What we talk about when we talk about ‘rating systems’

stars

Context

I’m MoodleNet Lead and, since the project’s inception, I’ve had lots of conversations with many different people. Once they’ve grasped that MoodleNet is a federated resource-centric social network for educators, some of them ask a variation of this question: Oh, I assume you’ll be using a star rating system to ensure quality content?

They are often surprised when I explain that no, that’s not the plan at all. I haven’t written down why I’m opposed to star rating systems for educational content, so what follows should hopefully serve as a reference I can point people towards next time the issue crops up!

However, this is not meant as my last word on the subject, but rather a conversation-starter. What do you think about the approach I outline below?

Introduction

Wikipedia defines a rating system as “any kind of rating applied to a certain application domain”. Examples include:

  • Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system
  • Star rating
  • Rating system of the Royal Navy

A rating system therefore explains how relevant something is in a particular context.

Ratings in context

Let’s take the example of film ratings. Thanks to the MPAA film rating system, parents can decide whether to allow their child to watch a particular film. Standardised criteria (e.g. drugs / sex / violence) are applied to a film which is then given a rating such as G (General Audiences), PG (Parental Guidance), and R (Restricted). These ratings are reviewed on a regular basis, sometimes leading to the introduction of new categories (e.g. PG-13).

Despite the MPAA film rating system, many parents seek additional guidance in this area – for example, websites such as Common Sense Media which further contextualise the film.

Common Sense Media screenshot
Screenshot showing the film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ on the Common Sense Media website

In other words, the MPAA rating system isn’t enough. Parents also take into account what their child is like, what other parents do, and the recommendations of sites they trust such as Common Sense Media.

Three types of rating systems

As evident in the screenshot above, Common Sense Media includes many data points to help parents make a judgement as to whether they will allow their child to watch a film.

With MoodleNet, we want to help educators find high-quality, relevant resources for use in their particular context. Solving this problem is a subset of the perennial problem around the conservation of attention.

Educational resources triangle
Project management triangle, adapted for educational resources

In other words, we want to provide the shortest path to the best resources. Using an adapted project management triangle, educators usually have to make do with two of the three of time, effort, and quality. That is to say they can minimise the time and cost of looking for resources, but this is likely to have a hit on the relevance of resources they discover (which is a proxy for quality).

Likewise, if educators want to minimise the time and maximise the quality of resources, that will cost them more. Finally, if they want to minimise the cost and maximise the quality, they will have to spend a lot more time finding resources.

The ‘holy grail’ would be a system that minimises time and cost at the same time as delivering quality education resources. With MoodleNet, we are attempting to do that in part by providing a system that is part searchable resource repository, and part discovery-based social network.

Proactive/Reactive
Diagram by Bryan Mathers showing MoodleNet as both a place where educators can search for and discover educational resources

Simply providing a place for educators to search and discover resources is not enough, however. We need something more granular than a mashup of a search engine and status updates.

What kinds of rating systems are used on the web?

There are many kinds of rating systems used on the web, from informal approaches using emoji, through to formal approaches using very strict rubrics. What we need with MoodleNet is something that allows for some flexibility, an approach that assumes some context.

With that in mind, let’s consider three different kinds of rating systems:

  1. Star rating systems
  2. Best answer systems
  3. Like-based systems

1. Star rating systems

One of the indicators in the previous example of the Common Sense Media website is a five-star rating system. This is a commonly-used approach, with perhaps the best-known example being Amazon product reviews. Here is an example:

Amazon page for Google Pixelbook
Amazon product page for a Google Pixelbook showing an average of 3.5 stars out of five from 12 customer reviews

Should I buy this laptop? I have the opinion of 12 customers, with a rating of three-and-a-half stars out of five, but I’m not sure. Let’s look at the reviews. Here’s the top one, marked as ‘helpful’ by nine people:

One-star review for Google Pixelbook
One-star review from a customer complaining about faulty Google Pixelbook

So this reviewer left a one-star review after being sent a faulty unit by a third-party seller. That, of course, is a statement about the seller, not the product.

Meanwhile:

Five-star review for Google Pixelbook
Five-star review from a customer pleased with their Google Pixelbook

Averaging the rating of these two reviews obviously does not make sense, as they are not rating the same thing. The first reviewer is using the star rating system to complain, and the second reviewer seems to like the product, but we have no context. Is this their first ever laptop? What are they using it for?

Star rating systems are problematic as they are blunt instruments that attempt to boil down many different factors to a single, objective ‘rating’. They are also too easily gamed through methods such as ‘astroturfing’. This is when individuals or organisations with a vested interested organise for very positive or very negative reviews to be left about particular products, services, and resources.

From the Wikipedia article on the subject:

Data mining expert Bing Liu (University of Illinois) estimated that one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. According to The New York Times, this has made it hard to tell the difference between “popular sentiment” and “manufactured public opinion.”

As a result, implementing a star rating system in MoodleNet, a global network for educators, would be fraught with difficulties. It assumes an objective, explicit context when no such context exists.

2. Best answer approach

This approach allows a community of people with similar interests to ask questions, receive answers, and have both voted upon. This format is common to Stack Overflow and Reddit.

Stackoverflow question and answer
Screenshot of a question with answers on Stack Overflow

Some of these question and answer pages on Stack Overflow become quite lengthy, with nested comments. In addition, some responders disagree with one another. As a result, and to save other people time, the original poster of the question can indicate that a particular answer solved their problem. This is then highlighted.

The ‘best answer’ approach works very well for knotty problems that require clarification and/or some collaborative thinking-through of problems. The result is then be easily searched and parsed by someone coming later with the same problem. I can imagine this would work well within MoodleNet community discussion forums (as it already does on the moodle.org forums).

When dealing with educational resources, however, there is often no objective ‘best answer’. There are things that work in a particular context, and things that don’t. Given how different classrooms can be even within the same institution, this is not something that can be easily solved by a ‘best answer’ approach.

3. Like-based systems

Sometimes simple mechanisms can be very powerful. The ‘like’ button has conquered social networks, with the best-known example being Facebook’s implementation.

Facebook Like button
Example of a Facebook ‘like’ button

I don’t use Facebook products on principle, and haven’t done since 2011, so let’s look at other implementations.

YouTube

Social networks are full of user-generated content. Take YouTube, for example, where 400 hours of video is uploaded every single minute. How can anyone possibly find anything of value with such a deluge of information?

YouTube search
YouTube search results for ‘bolshevik revolution’ sorted by relevance

In the above screenshot, you can see a search for one of my favourite topics, The Bolshevik Revolution. YouTube does a good job of surfacing ‘relevant’ content and I can also choose to sort my results by ‘rating’.

Here is the top video from the search result:

Annotated YouTube video
YouTube video with upvote and downvote functionality highlighted

I don’t have time to watch every video that might be relevant, so I need a shortcut. YouTube gives me statistics about how many people have viewed this video and how many people subscribe to this user’s channel. I can also see when the video was published. All of this is useful information.

The metric I’m most interested in, however, and which seems to make the biggest impact in terms of YouTube’s algorithm, is the number of upvotes the video has received compared to the number of downvotes. In this example, the video has received 16,000 upvotes and 634 downvotes, meaning that over 95% of people who have expressed an opinion in this way have been positive.

If I want more information, I can dive into the comments section, but I can already see that this video is likely to be something that may be of use to me. I would add this to a shortlist of three to five videos on the topic that I’d watch to discover the one that’s best for my context.

Twitter

Going one stage further, some social networks like Twitter simply offer the ability for users to ‘like’ something. A full explanation of the ‘retweet’ or ‘boost’ functionality of social networks is outside of the scope of this post, but that too serves as an indicator:

Tweet from UN Education Report
Tweet from UN Education Report showing reteweets and likes

This tweet from the UN about a report their Global Education Monitoring report has been liked 72 times. We don’t know the context of the people who have ‘liked’ this, but we can see that it’s popular. So, if I were searching for something about migrant education, I’d be sure to check out this report.

Although both YouTube and Twitter do not make it clear, their algorithms take into account ‘likes’ and ‘upvotes’ within the context of who you are connected to. So, for example, if a video has a lot of upvotes on YouTube and you’re subscribed to that channel, you’re likely to be recommended that video. Similarly, on Twitter, if a tweet has a lot of likes and a lot of those likes come from people you’re following, then the tweet is likely to be recommended to you.

Twitter user explaining likes are bookmarks, not endorsements
Twitter user account with bio that includes “Likes are usually bookmarks, not endorsements”

Interestingly, many Twitter users use the limited space in their bios to point out explicitly that their ‘likes’ are not endorsements, but used to bookmark things to which they’d like to return. In the past year, Twitter has begun to roll out bookmarks functionality, but it is a two-step process and not widely used.

So likes act as both votes and a form of bookmarking system. It’s a neat, elegant, and widely-used indicator.

What does this mean for MoodleNet?

So far, we have discovered that:

  • The ‘quality’ of a resource depends upon its (perceived) relevance
  • Relevant resources depend upon a user’s context
  • We cannot know everything about a user’s context

MoodleNet will implement a system of both taxonomic and folksonomic tagging. Taxonomic tags will include controlled tags relating to (i) language, (ii) broad subject area, and (iii) grade level(s). Folksonomic tags will be open for anyone to enter, and will autocomplete to help prevent typos. We are considering adding suggested tags via machine learning, too.

In addition to this, and based on what we’ve learned from the three rating systems above, MoodleNet users will soon be able to ‘like’ resources within collections.

Potential future location of 'like' button in MoodleNet
Screenshot of a MoodleNet collection with arrow indicating potential future location of ‘like’ button

By adding a ‘like’ button to resources within MoodleNet collections, we potentially solve a number of problems. This is particularly true if we indicate the number of times that resource has been liked by community members.

  1. Context – every collection is within a community, increasing the amount of context we have for each ‘like’.
  2. Bookmarking – ‘liking’ a resource within a collection will add it to a list of resources a user has liked across collections and communities.
  3. Popularity contest – collections are limited to 10 resources so, if we also indicate when a resource was added, we can see whether or not it should be replaced.

As discussions can happen both at the community and collection level, users can discuss collections and use the number of likes as an indicator.

Conclusion

Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones, and the ones that people are used to using. In our context, that looks like a simple ‘like’ button next to resources in the context of a collection within a community.

We’re going to test out this approach, and see what kind of behaviours emerge as a result. The plan is to iterate based on the feedback we receive and, of course, continue to tweak the user interface of MoodleNet as it grows!


What are your thoughts on this? Have you seen something that works well that we could use as well / instead of the above?

MoodleNet 0.5 alpha update

MoodleNet responsive view

This week, we are releasing MoodleNet v0.5 alpha, which includes one of our most-requested features: a mobile web view! We’ve also implemented a bunch of UI tweaks and bug fixes.

Note that, after testing using BrowserStack, pretty much every combination of mobile device and web browser works except Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s Edge browsers. This is due to a combination of some issues around supporting web standards, unfortunately.

For the moment we suggest that the community use other, more standards-compliant browsers to access MoodleNet. Some excellent choices include OperaMozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.

We didn’t manage to sneak in an ‘activity’ view for this release, but we’re working on it this week. This will allow you to see everything that’s happened within a community recently (e.g. new user/resource/collection added, new discussion thread).

MoodleNet 0.3 alpha update

Update: check out this five-minute overview video on YouTube!

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As MoodleNet progresses and the team get into more of a rhythm, we’ve started working in two-week sprints. For the next few weeks, up to the beta release at the UK & Ireland MoodleMoot, we have plenty to do!

Earlier this week we released MoodleNet v0.3 alpha in preparation for inviting a new cohort of testers. It includes the following new functionality, UI tweaks, and bug fixes:

Functionality added

  • Collection-level discussions
  • ‘Profile & settings’ to update name, description, and avatar
  • Guide to Markdown next to text input boxes

UI tweaks

  • Tweaks to fonts and colours to improve accessibility
  • New approach to discussions, which now act more like threads
  • List of communities indicates number of collections contained by each

Bug fixes

  • No longer have to refresh to see added community/collection
  • Can see all communities again (fixed pagination)

We’ve removed edit functionality from MoodleNet at the moment in preparation for moderation. In future, you’ll be able to edit and delete comments and resources you add, or those in a community you moderate.

Given the amount of time between now and the beta launch at the UK Moot, we’re going to focus on what we consider to be essential to the core value proposition of MoodleNet:

  1. Federation — the ability to have separate instances of MoodleNet that can communicate with one another.
  2. Mobile view — MoodleNet accessible and usable on mobile devices.
  3. Moodle Core integration — add a resource from MoodleNet to a course in a Moodle course.

Thank you to our testers, who are doing a great job of asking questions, reporting bugs, suggesting functionality, and filling in surveys!

The second round of MoodleNet initial testing starts next week!

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We’ve learned a lot from the first testing round of MoodleNet, which ends this week. Our focus has been on testing the value proposition, “Do educators want to join communities to curate collections of resources?” It’s early days, but it would appear that yes, they do!

The wealth of feedback we’ve received during the first testing period really has been invaluable. Our enthusiastic bunch of 100 testers have shown us what they prefer, through their use of MoodleNet, responses to surveys, and suggestions via Changemap. Happily, we’re not ‘wiping’ or ‘resetting’ the HQ instance, so we’re encouraging the 100 testers to use MoodleNet beyond this initial period.

As demonstrated in a previous update, over the last three weeks we’ve added a lot of functionality to MoodleNet, made many improvements to the user interface, and fixed a number of bugs. We’re looking forward to seeing how 150 additional testers respond to MoodleNet when they get started next week.

It’s now two months until our planned beta launch at the UK & Ireland MoodleMoot, so the team has some very important functionality to work on. Soon, MoodleNet will be:

    • Mobile — access MoodleNet on-the-go
    • Searchable — find communities, collections, and people across all of MoodleNet’s federated instances
    • Connected — import resources you discover on MoodleNet into courses in Moodle Core
    • Federated — join any instance of MoodleNet and interact with communities, collections, and other users across all instances

The MoodleNet team would like to thank the Moodle community for the encouragement and feedback we’ve received so far. We’re dedicated to creating an easy-to-use environment where educators can share, curate, and discuss!

MoodleNet testing: Day 13 update

Update: Check out this overview video showing the changes we’ve made!

MoodleNet screenshot - Day 13

Yesterday, we made our first major update to the version of MoodleNet currently undergoing initial testing. Not only did this update alter the look and feel of the interface, but it also added some useful new functionality and fixed some bugs reported by users via Changemap.

Functionality added

  • Gravatars to represent users
  • Community overviews
  • List of members in communities
  • Collections display number of resources they contain
  • Collections indicate number of followers

UI tweaks

  • Button styles and positions improved (e.g. for ‘Create a community’)
  • Increased character limit in text fields
  • Moved language selector to menu and removed flags
  • Added full-width images in communities
  • Sidebar has a darker colour

Bug fixes

  • Improved metadata import when adding resources
  • Users can only add resources & edit collections in communities they’ve joined
  • ‘All collections’ page fixed
  • Switching languages and then back to British English no longer causes an error
  • Word wrapping on community descriptions

Next week, we’re aiming to add collection-level discussions, featured collections, and basic user profiles.


For those interested in our product management processes, we’ve also switched to Moodle Tracker (Jira) for stories and epics while sticking with GitLab for issues. Check out bit.ly/MN-epics 

Evolving the MoodleNet UI

We’re a week into the initial testing of MoodleNet and are already getting some fantastic feedback from testers!

MoodleNet current (early Feb 2019)

While there’s a long way still to go before we can open registrations, things are really starting to come together in terms of the user interface (UI) for MoodleNet.

The above screenshot was taken today. Even in this very initial version, the feedback we have had from testers has been mostly positive. Our anonymous survey to ask for their first impressions included responses such as “nice interface”, “attractive” and “clean and clear”.

MoodleNet staging version

Our designer and front end developer, Ivan Minutillo, isn’t content to rest on his laurels, however. The above screenshot is taken from our staging server and shows an iteration of the UI that we will make available to users over the next few days.

As you can see, there are many improvements, including:

  • Image width
  • Placement of ‘Create a community’ button
  • ‘Overview’ tab in communities
  • Indication of community members
  • Dark sidebar
  • Use of gravatars

MoodleNet - future mockup

Ivan hasn’t stopped there, either, though! Although the above mockup isn’t coded yet, this is the direction we are currently thinking of heading with MoodleNet. As you can see, the sidebar now includes ‘MoodleNet’ at the top, there is search functionality (which we will be doing across federated instances) and the whole experience feels much more refined.

Whether or not you’re part of the initial testing process, we’d love your feedback on this! Do you like what you see? 

What are we hoping to get out of testing MoodleNet?

Test pattern

Last week, we put out a call for initial testers of MoodleNet in English and Spanish. We’ve been delighted with the response, and have now closed the sign-up process until the next round.

When developing a new product or service, it’s important to test, test, and test again – which is exactly what we’ve done with MoodleNet so far. The concept of a resource-centric social network came out of talking to a wide range of experts and educators. That led to a design sprint that included user testing of the resulting prototype. We tested the sign-up process to MoodleNet, solicited feedback on our code of conduct, tested out community calls and office hours, how we work as a team, done some internal testing, and will be very soon running a privacy and security testing programme.

The most important test so far, however, starts next week. That’s the time when we’ll be putting MoodleNet in front of users for the first time. We’re testing the value proposition: “Do educators want to join communities to curate collections of resources?” This doesn’t mention federation. There’s no mention of mobile devices, fancy user interfaces, or machine learning. We’ve tried to create a very simple approach to test this basic value proposition.

It may turn out that users agree with this value proposition. They may think that, yes, joining communities to curate collections of resources is something they want to do. Alternatively, they may indicate that they prefer a different approach. Either way, this test is of vital importance; it makes no sense to continue along this particular path without a mandate from real-world users!

For those interested, but who aren’t part of the initial testing, here’s how it will proceed:

  • Successful applicants will have their email address whitelisted and be invited to sign up to a Moodle HQ-run instance of MoodleNet
  • Feedback from users during the testing process will be collected in two ways: via Changemap and through weekly surveys
  • New features will be rolled out during the testing process, as detailed on this milestone

If you missed the sign-up process this time around, or weren’t available for the first testing period, then don’t worry! You will have an opportunity to put your name forward again in a few weeks’ time.

Sign up to be one of the first testers of MoodleNet!

Update: we’ve closed the sign-up forms for the time being. Thanks to everyone who signed up!


Note: also available en español

Lab

We’re delighted to announce that we’ve begun the process to recruit 100 testers for the first iteration of MoodleNet!

The sign-up form, a link to which can be found below, is available in both English and Spanish. The form should be self-explanatory, but if you do have any questions, please add a comment to this post or ask in the MoodleNet discussion forum.

We’re looking for a diverse range of educators, and you don’t need to be currently using Moodle. Please do consider putting your name forward!

Sign-ups close next Wednesday 23rd January, and we envisage the initial test running for three weeks from Tuesday 29th January.

Could you help translate MoodleNet in your language?

We want MoodleNet to be useful for educators around the world, so of course we need it to exist in as many languages as possible!

That’s why, as well as launching in English, it’s very important for us to launch with the interface available in other languages, too. We want to encourage the communities, content, and discussions that will come to life on the platform to be representative of the wonderful diversity of this community.

If that sounds like something with which you’d like to help, please head over to this thread on the MoodleNet forum and provide:

  1. A list of languages you know, including your level in each: Native ; Fluent ; High writing profiency ; High reading proficiency; or Intermediate. (Please don’t forget to include your level in English).
  2. A few words about your experience (if any) with translation, and a link to some of your work (for example, if you’ve helped translate Moodle Core, include a link to your profile on AMOS)

We will then direct message you if we need any more details, and with information about how to get started when translation into your language(s) is ready to begin. We’re going to start with some of the most common languages among users of Moodle, including Spanish.)

If you’re selected to help translate the pilot version of MoodleNet before it launches, you’ll also be invited to join as one of the first pilot users to try out the platform for yourself.

 

Photo credit: Slava Bowman