MoodleNet at the Creative Commons Summit 2019

Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon, Portugal

Last week, Doug Belshaw (MoodleNet Lead / Product Manager) spent three days at the Creative Commons Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. This annual event features “hundreds of leading activists, advocates, librarians, educators, lawyers, technologists, and more” coming together for “discussion and debate, workshops and planning, talks and community building”.

The focus was on Creative Commons and its licenses, but also on the more general concept of the ‘commons’, defined by Wikipedia as:

The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit. Characteristically, this involves a variety of informal norms and values (social practice) employed for a governance mechanism. Commons can be also defined as a social practice of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates .

Wikipedia

The MoodleNet team did not run a session at the Summit this year. Instead, our aim was to make connections with as many people and projects as possible. The Summit was very useful in that regard, and this posts serves to list (in no particular order) some higlights in the form of potentially-relevant projects.

1. Creative Commons Network Platforms

Image with CC logo

In order to facilitate community dialogue, Creative Commons is setting up a number of ‘network platforms‘, or working groups. These are currently being set up via mailing lists such as Google Groups, synchronous workplace chat apps like Slack, and monthly teleconferences.

There’s a real opportunity, we think, for MoodleNet to be the default open place that people from different organisations come together to organise, discuss and share.

2. Wikidata

Screenshot of Wikidata website
Screenshot of the Wikidata website

Wikidata is very well summarised on its main page:

Wikidata is a free and open knowledge base that can be read and edited by both humans and machines.

Wikidata acts as central storage for the structured data of its Wikimedia sister projects including Wikipedia, Wikivoyage, Wiktionary, Wikisource, and others.

Wikidata also provides support to many other sites and services beyond just Wikimedia projects! The content of Wikidata is available under a free licenseexported using standard formats, and can be interlinked to other open data sets on the linked data web.

There are currently 50 million items that have been contributed by 20,000 users on the platform. They describe it as the largest Open Educational Resource ever!

We’re particularly interested in Wikidata as a way to represent, in an objective, multi-lingual way, the data used by the resources added and uploaded to MoodleNet instances.

3. Global Digital Library

Screenshot of Global Digital Library website
Screenshot of Global Digital Library

Global Digital Library (GDL) is a project that aims to “provide access to free, high-quality, early grade reading resources in languages that children use and understand”. A key component of their strategy is that, instead of simply translating OER produced in English by western educators, content is created locally in around 100 languages.

We’re interested in the work GDL are doing in terms of the glocal (“reflecting or characterized by both local and global considerations”) perspective they bring to OER. We’re aiming to do something similar with MoodleNet! Interestingly, the presenter, Chris Gunderson, also talked about the newly-formed Digital Public Goods Alliance, which we will keep an eye on.

4. OER World Map

Screenshot of the OER World Map
Screenshot of the OER World Map

The OER World Map is a project which aims to “illuminate the global Open Educational Resources movement by facilitating interaction and collaboration”. It does this by collecting and sharing “open data about actors and activities related to OER”. One of the people involved in the project, Adrian Pohl, kindly left a comment on our recent Voodoo categorisation post.

We think that the OER World Map is a great visual representation of the work that’s going on in our field. The data that we can gather on educators’ work through MoodleNet would be a useful way to augment this map, and we can also learn from the work they’ve done around categorisation.

5. CC Search

Screenshot of CC Search
Screenshot of the new Creative Commons Search, now out of beta

Creative Commons Search is now out of beta! It currently searches 300 million images across 19 providers, as well as a small number of 3D designs courtesy of Thingiverse. In addition, they have one-click attribution tools to really focus the search on reuse.

Later this year, Jane Park the project lead told us, CC Search will also feature open textbooks. They’ve already got an API for accessing the data they have, but are also looking to create a ‘Push API’ so that data from other sources can make it into CC Search.

We’re particularly interested in the potential of a ‘Push API’, as it means that original OER uploaded to MoodleNet could make it into the global CC Search to be discovered and reused by educators worldwide!

An honourable mention should also be given to OASIS, another OER search portal, which we’ve discussed in a previous post. It’s actually been created by two guys from the State University of New York in their spare time.

Concluding thoughts

Panel session at CC Summit
Panel session at CC Summit

There were so many other great sessions and conversations in which we took part. However, in the interests of time, we’ve reduced some of them to bullet points:

  • Open by default vs Privacy by design — an interesting discussion that led us to think that perhaps the meta issue here is coercive power relationships?
  • CC ID — some researchers in China have proposed a system similar to Digital Object Identifer (DOI) for Creative Commons-licensed works. We have our reservations about this, but will see how the project progresses.
  • H5P — lots of excitement about this in regards to Moodle. We think it’s going to be great to curate collections of activities in MoodleNet!
  • Wikimedia — we were part of discussions about the Wikimedia Foundation’s goals for 2030 in regards to education. More on this soon, no doubt.
  • Open pedagogyLeigh-Ann Perryman from the Open University spoke about the vital importance of educators operating in the open.

On the third and final day, we were involved in a Virtually Connecting session right at the end of the Summit, which you can watch below:

It was a great Summit, and we look forward to putting in a proposal to present at next year’s event!


A final, special shout-out to Bryan Mathers’ Remixer Machine, which produced a whole gallery of ‘stamps’ relating to Lisbon and the CC Summit. Check out the beautiful images that were created by participants below:

Stamps created by participants at CC Summit using The Remixer Machine
A gallery of ‘stamps’ created by participants at CC Summit using The Remixer Machine

MoodleNet v0.9.2 alpha update

Screencast overview of MoodleNet v0.9.2 alpha

Today, we’ve recently released the latest iteration of MoodleNet. Version 0.9.2 alpha is focused on UI tweaks and bug fixes. Thanks to Ivan for his hard work on this!

UI tweaks

  • New, separate settings page (instead of pop-up modal)
  • Moved ‘new community’ from icon in menu bar to top of the ‘all communities’ feed
  • Updated login page graphic

Bug fixes

  • Various bug fixes

We’ve also manually updated ‘featured’ communities and collections, which we’ll continue doing every release until this is automated and algorithmic.


In addition, this past week we’ve also been issuing this badge to testers:

MoodleNet Experimenter badge

The team is currently hiring a replacement to Alex for the backend developer role, so Doug and Mayel are spending time screening applicants and interviewing this week and next!

We’re hiring a new backend developer!

Update: we’ve closed the job listing for this role and will be making a decision soon!


With MoodleNet we’re building a resource-centric social network for educators. One key differentiating feature is that MoodleNet will be federated, meaning separate instances can communicate with one another. To enable this to happen, we’re using ActivityPub, an official W3C recommended standard, and to ensure scalability we’re using Elixir, a dynamic, functional programming language.

There’s several parts to MoodleNet’s federation: receiving or fetching activities from other instances, interacting with them, and of course pushing new activities to followers. Alex Castaño, the backend developer who joined us at the end of September 2018, has almost completed the first part of this equation. He’s decided to move on at the end of May, which means we’re looking for a new backend developer to complete the work on federation.

This is a flexible position and can be based remotely, or out of the Moodle office in Barcelona. View the job listing for details, and please pass this along to any developer you know who might be interested.


Voodoo categorisation and dynamic ontologies in the world of OER

Voodoo masks

Introduction

In a previous post on this blog, I described how we’re planning for search to work in MoodleNet. In this post, I want to dig into tagging and categorisation – which, it turns out, is an unexpectedly philosophical subject. Fundamentally, it comes down to whether you think that subjects such as ‘History’ and ‘Biology’ are real things that exist out there in the world, or whether you think that these are just labels that humans use to make sense of our experiences.

What follows is an attempt to explain why Open Educational Resources (OER) repositories are often under-used, how some forms of categorisation are essentially an attempt at witchcraft, and why assuming user intent can be problematic. Let’s start, however, with everyone’s favourite video streaming service.

Netflix

If you asked me what films and documentaries I like, I’d be able to use broad brushstrokes to paint you a picture. I know what I like and what I don’t like. Despite this, I’ve never intentionally sat down to watch ‘Critically-acclaimed Cerebral Independent Movies’ (Netflix code: 89), nor ‘Understated Social & Cultural Documentaries’ (Netflix code: 2428) nor even ‘Witty Independent Movies based on Books’ (Netflix code: 4913). These overlapping categories belong to a classification system developed by Netflix that now stretches into the tens of thousands of categories.

Netflix screenshot
Screenshot of Netflix user interface

Netflix is popular because the content it provides is constantly updating, but mainly because it gets to know you over time. So instead of presenting the user with a list of 27,000 categories and asking them to choose, Netflix starts from a basis of the user picking three movies they like, and then making recommendations based on what they actually watch.

There aren’t a lot of actions that users can perform in the main Netflix interface: it’s essentially ‘browse’, ‘add to list’ and ‘play’. In addition, users don’t get to categorise what they watch. That categorisation is instead performed through a combination of Netflix’s algorithm and their employees, which work to create a personalised recommendation ‘layer’ on top of all of the content available.

In other words, Netflix’s categorisation is done to the user rather than by the user. Netflix may have thousands of categories and update them regularly, but the only way users can influence these is passively through consuming content, rather than actively – for example through tagging. More formally, we might say that Netflix is in complete control of the ontology of its ecosystem.

Voodoo categorisation

In a talk given back in 2005, media theorist Clay Shirky railed against what he called ‘voodoo categorisation’. This, he explained, is an attempt to create a model that perfectly describes the world. The ‘voodoo’ comes when you then try to act on that model and expect things to change that world.

Voodoo dolls
Image CC BY Siaron James

Shirky explains that, when organisations try to force ‘voodoo categorisation’ (or any form of top-down ontology) onto large user bases, two significant problems occur:

  1. Signal loss – this happens when organisations assume that two things are the same (e.g. ‘Bolshevik revolution’ and ‘Russian revolution’) and therefore should be grouped together. After all, they don’t want users to miss out on potentially-relevant content. However, by grouping them together, they are over-estimating the signal loss in the expansion (i.e. by treating them as different) and under-estimating the signal loss in the collapse (i.e. by treating them as the same).
  2. Unstable categories – organisations assume that the categories within their ontology will persist over time. However, if we expand our timescale, every category is unstable. For example, ‘country’ might be seen as a useful category, but it’s been almost thirty years since we’ve recognised East Germany or Yugoslavia.

The ontologies we use to understand the world are coloured by our language, politics, and assumptions. For example, if we are creating a category of every country, do we include Palestine? What about Taiwan? These aren’t neutral choices and there is not necessarily a ‘correct’ answer now and for all time. As Shirky points out, it follows that someone tagging an item ‘to_read’ is no better in any objective way than conforming to a pre-defined categorisation scheme.

This is all well and good theoretically, but let’s bring things back down to earth and talk very practically about MoodleNet. How are we going to ensure that users can find things relevant to what they are teaching? Let’s have a look at OER repositories and the type of categories they use to organise content.

OER repositories

The Open Education Consortium points prospective users of OER to the website of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources. They have a list of useful repositories, from which I’ve chosen three popular examples, highlighting their categories:

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These repositories act a lot like libraries. There are a small number of pre-determined subject areas into which resources can be placed. In many ways, it’s as if there’s limited ‘shelf space’. What would Netflix do in this situation? After all, if they can come up with 27,000 categories for films and TV, how many more would there be for educational resources?

Ultimately, there are at least three problems with OER repositories organised by pre-determined subject areas:

  • Users have to fit in with an imposed ontology
  • Users have to know what they are looking for in advance
  • Users aren’t provided with any context in which the resource may be used

We are trying to rectify these problems in MoodleNet, by tying together individual motivation with group value. Teachers look for resources which have been explicitly categorised as relevant to the curriculum they are teaching. Given the chance, great teachers also look for ideas in a wide range of places, some of which may be seen as coming from other disciplines. MoodleNet then allows them to provide the context in which they would use the resource when sharing their findings with the community.

Dynamic ontologies in MoodleNet

Our research has shown that, as you would expect, educators exhibit differences in the way they approach finding educational resources. While there are those that go straight to the appropriate category and browse from there, equally there are many who prefer a ‘search first and filter later’ approach. We want to accommodate the needs of both.

The solution we are proposing to use with MoodleNet includes both taxonomy and folksonomy. That is to say, it involves both top-down categorisation and bottom-up tagging. Instead of coming up with a bespoke taxonomy we are thinking of using UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) fields of education and training which provides a three-level hierarchy, complete with relevant codes:

UNESCO ISCED codes
Example of some of the UNESCO ISCED fields of education and training

MoodleNet will require three types of taxonomic data to be added to communities, collections, and user profiles:

  • Subject area (ISCED broad, narrow, or detailed)
  • Grade level (broadly defined – e.g. ‘primary’ or ‘undergraduate’)
  • Language(s)

In addition, users may choose to add folksonomic data (i.e. free-text tagging) to further contextualise communities, collections, and profiles. That would mean a collection of resources might look something like this:

Mockup of what tags could look like in a MoodleNet collection
Mockup of taxonomic and folksonomic tagging system in a MoodleNet collection

The way Clay Shirky explains this approach is that “the semantics are in the users, not in the system”. In other words, the system doesn’t have to understand that the Bolshevik Revolution is a subset of 20th century Russian history. It just needs to point out that people who often tag things with ‘Lenin’ also tag things with ‘Bolshevik’. It’s up to the teacher to make the professional judgement as to the value of a resource.

We envisage that this combination of taxonomic and folksonomic tagging will lead to a dynamic ontology in MoodleNet, powered by its users. It should allow a range of uses, by different types of educators, who have varying beliefs about the world.

Conclusion

What we’re describing here is not an easy problem to solve. The MoodleNet team does not profess to have fixed issues that have beset those organising educational for the past few decades. What we do recognise, however, is the power of the web and the value of context. As a result, MoodleNet should be useful to teachers who are looking to find resources directly relevant to the curriculum they are teaching. It should also be useful to those teachers looking to cast the net more widely

In closing, we are trying to keep MoodleNet as flexible as possible. Just as Moodle Core can be used in a wide variety of situations and pedagogical purposes, so we envisage MoodleNet to be used for equally diverse purposes.

MoodleNet v0.9.1 alpha update

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Yesterday, we released MoodleNet v0.9.1 alpha. As we were tweaking the previous version right up to the workshop at the UK & Ireland MoodleMoot last week, this release is primarily bug fixes and small tweaks.

The most noticeable difference is on the home page for logged-in users, where featured collections and featured communities are displayed prominently. Right now, these are hard-coded, but in future will be both under the control of the federated instance administrator.

Dark mode continues to be the team’s favourite, but we’ve also tweaked the light mode to be more accessible! We’ve scheduled the next update, v0.9.2 alpha, for Tuesday 7th May.

What we learned by running a workshop at #MootIEUK19

Last week was MoodleMoot UK & Ireland 2019. At the previous year’s MoodleMoot, our presentation on MoodleNet contained only ideas of what we would build. This year, we had an alpha version to put in front of people at a workshop.

The focus of the session was on past, present, and future, with participants having an opportunity to discuss what they like about the MoodleNet vision, and what they’d like to see included in the future roadmap.

The 1.5 hour session on Day 3 of the Moot was structured in the following way:

  • Welcome, intro and overview
  • Affinity grouping
  • Hands-on testing of MoodleNet
  • Discussion around key questions
  • Feedback and next steps
  • CLOSE

During the Affinity grouping activity, and before participants had a chance to register for MoodleNet, they were asked what problems they envisaged MoodleNet solving for them. The emergent groups were around:

  • Online course design
  • Institutional use
  • Learning and teaching
  • Technology
  • UX

During testing, participants were asked to register, complete a basic profile, and join a community to add resources and comments.

After testing, participants discussed a series of questions which are included with full details of the workshop on this wiki page. Over and above the things on our roadmap, the main things we learned (or found interesting) were:

  1. Confusion between ‘communities’ and ‘collections’
  2. Flagging duplicate content
  3. Per-community hierarchical tags
  4. Grouping of several communities
  5. Reward and recognition for users

It was a very useful session, and the 1.5 hours went by very quickly. We’d like to thank participants, and your rare badge will be on its way soon!

MoodleNet v0.9 alpha update

After some extended testing, we’ve just released MoodleNet v0.9 alpha in preparation for the workshop at this week’s UK & Ireland MoodleMoot.

Functionality added

  • Dark mode
  • User’s latest activities on profiles
  • Timeline (latest activities of user’s followed communities and collections) on home page

UI tweaks

  • New UI (without sidebar)
  • Moodle brand and colour scheme
  • Link to code of conduct from user menu

Bug fixes

  • Various small bug fixes

In addition to the above, we’re still working on search, federation (the ability to have separate instances of MoodleNet that can communicate with one another), and of course Moodle Core integration.

We’ve almost completed our Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) with Moodle’s Privacy Officer and external Data Protection Officer (DPO). We’ll be sharing that with the community for feedback.

The first first release that features federation will be called ‘beta’, so the next scheduled release will be MoodleNet v0.9.1 alpha.

Making search a delightful experience in MoodleNet

MoodleNet is a new open social media platform for educators, focussed on professional development and open content. It is an integral part of the Moodle ecosystem and the wider landscape of Open Educational Resources (OERs). The purpose of this post is to explain how our approach to search will help with this.

Our research shows that educators discover resources in two key ways, which we’re bringing together with MoodleNet.

Proactive/Reactive

In order to be proactive and search for something specific, you have to know what you are looking for. That’s why it’s common for educators to also be reactive, discovering resources and other useful information as a result of their social and professional networks.

From its inception, we’ve designed MoodleNet as a place that works like the web. In other words, it harnesses the collective power of networks while at the same time allowing the intimacy of human relationships. However, search tends to be a transactional experience. How do we make it more ‘social’?

Seung (persona)At this point, let’s re-introduce Seung, the 26 year-old Learning Technologist from Australia who we first met in a white paper from early 2018. She’s looking to help her colleagues use Moodle more effectively, and to connect with other Learning Technologists to discover promising practices.

Seung comes across many potentially-useful resources on her travels around the web, which she curates using services such as Pocket, Evernote, and the ‘favourite/like’ functionality on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. When Seung uses MoodleNet, she joins relevant communities, follows interesting collections and people, and ‘likes’ resources that either she or her colleagues could use.

One of the problems Seung has is re-discovering resources that she’s previously found. Although she considers herself an advanced user of search engines such as Google and DuckDuckGo, Seung is sometimes frustrated that it can take a while to unearth a resource that she had meant to come back to later.

MoodleNet search overview (Bryan Mathers)MoodleNet’s powerful search functionality will allow Seung to both find interesting communities, collections, and profiles, and quickly rediscover resources on MoodleNet that she has marked as potentially-useful. In addition, because MoodleNet is focused on open content, Seung can extend her search to OER repositories and the open web.

The same search functionality will be available through a Moodle Core plugin that allows any user, whether or not they have an account on MoodleNet, to search for resources they would like to pull into their Moodle course. This plugin will also automatically add metadata about the original source location, the MoodleNet collection of which it was part, as well as any licensing information.

We’ve already started conversations with Europeana and Creative Commons about allowing MoodleNet users to directly search the resources they both index. We would also like to explore relationships with other OER repositories who would welcome MoodleNet communities curating and using their openly-licensed resources.  

In closing, we should mention that we have big plans for tags across MoodleNet, involving both taxonomic and folksonomic tagging, and provided by both users and machine learning. More details on that soon.

For now, the MoodleNet team would be interested in any questions or suggestions you have about this approach to search. What do you think? What else would you like to see?


Illustrations CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

MoodleNet and the European Copyright Directive

European flag

On Tuesday, the European Parliament gave final approval to the Copyright Directive, a controversial piece of legislation affecting online services that either link to news articles or allow uploads.

During the process of this legislation coming into law, the MoodleNet team has been asked about the potential impact on what we are building. Developments are ongoing even now and the Directive has to passed into law by the European member states.

As a result, we have decided to keep a wiki page up-to-date about what the Copyright Directive may mean for MoodleNet. You can access this on the Moodle wiki.

MoodleNet v0.7 alpha update

MoodleNet v0.7 alpha login page

A couple of days ago the team deployed MoodleNet v0.7 alpha, which includes the following new functionality, UI tweaks, and bug fixes.

Functionality added

  • Timeline views
  • User profile pages

UI tweaks

  • New discussions view
  • Improved login page

Bug fixes

  • Fixed ‘a few seconds ago’ bug
  • Various small bug fixes

Note that the timeline views aren’t exactly as we want them, so we’re tweaking them over the next week or so.

In addition, we’re working on our Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) with Moodle’s Privacy Officer and external Data Protection Officer (DPO). That will be finalised before we launch the first beta next month.

We’re currently working on:

  1. Federation — the ability to have separate instances of MoodleNet that can communicate with one another.
  2. Moodle Core integration — add a resource from MoodleNet to a course in a Moodle course.
  3. Refactoring and code clean-up — ensuring MoodleNet runs as quickly, efficiently, and bug-free as possible!

The next release, v0.9 alpha, is scheduled for week beginning 8th April 2019.