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!

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!

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.


What do you mean no tags? Conceptualizing what online teachers need.

So I had this great idea that next semester, when students post their primary sources in the forum, they could tag them with a topic. I could provide a list of tags that represent larger areas, the sort of topics they can later work into historical themes: fashion, war, society, medicine, politics, economy, etc. This would work better than search, and allow them to browse the collection they’d created as they thought about their research approach.

But when I went to look at the settings in Moodle (1.9 and 2.2 and 2.3), there was no such thing as tags for a forum post, or even a glossary entry (my other new idea). Moodle only has tags for student “blogs”, which are connected only to each student’s profile and do not work in any interconnected way.

This was a big reminder that Moodle is still an LMS, and that sometimes I simply cannot configure it to do what I need. In WordPress such a thing is a no-brainer, and of course I can set this up in WP, but didn’t I just decide there was no real need for that?

It occurred to me that what I want to do represents an overlap that LMS thinkers don’t understand – the interrelationship between “content” and “activity”. The main Moodle blocks have two drop-down menus when you want to add something, and they clearly indicate the mindset:

A “resource” is supposed to be static, and an “activity” is supposed to be interactive.

A “forum” is considered an activity, a platform for “discussion”. I’m not using it for discussion, but rather for having students create a set of resources (without that nasty confusion a database would bring into play). The students are thus actively creating a “resource” that they need to search and access throughout the class. The lack of acknowledgement of such interplay is what leads designers to think of tags only in terms of blogs.

I am also setting up some secondary historical readings for my Honors class, and there’s no way in Moodle to have students annotate them together.

I just want a static resource, an article, that I’ve introduced, and have students annotate it collaboratively. The only “activity” available in Moodle would be a wiki, and it would not allow in-line commentary. I admit I’m somewhat Talmudic in my idea of what a collaboratively annotated document would look like. So I’ll be trying a circuitous route, uploading a pdf article into Crocodoc, then embedding the resulting doc in a Moodle page to allow for in-place commenting without students needing an account. It’s an awkward solution at best, and one which requires me to wear a Fair Use t-shirt and remove the articles after the semester.

The perpetuation of the division between “content” and “activity” causes harm to learning and prevents some of that innovative methodology everyone says they want. The idea that resources and “discussion” are separate gets passed down to new teachers going online, and they set up their classes that way, limiting their pedagogy.

So, note to LMS designers, including Moodle:

Stop adding internal “features” to your LMS based on webapps you see people using externally  (“blogs”, “scholar”), and start rethinking why teachers use those things. Think about the interactivity between “content” (or resource or page or presentation) and “activity” (the stuff that means servers have to talk to each other).

Wrap your head around the concepts, not just the tools, of teaching online.