Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: June 2010

The road not taken

A recent post of mine continued the trend of reflecting on the impacts – in my mind negative impacts – of a top-down, compliance driven culture in higher education. This bit has been encouraged by
a comment on that post which makes a number of interesting points, at least in terms of encouraging some additional thinking on my part. It’s also serindipitously coincided with some recent local events.

My interpretation

I’ve interpreted the post as suggesting that no oversight can lead to a proliferation of chaos or bad practice. In terms of talking about teaching and learning within a university I tend to agree – more on this below. There’s also a point about moving academics beyond some of their existing practices and the suggestion that the top-down chain of command isn’t really a solution. It closes with something sparked this post

Yes, this means we have to sell, not try to dictate. Long road.

Free-for-all, top-down compliance and chaos

“Chaos” or complexity is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I do except that an organisation – like a university – does generally have to do something to ensure that the quality of its teaching and learning is improving. (Note: one of my principles is “It’s not how bad you start, but how quickly you get better”. I don’t believe in “being good” as a goal, it’s an on-going process.) At the very least I think a university taking public funds has to demonstrate that it is using those funds somewhat effectively.

This is why in the post that started this thread I proposed that the first stage of improving learning and teaching (i.e. what the teacher is) is not way to achieve this. In that stage, each academic is left to their own devices. What they do is up to them and their preferences and capabilities. There is little or no support. In my experience with this stage, there are some examples of very good teaching, but the vast majority is somewhat lacking.

This is where the process/quality/teaching nazis appear. These include consultants, government, educational researchers, senior management, IT folk etc. Each of these folk have the solution. The quality of teaching would be wonderful within the organisation if only every academic used process Y, product X. If every course had mapped its graduate attributes and had a course site that met a minimum service standard, then the quality of teaching would be wonderful. So, let’s set up a project team, specify the outcomes, implement them and then report success. Typically the aim is something along the lines of “Develop a systemic University-wide approach to learning and teaching” or perhaps even worse prove efficiency and control by aiming to “Centralise the strategic planning and managing of funds for learning and teaching support, activities and initiatives”.

In my experience these approaches never work. Mainly because the decisions made by the centralised, systemic University approach to learning and teaching are informed by experiences far removed from the realities of the teaching academics. The people making the decisions are generally senior managers who have either no recent teaching experience or only very narrow teaching experiences. Instead, the experience of these folk quickly becomes limited to the “systemic university-wide approach to learning and teaching”. That is, the initiatives they identify as important (e.g. mapping graduate attributes) become their main experience. Everything they think and do arises from that project. Their experience limits what decisions they can make.

What’s worse, the current management environment in Australian university encourages short-term (5 year) contracts for senior managers. In order to keep their job or move onto a new one, these managers have to prove their “ability to lead”. This means that they have to have successfully “led” completed projects which they can put on their CV. What’s worse, those projects have to fit within the current fads within higher education. The priority of these managers is not improving the experience of coal-face teaching academics, it’s about achieving the successful implementation of “systemic University-wide” projects.

This is why senior management can be so confident saying that Project X is a great success, when the coal-face teaching academics will be telling a very different story. This is what Chris Argyris (1990) termed organisational defensive routines and model 1 behaviour in organisations – discussed in this post.

So, in the second way, which I describe as “what management does”, the decisions about how to improve learning and teaching are being made by people who have limited experience of coal-face teaching and who also have significant motivating factors to have successful projects. Is it any surprise that this approach doesn’t create long-term sustainable change?

Rather than create the “proof” of effectiveness required by those providing the funds, this approach creates compliance and task corruption. i.e. the KPIs are met, but by ticking the boxes, not in outcome. For example, I know of an institution that has developed a “checklist” for course websites. It’s a long list of requirements that a minimum course site is expected to fulfill. The idea is that academics that build these sites, and their colleagues of moderate the course and course site, will work their way through the checklist ensuring that each requirement is fulfilled. In reality, a significant number of academics are asking “Is you’re site ready?” and then ticking all the boxes.

The road not taken

My argument is that there is a third way that promises better outcomes, but it’s continuing to the road not taken. Which is somewhat surprising for my current institution given that it’s strategic plan includes the following in its vision

We strive to understand their environment and situation, their
circumstances and goals, so we can help them achieve what they want to achieve and be who and what they want to be, one person at a time.

This is a brilliant summation of what I’m trying to get at with the “third way”. My post from yesterday gives some background into the origins of this perspective (more to come).

In terms of the third way, I should have mentioned Dave Snowden’s “how to manage a birthday party story” (the video is below) which also fits nicely with the three ways I’ve expressed. Here’s the connection I make:

  • chaotic system == what the teacher is.
  • ordered system == what management does.
  • complex system == what the teacher does.


Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming Organisational Defenses: Facilitating Organisational Learning, Prentice Hall.

Adopter focused development and diffusion theory

The following is a first draft of the next section in Chapter 5 of the thesis. It’s the first section which starts describing the various different changes that were made to Webfuse and how it was supported from 2000 and on. IMHO, this particular change is something that continues to be missing from almost all university attempts to support e-learning. If not missing, they simply haven’t recognised the need for greater levels of skills. It is particularly sad that my current institution, the institution at which these changes/lesson were first implemented and written about 10+years ago, still hasn’t learnt the lesson – or perhaps the lesson just isn’t important enough.

Adopter focused development and diffusion theory

By 1999, the Webfuse experience led Jones and Lynch (1999) to identify three problems facing the development of web-based learning – appropriation, adoption and evolution – and propose a model for the design of web-based system, particularly for Web-based learning. The three problems were described as follows:

  1. Appropriation;
    As described in Chapter 4, only a small number of staff were heavily using web-based learning. These innovative staff members were developing a number of interesting and useful applications of web-based learning. However, few of these applications were being appropriated for use by the remaining teaching staff. This mirrored experience reported elsewhere (Geoghegan 1994; Taylor 1998; Mendes and Hall 1999).
  2. Adoption, and;
    Beyond appropriation of innovations, there was a broader problem with limited adoption of web-based learning and instructional technology in general (Surry and Farquhar 1997). Jones and Lynch (1999) identified the distinction between developer-based and adopter-based development methodologies as an explanation for this limited adoption. The pre-dominant developer-based approaches assume that a demonstrably better artifact will automatically replace existing products or practices (Surry and Farquhar 1997). By not paying attention to the users and the context, developer-based approaches create systems that are difficult to use and provide little benefit for the user.
  3. Evolution.
    Traditional development approaches aim to develop an “ideal” or all-encompassing system that meets all needs. Jones and Lynch (1999) argue that the time and resources necessary to achieve this goal generates little pay off due to the ever-changing requirements of web-learning. It is suggested that as the context changes, these ideal systems become a burden preventing adaptability (Jones and Lynch 1999).

To address these issues Jones and Lynch drew on insights from diffusion theory (Rogers 1995), related insights from adopter-based development (Surry and Farquhar 1997), the design patterns community (Alexander, Ishikawa et al. 1977; Gamma, Helm et al. 1995), and established links between design patterns and hypermedia templates (Nanard, Nanard et al. 1998) to propose a development model to address these problems. The model can be described as a combination of the following principles or assumptions:

  1. There exists a development team that actively seeks to understand the social context within which web-based learning is occurring. The inter-relationships between the developers of the system, the developed system, the potential adopters of the system and the contexts in which they system is developed and used is of significant importance.
  2. The development team develops a set of constructive templates (Nanard, Nanard et al. 1998) that teaching staff can use to create course websites for use by students.
  3. To encourage adoption and use by teaching staff the design of these templates is informed by insights from diffusion theory.
  4. Template design is informed by design patterns that encapsulate knowledge around learning, teaching and web-based services.
  5. There is recognition that innovative staff members are likely to do unexpected things with the constructive templates, even ignore them all together and use other means. This is allowed, and where possible enabled.
  6. The development team continue to observe and support staff throughout the use of the course sites to identify what is working and what is not.
  7. Based on this observation the development team abstracts new design patterns, retires those no longer appropriate and does the same for constructive templates.

Jones and Lynch (1999) believed that this development model would provide three major benefits:

  1. Develop systems which are more likely to be adopted. This is achieved by a major emphasis on context, adopter led development approaches and theory from the diffusion of innovations.
  2. Enable the appropriation and reuse of prior experience. Gained by a continual process of evaluating the work of innovators for potential abstraction and storage in a pattern repository and implementation as a constructive template.
  3. Enable the continued evolution of the system to meet changing needs. Evolution is provided by the continued application of patterns in a form of piecemeal growth and emphasising design for repair rather than replacement.

By 1999 it was well understood that a significant majority of academic staff, for whatever reason, were not going to construct elaborate course websites. Jones and Lynch (1999) describe the plan to develop a Webfuse Wizard. Built on top of the Webfuse template library, the Wizard would provide a “wizard” interface that would guide teaching staff through the creation of a course site. The working prototype due in July 1999 was not completed due to various factors, including the need for the author to continue teaching. The eventual replacement for the wizard, in terms of providing a easier method for creating course websites, was the development of the default or minimum course site idea described in Section 5.3.5. The principles and assumptions of the development model described by Jones and Lynch were to form the basis for how the Infocom web team operated from 2000 through 2004.

The use of diffusion theory continued and evolved throughout this period. Jones, Jamieson and Clark (2003) propose a model to “aid educators increase their awareness of potential implementation issues, estimate the likelihood of reinvention, and predict the amount and type of effort required to achieve successful implementation of specific WBE innovations”. This model is based on one aspect of diffusion theory and was based on the practices of the Infocom web team during the period 2000-2004. Rather than focus on the potential objective benefits of an innovation (e.g. online assignment submission will result in faster turnaround times) the model recommends an evaluation of the innovation in terms of the likely rate of adoption, perceived innovation attributes, the type of innovation decision, the available communication channels, the social system in which it will be implemented, and the nature of the change agents and their efforts. Jones et al (2003) argue that this type of evaluation is highly context specific to the exent that even with the same innovation and the same institution, as time passes the evaluation should be repeated.

Diffusion theory is not without its limitations or problems. Bigum and Rowan (2004) argue that “the problem for a theory of change that relies on pre-established categories is that it is limited in its capacity to account for new and unanticipated arrangements or orderings”. McMaster and Wastell (2005), in arguing that diffusionism is a myth with a potency based not on empiricial validity but on a synergy with a colonialistic mid-set, offer a description of the many flaws that have been identified in diffusion theory. Amongst these is that diffusion theory is deterministic and positivistic in philosophical orientation which leads its proponents to predict outcomes based on the measurement of a small number of variables (McMaster and Wastell 2005). The “factor approach”, where key features/factors are correlated with outcome measures, is common to diffusionist research in the IS field (McMaster and Wastell 2005). The approach described by Jones et al (2003) is an example of one such approach. McMaster and Wastell (2005) cite numerous authors to support the argument that while such “factor approaches” can “highlight impotant influences, they necessarily fail to capture the dynamic, processual character of social-technical innovation”.

The development model developed by the Infocom web team over the period from 2000 through 2004 addressed the “dynamic, processual character of social innovation” with its particular focus on evolution. Have been guided by “diffusion theory” in its selection of a particular set of changes, the web team maintained a close eye on how these innovations were being used by individual staff. This was enabled by the fact that the web team were not only the developers of Webfuse, they also provided helpdesk support and training for users of Webfuse. The web team was not employed by the central IT division, they were employed by the faculty. This meant the web team had offices in the same building, went to the same team room and attended faculty retreats. These social interactions provided a deeper insight into the experiences of the academic users of Webfuse. This meant that the Webfuse development model move towards what McMaster and Wastell (2005) describe

Here we would argue that the innovation succeeded due to internal development, through a participative process involving strong local leadership, engaged staff and the fortuitous occurrence of a series of local crises that aligned all stakeholders around the need for change.

Bigum and Rowan (2004) argue that a serious problem with diffusion theory is that the innovation is understood to pass through the adoption process largely unchanged meaning that the social is seen either to conform or not to conform with the requirements of the innovation. As an adopted focused development process, the Webfuse development model recognised that not only will the innovations change during the adoption process, great benefit can arise by being able to recognise that change and respond to it in ways appropriate to the social setting. The development model understood and sought to enable the users and consequence of the innovations to emerge from the complex interactions between the social and technical. As described by Markus and Robey (1988) this type of perspective replaces prediction with a detailed understanding of dynamic organisational processes, the intentions of actors and features of information technology.


Alexander, C., S. Ishikawa, et al. (1977). A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford University Press.

Bigum, C. and L. Rowan (2004). "Flexible learning in teacher education: myths, muddles and models." Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education 32(3): 213-226.

Gamma, E., R. Helm, et al. (1995). Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software. Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley.

Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD, IBM.

Jones, D., K. Jamieson, et al. (2003). A model for evaluating potential Web-based education innovations. 36th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, IEEE.

Jones, D. and T. Lynch (1999). A Model for the Design of Web-based Systems that supports Adoption, Appropriation and Evolution. First ICSE Workshop on Web Engineering, Los Angeles.

Markus, M. L. and D. Robey (1988). "Information technology and organizational change: causal structure in theory and research." Management Science 34(5): 583-598.

McMaster, T. and D. Wastell (2005). "Diffusion – or delusion? Challenging an IS research tradition." Information Technology & People 18(4): 383-404.

Mendes, M. and W. Hall (1999). "Hyper-Authoring for Education: A Qualitative Evaluation." Computers and Education 32: 51-64.

Nanard, M., J. Nanard, et al. (1998). Pushing Reuse in Hypermedia Design: Golden Rules, Design Patterns and Constructive Templates. Proceedings of the 9th ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, ACM.

Rogers, E. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. New York, The Free Press.

Surry, D. and J. Farquhar (1997). "Diffusion Theory and Instructional Technology." e-Journal of Instructional Science and Technology 2(1): 269-278.

Taylor, P. (1998). "Institutional Change in Uncertain Times: Lone Ranging is Not Enough." Studies in Higher Education 23(3): 269-278.

The design of a Moodle course site

For a couple of different reasons I am helping someone with the design and implementation of a Moodle course site. I’ve developed an activity module for Moodle but have never created an entire course site. Have thought about how it might be done, but never done it. The following is a description and some reflections on the experience.

I’m particular interested in:

  • Is the “pragmatic” approach to design a Moodle course site as widespread as I think? Or are their great swathes of teachers creating Moodle course sites from scratch?
  • What are the experiences of folk who have used the social format for a course? Good? Bad? Happy with the support Moodle provides for this format?
  • What about those using the topic/weekly course formats, how do you deal with scrolling problem?


After doing all of the following, it’s not a great surprise that my opinions, biases and prejudices have been confirmed. In particular, it doesn’t matter what minimum standards or tool affordances put in place by management and technologists, most academics are looking to tweak how they’ve previously taught their courses and then move onto other things. If you want to improve the quality of L&T, you have to move beyond developing policies or technologies.

It’s also reinforced that Moodle 1.9.x still retains some fairly significant limitations in trying to do something fairly flexible. I’m not sure there’s much here that’s going to break an academics “tweaking” behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, in comparison to some other LMS, it’s better, in places. It’s just that this isn’t exactly a very high bar to jump.

It would be tremendously interesting to have been able to gather some more qualitative stories of how academics have handled this transition and then compare that with what management thinks has gone on and then compare all that with what the students thought.

The purpose of the course site

I can hear some educational developers I know wanting to step back and look at the outcomes of the course, do a curriculum mapping, evaluate the alignment of the course and identify appropriate learning activities that would improve this. Preferably if we were talking about Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education (a particular lens our institution is using). I can hear another staff member rabbiting on about the work of Oliver (2000), Herrington and colleagues. The learning design crew (Bennett et al 2006), the LAMS folk (Dalziel, 2003) or any of a number of other educationally informed design approaches. Long term Moodle folk might refer to the “principles” often said to underpin Moodle.

The reality is that this academic has other priorities which means the academic wants to do the minimum. To quote

All I essentially want to do is to copy the last time I ran ..the course..

This is in line Stark (2000) identified as the dominant setting for most academics, i.e. teaching an existing course, generally one they’ve taught before and subsequently they will spend most of their time fine tuning a course or making minor modifications to material or content.

That is, most academics are not going to design a course from scratch. They are going to recreate what they know. This is one of the reasons why one of the most popular local “innovations” around Moodle at my current institution has been a Moodle site “template” that re-creates the hierarchical structure of a course site from Blackboard. The LMS most staff will have used prior to their move to Moodle.

So, this academic is not alone in simply wanting to re-create what they did before.

Other constraints

This, however, is not the only constraint. The institution has introduced “Minimum Service Standards for course delivery” which is intended to “provide the pedagogical basis for developing online learning environments and to encourage academic staff to look beyond existing practices and consider the useful features of the new LMS.” (Tickle et al, 2009). Anecdotal evidence suggest that for a significant number of staff the minimum standard has become a “tick the boxes” exercise. i.e at the best make sure I have ticked the boxes, at worst, make sure I tick the boxes without necessarily having achieved the standard.

So, the site design will have to meet those requirements.

Starting the copy process

If the aim is to copy what was done before, the questions are:

  • What was done before?
    What’s in the previous course site, how was it structured.
  • What can be done now?
    i.e. what are the constraints and assumptions built into Moodle.
  • How can you get from one to the other?

The rest of this seeks to answer those questions.

What was done before?

The course was hosted in Webfuse and was implemented as a standard Webfuse minimum course site. Such a site uses a simple hierarchical structure with a home page that had a description of the course and a list of updates and 5 sub-sections:

  1. Updates – place where course wide updates were created/archived.
    Only a couple of system wide updates used.
  2. Study Schedule – a week by week breakdown of the course.
    Reasonably complete with a description of the weeks topic and a collection of basic tasks. The Word documents for the study guide are uploaded in this section. The design assumption (I was the designer of Webfuse) was that it would be uploaded into the Resources section and linked from here and the resource section.
  3. Assessment – a description of the assessment for the course.
    A description of the assessment pieces.
  4. Resources – a collection of the learning resources.
    In this case, only the discussion forum, mailing list and barometer. Having both a discussion forum and a mailing list is interesting.
  5. Staff – photos and contact details for all staff and also a staff only section.

A fairly (very) basic course. Two glimmers of hope (if you’re taking the learning nazi approach) are:

  • the Discussion forum.
    Quite detailed in structure, the attempt seems to have been made to think this through. However, not many contributions. Given that the vast majority of students in this course are at the international campuses and have a heavy focus on face-to-face instruction (normally) this isn’t that surprising.
  • use of BAM.
    Students are expected to maintain individual blogs for reflection as part of the assessment.

What can be done now?


This page from Uni Ballarat gives a good overview of the layout of Moodle course site. i.e. a main course area in the middle and two columns of blocks on either side (thought at least one of the columns can be turned off).

With the blocks it appears that you can add and remove blocks as you like. Will have to test that out later.

With the layout of the main course area, there are three normal Moodle options and a fourth local kludge. The three normal Moodle layouts are:

  1. Weekly – where the course site is divided into sequential, weekly blocks.
  2. Topical – where the sequential blocks are based on topics.
  3. Social – where the site is structured around the discussion forum.

All three of these options might be options for this course. The original study schedule could be copied into either the weekly or topical formats with little or no modification. The use of the discussion forum in the old course, could fit very nicely with the social format with some of the information from the study schedule weaved into messages.

The fourth local kludge, appears to be a mutation of the weekly format where it appears that the course area (non-week first block) is used for a course logo or similar. The first main week’s block is used for a collection of HTML tables that creates:

  • A welcome course description message in one table.
  • A collection of menu items (e.g. the course, resources, discussions, assessment etc.) which give the illusion of a hierarchical site. Under each menu is a collection of links to Moodle activities/resources related to that menu item.
  • A simple weekly navigation menu (week 1, week 2 etc.) that links to a simple web page that summarises the tasks for that week.

The second week’s block is hidden. This, it appears, is where the actual activities and resources are added to the site. They are then linked, as appropriate, to the menu section and the weekly summaries.

I don’t think this will work in this situation. It’s a fair bit of work to set up and appears to break the affordances of Moodle. While I’m keen to minimise the difficulty of the transition, surely, you do actually want to move with the affordance of the new tool?

Resource and activities

The requirements for this course are fairly limited: a discussion forum, some word documents and a BAM equivalent. As there is no standard module in Moodle that implements a BAM service, this could have been a problem. However, given that the institution is currently using the BIM activity module I wrote as a BAM port, this isn’t a problem.

Helping the academic decide

While I can imagine either the weekly/topic or social format versions of this course, I don’t think that the academic will be able to. In addition, I’ve never really seen a social format Moodle course, so I’m not 100% confident that my predictions will match the reality. Hence the need to create examples sites, something concrete for the academic to look at and play with.

Create the site

Am doing this on a local install of Moodle, so create the site.

Mm, there are other formats. LAMS, SCORM and one or two others. Whether they are available on the institutional site?

If you choose “Social format” it still asks for number of weeks/topics, wouldn’t that be no longer needed?

So, that’s the site created. By default it’s got some pre-defined blocks down the left hand side – I think these are based on the institutional defaults, might be just normal Moodle defaults. There’s the option to add blocks in the right hand column and just about an empty space in the middle but with a button “Add a new discussion topic”.

Adding the topics

In my head, we’re going to borrow the approach used in the old course site’s discussion forum. i.e. different forums for different purposes, including each week. The last time I’d taught, I’d used a similar approach. The plan is to use pretty much the same structure.

Oh, that is sad. It appears that rather than separate discussion forums which can be used to separate out tasks, Moodle has by default set the course area as a single forum. Ahh, and the topics are shown with most recent first. Surely there’s got to be an option to change that?

It appears not, looks like my assumptions don’t match the affordances in Moodle. That’s sad and means we’re back to the bog standard weekly/topic format.

The general visuals on the Moodle forum were also not that great. Somewhat ugly and not great from an interface perspective. I wonder if that’s inherent or arises because of the institutional template? It’s sad because the discussion forum tool in Webfuse (circa about 2002) seems to have a better interface (not a great one, but certainly better than Moodle).

Creating the weekly format

I’ve chosen weekly because like it or not most of the students/staff think in weeks of term, plus there’s not a lot of difference in Moodle between the weekly and topic formats – at least to my inexperienced eye.

So, edit the options for the course to weekly and start a process of re-creating the study schedule from the old site in Moodle.

From here it’s a fairly manual process with only a few tweaks about how to do this.

Time to wait and see what the academic thinks.</p

The scrolling problem

I think that the “scrolling problem” is a fairly typical complaint about Moodle sites. If you use the topic/week format and have more than a few fairly complete blocks, people have to start scrolling to get any where. That can add to confusion for some.

This was a problem we faced with the Webfuse study schedule page design. The obvious way to solve it was internal links. If you visit this study schedule page you will see that each weekly block as internal links to each of the other 12 weeks.

Is there an automated process in Moodle that helps do this?

I think for this site, I’ll have to put in a kludge, somewhat like the local kludge course layout.


Bennett, S., S. Agostinho, et al. (2006). “Supporting university teachers create pedagogical sound learning environments using learning designs and learning objects.” IADIS Internatioanl Journal on WWW/Internet 4(1): 16-26.

Dalziel, J. (2003). Implementing learning design: The learning activity management syste (LAMS). 20th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Adelaide, SA.

Chickering, A. W. and Z. F. Gamson (1987). “Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.” AAHE Bulletin 39(7): 3-7.

Oliver, R. (2000). When teaching meets learning: Design principles and strategies for Web-based learning environments that support knowledge construction. ASCILITE’2000, Coffs Harbour.

Stark, J. (2000). “Planning introductory college courses: Content, context and form.” Instructional Science 28(5): 413-438.

Tickle, K., N. Muldoon, et al. (2009). Moodle and the institutional repositioning of learning and teaching at CQUniversity. ascilite 2009. Auckland, NZ: 1038-1047.

The role of experience

Peter Albion picked up on an earlier post of mine and offers a brief description of his own experience within Australian universities. In particular, the increasing focus on compliance with bureaucratic systems as a means of assuring quality, a move back to hierarchies of command and control and apparent adoption of a Theory X view. A view that resonates with what I see within my current institution and one others talk about.

This morning I was listening to this talk by Baroness Susan Greenfield. In the end she suggests that online network is potentially harmful, but I’m going to ignore that. One of the fundamental planks for her argument is brain plasticity. i.e. that the brain is shaped by what we do with it. What we experience, what we think shapes our brain.

What is the current environment of compliance, command and control, and Theory X doing to the thoughts and brains of the academics that work within them?

Dan Pink talks about motivation and suggests that it requires workers to have feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose. When it comes to learning and teaching within universities, I’ve argued previously that for some the current environment provides anything but that combination.

As it happens, I’m also reading at the moment a book by James Zull called The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. I think this quote is interesting (emphasis in original) outside influence or force can cause a brain to learn. It will decide on its own. Thus, one important rule for helping people to learn is to help the learner feel she is in control.

For me, the lesson here is that if you want to improve learning and teaching at Universities, the academics have to feel that they are in control. This does not mean they do their own thing. As Peter wrote

There is some benefit in ensuring that certain basics are in place but there is also room for some variation that provides scope for the next improvement to emerge.

The academic has to feel like they are in charge of that next improvement, to have the room for some variation. The compliance, top-down culture infecting universities (in Australia at least) is removing that control and is often ineffective in ensuring that the basics are in place because it has removed the motivation (in the form of autonomy, mastery and purpose) from the academics.

Adding OPML feeds to BIM

The following describes the process of adding support for the provision of OPML files to the Moodle activity module BIM.


BIM allows students to register external blogs with Moodle and provides support for teaching staff to track, manage and mark the student blogs. Rather than use BIM and Moodle to find out which students have posted recently, it would nice to allow teaching staff (initially) to download an OPML file for all their students. This file could be imported into most newsreaders and used to track student submissions.

The aim is to start simple and only provide an OPML file for each teaching staff member’s “your students”. Given the nature of OPML, if the staff wanted to share this with students, they could simply give them the file, but that’s their choice.

Longer term there’s a range of additional feeds that would be cool for BIM to generate (the top 10 marked posts in an RSS file etc.).

How to generate OPML files in PHP

I’ve been wondering if there are any way of generating OPML in PHP or Moodle. A search of the site reveals this forum post which mentions feedcreator, which seems to fit the bill.

Questions. Is feedcreator already part of Moodle? Is it the best option? It appears to be quite old (2005). Seems like it is still being used by some and isn’t in Moodle. So, let’s go for that – I’m after easy wins at the moment.

First, let’s write a little php script to test out feedcreator’s generation of OPML feeds.

Mmm, not good, it doesn’t appear to generate OPML that is recognised by my newsreader. Wonder if this is a problem with it only supporting OPML 1.0?

Writing my own functions

Given that OPML is a fairly straight forward format, I think the solution will have to be writing my own.

Plan is to have two types of OPML function:

  • generate_opml – which given a hierarchical structure with the data generate a valid OPML file.
  • generate_structure – given various BIM/Moodle variables, construct the structure that can be passed to generate_opml

The structure will be an array with two elements – head and items. items will be an array of items – the feeds for each student.

generate_opml is done and fairly simple. Now to figure out what’s need to generate the structure.

The user perspective

The idea is that when visiting the “Your students” tab the teaching staff member should see a link ‘Your students OPML file”. Click on that link and they get an OPML file to download. So that means a unique/new script to call – marker/generateOpml.php.

Okay, still want to do various checks, so have to go through normal BIM process. Trouble is that it currently always displays the Moodle header and footer – need to be a little more discerning. i.e. don’t do either for the OPML feed.

Need a help file, some lang entries. Cleaning things up. Done. Looks like the following

BIM with opml generation added

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