Reflecting on South by Southwest (SxSW) 2012

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

It has been a few months since I attended SxSW in Austin. Time to do a bit of reflection and see which things have stuck with me as major takeaways and trends to remember.

Let me start by saying that going there has changed the way I think about learning and technology in many tacit ways that are hard to describe. That must have something to do with the techno-optimism, the incredible scale/breadth and the inclusive atmosphere. I will definitely make it a priority to go there again. The following things made me think:

Teaching at scale

One thing that we are now slowly starting to understand is how to do things at scale. Virtualized technology allows us to cooperate and collaborate in groups that are orders of magnitude larger than groups coming together in a physical space. The ways of working inside these massive groups are different too.

Wikipedia was probably one of the first sites that showed the power of doing things at this new scale (or was it Craigslist?). Now we have semi-commercial platforms like WordPress.com or hyper-commercial platforms like Facebook that are leveraging the same type of affordances.

The teaching profession is now catching on too. From non-commercial efforts like MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer university to initiatives springing from major universities: Stanford’s AI course, Udacity, Coursera, MITx to the now heavily endowed Khan Academy: all have found ways to scale a pedagogical process from a classroom full of students to audiences of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. They have now even become mainstream news with Thom Friedman writing about them in the New York Times (conveniently forgetting to mention the truly free alternatives).

I don’t see any of this in Corporate Learning Functions yet. The only way we currently help thousands of staff learn is through non-facilitated e-learning modules. That paradigm is now 15-20 years old and has not taken on board any of the lessons that the net has taught us. Soon we will all agree that this type of e-learning is mostly ineffectual and thus ultimately also non-efficient. The imperative for change is there. Events like the Jams that IBM organize are just the beginning of new ways of learning at the scale of the web.

Small companies creating new/innovative practices

The future of how we will soon all work is already on view in many small companies around the world. Automattic blew my mind with their global fully distributed workforce of slightly over a hundred people. This allows them to truly only hire the best people for the job (rather than the people who live conveniently close to an office location). All these people need to start being productive is a laptop with an Internet connection.

Automattic has also found a way to make sure that people feel connected to the company and stay productive: they ask people to share as much as possible what it is they are doing (they called it “oversharing”, I would call it narrating your work). There are some great lessons there for small global virtual teams in large companies.

The smallest company possible is a company of one. A few sessions at SxSW focused on “free radicals”. These are people who work in ever-shifting small project groups and often aren’t very bounded to a particular location. These people live what Charles Handy, in The Elephant and The Flea, called a portfolio lifestyle. They are obviously not on a career track with promotions, instead they get their feedback, discipline and refinement from the meritocratic communities and co-working spaces they work in.

Personally I am wondering whether it is possible to become a free radical in a large multinational. Would that be the first step towards a flatter, less hierarchical and more expertise-based organization? I for one wouldn’t mind stepping outside of my line (and out of my silo) and finding my own work on the basis of where I can add the most value for the company. I know this is already possible in smaller companies (see the Valve handbook for an example). It will be hard for big enterprises to start doing this, but I am quite sure we will all end up there eventually.

Hyperspecialization

One trend that is very recognizable for me is hyperspecialization. When I made my first website around 2000, I was able to quickly learn everything there was to know about building websites. There were a few technologies and their scope was limited. Now the level of specialization in the creation of websites is incredible. There is absolutely no way anybody can be an expert in a substantial part of the total field. The modern-day renaissance man just can’t exist.

Transaction costs are going down everywhere. This means that integrated solutions and companies/people who can deliver things end-to-end are losing their competitive edge. As a client I prefer to buy each element of what I need from a niche specialist, rather then get it in one go from somebody who does an average job. Topcoder has made this a core part of their business model: each project that they get is split up into as many pieces as possible and individuals (free radicals again) bid on the work.

Let’s assume that this trends towards specialization will continue. What would that mean for the Learning Function? One thing that would become critical is your ability to quickly assess expertise. How do you know that somebody who calls themselves and expert really is one? What does this mean for competency management? How will this affect the way you build up teams for projects?

Evolution of the interface

Everybody was completely focused on mobile technology at SxSW. I couldn’t keep track of the number of new apps I’ve seen presented. Smartphones and tablets have created a completely new paradigm for interacting with our computers. We have all become enamoured with touch-interfaces right now and have bought into the idea that a mobile operating system contains apps and an appstore (with what I like to call the matching “update hell”).

Some visionaries were already talking about what lies beyond the touch-based interface and apps (e.g. Scott Jenson and Amber Case. More than one person talked about how location and other context creating attributes of the world will allow our computers to be much smarter in what they present to us. Rather than us starting an app to get something done, it will be the world that will push its apps on to us. You don’t have to start the app with the public transport schedule anymore, instead you will be shown the schedule as soon as you arrive at the bus stop. You don’t start Shazam to capture a piece of music, but your phone will just notify you of what music is playing around you (and probably what you could be listening to if you were willing to switch channel). Social cues will become even stronger and this means that cities become the places for what someone called “coindensity” (a place with more serendipity than other places).

This is likely to have profound consequences for the way we deliver learning. Physical objects and location will have learning attached to them and this will get pushed to people’s devices (especially when the systems knows that your certification is expired or that you haven’t dealt with this object before). You can see vendors of Electronic Performance Support Systems slowly moving into this direction. They are waiting for the mobile infrastructure to be there. The one thing we can start doing from today is to make sure we geotag absolutely everything.

One step further are brain-computer interfaces (commanding computers with pure thought). Many prototypes already exist and the first real products are now coming to market. There are many open questions, but it is fascinating to start playing with the conceptual design of how these tools would work.

Storytelling

Every time I go to any learning-related conference I come back with the same thought: I should really focus more on storytelling. At SxSW there was a psychologist making this point again. She talked about our tripartite brain and how the only way to engage with the “older” (I guess she meant Limbic) parts of our brain is through stories. Her memorable quote for me was: “You design for people. So the psychology matters.”

Just before SxSW I had the opportunity to spend two days at the amazing Applied Minds. They solve tough engineering problems, bringing ideas from concept to working prototype (focusing on the really tough things that other companies are not capable of doing). What was surprising is that about half of their staff has an artistic background. They realise the value of story. I’m convinced there is a lot to be gained if large engineering companies would start to take their diversity statements seriously and started hiring writers, architects, sculptors and cineasts.

Open wins again

Call it confirmation bias (my regular readers know I always prefer “open”), but I kept seeing examples at SxSW where open technology beats closed solutions. My favourite example was around OpenStreetMap: companies have been relying on Google Maps to help them out with their mapping needs. Many of them are now starting to realise how limiting Google’s functionality is and what kind of dependence it creates for them. Many companies are switching to Open Street Map. Examples include Yahoo (Flickr), Apple and Foursquare.

Maybe it is because Google is straddling the line between creating more value than they capture and not doing that: I heartily agree with Tim O’Reilly and Doc Searl‘s statements at SxSW that free customers will always create more value than captured ones.

There is one place where open doesn’t seem to be winning currently and that is in the enterprise SaaS market. I’ve been quite amazed with the mafia like way in which Yammer has managed to acquire its customers: it gives away free accounts and puts people in a single network with other people in their domain. Yammer maximizes the virality and tells people they will get more value out of Yammer if they invite their colleagues. Once a few thousand users are in the network large companies have three options:

  1. Don’t engage with Yammer and let people just keep using it without paying for it. This creates unacceptable information risks and liability. Not an option.
  2. Tell people that they are not allowed to use Yammer. This is possible in theory, but would most likely enrage users, plus any network blocks would need to be very advanced (blocking Yammer emails so that people can’t use their own technology to access Yammer). Not a feasible option.
  3. Bite the bullet and pay for the network. Companies are doing this in droves. Yammer is acquiring customers straight into a locked-in position.

SaaS-based solutions are outperforming traditional IT solutions. Rather than four releases a year (if you are lucky), these SaaS based offerings release multiple times a day. They keep adding new functionality based on their customers demands. I have an example of where a SaaS based solution was a factor 2000 faster in implementation (2 hours instead of 6 months) and a factor 5000 cheaper ($100 instead of $500,000) than the enterprise IT way of doing things. The solution was likely better too. Companies like Salesforce are trying very hard to obsolete the traditional IT department. I am not sure how companies could leverage SaaS without falling in another lock-in trap though.

Resource constraints as an innovation catalyst

One lesson that I learned during my trip through the US is that affluence is not a good situation to innovate from. Creativity comes from constraints (this is why Arjen Vrielink and I kept constraining ourselves in different ways for our Parallax series). The African Maker “Safari” at SxSW showed what can become possible when you combine severe resource constraints with regulatory whitespace. Make sure to subscribe to Makeshift Magazine if you are interested to see more of these type of inventions and innovations.

I believe that many large corporations have too much budget in their teams to be really innovative. What would it mean if you wouldn’t cut the budget with 10% every year, but cut it with 90% instead? Wouldn’t you save a lot of money and force people to be more creative? In a world of abundance we will need to limit ourselves artificially to be able to deliver to our best potential.

Education ≠ Content

There is precious few people in the world who have a deep understanding of education. My encounter with Venture Capitalists at SxSW talking about how to fix education did not end well. George Siemens was much more eloquent in the way that he described his unease with the VCs. Reflecting back I see one thing that is most probably at the root of the problem: most people still equate education/learning to content. I see this fallacy all around me: It is the layperson’s view on learning. It is what drives people to buy Learning Content Management Systems that can deliver to mobile. It is why we think that different Virtual Learning Environments are interchangeable. This is why we think that creating a full curriculum of great teachers explaining things on video will solve our educational woes. Wrong!

My recommendation would be to stop focusing on content all together (as an exercise in constraining yourself). Who will create the first contentless course? Maybe Dean Kamen is already doing this. He wanted more children with engineering mindsets. Rather than creating lesson plans for teacher he decided to organise a sport- and entertainment based competition (I don’t how successful he is in creating more engineers with this method by the way).

That’s all

So far for my reflections. A blow-by-blow description of all the sessions I attended at SxSW is available here.

Future15 at SxSW

One format at SxSW is called “Future15”. These are five solo presentations of 15 minutes each. I attended one of these sessions.

Demystifying Design: Fewer Secrets, Greater Impact

Jeff Gothelf is a lean UX advocate with a book that will hit the stores soon. He describes what the design process looks like for people outside of the profession: basically it looks like a mystery. He is convinced that designers actually feel this mystery as empowering and giving them control. Jeff thinks the mystery isolates the designers from the non-designers. It creates artificial silos which quickly degenerates into an us and them situation. There is no shared language or common understanding. This means that a project manager is usually the person in the middle. This will get you to the end-state, but it will be lacklustre. He says that transparency is the key component to making the best products, mainly because the efficacy of collaboration is directly related to team cohesion. The onus is on the designers to demystify the way that they work. If they do this, the “fingerprints” of the customer and the other team members will show up in the work. This doesn’t make everybody a designer, it actually make the role of the designer more valuable. One thing that bothers designers with this way of working is that it “shows your gut” and that might be very tough to do.

There a few simple things that designers can do to help this process along:

  • Draw together (share “trade secrets”)
  • Show raw works (frequently)
  • Teach the discipline
  • Demystify the jargon
  • Be transparent

The Art of the No-Decision Decision

Peter Sheahan is a founder of Change|Labs and has all the mannerisms of a bullshit artist. He talked about decision makingHe drew a simple framework that showed that people make decisions on the basis of their identity or the consequences. These he calls “decisions”. Habits and structural things also make us make decisions. He calls this “no-decision decisions”. He gives an example of a Japanese toilet that measure people’s blood sugar levels and contacts a doctor when the levels are not what they need to be: a no-decision decision. I guess his main point was that we need to remove the user from the experience and design technology and the environment in a way to get behaviour you want. There are four things we can do to help people make no-decision decisions:

  1. Be intentional with design (physical and flow)
  2. Build in real-time feedback loops
  3. Put “new” behaviour in flow
  4. Put new behaviour “in the way”

Creating Engagement: Brains, Games & Design

Pamela Rutledge at SxSW

Pamela Rutledge at SxSW

Pamela Rutledge is a psychologist. She talked a little bit about the different systems in our brain and the ages of those (the reptile brain, the emotional brain and the new brain, you know the drill). The only way to really engage the “new brain” is through turning the experience into a story. She then went on to talk about “flow” the optimal balance between anxiety and boredom and challenge and skill. The easiest way to get the brain into a flow state is by using story. The story is the real secret weapon to get the brain engaged, this is becayse they are both instinctual and abstract and can speak to all parts of the brain. She finished off with saying the following: “You design for people. So the psychology matters.”

Why Mobile Apps Must Die

Scott Jenson from Frog Design made a humble proposal: mobile apps must die. The usual reaction from people is to ask him what he is smoking. He doesn’t mean to say that native UX isn’t currently better than web UX. What he does mean is that only focusing on native UX we have stopped thinking about things and our design future. To him we are currently on a local optimum. He sees three trends:

  1. App glut. Are we really going to have an app for every story we are going to walk into. The user is becoming the bottleneck now: customers are now gardening their phones and removing cruft. The pain of apps is starting to be bigger than the value of them.
  2. Size and cost reduction. The cost of computing and connectivity is going down. There are going to be an incredible amount of devices.
  3. Leveraging other platforms.

These three trends all work against the native apps paradigm. He sees a lot of “just-in-time” interaction with the web. Installing an app is too much work for these type of interactions. It is hard to change away from the “app” paradigm. Scott showed us an alternative: Active RFID, GPS, Bluetooth and Wifi are four technologies that can help us show us what is around us. They cn show us what is nearby without us having to discover it. Companies that can deliver on this promise might become the next Google. This will be hard to do: we don’t yet have the just-in-time ecosystem where we have phones asking “what’s here” and other objects going “I’m here”. If we don’t start thinking about these things now, then we won’t have them tomorrow.

Geo Interfaces for Actual Humans

Eric Gelinas works at Flickr. They are using geolocated photos to make the photos more discoverable and easier to navigate. Location very often helps to contextualize a photo. To make this easier they created a 3-step zoom. The default is zoomed out, when you hover over the maps you are zoomed into the city and then when you hover over the point on the map you are fully zoomed in. A lot of map interfaces have traditionally be very awkward: not dynamic, information overload. A lot of websites are switching away from Google Maps now and move towards OpenStreetMap data often in combination with MapBox (e.g. Foursquare, it allowed them to put much more design into the maps and escape the licensing costs from Google). There is a campaign to help others switch over to OpenStreetMap: Switch2OSM. Eric wrote a lot of code for Flickr to make their maps. Right he might have used something like Mapstraction. Another great library is Leaflet.

In Flickr you can put in your geo-preferences which allow you to hide your detailed location for particular locations. Merlin Mann wrote the following tweet about that technology:
<phttps://twitter.com/#!/hotdogsladies/status/108613619989757952

Did You Know Moodle 2.0 Will….? (Online Educa 2009)

Martin Dougiamas spoke about Moodle 2.0 at the 2009 Online Educa in Berlin

Martin Dougiamas spoke about Moodle 2.0 at the 2009 Online Educa in Berlin. Photograph by David Ausserhofer and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Germany License.

I have written about Moodle 2.0 before. But last week in Berlin I had the opportunity to attend two more presentations by Martin Dougiamas about the plans for the next major version of Moodle and I have gotten a better idea of how things will work.

Moodle.com is completely transparent about their plans. You can read the roadmap and view the latest version of the planning document at any time. 16 developers are in Prague right now, making sure all of this will actually happen (search for #moodledev09 on Twitter).

My overview below is not complete. It is just some of the things I thought were interesting. Here we go! Did you know Moodle 2.0 will…

  • …look much better. The way that themes work will change completely. This will allow for much more flexible templating and theming. Moodle has Patrick Malley as the theme coordinator. He has been commissioned to create 20 beautiful themes that will ship with Moodle 2.0. Moodle will not ship with any of the old themes. The old icons will be replaced with a new set based on the Tango guidelines. All of this is great news as most Moodle sites do use the default themes (see this 12.6MB image of registered Dutch Moodle sites for examples).
  • …break most things. The 2.0 release is seen as the chance to do things differently. A lot of code will be refactored. There will be a smooth upgrade from 1.9 to 2.0 for the core code, but any customisations and extra modules will more than likely need an update. Examples? Every designed theme will need to be updated, 1.9 backups will probably not restore in 2.0 (update: there is a workaround) and old ways of getting files into the system (FTP anyone?) will not work anymore.
  • …allow you to search for Flickr images with a particular Creative Commons licence and will add the license to the image itself. This is one of my pet favourites, because it shows how anyone who is willing to be part of the dialogue around Moodle development (regardless of whether they are a developer or not) can influence the feature set of Moodle. I created a request for this feature in the Moodle Tracker and Martin demoed it in both his presentations in Berlin. We still need to get the user interface right, but the functionality is there.
  • …have the concept of a finished course. In current versions of Moodle there is no way to let the system know that a particular learner has finished the course. The concept just doesn’t exist. A lot of people require this functionality. It could be used as a trigger for sending the course grade to some other system, or could trigger the creation of a certificate.
  • …allow for conditional activities. In 2.0 you can make the availability of activities and resources for a particular learner dependent on certain conditions. These conditions could be the completion status of a particular activity (what completed means depends on the type of activity) or a grade for a particular activity. Finally it will be possible to set up your course in advance and then let it run by itself! No facilitation required! If Skinner is still your educational philosopher of choice, you will be very happy with this functionality! On a more serious note: this will allow for even more flexible Moodle course setups and that is never a bad thing.
  • …import external blogs. I believe blogging should be done on a platform that is as open as possible. This way your audience can be as large as possible and that means the interactions and dialogue around your blog will be at its most valuable. This is the reason why I don’t use the internal blogs that my employer provides me with and why I don’t have an active blog on Moodle.org or on any other Moodle installation. Not only will Moodle have a proper RSS feed for your internal blog, it will also allow you to import an external blog (based on a feed URL and on tags) and make it available internally. Moodle will make sure that the posts are in sync: so if you delete a post on your internal blog, it will also be removed from your internal blog. Brilliant!
  • …have a decent HTML editor that works in more than two browsers. HTML Area, the HTML editor that current versions of Moodle use, is old and crusty and does not work in many browsers. Moodle 2.0 will integrate TinyMCE, an HTML editor that has a larger and vibrant development community. It will work on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome/Chromium. All Moodle users will really appreciate this change (even if they might not be aware of it).
  • …allow comments on everything. This is the pedagogical big winner for me. It is possible to add a comment block to nearly every resource/activity in Moodle 2.0. This will allow for a lot of peer feedback which can then be aggregated in different places (in the course, in a users profile?). I recently did a course on Rapid e-Learning Design where one of the core activities was commenting on other people’s work. The richness of interaction that this created was amazing. I am just hoping that the development team will think real hard about some of the user interface decisions around the comment API: that will make all the difference.
  • …have a workshop module that you are not scared of using. Currently the workshop module is broken. I would not recommend anybody to use it. The peer feedback concept that it embodies is not broken though! David Mudrák has completely rewritten the workshop module and the first comments are very positive.
  • …will have a built-in feedback/survey module. Modules that implement survey functionality in Moodle have always been the most popular add-ons. Andreas Grabs’ Feedback module will become part of the Moodle core code from 2.0 onwards.
  • …will not eat disk space if a file is used or uploaded multiple times. We all know the problem. You have a course that has a 300MB presentation in it. The course is duplicated for another run. Now you have two courses with 600MB of presentations. This problem is a thing of the past in Moodle 2.0. All information about files and where they are used is stored in the database (drastically improving the security around who can access a particular file). The files itself are stored on the filesystem. A SHA-1 check on each new file will make sure that identical files are not stored twice.
  • …have a completely new way of navigating. The way users navigate a Moodle installation has gotten a complete rewrite. Tim Hunt has done a very commendable job involving the community in his design plans and there is an excellent page in the Moodle Docs explaining what it is going to look like. It boils down to a more consistent navigation bar, a new Ajaxy navigation block which allows you to jump to any resource/activity in any of your courses in one step and the moving of many of the module related settings that were hovering at the top right corner of the page to the administration block.
  • …be a reinvention of itself as a platform. Moodle was approaching the end of its life cycle as a “Walled garden” product. Moodle was ahead of the game in 2001, but has been passed by many of the developments on the Internet since its inception. When Moodle was first conceptualised things like WordPress MU, Ning, Flickr, Delicious and Wikipedia did not exist. Moodle needed to reinvent itself. The repository and portfolio APIs in combination with the Web Services layer will allow Moodle to become much more a platform than an application. Moodle will keep its relevance or will become relevant again (depending on your viewpoint on the state of educational technology). I am already imagining the Moodle App Store.
  • …change the world of education (if nothing else). I think that Moodle already has had a very positive impact on the world of education, but if the Moodle Hubs scheme works, it will be a lot easier for teachers to share the share their best practices and collaborate with other teachers the world over.

I am certainly looking forward to its release! Are you excited yet?

Presentations on Moodle 2.0 and on Moodle, Mahara and Elgg

My employer, Stoas Learning, organized a Moodle seminar today. I did two presentations in the morning (both of them in Dutch).

The first one was titled: “Moodle 2.0, een sneak preview”. I discussed the new features that will appear in Moodle 2.0 and did a quick demo of how you can use the repository API to pull in an image from Flickr, hand that in as an assignment and then push it out to GoogleDocs for savekeeping. You can find the slides below:


(view at Slideshare or download a PDF version)

The second presentation was titled: “Moodle, Elgg & Mahara – Samenwerkend Leren, Kennisdelen & Sociale Netwerken – Van Formeel naar Informeel”. I tried to use three cases to explain that e-learning can be more than just a web-based, unfacilitated, content to single learner experience. These were my slides:


(view at Slideshare or download a PDF version)

I do realise that these slides lose a lot of their meaning without my spoken words. When I posted Slideshare presentations previously, I wrote I would try and record the audio for the next time. I guess I failed…. I am sure there will be another chance.

Moodle Books from Packt Publishing

About a month ago I got an email from Packt‘s marketing department whether I would be interested in receiving a review copy of William Rice’s Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development. I said “yes”, so in the interest of full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book. As Packt also publishes a couple of other books on Moodle, I have decided to review these as well.

So what does one expect from a Moodle book? I think the spectrum that these book try to cover runs from technology to pedagogy. You want to know how to install Moodle on a server and make it run well, but you also want to know how best to use the tools in Moodle to achieve your teaching/learning goals. The easiest way for me to decide whether a book on Moodle is any good is to look at the topics that are notoriously hard for new Moodle users to understand: roles, the gradebook, groups/groupings and metacourses. I will look at each book in turn and give a short description of the book and what audience it is for, then look at each of the difficult Moodle topics and how they are covered in the book. Finally I will look at the pedagogical/didactical ideas in each book.

Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development

Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development

Moodle 1.9 E-Learning Course Development by William Rice is an update for Moodle 1.9 to his earlier book on Moodle written in 2006. It is written for beginners and advanced Moodle users. It quickly runs you through how to set up your own Moodle site, looks at most of the configuration options and then tries to cover all of the course functionalities that a teacher can use. It tries to do this quite extensively (covering all options) which sometimes does not help making it an engaging read. The chapters on creating course content are split into three: adding static course material, adding interactive course material and adding social course material. This makes it easy to find certain information, but doesn’t make it easy to imagine how you could use Moodle in a real life course. When you read the book it is obvious that Rice has actually taught with Moodle. He manages to cover quite a bit of standard problems that first time Moodle user run into, although his solutions sometimes feel a bit idiosyncratic (e.g. using javascript to solve the problem of not being allowed to put a single course in multiple categories).

Roles are explained in the last chapter of the book. Rice does a decent job and does explain how you can override permissions for a single activity. Everybody should heed to his recommendations for working with roles (basically: start with the default system and only tweak when you actually want to change the default behaviour).  I wish he would have put a chapter on roles in the beginning of the book so that he could have explained later on how you can allow students to rate each others forum posts for example. Currently the explanation on how to let students rate posts is not correct, the screenshot seems to come from an earlier version of Moodle.

Rice used a beta version of Moodle 1.9 for writing this book. Apparently the current 1.9 gradebook wasn’t there yet, because the functionality that he describes only fits Moodle 1.8. This is a big omission: don’t expect to get any help on grading in the current version of Moodle from this book.

Groups are only mentioned when the course settings are explained (I couldn’t find groups in the index of the book). The concept is explained properly, but Rice does not go into the technicalities. Groupings are not discussed anywhere.

The concept of a metacourse is explained with a useful example making it clear for the reader for what it can be used. Rice only explains the first scenario from the Meta Course page on MoodleDocs. The second scenario, which can be genuinely useful too, is not explained.

Finally, the book gives scant pedagogical support. It has headings like “Why Use a Directory?”, “When to Use Uploaded Files” and “When to Use the Different Types of Surveys”; but these are few and short. It will not be easy for a new Moodle teacher to grasp the larger concepts on how he/she could use Moodle.

Moodle Administration

Moodle Administration

Moodle Administration by Moodle partner Synergy Learning‘s Alex Büchner is for “technicians, systems administrators, as well as academic staff, that is, basically for anyone who has to administer a Moodle system”. It is a big book (350 pages or so) trying to systematically cover all the relevant topics for an administrator using Moodle 1.9 (using the Moodle Admin menu as a guide). The depth of this book is actually quite amazing and I think there is no quicker way for a person with a technical (meaning non-teaching) Moodle related role to get up to speed. For example: Nowhere else can you find information on Moodle networking that is this extensive.

My favourite chapter is Appendix A, the Moodle Health Check. This is a set of over 120 tests related the performance, functionality, security and the system. Each test is linked back to the chapter which describes the actions you should take in more detail. If you follow all the advice you should end up with a healthy Moodle installation.

Roles (and permissions) have their own chapter in this book. It clearly describes the different contexts and permissions. It explains how permission conflicts are resolved and has an example of the non-standard parent or mentor role. The paragraph on best practice is a must read for anybody wanting to touch the role system.

Unfortunately the gradebook, groups and groupings are not discussed in this book. Even though strictly speaking it is not administration, I think it is important that any administrator really knows these topics so that he/she can help their teachers. Maybe something for a next version of the book?

The concept of metacourses is explained properly and describes both ways of sharing enrolment across courses. The book has no pedagogical support, simply because it isn’t aimed at a teaching audience.

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Moodle Teaching Techniques

Moodle Teaching Techniques is a slightly older book by William Rice (2007). The subtitle “Creative Ways to Use Moodle for Constructing Online Learning Solutions” conveys the aim of the book: provide the reader with solutions that help you make the most of the many features found in a standard Moodle installation.

The book starts with a chapter explaining some general well accepted instructional principles (e.g. Big Ideas, Distributed Practice, Guide Notes). These principles are then coupled with different Moodle features.

The book then has a chapter on each of the most used Moodle modules. The chapter on the forum module for example, describes how to create a single-student forum, how to motivate students to interact with a “best of” forum, how to keep discussions on track and how to monitor student participation in a forum.

Even though the book is written for Moodle 1.6, I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to be more creative in their Moodle teaching practice. A lot of the advice in this book can even be used in other virtual learning environments.

Roles and the 1.9 gradebook are not discussed (they didn’t exist in Moodle 1.6), groups are used in some of the examples, grouping and metacourses are not written about, but the pedagogical support of this book is great. I really wish more people would attempt to write a book like this.

Moodle Course Conversion

Moodle Course Conversion

The last book in this review is the very recent Moodle Course Conversion: Beginner’s Guide by Ian Wild. The author describes the audience for the book as follows:

If you are a teacher, lecturer, or trainer faced with using Moodle for the first time and you want to convert your teaching materials to Moodle quickly, effectively, and with the minimum of fuss then this book is for you. You may have toyed with the idea of using Moodle but you are not sure how to begin converting your face-to-face teaching online. If so, this book will show you how to create engaging and entertaining online courses. You may need to support your face-to-face teaching with online activities, including assignments and tests. In this book, we get you started with blended learning.

Wild has an entertaining style of writing and uses the most recent version of Moodle. The book is very hands-on with a lot of examples on how you would start putting materials online. Many teachers want to know how they can put Powerpoint presentations online, or how to convert a big document into a readable wiki. He is very tuned into what teachers would like to do nowadays. I especially like his paragraph on how you would embed a video from YouTube or TeacherTube into Moodle or his explanation on how to find images for your course (with a short chapter on copyright and a single mention of Creative Commons in the paragraph on Flickr).

Roles are only written about in a paragraph on assigning students and teachers to your course. The concept of a meta course is not explained. However the gradebook has some great paragraphs dedicated to it. Wild shows how you can add your own categories, move grade items into these categories and create your own grade items. It is a pity that he doesn’t go into the different aggregation options for these categories, because this is often the hardest part to understand for a new teacher (is the Moodle project sure that “Simple Weighted Means” is the best way of saying that the total course grade is the average of all grade items/categories?). Groups and groupings also get a proper explanation.

There is quite a bit of pedagogical support in this book. If you follow Wild’s advice you will end up with a significantly better course than most of what I currently see in the learning field. The book has some nice ideas that any teacher can follow up, however please note that most of these seem to be geared to secondary education.

To conclude: For teachers I would definitely recommend Moodle Course Conversion: Beginner’s Guide. Administrators should read Moodle Administration. Read both books if you want to understand roles, the gradebook, groups/grouping and metacourses.

I do think there is space for another Moodle book. Where is the author that starts with a social constructivist concept of teaching (we don’t currently have this in most schools, universities and businesses) and explains how this vision can be created with practical integrated Moodle activities?

A final note on Packt as a publisher. They seem to have interesting low-cost, print on demand, direct-marketing business model. Very often they are the first publisher to have a book out on a particular (open source) technology. When you buy a book from them you support the open source project:

Packt believes in Open Source. When we sell a book written on an Open Source project, we pay a royalty directly to that project. As a result of purchasing one of our Open Source books, Packt will have given some of the money received to the Open Source project.

In the long term, we see ourselves and yourselves, as customers and readers of our books, as part of the Open Source ecosystem, providing sustainable revenue for the projects we publish on. Our aim at Packt is to establish publishing royalties as an essential part of the service and support business model that sustains Open Source.

Their tagline really fits the title of my blog: “From Technologies to Solutions”.

I think it is pretty advanced marketing for them to contact a not-so-well-known blogger as myself to write a review for one of their books. They support user groups with free copies for prices and reviews. Their customer service is exceptional (from a Dutch perspective at least). When I asked them about the delivery of my Moodle Course Conversion book, I got the following reply:

Firstly please let me apologize for the delay in shipping the book to you. Usually all postal shipments to ‘ Netherlands’ are delivered within 18 days maximum. It appears that there is some delay in the shipping process. Since your book was shipped out via Royal mail ordinary post, it is untraceable.

However you need not worry, kindly email us if you do not receive your book by the 16th of January, I’ll be glad to help you.

For all the trouble this has caused you, I have placed a free eBook of ” Moodle Course Conversion: Beginner’s Guide” in your account. You can access this eBook immediately and meanwhile your print book should be on its way to you.

There is one thing I would love Packt to change: their layout/typesetting. When I read their books I get the feeling that MS Word was used for creating all the pages. I would love it if they would invest in some typesetting technology that would make the layout look less amateurish.

If anyone at Packt is reading this, I would be happy to receive any of the following books for review: User Training for Busy Programmers, AsteriskNOW, PHP Web 2.0 Mashup Projects, ImageMagick Tricks, Mobile Web Development and WordPress for Business Bloggers!