I love you, but you’re still boring

I have been thinking for a long time about the Moodle issue that is the “scroll of death”. I wrote my first piece on this after the Ireland and UK Moodlemoot 2012.

Quite a few people have provided me with a variety of solutions that means learners do not have to contend with the “scroll of death”. However what these solutions do not solve, is the fundamental problem, which is…

If you use Moodle “out of the box” and create a course; so you add a link to a page, a link to a file, a link to a forum, a link to a quiz and the odd lable or two, the end result will be the “scroll of death” and a long list of links… rather than an engaging and interactive learning experience. The learners will have a more difficult and challenging experience when using Moodle. As a result you will have disengaged learners and the complaint that Moodle is “boring”.

I also know that some of the training at my college in using Moodle has exacerbated these issues. We show people different features of Moodle and of course they then want to add them to their courses. What we don’t do (very well) is get them to think about the whole of their course and not only about how it looks, but also about how the learner experiences and interacts with the course.

Yes of course you can apply solutions, after the result, however why is it that the “out of the box” vanilla experience isn’t right in the first place?

It would be nice if the initial approach to using Moodle got the user thinking not about adding links, but about whole course design.

The problem with this is that most educators I talk to rarely think about whole course design, and are more concerned about planning what they are going to do tomorrow or next week rather than thinking about the course as a whole.

The more I think about it the more I think that this is the real problem and that Moodle is only a symptom of that issue of the lack of whole course planning by some educators. It’s not as though they don’t plan, I am sure they produce schemes of work and have a fair idea of what they are going to do over the course. However what will be missing will be the detail and the “big picture”.

So the question I am asking now, is Moodle the answer to this problem?

In my last blog posting on this, I wrote:

We might need to take a step back and work out what we actually want Moodle to do and start again.

Could we in fact get Moodle to be part of the solution rather than than the face of the problem?

In a future posting I am going to discuss the issues of Moodle UI and Moodle UX and look at some of the points that came out of this discussion on the Moodle Forums that was point out to me by Stuart Lamour, who you may recall got me thinking about all of this at Moodlemoot in the first place.

What are your thoughts?

14 thoughts on “I love you, but you’re still boring”

  1. The scroll of death is avoidable – and is something that I have been working to avoid for the last 8 or 9 years. With Moodle 2 it is possible to intrinsically embed resources into other types of resource or activity (e.g. the book, lesson, page, forum, quiz…) tools – which means that rather than just creating a long list of links to things, we can create a narration that leads the learners through the content, with links to other activities embedded into this narration.

    If we then use the conditional release options, so that we don’t bombard the learners with the content upfront (but release it gradually or as a result of them viewing other sections, or getting a certain level in a quiz), and then educate them in how they can hide the sections that they have visited in the past and don’t need to visit now – then we can create a much better learning experience.

    I have been working with one college in particular where we are applying these principles to create an engaging and effective learning environment.

    Dave Foord

    1. I know that the scroll of death can be avoided, the question is why does the default behaviour of Moodle result in the scroll of death.

      Why isn’t the default “something else”?

  2. Hi James,
    I absolutely agree with you.
    Moodle could do much better to include better usability features and improvements as default, or at least easily configurable.

    I also like your way of think of Moodle possibly offering a part of the solution for best practice course building.
    There are two directions I think this could be implemented and done in core.
    The first is better course formats. We are starting to see some of these come in, but not sure because they seem to be more complex ones (e.g. Paged, Grid) and require high skill and a design eye. I think actually maybe simpler course formats, along the lines of SCORM or Social.
    These formats actually somewhat limit the flexibility Moodle normally offers in building a course, but this may be exactly what we need to help teachers and student make sense of what a course is and how to build and learn it it best.
    Taking this point further, it would be interesting to add a capability for admins to configure or build new course formats, selecting which components and blocks they automatically include. This would allow an institute to build one (or perhaps several) course formats as templates, and save those for use by course creators or teachers.

    Another way for implementing best-practice course building might be by adding a functionality for Moodle “wizard forms”. These may also save lots of other clicks and usability issues for teacher that need to do many steps “just” to build one quiz, or lesson or anything else.
    What I mean by wizard forms is the ability to define a form (or block) that let’s you determine several settings, decide which activities to include (from an available list), and provide basic data for the components. The form/block would than call various Moodle functions “behind the scene” to perform several steps – open a new course, set up a SCORM and a quiz, import the SCORM from the file chosen in the form etc.
    How can these help best practice – the form would incorporate the recommended structure for a course in the content it asks the course creator to define. It would also save them a lot of time – again helping the user experience (for teachers on this occasion).
    What do you think?

  3. Thansk fro the post James – we haven’t started using Moodle yet but in the meantime I am looking at providing templates for different types of course based on current Blackboard use. Avoidance of the scroll of death features high on my agenda. I agree that there are ways around it but they’re not obvious to the novice and require a fair bit of lateral thinking. Dave – how will this be rolled out at the college? Will staff have to attend training or will you be providing templates / model courses?

  4. Having had experience at both ends of the debate, as a lecturer and subsequently now working with educators using Moodle, I think a lot of the issues surrounding the ‘Scroll of Death’ possibly has to do with the ‘linearity’ of teaching and the planning of teaching, thus informing the way Moodle is laid out.

    Most courses and classes are taught in a very linear form, whether ‘flipped’ or not, it usually follows that a task will follow information delivery (or vice versa). Course design (at least in my mind, for better or worse) has not yet reached the stage of ‘freedom’ of choice.

    A learners direction is still very much dictated to by the teacher/course creator and in this sense it also means that the information and activities, need somewhat necessarily be provided in a linear format.

    Judging from early web design, going way back, if you will recall, the earliest websites were really lists of links in hopes that a visitor to a website will be directed a long a ‘specific’ path.

    These days, web design has evolved to provide a vast amount of freedom where it is not really necessary anymore to specifically direct a website visitor down a particular path.

    It is my feeling that the same developments need to, and will eventually occur within the realm of digital teaching and learning also.

    As Dave Foord suggested, embedding the activities within different activities or resources goes some way to both directing the linearity of learning and reducing the scroll of death, as well as the suggested use of the ‘hide’ option.

    Beyond that, as through our design experience, we have found, it is certainly not the lack of ideas that continue to feed the Scroll of Death on Moodle but the lack of technical know-how to translate visions and ideas in to reality.

  5. The strength of Moodle generally is the flexibility.

    However, the depth of flexibility generally means a lot of options and knowledge of the options required to configure.

    The quiz setup is a good example however this can be applied to other areas.

    The quiz is really powerful with so many different options, but this means the config screen has just so much which could be a bit of information overload. I also fully accept that to be the powerful tool and to satisfy most, it needs all of these options to be available.

    That said, I wonder with how many quizzes would an initial simpler template configuration work for the users?

    What is the minimum that is required to configure 80% of the quizzes in use? So perhaps a simple wizard which handles prompts for options and “create” with the advanced settings available afterwards if someone wanted to.

    Perhaps this type of approach may improve the workflow for a majority and make the default create screen all fit on one page perhaps…

    Perhaps having this on/off could even be a site setting. Now I know that you can set some (or perhaps all?) of the extra options to be hidden by advanced, but perhaps more could be advanced by default?

    So what I am suggesting is an optimisation of defaults, which I think is where you are suggesting James, a more optimised initial system to help steer people away from what could be commonly called not so good practice (ie, scroll of death – although i dislike the term as I scroll quite happily on sites reading long articles or reviewing pages (like bbc), and hate clicking through 5 pages to complete it)

    It would have be great to see course contents or course menu block to become core for 1.9, and be a default installed block so that people would have had that option of in-course navigation which would have helped address the issue. But without knowing that to most effectively use these that you should keep section0 empty or nearly empty so you can see section0 + sectionX on screen at same time, you lose some of the effect.

    I guess that is where other distributions come in. Each Hosting provider have their own set of extras they add into Moodle, who knows, but perhaps one day when Moodle is downloaded it can offer a default install, or a school install (with that flavour) and so on. Optimising defaults and extras for the installation.

    Just like WordPress has jetpack – a suite of packaged extras which provide the most common extras wanted by people in one go, but without inflating the core platform. Maybe that is what lies ahead post Moodle 2.4 – one can only speculate.

    Just some thoughts

  6. During University I studied VLE course design for a project and have been harping on about it ever since!

    Designing good experiences in the VLE for both students and staff (it isn’t uncommon staff have to wade in) uses a set of skills rarely supported in institutions as far as I have experienced. VLEs are part of ‘web design’ yet course design is often only dealt with at the conceptual level.

    I have been involved in building and improving many courses (blackboard/moodle) and below are some of the things i have used to aid the process:

    I consider there to be 3 broad common contexts of use: Pre-session, during and post session.
    Pre-session activity may include the first ever visit (make a familarisation screencast to guide learners through common interactions and key locations e.g. noticeboards, how to view grades ) AND if you make use of the VLE ahead of each face-to-face session make these activity clear.

    During session
    In our context it was rare to need to design specific for this but is critical for remote/distance sessions

    Commonly a session will have post-session activity and likely involve a trip to the VLE as part of this

    Each of the 3 broad contexts require planning and design. Making these clear is important to help learners make sense of the VLE as a whole.

    I used to design consistent ‘Design patterns’ for each so that it become easier to use AND reuse for other courses (i worked across the institution). Reuse is also value to help provide support and when improvements are found, they can be rolled out to other similar courses that use the design pattern. Never use ‘click here’!

    user testing
    I strongly suggest user testing is carried on during course design or if the course already exists to aid evaluation. This will turn up many of the key pinch points that require attention. Typically this is the point that you realise many of the resources/navigation is redundant!
    I would do user testing on a frequent basis (annual?) and it need only take 15mins each with 4-5 users of the VLE.

    Measure and refine
    Turn on any available analytics tools and benchmark use. Refine the design accordingly.

    Have a ‘hidden’ location where all use of creative commons / licenced material attributions are listed. It was very common for ownership information to be lost.

    All of the above can be done by the individual if they are willing to stay small amounts of time on an annual basis. Perhaps more staff development around course design can be carried out/benefits promoted.

    In addition to the material directly related to a teaching session is all of the supplementary resource/activity, communication and interactions.

    Maybe we should start something to help the community…

    Good resource
    Mark Boulton’s ‘Designing for the web’ is a good primer for the beginner and expert.

  7. Part of the problem may be that, at the point where using Moodle is introduced to staff there is no clear distinction made been the mechanics of using the tools and DESIGN considerations.

    Moodle staff training is sometimes executed in a way which is the equivalent of teaching someone to change the fonts and transitions in Powerpoint without pointing out that if you use red on blue in the curliest font you can find and make every page swoosh in from a different direction it’ll look dreadful!

    Then too, the desire to make it look easy, and thus encourage possibly reluctant staff to use it often leads to excessive emphasis on, “Look how simple it is to just bung all your existing handouts up here”! But then forgetting to extend that training further down the line to explain, “…however that’s not the best way to go about it”

    It’s a bit of a Catch-22 No one is going to feel confident redesigning their course to a more Moodle-ish style if they don’t even know how to do the simple things like add links and upload files – but the process of teaching adding links and uploading files tends to lead naturally to dull course design…

    Perhaps course templates of some sort would help with that. It’d be interesting to try.

  8. This is a great posting and one whose consequences are easily avoided – as suggested.

    Our EU Lifelong Learning Leonardo da Vince project addressed this very issue, though in a completely design-oriented, standards-based and hence Moodle independent fashion. See the project handbook:


    from page 126 (chapter 6). Good design, for learning not technology, is the key. The scroll of death does not exist in such a world and Moodle is a perfectly effective platform for developing and delivering courses. Dave Foord’s first paragraph in his post is right.

    I can offer many real examples in Moodle.

  9. Very interesting comments and I agree that course design is vital to effective training. I have been using Moodle for 6 years now and am amazed at how many courses are still designed with the “scroll of death” . I believe navigation is the key to Moodle training. I always build menus, both text and images, so that only the section the participants require is shown at one time. As Zac said having orientation of the Moodle site as part of the training will go a long way to keeping participants and facilitators on the right path. One of Moodles great abilities is to allow participants the opertunity to explore the page and complete sestions in a non-linier fashion but there should always be a clear path for them to return to if they get “lost in the woods”.

    1. and am amazed at how many courses are still designed with the “scroll of death”

      That’s the very issue that needs to be fixed. Those courses are not “designed” they are the result of the default interface within Moodle when someone creates a new course. The issue isn’t that we need to train people better, or show people solutions, or help them avoid, the scroll of death, the issue is how can we change the defaults within Moodle so that when a person creates a new course (without training or guidance) that course never ends up as a scroll of death.

      1. That’s a fair point but until Moodle defaults are redesigned to offer possible templates, giving course desigbners the tools to build their own navigation sytems can only help remove the scroll of death.

  10. Couldn’t agree more. I decided to stop using Moodle and got into using Adobe Captivate. Made a huge difference. Captivate finally keeps my students engaged.

    1. This last remark about Captivate seems to imply that simply by choosing another system that all problems of design, etc., are solved. What rubbish. There will be good and bad ways of using Captive (and good and bad may well be subjective definitions anyway), just as there are good and bad ways of using Moodle.

      Good luck, mate. Bad choice IMHO, and completely missing the point.

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