Tag: hackdoc

Hack/Doc at Butler: Day 1

A grass version of the Butler University logo fills the foreground of this photo while the university's observatory can be seen in the background.
The Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium and Butler University. Photo credit: Ken Newquist

Day 1 of Moodle Hack/Doc Fest at Butler University saw the group delve deeply into Moodle 3.1’s improvements, the updated Moodle Mobile app, the mass action and collapsed topics plug-ins, options for printing quizzes and course pages,  and accessibility best practices.

Moodle 3.1 improvements

Select assignments for download

This feature allows you to select which assignments you want to download, rather than having to download all of them at once. This is a step forward in functionality, but it does come with a change to the base functionality. The resulting ZIP file now nests the assignment files in folders for each student, rather than using a single folder and prefixing each file with the student’s username and assignment info. This makes the assignment folder less browsable, and will cause teachers to drill down an extra level to view each students’ work.

The plus side is that the files themselves are no longer renamed, but this may be offset by the need to browse an additional layer of folders.

Topic Blocks

Topic blocks are now easier to manage — you can delete them, which sends their attached resources to the recycling bin.

Recycling Bin

The recycling bin works as expected, allowing you to restore deleted content such as resources. It is tied to the course, not the instructor (e.g., if one instructor deletes something, the other one can restore it).

Assignment submission view and document annotation

As we discussed during the sprint, the assignment submission view has been revised. It now displays (or tries to display) the assignment as a PDF alongside the necessary grading fields (grade, comments, etc.).

There are two problems with the feature.

    1. Converting to PDF: If the submitted document wasn’t a PDF, Moodle attempts to convert it to a PDF. This relies on having an obscure helper utility called “unoconv” installed on the server. If that utility isn’t there (and it’s likely it won’t be) then the conversion fails and the user is left with a blank PDF. This is an issue with Moodle’s requirement checking regime (if you don’t have unoconv, Moodle shouldn’t try to use this feature) that is actively being worked on in MDL-54165 New grading interface should hide “editpdf” if unoconv is not enabled
    2. The annotation tool is clunky: Even if everything is working as intended, the annotation tool remains clunky, being akin to adding a simple paint program to Moodle. Previously this was less of an issue because it was not front and center in Moodle’s workflow, but the new submission view puts it front and center. Comment on MDL-54818 Improve assignment PDF annotation if this issue is important to you.

Both of these issues should be called out in the CLAMP Moodle Exchange for further discussion.

Pinned discussion topics

This works as advertised; many thanks for CLAMP’s own Charles Fulton for contributing to this feature. By default, the teacher role and higher can pin topics, but that capability can be assigned to other roles in the system.

News Forum changed to Announcements

The “News forum” is now called “Announcements”, which is more in keeping with how that forum is used.


We began reviewing the new “competencies” feature in Moodle 3.1. Moodle’s documentation describes competencies as:

“Competencies describe the level of understanding or proficiency of a learner in certain subject-related skills. Competency-based education (CBE), also known as Competency-based learning or Skills-based learning, refers to systems of assessment and grading where students demonstrate these competencies.” — Competencies documentation

We’ve spent several hours looking at competencies and by the end of Day 1 we’d come to the conclusion that they’re complicated. They implement their own workflow involving “competency frameworks” — which hold collections of related competencies — as well as “lesson plans” which group competencies together for the use by students. We’re still getting our heads around the workflow; it would be helpful if the competency documentation did a better job of explaining how all the pieces were supposed to work together.

The dev documentation, which explicitly states it is out of date, does a better job of explaining the base assumptions behind the feature and how it’s supposed to work.

We did find a bug related to competencies: MDL-54721: Competency breakdown report: User selection is not working well. This bug is fixed in Moodle 3.1.1.

Grade Improvements

The grades interface is improved; there are now separate links for “Grades” and “Grade setup” in the Course administration block. The latter is the same as “Categories and items”, but makes more intuitive sense since that page is really about setting up and configuring the gradebook.

Search Improvements

Search was improved in Moodle 3.1 but it has additional dependencies that may be beyond the reach of many schools: it requires the installation of both the Solr server and the Solr extension prior to Moodle configuration and setup. Based on the documentation, the improved search respects user access and only returns items you have access to. It also appears to search just about all of the standard objects. (e.g. book, assignment, forums, etc.). We did not have Solr setup at Hack/Doc so we were not able to test this further.

Moodle Mobile

The new Moodle Mobile app works better in 3.1 and eliminates earlier versions’ need for a stand alone plugin. The app looks nice and you can now participate in certain activities, like quizzes, from the app, but it still frequently passes people off to the mobile browser version for much of their Moodle interactions.

By default the app only syncs with its home Moodle over wifi, which could mean that faculty and teachers would miss forum posts and other updates while walking in and out of wifi zones on campus. The app also has calendar notifications, but these notifications started showing up at midnight, and there appeared to be no way to disable them. The app does not support push notifications from individual courses.

Generally speaking the app worked better on iOS than Android, particularly when it came to file handling. Android would store files it didn’t recognize in a hidden directory, which could lead to storage capacity issues on your mobile device. The app does allow you to control the size of this download space.

Our sense is that if your school has a good mobile or responsive theme, you should tell people to use that rather than the app, given that the app will most likely send them there anyway.

New tools for managing and displaying courses

We looked at the Mass Actions block, which allows users to quickly update multiple activities or resources within their course. The general sense is that this is a useful block to have installed, and that Moodle 3.1’s Recycling Bin component provides a good safety net should someone accidentally mass delete multiple elements from their course.

We reviewed the Collapsed Topics course format as way of controlling the “scroll of death” in which large amounts of information, resources, and activities can lead to exceedingly large web pages that take a long time to scroll through. Collapsed Topics streamlines the course by reducing the footprint of each topic. They can be expanded or closed as needed.

There have been reports of Mass Actions conflicting with Collapsed Topics, but we were not able to recreate those issues in Moodle 3.1.


We looked at ways to streamline printing from Moodle, specifically creating printer friendly views of quizzes (for accessibility or offline quiz taking support) and weekly course topics (for use as a syllabus).

We found the following:


  • In Quiz settings, go to Layout and then choose a layout format a layout that gets all of the quiz questions onto one page. From here, there are a couple options…
    • For editable text, the best tool we found was a Chrome plugin called Clearly (by Evernote). This plugin cleans up the clutter on the page and gives you text that can be pasted into a text editor.
    • For a print and take exam, we found two options:
      • Print to PDF in Google Chrome cleaned all of the navigation clutter and allowed me to print a screen accurate version of the exam.
      • Evernote Web Clipper (Chrome/Firefox plugin) allowed the same, but added the ability to email/share an editable file.

Course as a syllabus

We looked at the following options for the Chrome web browser:

  • Print to PDF in Chrome can output a fairly clean page in some cases. There is a bit of navigation content at the top and bottom of the course content, but this can be fairly easily removed in Acrobat Pro. It works well for text heavy courses, but can be inconsistent on courses with a lot of photos or HTML content in Labels.
  • Evernote Web Clipper for Chrome will extract course content from the course page and allow you to edit and output a pretty clean document with minimal editing. The Firefox version will only detect content from the first topic section of the course page.
  • Save to Pocket plugin will only capture the Moodle login page, no course content.
  • Clearly plugin (a deprecated Evernote plugin) would only capture content from the first topic section of the course page.
  • Save to Google Drive plugin inserts all of the navigation links and block content into the middle of the course content. It also does not handle HTML in labels or photos in labels very well. Can’t recommend this option.


We spent considerable time discussing accessibility and universal design, both within Moodle and beyond. We’ve found a wealth of information which is worthy of its own post — in short we intend to build a list of accessibility best practices and then highlight them by designing a course with poor accessibility and then fixing it to create an new course with improved accessibility.

As part of this we leveraged the WAVE extension for Google Chrome to evaluate existing course pages at our home institutions. This uncovered a long-standing issue with how Moodle handles alternative text for its icons: for menu items it duplicates the text of the menu in alt text for its corresponding icon. This causes screen readers to read the text twice. MDL-46226 Pix_icon should not have the same title as alt attribute discusses this issue, but it hasn’t been revisited since 2014. We need to comment on this tracker to note that is an ongoing issue.

We’ve also setup a new #accessibility channel in the CLAMP Slack Team so that we can continue our conversation after Hack/Doc. The CLAMP Slack team is available at https://clamp-it.slack.com; join the team using “CLAMP’s Request access to services” form.

Posts from Moodle Hack/Doc Fest at Butler University: HomepageSprint | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

Hack/Doc at Butler: The Sprint Day

The white, aquaduct-like facade of Irwin Library at Bulter University
The exterior of Irwin Library at Butler University. Photo credit: Ken Newquist

CLAMP kicked off Moodle Hack/Doc Fest on Monday, June 21 with our traditional sprint day. The sprint day exists for everyone to get a jump on the week’s work — a few people (in this case, most of those attending Hack/Doc) arrive early, resolve any logistical challenges (getting to campus, connecting to the local network, making sure sources of caffeine are available throughout the day), and start organizing the week’s worth.

During this sprint we came up with our usual tasks list in Google Drive and people signed up for the things they were interested. Then, in a fit of spontaneous documentation, everyone started using that tasks list to provide updates on their progress. It’s not a thing we’ve done before, but it’s working out very well — it provides a running log of what we were working on, and it’s more efficient because we don’t need to spend as much time reporting out each day.

Topics identified include:

  • Accessibility – Making Accommodations for Users with Disabilities
  • Managing the “scroll of death” on course pages within Moodle
  • The practical implementations of layering quizzes over video
  • Evaluate the Moodle Mobile app
  • Printing from Moodle
  • The Recycle Bin plugin in Moodle (new feature in Moodle 3.1)
  • Evaluate the Mass Action block (3rd party plugin)
  • Evaluate Competencies (new feature in Moodle 3.1)
  • Test out the Global Search
  • Document, test, and name the new umbrella course plugin (3rd party plugin)
  • Look at other major changes in Moodle 3.1
  • Review anonymous forums in Moodle 3.1 (Moodle Liberal Arts Edition)
  • Review Ad-hoc database queries (customsql) (Moodle Liberal Arts Edition)
  • Best practices for using Moodle with other schools

Hack/Doc attendees can view the task list in Google Docs; the initial draft of the list is available in the CLAMP Moodle Exchange.

In the course of our work we came across a gnarly problem involving the new assignment review interface. This interface allows the user to see a student’s submitted assignment alongside all the relevant grading fields (e.g. add a grade, comments, etc.). The student’s work is rendered as a PDF and the teacher can use Moodle’s annotation capabilities to mark up the paper with their responses. The end result is saved as a PDF and sent to the student as feedback.

The problem is with the PDF. If students submitted a PDF, then the process works reasonably well. If they submitted a Word or Open Office document instead, Moodle converts it to PDF for display … or tries to. If you do not have a specific helper application known as unoconv installed on the server (and in our experience, it’s unlikely you will have it), then the PDF conversion fails. Instead you get a blank page. That blank page can then be edited with the annotation tools and submitted as feedback, but that’s not particularly helpful since the student’s original assignment isn’t included.

This is documented in MDL-54165 New grading interface should hide editpdf if unoconv is not enabled and is flagged as a critical bug in Moodle 3.1. The proposed resolution to the bug is to revise the interface to allow it to fail gracefully when this tool isn’t available. We encourage the CLAMP community to watch and vote for this issue.

Posts from Moodle Hack/Doc Fest at Butler University: HomepageSprint | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

Registration for Moodle Hack/Doc Fest at Macalester now open

Registration for Moodle Hack/Doc Fest, Summer 2014 at Macalester is now open.

The event will be held Wednesday, June 25 through Friday, June 27 at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. A pre-Hack/Doc documentation and coding sprint will be held Tuesday, June 24, 2014. 

This summer’s Hack/Doc follows the CLAMP Moodle User Group meeting, which is being held June 23-24, 2014, also at Macalester College.

CLAMP Moodle User Group Meeting, June 23-24, 2014

CLAMP will hold its first-ever Moodle User Group Meeting (MUG) from June 23 through June 24, 2014 at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota

The MUG brings together faculty, staff, students, and other Moodlers for two days of presentations and conversation around Moodle use in a liberal arts environment. Learn about what topics may be presented at the event by visiting our Call for Proposals page or submit your own proposal using our online form.

The MUG will be followed by CLAMP’s biannual Moodle Hack/Doc Fest, a three-day event where developers, instructional technologists, and others come together to work on the open source learning management system. Hack/Doc runs from Wednesday, June 25 through Friday, June 27, 2014.  Learn more about Moodle Hack/Doc Fest.

The website for the event is mug.clamp-it.org. The hashtag is #mug2014