Brief Thoughts on UCISA’s 2014 TEL Survey

By B.C. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been reading this year’s results [pdf] of UCISA’s annual TEL survey and wanted to jot down a few of the things that jumped out.

The key change though since 2012 is in the level of senior management engagement with TEL development. The 2014 case studies reveal that senior managers are now driving TEL development and are setting expectations for the adoption of tools by teaching staff.

I’ve frequently found that one of the barriers to the development of TEL is the lack of interest in it from senior management – whether this is reflected in ignoring it or only paying lip-service to it. With so many balls in the air it isn’t a surprise when staff don’t engage with TEL for their myriad reasons – so it is essential that senior management recognise its importance and correctly resource and drive TEL development.

One notable change in 2014 is the more frequent mention by institutions of cloud based hosted services […] Northampton and Glasgow Caledonian have taken the decision to opt for outsourced provision of their VLE platform, reducing the level of central technology support that is needed to run their centrally supported systems.

I’m a strong proponent of SAAS and PAAS, but I’m not clear here whether this refers to SAAS/PAAS outsourcing alone, or also to a hosted cloud solution. I’d be interested in seeing what large-scale cloud-hosted Moodle solutions are available – though it seems Northampton and Glasgow Caledonian both use Blackboard so their outsourced solutions are less interesting to me.

The number of staff FTE supporting TEL services ranges from two support analysts at City College Norwich to 18
FTE at City University London and covers a variety of roles, such as learning technologists, educational developers,
multimedia support staff and academics.

In a team of two (rapidly expanding to four and a fifth due for mid-way through next year) I’m very interested in the size and make-up of other TEL teams. Over my career these have varied and I recognise there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, rather that different organisations have different needs. I’ll confess to a bit of bias that the teams I’ve been in haven’t been staffed and supported as strongly as I would have hoped – hopefully the increasing buy-in by senior management will fix that!

The 2014 TEL Survey results confirm that there has been little change in the delivery of fully online courses, which remain a niche activity across the sector.

As I’m involved in a lot of distance learning it is pleasing (from a competition perspective) that we don’t have more of it. It would be interesting to see how UCISA’s survey results change when factoring in the various private educational providers that do have more of an online presence.

Featured image: By B.C. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

greasemonkeying towards a better Moodle

This isn’t going to turn into another rant about how frustrating Moodle 2 is … honest! Rather let’s instead take the position that any web-page that hasn’t been custom designed for a specific individual will always, no matter how good it is, leave something to be desired.

This, for me, is where greasemonkey comes in.

This is a good moment for a slight aside. Greasemonkey is fantastically revolutionary. It allows you the user to define some stuff (javascript) that should run (client side) on a webpage after it loads. I am strongly of the opinion that every website in the world should be devoid of style, and formatting, and simply consist of well marked up code requiring all users to use their own user scripts to turn into something usable. A minimum bar to using the web, as it were. I’m not sure this will catch on…

So, there are things Moodle does that I wish it did slightly differently. So this is where greasemonkey comes in. I write some scripts to make it behave differently for me.

Backup

When creating a backup of a Moodle course there are a series of pages with checkboxes with different options. I always use the same options – which aren’t the defaults. So a little bit of javascript later and each page will tick or untick according to my preference every time I use the backup feature. With ‘next’ buttons appearing at the bottom of the page I even made the page scroll to the bottom for me.

Reset

As with backups, I want reset to use my defaults, so a script does this for me too.

Advanced search

When searching for users in Moodle the default filter is the user full name, with other fields hidden. When showing the other fields there are so many it obscures the ones I want (email and username).

Moodle 2 user searchA tiny bit of scripting and application of some CSS rules, and now the default shown filters include email and username.

Improving assignments

When students submit assignments the assignment submission box lists their names, with their files etc. It does not list some of their other more useful profile fields. For handy user identification we populate the field ‘department’ via ldap with student ID numbers. Unfortunately this field is near invisible in the VLE and not much use.

Moodle 2 submissions no-scriptA bit of (rather complicated) javascript and jquery later, we now look at the name column and get the URL it links to. This URL includes the student’s Moodle database number. We then do an ajax background request to the edit profile for the given user which exposes the department field. We return back that id, and strip it down to just the 9 digit number. We then insert a new cell in the table following the name containing the students ID number.

Moodle 2 submissions with scriptThis isn’t fast, as each new cell requires an ajax call pulling back a whole page of Moodle (slow), and then stripping it down to the bit we want. But this is a darn sight faster than copy/pasting what’s on the screen, dumping into a spreadsheet, and then manually looking up student numbers and hoping you don’t have two students in the same course with the same name.

Non-greasemonkey javascript

In addition to the above I also use javascript in bookmarks to do certain things. When in a Moodle course if I want to make a backup I can hunt down where the backup link is. Or I can just click my ‘Moodle Backup’ bookmark.

javascript:(function(){window.location=window.location.toString().replace(/course\/view/,'backup/backup')})();

This is rather trivial, it just changes the URL replacing ‘course/view’ with ‘backup/backup’. So for the URL https://subdomain.domain.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=192 it takes me to https://subdomain.domain.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=192 which is of course the exact right place for taking a backup.

I use a similar bookmarklet script for Moodle course resets.

javascript:(function(){window.location=window.location.toString().replace(/course\/view/,'course/reset')})();

Moodle 2 Frustrations

With over ten Moodle 1.9.* installations that all need upgrading, the next few months are going to be exciting.

I have a clean Moodle 2 install, and a test 1.9 -> 2.1 install, and have been frustrated by some of the changes. I should note that I am also pleased at other changes, but those things I like will get less air-time than those I don’t, ’tis the way of things.

Some of the things I don’t like are:

Category Enrolments

I have not fully understood how these differ from Moodle 1.9 yet, though I am assured they do. Firstly, site-wide and category enrolments do not work the same – I’m not quite clear yet exactly how. There is a new enrolment plugin type called ‘Category enrolments’ that seems to be involved that supposedly restores old behaviour if enabled. This interacts with the new capability ‘category:synchronised’. I believe this specifically synchronises roles at a category down into a course level. I believe it does this as a proper enrolment rather than as an ‘other user’.

What I don’t like about this is that it has changed, I don’t understand it fully, and it becomes difficult for me to ensure desired pre-existing behaviour is maintained.

Hidden Assignments

Another thing that annoys me, is the removal of ‘hidden’ role assignments, replacing them instead with the concept of ‘other users’ in a course that will have access but not be listed as a participant.

On face value this seems to make sense, but one of the way we used to use ‘hidden’ enrolments was when enrolling site-wide users. We would set someone up with Teacher permissions site-wide, and to prevent them showing up as being a Teacher on every course we’d set the role as hidden.

If someone needs site-wide permission levels there is no way to do this as an ‘other user’. Where this Teacher role is granted site-wide because there is no ‘hidden’ option, that person is then listed on every course as a Teacher.

A solution is to tweak ‘course contacts’ so that Teachers aren’t listed as Teachers of a course, or better to duplicate the Teacher role and make sure they aren’t a ‘course contact’. Where multiple roles are used in both visible and hidden ways, this means duplicating those roles and them essentially being identical in ALL WAYS except for which are listed as ‘course contacts’. These roles may then be synchronised back down into courses if ‘Category enrolments’ and the ‘category:synchronised’ capability are enabled. I could easily see this then requiring even more duplicate roles.

Viewing Enrolled Users

In a course when I view enrolled users (course administration->users->enrolled users), I can choose to filter by enrolment method, but not by role. Ditto for ‘other users’. It isn’t easy to get a quick look at who is enrolled as a Teacher. For this functionality I specifically have to use the Participants link in the People block – which doesn’t show up ‘other users’ anyway. I can click on ‘enrol users’ to get the traditional side-by-side view of those enrolled and not enrolled. But (1) there is not a separate view per role, (2) if there are ‘too many users to show’ you’re out of luck.

Display a Directory vs Folder Resource

This is one of my largest frustrations.

In Moodle 1.9 we had a the following workflow.

  • Publications would update up to hundreds of course files (in a neat folder hierarchy) on a network drive,
  • A script would rsync these files with a folder on the Moodle 1.9 server,
  • Within an ‘all course materials’ course we would ‘display a directory’ that allowed students to navigate the neat folder hierarchy and access the hundreds of course files.
  • Because these files are synched when updated, we never need to go into Moodle and delete old files and replace with new ones.

Moodle 2 have changed the way files are handled. Repositories are a new and ‘good’ way to handle files in Moodle 2. As a consequence to the ‘new way of doing things’ the ‘display a directory’ resource. This has been replaced by a ‘folder’ resource.

When creating a ‘folder’ resource there is no way to point it to a folder within a repository. If all your hundreds of files from the server sit in a file-system repository, you can one-by-one add the files to your course ‘folder’, but not in bulk. Once a file is placed in your folder from the repository it is replicated into Moodle’s database. Presumably if the original file in the repository updates, nothing happens to Moodle’s database copy, and so every time a file is updated, you need to go into the ‘folder’ to remove the old one, and add the updated one.

What is the point of a repository if we can not update documents in there, and know that Moodle is picking up the update?

What is the point of a ‘folder’ if we can’t bulk select files from the repository? And no, adding zipfiles and unzipping them into the folder is NOT a suitable alternative.

Upgrades

Yesterday saw the first upgrade of the first of our live installs, and there were mixed results.

Capability – folder:view

More ‘folder’ frustration as it turned out that in my fresh M2 install, my test M2 upgrade, and the live M2 upgrade that the capability ‘folder:view’ is not set to ‘allow’ for students. What does this mean? It means that the ‘folder’ resource, presumably intended for students, is not actually visible to students!

I don’t know if this is a default Moodle 2 setting, or just something wrong at our end – but it certainly got me kicking, screaming, and pulling my hair out about folders all over again!

Capability – course:view

Going back to my frustration with site-wide and category enrolments, imagine my frustration when everyone with our ‘College Admin’ role (site wide) who had previously been able to see all courses, was suddenly unable to see any courses! It turned out that this was because their role did not have the ‘course:view’ capability. In our other 1.9 installs this role does have this capability, so either something took it off in the upgrade or this one install didn’t have it set (I don’t believe this!).

Summary

While I am pleased at some of the new features (cohorts!) of Moodle 2 I am really disappointed in the loss of some Moodle 1.9 features.

Ten for trust

Following on from my last blog post, I am responding to connect.me’s call to blog about those I trust.

One aspect I think that could do with some improvement in the way connect.me handles vouches, is the lack of evidence associated with each vouch. I hope I am trusted that when I vouch for someone in ‘photography’ it truly means I respect and value their photographic skills, but beyond that how do you judge that relationship? I would like the ability for each vouch to have an optional description field which is not shown by default, but that can be displayed as and when needed. This might serve a little like ebay feedback (which is another form of reputational currency).

Until there is such an option, I find this idea of blogging about who and why I have trust vouched an ideal way to explain my choices.

Social

Richard Bellingham – My first and greatest friend from University (undergraduate years). I have known Richard for many years and he is a thorough geek. I credit long nights of conversation with me for his rationalist and atheist views – though it may be fairer to note that questioning everything and re-evaluating one’s views is a natural consequence for an intelligent person leaving home and going to University. I have read some of what he was written, though as a writer some of his favoured genres (that’s something you’ll have to ask him about) don’t always appeal to me. For many years I have role-played under him as a games master, and have enjoyed myself thoroughly. He has his own style of running games, perhaps expecting too much player-led activity for the likes of some, but is far less rail-roading than others. We both studied Biosciences together, and then we both went different ways to do Masters degrees in Computing. With programming being a fond love for both of us I would much have preferred our University days to have been swapped – though I have fond memories of his early forays as a multi-threaded java programmer mixing up .run() and .start() methods.

Rhodri Broadbent (not yet signed up) – My greatest friend from my University (postgraduate years). I remember many afternoons and evenings spent at his house playing games on his Nintendo gamecube. More fondly still I remember the summer where I had my mum’s house to myself, and Rhod stayed over so we could both work intensively on our dissertation programming projects. Days and days spent programming in separate rooms, only to go through to pester the other while musing aloud on whatever the current bug was. Evenings playing Counterstrike and watching Invader Zim may have been the only things to keep us sane. Rhod’s project was a 3D game of a bird flying down an obstacle course shooting at things. Since then he has moved to Japan, working as a real games developer, and now is back in the UK with his own games company DakkoDakko.

Professional

Steve Bailey – I have worked (Uni of Kent) with Steve for several years and regard him as my friend. However I’m including him here under professional rather than social as my vouches for him are more professionally oriented. Steve and I worked closely together in learning technology. The majority of our work revolved around the open source VLE/LMS Moodle – but Steve’s interests and skills go beyond this and include lecture recording, education generally, and explain why he is an excellent educational technologist.

Mick Norman – Mick is another one of my former Unikent learning technology colleagues. I worked with him for almost as long as I have worked with Steve. I regard Mick as an expert in the use of Moodle and a wide range of other educational technologies. Mick is an avid musician and participates in orchestras and bands – though where he finds the time, I do not know! He is also a keen photographer and I am hoping to pick up some tips from him soon, perhaps over beer.

Daniel Clark – Dan is the final former Unikent colleague to make it to this list. At the time of this post the three of them are still colleagues at Unikent and I miss being their colleague nearly daily. Dan has a background in music technology, works in educational technology, as well as having broader qualifications in education. Dan is another avid photographer and musician – which is quite good as I know that in a hostage situation if I ever have to choose between Dan and Mick I can guarantee I’ll be able to keep a musical photographic former-colleague/friend. It is good to have spares!

Political

Loz Kaye (not yet signed up) – As the current Leader of the Pirate Party UK Loz is an inspiration to me with how he can find the time to be in so many different places doing so many different things. He is far from a career politician, he is one of those rare people that sees something he disagrees with and instead of sitting back grumbling about it, he takes a stand. Following him on twitter is sometimes a whirlwind-like experience as he discussed pirate politics, music composition, and various things in foreign languages I can barely comprehend. I know the PPUK is better for his involvement, and I am proud to vouch my trust in him.

Andy Halsall – Andy is another person that I am fortunate to have met through our mutual involvement in pirate politics. He is a dedicated activist who is currently the Campaigns Manager of the Pirate Party UK. I am impressed with how much he can get done, and how well he sometimes manages to delegate. I live in fear of his phone calls and emails asking me to do things … well perhaps not fear, but he’s just so difficult to say no to!

Harley Faggetter – Harley is the third member (in a row!) of the PPUK National Executive Committee to make it to this list. Out of all ten listed I’ve known Harley the least amount of time, yet it has been enough to know he is dedicated to pirate politics. I have spent many an evening in Parliament attending a debate sitting alongside Harley, whispering comments and opinions back and forth or comparing tweets.

Jack Allnutt (not yet signed up) – Jack and I have both held similar roles within PPUK. We were both elected into positions of Regional Administrative Officer and onto the Board of Governors at the same times as each other. I have got to know Jack well while working with him and know he is enthusiastic about pirate politics and making a difference.

Will Tovey (not yet signed up) – Will is one of my colleagues on the PPUK Board of Governors. He impresses me regularly not just with his interest in pirate politics but also with how ready he is to dig into boring, verbose, dense legal matters to summarise and make sense. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising as he is a law student, yet it is incredibly helpful. I don’t know exactly how high his reading stack is, but I get the impression that things get added to it faster than they are taken away. That Will keeps on going is a testament to his willpower.

 

Didn’t get it

I didn’t get the job mentioned in my last post.

I don’t know why, but I wasn’t expecting to get it, I don’t think the interview went too well.

Job interview

I have a job interview this week, on Thursday to be more specific, and I am spending most of today working on a five minute presentation I have to give.

I have selected which topic, of those offered as choices, to base my presentation on, and I mostly know my opinion on the topic. I am, however, finding it difficult to translate my random thoughts into a coherent presentation. That isn’t to say that it’s a difficult topic, just that I am very distracted, a lot of my attention seems to keep being dragged to my pending house move in four days time.

More information

For the sake of fairness, I suppose I should note that new information has come to light.

Campus Watch now claim that they cut the chain of a totally different bicycle at approximately the same time as my colleagues bicycle was stolen. Also that they have been in touch with the supposed owner of the bicycle they liberated, asked for a photo of the bicycle they liberated for him, which matches the bicycle they remember liberating, and does not match my colleagues bicycle.

Oh, and all the CCTV cameras in the area – captured nothing!

How to steal a bicycle

  1. Find a nice looking bicycle on campus
  2. Visit Campus Watch (Security) and tell them you’ve forgotten the combination to the combination lock
  3. Show your student card that proves you are a foreign student in your final year of study who is about to leave the country
  4. Show the security guard where the bicycle is, and have them cut off the non-combination key-locked chain – don’t worry, they won’t notice the inconsistency of your story and the facts
  5. Cycle away

My poor colleague will now spend most of the rest of the day cursing loudly, talking to the police, making an official complaint against stupid members of security, and dealing with the University insurance.

Quiet campus

It’s the start of the end of term break on campus now. That means all the students vanish for about a month, and most of the academics with them. I’m expecting things to be very quiet on the work front, except for the ongoing projects that don’t require too much academic input – a good chance to catch up on documenting for the Moodle project.

Despite the snow yesterday, it’s a sunny day today, but I doubt it will be warm enough to sit on the lawns at lunch, might have to wait a few more days before that becomes possible.