Friday, December 2, 2016

How the Wisconsin Idea inspires me in my edtech work

I'm a proud Badger. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an MS degree in electrical engineering about ten years back. It was quite a struggle as I opted to do research in a field I knew little about (don't ask why) and I was on the wrong side of 'publish or perish' for a few years. But one benefit of my relatively long stay at UW-Madison was the gradual assimilation of the Wisconsin Idea. You can read about it on Wikipedia and this is my favourite excerpt:

'Van Hise declared that he would "never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state". Today that belief permeates the UW System's work, fostering close working relationships within the state, throughout the country, and around the world.'

I was a teaching assistant for many semesters at UW, but I wouldn't have guessed then that education and edtech would become a big part of my career. Anyway, I'm not surprised. I was training to be an engineer but I was always a better teacher. The engineering side of my education has however been a boon for what I do with the 'tech' part of edtech and stuff like data analysis. But more than that, it's the Wisconsin Idea that I look to for inspiration.

I work in a capacity building context in international development, and lately I've been supporting some teams at universities in Ghana, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Vietnam use Moodle. They have different aspirations and varying levels of Moodle proficiency, but they all have one thing in common: they can see how a learning platform like Moodle can expand access to learning and networking opportunities for people at their university and beyond, in their region or even nation. Moodle is open source software and there's generally an IT person in the teams I work with. I tell them that how well they use Moodle is a matter of their own commitment, both on the technical side and pedagogical side. They can easily scale up to a level of supporting a few thousand students without needing very specialized support. That's good news for universities in developing countries where there's usually not a lot of money to go around.

I think open source edtech like Moodle and the Wisconsin Idea go hand in hand for the kind of work I do. They're both about breaking down geographical barriers to education. Living in India - far away from both Wisconsin and Australia (where the Moodle headquarters is) - I can feel the effect of both.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Twitter conversation that reveals what open source is all about

Yesterday I tweeted a very minor complaint about exporting data from Moodle. Then this happened:

In case you didn't know, Martin is the founder of Moodle and the lead developer. Moodle is easily one of the world's most popular online learning platforms, with millions of registered installations.

When was the last time your comment about a trivial problem with something so big was picked up by the person who originally made that thing and nudged you to do something to help fix it?

THIS is what open source is all about. Any major open source software application is built by and for a community for people, who can - among many things - report bugs and suggest ideas, all of which are catalogued in an open, conversational space.

Of course, the software code being openly available under an open source license like GNU GPL is the defining aspect of any open source application, and I cringe whenever I hear people referring to free web-based tools as 'open source'. But open source is also about a community of people who share a passion, and it's about everyone in the community having a voice and the means to make a difference.

PS. I've reported this bug in the Moodle Tracker.

Coming full circle: Medium of instruction from colonial to post-colonial times in Tamil Nadu

This post is not about Moodle but about something else I'm passionate about: language. I work with people in different countries, and sometimes I get asked if I studied English at school in India. I used to find this question funny until I began to consider it in a post-colonial context.

My mother's parents were born in the 1920s in the Madras Presidency of British India, and they went to schools where the medium of instruction was English (that is, the language in which all subjects are taught). By the time India gained independence in 1947, they were young adults with high fluency in English. They had their first child - my mother - a few years later, and many others followed. None of them studied in English. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, my mother's generation in this part of the country went to schools where the medium of instruction was usually Tamil, the dominant language of the post-independence Madras state (which later became Tamil Nadu in a further division of Indian states along linguistic lines). English was simply a subject at school with not much relevance to daily life. It was however still the medium of instruction at university, and my parents, like most people at that time, struggled to adapt to the change from Tamil to English.

Why wasn't university education offered in Tamil? Some courses were, but I suppose it would have been an impractical project to translate entire bodies of knowledge into Tamil. With the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965, the importance of English as a 'link language' in the nation was strengthened. Indians have always been migrants to lands abroad, and it must have been obvious all the while that any international prospects for one's life and career hinged on English skills.

So it was perhaps natural that English would re-enter schools in a big way. My brother and I studied in English-medium schools in the 80s and 90, and this was completely normal for a middle-class Indian family. There was no question of studying in a Tamil-medium school. Such schools were considered to be rundown places of education run by the government for the poor, who aspired to send their children to English schools.

But Tamil is in no danger. It is a language with a long written history spanning 2,000 years. The Tamils are fiercely proud of their linguistic identity to the point of offending people from other parts of India, even if they can only use English to make their point.

Monday, May 9, 2016

XML template for creating entries to import into Moodle Glossary

Let's say you want to write a bunch of entries for a Glossary on your Moodle and you want to do this offline -- not directly on your Moodle. In that case the best course of action is to create an XML file with all the entries and import it into a Glossary.

Here's an XML template that you might like to use. It also contains an example of an entry including hyperlinks (you have to use &lt, &gt and &quot in place of <, > and ", respectively).

To create your own entries, copy the lines between <ENTRY> and </ENTRY>. The tags after </DEFINITION> need a binary input: 0 or 1. I'm not sure what <FORMAT> means but I don't think there's any harm keeping this and the last one - <TEACHERENTRY> - as 1. The other three tags match the below settings which you'll see when you try to add a new Glossary entry in Moodle. If they're not self-explanatory see this page.

PS. This post has been featured in Moodlenews!

Monday, May 2, 2016

List of emoticons in Moodle

Depending on the cultural and digital literacy context in which you work, you may find that people use emoticons very well, awkwardly, or not at all. If you'd like to promote the use of emoticons in your Moodle courses, here's a handy reference:



Characters to type

Friday, April 1, 2016

User count in the Online Users block in Moodle

In Moodle 2.6 the number of online users is not displayed in the Online Users block until you have at least 50 online users. Until that point you see only their names. Turns out the Online Users block can accommodate a maximum of 50 names. Names beyond the first 50 online users are not displayed, and the online user count magically appears at the top of the block. Sensible -- it's a lot to see the names of even 50 online users! There doesn't seem to be a way of changing this setting, at least in Moodle 2.6.

I discovered this just now -- it's the first day of the AuthorAID MOOC, which I'm facilitating, and we have more than 2000 participants! 

Efficiency tip for Moodlers dealing with many Moodle assets

So you're a super-active Moodle admin or teacher who has to dip in and out of many courses and perhaps even many Moodle sites. On your admin homepage you can use the Admin Bookmarks block to bookmark settings pages within your Moodle site, and of course all the courses you're enrolled in will appear in the Course Overview block. But these aren't enough for me. So I use a simple bookmarking scheme on Firefox. This is what my bookmarks toolbar looks like:

In the "Active spaces" bookmark folder I have links to all the active learning spaces (not all are formal courses so I prefer to say "spaces") on the main Moodle site I work on. Some links point to settings pages within courses, eg, the enrolment page for the ongoing AuthorAID MOOC so that I can quickly check how many people have enrolled. "Old spaces" has links to spaces where courses or interactions have ended but which I still need to refer to now and then. And "More Moodles" is well, a collection of links to other Moodle sites where I help out as an administrator -- these are mostly Moodle sites managed by developing countries universities that are connected to the charity I work for, INASP.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Using the Moodle Certificate plugin when you've made exceptions for some students

Consider this scenario:
  1. You have a Moodle course with a bunch of activities and students need to complete these activities. You're using condition-based activity completion (eg, getting a passing score on a quiz, receiving a grade on an assignment) to track their work.
  2. Some students don't complete some of the activities but you give them something else to do, and this work is managed outside the course in Moodle.
  3. You want to generate certificates for course completers using the Certificate plugin. This will work for those who've done everything they need to do within the course. But what about those for whom you've made exceptions?
This is one approach:
  1. Create a hidden Assignment activity somewhere in the course. Call it "Course completion indicator" or something similar. In the completion settings for this activity, indicate that students should receive a grade to complete the activity. 
  2. Download the gradebook. Add one or more temporary columns to put in formulas to figure out who has completed the course based on the normal criteria. Then find the "Course completion indicator" column and put 100 against the name of (a) every person who has completed the course based on the normal criteria and (b) every person for whom an exception was made. The only manual work is to deal with students in category (b). And this shouldn't be a lot of work because exceptions should be made for just a few students -- otherwise the course completion criteria as a whole need to be changed!
  3. Copy over the values in the "Course completion indicator" column and paste it in a new column (that is, copy the column and paste "values only" in a new column).
  4. Delete the old "Course completion indicator column".
  5. Delete the temporary column(s) created in step 2.
  6. Now you should have a spreadsheet that has a format identical to what you downloaded from your Moodle site. This is very important - there should be no missing or additional columns. The only difference is that there are values in the "Course completion indicator" column. 
  7. Save this spreadsheet as a CSV file. This is your new gradebook.
  8. Import the sheet into your course. Change both "map from" and "map to" to "email address". Set all the other mappings to "ignore" EXCEPT the mapping for "Course completion indicator". For this you should select "Course completion indicator" - or whatever else you might have renamed this to in your sheet. Complete the import process. You'll now have a gradebook in the course in which "Course completion indicator" is the only activity that needs to be checked to determine course completion.
  9. You can now set up the Certificate plugin and add only one restriction criteria: the certificate should be available only to those who have got a score of 100 in the "Course completion indicator" activity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Vertical layout for matching question in Moodle Lesson

Moodle Lesson is one of the most interesting and flexible of the 14 activities that are available on a stock Moodle site. One of the things you can do in a Lesson is include questions. But I'm not very pleased with the layout of the matching type question. This is an example of how a matching question appears in a Moodle Lesson:

The first two matching pairs look okay but there's a sort of alignment problem with the third. The problem might become worse if you have an even longer item in the left column of the matching pair. And what's with the right aligned text? Maybe it works for short items in the left column but not when you have longer items.

I thought the whole thing would look cleaner and simpler in a vertical layout: question, answer, question, answer, and so on. Like this:

If you want to present matching questions in the same way on your Moodle, try adding the CSS given below in your theme settings:

.mform .fitem div.fitemtitle {text-align:left; float:none; width:100%;}
.mform .fitem .felement {margin-left: 0px;} 

(This works in Moodle 2.6. Not tested in other versions.)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Extracting user list filtered by enrolment method in a Moodle course

Imagine you want to invite two sets of people to enrol in a Moodle course. You want to place different limits on the enrolment numbers for each set. You can't use Moodle Groups in this case as it doesn't allow group-level enrolment caps (at least not in version 2.6). You can only place enrolment caps at the level of a self-enrolment method. So you'll have to create a self-enrolment method for each set of people. That's easy, but what if you want to extract users who joined the course using each method and perhaps do further analysis? It's easy to see these lists using the filters available in Users -> Enrolled users, but you can't download them (at least not in Moodle 2.6, which I use).

This is what you can do:
  1. Filter the required list of users in Users -> Enrolled users using the "Enrolment methods" filter.
  2. Hide all blocks on this page.
  3. Copy everything on this page using Control + A (on Windows). Yes, copy everything - all the stuff you need and all the messy surroundings. Quicker this way.
  4. Paste everything into Notepad or another text editor (not Word).
  5. Copy the Notepad stuff and paste into an Excel sheet. Now you should see a lot of stuff all in one column - don't worry about the mess. Just make sure it's all in one column.
  6. In the adjacent column, put this formula to extract all the email addresses and ignore cells that don't have an email address: =IF(ISERROR(FIND("@",A1,1))=TRUE,"",A1)
  7. Pull the formula down to occupy all the cells corresponding to column A. You'll then have a cleaner column with only emails but a lot of empty cells too. Copy all this and put into another sheet. Remove the duplicates (in Excel, Data -> Remove duplicates). And you should have a clean list of only email addresses.
  8. Repeat the above process for every page of enrolled participants (I see 100 people per page on my Moodle for step 1 - I'm not sure if this setting can be changed).
  9. Repeat the above process for different enrolment methods.
  10. You probably want more than just email addresses of the participants. Use the gradebook or activity completion report in your course to get a list of all users, add a column in that sheet to put in the enrolment method of each participant, paste the emails from steps 7 and 8 into a sub-sheet, and do a VLOOKUP.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Checking on participants falling behind in a course on Moodle

There are at least two ways to do this. Easy way first:

Access the list of participants through the Navigation block on the course homepage or the People block if it's there. Look for the option called "inactive for more than" at the top of the participant list. You'll see some time periods going back to the beginning of the course. I'm now helping run a course that started on 1 February, almost three weeks back, so I see the following options:

Select an appropriate value in the drop-down list, depending on what you think counts as active participation. Then scroll down, click "select all", and then click "send a message".

Then write your message for these participants who have fallen behind -- make it an encouraging one! I would say it's a good idea to remind stragglers through this approach only once, ideally a week or so after a course begins. Then it's up to them to decide whether to come back to the course. If you keep writing to the same group of people, they're likely to get annoyed.

But what if you want to closely track who has done what in the course and send reminders to specific people, instead of a catch-all "inactive for X time" criterion?

Then the activity completion report is your friend. This is easy to get started with but requires some spreadsheet analysis:

Click the “Reports” link in the course administration menu block on the left and click “Activity completion” – you’ll see a table with icons denoting who has completed which activity. At the bottom of this table you’ll see options to download the table as a spreadsheet. Download this (a CSV file) and first save it as an XLS or ODS file so that you can use it for analysis, eg, spotting participants who have not done specific things in the course or have fallen behind. (Of course for this you would need to have used activity completion settings for the different resources and activities.) Then you would need to collect those participants' email addresses from the same spreadsheet and email them. Again, it's important to strike the right balance: reminders that are encouraging and get some participants back on track (you can't hope to win over all of them) but don't end up reaching the same people again and again with little effect.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How to not misuse the Moodle trademark: Tips for freelancers and small companies

This page at is quite clear about the Moodle trademark, but I guess many people have never seen it because it's over at and not, which is the default destination for Moodle users who're looking to download Moodle, chat on the community forums, read documentation, etc. Mary Cooch, a well-known Moodler, has written about her experiences with the Moodle trademark, and I've just written a somewhat preachy post about why misuse of the Moodle trademark is a problem. Forbes magazine says trademarks like Moodle and IKEA are the strongest kind of trademark, and I think this is another reason Moodle HQ is assertive about protecting the Moodle brand. But I bet this isn't easy as Moodle itself is free and open source software. Those with technical expertise can freely explore the inner workings of Moodle, become experts, and start selling services around Moodle!

So what do you do if you're a freelancer or small business owner who specializes in Moodle and you want to run your business without violating the Moodle trademark terms? This is something I've started to ponder about: although I have a full plate of Moodle work now, I am self-employed and I may want to sell services at some point in the future.

My suggestions for those who're in a situation similar to mine:
  1. See the links given above :)
  2. Be nuanced when you sell services related to Moodle. Try to avoid using the word "Moodle" in your service description.
  3. Look into contributing to the Moodle project. If you know a lot about Moodle, you can do a lot of good on the community forums. If you're a visible and helpful member of the community, you'll probably know what's the right thing to do when positioning yourself as a service provider.
  4. Moodle HQ does need a healthy and growing commercial ecosystem around Moodle, and every now and then new Moodle Partners are announced. These companies are allowed to use the word Moodle to sell services. If you employ or contract people to help you with your business, check out the Moodle Partner program application. In some countries there are already quite a few Moodle Partners and it could be difficult to become a new Partner, but there are few or no partners in many countries and regions.

Why misuse of the Moodle trademark is a problem

Moodle is open source software. It's free for anyone to use in any way. It's licensed under the most permissive of software licenses: GNU GPL. However, the word "Moodle" is trademarked. The trademark terms are clearly explained here.

Basically, you can freely use Moodle and talk about what you've done on your Moodle sites, but if you're going to sell services related to Moodle (eg, running a business that provides Moodle support in some way), you've got to be careful. For one, you shouldn't explicitly call yourself a "Moodle consultant", "Moodle service provider", or something that overtly shows that you're selling Moodle services. UNLESS you are a Moodle Partner company or have received permission from Moodle headquarters. That's my understanding at least.

The Moodle company (or Moodle HQ) is funded mainly by Moodle Partners (and perhaps the Moodle User Association will make a sizable contribution in the future). If individuals and non-partner companies rampantly sell Moodle services, there's a threat to the business model that funds the development of Moodle.

I don't normally get this worked up about trademarks and licenses, but here we're talking about free software (free as in freedom, not just price) that's used around the world by people who don't have to pay a cent to the company that made the software and yet can use and customize it as they please. The free software we're talking about also concerns education: a basic human right, not something arcane. Moodle being free software for educators everywhere is precisely why people shouldn't get too commercial about using the Moodle trademark for business without being allowed to do so. Someone who doesn't respect the Moodle trademark might not care about the Moodle philosophy which is central to the effective use of Moodle.

Of course, many educators who use Moodle need support with their Moodle sites, which is why there are Moodle Partner companies, and at many organisations there are in-house Moodle experts who're paid to work on organisational Moodle sites.

If you're a freelancer or small business owner and you specialize in Moodle, you may be interested in my next post which has some tips on how to do business without violating the trademark terms.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Back from the first MoodleMoot in India

Just back from the first MoodleMoot in India, and here's my Storify of the event. And below is my personal highlight of the event: I gave a talk about course design, which was captured in this tweet.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Converting URLs into links when you write in Moodle

On your Moodle site you may find that when you enter a URL (ie, web link) it appears in plain text and not as a link. To make URLs appear automatically as links:

First, go to...
Site administration -> Plugins -> Filters -> Manage filters
...and set “Convert URLs into links and images” to On.

Then, go to...
Site administration -> Plugins -> Filters -> Convert URLs into links and images
...and place a check mark against all the options next to “apply to formats”.

You might expect that URL auto-linking would happen by default, but Moodle provides a very fine level of control to do things and sometimes this can seem like a hassle! But it’s often easy to find a solution to do something in Moodle by searching online – you’ll probably see a helpful article in Moodle Docs or a discussion on the community forums. This is how I learn, and of course by experimenting!

Friday, January 15, 2016

When to not choose Moodle (and when to choose it)

Major universities around the world use Moodle, including The Open University in the UK (who also contribute to Moodle’s development). It’s a complex platform on which a lot of things can be done, and the downside is that those who’re looking to do only one or two things may find it too complex for their needs.

If you want to do only the below things, I would strongly suggest you don't use Moodle because you can do these with simpler or more focused tools.
  • Putting up content in the form of documents, videos, etc.
  • Having a discussion forum
  • Getting feedback from learners

But if you want to do some of the following Moodle is a great choice:
  • Develop interactive online content
  • Include learners in creating or adapting content
  • Develop quizzes with a huge range of options
  • Use learning analytics to get insights into the learners' experience
  • Maintain a set of discussion forums on different topics with different groups of people, which can all be easily accessed in one place
  • Orchestrate peer assessment activities
  • Use conditional access to develop a sequenced learning experience
  • Automatically award completion certificates based on criteria
  • And of course, develop proper online courses
You can do a lot more -- I wrote the above points in a couple of minutes without thinking too deeply!

Moodle is an online learning platform. It is not a tool, it is not even a set of tools. It's more than the sum of its parts! It gives you great power, so you have a great responsibility in creating Moodle courses that are optimal -- courses that don't underwhelm or overwhelm learners!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Automatically link tips in a Moodle course or site

Imagine you want to include a bunch of tips somewhere in your Moodle course (or Moodle site) and you want these tips to be automatically linked whenever you mention the title of any tip, without having to manually include the link. Not only that, when clicked the link should bring up a small pop-up window with the tip, instead of redirecting to a new page. Sure, you can do that on Moodle.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Changing the default font face and font size of content in Moodle Book

Recently a colleague asked me if we could increase the font size of the text in Moodle Book and change the font face to Calibri. She felt that these changes would make our content more visually attractive and readable, which is important for us as our content is largely text-based. The goal was to change the default font face and font size, so we wouldn't have to change them on every page using the text editor's settings. CSS to the rescue!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Moodling in 2015

Happy New Year to all Moodlers worldwide! On the first day of this year I thought I would jot down some highlights of my Moodle journey in 2015.
  • I gave a talk at iMoot 2015 on how to make peer assessment work in Moodle, which was later featured in Moodle News.

    And who says online conferences are not good for networking? At the iMoot I connected with a local Moodler, Michelle Chawla, who runs Tamarind Tree, an inspiring school for tribal schoolchildren north of Mumbai. Check out Michelle's talk at the iMoot.
  • In June I set up this blog! Good timing because I had a place to share my thoughts as soon as MoodleCloud was launched in early July. See my post and a related discussion on
  • With my colleague Andy Nobes I facilitated two online courses in research writing for a global audience of developing country researchers. One of these courses had 367 participants and the other - INASP's first MOOC - had more than 1700 participants!
  • I set up and facilitated a new course on the Moodle site of the organisation I work for (INASP). The course was for librarians in Ghana, and it was about copyright and licensing of research publications. Read a short summary of the course here.
  • I wrote a series of 17 lessons on the research communication lifecycle, which are now being used in INASP's research writing and proposal writing courses on INASP Moodle. I developed these lessons with eXeLearning as this is a great tool to develop content that can be made available online and given in exactly the same format as downloadable files. See my comparison of three authoring tools: Moodle Lesson, Moodle Book, and eXeLearning.
  • I wrote multiple-choice quiz questions for the above lessons and created quizzes using the Moodle Quiz tool. In our research writing course, learners must pass each weekly quiz by scoring at least 80%. They are however allowed an unlimited number of attempts. I initially thought these "check your understanding" quizzes could be too simple as they only test comprehension of the lesson content, but after seeing that most learners made multiple attempts to pass the quiz I realised they could be a bit challenging - which is a good thing! Moodle Quiz is an amazing tool with a vast array of options to develop engaging quizzes. 
  • We started awarding digital badges to successful online course participants on INASP Moodle. Andy Nobes designed the badges and I took care of the settings to automatically award badges based on activity or course completion.
  • In August I facilitated a 1-day workshop at Thai Nguyen University in Vietnam on open source educational technology, with an emphasis on Moodle.
  • Near the end of the year, I was invited to give a talk at the first MoodleMoot in India! This is going to take place next month in Delhi and I can't wait! I'm really thankful to Jaswinder Singh and the rest of the organising committee for their hard work.
Hopefully 2016 will be another exciting year of Moodling and contributing in a small way to improving learning experiences.