User personalisation in Moodle – bane or blessing?

An idiot, recently.

We put in a lot of effort testing whether Moodle upgrades have an impact on third-party plugins at work. If there’s one thing none of us want its for some relatively obscure change that’s snuck into a Moodle release to come and bite us on the backside. Third-party plugins are often a good litmus test to point out changes elsewhere in Moodle. It happened at least a couple of times when Moodle 2.0 landed on us two years ago – one with vast, unforeseen impacts, and one which passed without so much as a whimper.

In spite of my enthusiasm for Moodle 2.3 and many UI changes it has introduced, there is one unexpected change which to me represents a broader question – are end users too stupid for personalisation?

 

This all came about when one of our developers was testing out the Course Menu block, and noticed that it wasn’t too happy with linking directly to a week or topic, which also hides all other weeks/topics in a course. In fact it didn’t work at all, meaning the plugin failed the review.

This made me dig a little deeper though, since this collapsible view has been one option in the past for avoiding Moodle’s ‘Scroll of Death’ by setting up custom navigation that links directly to specific topics. This has given course designers who wanted more flexibility the option of creating image maps with links to Moodle weeks/topics in a block, or topic 1, or anywhere else really – and make the Moodle course look a whole lot less Moodley. But it wasn’t without its problems though – the ability to collapse a Moodle course view down to a single week/topic has been a well-known ‘gotcha’ for new players since forever.

It didn’t take long to find this Tracker item, which explained the whole thing. To save those who don’t like reading Tracker items some time, I’ll explain in one sentence – it is no longer possible for an end user to collapse their view of a course down from the entire course to a single week/topic using Moodle’s default course formats. You can see the visual change for this in the following course snapshot, where you’ll notice that there is no longer the ‘Show only topic x’ buttons on the right of each week/topic.

Instead, the ‘course layout’ option in the Course Settings allows the teacher to determine whether the course is shown with all weeks/topics on one page (like it always has been), or collapsed down to show one week/topic per page, which is the new way of avoiding the dreaded Scroll.

Now this change has two impacts.

The first is that linking directly to a topic no longer works, which was my initial concern for anyone who had created custom navigation. Thankfully, there’s already a change in the pipes which will fix this, which allows links to weeks/topics regardless of the course layout setting, so that takes care of the teachers who have spent lots of time setting up their custom navigation. Nice work HQ for identifying this and developing a fix quickly.

The second though is the one which is really baking my noodle, namely that students will no longer have the option to self-select what they see in their Moodle course – they will take what they’re given, as determined by their teacher, in terms of how much or how little they see. This means that if a teacher has created a course with 20 topics and decided to leave it with all topics showing on one page, then as a student I can’t collapse this view down to a single topic – and conversely if the teacher has set the course to one topic per page then I can’t expand to show all course content on one page.

My initial reaction, as a long time user, was outrage. Next time I’m a student in a Moodle course I will no longer be able to choose to personalise my learning environment by focusing in on the topic I’m particularly keen on working with at the time. I had already logged a ticket in the Tracker to get the functionality back, or at least to generate some dialogue going on around this, as I was wondering if I was alone in thinking this was a step backwards but at the same time acknowledging that I am not exactly a ‘typical Moodle user’.

It didn’t take long to work out that this is a divisive issue indeed. Have a read of the comments in the Tracker and it appears that there are two camps:

  1. Bring this functionality back, it adds more flexibility for end users who value the ability to personalise their own learning space; versus
  2. Leave this functionality out, it was always confusing to users, and did more damage than good.

Aside from the decision-making process made to implement this change, in which there’s a whole other blog post if I start thinking about it, it did crystallise the question in my mind about Moodle (and any other system for that matter) UI design – are end users too stupid for personalisation?

For those who don’t know me, my tongue is well and truly planted in my cheek with this statement, so please accept my apologies for any offense – I’m really just curious to think about how we balance a highly user-configurable environment which may better support ‘power users’ of the system against the reality that many users may prefer a more prescriptive environment where they don’t have to worry about how they personalise their environment.

Other questions that come out for me when I consider this are:

  1. Overall, will this new change be viewed favourably by end users of Moodle?
  2. How much more power are we giving to teachers (for better or worse) to design well structured courses for students now that students have less capability for personalising?
  3. Is there a ‘third way’ where we can have both flexibility for power users and simplicity for novices in the interface?
  4. What can we learn from other current trends in UI design that might inform thinking on this topic (as I sit here looking at my highly configurable yet simple Android smartphone)?

Thoughts welcome.