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 are now easier to manage — you can delete them, which sends their attached resources to the 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.
- 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
- 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.
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 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.
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.