The Technology Enhanced Learning team, probably to a fault, doesn’t usually talk much about our in-house development of Moodle. A new version appears around the same time each year, bringing with it improvements either in performance, security or interface, or sometimes all of those. We also understand that these updates can occasionally be unwelcome, especially if things that worked before are now different for seemingly no reason. Those changes can be frustrating, to say the least.
What I’d like to do here is lift the lid a little on the Moodle development process, to highlight some of the work that goes into these yearly updates at the University, and also explain some of the choices we have had to make this year in order to improve the experience for as many of Moodle’s users as possible.
TEL’s input into Moodle
Moodle comes as a complete off-the-shelf system. It’s a working system from the moment it’s installed, containing many useful features and a serviceable visual appearance. Why, then, does the University need to do anything to Moodle before it gets used for learning?
The work we do to the off-the-shelf version of Moodle can broadly be categorised into three areas:
- Reliability – Ensuring the system is available for use by students and staff at all times, with as little disruption as possible. This involves working with IS on the database solution and making sure we can respond quickly to surveillance of various systems in order to prevent system downtime (this is especially beneficial around exam time).
- Usability – Ensuring the system meets all the legal and ethical requirements placed on the University. We want to provide a system that is accessible and usable to all. This means we include features such as a branded visual theme, provide various developments around accessibility, and tweak the interface based on feedback from users in the prior year.
- Suitability – Installing plugins and developing bespoke features that are either
- Expected (where similar features have existed on the VLE in the past and removing them would cause an unreasonable burden on staff);
- Desired (new features or services that will enhance existing teaching or perhaps provide new opportunities); or
- Required (perhaps because a feature has become integral to teaching or is a requirement of a course, school, or professional body).
The development timeline
The TEL team first started discussing Moodle 4.0 slightly before the software was initially scheduled to be released, in December 2021.
Unfortunately, the initial, stable, version of Moodle 4.0 was not released until 9 May 2022. As you can imagine this delay was far from ideal. Whilst we could start some development on early code, the platform changed often – and sometimes drastically – so we held off as long as we could. This five-month delay was enough for us to question whether we would have to stay on the last version of Moodle for another year.
Normally a May–August development window would not worry us too much, but Moodle 4.0 had changed enough from the previous version that we wanted to look at our own theme, plugins and all the extras that we had added to Moodle over the years and give it all a review and refresh. We knew all of this would take time, so we were keen to get going as soon as we reasonably could.
We made the choice to develop a new theme, removing any technical debt from previous years. We also decided to review all plugins/extra features that we have added over the years: we wanted to know whether the requirement for them still existed, and in some cases whether a better solution existed. After all, if Moodle itself was getting an overhaul it seemed timely for us to review our own work!
Additions by TEL for the UoP Moodle 4.0 release
After several discussions we identified what we needed to develop over the standard Moodle release in the 4.0 upgrade. These developments included:
1. New branded visual theme
To make the most of the new interface in Moodle 4.0 we needed a new theme. The theme is what you see when you log in to Moodle – and for many people this is what they think of when they think of Moodle.
This was to be a brand new start. Rather than starting with the old theme and undoing things we did not want, useful features in the old theme would be brought over to the new theme. Many of the other features listed below also required development in the theme to support them: the feedback and accessibility tools are good examples of this.
2. Improved tabbed site navigation
We identified that some of our help and support pages could be improved, and they were less visible than they should be, so we decided to overhaul them. The first part of this work was to put our existing support resources in their own tab and then create more directed support, depending on whether the user was a student or a member of staff.
Moodle users will also notice that links to useful resources are now also on a page of their own, rather than being available via a dropdown. We made this change because we felt it was necessary to provide some context around the links – previously, it was not always obvious what resources the links were sending users to. We hope this new layout will encourage users to explore some of the great resources we have available.
In addition to these tabs, we are also working on an additional feature that gives users insight into their use of Moodle. The “My Activity” tab will give facts, figures and insight into a user’s own data, so they can more easily see how they engage with the platform. This feature is currently still being developed but should be ready around the start of term.
3. Direct in-Moodle user support/feedback feature
We identified the need to implement a way for users to view contextualised help, report problems or make suggestions from within Moodle itself.
Such a feature would help us in three ways:
- First, to make it easier for users to access self-help while using Moodle through a bank of context-sensitive frequently asked questions. Many queries in Moodle are similar, so if users can find answers to their questions immediately then it will improve their experience (as well as reducing the burden on us, where we repeatedly provide the same information).
- Second, to gather information directly from users at the time of the problem occurring. This allows users to log issues in a more frictionless way and also allows problems to be identified and resolved in a more timely manner.
- Third, a solution such as this allows us to automatically take the context of the user (name, role, department etc) and the page they were on (url), and submit it with the support ticket and their description of the issue. This will help to reduce the amount of time that our support helpdesk has to spend gathering that contextual information around a problem, reduce the usual to-and-fro with end users, and allow tickets to be investigated and resolved much more efficiently.
After analysing the problem, we developed a system whereby a user can click the help button from anywhere in Moodle, fill in a few simple details, and have a Servicedesk ticket logged and assigned to the correct team within seconds. Furthermore, all of the details of where the user was and what they were doing at the time are logged and included in the ticket. There will no longer be uncertainty about which module is not working or which page resource is missing crucial links.
4. Develop Moodle for personalised learning
The Dashboard is an area that, up until Moodle 4.0, was primarily for the display of enrolled modules and courses. Moodle 4.0 introduces a separate courses page, which frees up a lot of room on the dashboard to provide more information and insight into the content and resources a user has available to them. The focus of the dashboard is now on personalised learning, offering insights that aim to improve a student’s engagement – for example, showing a student a list of resources they haven’t viewed that are currently popular with others in their cohort. We have introduced or developed several other widgets that aim to achieve a similar level of personalisation, and intend to introduce more as the year progresses.
We have developed and integrated a new user bookmarking system. This allows any user to simply “star” any resource or page in Moodle, where it will be added to their personal bookmarks list, accessible from almost anywhere in the system. We hope users will employ this feature both as a way to keep track of useful pages in the long term, and also highlight resources they wish to look at later in the short term.
This year we are providing space to add system notices to the dashboard, and have made it easier for our student survey links to be added (in past years this was a process that involved some manual work; it is now a form on the site admin section in Moodle). Students will be able to see links to the SITS ‘Student View’ system to view their timetable and other personal information.
These features combine to increase the usefulness of the space to users. We have also changed the layout from a single column to an adjustable grid, which should allow more flexibility when users choose what items they want to see on this page.
5. Enhanced accessibility tools
The existing off-the-shelf accessibility tools were now several years old and we identified the need to improve the offering. After looking at the Moodle plugins available for these types of tools it became clear that the best experience for users would be if we developed something in-house, as these types of tools benefit from being closely tied in with the Moodle theme. We have therefore been able to create and add the following features this year:
- Three colour schemes: a light, dark and a dark high contrast theme
- The ability to remove problematic motion from the interface
- The ability to revert to non-brand fonts if required
- The ability to force underline all links in the course content
- The ability to alter the interface for more accessible controls (affix the in course menu to the top of the screen when scrolling).
These features are all created specifically for the University of Portsmouth Moodle and they work because of the custom theme we have produced. The way these have been developed will also allow for easy expansion and improvement of these features based on any feedback we receive during the course of the next year.
6. Moodle Baseline tabbed block
Moodle Baseline has continued to provide a standard for all Moodle modules and, following the introduction of the in-course or secondary menu in Moodle 4.0, we decided that this would be the best place to house the Moodle Baseline options. Users will now find reading lists, assessment information and the rest of the content from the tabbed block in this secondary menu. Moving the information to separate tabs allows the course content to come first, with administrative information still easily available, but not taking up screen space all the time.
7. Module level accessibility statements
In 2018 the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations were introduced. As part of this legislation we were charged with providing a site-wide accessibility statement to communicate which areas of our website are fully accessible, which areas need work and, most importantly, what work we were doing to improve the areas that did not meet the standards set.
Supporting this statement in a virtual learning environment, which contains largely user-generated content, has proven to be extremely difficult for all universities. Although we provide advice and training, we have a challenge in publicly stating that all of our content meets any specific standard and, without checking every site every day, we simply are not in a position to know whether we are meeting specific standards.
This is where the module level statements come in: this year, in addition to the platform-level statement, we have provided an accessibility statement for each module, editable from within the module settings by those who are producing the content itself. This will allow content producers to communicate which areas of their content are accessible, which aren’t, and how users can gain accessible versions of any content that they are unable to access.
It is important to note that in the 2022–23 academic year there is no expectation that these statements will be modified by staff. If staff do want to modify the statement then they can certainly do so, and we would encourage them to make the statements as useful as possible for users.
8. Add the ability for TEL to show user notices to Moodle users
When the pandemic hit in 2020, we found we lacked ways to easily communicate more than a few words to Moodle users via Moodle itself. The implementation of a more robust notification system was essential. We now have the ability to post notices:
- On the front page (login page) of Moodle (x1)
- On the dashboard (x2)
- In an ‘emergency’ news banner notification either only on the dashboard or site wide (an option that is most often used if Turnitin or other assessment platforms experience an outage that affects submissions)
9. Updated and revised rollover mechanism
Many of you will be familiar with the rollover mechanism. This is a bespoke development by the TEL team to allow administrators to rollover modules for the new academic year with the click of a button. This feature had to be updated to take into account the changes from last year to this year, including changes in course formats and the offering of a different set of options for non-standard modules.
The rollover mechanism now includes a new “Quick roll” feature, which allows Online Course Developers to roll-over large numbers of modules in a single batch, with minimal manual input required. Not only is it quicker than before, but by interfacing more closely with SITS the mechanism also ensures data is more accurate, meaning fewer enrolment queries at the start of term.
That’s not all!
I have not mentioned every addition – we have made many little adjustments, from adding header images to the top of course pages to ensuring Moodle communicates with our student systems correctly. This means the Moodle you see and use has been created for you as much as possible.
Inevitably, some people will be unhappy with how Moodle now behaves or how certain things have been implemented: Moodle has to work for everyone, which in turn means it is probably no one’s perfect system. Nevertheless, although we shall concentrate on bug fixes for the next few weeks, development of all of these features will be ongoing and you can expect to see new functionality throughout the year. Please keep feeding back to us on your experience of Moodle. We can – and do – make changes based on your feedback.