Calendrically speaking

I have always been a big fan of paper calendars. But when it comes to teaching, there are many things I need to put on a calendar that are the same from semester to semester. My solution recently has been creating a spreadsheet calendar, putting in these recurring items (grade primary sources, grade Writing Assignment III, etc), then printing it out and writing in the dates.

After almost three decades working with Microsoft products, I could not figure out how to get the pages to print correctly.

Why do I need such a calendar, when the LMS has its own calendar? For the first time since Blackboard days, I will be teaching in three different systems: MiraCosta’s Canvas (two classes), MiraCosta’s Moodle (four classes), and free Canvas (one class). This is how I will transition from Moodle to Canvas over the next 18 months.

The Canvas and Moodle calendars, plus my own grading calendar, would need to be in the same place to do this electronically. So today I used the URL from the Canvas and Moodle calendars, and put them into Google’s calendar, then added my grading tasks.

Both LMSs, unfortunately, export the full calendar (all classes), not each class – this is a problem because Google imports them all as one calendar, with all tasks in the same color regardless of which class it is. I wanted a separate Google calendar for each class. Luckily, I was able to solve this for Canvas by exporting each course’s calendar from Student View, as recommended by Chris Long in the Canvas Community. There is no way to do this for Moodle, but it didn’t matter, because both sections are of the same class and on the same calendar.

Now I have all tasks in one place, accessible on my phone or on computer.

I’ve never not used a paper calendar of some kind (yes, I know, call me steampunky), so we’ll see how it goes.

Grade work, not students

It seems like a technology thing, but it isn’t. Of Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas, only Moodle lets you grade posts, not students.

Bb and Canvas both let you use rubrics/ratings to grade discussions, but both want to grade by student rather than post. Canvas even forces you into one grade per student, regardless of how often they posted.

This is a perfect example of bad pedagogy embedded in the technology. It’s based on the idea of grading students, because students get the grades.

But I don’t grade students — I grade work. In forums for posting primary sources, I rate each source, using qualitative scales — primary source fulfilled, live link needed, full citation needed, etc. These correspond to number grades that go to the Gradebook, but what the student sees is the comment, indicating which corrections they need to make.

And in Moodle I can grade them all with drop downs, because a single, simple forum is all on one page. Super quick.

Bb and Canvas’ insistence on grading per student means several clicks per student, per class, every week, for every source posted. Bad pedagogy, bad workflow.

Perhaps if these LMSs considered that we were grading work rather than students, it wouldn’t be designed like this. When a student asks “did you grade me down?” or “when you grade me, remember I have four classes”, I always point out that I never grade them, only their work.

How did we get to a place where the default is to grade students? Is it our educational culture, associating a person’s work with who they are? Surely that’s a bad idea. When we conflate a person with their work, we imply that their work is not only a product of themselves, it is their self. Every critique become a critique of the self.

We mustn’t embed bad ideas into immutable systems. Really.


Canvassed on my own petard

So, the California Community College’s Chancellor’s office, through its Online Education Initiative, is offering the Canvas LMS free to all colleges. There is a catch – if you adopt Canvas this way, your college is not allowed to use any other LMS. It’s a Canvas contract. A Mafia-style, old-fashioned, arm-twisting contract.

Faculty and other “stake holders” have made the decision to recommend Canvas, which surprises me exactly not at all. I spent useless hours on the survey offering my input, very shortly before the report came out justifying the changeover. I had chosen not to be on the committee that decided this (not that I was asked, you understand) because my forehead is already flat from banging it against walls.

alanlmsSo it’s time to learn to use Canvas. Yes, the instructor who wrote about the Insidious Pedagogy of the LMS will now be forced to change to an LMS with fewer features, options and control than the one I’m using. I can hear Alan Levine in the back of my head saying, “But Lisa, you only use the LMS solum pro procuratio“! Yes, I know. However, when you live in the same house a long time, your stuff builds up. You customize things for you. You move the hinge to the other side of the fridge, and cover up that gap in the floorboards with a pretty rug. After awhile you can move through the rooms at night with the lights off.

So I already know one thing – my pedagogy for my primary sources, the one I’ve published about, the main constructivist part of my class, won’t work in Canvas the way it has in Moodle. Like Blackboard (our other wonderful option), Canvas has “rubrics”, but neither lets you rate or grade a full screen of posts at once, as I do with Moodle’s dropdown ratings. Instead, it’s multiple clicks to grade each post.

I have tried every feature in Canvas (and Blackboard) to make sure I can’t do this in a similar way. I am using Moodle ratings rather than grades or rubrics – that’s what makes it simple. They translate automatically into percentage grades. And you can’t use ratings in Canvas or Blackboard like that – neither system allows instructor-only ratings

So up to now, I’ve been grading, with relative ease, about 35 moodleratingsposts per week x 7 classes. I will simply not be able to grade 245 posts one at a time every Thursday in Canvas. They’ll have to put me away.

Similarly, all the writing assignments have been graded on an open forum with drop-down ratings. ->

No can do.

So, the list of Canvas shortcomings compared to Moodle continues (please, if you know different, correct me!):

  • The course menu is very difficult to change, with strict limitations.
  • QTI format is required to import quizzes (Moodle had multiple formats – my zillions of quizzes are in Aiken).
  • Quiz questions are worth a minimum of one point each, and all quiz questions must be worth the same points. You cannot have a quiz with 20 questions worth 10 points.
  • Opening another tab for an open book exam is not possible.
  • Video is limited to YouTube unless you upload the whole file.
  • Viewing external pages within the LMS frame is only possible with SSL pages (and sometimes that doesn’t work).
  • Most tools are outside the LMS with vendors who may or may not be there later.
  • There is no capability to make a popup message for students when they log in.
  • There is no shoutbox (I use this as a quick forum on the front page with students).
  • There are no branched lessons, just forced pathways.
  • The only rating is “like”.
  • No Javascript is allowed (for security – theirs, not mine).
  • No iframes are allowed (more security – please remove your shoes before boarding the plane).

The pedagogy will have to shift to accommodate the limitations of the technology. I hate that. And I’ll need a screwdriver for the door on the fridge…

6 comments to Canvassed on my own petard

  • I just saw this post pop up in my RSS, Lisa… but I recognized the bumper sticker ha ha.

    We are about to switch from 10 years of D2L (which I loathe) to Canvas. Not that I really care at this point because my use really is UT MINIME, as little as possible.

    Reading your list of woes here is really depressing. I would have expected better of Canvas because these all sound like perfectly nice things to be able to do.

    … and NO IFRAMES???????????

    OMG. There go my hopes of using Canvas as a space that could be enlivened with stuff from the real world.

    Anyway, I will follow your Canvas adventures with great interest. We are just getting started, and I am going to be trying (and probably failing) get some people at my school to discuss these things in public at Twitter. The leader of our LMS change group (director of our teaching center) designated a hashtag #OU_LMS16 which I am using faithfully and Storifying every week. I will go share your post now with our hashtag. The devil’s in the details…

    • Yes, I wondered whether that was your LMS shift too! We will help each other. I have some ideas already that I’m writing in my next post…

      Keep in mind it’s totally possible that I’m wrong! The Canvas whitelist at says iframes are ok for some things. It’s possible I couldn’t do it because I don’t know what I’m doing yet, having spend all of three days with Canvas. It’s also possible that I just don’t know enough about iframes!

      Also, the workaround I’m using for the iframes is the Redirect Tool combined with making sure the page I want is SSL. More soon…

  • I had some SSL woes with using my blog as my homepage in D2L: Blogger didn’t have SSL until midway through the Fall semester (and D2L started blocking mixed content for us in Fall), but now there is Blogger SSL so that problem at least is solved. One of my javascript widgets does not work in the blog sidebar inside D2L (I need to move the javascript to an SSL address which I guess I can set up in Reclaim Hosting now, so I’ll learn how to do that this summer)… and one of the reasons I’ve used Blogger and PBWorks for so long is exactly because they are super-javascript-friendly.

    Anyway, I will be really glad to learn from your experience and I promise to share back any promising bits of Canvas knowledge I acquire, as I would like to educate myself about it, even though I am going to stick to UT MINIME as my philosophy. It has served me well through a decade of D2L.

    Signing off for the night here on east coast, but thanks again for these posts. It is so nice of you to write things up like this!

  • Good Morning, Lisa
    I want to encourage you to participate in the activities of the OEI in collaborating to share effective online teaching practices that go beyond the course management tools of Canvas. There have been many opportunities to do just that both in the selection and the implementation of OEI resources. We have a wide variety of ways to learn Canvas from facilitated online courses to just-in-time resources about functionality.

    I also want to dispel the myth that we are forcing the change to Canvas and making colleges choose one system (a la your Mafia reference). If a college wants more than one, they just have to pay for Canvas themselves using our negotiated pricing, which is a good pricing deal. You can imagine what would happen if we didn’t do that. Colleges would not be serious about working together and would have just taken Canvas on in addition to their other tool(s) making both the system-wide collaboration and cost negotiations impossible. Additionally, in order to show that there is value in the system paying for a CMS as infrastructure, a savings must be part of the benefit. We stand to save the CCC system over 8 million dollars per year through the purchasing done via the economy of scale involved and help solidify ongoing support of all of the resources being offered by the OEI. You are encouraged to use the ASCCC recent resolution about shifting current local CMS cost savings to supporting faculty development, as well.

    One of the 60 member selection committee’s main goals was to find a company to work with that would be a partner. Instructure has done that. They are willing to listen to the changes we ask for and have made many since we selected them in February of 2014. There is a community within the system that allows you to request features and vote them up, giving Instructure clear direction about product improvement. If you wish to request some functionality be added, please join the community and request them. I have provided the community link below. The contract we have negotiated also includes 24/7 help desk support for both faculty and students in the use of Canvas.

    Collaborating as a system around online teaching and learning has been amazing and all of the resources we have been testing and procuring have added to the ability of colleges to actually have well resourced online programs.

    In addition,faculty members are actually impressed with the ease of use of the Canvas and are taking the opportunity to refresh their courses, which is something, as you know, should happen regularly, as well. We also provide a multitude of opportunities to learn to use the tools, which some say are easier to learn than they imagined.

    Please visit for more information about what’s available. There’s also an article in the Tech Edge newsletter about a college’s recent experience that you may find useful

    When we chose Canvas, we had students involved and they were very strong voice in the decision making. Our goal is to do what is best for students and it remains at the heart of our work.

    I welcome you to email me with any additional questions or concerns you may have around system-wide Canvas adoption or the other resources we are offering.

    Community Link:
    Resources to learn Canvas:

    Patricia James
    Executive Director
    CCC Online Education Initiative

    • Hi Pat,

      Thank you so much for the clarification. I recall how excited I was when it got around that OEI was going to build their own LMS (I put in some input about features at that time), and how disappointed that a commercial product like Canvas would be used instead. I do understand the financial arrangement for going independently with Canvas, and I also understand the economic considerations for the change. I have read all your announcements at OEI and am aware of the campaign to demonstrate the simplicity and usefulness of this LMS. I understand that many faculty, students and administrators, are, and will be, happy working within this simpler system. I understand that OEI folks are completely sincere in their efforts to save community colleges money and form links among the colleges, and how many people have been part of the process. I am up-to-date on training opportunities and professional development options.

      I am also aware these processes are likely to support trends toward standardization of classes, which I am against. I suspect that power users of LMSs, and of online systems in general for education, may be (as I am) far less enthusiastic about a system that allows so little independence on the part of the faculty member. “What’s best for students” is what everyone wants, including me. For me to be the best online teacher I can be, I would prefer a system that supports the pedagogy I choose to develop. However, I will do everything I can to assist faculty in developing their own pedagogical goals within this system. I am familiar with the Canvas community, where the list of requested features includes features I have used for years – certainly I expect future develop that answers the needs of the largest number of faculty. Philosophically, I do believe that if a statewide system is necessary (and I’ve never been sure that it is), that it should be non-commercial and free, regardless of which technologies colleges choose to use. I regret the pedagogical freedom lost in the process. And I remain disappointed that this system seems to be so limited, while at the same time hoping I’m wrong and that there is complexity I have not discovered.

      What I share here is only one person’s experience with working with Canvas, and I only hope it will be useful to others.

  • Hi Lisa,
    I’m with you on not wanting cookie-cutter classes. I think what we bring, individually, to our teaching is incredibly important. I also know that some design considerations, like those offered in our Course Design Standards, are important to guide people while they are building their class structure. Don’t we all wish for the system that we have in our heads! I am encouraged, however, by the willingness of Instrucure to listen to us. Building our own system was time and cost prohibitive, unfortunately. I hope you will participate in the critique and creation of new functionality in Canvas and with other design processes as we move forward for our students.

Student communication tracking trick

moodledunceOne of the big problems with Moodle is that the student profiles are connected to the central installation, not the course in which the student is enrolled.

This means that if I use the central Messages system to talk to students, I cannot tell which of my six (!) Moodle classes they’re in. They assume I can, since they Message from within the class. I spend too much time looking up which class they’re talking about.

So I tried a cgi form I adapted from somewhere, in text input boxes on the main page. I put the ?subject= code in each so I could tell which class they were coming from (the email would arrive with the course name in the subject line). But many students didn’t use it, and would just email me.

Some students need me a lot, so they email a lot, but I could never remember which class they were in and they could never remember to put the class name and section number in their email. In fact, many did not know what their section number was or what it meant, so I’d have three sections of History 111 and have to look them up even if they put History 111 in their email.

I could use a link with mailto:, but that opens a student’s email program on their hard drive. I don’t use my Apple mail, I use Gmail. They mostly use Gmail too, or at least web-based mail, like Yahoo. Hardly anyone uses a desktop program for Gmail anymore.

So I’m trying two tricks.

1) Gmail me
I surfed around until I figured out the code to get a link to open their Gmail so they can use my Gmail with my subject line. For History 111 #1337:

<a href=";fs=1&amp;;su=Hist111#1337" target="_blank">Gmail Lisa</a>

2) Google Circles
I turned on People Widget in Settings ->General. When a student emails me the first time, I look them up and put them in a circle corresponding to the class section they’re in (I made a circle for each class section). Then with the People Widget on, I can see which class they’re in right next to their email.


It’s better already.

Weird-Ass Workaround

Moodle has always done something horribly wrong – each student’s information is not attached to the class they are in.

I teach at least five different classes in Moodle each semester.

So let’s say a student sends me a Message. I cannot tell which of the five of my classes they’re in. I don’t know which class to open to answer their question. And a few versions ago, Moodle made this worse in their programming by having student profiles be completely separate from the class anyway.

And yes, I’ve asked them to please put their course and section number in the e-mail. That’s running about 50% despite reminders. And it’s so 1998.

contactlisaFor several years, I’ve used my own cgi form, embedded in an HTML block on the main page. I used the form to automatically put in which course they were sending the form from. Thanks to the vagaries of browsers, I’ve had recent complaints that it sometimes doesn’t work.

I tried Quickmail, a plug-in for Moodle, but it doesn’t let me know which class the email is coming from, since its address for the student is the one in the main system.

How about Gmail? Here’s where the weird-ass workaround is.

I figure I should use Gmail to somehow create Groups from the rosters in the enrollment system. But Gmail doesn’t want you to do that – it wants you to add the names to a Group one at a time. Minimum 200 emails per semester. As if.

However, I can use the “Old Contacts” (rather hard to get to at to add a list I’ve made in Excel as a CSV file, using the info from the enrollment system. So I can get them in a Group using Import.

But then, it doesn’t show me in the in-box which group they’re in. Or in their contact info inside the email.

However, if I turn on the setting to “Show the People Widget”, it will show me some info. Not the Group they’re in. But it shows the Circle they’re in. So long as they’re only in one Circle, that is.


So I’ve created a Circle for each class with the name and section number.


You can’t add a bunch of emails to a Circle – they’d all have to be individually selected from my Contacts. I can go down the list in Old Contacts and add them – one at a time. Might have to.

But at least now when a student emails me, I can look them up once and add them to a Circle. Then when they contact me again, I can see which class they’re in.

That’s something.

I know where you’re coming from

Starting a new year means starting a new semester, and this time it will start a week early.

The issue today was IM. My classes are in Moodle, but I’ve always used a status button so students can communicate with me instantly if I’m online.

Moodle has something called Messages. Back in version 1.x, I couldn’t tell which class a student was in when they Messaged me. Instead of fixing this in 2.x, they made it worse by removing all user information outside the courses completely, making it not only impossible to tell which class a student was in, but impossible to get back to where you were working in your course site.

I used to use Google Talk Chatback Badge instead.  It didn’t tell me which class a student was in, but at least it was easy to let them know I was available, and they didn’t have to have a Google account or log in. That’s gone. The option now is Hangouts and other stuff where they have to join Googleland. I can’t be responsible for making someone violate their own privacy that way.

Then it was Plupper, which I routed through iChat. It’s been down all week. I don’t know if it’s coming back, but all week isn’t OK, so I went hunting again.

I was getting miffed that I couldn’t find what I wanted. I was running all over the web trying to find a free service. I began to realize I didn’t really need “chat”, but some sort of help-desky thing. I was at first delighted to find Zoho LiveDesk (link removed at request of Zoho) which I could adapt. i could even create different badges for different classes. Then I discovered that this multi-button feature was only available on paid accounts – it turned out I had somehow entered a 30 trial that would expire. So much for that.

Then it occurred to me. I rent my own server space – I wondered what open source stuff was hanging out there? I found Mibew, and installed it. It even built its own database (though I had to go in and tweak a bit).

Their button was not exactly what I needed (I won’t be turning blonde and I’ve never looked that happy):



So I got into GIMP and made my own:

Then I made one for offline:



After installing Mibew, I was able to set up each class as a “group”, then create button code for each group, so I can see which class they’re coming from! A unique button went onto each class site – I tested them and they work.

I used the Localization feature (which was highly customizable) to change “Live Support” to “For My History Students”, my designation as “operator” to “teacher”, and the language of client and user to student.

It may not be perfect. It may fail. It may crash. Keep in mind, I don’t code. I just know enough to change other people’s code.

But as I was doing this today, I suddenly realized I was Reclaiming the Web, a goal of many smart people for 2014. Happy New Year!

2 comments to I know where you’re coming from

  • It will be interesting to see how this works. IM servers have a reputation for being resource intensive. I have a free XMPP/Jabber server at (5 account limit) that I don’t use.

    • Thanks for the warning! I’ll now be sure to monitor the CPU load. Moodle itself has caused problems with that, which is why I only run one (on-site) class on my own rented server.

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.

Tips for Moodle 2.3

As I go through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of using Moodle 2, I offer the following tips as I’m developing my summer clases.

The Navigation menu

It doesn’t appear on every page, but it has things you need (reports for activity completion and controls for manual grading, expecially). Turn editing on for the main page first to add the Navigation page where you need it.

I add it to every essay exam page so I can use Manual Grading, which brings up all the answers on one screen (Navigation – Course – Week – Assignment – Results – Manual Grading).

Navigation vs Settings

You now have two administrative menus instead of one. Navigation provides access to all your courses, their activities and reports, in one huge menu. Settings provides contextual settings for whatever page you’re on – an activity, forum, or course for the main page.

Both can be docked in the upper left corner, or shown as a block. In some browsers, docking both makes it hard to select and scroll. I usually leave Settings up there and put Navigation blocks on pages where I need it (again, you need to have editing on for the main page to do that).

Changing an already deployed activity

If you have Activity Completion set, the activity locks as soon as a student does the activity, so you can’t make changes. You need to Unlock. Although it threatens you that unlocking will mess up students who’ve take the activity, it won’t.

Automatic embedding and linking

In many cases, creating a live link will embed the video, and typing in a URL will automatically create a live link. This varies across browsers and systems, but not too much.

If it isn’t happening, go into main course Settings – Filters and enable Convert URLs into links and images.

Turn off the scale ranges in the gradebook

If you use qualitative scales for grading, students get confused by seeing the range of marks in the gradebook. You can now turn this off in Grades Settings (you can also turn off the percentages if you don’t want them to see them).

If the print is small and ugly, try the Arialist theme.

It is cleaner and larger.

To get it to accept your code, use your Profile.

It’s totally bizarre, but if you are trying to enter some embed code and it gets stripped, go to your own Profile (Settings – My Profile Settings) and turn off the editor.

Show more students in the gradebook.

Most of us have classes of 35-40 students. To show them all (instead of the default 25) in the gradebook, change the number of students in Grades – My Preferences.

Override the override on graded items.

If you’ve given a student a grade directly in the gradebook (for example, for a late quiz), and need it to revert to regular grading, check the Edit symbol next to that grade and uncheck the Overridden box.

Change the letter grades.

MiraCosta doesn’t have plus and minus grades, so near the end of the class many of us change the letter grade scale. In 1.9 this was easy, but 2’s programming makes it difficult. If you just change things and save, you’ll get an error. First delete all but the top grade by deleting the letters. Then save and go back to add the B, C, D, F with percentages.

Hope this helps or at least prevents some headaches!

1 comment to Tips for Moodle 2.3

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 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.


5 comments to The Fiendish Moodle 2

  • Wendy Bass

    I really appreciated reading your blog. I would love to share it as we are going through an LMS review. Would it be OK to share your blog link with my colleagues? This was so well done and I could see how familiar you are with Moodle and the changes/issues with the upgrade. From a Moodle administrator perspective, it is just as hard on us!!

  • DaveB

    I agree with some of your comments but a few things:

    #6 – gradebook width is a function of many things including the length of the column headings, I try to get instructors to make it as small as possible. Some instructors use the import/export with excel as an option.
    #8 – the administrator sets the default for the number of students, I prefer to use 13 or less as it displays better and keeps the headings
    # 9 – some themes have small fonts (afterburner) and some have large. You can also control the font size with the Ctrl and the scroll button on the mouse.
    #10 – the default page on your homepage is set by the administrator. We don’t force the homepage and one can set a default in their personal profile. I don’t like the birds either but I don’t choose it.
    Sounds like you and the administrator need to get together for a chat 😉

    • Thanks, DaveB! I do make requests from our admin team, and they’re great. A coupla responses:

      #6 It shouldn’t be necessary for instructors to make the gradebook smaller, or change their grading methods, or to use an external proprietary program to handle grades.

      #8 The instructor can only set the default up to the limit made available by the admin, that’s true, but there’s also a PHP memory factor involved in making it larger for those of us who like it big.

      #9 It shouldn’t be necessary for the end user to adjust browser font size settings (and you’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to do that anyway).

      #10 Yup, this one I could ask about – thanks again! (However, I think the defaults should be as plain as possible – featuring Hallmark-looking birds is cruel.)

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