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This is a special super bonus blog post. Not only are there two blog posts in one day, but this second one has two screencasts in it!

In today's Moodle developer meeting, I suggested (rather rudely, sorry) that the OU's subpage module was a better way to handle the 'everything in Moodle course has to go on the same single page which is stupid' problem than implementing some kind of 'show things on separate pages' feature in every single course format.

Subpage - quick demonstration of subpage using the standard theme so it looks pretty much like standard Moodle (about 5 minutes)

Subpage in real life - how we use subpage at the OU (about 3 minutes) - you get to see our pretty theme in this one

Here are some reasons I think subpage is a good approach:

  • Not dependent on course formats, or inconsistent depending on which format you're using.
  • Obvious; easily understandable by students and staff. (Except the name! The name sucks, but I couldn't think of a better one.)
  • You can keep using convenient views that take advantage of the course format to see the entire structure of the course at once (only it won't be ridiculously long now), or to show N weeks around current, or whatever it is.
  • Generally more flexible - for instance, want to nest pages within pages? With subpage, you can. (It's probably a bad idea, though!)

There are some problems with the way subpage is implemented; basically, it's a leetle bit of a hack. In order to make it un-hacky, some of the following things would need to happen to core:

  • Add all the 'come back to this URL afterward' features that we included in a short patch.  Without that, in core Moodle every time you do anything in a subpage you end up back at the course page. (For instance, add a forum? Okay, great, but after it's added you're back on the course page.) It isn't really practical to use without this patch even though it does basically work if you struggle through.
  • Implement something (ownercmid?) in the sections table to indicate that they're owned by a module and therefore take them out of the ordinary numbering. Apply some changes to backup and restore and navigation and formats to make this slicker. (It works OK without, we're using it, but we do have a few special things in our course format to handle it as well...)
    Note that this change would let authors create other modules that can include sections/Moodle activities, which could actually be pretty cool.

Subpage code repo (...may or may not work at the moment, I hope it does though).

Permalink 8 comments (latest comment by Sam Marshall, Tuesday, 16 Apr 2013, 17:22)
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Moodle 2.2 - Show descriptions

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I made a screencast about a new feature I wrote that will be part of Moodle 2.2.

Moodle already has the ability to write descriptions for a resource (link, file, ...) or activity (forum, ...), but these display on a separate screen. Using this new feature, you can choose to display descriptions directly under the link on the course main page.

View the screencast on screencast.com.

Thanks to Moodle HQ - Eloy (code review), Martin (approval, suggestions), Helen (suggestions, wording), Sam Hemelryk (testing). Also to Tim for helping with communication while I was away. And a few other people were involved as well - see the issue MDL-27001 for full details.

A bit of background about this feature - we particularly need it at the OU because in our 1.9 system we had the 'resourcepage' module which let people create pages with lists of files and links for students - and those files and links could have descriptions. Moving to 2.x, we replaced resourcepage with a new 'subpage' module - this lets you do a similar thing, but the key is that it now uses completely standard Moodle resources and activities, just like the course main page. So we had a problem when converting a course from one to the other: the descriptions disappeared. Ooops. Now it should be okay. smile

You could achieve something similar already by adding labels in all over the place, but the spacing is wrong (the system doesn't know your label is supposed to 'go with' the thing above it, compared to other labels that don't, so the space between is too much) and it's a pain if you ever have to move items (as you now have to move both the link and the label below it).

So, I think the feature should be useful for lots of people - not just us.

And by the way, using this feature doesn't reduce performance when viewing the course page, because when you turn on this option the descriptions are stored in the course 'modinfo' cache.

Permalink 3 comments (latest comment by Hartmut Scherer, Tuesday, 13 Sept 2011, 09:08)
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Edited by Sam Marshall, Tuesday, 19 July 2011, 15:04

I thought it was time to make another short screencast (approx 4 minutes). This one is aimed at Moodle 2 developers. It's about the renderers feature in Moodle 2 and how you can use it to create significantly different designs. The example I show is the discussion page of ForumNG.

The development work shown in this video was actually all done by Ray Guo. I didn't do any of the actual work. smile But I wanted to talk quickly about the approach. Basically, we (...er, again, meaning Ray) were able to implement a particular graphic design using the renderers feature in Moodle 2.

In order to watch the screencast:

  • Download the SWF file from GoogleDocs. Save it onto your desktop or somewhere convenient.
  • Click and drag the SWF file into a spare tab of a suitable web browser such as Firefox or IE9 (old versions of IE don't work).

Note: I accidentally had the audio levels too loud! Set your volume low before you start. Sorry.


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OU blog public comments

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Thursday, 19 Aug 2010, 16:27

It's all about OU blog recently! Well, it isn't, but that's what I'm going to post about.

First, just to mention, we started releasing a new 'stable version' yesterday. See the relevant Moodle forum if you're interested, or just go to the information/download page.

Second, I've made a new screencast about the public comments feature. This might be of interest to people at the OU as well as to Moodle community users; at the OU, we ought to be getting public comments next month.

Screencast about public blog comments (4.5MB) - click the Open link at top left of the Google Docs page

One thing to clarify since I'm not sure I made it totally clear in the video - the new feature is totally optional. Public comments will not be allowed on any blog post anyone makes anywhere on the system, unless that person specifically selects it.


The public comments feature was actually coded a little while back, but it's been tested just recently. Apart from fixing bugs (which is the story of my life right now, at least when I'm not in meetings) we've also been working on stuff for the December release which is going to have some nice features.

I think the best one is probably being able to subscribe to specific groups within ForumNG (which Ray is coding). This should be particularly useful for course* staff and some tutors, and for generally making the subscription logic more comprehensible. There's also some improvements to the search-all-forums feature that Mahmoud did.

* I'm not sure I'm allowed to still say 'course'! Maybe somebody will jump out and kill me.

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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 conversionVideo player: forumng-conversion.swf (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 nowVideo player: forumng-unreadflag.swf (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 screencastVideo player: forum_ray.swf (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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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 screencastVideo player: forumng-forward.swf (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) screencastVideo player: forumng-savedraft.swf

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 discussion page

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Edited by Sam Marshall, Friday, 10 July 2009, 20:09

The ForumNG discussion page is (mostly) done, including all the fancy AJAX tricks. It was going to be way too difficult to explain everything in text, so instead I made a five minute screencast all about the new discussion page. (The software I used is in fact limited to exactly five minutes, so you'll notice me getting a little rushed at the end!)

Watch the videoVideo player: forum_discussions.swf *

* This link won't work in Internet Explorer. It will work in Firefox, or any other browser that is capable of displaying SWFs directly in the page. If you just get a download box when you click it, try using the latest Firefox instead.

A few things to note that aren't in the video:

  1. I recorded this from my home connection, which is extremely slow broadband. So the network delays you're seeing (or in most cases, not seeing) are representative of real usage.
  2. Everything shown here is subject to change. Development isn't complete yet.
  3. The discussion page is supposed to have a row of buttons along the bottom that give access to advanced features for moderators - seeing a list of students who have read the discussion, etc. This isn't implemented yet, but anyway it won't have the flashy AJAX stuff.
  4. If you have JavaScript turned off, everything still works, but the links are standard links that take you to new pages with forms on, the rating stars aren't stars but remain as a dropdown, etc.
  5. I didn't show how you add file attachments. That's because it currently doesn't work. smile
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