Are your Moodle courses taking ages to load?

Jo Norbury

Jo manages a range of e-learning content services including Flexible Learning Toolboxes and the VET Commons online community. Having taught extensively within the TAFE system herself, Jo is all about making life easier for busy, budget-constrained VET professionals. This is a great Moodle tip:

What’s going on with my Moodle course?

Have you noticed that the more content and resources you add to Moodle courses the heavier they become? We have. And this results in slower page response times (time to load when you click) and much longer back-up and restore times, sometimes even timing out? Yep, for us too. Then storing those backups for auditing requirements means larger archiving loads. Urggh.

We also found it hard to use one true source, so that modules only need to be updated in one place but changes translate throughout all courses. If I added a student handbook to multiple courses, for example, when I wanted to update the handbook I needed to know where it was, upload the new version and delete the old one. If I missed one, well I would have multiple sources not just one. (Don’t get me started on how we do that every day with email attachments!)

What we did to fix it…

Moodle is one of the most popular learning platforms worldwide designed to manage digital learning.

It became very clear that we needed to manage our content better. Fortunately, Moodle 2.0 also recognised this need, so along came Alfresco. Alfresco manages the content (what it was created for) and Moodle manages the learner (what it was created for). With this combination you have a pretty neat system. Moodle’s repository API plugin seamlessly helps the two softwares, Alfresco and Moodle, speak to each other.

Alfresco is the leading open source content management platform designed to manage content.

So last year we introduced Alfresco content management into our TrainingVC – an integrated system of tools to support organisations to deliver flexible learning solutions to their clients or staff. The core of TrainingVC is Moodle, integrated with virtual classrooms, ePortfolios, reporting and of course learning content management.

What this means for teachers

The Alfresco/Moodle integration was created so that Moodle editing teachers can easily discover then add content into and out of their organisation’s Alfresco folder in the file picker, without leaving the Moodle user interface. Each organisation has its own intuitive, easy to navigate folder taxonomy, including a consistent set of metadata with as much automatic capturing as possible. All of this supports greater user uptake of content management.

Why we’re singing Alfresco’s praises

Alfresco has been so popular that clients have requested standalone Alfrescos to manage all of their organisation’s content.

With all the content now in Alfresco, we have removed the heavy load from our Moodle courses and we have one true source for our content. This means:

  • version control tracking for audits
  • simple review workflows
  • record and automate moderation and validation of assessments
  • a comfortable folder structure that can also control access by permissions.

It has been so incredibly popular with our clients that many have requested standalone Alfrescos for other areas of their businesses. An Alfresco standalone means even more integration features for your organisation, such as desktop integration, collaborative team sites and content discovery and retrieval. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re thrilled.

Not sure whether Alfresco is the answer for you? Need some questions answered? #askjnorbs on Twitter or send an email.

Deploying video in digital learning

Darcy is the Victorian E-learning Coordinator for the National VET E-learning Strategy. Passionate about lifelong learning, Darcy focuses on improving the use of media and technology to enable better personal development and learning outcomes. In this case, Darcy considers the use of online services for deploying video in digital learning.

When it comes to deploying video in digital learning—an essential component of the blended learning mix—there are a number of options and factors to consider:

Hosting video on YouTube

YouTube is a commonly used option for hosting video especially in education, perhaps because the service is free. YouTube’s servers optimise the videos and deploy them via their website and a range of mobile applications which they maintain for various platforms. A major factor for educators is that once a video is on YouTube it is publically accessible and promoted in the Google search engine.

If you wish you can limit audience by Google accounts, however in practice this would be hard to maintain. This can be an issue if the material has significant intellectual property (IP) value to your organisation, but some education organisations see the marketing benefits as outweighing the risks and are therefore taking advantage of this approach.

Other things to consider with regards to YouTube are advertising revenues from views, and video metrics which can highlight audience engagement graphically during the video, based on where users pause or exit a video.

With the TrainingVC e-learning delivery platform this video deployment method is achieved by simply adding a URL to the platform and doesn’t take up any file space in your LMS plan.

Hosting video on other services

There are several other online video hosting services out there. Vimeo provides a similar service to YouTube, however they have tools to control access and/or monetise the viewing of videos via a generic password. Publishing the password to learners gives some control over who can view the video, but could also easily be shared with others thus potentially losing revenue.

Hosting video on TrainingVC

Your TrainingVC data allowance will depend upon the plan that you choose – there is something for every type and size of organisation. You might, for example, start with a plan that includes 40 GB of data, but this space can grow rapidly if students are uploading projects and assignments. In this case, your storage can be cost-effectively increased via top-up packs. The key benefit of hosting video files in TrainingVC is that you have more control over who can access the content, which is particularly useful if the material has a significant IP value in your training delivery. TrainingVC video hosting is easily achieved by adding a file resource from within a course, so the format of the video file you upload needs to be compatible with your student’s computer and browser.

Content Chunking

YouTube data show that the most successful videos have a maximum length of two minutes. While this could be longer for educational deliveries, I would recommend splitting long video deliveries into sub-five-minute chapters or points. This allows the learner to consume content on the go in bite-size pieces, and also makes editing and updating video materials a lot easier for designers.

Edumarketing

Social media is an important part of any marketing plan, and can be used to give potential learners an insight into your educational content. This makes edumarketing a valuable representation of your brand when marketing to learners.

What next?

I recommend using a combination of TrainingVC and YouTube video hosting in your delivery/marketing mix if your materials are considered valuable IP, or a YouTube/Ad-revenue approach if your business is looking for progressive online revenue opportunities. Either way, let me know if you need a hand.

How do you pronounce Totara?

Bernadette Parry is the Client Support Coordinator at eWorks. Her role involves juggling all sorts of client-focused tasks including start-up TrainingVC training, advanced Moodle training and support desk services. If you have ever wondered how to pronounce Totara, or how it fits into the LMS world, Bernadette might just have the answer.

What is Totara?

Totara is a high quality Learning Management System (LMS) for enterprise organisations. It sort of ‘sits on top of’ Moodle, adding features which are required by the corporate sector such as the ability to:

  • Create individual development plans
  • Manage training events
  • Track learning progress and compliance.

That’s all well and good, but how do you pronounce Totara?

  1. T-TARa – with a bit of a stutter and an emphasis on the ‘TAR’, as one of my colleagues pronounces it
  2. TOW-dera – with emphasis on the ‘tow’ and little emphasis on the ‘dera’. I completed the Totara LMS Administration course in 2014, and an American from TotaraLMS was pronouncing it this way
  3. Towtera – with equal emphasis on the ‘tow’ and the ‘ter’ – as the Irish presenter in the Totara LMS Administration course pronounced it
  4. Tot-ra – as in ‘tow truck’, without the ‘ck’. When I first heard of Totara in 2011, this is how I heard it pronounced.

So far I have gone with option 4… the main reason is that I heard this pronunciation (and that Totara was a New Zealand tree), from Austen Sinclair in an iMoot 2013 session. Being from New Zealand (where Totara was developed), and working with Totara – I’ve taken his word for it. He said ‘Toetra – try to say it in one syllable’.

A Totara tree

The image above is a New Zealand Totara tree. Beautiful isn’t it? It’s a podocarp tree endemic to New Zealand which grows throughout the North Island and northeastern South Island. Prized for its carving properties, the wood from totara trees was the primary wood used in Māori carving and to make waka in traditional Maori boat building.

How will you pronounce Totara?

But more importantly, are you taking advantage of its many great features? Confused and have no idea what Totara is? Struggling to figure out which LMS is best for your organisation? Contact eWorks for some friendly advice.

Top tips for using BigBlueButton (BBB)

BigBlueButton (BBB) is an open-source online classroom package. I first started playing around with it a couple of years ago, because it provides the latest classroom features and tools in eWorks’ TrainingVC learning management system. Since then I have become a regular user – I attended a couple of online iMoots which were run using BBB in 2013 and 2014, and now do online training and consulting using it.

I really like BBB, and have enjoyed the new versions and extra features that have been released over the years. I’m especially excited about the start/stop recording option within sessions that will be included in the next release. But like any online package, I see the same queries come through eWorks’ support desk from time to time. So here are my top tips for using BigBlueButton.

Tip #1: Create a ‘practice’ session for learners to check their equipment

Make a BBB session in your course that is not recorded so that your learners can check their audio equipment before your first session. Not only will this make first time users more confident in the online classroom, it will minimise any user related technical glitches, such as volume settings, and get your session started without delay. Encourage learners to look at the available video about using BBB as a ‘viewer’ once they are in the practice session:

[Note: this tip is superseded in v0.91, which provides an equipment test prior to joining the session.] 

Tip #2: Provide users with a frequently asked questions sheet

This way, users have answers to any issues that arise either prior to or during sessions, such as those relating to microphones. A good place to put the link to the FAQs sheet is in an HTML block.

Tip #3: Use PDFs

If you are using notes for your session save them as a PDF. Early on I used a PowerPoint file, and found that my text turned into hieroglyphics as I had used a font unknown by BBB! You won’t have these issues with PDFs. Microsoft Office documents are converted into PDFs by BBB, so you will always get better, safer results if you save your Word and PowerPoint documents as PDFs and then upload them. And please note that animations in PowerPoint will not display.

Tip #4: Use PDFs for whiteboard

If you plan to draw on a virtual whiteboard upload some blank PDF pages to use. Although BBB doesn’t have a whiteboard to write on, you can use the text, drawing and other tools to write on a PDF.

Tip #5: Use a headset with a USB connection

To get the best quality audio, use a good headset which has a USB connection to your computer. Using the computer speakers and microphone does work, but is not the recommended option.

Tip #6: Sound problems?

Audio is vital with a BBB session and this is where most of the issues that I have come across come up. Some hints:

  1. Is your headset on mute? This one is close to my heart, as much to my embarrassment I accidentally knocked the switch on my headset and was on mute one time during an online presentation.
  2. Is your microphone on mute? Check the microphone icon at the top is not muted so that you don’t miss out on all the fun!
  3. Does your headset have a microphone? Yes, I have actually come across this one!
  4. Did you accept the ‘use my microphone’ in the pop-up window when you joined the session? If not, then log out and back in again.
  5. Is the microphone working properly? If it is, the microphone icon next to the participant’s name will go fuzzy  when he or she speaks.   mic micfuzzy

Tip #7: Recordings

Can’t find your recording? All recordings can be seen in the ‘RecordingsBN’ resource. BBB does some background work to create the recordings, so they may take some time to appear and longer sessions will take a bit more time.

Tip #8: Mute participants as they enter the session

Muting all audio at the beginning of the session will stop unwanted conversations being captured in the recording.

Tip #9: Desktop sharing

The recent updates to Safari and Firefox on Mac OS X have introduced more security checks for running Java applets. These checks appear as dialogue boxes when starting and stopping BBB’s desktop sharing. To help presenters use desktop sharing on Mac OS X, BBB has created two new tutorial videos:

Tip #10: Let your learners know how far into the session the recording starts

Because BBB doesn’t yet have the facility to start and stop recording while the session is in progress, recorded sessions will begin when the first person enters the session and end when the last person exits. This means that if you want to upload resources for the session, the recording will start when you go in to do this as you can’t pre-load resources. Therefore, the part of the session that you actually want recorded will not start for some minutes into the recording. To make life easier for your learners, create a label to let them know how far into the session the important information begins. For example:

Fortunately this won’t be a problem for much longer, as a start/stop recording option within sessions will be included in the next BBB release.

[Note: start/stop recording available in v0.91.]

Tip #11: Install latest version of Java for screen sharing

This one is for moderators and presenters only.

If you are the presenter or moderator and you want to share your screen or desktop, make sure the latest version of Java is installed (minimum Java 7u35). You can check your version on the Java website. Please note that learners and viewers do not need Java.

[Note: Chrome has removed ability to launch Java applets. Firefox recommended for screen sharing]

Tip #12: Internet speed

If your internet speed is slow (less than 0.5 Mbits/sec upload speed and 1.0 Mbits/sec download), then your audio may be poor. So be sure to test it prior to a session on the speedtest website. Turning off your camera may also help.

Tip #13: Computer ‘grunt’

If your computer is not powerful enough for what you are doing BBB will give you the option to lower your colour resolution. You should take this option, and warn your users that the screen will go black for a second or so while this takes effect.

Tip #14: Smartphones and tablets and Flash

Smartphones and tablets are currently not supported due to the use of Flash. There is further information about progress with this at on the Big Blue Button website.

Tip #15: Number of concurrent users

BBB recommends up to 25 participants in a BBB session. This will encourage the optimum experience for your learners with respect to classroom interaction and download speeds and ensure that you can moderate the session effectively.

Tip #16: Still stuck?

If you still need a hand there is great information available on the BBB frequently asked questions site. I’m also happy for you to contact me with any specific questions that you might have. And if you’re looking for a learning management system with the latest live classroom features and tools from Big Blue Button, take a look at TrainingVC.