Saturday, December 28, 2019

Why I chose EPrints over DSpace for an institutional repository

Recently I had the opportunity to set up an institutional repository for Auroville, an international township in south India that has been around for 50 years and has a large collection of outputs from applied research and experiments in a variety of domains (notably architecture, education, ecology, and alternative economy).

As far as I know, DSpace and EPrints are two of the most widely used open-source applications for institutional repositories. At the outset, I was inclined to opt for DSpace because the user interface on the demo site was more appealing (DSpace demo site versus EPrints demo site). I'm new to both these applications - I may have downloaded stuff from some repositories, but I've never installed or managed one.

The DSpace documentation recommends a minimum of 3 to 4 GB of RAM overall, so as the first step, I signed up for a 4 GB cloud server plan. I chose Hetzner as they are cheaper than some of the other server providers I'm familiar with -- I am on a shoestring budget so every dollar matters. Then I followed the DSpace installation instructions. The going was hard and I was out of my depth quickly. I'm comfortable with the command line but I'm new to system administration. When I got the Dspace site running, I could sign in and do a few things, but I could not add any entries. I was going to troubleshoot this and look for help on forums, but I kept postponing it.

Meanwhile I decided to give EPrints a try, and having completed the installation I think I'm going to stick with it. This is why:
  1. Familiarity with the technology. I'm more familiar with the core technology behind EPrints (Perl) than with the DSpace one (Java).
  2. Quality of documentation. While both DSpace and EPrints have extensive wikis, the Training Materials section in the latter is an excellent resource for me as a novice sysadmin.
  3. Being able to make sense. The EPrints installation process with its verbose outputs felt like a walk-through and I started getting a sense of how it works. I've encountered a few issues after the installation, which is nothing unusual, and I've been able to fix them by looking for help online. I find that I'm actually learning and not mindlessly copy-pasting code from the EPrints wiki or Stack Overflow.
  4. Subject headings out of the box. I opted to use the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) while installing EPrints, which saves me the work of setting up a classification scheme for the repository items. I don't know if the LCSH is the best option for my repository in the long run, but having this in place helps me to populate the repository up to a level where I can confidently demonstrate it to stakeholders.
  5. Possibly cheaper. It seems like EPrints has more relaxed hardware requirements than DSpace at least for a basic installation. I've set up my site on a 2 GB server on Hetzner and it's really fast.
While the default EPrints site does have a plain vanilla quality to it, which did not appeal to me initially, I now find the layout and navigation to be quite sensible.
I would certainly not conclude that EPrints has compelling advantages over DSpace. EPrints just seems to be a more suitable application for me. YMMV :-)

Monday, December 23, 2019

Setting up automated reminder messages in a Moodle course

If you'd like to send automated messages to learners enrolled in a Moodle course, the reengagement plugin is what you need.

I recently set up time-based, contextualised reminder messages using this plugin, and this post might be useful if you're looking to do something like that.

The course I was working with is a self-study course that learners are encouraged to complete within 4 weeks. The course consists of three quizzes, and once they achieve a passing score on all the quizzes they receive a certificate of completion (generated automatically with the custom certificate plugin).

I wanted to send the learners an automated reminder message after week 1 about the first quiz, after week 2 about the second quiz, and after week 3 about the third quiz. Importantly, the reminder message would be sent only to those who had not completed the relevant quiz.

To accomplish this, I first added 3 reengagement instances on the course homepage and kept all of them hidden.

Below are the key settings I used in the first reengagement instance to trigger a reminder message after the first week. In addition, I wrote out a fairly detailed message in the 'notification content' field (not shown below), addressing learners by their name ('Dear %userfirstname% %userlastname%'), saying why they are getting this message (eg, they have not yet completed the first quiz), and putting the message in context (eg, they must complete all the quizzes to receive a completion certificate).

The reminder messages seem to be working: 47% of the learners who made a start on the course completed it within 4 weeks, which I think is not bad for a self-study course.

The reengagement settings I've used: