Organising Selection for an IT Position

Over my career I’ve been involved in interviewing and selecting new staff for IT positions on numerous occasions. I’ve learned a few tricks along the way and I thought I should share those.  A lot of these techniques are generalisable to positions peripheral to IT and elsewhere.

Choosing a candidate

The Panel

It helps to have more that one person doing the interviewing; two is OK; three is ideal; four can be intimidating. If the position is really serious and more people need to be involved, create two panels with different foci.


Aim for diverse perspectives in the panel members. If you’re a manager, involve a technical staff member and a support staff member, such as someone from HR.


  • Short-listing
    Without going into too much detail, the panel that will interview should be the ones selecting who should be interviewed. Start separately and blindly review all the CVs. Bring together opinions into a collaborative space, such as a shared spreadsheet.
  • Discuss candidates openly
    After each panel member has rated candidates, come together to decide who to interview. Be open to disagreement as others may have spotted potential that you have not seen. Consider rounds of interviews with the most likely candidates first.
  • Invitations
    When you have a list of candidates, you need to invite them in.

    • Negotiating a time is best achieved over the phone. Offer the candidate opportunities within a specific window, but be accommodating.
    • Once a time is set, send a formal invitation that introduces the panel and their positions; this establishes perspectives for the candidate. Set expectations for where to go, when to arrive, what to wear and how long the interview will take. You may want to prompt the candidate to undertake some research into your organisation by directing them to online resources and work spaces.
  • The script
    It’s good to have a set series of questions going into the interview. All panel members should agree on the script before interviews start. Use a common document with names beside each question (rather than each panel member having their own script); this allows you to pass the flow of questions between panel members. If you have a script from a previous position, review the questions and ensure they are relevant to the current position. The script can be duplicated for each candidate so that notes can be inserted, by someone not asking current questions, during the interview.Interview script
  • Quick recap before interview
    Before an interview, all panel members should take a few minutes to review the candidates CV. Discuss their strengths and peculiarities so that you can focus questions during the interview.
  • Hospitality
    In a sense, your organisation is being interviewed as well as the candidate. You want the best candidate, who could possibly go elsewhere, to choose you. Simple things will help, like:

    • tidying the space where the interview will take place,
    • ensuring the temperature is comfortable and
    • having glasses and water poured for the candidate and the panel.
  • Everyone shakes hands
    Allow the opportunity for each member of the panel to shake hands with the candidate. That first physical contact is disarming and will establish what could be a future working relationship.
  • Seating
    Don’t arrange seating in a way that is confrontational, such as sitting on the opposite side of a big table from the candidate; a small table is better, with the candidate as part of a formation that is inclusive, like a circle.

The Interview

Repeat Introductions

Start by reintroducing the panel and what they do. This can be quick, but is important to preface the questions you will ask later. The panel leader can do this or each panel member can quickly say who they are and what their role is.


The candidate’s CV will tell you about their education, their experience and their skills, but it won’t tell you what kind of person they are, how well they will work with you and how they can apply what their skills. You want a good script of questions that tease these important aspects from the candidate’s brain.


  • Icebreakers
    Candidates will be mentally prepared to convince you about their professional worth, but don’t jump straight into serious questions. Start by allowing the candidate to settle in and feel comfortable. A good way to achieve this is to ask the candidate to talk about their personal life; if they start drifting into work and skills, redirect them by saying you will get to that soon.

    • How did you come to be here in ___ ?
    • Tell us a bit about yourself as a person. What do you do in your spare time?
    • Tell us about your study. What inspired you to get into IT?
  • Focused career questions
    You want the candidate to tell you about their experience, but you don’t want a litany that will take up all your interview time. Ask questions that will allow the candidate to showcase them self, while highlighting aspects you are keen to hear about.

    • Without going into too much detail, tell us the places you have worked and your roles there.
    • (If applicable) Why are you leaving your current position?
    • What has motivated you to choose your career path?
    • What are some of the tasks you really enjoy doing?
  • Tell questions
    It’s hard to tell when people are being honest. One technique for eliciting humility and honesty is to ask the candidate to admit where they have failed. This may be counter to what the candidate is prepared for and it may be affected by cultural background, but it can give you a good idea of whether you want to work with that person. It’s a good way to distinguish potential assholes.

    • Can you think of a time when things did NOT work out the way you expected them to?
    • Can you tell me about a time you had a conflict with a colleague? How did you deal with it?
  • Focused skill questions
    You should be able to tell what skills a candidate has from their CV, but you want to know if they have real experience or was it something they observed someone else doing.

    • Tell us about your experience with Active Directory?
    • Have you ever written documentation in a wiki? No: what did you use?
    • Have you ever worked with a issue tracking system? How was that used?
  • Don’t forget the soft skills
    It’s easy to get stuck on technical skills for an IT job, but non-technical skills are really just as important in the day-to-day working of a successful team.

    • Have you worked as part of a team? What was your role?
    • What techniques do you use to manage your time?
    • How do you handle conflicting priorities?
  • A conundrum
    You want someone who can ‘think on their feet’ and consider alternative solutions. Posing a scenario that seems unsolvable at face value will prompt candidates to demonstrate their ability to think ‘outside the square’. The following example is for a service desk position in a school.

It’s been a busy day; you are feeling under pressure and a teacher calls you demanding that you set up an email account for a person who is not an employee but has come into their class to present.  This would be against the school’s policy, but you understand the teacher needs to make the class work. How would you deal with this situation?

  • Most candidates will start by stating that they cannot break policy because they want to give you the impression they are honest workers, ready to follow the rules. Some might say they will seek permission from a manager to break the rules. A good candidate will recognise that problems are often not what they are first reported to be and probing into the client’s needs will allow you to consider the problem then create a solution or a workaround.500px-Tribar.svg
  • Questions about your organisation
    You want to know if the candidate is actually interested and enthusiastic about working in your organisation. Give them the opportunity to share their research and how they have envisaged them self in your organisation.

    • What do you know about ?
    • What do you think it will be like working in a ?
  • Prompt for their questions
    Allowing candidates to ask you questions is more than a courtesy, it allows the candidate to take control of the interview and demonstrate their strengths and knowledge by probing you about what you do, what technologies you use and how the organisation works. A good candidate will come with prepared questions.

    • Do you have any questions for us?
  • Formalities
    Don’t leave yourself open to surprises.

    • What are your obligations and availability?

If you are leading the panel, avoid keeping all the curly questions to yourself. Farming some complex questions to another panel member allows you focus on how the candidate is answering the question, following their body language and ‘reading between the lines’.


A smooth interview is not rushed, nor is it slow. With good flow, the interview can be comfortable and friendly and elicit the honest answers you are seeking.


  • Build up with some easy questions first.
  • Hand over between panel members when asking questions.
  • Ask questions from the panel member who has the perspective from which you want questions answered (personal from the manager, technical from the technician, organisational from HR).
  • Be adaptive.
    • Don’t stick to the script when you want to clarify or probe deeper.
    • Don’t ask questions that have already been answered.
    • Make questions specific on-the-fly.

After asking all of your questions, lead into a task…


A candidate may say they have the skills you require, but it’s hard to judge to what degree that is true. Their CV may have been developed over time, with outside help. Every candidate will say they have good communication and problem solving skills; we all have a self-optimistic bias. Don’t be afraid to take some time to get the candidate to demonstrate their skills.


  • A role-play
    Pretend to be a client with a predetermined problem. Ask the candidate to put them self into a support role and attempt to unravel the problem. Getting the answer is not as important as how they approach the problem.
  • A quick quiz
    Allow the candidate to answer questions in a quick quiz. You might throw together some basic questions in a Google form or online survey and ask them to provide their answers.
  • A writing task
    Being able to write clearly is an important skill for all IT workers. Set up a scenario and ask the candidate to respond to a pretend client. Writing a pretend email or ticket-update on a machine you provide is an easy way to run this task.
  • A dev task
    If the candidate is applying for a technical role, ask them to resolve a bug or simple problem. This may be something they have to do after they leave you and later submit the response back to you. Be sure the problem requires them to establish a dev environment close to your work environment.
  • A presentation
    If the candidate is applying for a role that involves training, ask them to run a quick training session on a simple technology. If you’re considering this task, you will need to give the candidate notice before the interview so they can realistically prepare.


Assessment biases can creep in over time. You can glorify earlier candidates or favour candidates you have seen more recently. Reflecting immediately after each interview is recommended, even if this means delaying the next interview by a few minutes.

When you’ve seen all candidates, hopefully you’re in a good position to choose. If none of the candidates are suitable, consider re-advertising. If there is a candidate that is suitable, but you’re not completely confident, remember that you can rely on a probation period if things don’t work out.

Don’t forget the unsuccessful candidates. Failing to respond respectfully to unsuccessful candidates puts the reputation of your organisation in danger, whereas an honest response with feedback that will help the candidate in future will be welcomed.

Learning Analytics – Where’s my data?

A while ago I wrote a blog about learning analytics from different perspectives giving examples of different analytics based tools that could benefit different users. Since then I’ve had discussions with numerous people, many of whom have great ideas for analytics tools, but I’ve discovered there is a disconnect between the analytics people want and their understanding of where to find the data.

To get from question to answer there needs to be an understanding of where the data are located and how they can be brought together. My intention with this blog is to show you where to find data for analytics in Moodle.

Source 1: Database tables

Database tables - fadedThe database tables are used by Moodle and its plugins for data storage. They are able to be queried for information about users, and their involvement, as well as course and site information. I would estimate that more than half of the data needed for analytics are stored in these database tables.

The limitation of these data is that they are not historical – they represent the current state of the system. There is some historical data, for example Forum posts and Chat sessions, but for historical information generally you need logs or observers. One advantage of drawing from database tables rather than logs is that such data can be gathered in real-time, all the time, which is not advisable for log data (more on that later).

Here is a summary of the data in Moodle database tables. I’ve categorised the data by the perspectives relevant to analytics.

User information
  • name and profile fields
  • site access (last login)
  • course access (last access)
Activity involvement
  • Assignment submissions
  • Blog entries
  • Chat involvement
  • Database activity entries
  • Feedback responses
  • Forum posts
  • Glossary entries
  • Lesson activity progress and answers
  • Quiz answers
  • Scorm progress and answers
  • Survey answers
  • Wiki writing contributions
  • Workshop submissions and reviews
  • involvement in add-on activities
Grades and achievements
  • course grades
  • badges
  • outcomes
  • activity and course completion
Course information
  • organisation within course and sections
  • number and mix of activities and resources
  • Question bank questions and types
  • configuration and content of activities and resources
  • course enrolments (roles)
  • groups and groupings
Site information
  • organisation of courses and categories
  • file information
  • messages
  • “My home” page customisation

Examples of using database data

Here are some examples of how data in Moodle’s database tables could be used for learning analytics. It’s not a comprehensive list, but perhaps there are ideas here that could inspire some great analytics tools.

  • Student involvement and achievement
    • Accesses to enrolled courses
    • Progress through course
    • Relative success or risk of failure
    • Opportunities for students to undertake activities or interact
  • Teacher involvement
    • Regularity of access to courses
    • Timely interaction with students
    • Timely grading
    • Success of students in teacher’s courses
    • Potential to assist students at risk or commend success
  • Course quality
    • Richness of content and activities
    • Use of assessment
    • Student-teacher ratios

Source 2: Logs, Events and Observers

Currently the logging of events in Moodle is undergoing change. Rather than referring to past implementations of logging, I’ll be more forward looking, referring to events and logging as used to some extent in Moodle 2.6 and used fully in Moodle 2.7. The new logs are richer and more focussed on educational activities.

Live logs

From logs it is possible to extract information about events that have taken place. Here are some relevant aspects of events that are captured.

Component The part of Moodle (module, block, core) in which the event took place
Action What took place, based on a pre-defined list of verbs
CRUD Whether the action was to create, read, update or delete
Educational level Whether the action was teaching, participating or other (eg. administering)
User IDs Who was responsible for the action and who they might have been affecting (eg. a teacher grading a student)
Course and context Where it happened
Timestamp When it happened

Here is a list of verbs (action words) that are used with events currently. This set may grown.

accepted, added, answered, assessed, attempted, awarded, backedup, called, commented, completed, created, deleted, duplicated, evaluated, failed, graded, imported, loggedin/loggedout, loggedinas, locked, moved, passed, previewed, reassessed, reevaluated, submitted, suspended, switched, viewed, registered, removed, restored, reset, revealed, unlocked, upgraded, updated

One of the problems with logs is that they grow very large. This makes efficient searching and processing of log information almost impossible, particularly on larger sites. With richer event information being captured, there are also events being recorded from more places in Moodle. There is the potential to direct log information to log stores outside of the Moodle database. The intention of this change is to allow searching and processing of logs without impacting the performance of the Moodle server itself. There is also the potential to export log data to files for filtering and analysis outside Moodle. So it is possible to get detailed log information, but this cannot be used in real-time, say for a block or a report that combines logs with other information.

One way to capture event information so that it can be used in real-time is with observers. As each action takes place an event is “triggered” within Moodle and observers can “observe” events based on certain criteria. The new logging system is an event observer that consumes all events that are triggered and stores them (to one or more log storage plugins). It’s possible to create new observers that can focus on a subset of events, store relevant information so that it can later be presented efficiently. If you were interested in, say, creating a report that focussed on enrolment actions, you could allow the report to observe enrolment events, store records in its own table and then present the results to users appropriately, any time it was needed. The report could even make use of messages to send out alerts when necessary.

Examples using events and log data

  • Monitoring site activity and focal points
  • Number of user accesses, which could be used to infer time online
  • Repeated exposure to resources and activities within courses
  • Students accessing teacher feedback on activities
  • Student retention in courses (based on enrolments and unenrolments)

Source 3: Click tracking by external monitors

Google Analytics for
Google Analytics for

The term “analytics” has been popularised by Google who offer a service that allows you to track users as they move through the pages of your website and then report information about the users back to you. It is possible to use Google Analytics with a Moodle site. After registering your site you need to slip some JavaScript into the pages of your site (Site administration > Appearance > Additional HTML or in your theme’s footer.html file). Google will then collect and present information about your users including…

  • their environment (browser, OS, device),
  • where in the world they are coming from and
  • the paths they are following through your site.

This information is useful to administrators wanting to ensure their Moodle site is catering to users’ needs. To discover learning analytics from Google Analytics, it is possible to drill down into usage information, This will not yield the same sort of information as the Moodle database or logs, instead showing patterns of behaviour. This information could potentially be fed back into Moodle as Google provides an API to query analytics data, which could be presented in a Moodle report or block.

The MAV in action
Source: Damo’s World

Another relevant click-tracking tool is the Moodle Activity Viewer or MAV. This is a system in two parts: a server-side component that collects course activity usage statistics and a browser plugin that takes the page delivered from Moodle to your browser and overlays the page with colour to turn the course page into a heatmap. This shows teachers where the focus of activity in a course is taking place.

Could this understanding be built-in?

Unfortunately, at this stage, there are no simple generic mechanisms built into Moodle that allow you to freely gather and combine information without writing code. There are some exceptions attempting to allow generic report writing, but I don’t think these are simple enough for ordinary users yet. Currently, if you have specific questions that can’t be answered using standard Moodle reports, the best way to get the answers you want is by writing (or get a developer to write) a plugin (report or block). Hopefully this guide so far will provide an understanding of what data are available and where to find them.

Is there a possibility to create the reports without coding them from scratch?

One potential future step would be to allow plugins (and Moodle itself) to be able to describe the data they store. With this meta information, it could be possible to use a generic tool to  gather and combine specified information on-the-fly and tweak the criteria as needed. This would allow access to the rich data in the Moodle database (with appropriate security constraints, of course).

It could also be possible to create a generic observer that can be configured on-the-fly to consume events of interest and record them. The current logging and events system APIs allow such alternative logging. Providing a sense of what events could be observed would be the challenge here, but at least events are now somewhat “self describing” meaning meta information is recorded with the coded description of the event objects.

For administrators interested in the sort of user information that Google Analytics reveals, it is possible in Moodle to determine a user’s browser, OS and device type. Moodle already does this to allow page customisation for different combinations of these factors. It would not be a great step to capture and present this information in a report. Google could probably do this better, but perhaps you’re not too keen to allow Google to snoop on your students and their learning activities. Moodle logs could be used to infer the paths and behaviour of students, but this would be a very costly exercise, requiring a great deal of computing power, preferably away from the Moodle server.

What to do with this data?

The final challenge then is to go beyond data gathering and analysis to provide tools that can use this information to support teaching; tools that help students learn, teachers teach and administrators to cover their butts. Only then will we see the LMS take education beyond what could be achieved in the classroom.

What makes a good research paper?

Committee Header

The submission deadline for the Moodle Research Conference (MRC2014) is approaching fast. I imagine many people around the world are feverishly preparing their submissions. Unlike most conferences, the MRC draws together people with different experience from many fields who happen to be conducting research in and around Moodle. Being one of the co-chairs for this year’s MRC, I thought I’d put together a guide to help authors.

Links to past research

Links to past researchAs a researcher, you are never working alone. Basing your research on work that has come before gives you a solid foundation and increases the credibility of your work. Reviewers are not only judging your paper, they are looking at your knowledge of the field. Citing appropriate past research demonstrates your understanding and places your work within your research area. References should be formatted according to the prescribed standard and should provide enough detail to allow a reviewer to find the cited work. Cited works should be primarily from peer-reviewed sources. Ideally, you should be able to demonstrate a need for your current work based on past research.

Research questions

After setting the paper within past research, you should then define the aim of your research and this is done with research questions. Such questions could be phrased as hypotheses, but this is not essential for an MRC paper. Your research questions can be used to define the structure of the remaining paper including the conclusions at the end of the paper, where the answers to these questions should be presented.


Without evidence a paper is simply opinion. evidenceIn order to answer your research questions, you need to gather and analyse evidence. The evidence should answer the research questions, proving or disproving something – either outcome is valuable to report. The evidence you present could come from one (or more) of many sources such as experimental results, user data gathered in Moodle, surveys, case studies, etc. You should be able to show how the evidence you have gathered builds on the past research you have written about earlier in the paper. Even if your paper is focussed on the the development of a new tool (such as a Moodle add-on), you should go beyond a simple description, showing evidence that the tool works in practice and can have benefits.

A few more tips

Writing quality and flow
MRC papers must be written in English. Poor writing distracts reviewers from the important research work you are reporting. If English is not your first language (or even if it is) get someone else to proof read your paper before you submit it. Also consider the flow of your paper: each paragraph should follow on from the last and each section should lead into the next. You are arguing the value of your work and your argument should seem logical.
Follow the template and use its styles
The MRC, like most conferences, provides a template to demonstrate the expected paper format. Rather than copying the styles shown, use the template as the starting point for your submitted paper. Use the styles in the template rather than manipulating text to look like the styles. Doing this is easier and is something all word processor users should be able to do. It also ensures all papers in the final proceedings are consistent. If your paper appears different, reviewers will feel responsible to point this out and that will detract from the review. Look through the Moodle Research Library for examples of accepted papers from past MRC conferences.
Anonymise your work properly
The MRC uses double-blind peer review, so authors don’t know who is reviewing their work and reviewers don’t know who has authored the paper they are reviewing. If the reviewer sees you’ve done a poor job anonymising your paper, that may impact their review. See the guide to submitting papers for things to check when anonymising your document.
Present data visually
A picture is worth a thousand words. Presenting data as a table or chart makes it easier for readers to understand. Screen captures are a great way to show tools in use. All tables and figures should be labelled and there should be a reference to these items within the text to include them at appropriate points in the flow of the document.


  • MRC2014 site
  • MRC2014 Call for Papers
  • Moodle Research site
  • Guide to submitting papers
  • Moodle Research Library
  • Simon, Carbone, A., de Raadt, M., Lister, R., Hamilton, M., & Sheard, J. (2008): Classifying Computing Education Papers: Process and Results. Proceedings of the International Computing Education Research Conference (ICER2008), Sydney, Australia, 6-7 September, 2008. 161 – 171. PDF Web Web
  • Simon, Sheard, J., Carbone, A., de Raadt, M., Hamilton, M., Lister, R., et al. (2008): Eight years of computing education papers at NACCQ. Proceedings of the 21st Annual Conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications (NACCQ 2008), Auckland, New Zealand, 4-7 July 2008. 101 – 107. PDF Web

Agile development and Scrum in an open source project

I was asked by a teacher of software development if I could give an overview of how we use the Scrum Framework in a real-world, open source project, here at Moodle. Being a former development teacher myself, I could not refuse.

The video below outlines the Agile software development processes followed at Moodle HQ. If you’re a developer or someone training to be a developer, this will be relevant to you.

Forgive my ums and ahs. It’s been a while since I was in teacher-mode.

Incentives for Developers

How do you encourage developers to be more productive?

A few months ago, I was intrigued by a presentation by Dan Pink, an American public speaker. Here is a version of that presentation (and there are a few similar presentations around, including a TED talk).

In the presentation, Pink claims that extrinsic motivators, specifically financial incentives (bonuses, raises, promotions, stocks,…), can be counter-productive to the goal of encouraging workers in certain circumstances. In the presentation, Pink refers to studies at MIT, so I went searching for publications for these studies and found Ariely (2005) and Awasthi & Pratt (1990).

While people can be motivated by financial incentives, the studies found that financial incentives can reduce performance for tasks involving a cognitive component. Software development certainly involves cognitive tasks, in fact programming is about as cerebral as you can get.

So if money doesn’t work, what does? Pink’s thesis is that employees will be more productive when they have a sense of:

  • autonomy,
  • mastery and
  • purpose.

Pink refers to cases at Atlassian and Google, where employees are reported (in the media) to receive many perks. I’ve been to Google, and while I did enjoy the free food, the work environment was certainly not anarchistic, in fact it seemed quite ordinary on the inside. What Pink emphasises is that these companies offer a degree of autonomy to their workers, that employees have the potential to develop professional masteries for their current job and for future jobs, and that employees are able to see a sense of purpose in what they do day-to-day.

Developer Incentives at Moodle?

Some aspects suggested by Dan Pink were already in place at Moodle, but some have been added or enhanced in recent months. I will describe how we offer a sense of autonomy, master and purpose to members of the STABLE team at Moodle (the devs who work on the existing releases of Moodle).


Apart from being a relatively relaxed working environment, there are some specific differences that may set Moodle apart from other development offices.

  • Devs choose, set-up and maintain their own development environments. Code meets at the repository, but how it gets there is up to the developer.
  • Using the Scrum framework, devs choose issues they will resolve from a prioritised backlog of issues. This ensures that the highest priority work gets done, but devs have a sense of ownership over, and responsibility for, the issues they choose.
  • After every two sprints (sprints are typically three weeks long), devs have a week to work on a project of their own choosing. The projects have to benefit the Moodle community, but is open to interpretation by the developer. This means that one week out of every seven, the developer is completely autonomous.


Mastery is an area we could be working more on, but there are a few initiatives in place at Moodle.

  • Devs can nominate external training courses and are supported to attend.
  • Devs nominate areas of interest in Moodle and are allowed to specialise in those areas.
  • Devs receive in-house productivity training . There are also irregular presentations on development related topics related to the current focus of work (for example, in-code documentation writing, Web services, etc.)


Purpose is something that Moodle has a lot of. Moodle allows many people to access education, some of whom would not be able to do so otherwise.

In saying that, it is easy to lose sight of that purpose when devs are focussed on lines of code while reading the grumbles of users on bug reports.

It is important t0 regularly remind developers that there is a community out there and they really appreciate the work devs are doing. We have, in the past, dragged devs to a Moodle Moot, where there is a lot of back-patting. We are hoping to do that again this year.

If you are a member of the community and wish to express your gratitude, please do so. Send me an email or post a message on the Moodle forums. It will really help.

Do these incentives work?

From my perspective, I would have to say “yes” – encouraging a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose does help developers, their progress, as well as the general working environment. It’s hard to quantify the effect of making these aspects more obvious to developers, but I have noted some improvements since we have.

  • Our turn-over of staff is low. The devs seem are content and passionate about their work, particularly when they have a chance to work on what they are interested in. This really helps avoid slacking off when it comes to doing “more of the same”; with sufficient variety, developers are quite happy to switch to unstructured work and then back to structured sprints again.
  • General productivity is higher and being maintained. The number of issues being led through our process has increased and that is a good sign.
  • The STABLE team is producing some significant contributions to Moodle, and not always in the same way. We had a very colourful show-and-tell session last Friday with some very excited developers (including devs from outside the STABLE team). Here are some examples of what was put on show…

An optimised view for the Gradebook (Rajesh Taneja)

There are a number of issues relating to the usability of the Moodle Gradebook, which can become unwieldy. With some simple modifications, the Gradebook becomes a much more usable space.

Optimsed Grader Report

Previews for Database activity uploads (Adrian Greeve)

Currently, uploading data into a Database Activity provides little feedback or control. Adding in a preview, with field matching, allows easier uploading.

DB Activity Upload Preview

A Moodle development kit (MDK) (Frédéric Massart)

The MDK automates many regular dev tasks including Git operations, adding information to issues on the Moodle Tracker and automation of site instantiation and population with dummy data.

Moodle Development kit

This project has been quite a collaborative effort and is still growing.

  • Documentation is available on the Moodle Dev docs.
  • The MDK can be accessed from Github.

Open Technical Debt

What is technical debt?

Technical debt is accumulated future work that has amassed as the result of decisions made during the development of software (or more generally during the development of information systems). The term was coined in 1992 by Ward Cunningham, who realised that as soon as software is created there is an element of deferred work, which can be equated to “going into debt” (Cunningham, 1992).

Analogously, technical debt is often equated to financial debt, such as a loan. The value of a technical debt is not dollars, but the cost of the time needed to rectify problems. As software is created, compromises are made between delivering a flawed but acceptable system now or delaying and delivering a superior system later. These compromises result in a backlog of work that needs to considered before a future release.

Technical debt comes about when developers create less than ideal code. Fowler (2009) suggests that developers can do this deliberately or inadvertently. A developer can deliberately decide to use a quick-and-dirty solution now with the intention of replacing this solution with a better one later. “I’m not sure if that database query will scale, but I’ll write a TODO to fix that later.” Developers can choose to sacrifice non-essential software elements by failing to write documentation, avoiding creating reusable abstractions or failing to follow coding standards. Alternately a developer can inadvertently introduce problems into the code. This can happen through forgetfulness as deadline pressure builds or simply when the skill required to solve a particular problem exceeds a developer’s technical experience. “I’m not exactly sure how this code works, but I’m going to reuse it now as it seems to solve the problem.” This approach is sometimes referred to as Cargo Cult programming (McConnell, 2004).

Fowler also suggests that technical debt can be introduced through behaviour that is either reckless (“I don’t know how significant this is but I don’t have time for it now.”) or prudent (“The cost of introducing this now will be greater than the cost we will incur by delaying our release.”).

By crossing these deliberate-inadvertent and reckless-prudent dimensions as axes, four quadrants appear; these quadrants can be used to categorise the sources of technical debt.

Fowler's technical debt quadrants
Fowler’s technical debt quadrants

As no system is perfect, technical debt is something that cannot be avoided. It is something that needs to be managed rather than ignored.

Is technical debt bad?

Technical debt, like financial debt, is not all bad. Any debt is doomed if there are no means to repay it. “Few of us can afford to pay cash for a house and going into debt to buy one is not financially irresponsible, provided that we know how to pay it back” (Allman, 2012). Projects need to consider the level technical debt they are capable of supporting and be aware of their technical debt at all times, ensuring that it does not exceed this level.

If a software project accumulates more technical debt than can be “repaid”, the quality of the software becomes poorer. If lacking quality reaches a level that is obvious to users, this can affect their decision to use that software in future.

What is “open technical debt”?

Open technical debt is the technical debt accumulated by an open source project. To understand it you have to know that open source projects differ from commercial developments in terms of code ownership, project management and in the philosophy that motivates the project.

Open source software is freely given to a community of users and that community is invited to provide feedback to the project to guide its future. Compared to a software system created by a commercial vendor, where the code ownership is simple, in open source projects the community owns the software and benefits from the effort they invest.

Moodle communityOpen source projects vary in scale from small projects, involving a small number of loosely organised volunteer developers, through to large-scale projects, that are bigger than many commercial software undertakings. The project I am involved in is Moodle, which involves hundreds of developers and has many thousands of registered sites with over 60 million users worldwide. The project employs 25 full-time employees and works with a large network of commercial Partner organisations who deliver services to the community and help support the project financially. Managing such a project is often difficult as there is no single product owner who you call on to make decisions and set priorities.

When technical debt accumulates in an open source project and impacts on the quality of the software, it is obvious to the community. But this is balanced by the community’s sense of responsibility to fix these problems, improve the quality of the software and pay off that technical debt.

In open source projects, strengths can also be weaknesses. The potential of a large community and large number of developers can lead to powerful software, but left unchecked it can also lead to technical debt. If that debt is not recorded and “paid off” it could lead to the downfall of the project.

Where does open technical debt come from?

It is important to be aware of where technical debt is coming from in a project. Using Fowler’s technical debt quadrants it is possible to categorise the sources of problems in open source code.

You might think that most technical debt in an open source project is the result of reckless developers contributing code with inadvertent consequences to the project as a whole. In fact this is quite the opposite of the behaviour that an open source project elicits from developers. When someone contributes code, their code becomes part of the open source and is open to scrutiny by all. Metaphorically, their dirty washing is being aired for the entire world to see. If a problem is later found it is easy to track it back to a change made by a specific developer. This tends to lead to well-conceived code with a sense that reputations are on the line.

As the person responsible for triaging issues as they are reported for the Moodle project I know every freckle and bump in its complexion. On a regular basis I track the sorts of issues that are left in our bug tracker and a large chunk of these are unfulfilled improvement requests. When releases are finalised, decisions are made to “draw a line”, even though improvements could be made. So the technical debt of the Moodle project, as an example of an open source project, is predominantly in the prudent-deliberate quadrant with lots of ideas for making the software better being known but not acted upon.

Technical debt quadrants in open source
Technical debt quadrants in open source

Does this differ from a commercial project? Well I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it does. I would say that closed source software lacks the pressure that openness creates. Also, when the priority setting falls to a single decision maker with commercial deadlines to meet, I think that technical debt would shift more to the reckless side of this field. But then, I’m biased.

Avoiding and embracing open technical debt

While accepting that some technical debt is unavoidable, there are ways that it can be minimised.

Openness of flaws

Having an open bug tracking system allows anyone to see what bugs have been reported and what improvements have been suggested. This means that the extent of the technical debt of a project is on display to all. Being open in this way creates incentives for developers to avoid creating technical debt in the first place, and to reduce technical debt in the long-term. It also shows the community that work is being done in a way that follows defined priorities.


Following agile software development practices allows developers of an open source project work together to fulfil the priorities of the project. As priorities shift (and they do when you are responding to a community), being agile means that developers can respond quickly. In fact I can’t conceive of an open source project being managed any other way.


Moodle process including reviewContributed code in an open source project is not automatically accepted. Before it is integrated with the codebase it usually has to satisfy experienced developers involved in the project. This is certainly the case at Moodle where all code goes through at least three levels of review before it is integrated into rolling releases and even more before major releases. When this is done politely, as well as ensuring software quality, this also helps to assure contributing developers and instil a sense of confidence.


Once any software project grows to more than a trivial size, it needs to be modularised. In open source this is especially beneficial for two reasons.

  • Modularity provides focus points for developers who want to contribute to a project without needing to understand the entire codebase.
  • Modularity allows a project to designate code as official and unofficial. Official code is what is distributed to users as the core project code. Unofficial code can be plugins that individuals have written. Technical debt can then be measured against the official core code while keeping the potential “high-risk” debt of unofficial code “at arm’s length”. That’s not to say that developers sharing plugins should not be supported and recognised.

Willingness to deprecate

As a project develops, changes will occur over time. Often modules become neglected, particularly if no one from the developer community has an interest in maintaining that module. When this happens, the community has to recognise the state of the module and deprecate it. Deprecation is like writing off technical debt; while it comes with a loss of functionality it also notionally frees up resources to focus on other parts of the project.


Allman, E. (2012). Managing Technical Debt. Communications of the ACM, 5(5), 50 – 55.

Cunningham, W. (1992). The WyCash portfolio management system. In OOPSLA 1992.

Fowler, M. (2009). Technical debt quadrant. Retrieved from

McConnell, S. (2004). Professional Software Development. Boston, USA: Addison-Wesley.

Analytics: getting helpful information out of an LMS

At the recent Australian Moot, a hot, emerging topic was “analytics”. Analytics have the potential to help students, teachers and institutions make better choices that lead to improved learning outcomes. Analytics were not possible in traditional education – they are, however, something a learning management system (LMS) can easily provide, if we can just figure out what they are…

What are analytics?

Analytics is a relatively new term; so new, in fact, that my spell-checker doesn’t recognise the word. It’s a real word, though; it must be as there is a Wikipedia entry. The term has been popularised in the online world by Google who offer analytics about your website so you can see details about your site visitors.

But what does the term analytics mean for education in the context of an LMS? At a panel session during the aforementioned moot, the topic was raised and this was the first question asked – what are analytics? One of the panel members, Alan Arnold from the University of Canberra bravely offered a definition: “Analytics are any piece of information that can help an LMS user do their job.”

“Analytics are any piece of information that can help an LMS user do their job.”

Thinking more deeply about the subject, I propose that LMS analytics are useful calculable quantitative gathered collections of information, based on the activities of users within or around the LMS, presented in forms that allow decisions leading to improved learning outcomes. (Quite a mouthful.) There’s lots of information about a user that can be collected in the LMS. The trick is to tease out and combine the useful bits and present them simply.

So the question is not so much “what are analytics?” but is instead “what analyics do you need?” and perhaps “how can you get them?”.

What analytics do you need?

Not all analytics are relevant to all users. If you are a teacher, you’re probably thinking about getting information that can allow you to teach better. If you’re a policy maker at an institution, you’re probably wanting to know how successful your teachers are with their students. Bet let’s not forget the students as well; there is information in the LMS that can help them also.

On the plane back from the Moot I decided it would be worth starting a catalogue of all the different analytics that could be captured in Moodle. At lunch I threw these at Martin and we cranked out a few more.

Analytics useful to Students

My progress bar blockWith an LMS, it is possible to achieve regular assessment within a course based on a rich set of finely chunked multi-modal activities, and while this can lead to deep learning, it can also be overwhelming for students. It is, therefore, useful for a student to know where they are up to in a course and what they have to do next. Students who use short-term planning tend to be more successful; they just need a quick snapshot of their progress.
Relative success
Deep learners are more successful and deep learners are characterised by meta-cognition about their learning. Providing analytics about their relative success can allow students to know whether they are on track of if they need further exposure to a topic. Relative success can also be used to introduce a competitive element into a cohort, which some educationalists recommend.
Opportunities to interact
If students are studying in isolation, it may not always be apparent when there are chances for them to interact with peers or teachers. Determining the level at which a student is interacting could be seen as an analytic that can be used to direct them to opportunities for communication and collaboration.

Analytics useful to Teachers

Student participation
In an online world, it is more difficult for a teacher to know which students are participating and those needing a push. Students can fail to participate for numerous reasons, usually valid ones. Sometimes a student may need to be encouraged to withdraw from a course and re-enrol later. Where analytics can help is in the determination of the timing of when such decisions need to be made. That’s not to say that such information needs to be complex; it could be as simple as “traffic light” coloured icons next to a list of names of students, ordered by risk.
Student success
Engagement analytics block
Assuming a student is involved, a teacher also wants to know how successful they are. This could be the product of assessment and views of resources. If students are progressing through the course with unsuccessful results, then they may need to be encouraged to re-expose themselves to a topic within the course before progressing further.
Student exposures
Moving away from a course modality where “one size fits all”, it is useful to know how many times a student was exposed to a topic before they were successful. This is a differentiating factor among students in a cohort. If students are progressing with few exposures, perhaps they are finding the course too easy, perhaps even boring, and may need to be challenged further. If students are requiring numerous exposures before they are successful, then perhaps alternate presentations of a topic need to be created to suit the learning preference of particular learners. Such an analytical tool can assist a teacher to deliver learning at an individual level.
Student difficulty in understanding
Through an analysis of exposures and assessment results, it may be possible to determine which topics, or areas within a topic, students are finding difficult. This may indicate areas that need to be revisited in the current delivery or enhanced in a future delivery of the course.
Student difficulty in technical tasks
When students are undertaking learning, the last thing they want is to be stifled by an inability to express their understanding because of by the way a course is set up within the LMS. Students patterns of use within the LMS may indicate they are having such difficulties, and a teacher can be alerted to take action.
Feedback attention
Teachers take time and spend effort creating feedback for students as a reflection of their understanding. It is useful to know which students have paid attention to such feedback, and which students may need to be encouraged to do so. Going beyond this it may be possible to deliver information to a teacher about the effectiveness of their feedback on students’ understandings as reflected in subsequent assessment.
Course quality
In several institutions that I know of, part of the measurement of a teacher’s effectiveness is judged by the quality of the courses they are producing within the LMS, based on a set of metrics. Such measurements can be used for promotions and to drive the development of PD activities. If such metrics can be automated, then analytics can be produced for teachers that encourage them to improve their course by increasing the richness of their resources, improving the quality of their activities, including more activities of different kinds, providing more opportunities for students to interact or collaborate.

Analytics useful to Institutions

Student retention
Analytics can provide more information about students than simple pass/fail rates. Analytics can help determine when students may be at risk of failing and in which courses this is more likely to happen. Such analytics can help an institution to send resources to where they are needed most and to plan resources for the future.
Teacher involvement
There may be ethical implications in monitoring teacher involvement in a course as it is akin to workplace survelance. However there is information in an LMS that can be presented in a useful way in relation to training and promotions. It might also be useful to anonymously tie in a teacher involvement analytic with other analytics to find correlations.
Teacher success
As well as looking at success in terms of pass and fail, it may also be possible to determine where teacher interventions have encouraged students to achieve beyond their expected outcomes.
Relative course quality
Clearly not all courses are equal, but how do you determine which is better. There have been a number of attempts to manually measure aspects of a course such as accessibility, organisation, goals and objectives, content, opportunities for practice and transfer, and evaluation mechanisms (Criteria for Evaluating the Quality of Online Courses, Clayton R. Wright). If such metrics can be automated, then analytics can be created with can reflect the quality of courses. Such metrics could also be fed back to teachers as an incentive to improve their courses.
What analytics would you add to this list?

How can you get them?

So, you want these analytics, but how can you get them? Some of them may already be accessible via various mechanisms, however I think we still need to work out how best to draw this information together in a simple way for specific users.

Moodle currently logs most actions that take place within the LMS. It is possible to view log reports, but they are limited to interaction in terms of activities within a course.

There are a number of existing plugins and extensions to Moodle that attempt to provide analytics to users. Among these there are a batch of report generators, many of which are quite configurable.

  • Configurable reportsThe Configurable reports block plugin is a configurable system that allows reports to be created and used by various roles. It may be a good model to use to start a set of standard analytics reports within an institution.
  • The Custom SQL queries report plugin allows an administrator to run any query against the database used by Moodle. It’s clearly flexible, but not something you can put into the hands of all users.
  • The Totara LMS is a rebranded, extended version of Moodle. One of the aspects built onto the standard Moodle install is a reporting facility that provides customisable reports to users of different roles.

There are also a number of blocks available and in-the-works that attempt display analytical information to users.

  • Graph statsMy own Progress Bar block shows a simple view of course progress to students and an overview of student progress to a teacher.
  • The Engagement analytics block is currently in development, but I have seen a demo of this and it looks good. now available. The block allows a teacher to specify expected targets for students then presents to teachers simple traffic-light icons next the names of students at risk.
  • The Course Dedication block estimates the time each student has spent online in a course.
  • The Graph Stats block shows overall student activity in a course over time.

Simple queries

A lot of these analytics can already be queried or calculated from the data already stored in the Moodle databse. The Report plugin type is available for presenting pages if information to users and is applicable for analytics. The Block plugin type is available for simple, compact presentation of information. Both of these APIs can present different displays to users with differing roles.

New logging

Currently, most of the logging that takes place in Moodle ends up in a single table. For simple lookups, this is not a problem, but for complex conjunctive queries, working with a large log table can hog the resources of a server. The current system of logging is likely to be a target of future work at Moodle HQ so that both the recording and retrieval of information can be achieved efficiently.

Measurement of a number of the interactions required for the analytics above is not possible using the current log and module tables. Viewing the recording of user interactions from an analytical perspective may lead to new information being captured for later analysis and presentation.

AI or user optimised queries

When you have a wealth of user interaction information available, why stop at the limits of human developers.

  • Genetic algorithms, neural networks and other heuristic approaches may reveal newly refined analytics or even new analytics altogether.
  • Crowd sourced optimisation of analytics reports may allow a collective intelligence to refine analytics so that they are even more valuable and reliable.
Are there other tools or technologies that you can think of that would help gather analytics?

Analysing analytics

Providing analytics allows us to study the impact that analytics can have on the users who view them. This allows general research questions such as “what analytics promoted better learning, teaching or retention?” Also, specific questions can be asked about individual analytics, such as “does feedback attention have an impact on learning outcomes?” Queue the savvy educationalists…

The best Moodle extensions you might not have heard about

Update 3 July 2020: This post is showing its age. Most of the information contained here is now out of date. I’m leaving the post here so there is a record of information about the book I wrote all those years ago.

Last year I wrote a book titled Moodle 1.9 Top Extensions Cookbook. The timing wasn’t great as Moodle 2.0 was just about to be released. Although much of the content is relevant to 1.9 and 2.0, the publishers (Packt) insisted on being version specific. I hope to have the chance to update the book in the future.

I gave a presentation at the Australian Moodle Moot (MootAu11) and I’ve had a few requests to share that presentation since, so I thought I would flesh out my presentation into a more digestible form.

Moodle 1.9 Top Extensions Cookbook

ISBN : 1849512167
Publishers Book Page
Moodle Books page

Moodle receives a 5% royalty on all Moodle books published by Packt.

To receive 20% off when you buy this book or eBook direct from the publisher, enter the discount code MoodleTopEx20.

I’ll start at my number ten and work my way to number one.

10: Course Contents block

Course Contents Block

The Course Content block creates an automatic table of contents for a Moodle course. I’ve often seen instructors doing this manually.This is a handy tool when course pages grow long.There is only a version for 1.9 available. In Moodle 2.x there is the Sections block, but it does not show section titles like the Course Contents block.

AuthorDavid Mudrak
David Mudrák

9: Translation block

Translation Block

The Translation block allows you to translate strings into multiple languages, right in Moodle.Application ideas:

  • Language classes
  • Common words in multiple languages (Sudoku, café)
  • Crazy re-translations
  • Translating Moodle strings

There are numerous similar alternatives, but this block works nicely.

Paul Holden
Compatibility1.7 to 1.9

8: Hidden Text filter

The Hidden Text filter allows you to reveal hidden snippets of content, as students read it.

Application ideas:

  • Micro-formative assessment
  • Annotations
  • Avoiding over-complicating content
  • Hiding “Easter eggs”
Hidden text before
Hidden text after
AuthorDmitry Pupinin
Dmitry Pupinin
Compatibility1.8, 1.9, ?2.0

7: Map module

Map module

The Map module allows you to embed dynamic maps into your course. It allows you and your students to add markers on the map.Application ideas:

  • Allowing students to show holiday destinations
  • Geographically, historically or politically significant locations
  • War zones

The potential of this module is really huge.

AuthorTed Bowman
Ted Bowman
TypeActivity Module
Compatibility1.8, 1.9

6: Twitter Search block

Twitter search

The Twitter search block allows you to micro-blog with your students.Searches are based on a configurable hashtag and could be used to search for:

  • Institutional notices
  • Teacher tweets
  • Student tweets
  • Topical news
  • Info popular for students
AuthorKevin Hughes
Kevin Hughes
Compatibility1.9, 2.x

5: Progress Bar block

Progress Bar block
Progress overview

The Progress Bar block shows students their progress in a course. It’s an easy way to help students monitor their progress and to motivate them to complete set tasks in the course.In the Moodle 2.x version there is an overview page that shows teachers the progress bar of each student. This allows teachers to see which students are keeping up and which are falling behind.

AuthorMichael de Raadt
Michael de Raadt (yours’ truly)
Compatibility1.9, 2.x

4: Group Selection module

Group Selection module

The Group Selection module allows allow students to sort themselves into groups. Once student choose their groups, the groups work as normal Moodle groups.Application ideas:

  • Project groups
  • Interest clubs
  • Research collaborations

This is something I have heard lots of instructors calling out for.

AuthorDavid MudrakPetr SkodaHelen Foster
David Mudrák, Petr Škoda, Helen Foster, Anna Vanova
TypeActivity module
Compatibility1.9, 2.x

3: Feedback module

Feedback module
Feedback analysis

The Feedback module allows you to create custom surveys and analyse the feedback.Application ideas:

  • Attitudinal feedback
  • Student input into future content of a course
  • Express opinions on topical issue
  • Collecting data for statistics lessons

The feedback modules is included as a standard module in Moodle 2.x, but is hidden by default

AuthorAndreas Grabs
Andreas Grab
TypeActivity module
Compatibility1.5 onwards

2: Collapsed formats

Collapsed formats

The Collapsed formats allow you to avoid the dreaded “Scroll of death”.Sections can be toggled open and close. The format sets the current week or topic open automatically and each user’s state is remembered when they return to the course page.There is a topics format and a weekly format.

AuthorGareth Bernard
Gareth Barnard
TypeCourse formats
Compatibility1.9, 2.x

1: UploadPDF


The UploadPDF assignment type allows you to mark and annotate assignments without leaving your browser.The only downside is that students have to upload a PDF document, but that’s not such a big deal any more.

AuthorDavo Smith
Davo Smith
TypeAssignment type
Compatibility1.9, 2.x

I struggled to narrow my favourite plugins to a top 10. The following plugins were also great.

  • Lightbox
  • Book
  • Wikipedia filter
  • Peer Review AT
  • Online Users map
  • Mindmap
  • Shoutbox

If you’d like to see my original presentation. Here it is…