WiFi in a Remote Location

Over the last couple days, I’ve been working in Anzac, a hamlet in Northern Alberta. I drove up with my project manager to support the facilitators and twelve women enrolled in a blended course. My role was to introduce the Moodle course and GoToMeeting, so students would feel comfortable with their online learning experience in the coming weeks.

This morning, it was close to -50. Our car door locks were frozen shut. The tires felt like solid blocks of ice on the highway. Slow and steady, we made it to the training centre, ready to present. However, it was so cold that the tablets in the room were dropping 10% in battery every few minutes. The facility’s WiFi quickly became overloaded, blocking people from entering the online course. The WiFi boosters didn’t work. It sounds like a cheesy sitcom plot, but this was real life.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The Day Before Presenting

We arrived in Anzac the day before to help set up the classroom. After unloading the simulators and boxes of supplies we had driven down, we ran a quick bandwidth test, determining the WiFi was strong. It was already a long day by that point, so we headed to the hotel.

A (Somewhat) Related Side Note

A while back, I had read about this PhD candidate who brought in fresh baked muffins and coffee to his thesis defence. He personally wanted to feel comfortable, but he also wanted to create a comfortable environment for all people involved. It’s the same reason realtors bring in fresh baked cookies to an open house. Anyway, I loved this candidate’s effort to make the room inviting while minimizing stress levels. I started to think about ways I could do the same for the students I was introducing to Moodle. I focused more on my design choices in Moodle, and how I could offer reasonable support as the 5-week course unfolded. Some of my strategies:

  • Create a course discussion forum in Moodle where I can answer future questions related to course logistics.
  • Create a narrative structure in Moodle to direct people how to move through it. (FontAwesome is amazing for this!)
  • Build trust by giving students simple tasks during the presentation, like changing their passwords.

In highsight, I should have paid more attention to students being able to access Moodle quickly and efficiently during the presentation….

The Day Of Presenting

A new student began the course that morning, so my main focus was creating a profile for her in Moodle and then signing her up for courses and GoToMeeting. After I got that sorted, it was time to present to students.

The training room was much more toasty today. Before we had arrived, the lovely training centre employees had set up space heaters in the room. Little did we know, this caused the breakers to trip. Anywhere that we tried to draw power from was a dead end. This means we couldn’t plug in the tablets or WiFi boosters, and the WiFi bandwidth and tablet batteries were quickly depleting.

I focused on helping students sign into Moodle and change their passwords. I had plugged my laptop into the tv, so they could at least see my screen and follow along. It was hard though, because Moodle is new for most of them, and I didn’t want to move too quickly. Some of them were using their mobile phones to access the Moodle course, while others had some luck on their tablets. (I hadn’t even thought to introduce them to the Moodle mobile site, so this was an interesting turn of events, because it displays differently from tablets or desktops.)

As my co-workers talked with the training centre employees, I continued to help students access Moodle. I ended up telling them to follow along as best they could with what I was doing on screen. All of them were eventually able to log into Moodle and change their passwords, but because of the WiFi issues, I didn’t have them all sign into GoToMeeting. I simply showed them what it would look like, along with a few pointers for future use.

Lessons Learned

All of this was a less than ideal way to show students Moodle (and GoToMeeting), but it was a good lesson. My greatest takeaway is that I will try to avoid making assumptions before another presentation.

I had assumed the tablets would be mostly charged, ready for use. Next time, I will make sure someone is responsible for charging them the night before, and that power cords are accessible for all. I will also test the WiFi boosters ahead of time, in case there is a need to troubleshoot issues. While I presented, one of the WiFi boosters turned on, while the other didn’t. A co-worker had to call someone from our IT department to walk us through troubleshooting the issue. After trying to reset the booster, they ended up having to take out the SIM card and reinsert it. Once we did that, it fired up no problem. We also realized that the boosters were on two separate networks. We were advised that half of the students should be on each network, and that we should retain the network passwords so students aren’t logging onto those networks with their phones. They already had access to free WiFi through the training centre, anyway.

Working in Remote Locations

This was my first time up in Fort McMurray and the Anzac area. It was such an amazing experience to meet the students taking the course I designed. Previously, I had been used to designing content for students I’d never meet. I was also used to facilitating in classrooms that had fairly stable network connections. There were never any crazy surprises like what I experienced up in Anzac.

I’m going to start keeping a running list of items that need to be checked off before working in a remote location. I can share this checklist with co-workers ahead of time, delegating tasks to those who can complete them. This way, the setup is more straightforward, even though I will always anticipate a technology-related issue!

My checklist (so far):

  • Check WiFi bandwidth
  • Test outlets
  • Plug in tablets/devices ahead of time
  • Make sure all students have access to plugins or extensions
  • Have printed instructions for troubleshooting WiFi boosters
  • Check WiFi boosters ahead of time
  • Connect tablets/devices to boosters ahead of time
  • Set home website to the course page
  • Write instructions (in black marker) on whiteboard
  • Create instructions for students to use after presentation (so they can focus on presentation, especially if something goes wrong)

Through this experience, I realized the “muffins and coffee” feeling I described earlier is nostalgic, but it’s also creating a sense of safety and security for people. By using a checklist such as the one above, I can set up the conditions for those feelings to occur at the first point of contact in their online learning journey!


Anzac image taken from Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Welcome_to_Anzac_Sign.JPG

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

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!