Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The absence of a search function – my current big problem with a Moodle installation

Consider this a plea for suggestions. In particular, consider it a plea for workarounds that I can implement quickly (and painlessly).

The problem

I have a Moodle course site. It has a range of activities, many with a page or two of text that sets the context and explains the task. The image below shows what the activities for one week look like.

Week 1 learning path

Now this works fine if a student works sequentially through the activities. It tracks what they’ve completed etc.

It fails miserably when they want to revisit the page about “X”. They have to remember in which week “X” was talked about, under which activity “X” was addressed.

I have problems doing this and I wrote the stuff.

The “web way” solution

If this was any other website, we’d follow the advice of Jakob Nielsen

Search is one of the most important user interface elements in any large website. As a rule of thumb, sites with more than about 200 pages should offer search.

The “web way” solution would be to have a search engine. But the Moodle installation of the University I teach the course for doesn’t appear to provide this functionality. I believe the only way this can occur is to allow Google to have access to all courses on the site. While there may be reasons for this, it’s not a solution I’m pushing just to solve my problem.

How can I provide my students with a search function? How can I make my course site “of the web” and not “on the web”?

I have heard mention made of being saved by repositories. i.e. Moodle is not a content hosting platform and doesn’t try to be. If you want searchable content, place it in a repository. The trouble is we’re not talking here about large documentation. Just a lot of small pages that are closely wrapped around specific learning activities in Moodle. I’m yet to see an information repository integration that works as seamlessly as I’d expect.

My interim solution

In the absence of any brilliant ideas, it appears that the only way to do this is to create a duplicate website that is actually “of the web”. i.e. one that is indexed by Google. I’m thinking probably a blog with pages set up to match the weeks and other components.

Some have suggested providing the pages as a PDF document (or three). The problem with this is that there is web content (videos, animations etc) embedded throughout. Producing a print document would allow folk to search, but then they wouldn’t have access to the web content (unless they clicked on a link etc).

Producing a second website is by no means a perfect solution, some of its limitations include

  • Extra workload for me.
  • Large potential to create confusion amongst the students
    e.g. which website do I visit? Which website has the correct content? Do I need to check both websites?
  • Loss of some Moodle functionality.
    The course currently uses the Moodle activity completion functionality to allow students to track their completion, but also as part of the assessment. If students start working through the blog version of the website it will lead to “But I already did that activity!” problems.

Surely there has to be a better solution?


How much of a cage should I build?


Many of our students are neither digital natives nor digitally literate


  1. It’s difficult with such a large class. In one sense you need some kind of mapping/tracking functionality for the weekly stuff which is what Moodle is giving you. You probably need some kind of secure distribution mechanism for copywrite-protected documents and maybe an announcement/broadcast facility: message to class, now hear this! 🙂 All the other stuff is way better “on the web”. I have a much smaller class running. I have the required stuff on the awful but inevitable BlackBoard site. I’ve shuffled them over to a G+ community site and we use a Wiki for the content/links. I know it sounds messy and there are the overheads associated with learning your way around each bit. The Wiki has a nice search function. Easy to edit/set up pages and have students do simple tasks on/in it. My sense is that offering students “cotton wool” experiences (i.e. single interface with all the bits and pieces to hand) is not a good preparation for the “real” online world which will continue to evolve, shift etc much quicker than Moodle or BB or their offspring will ever manage. Just a thought. I put my own reflections/learnings on the Wiki somewhat similar to the stuff you put on here, that learning in public notion. Early days but so far so good.

  2. What about Google custom search engine?

    • My understanding (correct me if I’m wrong) is that Google still needs to be able to access the course site in order to generate its search database. As an individual academic at the University, I don’t have the access or permission to grant Google this access. And convincing the institution and the other academics that we should allow this, might be somewhat problematic. I will check on this though. Thanks.

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