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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 2 Mar 2012, 15:03

This is a brief blog post to let ForumNG users know that I've now, finally, set up a stable branch.

MOODLE_21_STABLE branch at GitHub

This branch will shortly (from Tuesday) match the version on our live servers and should continue to do so until we stop using Moodle 2.1 (which is currently scheduled for April 6th). After that it becomes unsupported and we'll hopefully have a MOODLE_22_STABLE branch.

You can still use the 'master' version of the code, if you want our current untested development version. As of just now, there is a change to the master version which fixes a critical Moodle 2.2 bug (email sending was broken), but unfortunately also means that the master version won't work on Moodle 2.1 any more.

So to summarise:

  • We now provide a MOODLE_21_STABLE branch which is the same as our live servers so should be stable and reliable and will receive critical security fixes. It does not work on MySQL.
  • As of today, the master branch requires Moodle 2.2 or above. It does work on MySQL - thanks to Brian King for providing the answer to the problem from my last post. smile

If you really really want a version that works on both 2.1 and MySQL, I guess you can grab the relevant commit from GitHub (i.e. the one just before the commit where I say it requires 2.2).

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By special request, here's a super-boring post on the ForumNG 'features' plugin infrastructure! (Not a developer? Look away now.)

It's very simple: you stick standard Moodle subplugins in the 'feature' folder. Each one must have a class which extends either mod_forumng_discussion_feature or mod_forumng_discussion_list_feature (which themselves extend mod_forumng_feature).

The difference is that 'discussion features' will be placed at the bottom of the discussion page, and 'discussion list features' just below the list of discussions on the main forum view.php. Discussion features are passed a $discussion parameter for a bunch of things, and discussion list features are passed a $forum parameter.

The classes for this basically have three methods that probably need implementing: get_order (returns an integer indicating the order relative to other features), should_display (default returns true if you have moderator permission) and display, which returns some HTML.

This doesn't really add up to much; it just means you can put a button (or pair of buttons, or dropdown, or whatever) in the area below the list of discussions or at bottom of a discussion.

Then you can put the code for handling actions in PHP scripts inside your feature.

That's about it except there are some helper functions/classes to make certain things easier (making the button form; plus for example if you want to use the 'post selector' feature which integrates with a lot of built-in JavaScript as well as non-JS alternative code, so that you can let users do some action [export or forward by email] on whatever posts they want).

There's a catch here, which is - well, let's take the 'delete discussion' feature as an example. So there's a 'delete' discussion feature and it provides the button you use to delete (or undelete) a discussion, and the script that runs when you click on it with the 'are you sure' prompt, and it checks permissions and stuff - but it doesn't really do the actual work for deleting a discussion because that clearly ought to be, and is, part of the forum back-end in the mod_forumng_discussion class. (Note: If you want to look at the code for a forum feature, the delete one might be a pretty good place to start.)

That's also true for a lot of the built-in features: the 'feature' architecture actually only includes the UI, and the real back-end work is done inside the core class, because it sort of has to be that way.

But it does still allow some degree of separation.

One of the reasons I wanted it is that ForumNG at the OU includes this totally useless 'show who read this discussion' function. Supposedly this shows you who has read a discussion and when, but in fact it's impossible to tell. So the list, though sort of correct, is basically a lie. I had to do it because they made me. smile But I didn't want to include that in the public version; no reason to spread our bad practice around the world. The 'features' system meant I could just exclude that one folder from the distribution without changing anything else.

Note: An obvious extension would be to add mod_forumng_post_feature class but we did not find a need for this yet - possibly because the 'post selector' approach (where you click a button at discussion level, but then can select one or more posts with checkboxes) is more flexible.


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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 4 Feb 2011, 18:40

A few things to update on with regard to the Moodle 2-related work I'm doing at the OU.

These are quite geeky but might be partially comprehensible by non-programmers this time? Maybe? I'm not sure. Oh well, not forcing anyone to read it.

1. No OU public repository. It's been discussed here and we have agreed that our Moodle 2-based source code repository won't be public after all, which is a bit disappointing. There were concerns about what happens if a developer commits code that contains a system password or something like that (this should be found in code review, but by that point, it's already in the repository).

However I still want to ensure that we release more things more reliably than last time (where we used manual processes). This should be easier because we are trying to keep core modifications as near to zero as possible, and to make our key customisations into standard, independent plugins wherever we can - so they're more practical for other people to use. The current plan is to put out all this stuff... in some as-yet-undetermined but automated way... from about September which is roughly when real live students start using the system, so it's the first time that really fully-tested code would be available.

So anyway, all our code that is suitable for use elsewhere will be public; that also means much more code will be public than under our Moodle 1.9 system; but you probably won't be able to point and laugh at all the core-Moodle customisations we might still be forced to make. Or to steal our passwords.

Before September I will probably do manual releases of a few key modules if anyone else is relying on them.

2. First outsourced project is complete

We've finished the testing process on a small admin report that was developed by Netspot. It works! Hopefully the whole outsourcing thing will actually be a success this time around.

I think the detailed test scripts I've been doing are pretty important to ensuring we actually get what we need (along with sensible selection of companies to do the work). Hopefully, anyhow, because it took ages to make them.

3. ForumNG nearly working in Moodle 2

ForumNG (our forum system) is more or less working in Moodle 2.

This has been a bit of an effort: according to git, ForumNG is about 28,700 lines of code. During the process I have added about 800 lines of code, deleted about 2800 lines of code, and modified about 25,700 lines of code. (If I modified the same line four times in separate commits, it counts for 4 in these stats, so I haven't really touched every line... yet.) Obviously some of these were search-and-replace modifications but I've done an awful lot of manual changes too.

It isn't finished yet. The big thing that doesn't work is the JavaScript, which needs converting to YUI3 (easy but tedious) and to support the new HTML editor and file manager (difficult and may possibly turn out to be a significant rewrite of certain areas). Apart from that I have decided that in order to check things I definitely need to write a comprehensive manual test script that covers all features. This is going to take quite a long time.

4. I got a fairly major change into Moodle 2...

As mentioned last blog post, I did a fairly big chunk of work for core Moodle 2 that will allow plugins (such as, for instance, ForumNG) to do more interesting things on the main course page (such as, for instance, add an 'Unread' indicator - not previously possible without hacks to core). It also improves a bunch of related areas of code, documentation, etc.

Anyhow, this work is now actually included in standard core Moodle 2. Yay - and many thanks to Petr (who came up with much of the overall concept, reviewed the design, reviewed the code, and fixed bugs) and Eloy and others at Moodle HQ.

5 ...but it kind of broke this week's release.

Sorry if you got this week's Moodle 2 release and hit one of the bits that were broken as a result of the change smile And, um, if you didn't get this week's release yet, here's a tip - wait for next week. We did actually test the change - I mean I tested it lots while I was developing it, then Moodle HQ tested it - but there have been just a couple of odd side effects in apparently unrelated areas.

Of course nobody runs random Moodle weekly releases on their live server straight away without any testing of their own, so this is okay, right? .... Right .....? smile

6. I proposed a presentation for the UK Moodle Moot.

We're going to the UK moot again, and I've proposed a short presentation about working together with Moodle HQ. Not counting chickens though: I think last time I proposed a presentation too, and it was going to be totally awesome*, but they rejected it.

* Safe to make that claim about a presentation that never existed, I think. smile


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ForumNG stable version

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 13 Aug 2010, 14:28

There's now a 'stable version' of ForumNG. This is intended for anyone else who wants to use it on a production Moodle 1.9 site. From September, this should be exactly the same as the live, fully-tested version used with students on the OU system.

Since I made a long forum post about it, I'll just suggest you should please read that for full information if you're interested! Or for the lazy, the download link can be found on the standard information/download page for ForumNG.

Also: I apologise to anyone whose comments I didn't reply to, or replied crazy late. I do now have a feed reader set up to monitor the Atom feed of blog comments, so I should be able to respond quickly to any comments you leave on this bug in future (assuming I have anything to add, that is). That is, if it (said feed reader) works. I am not at all sure it does...

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Today's fun Internet Explorer feature (7 and 8 both): there's an accessibility option which lets you override website colours, so that for example, everything becomes green on black. Great, right? Except, it doesn't work properly in our forums. All the forum posts have a white background.

Turns out that in Internet Explorer, if you specify a background image for something while leaving the background colour transparent, it always draws it with a white background when in this accessibility mode.

To put that another way, the fix I made to get rid of this unwanted white background? I set the background colour to be white. Yes, really.

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 21 May 2010, 22:58

Here's an update on what we've been coding recently in the area of the OU where I work! I've done a few things, some of which may be of interest to other Moodle users, others not so much.

  • I fixed final glitches etc. in the courses dashboard for tutors (mentioned before; it uses a webservice to access information from our Moodle system, and other systems, about which forums a tutor can access across all courses and whether they contain unread messages, then displays all these links in one place for convenient access).
  • I wrote a block for the glossary in Moodle 2. Teachers can add this block to a glossary then use it to search all the other glossaries they can access. The idea is, if they want a glossary entry about something for a course they're writing, they can search all other courses to see if somebody already wrote one. I'd love if people try it out (and I'd love even more if you can manage to convince the Moodle HQ folk that it should be included in core Moodle).
    There will be a version of this feature in OU Moodle 1.9, but I haven't written that version yet. This development was part of our current project to learn more about coding for Moodle 2.0, which several developers here are involved in as we work out how to plan for a possible upgrade of our systems. Coding in Moodle 2 is definitely nicer than in 1.9, so I hope we can go ahead with it...
  • I updated the Java audio recording applet I have, which is designed for students to record themselves. It's basically just to save them having to download a standalone application; everything it does is local. Anyway, it now looks nicer (we didn't have graphic design resource, but I tidied it up based on the upcoming new OU styles that were already designed) and a few usability glitches have been ironed out. The applet's open source; you can get the code here, or try it out on this temporary prototype site. Assuming we don't find any horrible problems with it, this will be used to replace the current Audio Recording Tool for Languages courses.
  • I added support for .mp4 in more places in OU Moodle (it was already supported in some places). We're transitioning from .flv. Now we're going to be fully ready for the .mp4 video format just in time for it to become obsolete. Awesome!
  • Thanks to the current round of testing from our Technical Testing team, I fixed lots and lots of bugs in OU Moodle (for our June releases) including some in our publicly-available modules (ForumNG, OU wiki) and just a couple in core Moodle 1.9 and 2.0 as well.

I've done some other things in the last couple of weeks too, but I think I'll stop there; this is supposed to just give you an idea, not to be an exhaustive list... sorry about that! However, I should also mention the others on my team:

  • Ray has nearly finished auto-archiving for ForumNG. The idea is you can set forums to automatically delete discussions when they're inactive for a number of months. If you prefer, you can also make it move the discussions to another forum (presumably a hidden 'archive forum' or something). This means that very busy, very long-running forums won't eat up too much database space and won't reduce in performance as the number of discussions climbs into many thousands.
  • Mahmoud has nearly finished advanced search for ForumNG. In addition to the existing free-text search (powered by the ousearch block), you can search by date or by user (full name, partial name, or username).

I hope we'll do the public 'stable version' ForumNG release in a couple of weeks (shortly after the OU's update on June 1st). The idea is that this will be maintained in line with the fully-tested OU updates, rather than getting every new (and possibly broken) feature as soon as we finish it. So it won't have the two features mentioned above, but it should be useful if you want to run ForumNG on a major site.

Finally, a side note: I just bought a tune called Theme From HTML (Steve Hill & Technikal; Dark by Design mix; on Masif). Playing it now. It's very ugly indeed. If you imagine the 4:4 kick/snare is your head and the bassline is a brick wall, it sounds just like coding HTML for Internet Explorer! Awesome.

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Tuesday, 4 May 2010, 11:33

Hi! Since I'm late with another blog entry, here's a very short one: I thought you might like to see the initial design document for the forum advanced search feature.

This is still sort of subject to consultation, but not very, because we're about to start development (by which I mean, Mahmoud is). Still, if you see anything horrible in there you want to comment about, please feel free.

Design document (Word format)


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Edited by Sam Marshall, Monday, 1 Feb 2010, 17:06

Sorry, I've been neglecting this blog the last few weeks. Just a couple of interesting things to report (well... not very interesting really... but interesting by the standards of this blog).

First, I am presenting a session at iMoot, the international online Moodle conference this week. (You can still register if you like, it's not very expensive. Tim's got a session too, and of course there are plenty that aren't being given by Open University folk as well!)

This runs on a 24-hour schedule meaning that I have to do the presentation at (I think) 01:30 Thursday morning my time... then it gets repeated at a couple other times where I still have to turn up at the end for questions.

The session I'm doing is basically the complete guide to ForumNG - starting from installation and then covering all the fancy features and improvements. I'm hoping to encourage other people who run Moodle installations to try it, or people who teach to pester their administrators to try it, etc. So it'll be a bit like all the screencasts from this blog, except all jammed together at once, in a more coherent order, and (by the time that session ends) with a less coherent presenter. If that sounds like fun, well, hope to see you there. smile

If you don't fancy that, but you're up for a more traditional conferencey thing, I may possibly have a briefer presentation in the normal UK Moodle moot (this proposal has not been accepted yet so we'll have to wait and see).

Second, I know a lot of people outside the OU wanted the 'subscribe to individual discussion' forum feature. Good news, it turns out that people inside the OU want it too! We're scheduled to do it. I finished a (slightly sketchy) spec today and Ray's just beginning the development work.

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Converting from old forum to ForumNG

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Wednesday, 16 Dec 2009, 20:39

Ray's gone on holiday to China (he completed all his scheduled work) so I'm now left on my own finishing off the forum developments for our March release. Which would be fine if people didn't keep finding bugs in the rest of the system. Argh!

Anyhow, I've made another screencast about quite an important new feature that I implemented in between bugfixing over the last few days. We can now convert from an old standard Moodle forum into a new ForumNG, which should obviously be really important for anyone planning to transition to ForumNG.

Screencast about forum conversion (9.3 MB)

Some notes:

  • If you're not from the OU, you might think the 'old forum' shown here looks a little different; mostly, this is just because of our theme, but there are also some custom features that were added to the old forum locally, such as the ability to add more than one attachment. The conversion process will work with standard forums as well as our customised ones.
  • In the screencast I forgot to show the course home page after conversion. Ooops. The converted forum is placed directly below the old forum it's been converted from. Since the old forum is made invisible, the new forum will appear in exactly the same place.

This feature is particularly important to me because occasionally I have to use internal forums that are still using the old forum and it's a bit painful now I'm used to ForumNG! However that was not the primary reason for implementing it. smile

I didn't show them in the screencast but there are some other features Ray and I added since last time, so I'll just mention these here:

  • Export to Word document (it's actually just HTML which happens to load in Word, but don't tell anyone) - you can now use the 'selected messages or whole discussion' system that was developed for the forward-by-email feature I demoed before.
  • Print - you can print a discussion or selected messages, too. This takes you to a simple view of the messages that's more suitable for printing, and opens the Print dialog ready for you to print the page.
  • Save to MyStuff - this is an OU-only feature. Users here can save a discussion, or selected messages, to their MyStuff portfolio. Hopefully at some later date we will convert this forum to Moodle 2.x; at that point, we'll change this feature to use the standard Moodle 2 portfolio API which means everyone will get it.

As mentioned before, all this stuff should be available in the OU's March release, and in an update to the community version hopefully around the end of the month (or early January if I run out of time).

By the way, if anyone's interested in getting a more comprehensive overview of ForumNG rather than these periodic 'what we did this week' updates, especially from the perspective of standard Moodle usage outside the Open University, you might be interested in the iMoot virtual conference in February. I'll be presenting a one-hour (!) session about ForumNG, showing how to use it with standard Moodle 1.9. This will happen in different time zones and the live presentation is at like 2am or something my time. (It'll be recorded and rerun, with a live question session afterwards, at two more salubrious times.) So you'll get to see how well I can do a presentation at that hour of the morning. Well worth the entrance fee... or possibly not. smile

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ForumNG: unread navigation and flags

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Over the last few weeks I've mainly been having to concentrate on fixing bugs in our upcoming release and indeed our current live system (argh, quiz), but I managed to squeeze in work on a couple of new forum features. I've made another very short screencast to demonstrate them.

Watch the screencast now (6MB, ~3 mins)

Some notes:

  • This screencast uses the standard Moodle theme, which is a lot less pretty than the Open University one! (Thanks to our excellent graphic designers.) I thought it would be nice to show how it looks on standard Moodle one time.
  • These two features were added based (respectively) on student and tutor responses to our existing pilots, and on earlier feature requests from tutors.
  • This is in our March release but if you're a student or tutor at the OU and you're wondering when you get to use this forum, the answer is probably not 'March'! Sorry.
  • If on the other hand you work at another institution that uses Moodle - we haven't yet updated the community release of ForumNG to include these features, so don't download it tomorrow and get disappointed. We'll be updating the community release around end of year, hopefully after that it will keep pace directly with our development.

Hope this was at least a little bit interesting! As usual, there will be more screencasts whenever we have more features to show. Given all the bugfixing that's going on recently, I'm not quite sure when that will be...

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I asked Ray if he would make a screencast about his new ForumNG features, and (after a little bit of convincing) he agreed! Finally, some variety in this blog.

Play screencast (note: will not work in IE7 - please use Firefox or IE8).

The screencast covers three minor features in about four minutes. The features will be included in the OU's March update.

  • Permalink (posts are always shown within discussions, but this gives you a link to the discussion with #p1231312 or whatever so that it jumps straight to the post and expands it automatically)
  • Important posts (moderators etc. can mark a post as important, this makes it a different colour and adds an ! icon)
  • Alert (if somebody posts an offensive message, students can report it; this directly sends email to a nominated person so they can check)

Ray was a bit negative about it but I think the screencast is really great! However it did take him a long time (mostly outside work time) to make, which isn't really fair, so I probably won't ask him to do another one... at least not for quite a while.

Two notes for those considering using our forum at other institutions:

1) The screencast shows our version, but outside the Open University, default text on the 'Alert' form obviously won't mention the OU or our code of conduct. Instead there is generic text that should be suitable everywhere. You can replace the text with something specific to the institution using a local language file, which is what we've done here.

2) We haven't updated the community version with these features yet - going to do a batch update  around the end of the year or start of next.

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ForumNG public 'launch' (pilot)

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Thought I'd add a post about this now instead of waiting for my regular Friday blog post.

ForumNG is now available as an optional add-on for standard Moodle 1.9.

If you run a Moodle 1.9.x installation, please feel free to try it out. However, do bear in mind that this is a pilot version and is sort of halfway between testing (i.e. earlier versions have been tested but we changed a bunch of things since). Please install on a test server first, and do not use for any real work unless you've verified for yourself that it is good enough for your purposes.

If you do find bugs please report them via the Moodle bug tracker. There's a link to that in the modules & plug-ins entry above.

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Ooops. Didn't do a blog post on Friday, so here it is late...

Nothing very exiting to report in ForumNG-world last week:

  • I made the post throttling (limit posts user can make to forum in one day) option actually work - it wasn't implemented before.
  • I made initial subscription work (it works a bit differently to current forum though - based on the 'force subscription' logic then with negative subscriptions).
  • Ray added permalinks (# link with direct link back to post that you can copy/paste into emails etc) to each post.
  • Ray added highlight post feature for moderators; they can tick a box to make a post a different colour, which should be more obvious.

I'm now trying to get ForumNG to work with the old 'htmlarea' editor that is still used in standard moodle 1.9 (argh) in preparation for contrib release. I may be gone some time...

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March ForumNG features

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 30 Oct 2009, 20:32

This week we've started work on development for our March release. They haven't even started testing the December release yet, but these things have to overlap or we'd never get anything done...

There's a lot of development on ForumNG scheduled because the March release is a big push here - we want lots of courses to start moving onto the new forum, for new course presentations that start from that point on. I'm spending the vast majority of my time on it, and Ray Guo is also doing some of the new features. Hopefully I'll get Ray to make a screencast of his stuff so it's not just me all the time.

By the way, the version for Moodle 1.9 contrib (optional install) should be getting made really soon. (Famous last words.)

Anyhow, some people like the screencasts, so I decided to make another one each time I have a new vaguely interesting feature to show. This week I had to spend a lot of time scheduling tasks and suchlike (and getting Tim to do things he doesn't really want to do because he wants to work on quiz... but he's already implemented a really cool admin report). But I did manage to implement a new feature as well.

The feature is 'forward by email'. You can send a whole discussion, or selected posts from a discussion, in an email to any email address.

Here's the screencast (about 6MB). As usual, the link requires Firefox or another browser that is happy to play .swf files when clicked.

By the way, I didn't mention it in the screencast, but the whole thing does work for non-JavaScript users (including our 'friends' using IE6; we turned off ForumNG's JavaScript in IE6 because trying to make it work was a nightmare). The interface is basically the same but with less of the fancy visuals and more of the 'click a button, wait for a new page to load'.

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December ForumNG release update - save draft

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 23 Oct 2009, 21:14

Today was our code freeze for the December 1st release. As usual, various things were delayed, but I did actually manage to finish a few new features for ForumNG. (Not as many as I'd hoped - unfortunately, what with me going on holiday and then various necessary bug fixing tasks, there was only about two weeks of development on new features. Don't know exactly how much development there was, because, er, I'm late with updating the schedule page... ah well...)

Anyhow, here are the new features since last time I posted to this blog:

  • Administrators can now choose to unsubscribe users (from the list of subscribed users). This was kind of supposed to be there already, but I'd forgotten to implement it.
  • There's a Collapse all link on discussion pages. It's no use to man nor beast, but people were disturbed by seeing the Expand all without its mirror image.
  • Moderators (by default; anyone with the appropriate capability) now get to ignore limits on posting. For example, the forum can be set to allow posting only from a certain date; now, moderators are allowed to post before that date.

And the big one - save draft. We had a customisation to existing Moodle forums that let you save draft posts. (There were lots of problems with it, too, but let's not go there.) ForumNG didn't have this, but people wanted it back, and their wish is my requirements list!

The new save draft is a lot nicer than the old one. You can conveniently use it either because you want to leave a message and finish it tomorrow, or because you're halfway through a long post and are (probably justly) paranoid that the system will crash and lose all your work. Anyhow, rather than explain how it works, I've made a 3 minute screencast to demonstrate it.

In order to see the screencast you need to be using Firefox or some other nice browser that will display .swf files that are linked to. This is because I'm too lazy to set up a proper web page for it.

That said, here's the link.

December release features (...i.e. save as draft) screencast

Enjoy! (Well, or just bear it. It's only three minutes.)

PS If you're a member of OU internal staff you can probably see the documentation page for this update. Not available for tutors or students or anyone outside the OU, sorry. (But if you read this blog you know it already! Just in a bit less detail.)

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ForumNG: Study advice

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Although time got eaten up by a zillion things unrelated to ForumNG changes, I did manage to develop one of the new features this week...

Study advice forum type

With this forum type, you can only see discussions that you started. (Except for moderators/advisors who have the capability that lets them see all posts.) All other discussions are entirely hidden.

So a student can post a question. Then the advisor can respond to it (and the student sees the response). But the student can't see questions that other students asked.

I'm not sure how useful this is in general; obviously we have a specific use case here which means it was 'critical' that this gets done in time! It is. Phew.

Development was a bit of a nightmare. I thought I'd finished inside half an hour... then I realised I'd only made the changes for the normal web view. Much, much, much harder were the changes to correctly display the 'unread message' count on the homepage (only includes ones in a discussion you can see), to make email subscription work (only sends emails you can see), and finally to make feeds work too. I kept realising there was another bit that needed fixing. Hopefully that is all done now.

And by the way - I haven't yet implemented the 'other' forum types in standard Moodle forum smile The Q&A type, for instance. That's scheduled for a future release.

Today we (Sharon and Lisa who are organising the 'FirstClass replacement' programme of work, plus me as the developer) met with a writer for the in-house magazine for tutors. For those not familiar with the University, FirstClass is the old, commercial conferencing software used here, and the new ForumNG software I'm working on is intended - along with the rest of our course website facilities - to finally replace it. Tutors heavily use FirstClass and are attached to the way it works, so that's why the magazine wanted to talk to us.

I said a number of inadvisable things involving the phrase 'sucks'. Let's see how many of them end up in the article. smile

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 9 Oct 2009, 17:39

I've been back at work this week, coping with enjoying a welcome return to ForumNG code!

The forum seems to have done okay during my absence. A few technical problems were found during this initial pilot period, and Bryan fixed a really bad one with email subscription (thanks/sorry). Other than that, there's a few serious ones, but they don't cause major problems for the test course. Which means I have been working in a calm manner to fix them for the next release rather than rushing to get stuff done.

(Of course I had to patch a totally different area of the system and rewrite a whole chunk of code that was supposed to have been done months ago... but that was quite enough rushing about for the week, so I'm glad it wasn't needed for the forum too.)

We have 3258 ForumNG posts on the live system now, which is still not that many, but a big improvement on the 20 before I went away.

  • I am trying to ensure that the community (Moodle contrib) release of ForumNG will happen soonish, possibly even actually getting time scheduled for it. Still hoping for November.
  • We added one more actual feature while I was away (again, thanks to Bryan) - you can now sort the discussion list in both directions. Previously, you could already sort by any column, but only one way (A-Z not Z-A, for instance).

Meanwhile this week I've been fixing bugs and working on an even more exciting feature - accessibility fixes! Yes, I know everyone might not be massively concerned about whether the icons are visible on a black background... but it did need fixing.

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ForumNG - the future

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 4 Sep 2009, 16:03

This is my last blog entry before going on holiday (from work and from everything Moodle-related!) for four weeks. So I thought I'd answer some questions about the future.

In the honourable tradition of FAQs, nobody has ever asked me a single one of the questions listed...

When is there going to be a public release of ForumNG for Moodle 1.9.x?

Hopefully the public release (to the 'contributed code' area where you can download optional extensions for your Moodle) will be around November. That depends on me sneaking it in on unscheduled time, unless I can get some scheduled...

The difficulty is not just the hassle of packaging it up and so on - code changes are required, because some JavaScript depend on TinyMCE's API and standard Moodle uses a different HTML editor. Hopefully the same things are at least possible with the Moodle 1.9 standard editor (otherwise the public release will disable HTML editor and use plain textboxes, making it not very useful).

Will ForumNG ever be the standard Moodle forum?

If the community likes it, it might be included in a 2.x release. This will obviously require us to update the module to support 2.x, and also to be able to transfer data from the old forum. (Both these things are planned.)

What new features are going to be in the OU's December release? (=same as the hopeful public release)

The December release plan includes:

  • Accessibility and usability fixes (we asked the relevant university department to do some testing for us, which identified some issues).
  • 'Study advice' forum type; a forum type where students can start discussions and reply in those discussions, but cannot see discussions started by any other user.
  • The return of the save-as-draft feature. (We had this feature in our modifications of the old forum. It didn't work properly. Unfortunately this time around I couldn't get away with the 'Moodle 2 will do this generically' excuse, because as we know, taking away features from users - even pretty annoying and not very useful features - is verböten.)
  • Ability for a user to 'flag' messages they are interested in or intend to respond to. Flagged messages get included as direct links on the front page of the forum, so you can jump straight back to them.

Hopefully there will be some other stuff, but to be honest, I might not even finish this lot as there isn't much development time...

Could you quote some useless statistics?

Okay. ForumNG went live on OU servers on Tuesday, and so far there have been a total of 20 posts. Woohoo! By comparison, we have 546,606 posts so far in old forums.

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New blog post

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 15 Jan 2010, 17:33

Thankfully we only found a few more things wrong with ForumNG after the deadline. Mostly these are obscure but there's a serious IE8 problem - as it is too late to change anything before release (er, except the server OS major version... yes, let's not go there) we'll patch that the day after release.

The problem was caused by IE8 doing something right and then giving an error when it got to a bit of code where I'd done something evil to correct for IE7 doing it wrong! That's a positive sign, I think.

This week I gave a briefing and demonstrated the new forum along with the other new features, twice, to two different audiences: Helpdesk staff, and project managers.

It was basically the same briefing except helpdesk were a lot more responsive! Project managers sat there stone-faced... it's not like I have any actual jokes or anything, but I don't think the briefing was that dull, and the new software is pretty cool.. isn't it? Hmmm...

On the plus side, they didn't heckle when the system blatantly took ages to work at one point. [We were having problems with the test server, it's not a problem with forum - really! no, really really!]

Oh well, I guess they didn't want to be at that briefing. Or maybe there was a coffee shortage or something.

Another positive is that Helpdesk didn't spot anything wrong with the software. Usually when I show software to Helpdesk they are really good at spotting the stupid interface problems that are going to cause students to call them! So I end up going argh, yeah, you're absolutely right, damn, let me write that down, we'll tweak it as soon as we can... at least once. But not this time. Phew.

If I have time in next week's blog entry, I'll mention some of the areas we're planning to develop in the second release of the forum for December. I am hoping that along with these, we'll also have a working public release that other Moodle-using sites can try out, but I should say this unfortunately isn't scheduled, so we'll have to see.

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New blog post

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 21 Aug 2009, 17:44

So ma-ny bugs! So little time...

We just hit the deadline for bugfixes to our next release in the start of September. Nothing else gets fixed for the release after today; if anything important is found, we'll fix it with 'catch-up' patches to the system.

The good news is that I actually fixed all the ForumNG bugs (28 this week). Bad news is that I don't really feel like we had enough testing - they also only started testing it this week. Email features haven't been tested because we had technical problems setting it up on the test system. Overall, though, I still think it probably works.

Here are some things that were found during testing despite that I also thought it 'probably worked' when we sent it for testing in the first place:

  • Students couldn't post or reply or view discussions. (Ooops.) Nor could tutors. (Ooops again.) It worked for admins though! Well, admins using Firefox, because...
  • The interactive features all broke for Internet Explorer users. (Hey, it's only 80%.)
  • The interactive features all broke rather more seriously in Internet Explorer 6 specifically.
    I decided there wasn't time to fix it and got permission to leave out all the JavaScript for that browser, at least for now. Might have to put it back in later if people complain. For now, we are proudly running an 'IE6 sucks, get a real browser' message in the footer of affected pages. (Note: The wording might be slightly different...)
  • The edit timeout implementation was a complete mess, with no checking at all, and utterly incomprehensible to students. Testers complained.
    This turned out to be kind of a plus in the end, because now there is a really nice edit timeout implementation; when you edit a post it tells you what the deadline is, if the deadline's getting near the message goes bold, and when it runs out then the Save button is greyed.
    In addition, while you're just looking at a discussion, the 'Edit' and 'Delete' links automatically vanish when time's up.
  • Pretty much every Cancel button anywhere across the entire forum broke in a different way. (Who ever tests Cancel buttons?)

So, that's the good news. (Maybe?)

I guess the less good news is that I'm not quite sure when there will be a public release for other Moodle users (to 'contrib') of this code, even after we think it's working! Hopefully we can do this alongside our next December release. There is a bit of work involved though because this code depends on TinyMCE and standard Moodle 1.9 uses HTMLArea. With luck they have similar interactive facilities, but...

By the way, if you're an Open University student/tutor/other staff member and are wondering when you get to use the new forum, the answer is probably not 'September 1st' even if we are theoretically releasing it then. smile A very few pilot courses will be using it in September, along with the staff LTS-EDIT forums, and I think the VLE examples one that tutors can see. Most people are still trundling along on the existing forum for some time to come.

Permalink 3 comments (latest by Douglas Beveridge, Saturday, 20 Feb 2010, 16:03)

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