Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: May 2013

Changes in links between student posts

Update: Video now available showing evolution of links between student blogs over the course of the semester (HT: Nick Kelly) – see YouTube embed at the end of the post

The following is a quick update on the visualisation of links between student blog posts in a course I’m currently teaching. As part of the course the students are expected to write blog posts reflecting on the learning (in the broadest possible sense) and also to link with other student posts.

I did an initial visualisation on March 18 using Gephi. This was early in the semester and it appeared that students hadn’t really gotten the hang of linking (a significant part of this was how they were introduced to the task). The question was whether they would engage more fully as the semester progresses.

As there’s one more week to go in the course it’s a good time to explore and I’ve been luck to make a connection with Nick Kelly a new staff member at ADFI at USQ. His background includes work around analytics and complex data sets. The following images are part of his early work with the data.

First, a file from March 12 showing connections between student blogs. Roughly equivalent to my first image. (Click on the images below to see larger versions)

Connections - 12th March

Then another image from the last week or so.

Connections - late May

Certainly appears that the students got the hang of linking. Not surprisingly, the motivation of marks has overcome any reluctance or difficulty with the technology.

Much more to explore. An animated gif/video of the temporal evolution of the links would be good. But I’m also hoping that Nick can provide some pointers on algorithms and approaches that can be incorporated into BIM to help encourage students to make more connections. i.e. my feel at the moment is that many of the links start with who they know, not necessarily with who has the best insights to share. Increasing the chance of benefiting from the serendipity of connections is something I’m keen to explore.

One-size-fits-all formulas

From an article in The Australian by Les Field – DVC (Research) at UNSW – titled “Impact sometimes requires long decades of research”

Call me old-fashioned, but I am a firm believer that you can’t create a one-size-fits-all formula for innovation, creativity or impact.

But consistent standards for “quality” of University courses is possible?

A companion quote for an earlier post.

Preparing BIM for Moodle 2.4 (and beyond?)

Time for a bit of coding. The following has gone on over a few weeks.

BIM has been added into the Moodle plugin database. A part of this is providing versions of the plugin that work with each of the versions of Moodle. Currently BIM is available for Moodle versions 2.0 through 2.3. I need to provide a version that works with Moodle 2.4 and perhaps explore what, if anything different, is required for the imminent (since released) Moodle 2.5 release. This is a record of that work.

Misc updates

First, it’s time to update the various BIM related pages

  • The BIM page on this blog needed updating to show that BIM is now available via the Moodle plugin database.
  • The Moodle docs BIM page also needs updating due to this progress.

Misc bugs

One of the less than perfect Moodle development practices I had adopted was not having the debug messages appear on the page. Hence I was unaware of the following two problems

Notice: Undefined variable: strbims in mod/bim/lib/locallib.php on line 244
Notice: Undefined variable: base_url in mod/bim/lib/locallib.php on line 249

Thanks to Anthony for picking these up. Fix these first. Which will mean committing these to github and creating new zip files.

Having turned the full debugging options on reveals a range of similar messages to address

  • undefined variable screen in student/view.php – line 42 – DONE
  • A little surprising, was on-going use of “print_heading” which should have changed as part of migration to 2.0
  • error() is a deprecated function, – DONE
  • Issues with the use of redirect. – DONE

    This is slightly larger than the above. A couple of the workflows in BIM involve a message being given in one complete page, a delay and then a redirect to another BIM page. This breaks how a Moodle script should work. I was going to leave this alone, but testing some of the above minor changes requires this to be fixed.

    Simple solution for now will be to replace the timed redirect with a simple link for the user to click.

  • Undefined property: stdClass::$cmidnumber – from manage questions – DONE
    happens in bim_grade_item_update, which is called from bim_update_gradebook…similar problem to this which also provides the basics of a solution.

Using GIT more appropriately

This does raise the question about to another point mentioned by Anthony – the Github file repository on Apparently this would make zip files easier.

Part of what I’m trying to do with BIM is to explore how tools like BIM can be made more flexible and responsive. This will, in part, need a solid foundation that links properly with the broader Moodle development practices.

After a bit of exploration this seems to mean creating branches in the BIM github repository with names such as
MOODLE_23_STABLE, MOODLE_24_STABLE which then enables easier integration with the type of processes described here.

Let’s start with setting up Moodle via git
[code lang=”bash”]
git clone git://
cd moodle
git branch -a
git branch –track MOODLE_24_STABLE origin/MOODLE_24_STABLE
git checkout MOODLE_24_STABLE [/code]

What work I’ve done on BIM so far is suitable for a MOODLE_23_STABLE branch. There is also an older MOODLE_19_STABLE version of BIM. I need to fix the BIM github repo to have these branches. Then I can start work on the MOODLE_24_STABLE version below.

This means I need to refresh (again) my understanding of github and branches. One of the drawbacks of only dipping into development irregularly and quickly is that I don’t really ever grok it. May be easier than I thought.

[code lang=”bash”]
git branch MOODLE_23_STABLE
git push origin MOODLE_23_STABLE

And there’s such a branch added. Add the one for 24 and start thinking about making the changes. Also done the one for MOODLE_19

What’s needed – 2.4

Lastly, there’s a need to make some changes for 2.4

  • create an addinstance capability in db/access.php- DONE
  • update version.php for Moodle 2.4 releaseDONE/li>

Create the zip file that I’ll upload to CONTRIB
[code lang=”bash”]
git archive -o ~/Desktop/ –prefix=bim/ MOODLE_24_STABLE

That sort of worked, but I believe there may be a bit more to do.

Version 1.9 into CONTRIB

Another task is to get the old version of BIM for Moodle 1.9 into CONTRIB

That seems to be done.

Which Moodle (or other LMS) tool is best at support and training?

A question for those with experience of Moodle or other LMS tools/plugins/services etc

Which tools do a really good job of embedded support/training?

i.e. assume the tools is used to support a fairly complex task, but if I’m a first time user of the tool I can access all that I need to know about using the tool effectively from within the tool itself. I don’t need to visit the institutional e-learning support site, contact help desk or Google resources placed online by others.

A “really good job” might be judged on a variety of criteria, including, but not limited to,

  • Clear instructions that get you underway quickly.
  • Well structured, scaffolded support that minimises the need for calling helpdesk.
  • Instructions that move beyond simple technical “how-tos” into offering pedagogical insights.
  • Some aspect of how it supports the people using it is different from the run-of-the-mill.

Also, feel free to throw in suggestions of any software in general (most modern, quality computer games are probably good examples) or literature.


I’m finally getting started on my Moodlemoot’AU 2013 presentation and am thinking about how BIM can be improved.

Improving the support BIM provides out of the box has long been an aim. Mostly because I think most of the tools I use don’t do a particularly good job and most of the additional supports (e.g. separate training sessions or separate websites) provided by institutions are also not as good as they could be.

This idea has been percolating for more than a few years originally proposed back in 2010 as “Making the LMS more like the Globe Theatre”.

So, I’m after ideas of where it’s been done well.

I'm helping to organise a conference – sort of

One of the courses I’m responsible for next semester is EDU8719 Contemporary Issues Conference. The synopsis of the course is

The course will be structured around an online conference that will include several themes or strands that reflect current trends and issues in education. Students will prepare a proposal for a paper in which they will draw upon their prior study and experience to respond to one of the conference themes and will participate in anonymous peer review of submitted proposals. Using their reviews for guidance, students will complete their papers, present them online using an appropriate medium, and engage in discussion of their own and other papers.

So, I’m helping organise a conference.

The following is meant to encourage me to get to know the course better by retelling it in my own words, to save any vague ideas I get while learning about it, and perhaps get some good ideas for the course. In particular, I’d appreciate any

  • Pointers to similar courses that are more open than not.
  • Suggestions about how to enhance the learning experience.
  • Thoughts and experiences on online services for running conferences.
  • Suggestions for literature and people that provide good insight on the four main topics.

The course has been run numerous times before and appears to be fairly well set up. So, at the moment the intent is not to make any radical changes. There is another course I’m running at the same time to which I’ll be making more radical changes, only want to do one course at a time. Just looking to avoid any major pitfalls and make any gradual refinements.

Summarising the course

The course has four main topics/modules. The content in these is minimal, the interests of the students should drive what they actually look at.

  1. Engaging in professional networks.
  2. Locating, accessing and critiquing current professional discourse.
  3. Writing for professional audiences.
  4. Online presentation techniques.

The aim is to encourage students to deepen their reading and discussion of contemporary issues in education. The main task is to engage with a simulated online conference in a range of roles. Students need to

  • Prepare and submit a paper proposal.
  • Review and comment on proposals from two other students.
  • Review and comment on full papers produced from those proposals.
  • Complete their paper based on comments from the marker and two other students.
  • Present the paper using an online format of their choice.
  • Host online discussion of their paper.
  • Participate in discussion of serval papers during the conference period.

The idea is that as author they go into some depth and as reviewer they develop some breadth.

Assessment is summarised in the following table

Assignment Due Date Description
1 – 20% 14 Aug 2013 – Week 5 Abstract proposal
Proposal reviews
2 – 60% 18 Sep 2013 – Week 10
Just before mid-semester break
Draft paper for review
Paper review
Final revised paper
3 – 20% 23 Oct 2013 – Last week Recorded presentation
Conference contributions
Self-rating quiz

The weekly structure is something like the following table

Week Module Tasks
Weeks 1 & 2 1 – Connected professionals Module 1 readings
View sample papers and presentations.
Begin reading for paper preparation
Prepare and submit abstract with proposal
Weeks 3, 4 & 5 2 – Professional conversation Module 2 readings
Reading for paper
Begin drafting paper
Weeks 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
includes the break.
3 – Writing as a professional Wk 6

  • Module 3 readings
  • Consider proposal reviews

Wk 7 – Review draft and prepare for submission.
Wk 8 – Complete paper & submit ** different in specification and ICE **
Wk 9 & 10 – Read assigned papers and submit reviews
Wk 11 – Consider paper reviews, revise and submit final paper

Week 13-15 4 – Presenting online Wk 12

  • Submit to conference site and EASE.
  • Read Module 4 readings
  • Work on conference presentation

Wk 13 Complete presentation and load to study desk
Wk 14 – Deliver conference presentation and host discussion. Participate in others.
Wk 15 – Deliver and participate and finally assess conference participation of self and others.

Online structure/services

  • EasyChair conferencing system used to run the conference.
  • Forums
    • A tea forum for introductions.

      Not a lot in terms of replies and doesn’t seem to lead into further conversations.

    • Class bulletins.

      Announcements and responses. Seems a good place to find what issues there were with the course in prior offerings.

    • Course management and Broken links

      General forums for reporting issues problems, both empty. So, no problems or problems raised in other forums?

  • Other Moodle resources
    • A suggested resources Database activity that is empty. A place to share resources. Would social bookmarking work better?
  • Other resources
    • Link to prior conference papers – including 2010 hosted on an OJS site.
    • Links to prior conference presentations.
    • Large collection of ICE-based content.

Minor bugs, possibilities and questions

The following is an ad hoc collection of observations while looking through the course.


  • The “ezproxy” link for “Canter, D.V., Fairbairn, G., & ebrary Inc 2006, Becoming an author advice for academics and other professionals” in the specification is broken. May point to similar problems elsewhere.
  • Appears getting the reviews in is as much a problem in this course as in others.
  • There’s a chance that the ICE content will not match some of the details of the course including: staffing, due dates etc.


  • Short interviews/invited talks from external folk on various topics at appropriate times.
  • Replace the “suggested resources” Moodle database with a Diigo group?
  • A couple of simple screencasts to illustrate aspects of using EasyChair?
  • Be a bit more specific with some of the readings focused around the act of thinking about and preparing a conference paper.

    e.g. types of research papers, fitting with a conference theme, mechanical tasks of reference management/writing etc.


  1. Is there any formal or advisable pre-requisites for students entering the course and do all the enrolled students fulfil this?

    It would appear that the students would need to have a fairly good grasp of a particular issue and the some experience with writing. So this wouldn’t appear to be a good first course.

  2. Can I get access to prior uses of the easychair conferencing system? What else is involved in setting this up
  3. What’s the difference between a “real” conference and a “simulated” one?
  4. Is there some value in having a fixed online format to allow more of a conference community to form and perhaps to invite participation from others?
  5. EDU8117 also uses an online symposium idea, is there value in exploring connections between these two courses? At the very least using the same technology or approach to the conferences.
  6. How to make the purpose and process of the course easier to understand?

    Some early forums suggest this was a problem for some students.

  7. How to align some of the assessment detail between ICE and course specification?
  8. How to deal with issues of anonymity of submissions within such a small class

Moodle, BIM, reflective journals and TPACK: Suggestions for moving beyond

The following provides the abstract and slides used in a presentation at Moodlemoot’AU 2013.



The TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge) framework provides one way to conceptualise the knowledge required to leverage technologies to improve learning. In proposing the TPACK Framework, Mischra and Koehler (2006, p. 1029) argue that

“Quality teaching requires developing a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content, and pedagogy, and using this understanding to develop appropriate, context-specific strategies and representations. Productive technology integration in teaching needs to consider all three issues not in isolation, but rather within the complex relationships in the system defined by the three key elements.”

This presentation will use the TPACK framework to explain and explore the use, existing features, and changes being made to the BIM activity module. Released in 2010, BIM supports the use of individual student blogs as reflective journals. It’s been used in a small number of institutions, written about (Jones & Luck, 2009; Reaburn, Muldoon, & Bookallil, 2009), ported to Moodle 2.x, and in 2013 is being used by the developer in his own teaching for the first time. These experiences have identified a number of possible areas for improvement. Beyond using TPACK to explore how and what changes to make, the presentation will address the following questions. How can BIM:

  • reduce the workload associated with student reflective journals and make this practice more sustainable?
  • better support different pedagogical approaches, especially connectivism?
  • leverage learning analytics?

While BIM will be the concrete example used in the presentation, the presentation will raise questions of interest to the broader Moodle community. In particular, the presentation seeks to explore how the Moodle community might better support the integration of technology into teaching by examining the complex relationships between the three components of the TPACK framework.


While BIM is the example used in the presentation, the major aim of the presentation is to explore how and what insights TPACK might provide to the broader Moodle community. In particular, to explore how the development and support of Moodle can be enhanced to better develop the effective context-specific integration of technological, pedagogical and content knowledge required for effective technology integration into learning and teaching.

As a result, it is hoped that developers, teaching and technical support staff, teaching staff and management will benefit from the presentation.

How can an "enterprise" e-learning tool be agile?

I have a problem. If I’m really lucky, BIM will get added to my institution’s version of BIM for Semester 2 and I will be able to use it. Based on my experience this semester – where I’ve used an approach that depends on BIM – there has been limitations and workload issues. Having BIM installed in the “enterprise LMS” will help significantly reduce these problems. It will also severely limit my ability to learn.

That limitation will arise from the nature of being an “enterprise” LMS. i.e. not at all agile. Instead a lumbering behemoth that takes a while to turn around. Getting the “enterprise” installation of BIM changed in anyway will involve going through a governance process that will have numerous steps. During these steps the expense of changing BIM will have to compete for the scarce resources available to change the “enterprise” LMS with other requirements. Requirements that are likely to be significantly more important than the couple of hundred students in the 2 or 3 courses I teach.

This causes problems because while BIM has been used at other institutions. It’s typically been supported just like most “enterprise” LMS. i.e. if there are any problems or limitations with the tool it is learners and teachers who are aware of it first. These folk will either ignore/workaround the problem (and blame the &^%%## technology) or they will ask for help. The people they ask for help will be either IT helpdesk folk or L&T staff development/training folk. If they are lucky these folk will actually know how to use the particular tool that has the problem without having to quickly read the manual. In the worse case scenario, they’ll have to do a quick read of the manual/Google search (which theoretically the learner/teacher could have done in the first place). Either way the only options open to the support folk are

  1. Here’s where you went wrong and how you fix the problem.
  2. You have just discovered one of the known problems with that tool, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Either response often involves the learner/teacher engaging in a large laborious manual process to workaround the limitation of the tool.

A different situation

When I’m using BIM, I’ll be in a slightly different situation. I designed and wrote BIM. When there’s a problem or limitation with BIM, I can generally change BIM to fix it. For example, earlier this week I discovered that one of the main pages wasn’t displaying individual student posts in order of time published. Five minutes later it did.

The fact that BIM has been around for 3/4 years and this problem still existed in the code is a nice piece of evidence of the limitations of the “enterprise” approach, even if it is based on open source technology.

The trouble is, I was able to make and use this fix because I’m currently running BIM on my laptop. Next semester, when (or if) it is installed on the “enterprise” LMS it is very unlikely that a change like this would ever get installed on the “enterprise” LMS in any reasonable time frame. Perhaps ready for next semester, if I’m lucky.

This is a real problem because next semester I will have a real opportunity to do some really interesting experimentation and development with BIM. Activities that will be somewhat curtailed by the constraints of the enterprise process.

How can I work around this?

Some possibilities

Two short-term possibilities are

  1. The backup/restore shuffle.

    This is where the students interact with the enterprise version of BIM. I then back that data up and restore it on my laptop. This is where I have the agile version of BIM that I can play with. If I make any change to the data, I then have to shuffle the data back the other way. In reality, the round trip of taking data from the agile version to the enterprise version probably isn’t going to work in any consistent and safe way.

    This approach also doesn’t help enable some of the ideas where the changes to BIM will enable students to do new and interesting things with BIM. Perhaps a version of BIM installed on an outside server the students could interact with might work. But it raises all sorts of other issues.

  2. The client-side scripting workaround.

    This is where I create browser/client based scripts that modify how BIM works. Each student/staff member would need to install the scripts on their browser to get the functionality.

    Perhaps I could make changes to the BIM code to make this sort of workaround more effective and simpler?

The other possibility is to explore how the enterprise approach could be changed to be more agile. At the very least this would involve building a better relationship with the institutional IT folk, but even then there are limitations.

Are there other possibilities?

The grammar of enterprise IT

The grammar of school is an idea to explain why reforms of education have failed to take root. Especially the use of ICTs. The rationale is that any proposed reform is so different from the accepted mindsets of schooling (the grammar) that it is seen as nonsensical, as ungrammatical. i.e. it gets rejected or ignored in much the same way a nonsensical sentence.

I suggest that there is also a “grammar of enterprise IT”. Ideas such as

  1. Wanting to make rapid, unplanned changes to a piece of software; or,
  2. Trusting a member of the Education Faculty to make those changes.

would simply be seen as nonsensical and rejected. Changing that grammar is going take a lot longer.

Even in writing this post, I run the chance that someone in enterprise IT will see how this is an attempt to break the grammar of enterprise IT. A perception that could lead to additional constraints on the development and use of BIM. Shall be interesting to see how it develops.

Everything old is new again

I have this growing sense of deja vu. I’m beginning to think that my current experience with the institutional policies and processes around Australian university enterprise e-learning is essentially a repeat of my experience with the institutional policies and processes around Australian university print-based distance education systems of the mid-1990s. Almost twenty years on its deja vu all over again?

Some of this arises from an on-going conversation between @cj13, @timklapdor (I must start reading his blog more), and myself. A conversation about how innovation might arise within existing university structures (or more likely not arise).

As it happens, I’ve also been reading a bit about Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here” book and its intellectual links. Through which I came to this in which Morozov has a short piece (linked to his book and other writings) where innovation and how we consider it is questioned. It included this on the history of innovation

According to historian Benoit Godin, for more than 2,500 years, the innovator was “a heretic, a revolutionary, a cheater.” Innovators brought little but trouble: They challenged the status quo and undermined the stability of the state. As late as the 1940s, innovation was seen as a form of deviant behavior — like crime or delinquency.

The idea of the notion of innovation being innovated and the view of the innovator as a heretic made some interesting connections for me. For example, back in 1994 I was asked to formally apologise to the entire staff of the Division of Distance and Continuing Education (DDCE) at a University because I gave a presentation about the World-Wide Web. The abstract for the presentation asked the question “Is this the death of DDCE?”. Most of my work with web-based learning over the following 5 years arose from battling against the limitations of the formal institutional mechanisms for distance education. Now, in 2013, I find myself battling against the limitations of the formal institutional mechanisms for e-learning. Perhaps the “innovator” – at least the one outside the formal institutional innovation framework – is still a role of a heretic?

All of which gives further weight/credence to the argument of @cj13 about the need for skunk works. It also connects to one of the central ideas of Morozov’s book about solutionism. i.e. that University learning and teaching has fallen for solutionism and the on-going search for “imperfections soon to be overcome by applying the right method” (Ven Den Eede, 2013) and ignoring broader problems. Suggesting that the current bandwagons of MOOCs, Learning Analytics etc. are likely to result in internally driven changes within Australian universities, but only the type of internally driven changes that have arisen from earlier bandwagons such as web-based learning, online learning, or blended learning. In 20 years time, I suspect it’s not entirely impossible that I will be struggling against the constraints put in place by a system relying on the local use of a MOOC from the USA and the support provided by IBM’s latest learning analytics with inbuilt learner and teacher nudge-based interventions?

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