Archive for the ‘How to do’ Category

A video tutorial: Getting started with the LMI for All API

November 11th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

Regular readers will know that together with Philipp Rustemeier, I have been working on  the UK Commission for Employment and Skills’ LMI for All project. Through the project we are developing a database providing access to open data around the Labour `market. This includes data about occupations, pay, present and projected employment, qualifications and much more. So far, UKCES has focused on the use of the data for careers guidance but I suspect it may have far wider potential uses, including for education and local government planning. When mashed with other data I see LMI for All as pointing to the future is of open data as part of smart cities or rather as providing data about cities for smart citizens.

The LMI for All project does not itself produce applications.Instead we provide access to a open APi, which developers can query to build their own desktop or mobile apps.

One thing we are working on is providing more help for developers wanting to use the API. As part of that we are developing a series of ‘how to’ videos, the first of which is featured above.The video was originally recorded in real time using Google Hangouts and  YouTube.  The 31 minute original was cut to about 15 minutes and a new introduction added.

Any advice about how to make this sort of video will be gratefully received. And the code which Philip developed live in the video can be accessed on GitHub

How to make multimedia learning materials for the construction industry

August 20th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

by Graham Attwell, Owen Gray and Martina Luebbing

We wrote in an earlier post about the Rapid Turbine app which we are developing through the Learning Layers project. Rapid Turbine is a prototype demonstrator, designed to show the potential of mobile devices to support learning by apprentices in the north German construction industry training centre, Bau ABC. Apprentices at Bau ABC learn through undertaking a series of practical projects, detailed in a paper based White Folder.

The task sheets are used both outlining the tasks to be undertaken, the tools required, materials and health and safety concerns etc and for recording learning. Through developing a mobile app it is intended to make updating 0of tasks easier but most importantly to allow closer links between the learning apprentices undertake in the training centre, with their courses in vocational schools and with their work undertaken on construction sites.

The task we are developing for the prototype is called Rohrleitungsbau (pipe and sewer laying). Our main aims are to test the pedagogic approach and design of the app and to develop a work flow so that trainers can themselves produce mobile learning materials.

One of the key aims for the Learning Layers project is to encourage the development of peer produced learning materials. Peers might be apprentices themselves or trainers in the training centres. We are aware that a major barrier to the take up of technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises is the high cost of buying or commissioning the production of learning materials. Furthermore we are aware of the need for vocational expertise in the development of these learning materials, expertise we do not have as researchers and developers.

Although it is beginning to change, most traditional e-learning has been very heavily text dependent. This is not really suited to practical and wok based learning, especially using the mobile devices which can allow apprentices to access learning materials directly in the training centre or workplace.

Therefore we are keen to videos into the app related to the different tasks being undertaken. Once more, fairly obviously the trainers are the best people to make these videos. Originally we had thought of going to Bau ABC and filming these videos ourselves. But this would have been very time consuming and is not really sustainable. Our next thought was to use wearable video devices and we experimented with prototype smart glasses with video capacity. However, the quality was not great and the controls were difficult to use.

So our latest solution is to use an Go Pro camera, attached to a construction site safety helmet. The cameras are reasonably easy to use and importantly, having originally been designed for recording extreme sports,  are extremely rugged, and with the cover fitted, water proof and dust proof. They can also be controlled through a Wireless based phone app. We need more work to find out what makes a good short learning video to be accessed on a mobile device. We’re starting out trying to make a series of handy tips, based one each task, but will review this as we go. And we are encouraged that some of the trainers have already been making their own videos using an ipad. I suspect they will have more ideas than us.

The helmet mounted camera will be delivered to the training centre tomorrow and as soon as we have some videos we will shared them on this site.

Using Google interactive charts and WordPress to visualise data

August 25th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

This is a rare techy post (and those of you who know me will also know that my techy competence is not so great so apologies for any mistakes).

Along with a university partner, Pontydysgu bid for a small contract to develop a system to allow the visualisation of labour market data. The contractors had envisaged a system which would update automatically from UK ONS quarterly labour market data: a desire clearly impossible within the scope of the funding.

So the challenge was to design something which would make it easy for them to manually update the data with visualisations being automatically updated from the amended data. Neither the contractors or indeed the people we were working with in the university had any great experience of using visualisation or web software.

The simplest applications seemed to me to be the best for this. Google spreadsheets are easy to construct and the interactive version of the chart tools will automatically update when embedded into a WordPress bog.

Our colleagues at the university developed a comprehensive spreadsheet and added some 23 or so charts.  So far so good. Now was the time to develop the website. I made a couple of test pages and everything looked good. I showed the university researchers how to edit in WordPress and how to add embedded interactive charts. And that is where the problems started. They emailed us saying that not only were their charts not showing but the ones i had added had disappeared!

The problem soon became apparent. WordPress, as a security feature, strips what it sees as dangerous JavaScript code. We had thought we could get round this by using a plug in called Raw.  However in a WordPress multi-site, this plug in will only allow SuperAdmins to post unfiltered html. This security seems to me over the top. I can see why will prevent unfiltered html. And I can see why in hosted versions unfiltered html might be turned off as a default. But surely, on a hosted version, it should be possible for Superadmins to have some kind of control over what kind of content different levels of users are allowed to post. The site we are developing is closed to non members so we are unlikely to have a security risk and the only Javascript we are posting comes from Google who might be thought to be trusted.

WordPress is using shortcodes for embeds. But there are no shortcodes for Google Charts embed. There is shortcode for using the Google Charts API but that would invalidate our aim of making the system easy to update. And of course, we could instead post an image file of the chart, but once more that would not be dynamically updated.

In the end my colleague Dirk hacked the WordPress code to allow editors to post unfiltered html but this is not an elegant answer!

We also added the Google code to Custom Fields allowing a better way to add the embeds.

Even then we hot another strange and time wasting obstacle. Despite the code being exactly the same, code copied and posted by our university colleagues was not being displayed. The only difference in the code is that when we posted it it had a lot of spaces, whist theirs appeared to be justified. It seems the problem is a Copy/ Paste bug in Microsoft Explorer 9, which is the default bowser in the university, which invalidates some of the javascript code. The work around for this was for them to install Firefox.

So (fingers crossed) it all works. But it was a struggle. I would be very grateful for any feedback – either on a better way of doing what we are trying to achieve – or on the various problems with WordPress and Google embed codes. Remember, we are looking for something cheap and easy!


Evaluation 2.0: How do we progress it?

October 11th, 2011 by Jenny Hughes

Have been in Brussels for the last two days – speaking at 9th European Week of Regions and Cities organized by DG Regio and also taking the opportunity to join other sessions. My topic was Evaluation 2.0. Very encouraged by the positive feedback I’ve been getting all day both face-to-face and through twitter. I thought people would be generally resistant to the idea as it was fairly hard-hitting (and in fairness, some were horrified!) but far more have been interested and very positive, including quite a lot of Commission staff. However, the question now being asked by a number of them of them is “How do we progress this?” – meaning, specifically, in the context of the evaluation of Regional Policy and DG Regio intervention.

Evaluation 2.0 in Regional Policy evaluation
I don’t have any answers to this – in some ways, that’s not for me to decide! I have mostly used Evaluation 2.0 stuff in the evaluation of education projects not regional policy. And my recent experience of the Cohesion Fund, ERDF, IPA or any of the structural funds is minimal. However, the ideas are generic and if people think that there are some they could work with, that’s fine!

That said, here are some suggestions for moving things forward – some of them are mine, most have been mooted by various people who have come to talk to me today (and bought me lots of coffee!)

Suggestions for taking it forward

  • Set up a twitter hashtag #evaluation2.0. Well that’s easy but I don’t know how much traffic there would be as yet!
  • Set up a webpage providing information and discussion around Evaluation 2.0. More difficult – who does that and who keeps it updated? Maybe, instead, it is worth feeding in to the Evalsed site that DG Regio maintain, which currently provides information and support for their evaluators. I gather it is under the process of review – a good opportunity to make it more interactive, to make more use of multimedia and with space for users to create content as well as DG Regio!
  • Form a small working group or interest group – this could be formal or informal, stand alone or tied to their existing evaluation network. Either way, it needs to be open and accessible to people who are interested in developing new ideas and trying some stuff out rather than a representative ‘committee’.
  • Alternatively, set up an expert group to move some ideas forward.
  • Or how about a Diigo group?
  • Undertake some small-scale trials with specific tools – to see whether the ideas do cross over from the areas I work in to Regional Policy.
  • Run a couple of one-day training events on Evaluation 2.0 focusing on some real hands-on workshops for evaluators and evaluation unit staff rather than just on information giving.
  • Check out with people responsible for evaluation in other DGs whether there is an opportunity for some joint development (a novel idea!) Unlike other ‘perspectives’ it is not tied to content or any particular theoretical approach.
  • Think about developing some mobile phone apps for evaluators and stakeholders around content specific issues – I can easily think of 5 or 6 possibilities to support both counterfactual, quantitative approaches and theory-based qualitative approaches. Although the ideas are generic, customizing the content means evaluators would have something concrete to work with rather than just ideas.
  • Produce an easy-to-use handbook on evaluation 2.0 for evaluators / evaluation units who want practical information on how to do it.
  • Ring fence a small amount of funding to support one-off explorations into innovative practice and new ideas around evaluation.
  • Encourage the evaluation unit to demonstrate leadership in new approaches – for example, try streaming a live internet radio programme around the theme of evaluation (cheap and easy!); set up a multi-user blog for people to post work in progress and interesting observations of ongoing projects using a range of media as well as text-based major reports; make some podcasts of interviews with key players in the evaluation of Regional Policy; set up a wiki around evaluation rather than having to drill down through the various Commission websites; try locating projects using GPS data so that we can all see where the action is taking place! Keep a twitter stream going around questions and issues – make use of crowd sourcing!
  • Advertise the next European Evaluation Society biennial conference, in Helsinki, October 1st – 5th 2012 “Evaluation in the networked society: New concepts, New challenges, New solutions” (There you go Bob, I just did!)
  • Broaden the idea of Evaluation 2.0 and maybe get rid of the catchphrase! We are already using the power of the semantic web in evaluation to mash open and linked data, for example. Should we be now be talking about Evaluation 3.0?? Or should we find another name – Technology Enhanced Evaluation? We could have TEE parties instead of conferences – Europe’s answer to the American far right ; )

P.S. Message to the large numbers of English delegates at the conference

When you left Heathrow yesterday to come to Brussels, I do hope you waved to the English Rugby team arriving home from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

(Just as well this conference was not a week later or I’d have leave a similar message for the French delegates…..)

Low tech video conferencing suite

May 15th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

Lst week I was aksed to provide video conferencing services for a meeting of the board of the European Educational Research Association’s Vocational Education and Training Network (VETNET).

The long running network has members from some nine different countries, but very limited funding. Six people were able to make it to Bremen for the face to face meetiong, another six wanted to particpate remotely in the meeting.

We experimented with a video conferencing link up last year, using the free UK Open Univerisity Flash Meeting and providing a link from the face to face meeting through a Panaosnic camcorder. This year was harder as I have managed to lose the power lead for the Panasonic, not realising until it was too late to get a replacement.

So I ended up using my Blue Snowball USB microphone for audio, set to 360 degrees, and a Logitech webcam, taped to a light stand and a data projector for those participating face to face.

This was all looking good, except that the camera was picking up the light, and adjusting the lense so that paradoxically the room appeared underlit. A couple of hastily borrowed desk lamps solved that problem.

And the the whole set up worked fine. The key part of the technology was the microphone. With video conferencing you can get away with poor quality video, but clear audio is vital. Also, higher quality microphones allow reasonably loud speaker playback in the face to face part of the meeting, without the risk of feedback. Other than that, having two moderators for the meeting is useful, one to moderate the face to face part of the meeting and the other moderating the online participation. Of course one person can do both, but it soon becomes very tiring.

All of which goes to show that you do not need expensive video confercing suites to effectively communicate on a remote basis. Flash Meeting works very well, and with a good USB microphone (cost about 90 Euro) and a standard webcam you are away and running.

How to live stream events

September 5th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I talked in previous posts about our work with the European Conference on Educational Research to ‘amplify’ the conference, recently held in Vienna. This involved setting up various social media channels including a Twitter stream and a iTunesU page, producing a series of video interviews with conveners of the different networks which organise ECER and b9radcasting three live radio shows from the conference.

We also undertook to stream four keynote speeches, run in two parallel sessions as well as the opening. Easy, I thought. Like many of you I have live streamed from different events, pointing a camera or even a MacBook at the speaker and linking in to  uStream or or one of the other social video platforms. It turned out not to be so simple.

We were working with a community not generally used to social media. And quite simply, the idea of pointing them to a platform advertising poker, acne treatments didn’t seem a good idea. Plus we had an issue with the reliability and quality of the free services. Livestream looked a better idea especially though their premium accounts. This allows you to have your own channel and remove the adverts.but a single channel on Livestream costs 350 dollars a month, with twelve months billing in advance. And we needed two channels. Back to the drawing board. We discovered that Ustream has set up another service called Watershed and indeed for a time were tempted by this. Watershed offers per view payments, but the prices are relatively high. And the terms and conditions of service for the monthly or annual contracts was impenetrable. No problem, we thought, we will ring them and clarify the conditions. Then we discovered there was no telephone number on their site. All you cold do was ask questions on a bulletin board, largely filled with complaints about the service and the total lack of technical support.

OK – so that didn’t seem such a good idea. Last resort – ask a friend. I twittered out for anyone with ideas of a service we could use. And somewhat to my surprise, no-one could come up with a solution, other than the services we had already looked at.

Back to searching on the Internet. Of course there are many companies offering professional streaming services but they all seem geared towards corporate or media organisations, not towards education or for relatively low numbers of live viewers.

I finally stumbled on a web site from a Canadian company called NetroMedia. Their prices were not clear but they said that for one off events you could fill in a query form. So I did, not with any great hope. To my surprise about half an hour later, I had an email reply asking for more details about the event I wished to stream. And to my even greater surprise, some forty minutes after returning this a person rang me. Yes, a real live person!!!

She calculated how much bandwidth we would need and offered us a service for 100 Canadian dollars, plus 20 dollars for unlimited technical support. (Note that if you buy into this or a similar service, it is important to buy sufficient bandwidth in advance, extra bandwidth per view is relatively expensive). Woo, away we go. Even better some twenty minutes after paying them, Darren, the technical support man rung us. This was very helpful, because although the set up is relatively simple, we required two video streams going out simultaneously, and that required a little fiddling.

NetroMedia do not offer a portal for streams. Instead they provide a streaming service and you embed a Flash video player in your own web site. This suited us just fine. The up stream was encoded through the free Adobe Flash Media Encoder, which worked well on both a PC and a Mac. The only thing I would like is to have more direction control over what we were streaming – e.g to be able to switch between a feed from the data projector and the video but I am sure we can work out how to do that. I am very happy with the quality of the streaming (you can view the recordings by clicking on read more on each of the channels on the ECER video streaming web page) although we were helped in this regard by the kind loan from Helsinki University of two very good video cameras.

Of course, if you are working in a University or large organisation, you may be able to run your own streaming server.But such an investment is beyond Pontydysgu, or I guess many small organisations. Yet video streaming is going to be an important part of Amplifying future events. And we need a reliable and reasonable quality of service.  I would certainly go to Netromedia again. But I also wonder if there is some way we could collectively organise resources for streaming in the educational technology community to both share know-how and expertise and infrastructure.

Buying in Moodle

June 19th, 2010 by Dirk Stieglitz

Buying in Moodle – Jenny Hughes and Dirk Stieglitz

As a primary school governor, one of the issues I have been wrestling with recently is the installation of Moodle in the school. I have a particular responsibility for IT – so I want to make sure it works and does what we want it to and as a member of the Finance Committee, I want to know how we get best value for money. I suspect this is a position that lots of others are in right now.

We have decided that we are not going to host it ourselves – we simply don’t have the time or expertise to do it so in our case this means we have joined a consortium of schools with the local university acting as a full-service host.

However, when I asked to see the service level agreement, it was a little ‘thin’ to say the least. This is not to say that what being offered was unsatisfactory – just that a lot of issues were not addressed in the SLA.  In case others find themselves in this position, I have jotted down a series of questions you really need to be asking your host provider and why you need to ask them.  How – and if – you then want to include these in your service level agreement is really up to you.

(I have to say, it might not make you a desperately popular client…)

You also need to remember there is no ‘definitive’ list. If you are a small primary school, you will probably want your Moodle host to do everything and not have to worry about lots of the detailed questions whereas a large secondary school with an IT support department wanting to do more advanced things, will need to ask more technical questions.

So, in no particular order ….

Do they provide the Moodle admin AND the server admin – i.e do they support Moodle as a software package as well as providing and maintaining the server it runs on?

There are different people involved in a Moodle installation. There are users – these are your teachers who just want to use Moodle to create and teach courses.  Then there are people who take care of the Moodle “back end”, the Moodle ‘admin’, which could be someone in your school or it could be someone provided by the host organization or the Moodle admin could be shared between them.

Someone must also be responsible for ‘server admin’ that is, managing and maintaining the server and stacking the software that Moodle will run on. This person will work for the host providing the server.  Ideally, there should be a group that brings all these together so that the Moodle admin and server admin understand the classroom teacher perspective.

You need the following things to make Moodle run.

  • a web server (often, but not necessarily Apache),
  • PHP,
  • a database engine (often but not necessarily mySQL),

The Moodle code itself will run on top of these.

There is an enormous variation in what web hosts actually provide for your money and the costing model they use. (Think mobile phone companies and te different contracts they provide!!)

So they may be offering:

A total package, which means providing and maintaining the server, supporting other server side packages as well as providing full technical support for the Moodle software and direct support for end users such as providing training or advice on content building or a help desk.

These are usually called full-service hosts and probably what you need if you are a small school with no in-house IT backup. However, you will almost certainly have an SLA in place for IT support either with a private organization or your local authority – it is worth checking out what support they can offer so that you don’t end up paying for the same thing twice

A limited Moodle admin without the server admin which just manages Moodle but not other software packages on the server, such as database management and php, cron, email (for more about why and if you need this, there is a geeky bit at the bottom of this post) This may be enough for you but it means you will have to do a lot yourself and you will need to talk to your IT support people to see if they have the capacity to do this.

A minimal package which may be just provision and maintenance of the server which Moodle will run on without much in the way of supporting the Moodle software package itself.

Are they a registered Moodle partner?

This is a financial and legal issue – as well as a moral one! Moodle is Open Source software and can be downloaded free off the web. Similarly, any web hosting service can host Moodle for their clients. However, in order to contribute to the development costs of keeping Moodle up and running and constantly improving, organizations who advertise themselves as providing a full service hosting facility for Moodle and who want to use the Moodle name and logo in their marketing, are expected to become Moodle Partners. This means they pay a (small) percentage of their income, like a royalty, to the Moodle organization in Australia and become part of a world wide network of Moodle partners. Personally, I think this is very important – not only does it give them access to the expertise of a huge community of practice but it gives them a lot of technical support from the Moodle organization itself. Anyway, I just think it’s fair and ethical – they are only going to pass the cost on to you anyway – and as this is likely to be the most popular choice, especially in a small school, it is an issue to consider.

What other packages, extension and add-ons are possible to extend the features and functionalities of Moodle?

In addition to the basics, Moodle offers many modules that allow the integration of external (third party) applications and access to web services.  So you need to ask, if you want additional modules, which ones they provide in the package. Do they provide them automatically?  Do you ask them to provide them? Do they install these extra packages or will you have to install them yourselves?  Is there a cost implication?

Most importantly, will they ALLOW extra packages?  Do they have fixed policies on this or are they negotiable?

For example, teachers my find Mahara useful – this is an Open Source e-portfolio / social networking module which will be integrated into Moodle2 but under the current version of Moodle is an add-on. At least 2 web hosts I have dealt with will not provide this.

Check which of these they do or can provide

For example….

  • aspell – is a useful (and free) spell checker.
  • dragmath – is a free “drag and drop” equation editor. It is a Java applet that can simply run within a web browser on most computers.
  • asciimathml – ‘translates’ figures into maths symbols / notation – your maths teachers will love this one!

Or you may want to integrate access to flickr or youtube. If so you will need to make sure that your Moodle installation enables communication through API to these services.

In many cases, the host provider has already decided what packages they are prepared to install and you are stuck with that – whether you want them or not. Others have a menu from which you can select but the modules appearing on the menu may be pre-determined. In my experience, the modules the tech. people might select might not be the same as the teachers may have chosen : (

What training does your host provide, if any?

Who will do it? Some techies are excellent trainers, some are not. Find out!

How long does it take? Are they day time sessions, evening sessions, fixed dates or on demand?

How much does it cost? What comes free as part of the package? Can they provide additional training if you need more than that? How much will it be?

What will it cover?  Entry level training may just cover how to set up users, courses, upload materials and not much else. Useful and necessary but there are some very good on-line tutorials that can cover the basics.

Are there people who will help to create content? Does the training cover this? This is really important and really useful if teachers have no experience of creating web based content. It is not just about uploading stuff they do face-to-face in the classroom!

Also, you will probably want to customize the appearance of your front end – will they help you with layout, graphics, images and overall design?

In the longer term, what about support for development? Sometime in the future you may want to increase the functionality of your Moodle installation – do they have developers to work with you on this?

Updates – how often are they going to update the software and ensure compatibility?

Software is not static, it changes all the time. Moodle software sometimes changes daily! Software may be altered to fix security issues or to make improvements.

Also Moodle is not the only application that will be updated. As we said, Moodle is not “just” Moodle – it relies on a set of software applications and any time you are trying to keep multiple applications current you are bound to run into compatibility issues. Sometimes a fix in one respect causes a bug in another.

Also a BIG issue – as of writing this, Moodle is currently available as Moodle version 1.9.9 i.e the original version with updates. However, Moodle v2 is likely to be available in the near future.  When I asked what impact this was likely to have, I was told that they were not planning to upgrade to v2 at all. Hello? Does that mean that ten years down the line when Moodle v3, 4 or 5 is available we are still tied to an SLA that is using an out of date platform?

Access – what are you allowed to do?

You might like to ask what access (if any) you have to the back-end of the Moodle installation, including the database. (Typical access would go through FTP and phpMyAdmin.)  Access means, for example, that you can customize the appearance of your own site, you can access all any files uploaded on your installation and can back up your own data. Your host may or may not allow you to do this.

Backups – a BIG question!

How often will it be backed up? Who is responsible for backing up what? Who is liable if data is lost? What is the back up regime?  – these are just the basics!

You will also need to know when they are backed up and how long they keep the data.

A backup regime, including course backups, software backups and database backups is important so find out exactly what sort of back ups will be provided.

  • Some web hosts provide “snap shots”,
  • Some provide site wide backups.
  • Some offer shell access and tell you to do it yourself

Moodle can do some of it’s own backups but they are only a small bit of a full backup programme that has to take into account all the different types of data that is held by a Moodle site. Each data type needs a different sort of backup regime.

Here are some further issues about back ups that you might want to address.

Front end back up facilities

Built in to the Moodle front-end is a function that allows your site administrator (i.e the person at school level who is responsible for the site) to back up your courses. There are several possible settings that can be turned on and off which control how often and what is stored, and, most importantly, where this data is to be stored

Some host providers over ride and turn off this facility. Or they may limit where the data can be stored.

Remote back up

If you have the necessary access and are planning to do your own backup, You will also need to find out how your host is going to handle the back ups. They can either script the system to address backups for all the different types of data or another possibility is that they replicate the data, either to a simple store or to a fallover unit. If you are going to do some of your own back ups, mysql replication requires access to mysql commands that some web hosts do not provide.

Back up of additional modules

Assuming they have allowed you to add extra modules (or they have done this for you) who is going to back these up? Do you have to do it yourself or will it automatically be done for you?

If they do back up the additional modules, does this also include backing up the user generated data associated with the modules or is it just the modules?

Similarly, any complementary software that you have integrated should be backed up. Who does this?

GUI (graphical user interface)

Will any themes or customizations be backed up? Your GUI is often neglected when addressing backups. The data that makes your site look like it does, that you may have selected from a range of options, will be stored in your Moodle code installation with any pictures or images in Moodledata. (see note below)

Code – will it be backed up?

This sounds a bit obvious and some providers may wonder what on earth this is to do with you – and almost certainly resent the question!

However, a lot of them figure there is no point in backing up the Moodle code when, if there are major disasters, they can just download it from Moodle and reinstall it.

This causes problems. One is that it will probably lose your customisation (see GUI ) and any added-on modules. The other is that the version of Moodle they download today is going to be different from the same version of Moodle they download tomorrow. A new install often causes problems on a restore in addition to the original problem. This means they will have to work out why what was working yesterday isn’t working today and that slows the whole process and increase the down time for users. You don’t want them to have to recreate your Moodle application – just restore it! See also ‘Downtime’ below

Moodledata folder

Will contents of the Moodledata directory be backed up? The data may be excluded in your Moodle backups but may hold some of your most important material such as media that was sited in Site Files.


How often is the db dumped and stored? Can you do this manually /remotely ?

Whatever database you are using, it is critical that you dump and store your db regularly, especially because it can be so simple to restore a site if you have a recent db dump. This can be accomplished manually via a GUI as with phpMyAdmin or mysql admin or via command line if the user has access and the requisite skills. It can also be automated via commercial or open scripting (as in HandyBackup or automysqlbackup). ]

Maximum file upload size and storage capacity

What is the maximum file upload size? Some hosts are putting heavy restrictions on this. The maximum size of file uploads for Moodle can be controlled via the Moodle GUI but are also constrained via Apache and PHP. To adjust these you may need to be able to edit .htaccess and/or php.ini. but the chances are your host will not allow this.

How much storage capacity do you get? What is the limit on Email volume, storage space for users and courses? How many accounts are you allowed? If either proves inadequate, can you buy more? How much is this going to cost?

Also, issues of scale can be very important. A relatively small number of concurrent users can generate enough email through forum postings to get you in trouble with your host.

If you have back end access and are planning to do your own back up and costing model includes paying your web host for bandwidth, then you need to remember this sort of remote backup can become expensive.

Downtime – when and how much?

All servers need to be maintained. This means it will not be available for users. You need to ask when the routine maintenance will take place and how long the server will be out of action.

You may get an answer expressed in terms of ‘9’s’.  This is just geek talk for 9%, 99%, 99.9%, 99.99% and so on.

Now 99.9% means the system is down .1% of the time. It doesn’t sound much (about an hour and forty minutes a week) but when does this take place? If this routine maintenance takes place once a week between 3 and 5 am on a Sunday morning, that is unlikely to cause problems whereas the same time could mean that it was down for a whole day once a month. Check it out.

Security – who has access to what?

Moodle holds different sorts of data:

  • There is the data Moodle places in the mysql database.
  • There is the data that Moodle places in the Moodledata file structure,
  • there is the Moodle code itself.

All of these should be protected from unauthorized reading, writing and execution.

Who has what permissions? Who controls this?  How are users authenticated?

Is there a firewall? What level of security will it provide? Don’t think that the higher the level of security the better the service! On the one hand you need to stop porno spam reaching your pupils but there is nothing more frustrating than having to telephone the host every time you want to access a website that isn’t ‘approved’ by them or receive an email from someone the firewall chooses to block.  Anyone with a .mac account seems to be particularly prone to blacklisting.

Are particular ports blocked? For example, some web services and applications (e.g Skype) rely on free access to these ports. Can these ports be made available?

The following are some extra questions for the geeks

What operating system will the server run on? What database will it use?

This is really a question the IT section might want to know. The host server may use Linux, Windows or a Mac platform. This will make no difference to the end user as the Moodle software will stand between the server operating system and the users operating system. However, it might cause some problems for ‘advanced’ users in terms of some additional software they want to integrate. This same group, for similar reasons, may also want to know what the database option is (e.g MySQL, Postgres, MSSQL). Also ask what policy they have on updating PHP.

Organising online meetings

February 10th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Comments and informal discussions about my past post on virtual classrooms and online simultaneous meeting platforms seem to confirm my feelings. Adobe Connect is seen as very good, but also very expensive. Elluminate is also pretty good, but also costs money. DimDim and other Flash based systems are trying – but the audio is extremely unreliable. I was interested to see today that Scribblar is adding skype support to its platform – although at the moment only for one to one communication.

For meetings, I still think FlashMeeting, free and supported by the UK Open University, is the best of the bunch. The design does not really scale for large groups, neither is the feature set particularly extensive. But it is adequate and functional for project meetings.

Last week we were asked if we could support a board meeting of VETNET, the vocational education and training network of the European Educational Research Association (EERA). With little funding not all the members could afford to travel to a meeting in Germany. Around seven would be present face to face, but would it be possible to link in with four more members online?

Of course there are wonderful video conferencing suites which make this very easy. But once more they cost money. How could this be done on the cheap?

We used FlashMeeting. The remote participants simply logged in as usual from their computers using headphones for audio. All but one also has a webcam. In the face to face meeting we used a video camera with a gun microphone and projected the Flash meeting with a data projector onto a screen.

At first everyone was a bit concious of the technology and we made a few mistakes with people speaking when the microphone feed form the camera was not being broadcast into online meeting. But soon people seemed to forget the technology and the meeting was highly productive.

For Angelika Wegscheider, the EERA Administrator / Geschäftsführung from the European Educational Research Association and based in Berlin, it was the first time wshe had taken part in such a meeting. Afterwards she commented: “I would also like to thank your for having me virtually in your board meeting. Two reflections on this: I found it fascinating how much I felt to actually “be” in the meeting. I did most of the previous skype and online meetings without a camera and was surprised what value was offered when almost everybody is using a camera.

What I felt a bit difficult – and this might be lack of experience with meetings like that – is the following: if you speak as a virtual participant you see the same picture as all others – which is you yourself. I a way this is irritating, because you do not reactions of others on what you said. You have no means to check if people got your point. On telephone the second signals understanding with small words, in face to face you have body language in addition. Having none of both, mislead me in talking longer and explaining more than was probably necessary ….”

Angelica’s feedback is interesting. Not only do we need better technology, but we also have to look at how we can organise such meetings to overcome some of the social limitations of online meeting software,

Rules of Rhetoric?

January 10th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

One of the worst things about conferences is the poor quality of presentations. And whilst we send students on compulsory research skills courses (and I am ambiguous about the value of many of these) we do not teach them how to make a good presentation.

In an age of multimedia, live performances, for that is what a conference presentation is, have to have added value over the paper copy, the blog or the video. Why go to a lecture if all the lecturer does it read her or his notes which are online anyway?

The European Educational Research Association‘s Emerging Researchers Network has provided this advice sheet – in a file somewhat oddly entitled Rules for Rhetoric and written by Prof. Dr. Meinert A. Meyer from the University of Hamburg, Germany- for those presenting at its annual pre-conference to the main European Conference for Educational Research.  I don’t see though, why it is only being offered to emerging researchers. ECER should provide this advice sheet for everyone?

I am not sure about producing a written text though. I think a series of bullet point notes may be better. And – talking of bullet points – try not to use them on slides. Slides should be there to add to your presentation – not to duplicate visually what you are saying. See the powerpoint as an extra channel to add richness to our spoken word. I would also bring the last point – on what message you are telling to the top. I would then suggest producing a  storyboard of your presentation and use that storyboard to think about your oral presentation, the images you will use and the words you will use on your slides.

  1. “If you have a time slot of 15 Minutes, this means that you can produce 3 or – at most – 4 pages of written text, Times new Roman 12, one and a half lines distance. (Don’t forget the time you need to show and explain your figures and diagrams.)
  2. You should prepare your presentation with a written version, but after that you should speak freely, addressing your audience, not your laptop. Make sure that you do not reduce your eye contact to one or two persons or to only one half of the audience.
  3. Try to speak as simple and down to earth as possible. The majority of your listeners does not have pre-information concerning your topic, your special interest and focus. A list of keywords/a crib is helpful for that, and – of course – practice. Talk to the mirror; tell your friends what you have to say, as simple and understandable as possible.
  4. It is helpful to have your presentation videotaped, in advance, and to analyse it carefully. Please watch the rhetoric of your presentation. Are you slow enough? How many “ehms”, “okays” et cetera did you produce? How many break downs of sentences did you produce? Can you reduce their number?
  5. Very many presenters produce power point slides with too much information and with too small letters. Use size 24, fat, as a rule, and size 18, fat, as the absolute minimum.
  6. Don’t produce a full version of your paper on slides and read that out. This is the best guarantee for a boring presentation. I suggest not more than 12 slides for 15 minutes.
  7. Avoid reading your text at full speed. Even though it my be that you yourself understand what you say, the listeners won’t.
  8. Make sure that your time for discussion equals your presentation time. Good presentations always have ample time afterwards. (You may have a few slides in reserve, in case the listeners ask you what you would have liked to integrate into the paper if you had had more presentation time.)
  9. You should be able to say, in one sentence, what your message is/what the gist of your story is.”

Has anyone any other advice for improving conference presentations?

Making ‘Do Institutions have a Future?’

November 6th, 2009 by Jo Turner-Attwell

We created ‘Do Institions have a Future?’ for the Jisc Online Conference 2009 ‘Thriving Not Surviving’. Filming, acting and editing was done by Graham Attwell and myself, with help from Helge Staedler our on-the-spot cameraman. Making this video and getting it to work efficiently took around 3 days with pretty much constant work as we stretched iMovie to its very limits using green screen, video within a video and keynote graphics. You can access the video through the link below and then I have written a bit about how we made it for those who are interested.

We filmed our green screen using a chromakey green screen on a curtain rail and two garage lights and masking tape to pull it vaguely taut, trying to keep costs as low as possible. As it is possible to see, our green screen isn’t perfect due to shadow and some creases in the screen. We struggled with the shadow problem as we only had 2 lights which we placed either side and really we needed an extra one in the centre. The creases problem could have been solved with an iron as we found that in general our problems were not related with the screen not being pulled fully taut but rather creases in the screen itself. Another point I would recommend when using green screen is having a shot without the people in at the end of your movie. We were unable to do this successfully; however, at the end iMovie does allow you to improve your green screen as long as this shot is contained within the video.

To edit the video we used the advanced iMovie tools which can be turned on in iMovie preferences. When editing, green screen and video within a video are very easy to use as all that needs to be done is for the main video to be dragged over the desired background and iMovie will present you with a menu including green screen and video within a video. To create Graham’s intro which involves both actions which iMovie doesn’t allow, we first played with the green screen and gave Grahams head a proper background and then exported the project and reimported it as part of an event making it one video in itself. This meant we could then use this to drag over the slides to use video within a video to have both effects running simultaneously.

The news intro and many of the backgrounds within the news clips were made using Keynote slideshows, which can be exported as a photos or a video. This meant I could change the size or position of  photos within plain slides so they would be more easily seen, or create video clips, such as the economic downturn clip, animated using the inspector. I also found it was effective for making logos as this was where I made the Research Rights Management logo in a matter of minutes. When exporting Keynote files as a video its important to remember is to ensure that they are set to fixed timing as Keynote always resets to manual timing which then can’t be imported into iMovie, a mistake I made at the beginning.

iMovie was not happy through much of the editing and we had huge issues with one of projects which we still don’t know the reasons for. It refused to open properly and eventually we had to export in its intermediate stage reimport it and edit it from that point. Also because of these problems much of the video was made in separate projects and over two computers as both seemed to have problems with our data. It was only put into one video at the end by exporting and importing, though as long as green screen is not split which ours was, it is also possible to copy the whole projects and paste them into one another. However, we managed to find work arounds to the majority of our problems and the import export process was a method which we found to our surprise worked well despite thoughts that it may effect quality.

The video still has much room for improvement and I could have easily spent much longer editing and playing with the timing, probably some of the problems being only apparent to me, but any comments at all on how we could have improved the video and our use of green screen would be most appreciated.

  • Search

    News Bites

    Number students outside EU falls in UK

    Times Higher Education reports the number of first-year students from outside the European Union enrolling at UK universities fell by 1 per cent from 2014-15 to 2015-16, according to data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

    Data from the past five years show which countries are sending fewer students to study in the UK.

    Despite a large increase in the number of students enrolling from China, a cohort that has grown by 12,500 since 2011-12, enrolments by students from India fell by 13,150 over the same period.

    Other notable changes include an increase in students from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia and a fall in students from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

    Peer Review

    According to the Guardian, research conducted with more than 6,300 authors of journal articles, peer reviewers and journal editors revealed that over two-thirds of researchers who have never peer reviewed a paper would like to. Of that group (drawn from the full range of subject areas) more than 60% said they would like the option to attend a workshop or formal training on peer reviewing. At the same time, over two-thirds of journal editors told the researchers that it is difficult to find reviewers

    Teachers and overtime

    According to the TES teachers in the UK “are more likely to work unpaid overtime than staff in any other industry, with some working almost 13 extra hours per week, according to research.

    A study of official figures from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that 61.4 per cent of primary school teachers worked unpaid overtime in 2014, equating to 12.9 additional hours a week.

    Among secondary teachers, 57.5 per cent worked unpaid overtime, with an average of 12.5 extra hours.

    Across all education staff, including teachers, teaching assistants, playground staff, cleaners and caretakers, 37.6 per cent worked unpaid overtime – a figure higher than that for any other sector.”

    The future of English Further Education

    The UK Parliament Public Accounts Committee has warned  the declining financial health of many FE colleges has “potentially serious consequences for learners and local economies”.

    It finds funding and oversight bodies have been slow to address emerging financial and educational risks, with current oversight arrangements leading to confusion over who should intervene and when.

    The Report says the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Skills Funding Agency “are not doing enough to help colleges address risks at an early stage”.

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