Working Together Category

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Creating Customized Moodle Functionality

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I have a client who put this on his Moodle wish list last fall: some way for the participants to keep track of where they are in the course.  You see, this client (a big company) has a few hundred students in a completely self-paced course.  These are working adults, involved in a training program designed to span weeks or months.  There are no graded assignments, but there are dozens of tasks to be completed.  There are a number of pages to read and videos to watch.  It’s easy to lose one’s place. 

I found a couple of modules in the list of third-party contributed code that might fit the bill.   The client’s Moodle site is hosted and supported by ClassroomRevolution, so I asked Thom Caswell for a “background check” on these modules.  One, called Checklist, came up “clean”.  We decided to give it a try.  

The client was very happy with our initial testing of Checklist, but it still wasn’t quite what he wanted.  I said I’d see if the developer was willing to do some customizations. It couldn’t hurt to ask! 

I sent Davo Smith (the contributor of Checklist) a message through Moodle; I heard back from him within a few hours.  A few emails back and forth were all it took to explain what additional functionality we wanted and for him to begin working on it.  He had the first iteration to me in about a week.  With each iteration, ClassroomRevolution installed the module (which required some code knowledge), the client and I tested it, and Davo made the necessary tweaks. 

Despite the time of year (holiday season), it took only six weeks to have a fully functional Checklist installed on the live Moodle site.  It automatically brings in all resources and activities in the course, automatically checks off those resources and activities that the student has viewed, displays a list and a progress bar to both student and teacher, and gives the student control over several features.  Very cool.

To make a great story have an even better ending, this customization was not exclusive to the client.  It is available to the Moodle community, in versions compatible to Moodle 1.9x and 2.0.

I encourage all small businesses (and big ones, too) using Moodle to take this approach to customization.  It is a much faster and cost-effective way to add functionality than to hire a programmer to start from scratch to make something that is one-of-a-kind and proprietary.  (Unless selling software is your business, there’s no competitive advantage in having secret Moodle code all for yourself).  Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Search through the third party modules. If you can’t find exactly what you want, find something close. If you have engaged a Moodle Partner and/or a Moodle expert course designer, you can ask for help in the search.  Very often, they’ll already know about something that does whatever and you won’t have to search at all. 
  2. Read the reviews and comments made by other Moodlers.  I avoid the ones where users have posted comments such as “I installed this and now my pages are blank”. Yikes!  If you’re going this alone, make sure you are able to install the module yourself.  Some require code tweaking.
  3. Even if you are a brave soul and can install a module on your own, if you took my advice on hosting, ask for help.  Most Partners offer services that include installation of third party modules and other integrations.  They make sure you have compatible versions and that the installation is done properly (it works and doesn’t break your site!)
  4. Work with the module developer to modify it to your needs if necessary.  Don’t let time zone differences scare you but don’t expect overnight results, either. Many (most?) of these people have “day jobs” so consider that when setting expectations for turn-around time.   
  5. Be collaborative.  Allow the developer to post the modified version back to the third party contributed code.   

For a relatively small amount of money, you’ll have all the functionality you ever dreamed of and you can give back to the Moodle community by contributing that modification.  Everyone benefits!

If you’d like to contact Davo, his email address is moodle@davosmith.co.uk.  To learn more about Moodle hosting and support, visit ClassroomRevolution.com.

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Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Moodle Hosting: Why every business using Moodle needs a Moodle Partner

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This summer I have been on my soapbox, helping my clients (both current and prospective) convince their clients of the soundness of hosting their Moodle sites with a certified Partner/Moodle host.  I am not a Moodle Partner, nor do I want to become one, so I have nothing invested in my recommendation except doing a good deed.  And, of course, I don’t want to create content on sites that are not hosted by Moodle Partners

Why? 

The reasons your business should host its Moodle site with a certified Moodle Partner: 

  • They know Moodle and everything in the Moodle universe.
  • Partners not only know how to run cron jobs and back-up the database, but they do it.  I am told that these tasks, with any web application, can be tricky, time-consuming, and dangerous.  Luckily, I’ll never have to worry about them.
  • Partners provide the proper bandwidth and storage (although these do vary amongst the Partners) to run Moodle.  A $7.95/month hosting plan at HappyMamaHost.com isn’t going to be sufficient.
  • Partners know Moodle; what it can do, what it can’t do, and what it might do in the future.
  • Partners know what third-party modules are out there, what problems they solve, and how to install them so they’ll work on your site.  You won’t have to spend dozens of hours searching for a solution that might not exist or might be well-known in the community. 
  • Using Moodle for business usually requires a little extra support, such as single sign-on capability, e-commerce functionality, and perhaps a greater level of security for privacy reasons.  No one will be able to integrate these applications better or faster (which is usually cheaper) than a Partner.
  • HappyMamaHost.com doesn’t help you with any of the above, at least not for free. 

A few examples of why this Moodle knowledge, expertise, and technical support matters: 

  • Last winter, Moodle sites around the globe were upgraded for security reasons.  All admins were required to create new passwords, with some serious specifications.  If your site is hosted by a Partner, chances are this upgrade was done for you.  If your site is hosted at HappyMamaHost.com, chances are you weren’t even aware of the security risk.  It’s guaranteed that they didn’t do the upgrade for you. 
  • If you have a WordPress site, you’ll notice that annoying little button that says “Version 3.01 is available; please upgrade now”.  You probably also know that upgrading without first backing things up can be very risky.  Not all of your plug-ins will work.  Some content might be lost.  The same is true for Moodle, but HappyMamaHost.com will surely have that same little button this winter on Moodle installations “Moodle 2.0 is available; please upgrade now”.  That will be disastrous if you don’t know how to do a major upgrade!   
  • I spoke of impossibly slow load times due to bandwidth issues in Getting Started with Moodle.  Storage requirements (for your actual course content) can become quite large, too, if you have more than a course or two.  By the time you upgrade to greater bandwidth and more GB of storage with HappyMamaHost.com, you might exceed the cost of hosting with a Partner. 
  • I have one client who must have web meeting functionality in his Moodle courses.  I have many others who are considering it.  I poked around and compared prices, options, and Moodle integration ability.  I was still not sure, so I asked my Partners.  They gave me the real run-down on which applications required coding and which installed as easy as 1-2-3.  We settled on DimDim.  All I had to do was ask “hey, can you install some sort of web meeting application on the site?” 

If you’re still not convinced that it is penny wise, pound foolish to not host with a Partner, what else can I do to change your mind?  I am willing to jump up and down…

One caveat: I would like to say that I worked with one web host (in Eastern Europe) who didn’t know Moodle at all, wasn’t a Partner, but still maintained a well-run Moodle site.  I’m sure there are others like him around the world, and I don’t want to be disparaging of their service or efforts.  I’m also sure that they are not the mass-sellers of discounted hosting plans, which is really what I want you to steer clear of.

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Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Working Together: Course Merchant

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From the July 2010 issue of Penny For Your Thoughts newsletter…

There is no limit to the good things I can say to a prospective client about Moodle.  But my endless ranting of Moodle’s virtues comes to a screeching halt when I hear the question “Does Moodle have a shopping cart?”  Some times, that question is disguised innocently in the discussion of the prospect’s eLearning needs.  “I’d like to offer discounts” or “What about site membership?”. 

Gulp.  No, I’m sorry, Moodle can’t really do that.

For my clients – all of whom are businesses – this can be a show stopper.  But no longer!

I found out about Course Merchant through the forums at Moodle for Business Uses.  When a client recently had some questions about discounts, memberships – all those dreaded topics – I dug a little deeper.  What I found:

  • A product that provides solutions to every eCommerce problem I’ve faced
  • A great demo of the shopping cart, with various options
  • It was easy and it worked!

…and best of all…

  • A detailed, honest response to my email inquiry outlining specific issues we had.  I wrote that email at midnight and the response was in my inbox the next morning. 

Course Merchant not only offers a much needed solution to those of us who use Moodle for Business, they do so at an affordable price!  The set-up and first year’s costs run around $1000; $350 each year after that. 

 As if this isn’t exciting enough, they have just released the beta version of a new product for Affiliate Marketing.

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Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Free Market Competition: The Good, the Bad, the Dilemma

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Most people who follow Moodle news know that Blackboard has just acquired two very popular online collaboration providers, Elluminate and Wimba.  Some fear that this is an attempt to reduce the options for those of us seeking such features for our Moodle sites.  I think that’s entirely possible; I also think it’s terribly flattering.  To be perceived as a market threat by one of the Big Boys means “you’ve made it”!

I believe in free market enterprise (for the most part).  Sadly, like everything else that is good, a free market allows some not-so-nice people to get away with nasty things.  Such is the price of freedom.  I once subcontracted with a consulting company that bought up all of their competitors.  Not only did they eliminate the people who had built those companies (and their reputations), they eliminated the brands themselves.  It’s OK to acquire another company for its talent and processes.  It’s not OK to erase all evidence of that company’s past and claim their successes as your own.  But what are you going to do?  It’s not illegal to be a snake.  Well, it sometimes becomes illegal after the first snake has bitten everyone…

The only thing you can do is to stick to your own values, be guided by your own principles, and band together with others who feel the same way.  In this case, I don’t think “fight fire with fire” is the right thing to do.  I think “fight fire with water” – or “take the high road” or some other lesson your grandmother taught you – might be more appropriate.  As this post by a Moodle Partner so eloquently describes it, we are part of an ecosystem; the Moodle community is a strong force in that ecosystem.  I believe it is to our collective advantage to avoid the Nash Equilibrium when choosing our partners and our objectives.  We can each try to take the whole prize (like the consulting firm I worked for), we can fall victim to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, or we can improve our lot as a whole, ensuring long and fulfilling lives for Moodle and our own pursuits.

It is in this spirit that I’ve decided to write a series of posts that will focus attention on those who develop and provide Moodle-specific plug-ins and/or work with Moodle for small business users to solve our unique needs. Not all of them are free and some are even “competitors”, but they can all be trusted in a dark alley. 

My first post in this series, Working Together, will be about Course Merchant.  Last week I sent them an email at midnight (my time).  When I sat down at my computer the next morning, I had a very detailed (and very helpful) response to some tricky questions.  I’ll tell you more about those questions – and their service in general – within the week.

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