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.

12 comments on “User personalisation in Moodle – bane or blessing?

  1. This is an interesting one for me, because I’m in two minds about it. The problem I have is the concept of where responsibility lies when personalisation goes wrong.

    A lot of institutional Moodle customisation (making some assumptions here but I think it’s fairly safe to say most universities are the same) revolves around the assumption that yes, end users are too stupid for personalisation. It’s usually a result of either helpdesk or ed devs fielding a mass of help requests when users have “broken” something yet again. And fair enough on one hand, it is completely inefficient to be spending time advising on trivial issues because of user error.

    And yet. Every time we try to idiot-proof a system because somebody might use it incorrectly we remove a feature that might make a big difference to UX for those who use the system well. If we design for the lowest common denominator, what are we losing out on?

    The issue is responsibility for user error. As it stands if somebody does something wrong in Moodle (or anything) the expectation is that somebody else will fix it (helpdesk, ed devs), rather than that person working to solve their own error, which means we are required to a) resource this and b) use those resources efficiently. Hence using the ‘end users are too stupid’ assumption. But in my own little fantasy world, every time something went wrong for someone they’d hit a new tab and Google their issue before calling anyone else about it (for instance, running with the ‘show only topic’ example, if you Google ‘I’ve just deleted all my Moodle site’ you’ll get a link to the post you wrote on that exact thing that explains how to fix it). If we can reduce the reliance on support, we reduce the need to idiot-proof a system, thus allowing a system to be highly customisable by the end user.

    I don’t have a good solution really, because ultimately my little fantasy world is never going to happen, but the idea that we should always design for the lowest common denominator (both from a systems POV and a learning POV) bugs me. Not sure that I’ve actually added to the discussion here but if you’ve got this far props for reading the ramble :).

      • Something I’ve been thinking about is game interfaces – MMO interfaces (Warcraft etc) often have highly customisable UIs, but any customisation features can be ignored by a user if they want (as Alan notes below) while a power user can go to town with config, skins, mods etc. And games don’t come with a helpdesk to ring if you’ve clicked something wrong. I’m wondering if investigating how commercial games approach UI could teach us a thing or two…

  2. Well spotted! Thanks for alerting us to this change Mark. At first glance, the removal of student choice is certainly heading in the wrong direction if your preference is for a pedagogy of “personalisation, customisation and informalisation” [see eg and I’m perturbed that such a change was made without advice from the chalkface, and even more importantly, students! But I recognise that this advice will be difficult to collect. I confess that I have no idea how many of our students are “confused” by having the ability to collapse down to a single section but a quick vox pop this morning suggested that a handful of our students simply don’t know the ability is there – probably due to a combination of interface design and lack of training/awareness raising. I’d like to know how many students we’d be disadvantaging if this ability was removed, so – Is it possible to construct a sql query to find out how many users have collapsed sections, and in what courses? [and if not, why not? yet more analytics anyone?]

  3. are end users too stupid for personalisation?

    No. The developers are too stupid to make an interface for personalisation.

    I can’t think of anything further from our goals than to make Moodle ‘less able to personalise’. The change may have inadvertently done that, but that certainly wasn’t the objective.

    • Hey Dan,

      Understood. Like I said, I think there’s another whole discussion around change processes for this one, but I’ll leave that one well alone. What I will say is thanks for the respectful, constructive way you’ve talked this through on the Tracker. Its not a situation where there’s a simple solution, and more than anything I’m keen to get people talking and thinking about how we balance the needs of users at opposite ends of the spectrum.

      Thanks for the comment :)


  4. I took a challenge a few months ago to replace the term “Users” with “People” in my every day language… It made me realize how often the term is used, and the divide it creates between Designers and Users. I believe we seriously underestimate and under deliver to eLearning participants.

    We have a highly configurable Moodle Theme. I have requested an extra feature ‘reset to course defaults’. Perhaps Moodle courses could be customised with the reset option that users, I mean people, click before phoning the Service Desk.

    A letter from an agonized user:

  5. Great post. After thinking about your questions, I think there’s a third way that gives simple, intuitive customisation to the user on a limited basis.

    A good way to think about this is to look at other UIs on the web, think about what a Moodle course with multiple topics is, and determine some UI analogues. Then from there, we can make a decision about whether it is too complex or not.

    So, what’s a Moodle course with topics? Well, a topic is a collection of items, presented in a list. It has a linear progression from top to bottom (even if that’s not intentional), and each item is more or less self-contained. It is useful to see each item discretely, in order to discern more detail, but it is also useful to view them all together for an overall picture.

    What is this similar to? Well, call me crazy, but I think this bears a lot of resemblance to a photo album.

    Think about it like this:

    Moodle course = photo album
    Topics = photos

    When you’re looking at photos, there’s typically a linear progression. You find it useful to zoom in and see a single photo, but also to have a way to jump back, and see the overall view of any other photo in the album.

    A photo album on the web could have some useful UI conventions we can follow to make it simple enough for people to use, and understand. After all, people use photo albums on Facebook (for example) every day.

    So what are the useful conventions?

    1) A single prominent button to switch modes. UI convention seems to suggest the top right is the best place for this not to get lost.
    2) Back & next buttons on the single topic view.
    3) A sense of place in the single topic view (like how in photo albums you get a 15/20 indicator)

    Here’s a quick mockup:

    Multi-topic view

    Single-topic view

    One part of the photo album I have intentionally not adopted is the ‘close a zoomed photo’ button, which is an ‘X’ on either the top left or right. Mainly because I don’t want to suggest a nested view hierarchy where clicking a topic in the multi-topic view ‘zooms’ to a single topic view.

    Finally, this layout works much better for touchscreens, mostly because you don’t have large accidental touch targets on the edge of every topic that drastically change the view. Right now, if you accidentally touch one of these, and don’t realise what you did to activate it, you have no idea how to get back. This layout minimizes the potential for an accidental view-altering tap.

    • I like where you’re heading with this, and agree that knowing hw to get back out into the ‘view all topics’ screen was the biggest problem of the old single topic view.

      In a way, Paul Krix’s Grid View format (now maintained by Julian Ridden) was part-way to solving it. I have not always been the greatest advocate for the Grid View because it doesn’t allow a quick overview of everything in a course – In my opinion sometimes a student might just want the scroll of death to get a quick overview of what they got themselves into – but does approach the topics in a course in a similar way to what you describe as the photo album method.

      What is important to preserve in all of these suggestions is the option to link to a particular topic directly, both through “view.php?id={YOURCOURSEID}&topic=2” (MDL-34829) and through anchors.

  6. Oh, and finally I should answer the question; are end users too stupid for personalisation? Is this all too complex for a ‘normal’ user?

    I say no. I don’t think the complexity here is too difficult for users to comprehend. There certainly needs to be limits to customisation, but as long as you can introduce UI analogues that are already familiar to a language, then the likelihood of making mistakes is largely reduced.

    I think the biggest downfall of the current UI is that the method of switching is:

    – not obvious what will happen when I click
    – easily triggered accidentally
    – doesn’t provide enough context when it is activated, and how to revert the view back to the way it was

    My suggestions could definitely use some refinement, but they also takes steps toward solving those issues.

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