Category Archives: Technology

Moodle Gives Me a Headache

Not pictured: broken window, pavement rushing to meet me.
Some rights reserved by Zitona

If you’ve ever tried to send a message to a student or class on Moodle, then you know that the effort is liable to induce stabbing pains and an intense desire to throw yourself out of the nearest window.

I was grading some projects tonight and wanted to send quick notes to two or three students with some immediate feedback. Now, if this was one of my friends I was trying to get in touch with, I would:

  1. Open GMail
  2. Select friend from buddy list
  3. Type message and hit “Send”

Here’s what the process is like in Moodle:

  1. Go to Course
  2. Go to Participants
  3. Select class from “Separate Groups” menu, since 190 students are enrolled in my Moodle course
  4. “Show all students” because only first 20 are listed by default, and listed by Last Access date rather than something logical, like last name
  5. Select relevant students
  6. With selected users…Send a message
  7. Type message and Preview – there is no option to send directly (because having a preview of a one-sentence message is critical)
  8. Send message


Is Moodle being designed by anyone who actually teaches and uses the darn thing? Here’s what the Moodle interface SHOULD look like:

  1. Messaging window in left column. All enrolled students are grouped according to Moodle’s built-in Groups function.
  2. Select student from list
  3. Type message and hit “Send”
  4. BONUS: Right-clicking on student brings up options to send message via Twitter, Facebook, SMS, and/or email. Students could opt in to these options by putting them in corresponding fields in their profile. This way students have the choice of how close to, or far from, they want to be from their teachers – they can delineate their own school/home boundaries. This brings me to my next question:

Why are we still so far apart from our students?

As I alluded to above, I realize there’s the issue of boundaries here. But I don’t see why we aren’t making it easier for students to opt in to being more connected to school. After all, a young person’s only responsibility for which they are tangibly accountable is to do well at school (yes, I said it. Social and emotional development is taking a back seat, at least in this post!). I use a Facebook group to keep in touch with my swimmers; some of my students send me questions on Twitter. I find this far more convenient than email or making announcements during class – it frees up time for instruction. Moodle is what many, many schools use to structure their virtual classroom extensions… but Moodle is not at all doing a good job of bringing us together in an online community.

My Very Own Moodle

Here’s what my Modern World History class looks like on my school Moodle in Grid Format.
At my school we use Moodle as a virtual extension to our classrooms. Unfortunately, we don’t have guest access so I’m not able to demo how I set up my Moodle classroom. I jumped on that problem this weekend by setting up my own Moodle instance (at my web hosting service. I then exported my two Moodle classes from my school Moodle and imported them to my personal Moodle. I’ve only spent about two hours from setup to import, but the experience has highlighted to me how Moodle is not a simple drop-in replacement but rather an organic, dynamic, and temperamental beast – quite similar to many other pieces of open-source software.

Take the installation process, which is not terribly complicated but demands familiarity with the command line and basic web hosting tools. It’s along the lines of doing a manual WordPress install – not terribly complicated – but I had to install an older version (2.2.5), migrate my MySQL database to use UTF-8, and edit the .htaccess file to change the PHP version to make Moodle compatible with the environment provided by my host, 1and1. I’m used to having to dig through mountains of forum posts when doing anything Linux-related, so it wasn’t a big deal – I was able to find a post that exactly outlined the steps I needed to follow.

Then to the installation of plug-ins. WordPress makes it easy – log in to the web interface, go to the plug-ins section, paste in a URL, and bingo – WordPress will download and install the plugin for you. Moodle makes you remote into your server, wget the plugin, unzip it, manually move it to the appropriate directory (which could be any one of five or six locations), go to the admin interface, and then complete the install process. Furthermore, plug-ins don’t appear to be rigorously tested for compatibility: the Grid Format plug-in recommended and used by my school and adopted enthusiastically by myself for its visual literacy-friendly paradigm actually breaks the backup function, at least in Moodle 2.2.5. So I had to revert my course to the Topic Format, back it up, restore the backup to my own Moodle instance, and then re-enable the Grid View.

I like using the Grid Format, but it doesn’t play nice with some basic Moodle functionality. Here, my own Moodle instance has the Grid Format plugin installed, but the images are all broken.
And voila – my courses have appeared, albeit without the cover images for each Topic, which is a feature specific to Grid Format. Given that Grid Format breaks the backup function I’m not surprised they didn’t make the transition, and upon uploading new images I’ve found that every image is broken. So that’s where I am now.

Moodle reminds me of my experience with Ubuntu five years ago. It was powerful, fast, and had some really neat features, like display spanning and workspaces – but a typical install meant finding drivers, manually tweaking the XOrg.conf file, and generally spending a lot of man-hours to make everything work as it should. Sure, OSX cost about $130 at the time, but it installed in an hour or two and didn’t require you to piece together your own manual from six different forum threads.

Here’s hoping that Moodle quickly matures. It’s an ornery beast right now, but what scares me more is that it’s apparently miles and miles ahead of its commercial competitor, Blackboard. My advice to you: if you’ve got Moodle at your school, set up a dev environment inside a virtual machine and only roll them out to production once you’ve thoroughly tested (it’s best practice anyway, and a copy of VMWare Workstation is well worth the cash). At our school, the Moodle admin needs to make changes live, and doing that is not for the faint of heart.

Dropbox Conflict with Trend Micro Office Scan

Trend Micro makes antivirus products that apparently don’t work very well with Dropbox.
Two or three weeks ago my Dropbox started acting VERY slow – it would make the Windows taskbar and system tray unresponsive when uploading or downloading files, although running applications were unaffected. After taking the usual troubleshooting steps, I found that the issue didn’t occur in Safe Mode, indicating that it was caused by some conflict with a non-Windows piece of software. I suspected the school-installed virus scanner (Trend Micro Officescan), but couldn’t confirm it because the security policy prevents users from disabling it. Luckily, someone found a workaround to replace the passwords that prevent users from uninstalling or unloading OfficeScan: overwrite the hash values in Officescan’s configuration file. It’s an easy fix, and once I reset the password using that method, I was unable to unload OfficeScan and get my Dropbox working smoothly again! I’m not sure whether the issue is caused by real-time file scanning or the firewall, but either way, I’d rather have no virus protection than go without Dropbox. Dropbox is at the center of my common planning workflow: it lets me stay in sync with my common planning team and keeps the files on my home and office computers up to date.

Showcase: History Circles

Some rights reserved by jouste
My History Circles burst with understanding!
At our last faculty meeting we read an article on how to give meaningful homework. It recommended that homework should check for understanding, provide opportunities for practice, and let students take ownership while avoiding “busywork” tasks.

This year I’ve incorporated these principles and leveraged technology to make collaborative homework a regular feature of my classes. For each new topic or chapter of the textbook my students complete an assignment that I’ve creatively named “History Circles.” They’re based off of Lit Circles done in many English classes, and are a way of giving students the opportunity to practice different skills through the content. The nice thing about History Circles is that they distribute responsibility, enable simultaneous workflows, and maintain accountability while reinforcing content and a diverse skillset.
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Showcase: Collaborative Timelines

In Niall Ferguson’s latest work, he gives an unequivocal description of contemporary education’s deficiencies (emphasis mine):

“For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose. In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett posed a ‘trilemma’: should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty, or just ‘one f***king thing after another’?”

ᔥ Rebecca Brown
To teach the historical skills of chronology and causality – “why and how their predicaments arose” – I have students make annotated timelines. But I’ve abandoned the paper-and-pencil approach in favor of collaborative online work using the tools Prezi and Dipity.

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Showcase: Google Docs for Data-Driven Reflection

ᔥ bmooneyatwork

My watch strap broke this summer, so I took it to the kiosk at  the mall to get it replaced. After browsing through some unideal prospects, I placed it on the counter and requested a suitable substitute. The repairman, a 20-something baby-faced guy, took a look at the watch and scrunched his eyebrows. He disappeared behind the counter of his kiosk and reappeared with a black case full of all kinds of watch straps. Selecting a slim, black band that matched the dimensions of the watch, he remarked, “she should like this replacement strap well enough.”

That’s right – for the past decade, I’ve apparently been wearing a woman’s watch. I suppose that shows poor self-awareness.

I’m confident, though, that this myopia does not extend to my teaching. In addition to my self-assessment, I capture external perspectives by surveying my students annually using Google Docs.
Continue reading Showcase: Google Docs for Data-Driven Reflection

Showcase: Prezi (and Google Docs) for Simultaneous, Collaborative Work

Prezi: You should use it.
In the past, I always loathed giving group projects. Invariably one or two students would end up doing much of the work, whether it was writing the content or assembling individually completed pieces in the final product. And this dynamic wasn’t the fault of the student – it was the simple consequence of computer programs such as Microsoft Powerpoint being designed for use by a single user at a time. You could just not have more than one person typing at a computer.

Enter Prezi. This tool, like other cloud-based applications, forces dead-weight group members to contribute and removes the previously-immutable physical limitations of document creation.

Continue reading Showcase: Prezi (and Google Docs) for Simultaneous, Collaborative Work

Showcase: Google Docs for Group Project Coordination

ᔥ Kinologik

I always loathed giving group projects. There were just too many moving parts too keep track of: how to assess individual performance, ensure everyone was on task, assign group vs. individual grades, keep track of checkpoints to scaffold projects, motivate everyone in the group. Enrolling in the COETAIL program gave me an idea of how to do this, though – and in doing so, I implemented Google Docs in my classes for the first time.

Continue reading Showcase: Google Docs for Group Project Coordination

Showcase: iClickers

Clickers for engagementWhen planes crash, investigators sift through the wreckage to find the “black box” flight recorder. It tells them what went wrong – was there an equipment malfunction? Pilot error? Bird strikes? They use that data to try and prevent future problems.

Summative assessment, in education parlance, is like an airplane’s black box. It comes at the end of a unit, and it might be a test, essay, presentation, or something else. A teacher grading it can tell what “went wrong” with a student’s learning from the type of mistakes he makes. And he can use that information to inform future teaching. But it would be much preferable if we could prevent students from crashing and burning during tests in the first place.

That’s where formative assessment comes into play – those checks for understanding that take place throughout a unit and help a teacher correct misunderstandings and clarify important concepts before big events. iClickers are a new-ish way of generating hard data, interactively, on student understanding.
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Showcase: Famous Figures Facebook

Image courtesy Tina Sieber

History isn’t the most dynamic of fields. Compared to, say, an English or Science class, the content we teach rarely evolves. To make the class engaging, then, I search for new ways to make students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate what we learn. In the “famous figures Facebook” assignment, students create a social networking profile for a historical figure.

Continue reading Showcase: Famous Figures Facebook