Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Conference on Celebrating / Sharing Success in E-Learning

Tomorrow (1st October 2008) is our E-Learning conference - a slightly smaller scale than other conferences. It will last for about two and a half hours and follow a morning of presentations for our Just a Minute digital video competitions - consisting of videos of less than a minute entered from schools.
The presentations will be about what schools are doing with E-Learning - some of them major, some relatively minor, but all (hopefully) significant to the schools they're working in. Here are some of the areas that will be being covered:

  • Every Child Matters;
  • Split Site Schools;
  • Peer Assessment;
  • SEN Possibilities and Practice;
  • Supporting Able Gifted & Talented pupils.

Originally I would have loved to do an Unconference - hold it in the evening, TeachMeet-style, provide a little alcohol & snacks and a relaxed atmosphere, but it was decided that people wouldn't understand the concept or be bothered to turn up. This means it's being done during the school day and will have some elements of a TeachMeet:

  • only 7 minute or 2/3 minute presentations;
  • presentations by schools and software vendors (whose content must work within our VLE / Learning Platform system and who can't use their time as a sales pitch, but must focus on application and classroom practice;
  • no Powerpoint or similar tools allowed (e.g. simply online demos);
  • the order of presenters picked at random...
We have a range of presenters from primary and secondary schools, plus two MLD schools, and software vendors. I'm also hoping to do a presentation on the new flexible Moodle theme we're offering to schools.
It's going to be held at the Teaching & Learning Centre in Aylesbury, which (due to parking restrictions and general smallness) can't accommodate enough people for what we'd want to do. With this in mind we're going to broadcast it via our Connect server. If you'd like to attend remotely, then please email me at ian [dot] usher [at] gmail [dot] com and ask - I'll give you the URL and joining instructions, but I'm not opening up this to the world to ensure that our server can offer a suitable service, so if you want to take part, make contact before tomorrow (1st October 2008) at midday. Before the conference I'm working in a school in the morning, so you'll need to get in touch sooner rather than later.
Today I've been planning how the parallel Connect meeting is going to look (we're using another Connect server as redundant capacity in case the first one has issues) - and enjoying looking through the Adobe Connect Exchange for some great activities to enhance the start of the meeting with - in particular the Connect MP3 Player and the Welcome Map, plus a nice one up my sleeve involving sport, a softball bat, and flightless birds. If that's not an incentive to get you to attend, who knows what is?
Photo credit: PhotoMojo

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Open source finally approved for UK schools

According to a post on the PC Pro News pages 12 "open-source companies" (I think it's the software they support that's open source, rather than the companies themselves, but hey) have made the list for the Software for Educational Institutions Framework, which means that they can supply schools with Open Source software without the schools having to feel like they'd bought it from a bloke down the pub. Similar articles from the Inquirer and ComputerWorld seem to imply that it's actually 12 companies", one of which offers Open Source" - things will no doubt become clearer later on. Or maybe not.
In my mind Sirius Corporation sounds like it's a company run by a Mr Blofeld, possibly one that kidnaps submarines, or airships, or something, but it's actually a provider of Open Source solutions including (you saw this one coming, didn't you?) Moodle. It's not clear how this relates to the Becta Learning Platform Services Framework - Sirius aren't on there, so would their Moodle solution be approved under the SfEIF? Would anyone be bothered? What would be interesting would be if a company like Sirius or Novell (whose Open Source service has apparently also been approved) were to start to do Open Source integration with MIS tools, reporting systems, other things like that, to provide the "travel adapter" for schools who would want to plug in their newly-acquired OS infrastructure to their existing (legacy?) LA-supplied MIS system.
There's a bit of a generalisation by Sirius in the PC Pro article:

Moodle is already massively used in higher education, and loads of schools want to use it. But because no supplier was on the list, if a school wanted to use it there'd be quite a lot of pressure not to from local authorities. Hopefully that can change now.
Mark Taylor, president of the Sirius Corporation & Bond Villian
- of course at this point I'd be jumping up and down waving an orange flag yelling "Local Authority", but it's a not wholly inaccurate picture of where things are in some people's mindsets. I think the bigger reluctance to use Open Source Software (OSS) has been on the desktop where despite Becta's relationship with Microsoft fluctuating from bad, through worse, to approaching normal, there is still a reluctance to do anything that doesn't involve paying through the nose. This is often due to a perception that "buying from Microsoft gives you some sort of support" - but I've yet to see an implementation of a Windows network & MS Office applications in a school that does what's wanted.
I've been asked to take part in an advisory capacity in the Open Source Schools project, which is supported by Becta, to explore how the appropriate use of OSS can help with the delivery of the Harnessing Technology strategy, including personalised learning, parental engagement and home access, as well as curriculum-based materials. This is due to kick off within the next month or so, and I hope to post about it here. In the meantime, the list of companies for the Software for Educational Institutions Framework should be released later today, possibly by the Office of Government Commerce, so watch that (or this) space.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A free flexible Moodle theme

Photo from arbeer.de Running a host of VLEs is fun - sometimes. One of the most difficult things to do is ensure that things are centralised (to some degree) so that changes we implement at the centre happen with little or no fuss on the Moodles which are across the County. This creates a natural tension with schools who want to do their own thing within the framework in which we're all working.
The way a VLE looks is an example of this - Moodle comes with a standard set of themes which can be modified, but only to a limited extent. There's the fact that most people who are Moodle admins within the County never want to know what the letters 'FTP' or 'CSS' stand for - but there will always be some who do. Catering for everyone is difficult, and so this post describes what I've been doing over the summer to attempt to cater for the bulk of our schools...
We co-develop our Moodle service with the folk at Atomwide and the team in West Sussex - effectively this means that we have over 400 schools using Moodle and can share developments / ideas / problems and solutions together. Previously we had used (and I had blogged about) the Chameleon theme - an "editable in the browser" theme which, while working OK, put a lot of load on the servers due to the way it worked. Schools seemed to use it simply because, in its default incarnation, It Was Green, and no-one actually did much customisation with it. With the performance issues, it was decided to retire it.
Last year, during an upgrade for all of our schools, Mark from the West Sussex team shared a theme which had been developed by Dan Smith from St Paul's Catholic College in West Sussex. This was a theme which allowed a Moodle admin to upload a number of replacement images to an area within the Site Files section of the site to customise the theme, and also edit a CSS file in that area to update the sitewide styles.
Over the summer I've taken the theme and developed it a little. The previous theme would only take JPEG files, this one will now accept PNG, GIF or JPEG files and can display a mixture. The theme takes into account whether or not the slasharguments variable is switched on in your Moodle, which the previous one didn't. Moodle admins can also now upload a favicon.ico file into the appropriate folder within Site Files to replace the standard one, and the CSS file now has some (fairly) extensive documentation inside it. I've written a manual in PDF format and authored a range of instructional videos on how to customise it.
You can download the PDF of the manual here. I'm not currently sure if I'm going to open up the instructional videos to everyone, since they could significantly affect the performance of our Adobe Connect server, so I'll have a think about that. I might put them somewhere else, and will update this post to reflect that. Anyway... The videos are now detailed further down this post...

How to use the theme

You will need:

  • FTP access (yes, I know this is an "easy to use" theme but it's not intended to be maintained via FTP, just initially uploaded that way) to place the theme in the standard Moodle themes folder;
  • Moodle Administrator rights - to copy the editable themes folder into the Site Files area.

There are two elements:

  1. A folder which needs to be copied (via FTP or some other method) into your themes folder in Moodle (next to the place where the standard theme lives). It's called Schools by default and should (bizarrely, due to the capital letter) appear first in the list of themes. Download it here. (.zip file containing a folder called Schools)
  2. A folder which needs to be created in your Site Files area. The folder must be called theme. Download it here. (.zip file containing a folder called theme)

Once you've done both of these, the theme should appear in the standard Moodle theme selector. This has been tested with Moodle 1.8, I plan on testing it with our 1.9 development server as soon as is practicable, and possibly releasing any necessary update when we go live with our 1.9 build.

The theme is intended for someone in my situation (who is looking after a number of school Moodles and has schools who want to customise their own, but doesn't want to burden the schools with issues of FTP and similar complexities). If you are obsessed about micro-managing your Moodle theme then you are probably better off creating your own theme.

The important point with this theme is not the way it looks. It comes with a number of standard images, which you really shouldn't use. They are just there to illustrate the difference between PNG, GIF and JPEG files, which is also explained in the manual. The important thing is that once installed, it's easy to change, with no need to FTP. The alterations.css file in the Site Files area allows those who are comfortable with CSS, or even those who aren't, to go to town on the styling using Cascading Style Sheets.

If you're in a Buckinghamshire or West Sussex school and want to use it in your Moodle, this will shortly be available for you to use, so you don't need to download it.

The license

It's released under Creative Commons Noncommercial Share-Alike License. Basically, you can't sell it, but you can adapt it. If you do adapt it or pass it on, then the same license applies to that and all derivative works.


If you have any questions about its use, please post them as comments on this post, but please use your common sense and read the manual first! I'm not technical support for this, but it should work unless you break it!


If you use this and make a success of it, then please include a link as a comment so I can get an idea if it works.

Update - video tutorials

OK, I've published the video tutorials to support this in a publicly accessible place where I don't have to worry about the bandwidth! They were all done in Adobe Captivate and are hosted on the Adobe Connect server - hence you'll need Flash to view them, but you have that, don't you?

First of all, yet another link to the manual:

Then the videos:

and finally a video for People Like Me - you're looking after more than a few Moodles for organisations (like, for example, a bunch of schools) and you want to know where the files go:

I can't vouch that these tutorials will always be up to date - I maintain an identical set on our BucksGfL Connect server, and will always update those ones first, since That's What I'm Paid For. However, it's easy to publish the Captivate movies to many places, so I'll try and keep them in sync.