Moodle book and GitHub: working together

A major aim of the Moodle Open Book project has been to connect the Moodle Book module with GitHub. The intent was that such a connection would enable the easy sharing of content that is currently largely locked within the LMS, not to mention improving the authoring process for the Moodle Book module. Earlier this week I gave a presentation in which I demonstrated a working connection between the Book module and GitHub. The following post illustrates how this connection works.

This connection is implemented as a Moodle book tool, i.e.  an extension to the Moodle Book module that can be installed on any current version of Moodle. The code for the GitHub tool is available from this GitHub repository. The current status of this code is that it works, but is ugly (as the screenshots below will illustrate) and incomplete. The intent is that to get a working first version contributed to the Moodle Plugins database by early 2016 (end of January hopefully).

This work is funded by the USQ Open Textbook Initiative.

What is github?

If you don’t know what GitHub is, then I suggest you take the time to read the following or anyone of the many other resources on the web that explain GitHub.

Summary of how it works

The Moodle Book github tool currently works by

  1. Connecting a single “book” (a collection of web pages) created using the Moodle book with a single HTML file in a GitHub repository.
  2. The tool keeps a track of the relationship between the “book” and the HTML file and tells you if they are the same or different.
  3. Provides the ability to
    1. push the content of the “book” onto GitHub, and
    2. pull the content of the GitHub file back into the “book”.

Once the content of the book is on GitHub, this means it can be shared, modified, and updated by anyone via any means.

Hopefully it might become common for other people using Moodle to use the Book github tool to import books authored by someone else from GitHub into their Moodle course.

I’m certainly looking forward to being able to create and modify Moodle books outside of Moodle and using GitHub to migrate my changes back into Moodle.

Demonstration of how it works

The following contains a range of cropped screen-shots illustrating how the tool currently works. Click on any of the images to see a larger version.

A Moodle Book

First, let’s start with a Moodle book.  Here’s what one looks like in my course site.

001 Moodle Book and github

It’s just a collection of web pages.  But it does provide the Table of Contents and the “next page” and “previous page” navigation. It’s also a full part of Moodle hence services like activity completion can be used.

Make a change

Let’s make a change to this Moodle book.

002 Moodle Book and github

Can you see the rather pointless change (“**** SHOWING OFF GITHUB TOOL ****”) that I made to that page? Let’s assume that this change is important and responds to the experience of learners.

Is the Book github tool installed?

I want to save this change and the book to GitHub.  To do this the Book github tool needs to be installed.  Is it?

To find this out I look at the Book adminstration menu, which on my institutions Moodle theme looks like this.  Can you see evidence of the GitHub tool?

003 Moodle Book and github

Create the connection between book and github

To create (or check) the connection between the book and github I click on the GitHub link.

Authorise with your GitHub account

The first time you click on the GitHub link within Moodle, you will be redirected to GitHub and will see something like the following

004 Moodle Book and github

The github tool assumes that you have a user account on GitHub. This step is the github tool asking you for permission to use your GitHub account. Everything the github tool does on github will be done using this account.

If you agree to this you will see the connection page. This page allows you to configure the connection between the book and github, and also to view the status of that connection.  Here’s some of what I see.

Under construction: The current interface for the tool is very much under development. What you see is the minimal interface necessary to get all this working.

005 Moodle Book and github

In this case a connection has already been established.

In it’s current state the github tool expects you to provide two components for the connection

  1. the name of the GitHub repository; and,
  2. the full path to the specific file within the repository to connect with.

Currently the tool then combines these two bits of information with your GitHub username to arrive at the location of the file within GitHub.

I could change the connection to point another file on GitHub, but I’ll stick with this one.

Under construction: At the very least the ability to specify the github username and perhaps the branch (or similar) for the github file needs to be added.  Perhaps the option to copy and paste a github URL and have it checked and parsed?

View the file on GitHub

My username on GitHub is djplaner which means that the URL for the file that this book is connected to is

If you click on that link, you can see the current status of the file on GitHub. When I wrote this, the file on GitHub looked like the following

006 Moodle Book and github

The book is a sequence of web pages. When pushing a book onto GitHub the Book github tool combines all of those web pages into a single HTML file. That HTML file includes some additional HTML to help the Book github tool pull the content back into the book.

Under Construction: The format/structure of the HTML produced by the Book github tool’s export/import is still undergoing some refinement. Use of HTML5 semantic tags is on the list.

View the file as a web page

If you look closely at the image above of the github tool showing the connection you should see

View the file as a web page.

If you click on that link you will see something like the following (depending on what changes I’ve made since I took this screenshot)

007 Moodle Book and github

Under Construction: This uses a free service to display a GitHub file as a web page. How this is done also requires a bit more work.

Under Construction: At the moment the HTML is a simple concatenation of the book pages. Very soon this will be modified to include some additional markup and some basic style sheets. The aim is that when you view this HTML page you will see a table of contents and be able to navigate it like a book.

What’s the status of the connection?

Underneath the details of the connection the Book github tool page shows a simple summary of the status of the connection. In the image above, the status is

The book has been revised since the last push.

This is because of the change I made to the book earlier in this post. That change means that the GitHub file is now out of date. It’s not the latest version of Book.

Update the GitHub file

At this stage I can decide whether or not I want to update the file. When and if I update GitHub file will be entirely up to me, the source of the book I’ve edited, the changes I’ve made etc.

But if I do wish to update the GitHub file, I hit the “Push” link and see something like the following.

008 Moodle Book and github

First, there’s a brief warning just to make sure that you know that pushing will probably make the content of the book open to all to see.

Second, there is a space to enter some details (a comment) about the changes you are about to push onto GitHub.  The details about the push are visible in both GitHub and the Book github tool. The details about the push are useful for understanding what changes are being made.

Once I’ve entered my comment, I hit the push button and hopefully see a report of a successful push.

009 Moodle Book and github

This means that the GitHub file has been changed.

View the file on GitHub

If I view the file on GitHub, that change should be visible in the change below

010 Moodle Book and github

The first change is that the comment/details I added about the push is visible in the row with the blue background (“Just showing off for the blog post”). That row includes my username, avatar, and how long ago the change was made. The second change is that the HTML for the file now contains the change I made in the Moodle book up above. I’ve highlighted it in green to highlight it.

View the change history

If I return to the Book github tool to view the connection, I can see the following

011 Moodle Book and github

The Status has been updated to indicate that the Book and the GitHub file are now the same.

You can also see that the “Change History” for the connection now includes the same comment/details (“Just showing off for the blog post”) that showed up on GitHub. Can you see the link “commit details” in the Change History?

The link takes me to GitHub and shows me the following colour coded summary of the changes that were made to the file by this commit.

012 Moodle Book and github

The green and red colours are used to indicate the additions (79) and deletions (128) made by this commit. This is much higher than you’d expect from the simple change I made.  This is because I’ve been playing with the code.

Note: you should be able to click on the link and see the same page. Even though I’ve subsequently made changes to the file on GitHub, I (and you) can always take a look at what the file looked like at this particular point in time.

View the file on my computer

So far we’ve been using the Moodle book and GitHub to view and change the file. There are GitHub clients for a wide array of software and hardware. For example, there is a GitHub application for Mac OS X that I can use to make a local copy of the GitHub repository on my computer.

The following image is an example of a Mac finder window showing my local copy of the repository.  It shows that the version of the Copyright.html file (the one we’re using for the Moodle book) was created and modified yesterday.

013 Moodle Book and github

With the repository files on my computer I can then use all my normal applications to edit and view the file.  If I double click on the Copyright.html file in Finder, this is what I see.

014 Moodle Book and github

Note that the “SHOWING OFF” message is missing.  That’s because the copy on my computer is behind that on GitHub.

Update it

To fix this I use the GitHub desktop tool to pull the latest content from GitHub to my computer. Having done that I see the following when I view the Copyright.html file on my computer

015 Moodle Book and github

All up to date

Make a change

The change I made to the file is silly. I can’t leave it there, I need to remove it.  There are currently three methods I could use to make this change:

  1. Directly on GitHub.
    GitHub provides a means by which to directly edit the files via the GitHub website.
  2. Using the Moodle Book.
    I could go back to Moodle book where I first made the change, delete what I added, and then use the Book github tool to push it back to GitHub (and then pull the change to my computer).
  3. On my computer.
    Change the file on my computer, use the Desktop GitHub tool to push that change back to GitHub, and then use the Book github tool to pull the change back into the Book

I’m going to use the last option.

Due to my age and background, I use the vim editor to edit HTML

016 Moodle Book and github

But you could use any HTML editing tool you wished to make the change.

Push it back

Time to push these changes back to GitHub using the Mac GitHub application.

017 Moodle Book and github

Note how the application does a very nice job of highlighting the change I’ve made.  The text I removed is highlighted by the dark red background.

Just like with the Book github tool, I get the chance to enter a some details/comment about the change I made.  In this case, “Remove the showing off”

Check GitHub

On GitHub the file now looks like the following

018 Moodle Book and github

Can you see that the message within the blue background row has changed to “Remove the showing off”.  The message I used on my Mac to commit the change.

What’s the status of the connection

Let’s head back into Moodle and the Moodle book github tool to check the status of the connection between the book and the github file

019 Moodle Book and github

As you can see “The GitHub file is ahead of the book.” and you can also see that the “Change History” is now headed by the message “Remove the showing off”.  Matching the message shown on GitHub in the previous image.


In order to update the Moodle book with this new content, I need to pull the data from GitHub into the book. Click on Pull and see the following warning

020 Moodle Book and github

The pull process will replace the existing content of the book with the content from GitHub, hence the need to be sure.  I’m happy with that so go ahead and Pull

021 Moodle Book and github

If I check the status via the Book github tool it will show green – the book and the github file are the same.

View the change

And back to look at the book to see that the change has been made

022 Moodle Book and github

What’s yet to be done


More work is required to get a version 1 ready use. There are a few “under construction” indicates listed above and a list of issues on the tool’s GitHub repository.

Anything missing?  Then let me know, or better yet, fork the tool repository, make the change, and generate a pull request


Once version 1 is complete, the task will be to get it installed within the institution and then start working with people who want to use it. In particular, explore how it might be used within my institution to transform current practices.

Opening up and enhancing #moodle books with GitHub, ePub, etc.

On December 1 I gave the following presentation. Titled “Opening up and enhancing Moodle books with GitHub, ePub, etc.” the presentation reports on the work I’ve done as part of the Moodle open book project. In particular, it will describe the “why” and “what” behind the development of the Moodle Book github tool. A tool that integrates with the Moodle Book module and allows the Book module to push and pull it’s content from GitHub.

The focus of the project is to move beyond the focus of the open textbook being the product (the actual book). The focus for this project has been on improving the authoring process. With a particular aim to move toward an idea summarised by Licklider & Taylor (1968)

we believe that we are entering a technological age in which we will be able to interact with the richness of living information- not merely in the passive way that we have become accustomed to using books and libraries, but as active participants in an ongoing process


The slides below book-end the presentation. The middle of the presentation will be a live demo showing off the integration of the Moodle Book module and GitHub.

This blog post gives an description of how the Moodle Book github tool works using screenshots.

As you’d expect, the code for the Moodle Book github tool can be found in a GitHub repository. The code is somewhat functional, but a little messy and limited. Development is on going.



Licklider, J. C. ., & Taylor, R. W. (1968). The computer as a communication device. Science and Technology, 72(2), 1–3.


Homogeneity: the inevitable result of a strategic approach?

Is homogeneity an inevitable end result of a strategic approach to deciding what gets done?

The following presents some evidence to suggest a potential strong correlation.

What is the strategic approach?

In Jones and Clark (2014) we suggested that contemporary universities (along most other organisations) increasingly use a strategic approach to decide what work gets done. We described strategy as

following a global plan intended to achieve a pre-identified desired future state.

It’s where a bunch of really smart people get together. They analyse the current situation, identify the requirements and the challenges, and then decide that the entire institution should do X. Where X might include: a particular strategic vision; a single set of graduate attributes for the entire organisation; a particular approach to branding and marketing; the selection of a particular information system etc.

Once the strategic decision is made, the entire organisation becomes focused on moving toward the various institutionally approved strategic goals. Doing anything else is seen as inefficient, inappropriate, and is to be rooted out.

The underlying aim of the strategic approach is differentiation. To set the institution apart from the other institutions. To give various stakeholders/customers/clients a reason to go to this institution first.

How does that work out for them?

It’s Hard to Differentiate One Higher-Ed Brand From Another

This page reports on a study of 50 US-based higher education institutions and includes quotes such as (emphasis added)

found that the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status….
statements may accurately represent the broad views and aspirations of education leaders and their institutions. And they probably differentiate the institutions from financial service and retail companies

Interestingly the suggested solution to this problem is to forge “a strong organizational identity only starts with establishing and committing to a clear and differentiated purpose, brand and culture”. i.e. yet another strategic approach.

The sameness of graduate attributes

Few a few years know there’s been a fetish that has required each Australian University to develop their own set of graduate attributes. These are meant to indicate what are the unique attributes of a graduate of that institution. To demonstrate the unique value that the educational experiences offered by institution adds to the development of their customer student. Surely this must be the most obvious place of differentiation and distinction. Something the truly captures what is unique about each university.

Oliver (2011) does a scan of the literature and practice around graduate attributes identifies that

Universities’ most common generic attributes, apart from knowledge outcomes, appear to cluster in seven broad areas:

  1. Written and oral communication
  2. Critical and analytical (and sometimes creative and reflective) thinking
  3. Problem-solving (including generating ideas and innovative solutions)
  4. Information literacy, often associated with technology
  5. Learning and working independently
  6. Learning and working collaboratively
  7. Ethical and inclusive engagement with communities, cultures and nations.

(p. 2)

Strategic Information Systems

And the other fad over recent years has been the adoption of Strategic Information Systems such as ERPs and LMS. If the institution adopts the same system and works effectively together to leverage its capabilities we will be able to gain a competitive advantage over the opposition. Well, no.

Over 20 years ago, Ciborra (1992) argues

Tapping standard models of strategy analysis and data sources for industry analysis will lead to similar systems and enhance, rather than decrease, imitation (p. 297)

Which is why e-learning within Universities is increasingly infected by LMS-based courses using institutional standard course site designs, a digital repository, a lecture capture system, an e-portfolio, and a couple of other standard systems offering the same broken experience. Whether your LMS is open source or not, typically doesn’t make a difference.

The solution

Ciborra (1992) suggested

How then should “true” SISs be developed? In order to avoid easy imitation, they should should emerge from from the grass roots of the organization, out of end-user hacking, computing, and tinkering. In this way the innovative SIS is going to be highly entrenched with the specific culture of the firm. Top management needs to appreciate local fluctuations in practices as a repository of unique innovations and commit adequate resources to their development, even if they fly if the face of traditional approaches. Rather than of looking for standard models in the business strategy literature, SISs should be looked for in the theory and practice of organizational leaming and innovation, both incremental and radical. (p. 297)

Or as we argued in Jones and Clark (2014)

Perhaps universities need to break a little BAD?

Instead, universities like most organisations, are attempting to solve the problems of the strategic approach by doing the strategic approach again (but we’ll do it better this time, promise).

Insanity by Albert Einstein by Mimsen, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Mimsen 


Ciborra, C. (1992). From thinking to tinkering: The grassroots of strategic information systems. The Information Society, 8(4), 297–309.

Revising week 1 of EDU8117 – Networked and Global Learning

The following is a description of how I’ve gone about revising the Week 1 material for EDU8117, Networked and Global Learning. The intent is to demonstrate how a tool can be used for something a little different.

The problem

The content for week 1 is a longish web page. It was created in a hurry last year and could use some re-jigging. I need to read through the material and ponder what changes to make. The problem is how to record those thoughts in a way that allows me to focus on reading through the material initially.

If the material was in a Word (or PDF, or Google) document I would probably end up using Word’s (or Acrobat’s, Google doc’s) annotation facility to mark up the text and add comments. But it’s a web page and I’m not going to venture into the wilds of converting back and forth between HTML and other formats.

The solution

Luckily, I do use Diigo which will allow me to annotate web page, and that’s what I’m using. I’m reading through the web page and highlighting sections and making comments on sections I think will change. Once I’m complete, I’ll open the blog post in the WordPress editor beside another browser with the annotated version and make the changes.

The result

Here’s what part of the web page looks like with the annotations.

Original NGL Week 1

And the corresponding information in Diigo. You’ll be able to see that yourself if you visit my Diigo library. That link is actually to Diigo’s list of all links I’ve tagged with “annotate”. I’ll try to keep this the only one.

Diigo annotations on NGL Week 1

It has the advantage of leaving a visible record of the changes I’ve made. Even after I’ve changed the original web page, Diigo has done a reasonable job of keeping the highlights and annotations in place.

It also provides the potential advantage of making explicit

Does branding the LMS hurt learning

The LMS used by my institution is Moodle, but the institution has “branded” it as “Study Desk”. Meaning students and teachers talk about finding X on the “Study Desk”. They don’t talk about finding X on Moodle. The following suggests that this branding of the LMS may actually hurt learning.

Update: Via twitter @georgekroner mentioned his post that has some stats on what institutions are branding their LMS.

Google the name (information literacy?)

The biggest course I teach is aimed at helping pre-service teachers develop knowledge and skills around using digital technology to enhance and transform their students’ learning. Early on in the course a primary goal is to help the students develop the skill/literacy to solve their own digital technology problems. The idea is that we can’t train them on all the technologies they might come across (give them fish), we can only help them learn new technologies and solve their own problems (teach them how to fish).

A key part of that process is the “Tech support cheat sheet” from XKCD. A cheat sheet that summarises what “computer experts” tend to do. One of the key steps is

Google the name of the program plus a few words related to what you want to do. Follow any instructions.

How do you “Google the name of the program” if the institution has branded the LMS?

Does branding the LMS mean that students and teachers don’t know “the name of the program”?

Does this prevent them from following the tech cheat sheet?

What impact does this have on their learning?

A brief investigation

Early in the year I was noticing that a few students were having problems with “Google the name”, so I set an option activity that asked them to create a “technology record”. i.e. a record the names of all the technology that they are using. The idea is that having a record of the technology names can help solving problems. I included in that “technology record” that they specify the name of the software that provides the “Study Desk”.

There were 40 (out of ~300) responses including

  • 10 that identified uconnect, the institutional portal;
  • 8 that weren’t sure;
  • 8 that didn’t provide an answer for the Study Desk question;
  • 4 that identified their web browser;
  • 4 that firmly identified Moodle;
  • 3 that identified Moodle but weren’t sure;
  • 2 answered with the URL –;

20% of the respondents were able to identify Moodle.

These are 3rd year students. Almost all will have completed at least 16 courses using Moodle. These are students completing an optional activity indicating perhaps a slightly greater motivation to do well/learn. A quick reveal that most of the students have a GPA above 5.

The still don’t know the name of the LMS.

I wonder how many teaching staff know the name of the LMS?

Does this hurt learning?

Perhaps if everything works with the LMS then this doesn’t create any problem. But if the students wish to engage with social and information networks beyond the institution, they don’t know the common name for the object they want to talk about. That has to hurt learning.

I imagine that there are librarians and others who can point to research identifying the inability to know the correct search term hurts search.

What do you think? Does branding the LMS hurt learning?

What does this say about learning analytics?

What do the following two artefacts say about learning analytics?

Perhaps I’m being just a bit too cynical.

Horizon report predictions

The NMC Horizon Reports are (Johnson et al, 2013)

a comprehensive research venture established in 2002 that identifies and describes emerging technologies likely to have a large impact over the coming five years in education around the globe (p. 3)

Each year they list those technologies. The following table summarises the mentions of learning analytics as one of those “emerging technologies like to have a large impact…in education” from the annual Horizon Reports each year from 2009 through 2015

Year Time frame Important developments in Ed Tec
2009 n/a
2010 4 to 5 years Visual data analytics
2011 4-5 years Learning analytics
2012 2-3 years Learning analytics
2013 2-3 years Learning analytics
2014 One year or less (#2) Learning analytics
2015 4 to 5 years Adaptive learning technologies

Birnbaum’s fad cycle

The following image (click on it to see a larger version) is taken from Birnbaum (2000, p. 5) and describes Birnbaum’s life cycle stages of the fad process in higher education. In particular, it shows his proposition that these fads enter higher education from a non-academic sector.



Birnbaum, R. (2000). The Life Cycle of Academic Management Fads. The Journal of Higher Education, 71(1), 1–16.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Estrada, V., Freeman, A., and Ludgate, H. (2013). Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Why is e-learning like teenage sex and what can be done about it?

There are two versions of this talk.

  1. A joint presentation by Professor Peter Albion and I gave in May 2015 at USQ.

    This version of the talk combines and builds upon ideas from two papers co-written with Damien Clark and Amanda Heffernan.

    Update: The video of the session is available. Talk starts at about 4m30s.

  2. A solo presentation that I gave at CSU as part of a workshop on Learning Technology Innovation.

CSU version

USQ version

Video will be made available eventually.



The implementation of e-learning – defined by the OECD (2005) as the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to support and enhance learning and teaching – in universities has a problem. A problem perhaps best summed up by Professor Mark Brown (Laxon, 2013)

E-learning’s a bit like teenage sex. Everyone says they’re doing it but not many people really are and those that are doing it are doing it very poorly. (n.p).

E-learning’s teenage sex problem is apparent at USQ with the perception that some academic staff are not as engaged with the use of learning technologies as they perhaps could be (Sankey, 2015).

This is not a new problem. In a paper over 20 years ago Geoghagen (1994) sought to explain why a three decade long “vision of pedagogical utopia” (n.p.) promised by instructional technologies had failed to eventuate. Given that “Australian universities have made very large investments in corporate educational technologies” (Holt et al., 2013, p. 388) it would appear increasingly important to understand and address e-learning’s on-going teenage sex problem.

This session will discuss and demonstrate both practical and theoretical perspectives of and solutions to the problem. The practical approaches and tools to be demonstrated have been applied successfully within USQ by individual and small groups of academics. Similar approaches and tools have also been used at CQUniversity to develop a strategic, learning analytics-enabled, student retention project.

The session will argue that the dominant deficit model of academic staff – perhaps best illustrated by the suggestion from the 2014 Horizon Report for Higher Education (Johnson et al, 2014) that the low digital fluency of faculty was the most significant challenge impeding higher education technology adoption – is less than helpful. Instead, the session will argue that e-learning’s teenage sex problem arises from an inappropriate mindset, and a limited conception of knowledge and learning. The session will demonstrate how a different mindset and conception of knowledge and learning can help address e-learning’s on-going teenage sex problem.

The session will build upon ideas from two earlier papers (Jones and Clark, 2014; Jones, Heffernan and Albion, 2015)


Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? Paper presented at the 22nd Annual Conference of The International Business Schools Computing Association. Baltimore, MD.

Holt, D., Palmer, S., Munro, J., Solomonides, I., Gosper, M., Hicks, M., Sankey, M., Allan, G., & Hollenbeck, R. (2013). Leading the quality management of online learning environments in Australian higher education. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 29(3), 387-402. Retrieved from

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas. Retrieved from

Jones, D., Heffernan, A., & Albion, P. R. (2015). TPACK as shared practice: Toward a research agenda. In D. Slykhuis & G. Marks (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2015 (pp. 3287-3294). Las Vegas, NV: AACE. Retrieved from

Jones, D., & Clark, D. (2014). Breaking BAD to bridge the reality/rhetoric chasm. In Rhetoric and Reality: Critical perspectives on educational technology. Proceedings ascilite Dunedin 2014 (pp. 262-272). Dunedin. Retrieved from

Laxon, A. (2013, September 14). Exams go online for university students. The New Zealand Herald.

OECD. (2005). E-Learning in Tertiary Education: Where do we stand? Paris, France: Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved from

Sankey, M. (2015). Train a teacher in the way s/he should go and s/he will not depart… Retrieved April 10, 2015, from

Where does the LMS sit in the reusability paradox

This post continues the adaptation of the original work of David Wiley around the reuse and remixing of open content and applying that knowledge to the LMS and other institutional e-learning systems and practices. The idea is that explicitly ignoring the distinction between the “content” and the digital systems (and perhaps also the physical equipment) that are used in contemporary learning/teaching spaces is useful in identifying problems with current practice and identifying alternatives.

The Reusability Paradox

The inverse relationship between reusability and pedagogical effectiveness

The graph to the right represents “The Reusability Paradox” from David Wiley. Developed in the context of learning objects the paradox proposes that there is an inverse relationship between the reusability of a learning object and its pedagogical effectiveness. That is, the more easily you can re-use it in different course, then the less impact it will have on student learning (and vice versa).

Wiley argues that this paradox arises because “humans make meaning by connecting new information to that which they already know”. The more elaborate the connections that a learning object has to my context, the easier it is for me to see and make connections with it. It’s easier for me to learn. However, those more elaborate connections make it more difficult to take that learning object and use it in another context. Those elaborate connections don’t make sense in a different context, they cause confusion.

Thus to make a learning object portable, you have to minimise those elaborate, context-specific connections. You have a vanilla or standard object that is usable in more contexts. The cost, however, is that it’s now harder for the human being to make a connection to that learning object. They have to do much more work to connect the object to their existing context and knowledge. They have to do much more work to learn.

What’s good for “open content” is good for the LMS

My last post sought to apply Wiley’s 5Rs Framework to the LMS. The aim here is to explore what might be revealed by applying the Reusability Paradox to the LMS.

The Learning Management System (LMS) is designed to be general. To be reusable across different institutions and people. For example, the Moodle LMS is described as

Powering tens of thousands of learning environments globally, Moodle is trusted by institutions and organisations large and small, including Shell, London School of Economics, State University of New York, Microsoft and the Open University. Moodle’s worldwide numbers of more than 65 million users across both academic and enterprise level usage makes it the world’s most widely used learning platform.

The Reusability Paradox would imply that in order to achieve this level of successful reuse, the LMS must be focusing a bit more on reusability than pedagogical effectiveness. It would imply that at the level of individual learners and teachers that there should exist some difficulties in making connections. The learners and teachers much be engaged in some additional effort to connect to and learn with the LMS. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to find evidence of this. At the institutional level there will be training sessions run to help people understand the system and overcome the gap between what they’d like to do and what the system can do. At a more invisible level is the ad hoc social connections linking people who aren’t quite as technically literate (able to connect with the general tool) with the sprinkling of technically literate people – every academic organisational unit has at least one of these.

More recently you can see evidence of the code being written by people to make these connections. Some recent examples include:

  1. @palbion’s creation of a Greasemonkey script last weekend to add important functionality to the Moodle assignment module.
  2. The 10 (so far) Perl scripts I use to manipulate Moodle and other institutional systems to achieve the learning outcomes I want with my course.

    Including those required to implement the process analytics I’ve added to my course.

  3. The work @damoclarky has done to replace a more useful reporting mechanism for Moodle with MAV.

At this point, I should strongly point out that the problem here is not Moodle. The problem is the implications that the Reusability Paradox has for systems like a LMS that are trying to be reusable across contexts. Almost by definition such systems will have a gap between what they offer and the requirements of the context. Someone or something has to make those connections, and sadly most institutions don’t seem to be doing a good job of it.

What can be done?

David Wiley identifies four choices in terms of open content

  1. create highly decontextualized resources that can be reused broadly but teach very little;
  2. we can build highly contextualized resources that teach effectively in a single setting but are very difficult to reuse elsewhere;
  3. we can shoot for the mediocre middle; or,
  4. allow and enable for contextual modification of the learning object.

In terms of open content, Wiley talks about the open license as being the great enabler, he argues

The way to escape from the Reusability Paradox is simply by using an open license. If I publish my educational materials using an open license, I can produce something deeply contextualized and highly effective for my local context AND give you permission to revise and remix it until it is equally effective to reuse in your own local context. Poof! The paradox disappears. I’ve produced something with a strong internal context which you have permission to make fit into other external contexts.

Problem fixed, not!

So the problem is fixed, at least for Moodle, because it has an open license and

can be customised in any way and tailored to individual needs. Its modular set up and interoperable design allows developers to create plugins and integrate external applications to achieve specific functionalities. Extend what Moodle does by using freely available plugins and add-ons – the possibilities are endless!

But it’s not quite as simple as that. Once Moodle is adopted, installed, and used by a University the institution must now attempt to make its instance of Moodle reusable across the entire institution. It’s to inefficient to do otherwise. The learners and teachers at that institution are only allowed to use the institutional instance of Moodle as it stands. They are typically unable to make changes to Moodle. They do not have the access necessary to make such changes. They are stuck in the Reusability Paradox.

Of course, learners and teachers won’t sit still in this paradox. They won’t accept the need to continually overcome the lack of contextual appropriateness of these systems. They take steps, like those outlined above. The evolution of technology (LTI, JSON, Greasemonkey etc) is making it easier for individuals to modify systems for their own purposes (e.g. @palbion’s creation of a Greasemonkey script).

One university and minimum course standards

At the same time, there is a growing trend for institutional management to promulgate ideas such as minimum course standards. Where it is argued that it is better for students and the institution if all course sites look the same and have – at least at some minimum standard – the same functionality. A level of consistency that smacks head long into the Reusability Paradox and causes no end of trouble. Especially for those of us expected to step backwards to meet the minimal standard.

Allow and enable for contextual modification of the learning object

If institutions wish to improve the quality of their students’ learning, then it would appear that some consideration of the Reusability Paradox is required. In particular, it appears sensible that they adopt Wiley’s fourth choice for dealing with the paradox

allow and enable for contextual modification of the learning object

Where, in this case, the learning object is the LMS and other digital systems.

The problem I see is that institutions are reliant on a mindset that I’ve labelled the: Strategic/Established/Tree-link (SET) Mindset. Such a mindset is going to find it incredibly hard to “allow and enable for contextual modification” because it assumes that:

  1. there must be one plan and one aim (Strategic).
  2. digital technologies cannot be cost effectively changed (if at all – Established).
  3. the world is best understood through logical decomposition into hierarchies (Tree-like).

The big question is how to help organisations adopt more of a BAD mindset. A mindset that is all about allowing and enabling for contextual modification (i.e. learning).


David Wiley, The Reusability Paradox. OpenStax CNX. May 25, 2013

Framing some project ideas around support and services for learning and teaching

When time permits I’m working with a group (one of many) that is tasked with coming up with project ideas that could support my current institution’s strategic plan around learning and teaching. In particular we’ve been tasked to consider projects that will help build the institution’s capacity to

Continuously improve capacity to effectively and efficiently develop, manage, and deliver support and services.

The following is a re-working of a presentation of some of the groups initial ideas. The re-working is very much my own thinking, so while it’s based on the ideas of the group it isn’t necessarily representative.


Some of the assumptions that underpinned the group’s thinking include:

  1. The ultimate aim is to enhance student learning.
  2. Over recent years the institution has spent a lot of time and resources directly on enhancing the student learning experience.

    A trend that is not stopping, as a number of the other groups in this process appear to have a strong student focus.

  3. The perception of many teaching staff, however, is that the experience of teaching staff has been somewhat starved of attention and this is creating difficulties in teaching.
  4. While not the only factor in student learning, the impact of the teacher does retain some significance in a formal education setting.

Hence the focus of the group on how to enhance the support and services available to teaching staff.

Identified Projects

The initial set of projects discussed at the initial presentation were

  1. Situative teacher learning: support and services;
  2. University of the API;
  3. Authoritative data sources;
  4. Maker spaces; and,
  5. Governance.

What follows is a description of the first four of these.

Situative/Distributive teacher learning: support and services

There continues to be concern at this (and most other) institution about the quality of the online learning (e-learning, insert your own favourite phrase) in many courses. The “distributive teacher learning” project sees this problem as a problem of teacher learning and cognition. Teaching staff are facing difficulties in developing and accessing the knowledge and capabilities required to produce better online learning. To address this problem, it needs to start from a conception of learning and cognition.

The conception on which this project is based could be called either situative learning (Putnam & Borko, 2000) or (a recent slight extension) distributive learning (Jones, Heffernan, Albion, 2015). A view that sees learning and cognition as: situated, social, distributed, and protean. These four perspectives inform how a “Distributive teacher learning” system would operate.


Support and services to learn how to solve a problem or develop new insight is situated where the requirement arises. For example, if I have a problem in a Moodle discussion forum, then the support and services that will help me learn how to solve that problem are located right there. I don’t need to remember which non-searchable institution specific website contains support resources that might help me. I wouldn’t need to remember which of the three support units of the institution is best placed to help. I don’t need to wait until the next scheduled face-to-face session to ask for help. The help that is provided is also as specific to me as possible. If I’m in charge of a course, I would see a different set of support and services than if I were a casual marker.

Also, the support and services could/should appear where ever I am when I’m teaching. It shouldn’t be restricted to the LMS. It should include the institutional e-portfolio, the student records system and other institutional services used to support teaching and learning. In a perfect world there should be no apparent difference around where/how support and services are available. It’s there where I need it.

In a perfect world it would not be restricted to institutional systems. There are a broad array of external systems being used to support teaching and learning. Some of them (e.g. hosting of student email accounts with Google) are institutionally approved. Others aren’t so formally approved at the institutional level (e.g. the use of blogs on When I’m teaching using these external tools, the support and services required for my teacher learning should be visible.


The support and services that are situated in the place are not limited to those provided by the central support institutions. The support and services encourage and enable communication, collaboration, and sharing of experience amongst all of the people using that particular tool or space.


A distributed view of learning and cognition sees knowledge as not limited to individuals, but is instead spread across people and technologies. Too many of our systems assume that the cognition must reside solely in the head of the teacher/user. For example, a gradebook that requires human beings to manually search for students with results that are within 0.5% of a grade boundary and upgrade the result of those students. The system doesn’t help by providing some level of knowledge of capability. A system based on a more distributed view of knowledge would be able to highlight those students with a result within 0.5% of a grade boundary. The system does some of the work.

Beyond this, the system would aim to help make connections between people and practices.


Digital technologies have always been amongst the most protean – flexible and adaptable – of mediums. Back in 1984, Alan Kay writes that the computer offers “degrees of freedom and expression never before encountered” (Kay, 1984, p. 59). Since then enterprise computing has shown all the flexibility, adaptability, and fitness for purpose as a concrete lounge. Support and services for teacher learning that are protean move away from the established practice of a focus on the design of a “perfect” system, and move toward a system that allows users to create and share work-arounds (Koopman & Hoffman, 2003). A flexible and adaptable system that grows and changes in encourage the development of knowledge and in response to that changing knowledge.

University of the API

An Application Programming Interface (API) is a method by which the data and services provided by a system can be used via other applications. This allows new and interesting services to be developed in an agile way. Increasingly the capability to use APIs is not limited to programmers. Services such as If This, Then That (ifttt) are putting the capability to leverage APIs within the hands of most people. For example, this announcement of a thermostat control company providing an API that integrates with ifttt.

Already there are a growing number of American universities providing APIs around a number of institutional services that can be used by appropriate people. This white paper on University APIs provides additional information.

The availability of appropriate APIs around institutional services would enhance the distributive teaching learning idea in two ways:

  1. make it significantly easier to implement the idea; and,
  2. significantly enhance the protean nature of the tool by supporting the development and sharing of new services by people other than central IT.

Authoritative data sources

APIs are designed (in part) to provide access to data. For example, there might be an API to generate a list of all students in a course who are late to submit their first assignment. Such an API can only be implemented and useful if there is an authoritative source of data for: the due date for an assignment, the list of students enrolled in a course, and which students have or haven’t submitted their first assignment.

Makerspaces and hackfests

The 2015 Horizon Report for Higher Education lists Makerspaces as a “technology to watch”. Makerspaces are defined in the Horizon Report as “are community-oriented workshops where tech enthusiasts meet regularly to share and explore electronic hardware, manufacturing tools, and programming techniques and tricks” (p. 40). The connection to teaching and learning is that institutions “are taking advantage of makerspaces to provide students and faculty a place that is integrated into the community to do their tinkering” (p. 40). Makerspaces are a “collaborative workspace where learners from every discipline can feel comfortable learning skills”.

The focus here is on how Makerspaces can be applied to the question of teacher learning. There are at least three different possibilities:

  1. Setting up physical makerspaces where teaching staff can feel comfortable learning through making is one option.
  2. Exploring the use of the distributive teacher learning space as a form of virtual maker space.
  3. The use of physical makerspaces or hackfests as methods for quickly developing new services for teaching and learning.


Kay, A. (1984). Computer Software. Scientific American, 251(3), 53–59.

Koopman, P., & Hoffman, R. (2003). Work-arounds, make-work and kludges. Intelligent Systems, IEEE, 18(6), 70–75. Retrieved from

Putnam, R. T., & Borko, H. (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational Researcher, 4-15.