Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Moodling in your Office? Should you?

It's been about two months since the Microsoft Office Add-In for Moodle was released. The what?
Well, it's an extension for Microsoft Office 2007 and 2003 which allows you to save Office documents to your Moodle and open them from your Moodle.

Saving a file to Moodle from within Office 2007
This is, in many respects, undoubtedly A Good Thing. When I'm doing Moodle training there are often teachers and other staff for whom uploading a document to an online space is something they've not done before - so the process of updating that same document stored in their Moodle course's Files area is not intuitive. They'll open the Files area, click on the file to open it (either directly in their browser if using Internet Explorer or in their browser's cache of downloaded files), edit it, save it and wonder why the file in their Moodle course hasn't updated. For people who've only ever stored files "locally" - i.e. on USB, network or local hard drives - the idea of having to upload again seems alien to them. Well, this Add-In could deal with some of that. What doesn't happen is that the file is automatically saved when using the default Save (or Ctrl-S) option within an Office program (Word, Excel, or PowerPoint). However, it could be possible to alter this by a network admin (or a keen user with geek tendancies) to customise their copy of Word/Excel/PowerPoint to include the Open from Moodle and Save to Moodle buttons as defaults, possibly even (gasp!) removing the default Save icon:
The Open from Moodle... and Save to Moodle... commands added to the Quick Access Toolbar in Word. The default Save command could be removed if you were feeling brave.
I tried to find the Save to Moodle command in the Customize... button for Keyboard Shortcuts above, but as far as I could tell it wasn't listed, even under All Commands. Shown below is the default shortcut keys for Save - if the SavetoMoodle command was here you could (again, for the brave) map this to Save to Moodle by default:
I've done a quick Captivate movie of how the Add-In works in practice. Once you've watched it, read what follows below...
There are a few riders to this seemingly seamless way of saving to your Moodle:
  1. You need to have Teacher rights over a number of courses on your Moodle. Administrator rights will get you in a whole heap of trouble, since the list of courses will be over-long if you're an Admin, and this might mess things up.
  2. Your course(s) needs to have the My Courses or Courses block displayed on them. This appears to be the way that the add-in picks up which courses you are on and could explain why, in the demonstration movie above, the course titles are prefixed with the code to display the course icon in the My Courses block. The documentation that there is indicates that you can hide this block once the Add-In has picked up which courses you have - though I'm not sure if the Add-In would then automatically pick up any new courses you had teacher rights on.
  3. You can have access to multiple Moodles via the Add-In, though I'm not sure where the passwords are stored (and how secure they are) if you check the "remember my password" box. I'm not saying they're insecure, I just don't know.
  4. It doesn't work on a Mac. Or with Office 2010.
  5. It hasn't been tested on Moodle versions earlier or later than 1.9.n - and the indications are that it might not sail faultlessly into Moodle 2.n
  6. If you are a Teacher on some courses, and a student on others in your Moodle (for example, your Staff Room where others post notices, files and messages) then that will still show up, you'll just get an error message when you try to add something to those courses you have a "Student-like" role on.

The bigger picture

It's interesting to see Microsoft engaging with an OSS product in this way. It looks similar to rough drafts of some work I saw at Microsoft almost exactly a year ago, but appears to be a selective development of that prototype system (which allowed teachers to manage their courses' Files areas in a local drive (the M: drive or something similar created via what appeared as a network share) but which (if I remember rightly) appeared to require an intermediate Moodle site to be created in order to work).  However, with a little thought, it's obvious that this isn't an entirely altruistic move. At its core it aims to ensure that users will stick with using Office files to share information. This is understandable from a Microsoft point of view, but before you insist that everyone in your school installs the Add-In to simplify things, it's worth considering how this would effect the process of sharing things within Moodle. Ask a few questions:

What exactly are you trying to do?

I've spent a fair amount of time training and supporting users using Moodle in schools - but most of these principles apply to any Learning Platform you use. It's really hard to get away from the "I'm going to take all of the documents on my network drive / USB stick / desk and shovel them onto my VLE" approach. In itself, this approach doesn't even begin to transform the learning process. It moves the repographic burden from the school to (potentially) the students which could cause issues with the community of parents & carers in your school, what with printer ink being more expensive than oil, champagne and human blood. What someone often means when they say "I want to upload a Word document" is "I want my students to read a piece of text, possibly with images in it". If you're in a situation where many colleagues are wanting to do that, then here's a decision tree to help (I hope):
If you look at that document closely, you should see that the core question is what do you want the learner to do with the information you’re giving them? Generally, this falls into a few actions on behalf of the learner:
  • read it (possibly on screen, possibly after printing, depends on what the learner prefers or can do);
  • annotate it with a pen (generally after printing);
  • copy its contents into some other tool (word processor, presentation software, graphics application);
  • save and modify it (possibly before handing it in as an assignment).
In summary, the document above illustrates the fact that there are only very particular circumstances under which, as a teacher, I’d be sharing Office documents in general (and Word documents in particular) through a Moodle course. It’s the equivalent of sharing Audacity AUP project files rather than MP3 format files to allow students to listen something, or Photoshop PSD files rather than GIF, JPEG or PNG format files to allow students to see an image. Of course, if you’re wanting learners to edit or modify the ‘source’ files then the .aup, .psd or .docx/.doc files would be worth sharing – otherwise, I’d be looking to share something that’s fit for purpose and (here’s the most important point) is accessible to as many learners as possible. Standard Moodle-generated web page resources can contain all sorts of information (just like any web page) and are accessible to learners on mobile devices, internet-connected gaming devices such as PSPs or PS3s and any internet-connected computer without the need for a plugin. PDFs (the next step up on the food chain) are accessible on almost all mobile devices which commonly have PDF-reading apps pre-installed or built-in to the OS. ‘Native’ .docx or .doc files will almost always require an external app or viewer to open
It may seem that using the Office Add-In for Moodle would railroad a user into using Office format files – however, as Microsoft themselves point out, you can use it to upload other file formats into your Moodle course’s Files area. If you have a full version of Acrobat or have installed the Save As PDF Add-In, this means you could generate your simple PDFs from within Office and save them into Moodle.

What do your learners (and staff) have access to?

No Entry - CC image by Joshua Rappeneker
If you knew that your documents were only ever going to be downloaded in school, then you'd have a pretty good idea that everyone would be on a particular version of Office (or Word in this case) and could distribute  the appropriate file accordingly. However, in the mixed environment that offering access to files from home almost certainly guarantees, this can't be guaranteed. Placing .docx files on your VLE or Learning Platform will almost certainly guarantee that some learners (and staff) won't be able to read them at home - and no, they won't bother with a 24MB download and install just to read one paragraph of instructions that you couldn't be bothered to place on your Moodle as a web page. 
Interestingly, there have been numerous examples of students with particular versions of software handing in Upload a Single File assignments from home with (for example) .docx extensions (Word 2007), when the software in school which their teachers will attempt to use to open their submissions is Word 2003. This also applies with Microsoft Works assignments, or Open Document Format (.odf) documents (ah, the irony) or any other random file format that the teacher either (a) wasn't expecting and/or (b) can't open. This is one of the pitfalls of insisting that a particular piece of software is used for completing an assignment (or assuming that it will be). It might be argued that a more holistic way of education students would be to create Online Text assignments in Moodle and equip students with ways of finding, inserting and attributing images and content from around the web, since these are transferable, adaptable and agile skills which can be used anywhere.
I could insert another paragraph here about how another approach would be to ask students to create documents in something like Google Docs or Buzzword, then copy the public URL for that document and paste it into an Online Text assignment. However, you get the idea.

Accessibility is the key

This all boils down to making the information you're trying to share as accessible and appropriate as possible. As is seen from the document above, there are times when it's appropriate to use Office format documents to share information, and times it's not. Here's a simple acid test to work out how easy it is for your users. You could try it with a class of learners - just tell them that they're part of some research you're doing.

  1. Create a simple paragraph of text in Word. Save it as a Word file. 
  2. Create a PDF file from the document using whatever method you wish.
  3. Upload each of these files (the PDF format one and the Word format one) to your Moodle course using the Add a Resource > Link to a file or web site or Display a Directory options.
  4. Copy the text into a web page using Moodle's Add a Resource > Compose a Web Page option.
Then ask students to go home and try and access the web page, the PDF and the Word document. Ask them to carefully record a number of things for each of the three items:
  1. From being on the course page and clicking on the link, how many more times did you have to click to see the paragraph?
  2. Did you have to click on any dialog boxes or pop-ups to get to see the information?
  3. Were there any security warnings which you had to click on - or any that you didn't notice at first?
  4. Did you see the text straight away?
You'll almost certainly find that for the text and PDF files, it's a one-click process. For the Word document however, your students will come up with a wide range of things that happened - security warnings, different versions, some things not appearing at all, oddities with differences between Windows PC, Mac, mobile device, or games console, or any number of odd things. It's not surprising for teachers to share information via Office documents and have students never see them at all - not down to Moodle, but down to how security settings might be configured between Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office, or some other reason that prevents files from being downloaded. Remember, that was when you specifically told them to look for oddities, or things that didn't work, quite possibly because you're bothered about how this online learning business works. For other staff and other students, it's just another reason why this online learning thing doesn't really work, or an excuse why they couldn't hand their homework in. Bear that in mind the next time you're tempted to throw a Word document at a group of learners, just so they can see some text that you want them to read.

A small tangent: what if...?

This makes me wonder if Microsoft could, with a bit of thought, create a "student" version of the Add-In which allows learners to submit a Word document as an Assignment. All the Add-In would have to do is scan the user's Moodle for courses that s/he is enrolled in as a student (similar to how the current one looks for courses the user is a Teacher on) and then look for any active (i.e. not yet closed) Upload a Single File assignments. It would know (from the Moodle userid) which area of the course's moddata folder to create a new subfolder in and place the Word document in there. It would perpetutate some of the issues outlined above but might be useful in some environments. Just a thought...