LMSing around

Well, it’s been a long time that we have all been discussing the evils of the Learning Management System. From my own articles back in 2008 and 2009, to Michael Feldstein’s November post with all its responses, those of us who believe we are progressive, non-conformist, future-thinking, out-of-the-box people have been gleefully dissing the LMS. The LMS is a tool that encourages conformity, poor pedagogy, closed silos, commercial exploitation, robo-grading, and the death of the open web. It discourages openness, shared resources, perpetual web portfolios, and the joy of a cloud-based utopia.

I have happily been anti-LMS for many years. And all this time I have been using Moodle.

Some are surprised. I had a colleague come up to me, apologetically, last term. He had an LMS question, but prefaced it with, “I know you don’t use an LMS, but…”

I have been participating in Connected Courses, where naturally we all agree that the LMS hampers connections. Connected Courses is a wonderful idea, with wonderful people. The hub of it is housed on WordPress, a customized installation managed beautifully by the god of WordPress, Alan Levine, and designed by a team fed by a grant. It is not a model that many others could follow without institutional support and/or a maestro like Alan hanging out in the garage. I’ve used WordPress in a similar construct (but by no means as lovely a site) for the Program for Online Teaching Class over several years. I gave up on it in May 2013  – it was just too hard. The plugin that makes it possible, FeedWordpress, is supported by one man on his own time, and requires lots of tweaking.

I don’t have staff, assistants, or a grant. I teach at a community college. I teach 40 students per section, 5-7 sections per semester, usually with five different preps (a prep is a particular course – Western Civ I, US History II). I often teach as many as five of these classes online, with at least three different preps. Many of my colleagues teach at multiple campuses, and teach over 300 students in multiple sections all over the county. In all these years, the suggestions of how to be open and wonderful and non-LMS with this many students (considering the requirements put upon us to track and grade their work) have been very few. Connectivism? After much experience, study and thought, I have determined that the management of large numbers of students’ individual achievement cannot be solved with connectivist models. (The popularity of MOOCs is testament to this. Commercial and university xMOOCs are often robo-graded and/or managed by large numbers of “staff” and graduate students.)

Given the 265 students I will need to teach this spring, the LMS provides the space I need, given the dearth of good alternatives.

What the LMS is good at, of course, is management:

  • automatically graded quizzes provide instant feedback to the student
  • grade book feature provides for privacy and quick checks on progress
  • customizations enable me to organize the grade book in a way that makes it possible for me to see at a glance where a student is doing well and where s/he is struggling
  • easy embedding makes it possible for me to make external sites, presentations, and tools part of the class
  • students are automatically added and dropped via connection with the college’s student enrollment system
  • security features create a space mostly closed to surveillance

It’s very poor for:

  • open learning
  • student-created content that lives beyond the semester
  • making students feel like individuals
  • providing multiple learning paths

BUT I mostly solve what’s bad through my own design and pedagogy:

  • having all written work done in forums where students can see everyone else’s work
  • encouraging students to draft all their work on their own hard drives
  • keeping track of students’ preferred names from their posts and using them publicly in the space

No, I can’t solve it all. Neither can WordPress, Ning, Facebook, Google, Schoology, Drupal, Canvas, or the open web. There’s been nothing radically different out there in years. Startups of great tools have mostly shut down. Progress in online learning technology has slowed to a crawl.

So am I a traitor to the cause? An apologist for the LMS? A closet user who then shows up at 12-step meetings? No, I’m just practical. Do I think that users like me can make the LMS better? Nope, I’m just back to 2012. Only now I don’t feel so guilty.

A hard drive of ones own

I just read Audrey Watters’ impassioned post about an old bogey-man of mine, the Learning Management System. And while I started nodding my head as she went through the usual problems with Blackboard and the whole silo idea of LMSs, a subject on which I have opined many times, I ended up shaking my head and thinking about my hard drive and Slideshare slidecasts.

There are some premises here that I’m not so sure about anymore:

The first is that LMSs can’t contain any student-centered learning. I’ve seen, and built, some very good classes in an LMS. No, they weren’t open. But they were still good. I’ve also seen some really bad courses, in the open and in the LMS. I’ve written about how the LMS leads to bad classes, which it can certainly do. But that trend can, and should, be effectively fought with techniques for building good classes anyway, regardless of platform.

openAnother premise is that open is always better. Closed courses are not just manifestations of bureaucratic and administrative attempts to institute efficiency and focus on outcomes, although they are that too. Closed courses provide a sense of protection for students and professors, just like the closed classroom door does. Even apart from FERPA (which isn’t about what most people think it’s about anyway), there is an argument to be made that academic freedom, student participation, and the use of copyrighted material, is much easier and “freer” in a closed silo.

A third is that open tools are better and, somehow, more reliable. They aren’t. They are as subject to the vagaries of the market as the LMS. And again, my classic example is Slideshare, where I spent many hours synchronizing my lecture audio to my slides, only to have them discontinue the slidecast feature this year, effectively silencing my teaching.

Connected to this is the lament that when the class is over, all the student work disappears. It doesn’t have to, at least not for the individual student. I recommend to everyone, faculty and students alike, that anything they work on, anything they post or build, they should keep a copy of, on their own hard drive. Is it awful that the class disappears, the experience with all the forums and group activity? Sure, but it is ephemeral in the same way as an on-site class. Your work doesn’t have to be.

And if you offer your class in an open system of some kind, what’s to say that system is perpetual and eternal? It could disappear, or become expensive, in a few years. Ask anyone who offered a free class in Ning. And if students lose access to materials, that’s because we’re using materials that can’t be accessed outside the system. Maybe we shouldn’t do that. A simple list on a web page, as I do with my lectures, could be in the open. What can’t be accessed anymore is the navigation and LMS-based pedagogy we’re saying people shouldn’t be using anyway.

printshopSo it’s not that the points Audrey makes aren’t valid – she’s great and I love her work. And I love the Domain of Ones Own idea, and WordPress.org, and open courses (I teach some) and the open web and the push to keep it open. It’s just that anyone who’s relying on today’s technology – any of today’s technology – needs to think again.  Our work, as Audrey points out, is not secure in the hands of corporations, or, frankly, educational institutions. It needs to be stored, or at least archived, in our own hands. That’s the whole idea behind the e-portfolio market – except that our portfolios should also be on our hard drives.

The ability to download the artifacts we create online, to keep a duplicate, to draft things in a separate program – these may be more important than LMS-or-no-LMS, than open-or-closed, than corporate-or-educational.  Use the open web, use whatever works out there, build communities and take your students there and rage against the privacy-invading, data-mining machine. Then print a copy.

Navigating the treacherous waters of the LMS

A student wrote me last week asking when the extra credit is due in her class. Since I had put the due date next to big red letters as a label in Moodle, I told her the date (of course) and asked if she was able to see it at the site. I sent her a screenshot to be (a bit impatiently, I admit) helpful:


She replied, thanking me and telling me she hadn’t seen it because she uses the “list on the left”. Confused, I asked what she meant. To me the screen looks like this – no list on the left.


It turned out she is using the Navigation menu, which I have docked on the left side. I never use it.

I looked at it and noticed it didn’t have any of my labels, just a list of the Moodle activities that have links:


Here’s that week as I designed it, in the center column, the main page:


 Notice that my labels, which have the due dates, are not in the Navigation menu. This prompted me to tweet:


The Navigation menu, which surely more than one student is using, cannot be removed, even if I were running my own installation, which I’m not.

So here is where the technology forces me to change my method, and messes with my design. These things are due every week on the same day. I have the labels to mark them clearly, and they are convenient to replicate throughout the class. They also set a clear pattern, like a calendar.

But if students are using the Navigation menu, and I cannot stop them, my method is poor, and it would be better to put the dates in the description of each activity, or at least have “Due Tuesday” in the title of the activity.

However, what happens when I have a reading assignment from a book? I have one class coming up this summer where I am using a textbook, because I haven’t yet edited a satisfactory version of my Wikipedia-based textbook. So my Moodle page looks like this:


The lectures will appear in the Navigation menu, because they will be linked. But students will not be able to see the reading assignment, because it is a label, because there is nothing to link it to — it’s a real, page-ridden textbook. To fix this, I’d have to create a page for each reading assignment, which is likely what I will have to do.

Students will also not see my introduction to each week’s material. 🙁

Hours await me of removing labels I had painstakingly created for five classes, and making activity pages for things that are not activities, all because students are using a Navigation menu to navigate. Super.

Student authentication and the Hays Code

Recently, my college (and many others) have been subjected to demands that we provide solid “authentication” of our online students, in a late and yet hurried attempt to comply with a federal law from the 2008 amendment of the Higher Education Act*.

Ostensibly “student authentication” means somehow proving that the students who take our online classes are the same ones who registered. (This implies that some of them are not, of course – we know that students may have others take classes for them, and that it’s easy to do this online.)

The 14th c. University of Paris,
a hotbed of plagiarism

We ignore, of course, that this form of cheating also happens in the classroom, where we do not force students to show ID and it’s possible to have a mom take an entire class for her kid. We ignore that our on-site students may have others write their papers for them, or buy papers. Entire degrees have been earned by people who were not the ones enrolled, at least since around the year AD 1150 or so.

We react to these problems nowadays by freaking out and instituting methods right out of George Orwell’s 1984: video cameras that watch students take exams (1), keystroke analysis (1), thumbprint verification (2), double-level passcodes.

The big, easy solution is proposed by those who believe in the true “authentication” provided by Learning Management Systems in conjunction with student enrollment systems (3). When a student applies and is given an ID and password to the enrollment system, we assume they are who they say they are. Then we carry that assumption into an LMS that has data fed to it by the enrollment system.

All other places except the LMS are considered “insecure”, because only the enrollment system-LMS password link is considered proper verification in the absence of the more draconian methods listed above.

I have argued extensively and in multiple venues that the structure of the standard LMS adversely influences the pedagogy of online teaching, especially for novice instructors (4). But the days are clearly coming when we will be forced to use the college-supported LMS and only that system (this is already true for many people at many colleges). We have tried to avoid it at my college by developing various policies through faculty power channels, all of which have been gradually dismissed.

A more reasonable approach than either Big Brother or LMS/enrollment is the argument of pedagogy as verification. Teachers should know a student’s writing style, and be able recognize when they vary from it. Frequent assignments, of course, are necessary to do this, and it’s all highly subjective. One way to manage this subjectivity is to implement requirements that faculty offer a certain type and number of assignments, or use particular strategies for assessments (5). One should not give assignments, for example, that can be easily purchased or copied from elsewhere. While I agree that we shouldn’t do this anyway (unless it’s part of analyzing such works), forcing an instructor to change how they do assignments is as bad as forcing them to use the LMS.

The issue here isn’t one of technological appropriation and student verification. It’s an issue of pedagogy and academic freedom. The professor’s right to teach a course with their own methods is clearly undermined by each of the proposed “solutions” to student verification. Gradually American citizens have been deprived of their civil liberties in the name of national security, and college instructors are experiencing the same in the name of student verification. And yet colleges consider these as technical problems, and few faculty are doing anything about it. Many faculty who do not teach online respond to such issues with the same learned helpless they use to repond to educational technology in general.

haysposterThe only hope, since this incursion cannot be stopped, is to respond to it like Hollywood responded to the Hays Code (6). The Hays Code, in all of its horrid repression of creative expression, forced movie makers to be even more creative. To get around the rules, they came up with new methods, techniques, and memes. The result was an era of screwball comedies and cool mysteries. Many stuck to the rules but got around the intent of those rules, designed to produce only “wholesome” entertainment.

Of course, they also re-cut great films from before 1930, and the restrictiveness affected film-making until the 1960s.

I am trying to determine an appropriate response to the Hays Code atmosphere that is infecting online teaching. Surely somehow the restrictiveness could lead to more creativity?



* The push actually isn’t the 2008 law, but the recent popularity of MOOCs and the desire of many to have have universities accept them for credit. Since they are open courses, often on open systems, the verification issue is more obvious.


(1) Mary Beth Marklein, Colleges try to verify online attendance, USA Today, July 16, 2013

(2) Adam Vrankulj, Human Recognition Systems to launch platform for student ID and attendance verification, BiometricUpdate.com, June 27, 2013.

(3) Jeffrey L. Bailie and Michael Jortberg, Online Learner Authentication: Verifying the Identity of Online Users, Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol 5, no 2, June 2009.

(4) Lisa M Lane, Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching,
First Monday, Volume 14 Number 10 (27 September 2009).

(5) Justin Ferriman, How to Prevent Cheating in Online Courses, LearnDash, July 11, 2013.

(6) The Hays Code http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html.

Openness in a surveillance society

I have been so critical of Learning Management Systems for the past ten years that people write to me asking what I use instead of an LMS, even though I usually use Moodle and blog about it. I have written articles on how the LMS determines pedagogy, and spent much time helping faculty put their pedagogy before the demands of such systems. I have been a huge promoter of using Web 2.0 tools for teaching. I just want to set up my credentials here to preface my concerns about using what used to be these more “open” methods.

In May of last year, I indicated reservations about the way things have gone in terms of openness. In this post, I was wary of closed/open spaces like Google and Facebook, where students could be exploited.  In June I indicated I wouldn’t switch from the anonymous Google Talkback to something my students had to sign up with Google for. That was before the recent public understanding of our surveillance society, brought home by the revelations of Edward Snowden. His work seemed to mark an endpoint that originated with Sun Microsystem’s Scott McNealy’s famous quotation from 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

My concerns mean I have agonized over terms of service, along similar lines of Royan Lee, whose excellent blog post inspired this one. . Lee writes, in noting the mainstream acceptance of Google for education despite its Terms of Service.

“Suddenly, the amazing qualities of something like Google Apps for Education seems a little more about efficiency and logistics and less about transformation to me as an educator.”

Whenever I ask students to get a free account to do a Glogster or Slideshare, or open a group for them in Facebook, I think about these things.

There is a Google Community called Using Google Apps as a Free LMS, so I posted a link to Lee’s post there and got an excellent question in response:


My response indicates how this is coming together for me.

I would never be one to defend a commercial LMS as a better system. But it is closed in the sense that under normal conditions only the institution has access to the student input. And thinking about it more broadly, student input in the LMS is usually very focused on the course (this depends on pedagogy, of course – some students may indeed post highly personal information in the LMS). Using Google or any open-to-the-web service for classes connects the students’ personal use of that system to their coursework, widening the surveillance opportunities. Same thing with using Facebook. I’ve leaned toward my own hosted WordPress as a more balanced option, but certainly the functionality is not up to the ease of use as Google. My concern is just that the ease comes at a price.

This presents some confusion about open and closed, and what they mean in a surveillance society.

“Open” can mean available to anyone on the web without a password. But it can also mean accessible to ISPs, government surveillance, and commercial data collection. I don’t think we can ignore that anymore, even as we promote open education (I do!) and sharing (yes again!).

It means that a system like Google or Facebook can be “open” in the sense of available to surveillance, and “closed” in the sense of having to sign in and participate in places within the system that are supposedly “closed off” to other areas of the same system (like Google Communities, Google Circles, Google Apps for Education, Facebook Groups). Such areas are deceptive – they imply privacy that does not exist, even as Google and Facebook change their policies to expose more and more of these closed places to the public (for example, Facebook group posts showing up on your timeline) and to their own commercial data collection.

Very few people understand this. They think signing in and turning off Facebook settings and keeping our Circles of people separate implies some privacy. The purpose of signing in is not to protect your privacy. It’s to enable tracking and consolidation and data collection. And while I admire Royan Lee’s goal in spending a lot of time teaching his students about Terms of Service, I need to teach them History. I cannot save my students from the insatiable hunger of Big Data.

Lee is right in corresponding a society that accepts ongoing surveillance by the government with our acceptance of the terms required by web services. They are very similar. It is said that we accept surveillance because we believe if people aren’t doing anything wrong, what’s the harm? We extend this simplistic thinking to our web participation, if we think about it at all.

The solutions seem to be narrowing, to self-hosted LMS options like WordPress or Moodle or one of the newer open-source options. Even then, if you are logged in to Google and use Chrome, for example, your work in other systems can be tracked and (I assume in paranoid moments) recorded.

The closed LMS unfortunately is likely to be safer in a world that doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s just that wasn’t the world in which I wanted to work.

What’s in a name? and where am I?

A little over a year ago, the LMS I use (Moodle) was hooked up via a tool called Conduit to our college’s online enrollment system (SURF).

This meant that when a student enrolled for the class in SURF, their information would automatically appear in my class roster of participants in Moodle. Blackboard had been connected for awhile, but I hadn’t used Bb. I had been using self-enrollment with Moodle, where I gave students the URL and they made an account for themselves. I liked it this way, but the college decided on integration, so despite my protests, we integrated. There were major technical problems at first, but those have been resolved now. The more serious problems, however, remain.

A student’s name appears as their college-registered name, and cannot be changed. If they prefer to be called Jake instead of Jacob, or use their middle name, they can say so in the introduction forum, but everything they post will still say Jacob. Every message they send to each other and to me through the system calls them Jacob. The name they prefer to use (the one we ask for a write down when we take roll in a physical classroom) disappears in an obscure forum. Their very name is taken away.

A lesser, but annoying, problem is that the “short name” of the class has to be set as a series of numbers for the system to work. This changes the breadcrumb navigation so that users must click on the numbers to get back to the main page of the class. Before SURF integration, I used a shortname that made sense, like “Main Page” or “History 103”. But now it’s “0807895”. Imagine being deep in the class and wanting to get back to the main page and seeing navigation that says


And on top of that, if you accidentally hit the back button in the browser in a frantic attempt to get, you know, BACK, you get popped out of the system and get this:


You have instantly been thrown an error by a system you’ve never heard of, represented by a griffin who looks upset with you.

The other advantage to the self-enrollment practice was that students had to enter their own information. Although many refuse to recognize it, the fact is that few students use email to communicate. They use texting and Facebook, and rarely check their email. Thus the emails they entered in SURF way back four years ago when they first registered are often invalid, and they don’t get the emails asking them to update their email address. If they do check their email, they don’t know that spam filters could be throwing everything from MiraCosta in the trash. So if there’s a problem and you need to connect with them by email, it’s been made harder with the integration. With self-enrollment they at least entered their current email, increasing the chance that they’d see mine.

So despite Moodle’s wonderful nested forums (the reason I use Moodle), the system can now dehumanize, frighten, and disconnect students within minutes of starting a class. I can’t see that as progress. Yet another case of administrative efficiency (in this case, authentication and standardization) trumping both the affective and organizational needs of students and teachers, and making things more unfriendly.

POT Cert changes

pflogo2We are planning for the Program for Online Teaching Certificate Class for fall, and there will be some changes!

We’re keeping the independent blogs.

After discussion about having all participants as authors on one blog, we’ve decided that the “space of ones own” concept was too important to lose. MiraCosta instructors will continue to have the ability to get a blog through the college. For others, we’re no longer encouraging Edublogs (which makes you pay now to embed video). We enthusastically encourage a hosted blog of ones own, but we realize not everyone is up to that challenge. We are moderately encouraging WordPress.com. We’re noting that Blogger seems to work rather well, so it’s the first time we’ll recommend that. Since we aren’t aggregating, there are more choices – people could even use Tumblr.

No more FeedWordpress or a big aggregated blog

This turned into a nightmare that could only be improved by being a coder, which I’m not. Dealing with recalcitrant feeds (and finding them when people can’t tell where they are) became a major time suck. I can use another plugin to create a page of feeds if I want to, but it won’t be the core of the course. I still recommend the FeedWordpress method to anyone who has coding knowledge, time, and/or the staff to make it work. I have no staff.

Commenting will be part of a larger community are instead of on the blogs.

Last year, posts were aggregated and clicking to comment led back to the participant’s blog. The blog and comment (call and response) model has not been working as well as we’d hoped.

There are many reasons for this, but my take is the basic idea that blogs weren’t really intended for conversation, only commenting. One purpose of blog comments was to make sure participants knew they weren’t blogging into a void, but this wasn’t always achieved despite the very best efforts of our mentors, moderators and participants. Requiring comments leads to useless comments, and not requiring them leads to very few comments. The method was not fostering community. And no, I don’t believe it would have done so even if the comments had stayed on the aggregated blog. Moderators weren’t really moderating a conversation, but rather giving attaboys which, while important, did not provide real conversation.

Instead, we’ll be asking participants to share a link to their weekly posts in a new Google Plus Community, which is where all discussion and commenting will take place.

No, this is not ideal. There are privacy concerns (well, not so much privacy as Inappropriate Gathering and Use of Personal Information) in forcing folks to use Google. The same was a concern in our Facebook Group, where much interaction has taken place. But in order to introduce participants to the largest social networks being used for education, and in order to have meaningful, recorded and open synchronous sessions, we’ve decided to go with Big Brother.

Workload is reduced and more options provided

It’s a heavy course, with much reading and many tools. We’ve reduced these by providing options (for example, try a video or audio tool, not one of each). We are moving some of the readings into an “optional” column.

A badge can be earned for one semester

We’ve changed the structure to divide the 24-week class into two 12-week semesters, each with a different focus: Online Pedagogy for fall, and Online Education (for spring). Each can earn a badge, with both badges within two years required for the certificate.

This will provide a reward for those completing one semester, and choice of focus. Fall is heavier on pedagogy and course setup; spring is heavier on tools and theory. Beginners will be encouraged to start in fall, but more experienced online instructors are welcome to hop in for spring.

So we’re still working, but these are the ideas so far!

Fixing what is broke: 36 customizations for Moodle 2

These are the settings I think need to be changed by administrators to make Moodle 2 a working LMS for teachers.


Enable outcomes, stats, RSS, completion…
Advanced settings –
“Enable Outcomes” – check for yes
“Enable RSS feeds” – check for yes
“Enable completion tracking” – check for yes
“Enable conditional access” – check for yes
“Enable plagiarism plugins” – check yes if MCC is using them
“Enable statistics” – decide whether server load is worth it


Remove emails from gradebook
Users–>Permissions–>User policies -> Show User Identity -> uncheck email


Enable recovering of previous grades
Grades – General settings – “Recover grades default” – check box

Enable tab navigation in Grades
Grades – General settings – “Navigation method” – tabs

Enable static colum for student names in gradebook
Grade – Report settings – Grader report – enable “Static students column”

Enable quick feedback
Grade – Report settings – Grader report – Quick feedback – check for Yes

Enable quicker grading via AJAX
Grade – Report settings – Grader report – Enable AJAX – check for Yes


Set clock at Pacific Time (or your local time)
Location – Location settings – timezone UTC-7 (for spring-fall, would be UTC-8 for fall-spring)


Remove requirement for activity description on pages
Plugins – Activity Modules – Page – uncheck “Require activity description”

Continue manual marking of posts as in 1.9
Plugins – Activity Modules – Forums – Manual message read marking – check the box

Timed posts for instructors
Plugins > Activity modules > Forum

Show emoticons
Plugins – Filters – Manage filters – Display emoticons as images (on)

Make available converting URLs into links and images
Plugins – Filters – Manage filters – Convert URLs into links and images (off but available)

Ensure multimedia works
Plugins – Filters – Manage filters – Multimedia plugins – On – apply to content and headings

Set module display to minimize navigation zone, display in all formats, and make popups bigger
Plugins – activity modules – URL
“Frame height” – change to 100
“Available display options” select all,
“Popup width (in pixels) – change to 800, Advanced
“Popup height (in pixels) – change to 600, Advanced

Customize forums
Plugins – Activity modules – Forum –
“Use email address in reply” – check for No
“Read after days” – change to 160
“Maximum attachment size” – change to 2 MB
“Manual message read marking” – check for yes
“Timed posts” – check for yes


Allow object and embed, post changes
Security – Site policies – Allow EMBED and OBJECT tags check box,
Max time to edit posts change to 60 minutes

Prevent text warnings on instructor forum posts
Security – Site policies – Enable Trusted Content


Enable html for labels
Appearance – HTML settings – uncheck box to allow html for labels

Add links to view user posts
Appearance – Navigation – check box to add links

Arialist theme for visible new posts
Appearance – Themes – Arialist – CSS box
.forumpost.unread .content {border:2px solid #D88A00;} /*unread post border*/ — change color to #1e00d8

Arialist theme for column size
Appearance – Themes – Arialist – Column width – 250px

Enable AJAX and Javascript
Appearance – AJAX and Javascript – Enable Ajax

Enable course themes
Appearance – Themes – Enable course themes

In addition, teacher roles need to be changed so that teachers may “login as” students, and see the grade link as part of their Activity Report.

The illusion of the LMS/cloud-based/self-hosted solution

It happened all of a sudden. The feed from one POT Cert Class participant just wasn’t coming into the Pedagogy First aggregated blog. I spent hours trying to figure out why not – the feed finder screen would just go blank on only her feed. I Googled, I pounded, I went through what there is of FeedWordpress documentation. Mostly I wished I were Alan Levine  or Tim Owens.

I have mentioned before that technologies known for doing some really cool things are becoming unreasonably complicated. This particular technological problem rests on a self-hosted installation of the software WordPress (built and maintained by a wonderful community) and the FeedWordpress plugin (built and maintained by a wonderful coding person). When one gets updated, it often doesn’t play nice with the other. And I can’t fix it. I say again unto you, I am not a coder. I find code, I steal code, I envy code, but I do not code.

I finally asked that a new blog be created for this participant, and it seems to be feeding. For now. Of course, the other one had fed too, all of the first semester. Given my own significant limitations, we will not be able to do this again this way next year.

The recipe at the moment is this. Start with recent adventures with self-hosted Moodle, add this new self-hosted WordPress crisis, mix with a dash of cloud failure (Google abandoning Reader, Posterous closing shop, and SeesmicWeb being bought and killed by the inferior HootSuite ). Stir and cook with a big dollop of my recent participation in reviewing a publisher-created program for grading student essays, and you have the kind of disillusionment you get by realizing you have already been devoured by the whale but didn’t know it.

hydraThe monsters (big proprietary systems, cloud-based sites, self-hosting) appeared to be separate, but were actually all parts of the same beast.

Self-hosting, a domain of ones own, the path of ds106  and the noble D’Arcy Norman – this has been the antidote to the bullying tactics of the LMS and publisher-created content. I have held it up as the way to avoid both big proprietary monsters and the vagaries of the disappearing web apps and fly-by-night cloud offerings. I have scoffed (quietly) at those who said they could not run their own blog, it was too hard. While I have not been guilty of encouraging anyone to run their own Moodle installation, I have persisted in doing it myself as a bulwark against Moodlling ignorance and exterally-run systems.

All this begins to seem like folly, a folly based on desire. An example: I want nested discussion forums where students can post multimedia, so I have Moodle. I find out today that (cloud-based) Schoology has nested forums! Yay! No! Wait! They are touted around the web as a “start up” of four years or so who use proprietary code (cue John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back music). I will have a free class, but never be able to access it otherwise, years down the line.

Fact is, none of these options are perfect, or even sufficient. The big LMS systems (including Moodle) upgrade and you can’t restore old courses and actually view student work – they say you can, but in fact it doesn’t work. I have all my courses backed up as Moodle .zip files, but now they’ve changed to .mbz.  Out in the cloud, I can export my Posterous as they close down, but when I import it into WordPress a bunch of stuff is wrong or missing or ugly. These things weren’t built to be transferrable, or to cater to the archiving tendencies of the mere customer. Whether proprietary and exorbitantly priced, or open source and impossible to run without an IT degreee,  none of the options have a sense of history, only a blindered vision of a future fulfilled by profits, market share, or geeky street cred.

Perhaps I am dissembling now to be running a class encouraging faculty to plunge into explorations of web tools and new technologies. I cannot in good conscience suggest anyone build a course around any of them. My colleague Todd Conaway  says that it’s better to learn from creating, to meet the challenge of the occasional failure, to engage the technologies and learn from them even if they’re transient. I know that is true. But if you spend too much time in the belly of the beast (whether self-hosted, cloud-based, or LMSed) , things start to smell fishy.


The Fiendish Moodle 2

manualgradingWorking with Moodle 2 (currently 2.3 on my own and MiraCosta College’s server) has caused a lot of the angst you’ve been reading about here on my blog, as the LMS again comes back to bite me. At first, in the early days, it was a good relationship. Moodle wowed me with nested discussion forums, and handled all those pesky household tasks, like adding up grades and helping with communication via pop-up Messages. Now, I can’t even get it to take out the garbage.

When will I learn?

Anyway, here’s a brief guide to the top ten demonic aspects of Moodle 2.

1. Contextual Menus

I’ve blogged about it before  and they are no less infernal now. Pay attention to those docked menus (you can dock and undock them – undocked they end up in your narrow column).

Here’s one horrid example. I like the Manual Grading feature, where I can grade everyone’s essay on one screen, or 10 at a time. I just clicked on the assignment -> attempts -> Manual Grading (3 clicks).

In M2, when I go to the assignment, I don’t see anywhere I can do that. I have to go to the main page, and turn Editing on for the whole course first. Then I can go to the assignment, click on the total attempts, and I must add the Navigation block onto that page. Then I must follow the lentils: My home -> My courses -> course name -> particular week dates -> Quiz -> Results -> Manual grading (7 clicks).

Sometimes I get the bends coming back up.

2. Deep sea diving for student records

Twice each semester I have students create a self-evaluation I call the Contribution Assessment. To do it, they (and then I) must be able to see their logs and activity reports. In Moodle 1.9 this was Participants -> Student name and their profile had tabs for all the information at the top. Two clicks back to return to the participants list.

In Moodle 2, you need oxygen tanks.

moodle2settingsmenu moodle2navimenu


The Settings menu (left) has settings (which are contextual – they change depending which page you’re on, so you often have to “back out” to the main page).

The Navigation menu (right) has things we would used to think of as settings, or at least items in the Admin menu.

The student information is in the Navigation menu, buried deep.  To actually view the chart of activity completion with all students, the path is : Navigation > Courses > My course > Reports > Activity completion.

3. Things not turned on

Moodle 2 diabolically puts more things under administrative control than before. Student permissions have to be set so you can access them (and often admins won’t allow this). You actually need an admin setting changed to allow students to see their own activity reports. Here’s some of the things I had to request our admin to enable (you can skip this if the back end isn’t your thing):

– Appearance – Themes – Enable course themes
– Appearance – HTML settings – uncheck box to allow html in labels
– Appearance – AJAX and Javascript – Enable Ajax
– Advanced – Enable Outcomes, Stats, RSS feeds, completion tracking, conditional access, plagiarism- Permissions – Course – Log in as other users must be enabled for faculty- Assign roles – override permissions – Manage files – allow
– plugins – activity modules – url -> uncheck Require activity description, Available display options select all, customize popups (800×600), customize frame height (100)
– Plugins – Activity modules – Forum – uncheck “Use email address in reply”, change “Read after days” to 160, “Enable RSS feeds” change to Yes
– Plugins – Activity modules – Page – uncheck “Require activity description”
– Plugins – Filters – Manage filters – turn off everything not using, enable only activity names auto-linking and multimedia plugins applied to content- Plugins – Blcoks – Manage blocks – make invisible what you nevewr use
– Plugins – Message outputs – Email (uses php default in Moodle to send mail, might need to change to SMTP)
– Plugins – Message outputs – Default message outputs – change Personal messages between users – check Online also so comes to your email also even if logged in – may have to turn off a lot of these or students see strange things in their – – Messages about their grade being changed every time an assignment is graded
– Users–>Permissions–>User policies -> Show User Identity -> uncheck email if it’s checked
– Location – Location settings – set these locally
– Grades – General settings – “Recover grades default” – check box
– Grades – General settings – “Navigation method” – tabs
– Courses – Course default settings – “number of week/topics” change to 18, news items = 3 , checkbox to “Show activity reports”, Completion tracking change to Enabled
– Courses – Backups – Active change to Enabled, schedule them
– Security – Site policies – Allow EMBED and OBJECT tags check box, Max time to edit posts change to 60 minutes, Password policy- Security – Site policies – Enable Trusted Content

4. Activity tracking 

activitycompletionThis one is only partly evil.

Let’s say you don’t want to go deep sea diving to see how each student is doing on work, graded and ungraded, in the class. You can set each and every item on the main page to be tracked. You add a URL page to Wikipedia – you can set it to mark a student has completed it when they open it. You add a quiz – you can set the quiz to mark it completed only when it’s graded. You add a forum – you can set it to be marked as completed only when the student has posted twice.

BUT (the evil part) you must do it for each and every thing you want tracked one at a time. There’s no way to set everything as Student must view or Student must receive a grade. Each item, each forum, one at a time.

And (more evil), if you change the Scale or any text in a forum after it’s in action, Moodle won’t save it properly until you delete everyone’s activity tracking. Which, of course, it warns you not to do. This isn’t anywhere in any documentation. (See #6, below, on weird tricks.)

5. Bye bye those bits of HTML 

Moodle 2, despite its TinyMCE toolbar for everything, doesn’t actually like HTML. It likes CSS. So when I wrote my own professorial post in a forum, I used to indicate it was mine by putting a horizontal orange line at the top and bottom of my post.

<hr size=6 color=orange>

Now I have to use:

<hr style=”border-color: orange; height:6px” />

I speak fluent HTML, but I don’t speak CSS. I have to copy and paste this every time.

6. You need to know weird tricks. 

Can’t add your code from somewhere in a post, even with the html turned on? A trick is needed: turn off the editor in your own Profile.

Sick of the huge blank column on the left of everything, making it so you can’t see a full window for the gradebook or page? Go back to the main page and turn off Editing.

Doesn’t seem intuitive? Too bad. Bwaah hah hah.

7. It tries to help, but the result is sometimes odd.

Take having students post images and videos in forums. Moodle now tries to be helpful.

On every post page, you can drag-and-drop files now. This means the big drag-and-drop window has to load every time. What if you don’t want students using that window to upload things, but would rather they link? Then you have to turn the number of attachments to “0” for each forum. Site admin -> Plugins -> Filters -> Multimedia plugins has an option “Enable auto-embedding of linked images”. So if a student posts the URL of an image and links it, that image will appear as embedded. It also does it with YouTube video. Trouble is, if you try to do what’s right and use the embed code plus a live link, the video will appear twice in the post.

Similarly, Site admin – plugins – filters – manage filters has Multimedia plugins -> Convert URLS into links. If a student posts an (unlinked) URL it will make it linked. This behavior sometimes doesn’t play nice with the auto-embedding behavior.

8. Evil continued from Moodle 1.9: The Gradebook and Messaging (cue scary music) 

More bags of tricks needed!

If you know the grades are there but are not appearing in gradebook, lock and unlock gradebook items, including total.

You must change gradebook report preferences to have more students show (the default is only 25).

The one good thing: the course settings in gradebook lets you hide percentages (and scale ranges).

Messaging has always been a horror in Moodle. We delight at the pop-up that alerts students they have a Message, which is so much better than Blackboard, where you have to dig deep to check for a Message you may not have. But that’s where the heavenly part ends. Messaging is part of the central system rather than connected to the course. Faculty teaching multiple courses in Moodle can’t tell which course a student is in when they are sent a Message from them. Moode 2 compounds this problem by removing you from the course to answer the Message. There is no link, no breadcrumb, no “Go Back” to get you back to where you were after you’ve read a student Message. You are stuck at system level. It’s enough to make you give up and use email.

9. The font is very small.

And it’s small in most of the themes, some of which can’t handle basic functions. For full functionality one has to use a standard theme. There hasn’t been enough development yet to use something better. Only a few can be adapted in administrative settings – anything else requires running your own installation and a deep knowledge of CSS. I can’t even figure out how to change the font in Arial when I have access to all the files.

10. It’s ugly.

I’m sorry, but the home page is dumb-looking by default (clouds and birds?), and the fonts and spacing are a step down from the clean look of 1.9.

Yes, we have no choice but to stay together if I’m going to use an LMS. Back in 2007 I contemplated LMS divorce because the other options were looking so good. Now I contemplate because the problems are internal – and infernal.