Understanding How Moodle Works

Working at a non-profit company has given me many opportunities to learn the behind-the-scenes stuff that I didn’t have access to while working at a university. This is why I learned how to download Moodle and maintain it. Below, I’ll share helpful resources for learning Moodle and an analogy that can help you make sense of how Moodle works.

Learning How to Download Moodle

When I first began my role as an instructional designer, I was overwhelmed by the organization’s terminology. There were acronyms for everything and shortened terms for different stages of projects. I quickly became overwhelmed, so I created a glossary of terms. Every time I learned a new word, I could easily keep track of it.

As I was learning these organizational terms, I was also learning how to navigate the Moodle LMS. In my previous job, I used Blackboard (in the sense that I wrote content and made cosmetic changes to courses.) This all changed when I started sharing responsibilities with my manager as an LMS administrator. All of a sudden, I needed to know how to enroll students, change passwords, and make stylistic changes to courses.

I figured I better learn how to install Moodle and understand the backend, too. This proved useful when I facilitated the Moodle redesign project later on, which I blog about here. My manager shared with me access to a Udemy course on how to install Moodle. As I worked through the course, I found that certain terms just weren’t sticking. I had never worked with servers and the stuff that happens “behind the LMS scenes.”

The Main Parts of a Moodle Download

To download Moodle, you are required to download several other technologies. These four technologies were recommended for download by the Udemy course in order to make Moodle function efficiently (behind the scenes):

  • Apache: the server.
  • PHP: a coding language that reads and writes to the database before sending the completed HTML back to the server.
  • MySQL: the database, which stores all the course content.
  • Cron: job scheduler.

The server is what communicates with the user (student, instructor). If an instructor wants to add new content to a course, the server (Apache) would communicate with PHP to pull up the proper information from the database (MySQL) and then store the new content. Not many websites use Cron, but LMSs sometimes do because it can run in the background to update and clean up the site. A student can’t communicate directly with PHP, MySQL, and Cron for security reasons. If they were allowed to make changes to MySQL, for instance, they could potentially make changes to their grades or wreak other havoc. By having these systems communicate with each other, it reduces risk and keeps Moodle running smoothly.

Restaurant Analogy

My partner and I developed an analogy so I could remember the behind-the-scenes magic that makes Moodle work. The analogy involves food, making it much more likely I’ll remember the terms I’m about to share.

Let’s pretend you’re at a restaurant. One that lets you seat yourself. When you’re seated, your server, Apache, ambles over. You provide your order: “I’ll have the cheeseburger without pickles.” The server says, “Sounds great, I’ll bring you one cheeseburger without pickles.” (Apache is quite formal and direct in his serving style.)

Apache brings the order to the cook, named Peggy High Pony. We’ll call her PHP for short. Apache tells PHP, “I need one cheeseburger made to order.” Apache doesn’t know how to cook or do other cook-related duties (his job is simply to serve). The cook’s job is to take all the necessary information, assemble the ingredients, and give it back to Apache. The final product, one burger no pickles, is the completed HTML code.

PHP is known for her ability to quickly take information in and then out, remembering exactly what the server told her. The kitchen is quite efficient. As PHP is doing her job, so is MySQL, the fridge brand. It’s one of those high-end fridges that can maintain its own inventory. When PHP grabs lettuce and burger patties from the fridge, the fridge automatically knows the inventory that’s left. Next time PHP communicates with the fridge, it will be up-to-date. This is important because all of the inventory is stored in the fridge (in Moodle terms, that’s the course information, text, documents, videos). It needs to be current and store the correct material, so that someone accessing it next time will see what they are supposed to.

PHP delivers the final product, one burger no pickles to Apache, who then delivers the meal to the customer. The customer had no contact with the cook or fridge as they completed their tasks. This ensures the kitchen can operate efficiently and safely.   

A restaurant is only as good as it’s manager. At this restaurant, Cron keeps things squeaky clean. He orders the food, maintains the schedules, and mostly works behind the scenes. In Moodle terms, Cron runs in the background and prepares schedules and grades, updates the site, and gets rid of the clutter.

Why the Analogy Works

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it helps me distinguish the different roles that the 4 technologies play in running Moodle. I like this analogy because it shows that the user would never interact directly with certain technologies that allow Moodle to run.

Of course, a user has no idea any of this is happening in the background. But that’s the neat thing if you have set up Moodle correctly; so much happens with the click of a button. When a student commands Apache to do a certain thing, such as open “My Grades,” Apache speaks with PHP, who communicates with MySQL, and then PHP delivers the content to Apache, who can display the course grades to the student. Pretty nifty!


Moodle Image from Flickr.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jlconfor/14007913139

What I Learned from Orange Theory: A Lesson on Motivation

I began taking Orange Theory workout classes at the beginning of 2018. My goal was to get in a bit of shape. Little did I know how much they would transform my view of motivation and learning.

The First Class

I’ll be honest. My first Orange Theory class was pretty rough. I got a stitch in my side about 30 seconds into running on the treadmill. (The treadmill block usually lasts 25 minutes.) Then I didn’t know the proper rowing technique. Then I had to receive a lot of adjustments during the weight training block. Thankfully, the class motivator was super encouraging and didn’t make me feel bad about being slow as a tortoise.

The Theory

Orange Theory’s claim to fame is their heart rate monitor system. People wear the monitor around their stomach or wrist. This monitor provides data including heart rate, calories burned, and number of splat points. It’s encouraged that people earn at least 12 splat points per class. The more splat points, the greater number of calories burned for a longer time. All of this information is displayed next to your name in a block on a tv screen. Your block changes color depending on how hard your heart is working. The more times your block turns orange, the more splat points you earn. The red block signals people to slow down.

The whole class, I worked my buns off. Yet, I couldn’t make it to the orange zone. I would watch my block turn from grey to blue and then green. Then it would just stop. And I didn’t earn a single splat point. I felt a bit discouraged after that first class. I had never sweat that much during a workout in my life! The next class, I reasoned, would be better.

10 more classes, and I still couldn’t make it to the orange zone or earn a single splat point. I nearly vomited one class when a new motivator realized I was the only one without any splat points and pushed me too hard. After that class, I decided not to wear my monitor anymore. I haven’t worn it since.

A few months later, the company announced they were changing their formula so the monitors would display more realistic data. OT realized some of the numbers were making people like myself work too hard. They probably also realized it was super discouraging.

What Now?

To this day, I really enjoy the classes. I love challenging myself and having an encouraging coach there to help with my form. I don’t think about my calories or splat points, but I can see how this could be encouraging for others. Even though there’s a new monitor formula, I still feel burned by the whole experience. It took a long time to believe that I was capable of doing a killer workout, despite the contrary (misleading) data.

This was a huge lesson for me. The inability to earn splat points left me discouraged about my abilities. And then it struck me that many learners probably feel this way, especially when they are novices. As an instructional designer, we have a lot of power. We design the learning experiences for students, and sometimes we include systems that may be more demotivating than motivating. What can we do? Here is my brainstorming on the topic…

  1. Get feedback early and often, especially from students. Are they motivated by the way content is presented? Is there a system in place that rewards students for certain things? Do they like it?
  2. Recognize that not everyone is motivated by the same things. Consider encouraging students in multiple different ways such as direct feedback, personal messages, etc. Find out early on how learners are motivated and then tailor curriculum when appropriate.
  3. Have students provide feedback during the experience. Do they experience certain pain points that decrease motivation? Why?


Orange Theory image from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orange_Theory_new_student_and_studio.jpg

A Lesson on Productivity

As a designer and teacher, I love the thrill from a flash of inspiration. Here is one of those moments…

How Do you Teach Productivity?

The last couple days, I have been shadowing a facilitator to learn how she delivers instruction so that I can support her and the team with future curriculum builds. It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had as an instructional designer. I’ve gotten to know the students and better understand the struggles of teaching in this context. I should have done it a lot sooner.

But, here I am! The first day, the facilitator covered topics including work ethic and absenteeism. After I had finished shadowing her, she shared with me an idea. She had heard of another facilitator using a paper bridge-building activity for students to learn the qualities of productivity. But she wasn’t exactly sure about the logistics, and the other facilitator was no longer employed there. Since our students are entering the trades, she wanted to emphasize that working productively takes time, effort, feedback, and many other factors. The point is to approach a task by working cooperatively and asking questions when needed to produce the most efficient results. *Cue lightbulb moment*

The First Try

After some discussion, we mapped out how we could “teach” productivity with minimal lecturing. I wrote a lesson plan in lightning speed (when motivation strikes, it strikes!) so she could review the plan before class the next day. Below is the first draft:


I designed the lesson plan very simply. In the past, lesson plans were designed for the training team. The team doesn’t use them because they didn’t have input and now find the plans difficult to read. I could tell the lesson plans were created with NAIT’s templates, which I quite like. But I stripped away some of the clutter, and focused on the basics.

I am a big fan of William Horton’s mantra for designing e-learning lessons (which I believe applies to any lesson): “Absorb, Do, Connect.” When I designed the lesson, I focused on 1) information students would need to absorb the learning experience, 2) an activity that put learning in students’ hands, and 3) a method for connecting and reflecting on the experience of using different skills they would need in the workplace.

Reflecting on the Lesson

I’m happy to report that students really enjoyed creating the bridge structures, and the facilitator and I had a blast supporting the learning experience. It might sound strange that pre-trades students are spending time “crafting,” but it’s these types of hands-on experiences that put theory to practice. Why not give students an opportunity to practice soft skills in a low-stakes environment?

We tweaked a couple minor things in class. After, we reflected on the lesson, and I made some adjustments. Here is the revised version:


What I like most is that the lesson incorporates game elements (time limit, restriction of materials, competition) while instilling cooperation and play. Many of the students had never worked with their group members, so it was a good opportunity for students to work with students who they don’t naturally gravitate toward.

Here are the four finished products:

It was difficult for most students to provide constructive feedback to their peers, but I think this was a good opportunity to practice!

Final Thoughts

In my initial planning, I thought it would take students 15 minutes to build the bridges. I’m glad we changed that number to 30 minutes before the class started. This lesson took a solid hour and a half. While this might sound like a long time, we covered so many concepts and hands-on skills in this block!

Once again, this affirms that it’s more important to design a learning experience than cover content. To be honest, students won’t really remember the content. But they will remember what it felt like to connect with their peers, give and receive feedback, be vulnerable and share their ideas, and contribute to a team to finish something. The process was as important as the final product!

Finally, I’m so glad that I sat down once again with the facilitator after I adjusted the lesson plan. We changed a few points, and made sure each point was as clear as possible, so that someone who had never taught this lesson could do so by themselves. It’s clear to me that designing something isn’t enough. Buy-in and being included in the process are musts!

For Next Time

  1. After reading Cult of Pedagogy’s post on discussion strategies, I realized the “discussion” aspect of my lesson plan is lacking direction. It’s important to consider how all students can contribute to the conversation, and also consider strategies ahead of time so the facilitator doesn’t end up discussing the topic for students. I like that I applied reflective writing in the lesson, but next time I would consider adding a discussion strategy from the link above. This would help avoid fisheye syndrome.

Ed Tech Rubric

It may seem like overkill to make a rubric to evaluate ed tech. But I found the process really helpful. Here’s my experience…

Rubrics are our Friends

In my master of educational technology studies, one of our tasks was to design a rubric to evaluate LMSs. We began by brainstorming common LMS features and then grouped them under the following categories: functional, technical, and administrative. Our goal was to create a rubric that assessed common features without pigeon-holing people using the rubric. This proved to be more difficult than we thought it would be! However, I think having a rubric is better than having no rubric at all. It’s nice to have a set of common criteria to evaluate different platforms.

Plus, rubrics can be used at multiple stages of evaluating a product:

1) A rubric helps people consider criteria they may not have thought of.

2) It opens up the dialogue and gets people talking about criteria that are most important for different audiences using the product.

3) It raises important questions for people to consider after purchasing a platform. I love the reflective aspect of rubrics: Did we achieve what we wanted? Did expectations match reality?  

Our group was happy with the end result, but the rubric was still quite long and onerous to fill out.

Rubric on the Job

Fast forward a year, and I am working as an instructional designer who’s tasked with trialling new educational technologies and finding the best instructional fit. I also have to persuade others that certain technologies are worth the money. I decided it would be worthwhile to create a rubric similar to the one I created for LMSs. I could share this with people to make informed decisions, and also teach them how to fill it out for future decisions.  

I had learned a few things from the first go-around. The administrative, functional, and technical headings made sense to our group when we were designing the rubric. But users found it a bit confusing, so I nixed that idea. I changed all the criteria when I created my own rubric for evaluating educational technologies. But it was still nice to review the original rubric and remember the conversations from all those group meetings. I also focused on simplifying the terms and using plain language to describe the criteria.

I created my first rubric in Excel. It was clunky looking and not very user-friendly. I had a couple people review this rubric. The best takeaways were 1) Put the information into a fillable PDF and 2) Consider using the SECTIONS framework to organize criteria.

SECTIONS framework

The SECTIONS acronym is really helpful when thinking about how to select technology for learning. It stands for Students, Ease of Use, Cost, Time, Interaction, Organizational Issues, Networking, and Security and Privacy. It’s a useful acronym because basically anyone can understand it without having a background in ed tech or ID.

Once I started using the SECTIONS framework, everything started falling into place. I wrote all the criteria in a Word Doc and then turned it into a fillable PDF. I also replicated the rubric for people to reflect on how the product was living up to expectations. This way, they could compare their “before” rubric to “after” using the product. This was overkill and made the document incredibly dense. So I took that out, and now when I share it with people, I just tell them to consider filling out the rubric again after they’ve purchased it.

The Rubric

Here it is:

I’m happy with the end result because it’s both easy to read and fill out. It was also a good opportunity to learn how to create a fillable form. And again, I am reminded that having other people look at your work is so rewarding! It’s never been the case where this hasn’t paid off for me.

For Next Time

  1. Consider a weighted system to make the most important aspects worth more. Someone asked me the point of using the rating system. It’s best practice to compare at least 3 products before making a decision. The final number can help someone make a decision. I could see a weighted system returning a more precise number.


SECTIONS model image from Tony Bates: https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/chapter/9-1-models-for-media-selection/

Usability Testing

One design problem, 6 students, and an eager first-time user experience tester. The result? Not what I expected…

A Design Problem

When we first began using Moodle, we chose the fan-favorite Essential theme. Although this was a great starting place, we soon realized how easy it is for students to get lost in the labyrinth of buttons and clicks. (I think it took something like 8 clicks for students to view their first course.) The design problem became this: how can we make Moodle easier to navigate and reduce the amount of “clicks” a user makes in the site? The idea of a Moodle redesign was born.

Many people choose Moodle because it is free and open source. However, there are hidden costs, one of which may include the site’s usability. Fortunately, we are in a position to work with an external company for the redesign. This company uses an agile approach to design, which means they make prototypes based on our ideas and feedback. We go through several phases like this, until the project is finished. This approach helps both parties develop a project without getting too far ahead. We can make changes as needed, without slowing down the entire build or going in a different direction than anticipated.  

Usability Testing FTW

One of the top priorities of an instructional designer is to get feedback from the people intended to use the product. In my case, the majority of people using Moodle are students. So my usability testing group needed to include our students. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to this group as a “focus group” from now on.

To prepare for testing, I did my research. First, I wrote down stumbling blocks that I knew students and I struggled with in the original Moodle site. I wanted to make sure the old issues weren’t still a problem in the new site. I used these issues to write a short list of tasks for the focus group to complete. I made the tasks simple and straightforward, but there was still opportunity for them to explore the new site and provide general feedback.

I also thought about how I wanted to run the focus group. I am a huge fan of Steve Krug, whose passion and ability to explain usability testing is enviable. I cannot recommend Rocket Surgery Made Easy enough. I used his script to introduce the idea of usability testing to students. I think it made them feel comfortable with the process, and helped them realize I wasn’t testing their abilities. Mainly, I was interested in their experience with the new Moodle site! As it happened, I had six students in the focus group. Five of them had never even heard of Moodle before, whereas one of them had actually taken a couple classes in our old Moodle site. It could not have worked out better!

The Nitty Gritty

To run the focus group, I set up 6 tablets in a booked meeting room and loaded the Moodle site onto each. Thank goodness I brought my laptop, because one of the tablets died. Side note: Always prepare for tech failure!

I didn’t offer them too much direction, other than using parts of Krug’s script and providing context about how and why we use Moodle. I made it clear to students I was available to answer their questions, and that I would walk around the room observing their actions. When I noticed they got stuck, I asked them questions and didn’t immediately offer answers. I found this approach worked quite well; I wrote notes based on their informal feedback. At the end of the meeting, I asked if they had any general feedback. This strategy didn’t work very well. Although I had provided them with pens and paper, none of them had taken notes. After 25 minutes, they seemed ready to pack it in. Plus, it is always difficult to offer feedback in front of peers! So no one really said anything at the end.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the testing was a good experience, and it made me realize we don’t do this enough when it comes to projects and curriculum planning. And to be honest, preparing for the usability testing and setting up the focus group was not very difficult. This process could easily be replicated for many different deliverables. It’s a good reminder to get feedback from the end users at various points of development and design.

I also really enjoyed getting feedback from staff members. I sat down with 3 co-workers, because some of them will be taking Moodle courses. Plus, it’s always good to get a second opinion. They caught things that I and the focus group had missed, and they asked good questions to help me consider why we were adding or taking away certain elements from the Moodle site. Don’t forget to have a Marketing team member review the build before delivery!

Finally, this experience was a good reminder that while it’s important to get feedback from end users, it’s necessary to weigh those opinions with sound instructional design principles. There were a few times when I felt tongue-tied after receiving feedback. I felt like I had to respond right then. A better strategy is to collect feedback, ask questions when necessary, and then sit with the feedback.

For Next Time

  1. Screen record testers as they complete the tasks. This allows you to share feedback with developers or re-watch the feedback to make crucial decisions.
  2. Give members of the focus group a bit of privacy. I think some students felt pressure to “keep up” with others. What was meant to see the barriers of usability turned into a bit of a competition (as depicted in the “high jump” photo from the beginning of the post.)
  3. Make it easy for the focus group to share findings. This idea came to me right after the testing was over (of course), but next time I will provide each member of the group with 3 Post-It notes, so they can easily share a few ideas. This way, there’s no awkward, non-existent discussion at the end!

Digital Badges

It’s the beginning of 2019, it’s my first blog post, and I’m writing about…badges. Why is that a thing?!

Are Badges Making a Comeback?

Last year, I created a digital badge system for a Moodle course. My research began with the Mozilla Open Badge project, where I learned that a single badge can be chock-full of usable data. Open Badge is wonderful if students are collecting badges from different organizations and wish to showcase them on a site like LinkedIn. Actually, LinkedIn has its very own badge system and could be an interesting case study on the success of badges (especially in conjunction with Lynda.com).

For my purposes, Mozilla Open Badge wasn’t necessary. Many learning platforms are developing their own badge systems and ways to display them, which I found to be the case for Moodle. Used within internal systems or courses, I think badges can be highly motivational and informative. It’s no secret that badges reached “oversaturation status,” the last couple years, and it’s unclear how they compare to other types of credentials. But when used intentionally, I do think they can be very helpful wayfinders!

My aim was to develop badges by assigning them to specific competencies and then using them to guide students through a Moodle course. In the past, online students have had difficulty recognizing when they have successfully completed a course. This is in part because a Moodle course can be a grouping of disparate items like lessons, textbooks, images, etc., or it can be a collection of modules that students complete to finish one course. As a student, it can be quite confusing!

We used the badges to help students self-manage their progress throughout the course. Badges signalled the completion of a course section, usually a lesson and quiz combo. After successfully getting a certain number of badges, students knew they had completed the course. They were also aware of the specific competencies they were gaining by receiving the badge. Another important way we used the badges was to align with the operator manual we created. The badges could help motivate and remind students to complete an online section, review the manual, and then proceed to the next section of the online course.

What I learned is that badges must always serve a purpose, otherwise they will be seen as a gimmick, or worse, a distraction. Being transparent about what it means to achieve a badge is crucial to the badge system’s success.

Some might think badges are “been there, done that,” but I would suggest reconsidering. As a learner, seeing a badge can be a gentle reminder you are on track, while adding spontaneity and fun to a course.

Check Out My Badges

I would suggest using a professional tool to create badges; I used Adobe Illustrator. Canva is a fantastic free tool if Adobe products are not an option. When I first developed the badges, I came up with a random colour scheme. I’m not really sure what I was thinking, because badges should be uniform and also adhere to the company’s brand guidelines.

Here is the before:

All 10 badges used the following colour scheme. I am really pleased with the after:

A Helpful Resource

This is the resource I used to create the badge in Illustrator (the orange and red badge template was my inspiration): https://design.tutsplus.com/tutorials/how-to-create-banner-label-and-badge-templates-in-illustrator–cms-19971

Final Thoughts

Most people who saw the badges were impressed by their look and function. Some even suggested they be included in every future online course build. To me, this has the opportunity for overkill. I think it depends on the type of course and whether or not badges can be used to support learning and motivation. Using badges shouldn’t begin the conversation, but be considered an option if and when the time is right.

For Next Time

Here is what I will keep in mind the next time I create a badge system…

  1. Add random badges to the course. Some of the soft skills we teach students are timeliness and productivity. Since these are habit forming, I think it would work well to surprise students with a badge after they handed in an assignment on time/early or spent a concentrated time on a task. This would reinforce positive behaviour and also add an element of curiosity. Perhaps it could be worked out so that when students accumulate a certain number of badges for soft skills, they move to “expert” status.
  2. Create one badge and upload it to Moodle. Check that the badge does not appear cut off, and that the text is easy to read. I made this mistake the first time, so I spent extra time fixing the badge dimensions and text size.

Thanks for reading!