An update on MoodleNet as we approach v1.0 beta

MoodleNet is a federated social network, a decentralised digital commons, a place for educators to both share and discuss openly-licensed resources.

We’re delighted to show our progress towards v1.0 beta, which will be released in time for the launch of Moodle LMS 3.9. This is an important milestone, as the ability for LMS users to find and add resources from MoodleNet was a key consideration when designing MoodleNet.


1. Sign-up page

There are three options here: sign-up (if you’re allowed to!), sign-in, or browse. The latter option means that, even if you don’t have an account, you can still browse and search MoodleNet.


2. Discover

This page contains communities and collections that have been featured by the instance administrator, as well as a timeline of everything that is happening on this particular instance. You can also get to a list of all communities and all collections from this page. Note that the communities you as a user have joined can be seen down the left-hand sidebar.


3. My MoodleNet

The My MoodleNet page is the user’s ‘home’ page. This contains a feed of updates relating to communities a user has joined, as well as collections and other users they are following.


4. Adding resource via ‘share link’

Communities in MoodleNet curate collections of resources. There are two ways to add resources, and this example demonstrates adding a resource to a collection by link (i.e. as a ‘bookmark’)


5. Adding resource via upload

The other way of adding resources to collections in MoodleNet is via upload. In this example, a PDF file is uploaded, and metadata added (including Creative Commons license)


6. Discussions

As MoodleNet is a federated social network, it is interoperable with other ActivityPub-based networks. In this example, you can see the flat UX we are employing for discussions in this first release of MoodleNet, together with replies both from MoodleNet and other social networks, like Pleroma.


7. Profiles

MoodleNet profiles contain an avatar and header, as well as the username (which looks more like an email address than a Twitter handle), recent activity, list of likes, and communities joined and collections followed.


8. Flags and admin settings

Anything can be flagged in MoodleNet: resources, collections, communities, and users. These are then dealt with in the admin settings, along with deciding who can join this particular MoodleNet instance.


9. Search

The MoodleNet team is currently working on the search experience. This allows for users to search across the federated network of MoodleNet instances, and join communities, follow collections, and send resources to Moodle LMS, all from the search results page.


We will have further updates soon!

MoodleNet overview (March 2020)

This is the latest set of slides giving an overview of MoodleNet’s functionality. You’ll notice a number of changes since the last deck, both in terms of structure, but also the use of animated gifs to give more of a feeling of how MoodleNet works.

Link: http://bit.ly/MNmarch20

As a remote team, we’re continuing to work mostly as normal throughout the pandemic. However, some of our team are based in countries like Italy, which is disproportionately affected, meaning that we can’t commit to any hard-and-fast dates for federation and/or user testing. We’ll keep this plan up-to-date.

Meanwhile, if you’re an educational institution or other organisation that is affected by the pandemic and are pivoting to online learning, you might want to take a look at MoodleCloud or bring in the help of a Moodle Partner.

(Re-)decentralize the web with MoodleNet!

A particularly interesting article caught our attention recently: in Society Desperately Needs An Alternative Web, author Hessie Jones reports in Forbes on the recent Canada-United Kingdom Symposium On Ethics In Artificial Intelligence (EIAI-2019).

The article covers a lot of ground, but in particular adds to the growing chorus to re-decentralize the web. We tend to use the term ‘federated’ instead of ‘decentralized’ when talking about MoodleNet, mainly because of the unhelpful ambiguity between ‘decentralized’ and ‘distributed’. However, ActivityPub-based software like MoodleNet can play an important role in decentralizing our digital lives because it builds upon the proven usability and reach of the web and standards-based browsers.

Types of systems

In the light of Jones’ writing for Forbes, it’s clear that, whatever name you want to give to our approach, MoodleNet certainly is part of the solution to the problems we’re facing.

Technology precedes regulation. This new world has created scenarios that are unaddressable under current laws. There is a prevailing legal threat unleashed through the GDPR, however, there are aspects of it that some argue that may indeed stifle innovation. However, it’s a start. In the meantime, we need to progress so systems and governance are in sync, and tech giants are held in check. This is not an easy task. Who is responsible for the consequences of AI decisions? What mechanisms should be in place to ensure that the industry does not act in ways that go against the public interest? How can practitioners determine whether a system is appropriate for the task and whether it remains appropriate over time?

(Hessie Jones, Forbes)

Google announced last week that, because of Brexit, the data of their UK users would now be stored in the USA. Should existing users not like this, they could, of course stop using Google’s services. Except, of course, that products and services provided by trillion-dollar companies are almost indispensable to modern-day life.

As a result, we need to do things differently; this is where MoodleNet comes in. We need to design products and services that companies relying on surveillance capitalism are unable or unwilling to copy.

Adoption of a decentralized web cannot play by the old rules. New experiences and interactions that are outside of current norms needs to appeal to individual values, that enable trust and ease of adoption. Pulling users away from convention is not an easy task.

(Hessie Jones, Forbes)

To use a Star Wars metaphor, one way of thinking about this is that we are using tools provided by the Galactic Empire, when we should be resourcing and tooling-up the Rebel Alliance. Doing so goes beyond mere ‘elegant consumption’ and returns the web into the hands of its users.

While it’s still early days, for at least a decade many players have chosen to become part of this movement to fix the issues that increasing centralization has created. From Diaspora to Bit Torrent, a growing list of technologies continue to develop alternatives for the DWeb: for storage, social nets, communication and collaboration apps, database, cryptocurrencies, etc.

(Hessie Jones, Forbes)

While the main reasons educators may want to use MoodleNet are based on its usefulness to them in an everyday context, we’re pleased to be contributing to a wider mission. While AI can be useful when used appropriately, nothing beats human interaction within communities for the recommendation of resources and approaches to empower educators and improve teaching and learning!

New year, and a (familiar) new home for our discussion forum!

moodle.org

Back when we started the MoodleNet project, we kept the discussion forum on moodle.org separate to the main ‘Moodle in English’ forum. That was to prevent any confusion with previous iterations of moodle.net. Now that we’ve sunsetted that old project, it makes sense to include MoodleNet as a subforum of the main English Moodle forum.

We’ve now moved the existing MoodleNet forum, complete with all posts and replies to be a sub-forum of the Moodle in English forum.

The direct URL for the new location is https://moodle.org/mod/forum/view.php?id=8657 (or the easier-to-remember bit.ly/MN-discussion)

See below for a visual guide on how to access the location of the new sub-forum. We look forward to welcoming you to the new home for our MoodleNet discussions!

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MoodleNet in 2019: a retrospective

Retrospective

Intro

This year, MoodleNet has gone from a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to a more sophisticated beta, which is now ready to be tested as a federated platform. Along the way, hundreds of people have had the opportunity to test various versions of MoodleNet, to get involved in various ways (such as localisation), and to give their input into its future direction.

We’ve collaborated with a number of organisations and individuals outside Moodle HQ, most notably Eummena, a new Moodle Partner, who have added to the resource and energy available to the MoodleNet project. We’ve also had input from 3ipunt around plugin development, and many conversations with other Moodle Partners who are keen to get involved in 2020.

In last year’s retrospective, we explained that building a federated network like MoodleNet takes time. While ActivityPub-based alternatives to services such as Twitter (Mastodon and Pleroma), Instagram (Pixelfed), YouTube (PeerTube) exist, and more are being developed, MoodleNet is one of the first social networks to reimagine social networking from the ground-up for this particular audience. We want to empower educators by them creating and joining communities to engage in discussions with one another and curate resources.   

Interestingly, Twitter seems to have realised the importance and power of federation, announcing a dedicated team to explore ways in which their platform can become decentralised. As we have often argued, the design of platforms and algorithms, as well as content moderation should happen for and with communities, instead of being controlled by a faceless corporation, potentially headquartered many thousands of miles away. So if Twitter is serious about this initiative we invite them to adopt the ActivityPub web standard and join the Fediverse!

This, then, is the story of MoodleNet in 2019. It’s been quite the adventure.

Q1: Testing the value proposition

We began the year in January with a core team of Doug Belshaw (Product Manager), Mayel de Borniol (Technical Architect), Ivan Minutillo (UX Designer & Front-end Developer), and Alex Castaño (Backend Developer). By the end of January we had begun testing the value proposition of MoodleNet with those who had signed up. Volunteer contributors helped to get MoodleNet translated into a number of languages, which we then tested with English and Spanish speakers.

Gaining feedback from testers, we evolved MoodleNet during the first testing period so that by early February, MoodleNet looked like this:

MoodleNet UI (Feb 2019)

The question representing our value proposition was “Do educators want to join communities to curate collections of resources?”. After several surveys and lots of conversations, it appeared that, even from the initial version we presented to users during the first testing period, yes they did!

We iterated from version 0.3 in late February, to 0.5 in early March, and 0.7 by the end of that month. During that time, the second testing period demonstrated that users wanted a way of being able to distinguish the good from the bad in terms of resources, so we published an in-depth post exploring rating systems. In that post we shared the following diagram, commenting that ‘quality’ is subjective, and how we are interested in providing “the shortest path to the best resources”. 

Educational resources triangle

We learned a lot from testing MoodleNet’s value proposition, and most importantly confirmed we were on the right track. The tagline ‘Share. Curate. Discuss.’ was chosen based on what resonated the most among testers, and we ended up with a very clear list of priorities for future development.

Q2: Iterating and learning

In the second quarter of 2019, our focus was on ensuring that the version of MoodleNet we delivered met and, if possible, exceeded people’s expectations from the beginning. At this point, each MoodleNet installation was a standalone ‘silo’; in other words, it could not federate with other MoodleNet instances. 

While we worked on federation on the backend, we made iterative improvements to the front-end in April and May with versions 0.9 alpha, v0.9.1 alpha, v0.9.2 alpha, and v0.9.3 alpha. At the same time, we thought carefully about how to make search in MoodleNet a useful and delightful experience, as well as the best approach to categorising resources and collections. 

MoodleNet UI (May 2019)

At the UK & Ireland MoodleMoot we ran a workshop where five emergent groups looked at MoodleNet from various perspectives. Our wiki page for the event captures the feedback we received from the ‘Online course design’, ‘Institutional use’, ‘Learning and teaching’, ‘Technology’, and ‘UX’ groups. Although this was very positive, we noticed some concerns around telling the difference between Communities and Collections, as well as the way discussion threads were organised.

In May we attended the Creative Commons Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. We did not run a session this time, instead networking with other projects, including OER World Map, Wikidata, and CC Search. In fact, our conversations with the OER World Map project directly benefited our approach to categorisation.

Towards the end of Q2 we said goodbye to Alex, and hello to Karen and James. We were delighted to have been able to attract and employ two such high-quality candidates, particularly to help with the challenges we faced around implementing federation.

We had a new page about MoodleNet arriving on moodle.com, but wanted to re-use the moodle.net domain for the main project website, so it was important that we set about sunsetting the existing service. In June, we worked with the Moodle Community team to formulate a plan which they then carried out perfectly over the following months. 

New moodle.com/moodlenet

We finished work on the first draft of MoodleNet’s Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) and made it available for community consultation. This process, which we went through with Carlo Polizzi, Moodle’s Privacy Officer (as well as Simon McGarr, Moodle’s external Data Protection Officer and Legal Counsel), really helped us clarify the data workflows using a ‘privacy by design’ approach.

Q3: Rewriting all the things

While James and Karen got up-to-speed in June, Mayel prototyped a plugin for Moodle LMS, and Ivan took some time to redesign the front-end user experience. By the end of the month we had mock-ups ready of the new, much more conversational interface that makes the relationship between Communities and Collections much clearer. In July we did the additional work necessary to turn this into a clickable prototype, which we tested out with users.

It was around this time that we realised that we were going to have to change the database structure and rewrite much of the backend code in order for MoodleNet to be able federate while also providing a snappy UX on the front-end. This was not a small undertaking, but we were nevertheless optimistic about the amount of time this would take. Eummena, a new Moodle Partner, decided to support the MoodleNet team by hiring a full-time backend developer in the form of Antonis Kalou. He’s been working very closely with our team ever since. 

Somewhat implausibly, looking back, we announced that the federation testing programme would start in August! Of course, making predictions around these kinds of things is hard.

MoodleNet Discover page

Given the backend developers would be busy with the rewrite, we decided to turn the new conversational UI into code. The first version of this was ready by the end of August.

In preparation for the federation testing programme, and because of wider problems in the Fediverse around decentralised moderation, we created a draft user agreement and covenant for instance administrators. We also clarified our position around the licenses users would be able to select when uploading resources to MoodleNet. 

In September, based on some feedback from the community, we reasserted the project’s stance on ‘free speech’ issues in the context of wider debates about and across social networks. We also revisited considerations around metadata and the way ‘likes’ and ‘boosts’ would work across federated instances.

Q4: Crunch time

By the time we got to October, whilst the backend refactor was in full swing, the MoodleNet servers were still running the new front-end with an old (unfederated) backend. That needed to change as soon as possible given the upcoming Global MoodleMoot, where we wanted to start federation testing and give people the ability to sign-up and start using an instance run by Moodle HQ.

At this point, Alessandro Giansanti joined us for a few weeks as a front-end developer to help us during crunch time. As a member of ZO (a cooperative he’s formed with existing team members Ivan and Mayel), he’s now also part of our team and we’ve really benefited from his energy and experience. Eummena also funded a front-end developer who has been helping Ivan and Alessandro. 

MoodleNet sign-in page

MoodleNet sign-in page

As the Moot approached, we asked for some feedback from the community around resource uploading in MoodleNet, and we started to think beyond the beta for our 2020 roadmap. 

At the start of November we were still planning to start federation testing in some form at the Global Moot. However, despite the team working late into the night for several days before demo day, we didn’t manage to have a fully working version ready by the time Doug and Mayel took to the stage, so we simply showed screenshots instead. The main challenge, as we explained in our reflections on what happened, was resolving the small but numerous breaking changes in GraphQL API to get the frontend working correctly with the shiny new backend.

After taking some time off to recover from an intense period of work, the team have regrouped in December and resolved the remaining broken functionality in MoodleNet. There’s many more features and improvements we want to work on, but the core MoodleNet functionality is now ready and hooked up with federation. We’ve even already had an initial external security review done, which showed no major problems. All in all – as we said in our recent ALT Online Winter Conference session – we’re actually in pretty good shape going into 2020.

Final thoughts

Reflecting on mid 2019 in particular, it’s evident that we lost a bit of momentum for a while. Some of that couldn’t be helped because of the nature of the problems we had to solve, but we certainly could do a better job of estimating (or avoid trying to estimate altogether) how long it would take. We’ve fed these realisation into our thinking and planning for next year.

The team is particularly looking forward to users getting their hands on the new, federated, version of MoodleNet. We’re excited about the amount of power and flexibility we’re putting into the hands of educators, and can’t wait to see what individuals and organisations do with MoodleNet in 2020!

Welcome Alessandro, new MoodleNet front-end developer!

The MoodleNet team is delighted to welcome Alessandro Giansanti who will be working on front-end development. Ale’s based in Italy and will be working between two and four days on MoodleNet!

Alessandro and family
Alessandro and family

We would love to hear a bit about your work history?

My life followed roughly a square wave path between coding and music/entertainment:

  • from 8 years old hacking on C64 basic
  • from 15 rock guitar and recording studio
  • from 23 Java consultant
  • from 26 projectionist in cinemas, audio technician in national tv broadcasting, and photographer
  • from 34 steadily restarded coding, firstly as freelancer on e-commerce and websites
  • then, from 2011, I got totally passionate with Javascript.

Early adopter of the MEAN stack, I worked full-stack on different projects: geographic map based applications for automotive businesses, online sport gaming, and blockchain based authentication applications.

What do you love about what you do?

“I love it when a plan comes together” (John “Hannibal” Smith)

I love aiming at the realization of ideally crystal-shaped architectures and implementations and then, back down-to-earth, understanding which is the most efficient compromise to adopt. A well implemented system (and not one of “just make it work”) means happier coders – current and future – happy to work and expand it, and therefore happier and satisfied users. Furthermore, software is a means to implement human activities, so I, as a coder and a human, am happy when I can participate in the realization of some positive ones.

What are your interests outside of work?

Playing noisy improvised funk-rock with my band and with whoever wants to join the jam!

Where is your favourite place in the world, and why?

The whole our World is fantastic. If you look closely, you will see your home is fantastic too, take care of it.

Recording of ALT Online Winter Conference session

It was our pleasure to present in a session entitled MoodleNet: federated, resource-centric social networking for educators at the ALT Online Winter Conference yesterday. The presentation was similar to the one from the Global Moot, with Doug Belshaw, Mayel de Borniol, and Alessandro Giansanti explaining to participants the research behind MoodleNet, the benefits it provides, and how they can get involved.

There were a number of interesting questions on a range of topics including interoperability, privacy, and accessibility. Many thanks to all who came along!

If you have any questions as a result of watching the recording, please do add them to the comments section below.