Category: Moodle

E-LearninglecturesMOOCsMoodleRoyal Holloway

The Future of Learning: an interview transcript

I was recently interviewed for a piece in Royal Holloway’s Alumni magazine Higher.  Here’s a transcript of my responses.

Do you think traditional campus learning (lectures, books, etc.) is threatened by digital learning?

The sanctity of the classroom has long been a source of concern for teachers.  At one time, even books were considered a threat.  Plato wrote in Phaedrus that books will cause man to “implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks”

Lectures are not threatened by technology.   Lectures and seminars, as well as independent and group study, can be enhanced and extended by the appropriate, informed, and measured use of technology, in whichever form it may take.

Our tenth year of supporting face-to-face teaching with our online learning system, called Moodle, is upon us. This blended approach to teaching, learning, and assessment has strengthened our campus-based learning; streamlined activities and processes; and provided new opportunities for teachers and learners. An example of this is the use of lecture recording.  Students are now able to reinforce their understanding of a lecture and revise their notes at any time, from anywhere where they have internet access.  This is very popular both with our home and international students, and not just during the exam period but throughout the academic year.

Can you foresee a time when Royal Holloway would do away with lectures altogether?

Research-intensive universities like ours can offer something unique; face-to-face time with, and feedback from, international experts in their respective fields.  Our students deserve and demand this, and lectures are seen by many as the most efficient way of providing such access.  It should be noted, however, that speaking to a large room of people is not necessarily the most effective of way of inspiring and empowering them.  This is where, again, technology can augment lectures.  For example, a number of academic departments have embedded the use of Smartphones and hand-held voting devices to support in-class interactivity.  Many lecturers are now able to check and record attendance, run polls, and deliver live assessments during their lectures.

The concept and consumption of a lecture is therefore increasingly fluid – it’s changing all the time as lecturers adopt new technologies.  Lectures as we have known them may be unrecognisable to our learners in 2025, but they will still be a vital part of the student experience.

What are the main benefits technology can bring to students?

Research shows that people learn more effectively when, among other things, they are active; have opportunities for dialogue; receive feedback; and have opportunities for consolidation.  Our growing range of digital learning platforms and projects facilitate these conditions.

Moodle provides each taught course with an online space for academics, students, learning content, and assessment to come together.  These communities can then interact independently of space and time.  For a number of years now, large cohorts of English Under Graduate students have been divided with ease into small, intimate groups where they work together to develop and demonstrate their textual analysis skills.  Their progress is evidenced by publication of written group work to online discussion fora, which only the group and their tutors can view.  The tutors can move from the ‘sage on the stage’ role to become a ‘guide from the side’ as they view and comment on the work throughout the duration of the course.

Academic departments no longer have to print and distribute to students paper copies of handbooks and readings.  These can now be made available online.  This largely paperless approach is extended to students with the growth of e-assessment and e-submission.  Last year, over 60 000 essays and submissions were submitted electronically by students.  These were then digitally scanned for originality to preserve the academic integrity of a Royal Holloway degree.  Over 20 000 were subsequently marked online, with the marks and feedback made available online to students.  The rapid turnaround of written work; legible, timely, and personalised feedback are central to a positive student learning experience.  This is supported by a recent survey (The RHUL Student Satisfaction Barometer, Autumn 2014), which showed very high levels of satisfaction among our students with regards to online learning and assessment provision (93.7%).

What are the main pitfalls of digital learning vs. face-to-face contact?

Skills and wills are central to success in this field.  E-Learning will only deliver the benefits it promises when institutions provide space, time, and resources necessary to develop the skills required by teaching and administrative staff to critique, select, develop, and successfully embed appropriate technologies in teaching and assessment.  This avoids the obvious pitfall whereby E-Learning is used to replicate rather than extend capabilities.

As with any digital technology, we must be wary of the approaches – theoretical and technical – that over-promise yet under-deliver.  The history of education on the web is littered with many examples of this, e.g., Second Life.

How do you see digital learning developing over the next decade?

Quickly – more so than in the last 10 years. and much more quickly compared to the 30 years before that – yes, digital learning has been around for that long!

The Internet has revolutionised almost all aspects of daily life in the 21st century, including; commerce, industry, banking, government, communications, entertainment and travel.   Higher Education has, although arguably to a lesser extent, also changed as a result of developments in online technology.  In terms of delivery and consumption, however, education remains episodic and event-driven, with the weekly lecture being the foremost example of this.  I expect that this will change in the same way that television is increasingly non-linear and consumed in ‘binges or bites’.

Featured image: NASA’s Hyperwall-2 Quarter-Gigapixel Display, accessed at and published here unchanged


Never mind the Bol****s; here’s the Atto text editor

Alternative title: “Why doesn’t it let me use all the fonts, colours, and sizes any more?”

Example of multiple typefaces and colours

The developers at Moodle HQ have taken the lead in the design and presentation of accessible, web and mobile-friendly learning content . The new text editor is aimed squarely at creating content for a diverse community of learners with a range of needs, and who use a growing number of devices, operating systems, and browsers to create and access content. It is designed to be lightweight, platform agnostic, and to assist in the creation of accessible content.

Reading on the screen is very different from reading printed materials, and content creators have a number of issues to consider when writing for an online audience. These include the following:

1. Web users scan rather than read content.

  • Anything which interrupts that process can undermine the communication process, and should be avoided.
  • Examples of distractors include multiple fonts, ever-changing font sizes, and in-line links.

2. Not all users perceive colour in the same way.

  • Using colour to convey meaning can discriminate against users with colour-blindness by making it harder for them to access, understand, and act upon information presented in this way.
  • Content should be produced with future as well as current users in mind, and is better to make content accessible now than to make adjustments on demand later.
  • Offering a range of background and font colours can often result in illegible combinations, or combinations which may not work after future upgrades to our Moodle site.

3. Not all users consume content in the same way, some users:

  • may access text-only versions of a web site, and any meaning conveyed through typography will be lost.
  • employ their own ‘style sheet’ to make the necessary adjustments to online content.
  • consume online content with screen-readers, and anything which ‘bloats’ the text with underlying code (HTML colour, font and size settings, for example) can affect the performance of assistive technology.

4. Mobile users demand speed; mobile browsers demand lean content

  • The ‘bounce-rate’ – where web users land on a site only to leave immediately – for mobile device users on Moodle last year was 35%.
  • We have taken steps to improve the mobile experience, and this includes improving the presentation and readability of content.
  • Using text hierarchy provides content with a clear and strong structure, one which downloads quickly.
  • Overly styled content is less robust and may be handled differently by different platforms, devices and browsers

The Moodle text editor therefore does not have all the tools you may find in, for example, Microsoft Word. It no longer offers a range of fonts and colours. It instead allows editors to present content with a clear hierarchy, in the form of headings of various sizes and strength, and paragraph text. The latter can be bulleted and emboldened. Text can also be italicised and underlined – although, when used liberally, this can erode the ‘readability’ of a text.


Moodle development: upgrade and new look

Having delivered a successful rollover and archiving project for 2014/15 courses, we move now to the next stage of Moodle development. On Wednesday July 8th IT Services and the E-Learning Team will upgrade Moodle. Please note how this affects the service

1. Moodle will be unavailable from 16.00 on Wednesday 8th until no later than 17.00 on Thursday 9th July.
2. Moodle Archive will continue as normal throughout the upgrade period.

The upgrade will address a number of performance issues, and provide a robust and stable platform for our diverse range of E-learning activities. This is a minor upgrade in terms of functionality, and there will be no impact on existing activities and resources. We will take the opportunity to declutter the Moodle interface by removing some of the less useful tools and blocks.

The biggest change will be in the look-and-feel of Moodle as we move to support the increasing number of users who access Moodle with tablets and smartphones.& Put simply, Moodle will work on any such device. The E-Learning Team will shortly produce materials and offer workshops on how to make courses more mobile friendly.  Below is a rough-cut screenshot:

Other improvements include:

  • an overhauled front page with targeted support and information for users
  • a new editing toolbar
  • increased support for screen readers

Please refer to the dedicated page on the E-Learning website for further information.

Archiving delivery

Turnitin Administration and the Moodle rollover project

Turnitin assignments have been archived as part of the larger Moodle rollover and archive project.


  • Session 14/15 Turnitin Assignments in Banner courses (but not those delivered through Partnerships) were archived and moved to the Moodle Archive at
  • Turnitin assignments were deleted from 15/16 Moodle course spaces.  This prevents licensing, access, performance, and management issues arising from the re-use of expired Turnitin assignments.

Administrators/course editors should:

  • Create new Turnitin Assignments in Moodle 15/16 course spaces. These are now all available in Moodle at
  • Use the 14/15 Moodle course spaces to create Turnitin Assignments for resubmissions, at  This will consolidate all 14/15 Moodle/Turnitin activities.


  • The  Moodle-based support materials for creating and managing Turnitin assignments can be accessed directly at: