Pedagogy drives technology drives pedagogy

We are in the process of switching to Moodle 2.1 from Moodle 1.9. We’ve been planning this switch for a year but, like many tech projects, it doesn’t matter how much planning and testing you do, the real test happens when users start rolling in.

We’re at that point right now. People are starting to use the system. The most painful point. The transition.

I won’t get into details about the inner workings of Moodle, but those who know the 2.x version compared to the 1.9 version know that there has been a major overhaul of how the file system works. Gone is the file storage  area – the place where people dumped all their course files. Instead we have a new file repository system.

From the reading I have done and the people I have talked to, this change has been one of the most contentious changes in Moodle, and we are struggling with how to support it as it means a big shift in how people organize their stuff. It forces people to make a conceptual shift in that their content is now somewhat disaggregated from their course. Dispersed, distributed and decentralized. Not contained within neat little folders. Not easily accessible in a single place. Living….somewhere?

It is forcing people to think about their content in a different way, and it is changing their workflow at the most basic level.

How do I organize my stuff?

How do I delete my stuff?

Where is my stuff? WHERE IS MY STUFF?

It makes sense to me why Moodle is moving to the new repository system, but I can see the technical reasons. That (usually) doesn’t fly with users, and the new system is stressing people out.

One thing I never considered until I read Mark Dreschler’s post, however, is that the pedagogical framework of social constructivism that underpins Moodle means having a powerful file management system could be a rather low priority for Moodle developers because social constructivism moves the focus of a learning experience away from content as the cornerstone and refocuses the experience on the construction of knowledge among participants.

I never really thought about this until Martin’s discussion with the group yesterday, but, and I’ll say it loud and clear now – Moodle is not meant to be a file repository. When I look back at Martin’s original pedagogical drivers of social constructionism then it makes perfect sense that storing files should be low on the list of priorities. Learning in a social constructionist world isn’t about downloading and reading files, its about collaboratively constructing them with others – a critical distinction.

Learning in a social constructionist world isn’t about downloading and reading files, its about collaboratively constructing them with others

In this specific case, the pedagogical model drives the technological development.

Now, that is all wonderful IF you use it in a homogenous environment where all users are on board and working from the same pedagogical model. Great. However, stray from that model and you find yourself working against the technology; fighting, wrestling and wringing it into submission to do what you want to do with it. Or, you are forced to alter your own pedagogical model to make it fit with the technology.

In this case, it’s hard to argue that the instructivist “here are my notes and PowerPoint slides” model is superior to the social constructivism Moodle model, but still; it’s a pedagogical choice being enforced on a user by technology. People don’t like that. They fight back and get defensive when a machine forces them to do something they don’t want to do. It’s technology driving pedagogy.

And this is the inherent problem (feature?) of ANY LMS. It is not neutral. It WILL impose its way on you.

In the case of Moodle, the pedagogy is explicit. Indeed, I think this is one of the reasons why Moodle is a popular choice – it is built around an explicit pedagogy, which appeals to many educators. The foundation is educational, not technological. But, just because it is explicit (and, let’s face it, a pretty good model) doesn’t mean the pain of fitting into that model is any less.

Right now, I am not sure how we are going to deal with the Moodle file issue. Secretly, deep down, part of me smiles just a little to think that the system is actually making it more difficult to stuff a course full of Word and PDF documents; that using the LMS as a content repository is just a little bit tougher to do. But that fades quickly when I realize that this is causing stress and friction for the people I support.

It is also difficult to use moments like this as leverage into a conversation about whether uploading a whack of files into an LMS is the best way to encourage learning when faculty have students breathing down their neck for the latest PowerPoint presentation. But we’ll try. And it won’t be the last time we make choices on how we do things in order to fit the pedagogy imposed on us by our technology.

As Neil Postman says in Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology:

Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.

This is the moment I am living right now.


Embedable tweets

One of the new features Twitter rolled out as part of the recent redesign is the ability to embed tweets in other sites, much like a YouTube video.

In the past, if you wanted to embed a specific tweet in a site you had to use a third party plugin. For this WordPress blog, for example, I’ve been using the Twitter Blackbird Pie plugin to embed tweets like this:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/clintlalonde/status/147501892551983105″]

It has worked well, but reducing the number of plugins you need on a site is a good thing in terms of possible platform conflicts.

For Moodle, on the other hand, the ability to add Twitter content into Moodle has been a bit of a pain, even with the official Twitter widgets, which don’t give you the option of embedding a single tweet. Last weeks announcement should fix that and make embedding tweets into Moodle fairly straightforward (and as soon as I get the new Twitter interface on my own Twitter account I’ll give this a try & update this post).

If you have the new Twitter interface, you can try this tutorial and learn how to embed a tweet using the new embed feature.


Universal Instructional Design Principles for Moodle

Universal Instructional Design is the design principle that instruction should be designed not for the average student, but rather for a broad range of students “with respect to ability, disability, age, reading level, learning style, native language, race, ethnicity, and other characteristics“.

For those of us working within the confines of an LMS, this type of design can be a challenge. And while using an Open Source option like Moodle means we do have some flexibility in customizing the LMS for UID (and Moodle has certainly put some thought into making the platform accessible), customizing is often easier said than done.

Which is why I am happy I stumbled across this IRRODL paper “Universal Instructional Design (UID) Principles for Moodle from Tanya Elias which makes a number of recommendations – both technical and pedagogical – on how to improve accessibility within Moodle.

Elias begins the paper by outlining eight universal design principles, based on the work of the Center for Universal Design (which, as an aside, have this wonderful printable infographic (pdf) outlining the principles). She then goes on to make recommendations on how to design Moodle courses & content to meet these guidelines.

Below is a summary of the principles, the recommendations from Elias, and a few of my own thoughts in italics.

1) Equitable use

The design is useful and accessible for people with diverse abilities and in diverse locations. The same means of use should be provided for all students, identically whenever possible or in an equivalent form when not.


  1. Put content online and make them accessible by screen reader, text-to-speech, and screen preferences programs.
  2. Provide translation to overcome language barriers for learners for whom English is a foreign language.

The takeaway here for me is make content accessible, and the most flexible, accessible content on the web is HTML. Eliminate those PDF, Word and PowerPoint files and convert them to the native language of the web – HTML.

2) Flexible use

The learning design accommodates a wide range of individual abilities, preferences, schedules, and levels of connectivity. Provide the learners with choice in methods of use.


  1. Make synchronous sessions optional, or make them small group sessions to make it easier to for participants to schedule.
  2. Provide recordings of synchronous sessions.
  3. Present content in multiple formats.
  4. Offer choice and additional information.

If you have the option to record what you are doing (which is baked into most synchronous applications), always record it & make it available to students. Not only good for accessibility, but good for review for students who can attend as well.

3) Simple and intuitive

The course interface design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, technical skills, or current concentration level. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.


  1. Simplify the interface.
  2. Offer text-only, mobile and offline options.

Most Moodle courses are built from a standard course template, meaning there may be blocks and tools you don’t use. If you are not using them, remove them. They are clutter.

4) Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the student’s sensory abilities.


  1. Incorporate assistive technologies
  2. Add captions, descriptors and transcriptions

On adding caption & transcriptions, a good low cost way to do this for video is to use YouTube for hosting your video and take advantage of their transcription and captioning features.

5) Tolerance for error

The design minimises hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.


  1. Allow students to edit their posts.
  2. Issue warnings using text and sound.

Moodle gives learners 30 minutes to edit their posts, by default. if your administrator has disabled this option, here is a good argument to have it re-enabled. I would also say that audible warnings are good, but there should be a mechanism to disable them if the user decides they don’t want them.

6) Low physical and technical effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with minimal physical and mental fatigue.


  1. Consider issues of physical effort.
  2. Incorporate assistive technologies and multimedia, and embed links.
  3. Include a way to check browser capabilities

The paper notes that “extensive use of external links and external programs (my emphasis) in this way increases the technical effort required by all users.” So, not to harp on this point (but I will), but every time a learner has to open a PDF, Word or PowerPoint file, they have to load a new, external program.

7) Community of learners and support

The learning environment promotes interaction and communication among students and between students, faculty, and administrative services.


  1. Provide study groups and tools.
  2. Provide easy-to-find links to support services.

An easy win to add a block with links to institutional student services.

8) Instructional climate

Instructor comments and feedback are welcoming and inclusive. High expectations are espoused for all students.


  1. Encourage instructors to make contact and stay involved.

As the paper states, “Instructor accessibility is an essential component of course accessibility.” An involved instructor will recognize when a student is struggling and can take steps to intervene and help.

Many of these principles are not Moodle specific and could be easily adapted to any online learning scenario. Where the paper does get Moodle specific is where Elias notes how many Moodle modules and plugins are available to help achieve these principles. This is also where the paper falls a bit short in that Elias gives the number of modules available and doesn’t actually review, or even name the available Moodle modules. So while it’s nice to know there are 4 translator modules available for Moodle, it would be useful to have the actual names of those modules and, even better, a review on whether they met the recommendations. Still, a useful piece of research on accessibility and the LMS.


Moodle 2.2 – now with more mobile goodness

Moodle 2.2 has been released, and along with some new features (like rubrics and some tools to make getting content and tools into Moodle from other systems easier) comes an improvement to the Moodle mobile app.

When I last looked at the Moodle mobile app a few months back, it was still pretty slim in terms of functionality, which was fine. It was a first generation mobile app so I didn’t expect killer functionality out of the box. And I deeply respected the fact that, out of all the functionality they could have delivered in that first crack, they decided that it was important to give students the ability to upload media captured on their mobile devices to their courses – a signal (to me at least) that they were looking at mobile devices through a disruptive lens.

Moodle 2.2 mobile app

The 2.2 release adds another piece to that mobile app, now giving learners the ability to download course content from the course to their mobile device. I have to say, not quite as pumped about this feature as I was about the upload feature in the first go round, but I get that for many students content is the key – it’s what they come for.

One thing is for certain with this new feature – we are going to have to be ever more vigilant on issues like optimized file size and correct web formats for content as we develop our courses. We do have a fairly stringent technical quality checks for our courses, but stuff does get through.

For example, today I had to deal with a course that wasn’t backing up and restoring properly. The culprit? 2 PowerPoint presentations; 1 was 54 meg the other a whooping 102 meg. Pity the poor student in that class who decided to download that content on their mobile device. That’s 20% of my monthly data right there in those 2 files.

Anyway, not Moodle’s problem. In fact, in this feature they have given me a tool and another reason to enforce standard file formats and optimized file sizes, so I am grateful for it, and for the continued development of the mobile application. And realistically, we won’t have to worry about this for at least a year or so as we are still in the process of migrating to 2.1 from 1.9 and have decided to continue on the 2.1 path and not go straight to 2.2 when we release next year.

You can read the official release notification in the Moodle forums.


5 Features of Moodle 2 – Infographic

CTET at Royal Roads is hosting an Open House on Wednesday, October 19th. As part of the Open House I’ll be talking to staff and faculty about our Moodle 2 migration project.

To help spur the conversations, I created a poster/infographic about 5 features of Moodle 2 that our faculty and program associates might find interesting (click image for a larger version). If you would find it useful, feel free to use it as per the CC license attached to the document.

5 Features of Moodle 2

We’re also going to be handing out copies of this wonderful Moodle Tool Guide for Teachers, created by Joyce Seitzinger (@catspyjamasnz on Twitter).


Official Moodle iPhone app released

Just saw a post in the Moodle forums that the first official Moodle mobile app was released earlier this month by Moodle HQ.

What I love about this app (and this is actually more what I love about the attitude of the development team creating this app) is that, of all the functionality they could have put into the first version of the app, what they decided to focus on was giving learners the ability to upload content captured from their mobile device to Moodle.

In other words, they have placed a high value on the ability of mobile devices as content creation devices.

From a pedagogical perspective, this is a much more interesting mobile application than one in which a leaner would be able to, say, access their grades. Not that seeing grades isn’t important (and they can still do that with this app as it provides access to a web version of your Moodle site for features not native to the app), but mobile apps can be so much more than simply provide quick access to information.

The decision of the development team to include an upload function so early into the app’s development says to me that these developers see that; that mobile learning is much more than letting learners access content. Right off the bat with the version 1 release, the Moodle mobile app puts a powerful pedagogical tool into the hands of educators, and gives the opportunity for learners to become mobile content creators.

The mobile apps will only work with Moodle 2.1+. For us at Royal Roads, this is one of the driving factors for us to upgrade to 2.1. However, using the mobile application is still a ways off as we are currently in the middle of a fairly lengthy migration project from 1.9 to 2.1, and are just about to begin involving other stakeholders outside of CTET and IT Services.  If you are from RRU and are reading this, we will be showing a really “alpha”, completely under heavy construction version of 2.1 at the CTET Open House on October 19th and gathering faculty & staff feedback.

As outlined in the Moodle mobile roadmap for some time now, Moodle has decided to create device specific applications, and the first app they have created is an iPhone app, available for download in the iTunes store. Android and iPad are up next.