-source external repository systems but why worry about managing yet another platform when most of what you want is already in Moodle?

At the moment I create a shared resources area for a particular team where multiple staff have editing rights on the course. Logic being to use one course as a shared area where resources can be dropped in and used in courses as and when required. In terms of increasing the amount of available resources it works really well but the process isn’t quite as slick as I’d like it to be.

To do the copying the standard import feature is… OK and Sharing Cart very good but what I’d really like is the ability to set a course as a repository and use Moodle’s metadata as a search option. For example you could search by the resource title, description or search for types of resource only e.g. quizzes.

Moodle could use the preview window to show the resource (e.g. if it’s an image or YouTube video, or perhaps stats showing how many questions available in a quiz etc.)

From there all you’d need is a single click to drop the file into the course from the repository picker… simples!

#2 Topics only view

One of the most common complaints from tutors is the “joy” of trying to rearrange weeks in their courses that have lots of resources in. Lovely as AJAX drag and drop may be, it’s a pig to move weeks around when they’re the length of the browser window!

I’ve developed a strange way of resolving this which involves left-click dragging and moving the scroll wheel at the same time but it feels weird enough for me doing it let alone getting anyone else to try.

What would fix this? A quick toggle option in the course menu that would change the view to the “collapsed topics” format. You could then easily drag and drop the topics around to move them up \ down the hierarchy as required then go back to the standard view with a single click.

Drag and drop topics view

Drag and drop topics view

 

#3 Microsoft SkyDrive (Pro) repository

I’ve been banging on about this for so long it feels like it was in another decade (ah yes it was!) but we could really do with another Microsoft open-source release to give us a long-awaited repository for SkyDrive.

I’m a big fan of the recent makeover the service received and the APIs that can now be used with it. Now all that’s required is a straight copy of the Google Docs functionality that ships out the box with Moodle 2.x to give an equivalent user experience…

SkyDrive for Moodle repository mock-up

SkyDrive for Moodle repository mock-up

As much as I’d love the SharePoint Pro in 365 to have a repository built as well I wonder what the ratio of use would actually be… many students now prefer to use their personal accounts so the consumer SkyDrive might be a better candidate if I had to make a choice?

Thoughts?

Would you find any of the above features useful? Even better, what would you like to see from Moodle in 2013? We got drag and drop and some nice UI improvements recently so fingers crossed Santa’s sleigh can deliver some more goodies in the upcoming year 🙂

Moodle course migration tip: cleaning out legacy files

If you’ve moved from Moodle 1.9 to 2.x using the “clean slate” method (new, empty site) as opposed to upgrading an old one may have run into the issue I faced today…

Most of last year’s courses had already been shifted to the new site but this one in particular caused me a problem due to the amount of data in the legacy file structure. The course had numerous Lightbox Gallery items with large, uncompressed photos inside and the backup file size was ~1.1GB!

Being on an externally hosted site I don’t have control of php.ini to change upload limits nor did I have direct FTP access to use the file system repository so had to make the course smaller somehow. Tried a few methods around deselecting the galleries (files were still left in the backup from course files) or removing course files from the backup completely (broke all the images inside labels)

In the end I found a way to keep the active resources in the course whilst removing all the detritus that builds up in the old file structure:

  • back up everything in the course from your 1.9 site
  • restore it into a local Moodle 2.3 instance (WAMPServer etc) where you can set your upload limits in php.ini to be silly high (2GB+)
  • create a new blank course on the local Moodle server
  • use the Import function to import all desired activities, labels etc into the blank course
  • back up the blank course
  • upload and restore into your live site

The legacy files aren’t taken over as the import only copies the active data but preserves images used in labels and places them neatly into the new file system, along with activities, resources etc.

End result? Backup file went from 1GB to 20MB (the rest of the course is links, assignments & files) and restores nearly into the live site within a couple of minutes 🙂

The galleries will probably get recreated manually after the images have been shrunk down a bit, with the drag and drop feature in 2.3 it’ll be trivial to do and will end up neater than trying to migrate the old 1.9 version.

The usual disclaimer applies, test this with a copy of any courses you want to try it out with before handing the end product over to the tutor!

Still want that FTP access though!

Moodle 2.3 in production: course design and tutor feedback

Now staff are coming back in and getting resources ready for their new classes I’m often asked to do short impromptu training sessions to help tutors find their way around the new site, or in the case of some of the lucky start from scratch. Why do I say lucky… mainly because they’ve been spared the pain of Moodle 1.9’s file upload process, more on the joys of drag and drop in a moment. I’ll go through a couple of highlights from the sessions and what I found needed adding \ sorting out…

First things first, the browser… very simple, use Google Chrome, Firefox if you really must but definitely not IE unless you want to miss out on the AJAX drag and drop goodness that makes 2.3 such a breeze to work with. Why IE doesn’t work is known only to Microsoft and their standards implementations but for now use Google Chrome if you want the easy life. For network admins out there get Chrome for Business and lock down what you need to with GPO.

Drag and drop file upload

The biggest usability update for me, although Moodle is at its best with interactive activities you still need learning resources and this makes getting them online so much easier. Also helps with the battle for hearts and minds, coupled with general AJAX drag and drop within courses life becomes a lot easier for tutors and saves oodles of time compared with previous versions

One section per page

I wasn’t familiar with the phrase “scroll of death” aka SOD but I know the problem all too well, nothing says “Moodle” more than a massive page chock full of links and labels that’s an assault on the eyes. Worry no more; change the setting below and users now see a clean and tidy contents page for the course then click to their preferred section and view a more compact and relevant set of resources 🙂

Proper section names

One of those features I’d always wanted when on 1.9… being able to set the title of each topic \ week and have it automatically formatted as part of the theme (also then shows up in navigation \ course menu). Previously tutors had to do this manually and remember that the first line of the topic appeared as the title and anything underneath as the description; another ambiguity sorted. I find it also helps tutors to visualise the layout of their course.

Embedding media

Flickr repository, Wikimedia repository, automatic YouTube embed after pasting in the URL (OK the last one isn’t particularly new but works out the box in 2.3) all help to make courses look prettier in a quick, slick way. If you haven’t got Flickr etc set up hop into Site Administration > Plugins > Repositories and do it now!

What did I miss?

During the day a few questions cropped up that had me scratching my head for a few minutes, most solved now…

  • tutor needs a simple survey activity
    Nice and easy, that’s the feedback activity… but where’s it gone as it’s not in the list?
    Turns out Moodle disables it by default, turn it back on from Plugins > Activity Modules
  • tutor needs to make a list for students to check off as they complete activities
    We wanted something better than highlighter pens, this is one of those moments where I’m so glad I go to JISC show and tell events, check out DavoDev’s Checklist module, fully updated for Moodle 2.3
  • quick access to topics
    one feature I’m not that impressed with in 2.x is the navigation block, for me it shows too much of what you don’t need to see all the time and not enough of what you do; in fact I’ve disabled it across the site. To replace it I’m using the Course Menu block, again updated for 2.3 and does what it needs to i.e. provides a block with quick links to each topic in the course. Ideal when used in conjunction with the one section per page setting.
  • download multiple files at once
    not had much joy with this yet 😦 In our case the tutor has a batch of workbook files that students need to download, edit and submit as assignments during the course. Initially you think to put them in a folder, however this doesn’t give you much control over how the files behave when clicked (usually going straight into the Downloads folder on your PC). As a result it seemed better to have them in a topic and control behaviour via Moodle (force either open or save dialog). However I can’t find a way to download a batch of them in one go e.g. if 5 files were needed as part of a single assignment. Would prefer to avoid ZIP files if possible but can’t think of another way to do it… answers in the comments box below please!

Overall tutors have been rather impressed with the new site thus far and it seems to be overcoming the most common complaints of the previous version, which even as Moodle admins I doubt anyone could really defend! Onwards and upwards I think…

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…