Tag: moodle community

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

A Few Words About: Getting Help in Moodle

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Last month I asked my Moodle host to upgrade BeeLearn.com to 2.1.  I’m getting antsy to overhaul my curriculum using the new features of Moodle.  It took him about two hours to complete the entire site upgrade, including the back-ups of the old site. Everything works swell, except for a couple of third-party modules that we knew wouldn’t work beyond Moodle 1.9x (not yet, anyway).

A few days earlier, I had set up my new desktop PC, with the latest of every version of software for every application you can imagine.  As of today, I am still trying to get to the same level of functionality I had before the upgrade.  Since I had the same computer, with the same version of the operating system and application software for five years, I had many customized settings.  I had grown accustomed to the location of tools and options.  Now, I can barely delete an email.

The thing is, when I have a question such as “how do I enable conditional activities in Moodle” I have four choices:

  1. Poke around until I figure it out myself
  2. Read through the online documentation (always easy to locate)
  3. Post a question at a forum and wait for a response from another user
  4. Ask a Moodle expert, such as my host (if I have engaged him for a support contract)

All of these options are reasonable, by my standards.  I typically receive helpful answers in a short period of time.  Option # 4 is the only one that costs anything and it is also the most reliable.

In the six years that I’ve been using Moodle, I’ve heard some folks express concern that since it is open source there’s really no one to respond to questions; no one is responsible to provide explanation of a feature or help troubleshoot a problem.  That seemed like a valid concern, if options 1-3 above were not feasible for certain people.  I get it. Not everyone has my curiosity or tenacity; maybe they are more interested in rock climbing than learning Moodle.  That’s cool, too.

Now I’m wondering how those people are coping.  When I clicked on the Help icon in my brand-spanking new desktop software (it doesn’t matter which application; they’re all the same), I was stunned, horrified, mortified (you get my point) to be taken to an online community forum and presented with literally hundreds of posts that were somewhat related to my keyword.

What happened to the help index?  Where is the comprehensive list of how to do whatever?  I’m fine with that process when the software is open source and I didn’t pay to download it.  But when the application costs $1000 and I have to accept legal terms to use it, I do not expect to receive support from some other user who happened to figure something out!

What this tells me is that open source software (such as Moodle) just took one more giant leap toward “the business model of the future”.  That one advantage of proprietary software – paying more for the product to ensure technical support – just went down the drain.

If you had any reservations about Moodle – or any other open source application – because of the “lack of support” – you can rest assured that you will get at least – and probably better – support from the enthusiastic Moodle community than you will from the reluctant and desperate users of those “other products”. Most Moodle Partners offer on-going support contracts (essentially, personal help forums) that are less money than the purchase price of my desktop suite that has no such support.

Note:  When you’re building your business case and determining your budget, be sure to include the costs of training and support for Moodle if you plan to do most of the build yourself. If you don’t have the time or desire to learn Moodle to that extent, include the costs of a course developer in your budget.  Actually, these costs are added on to any project, regardless of whether you use Moodle, other open source, or proprietary software.  None of them come out of the box with your content in them!

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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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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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Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

If Moodle is Free, Why Am I Paying You?

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One common question I get is “If Moodle is free, why is it going to cost me so much money?” 

Well, Moodle is free, but learning how to use it can take a long time.  Knowing how to create good training can take a lot longer.  You can invest the time to learn all the various aspects of training design and online technology, or you can hire someone who already knows. 

Moodle is “open source software”, which follows a different business model than “proprietary software”.  Both models require that someone - somewhere in the chain - has the skill to put together all of the elements.  This adds cost (because very few of us work for free), somewhere in the value chain, regardless of the model.  The open source software model isn’t about offering free software; it’s about free access to the software code

What you’re paying for is the expertise (mostly) and time associated with installation, maintenance, hosting, content development, and usage of Moodle.  

While someone who is proficient in computer applications might get the knack of the technical side of Moodle (or any other software application) in a few weeks, there’s no guarantee that he can design training that won’t bore the socks off people.  

On the other hand, someone who is a vibrant speaker or nurturing teacher might struggle mightily to figure out how to upload files or create online training courses.  Like anything else, merging these skills will take time, people…and money

The Moodle Community, just like those of other open source applications (such as WordPress), not only shares information (and code) freely, it is a thriving commercial entity where knowing Moodle is a useful job skill.  Individuals are hired by businesses (large and small), by academic institutions, and even governments, to design Moodle training, maintain Moodle installations, etc.  Small businesses all over the world take part in various ways, from obtaining Partner certification, to hosting, to theme design, to code customization, to course development activities.  The business model is built on trust and cooperation, not industrial espionage and law suits. 

What you pay for when you choose to become a member of the Moodle Community (a very wise choice!) includes:

  • Expert and worry-free Installation, Hosting, Maintenance of your Moodle site.
  • A deeply involved community where help is usually a forum-post away, if you want to “do it yourself”… if you have the time, skill, and desire to learn how.
  • Content development - the design and creation of your Moodle courses - if you don’t want to do it yourself. 
  • Training of your personnel as Moodle Teachers and Administrators (if you want) and/or someone to do this for you.
  • Third party plug-ins, custom code development, and modifications if what you want/need isn’t freely available.  Moodle Partners, Moodle Course Developers, and members of the Community usually know what’s out there already. 

Stay tuned for future posts on Open Source vs. Proprietary: What does it mean? and spotlights on members of the Moodle Community Working Together.

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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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