About Baynard Bailey

Academic Computing Consultant

Moodle Site Revamp in Three Easy Stages: Part 2 of 3 – Elegant Design Architecture

Building Elegant Instructional Design Architecture with Moodle Web Pages

by Baynard Bailey

In Part I of this series, I focused on the preliminary stages of revamping a Moodle site. The major steps included backing up your materials, culling unnecessary files, and choosing a course design that fits your teaching style (for most that means choosing a ‘topical’ or ‘weekly’ format). In this post, I hope to provide some tips to empower your Moodle site to enhance student understanding of the overall  arc and flow of the course.

Many of the Moodle sites I see suffer from ‘sprawl’ or ‘bloat’. The site starts out fine, but by the end of the semester, especially for courses that meet more than once a week, the length of the front page stretches on for screen after screen. Scrolling to the bottom of the page (the current week) can take a minute or more, and sifting through past weeks’ materials and activities is tedious. Why put up with this, when you can have an elegantly designed Moodle site that better reflects the structure and scope of your curriculum? Consider putting topics, class meetings or weeks into their own “web pages” within Moodle. The resulting front page of your Moodle site will be an elegant summary of the major topics of your course, easily navigable, and an aid to learning.

Compose a Web Page Screen Shot

Creating web pages makes elegant Moodle site design easy.

It is easy to overlook  the “Compose a web page” resource tool, especially when one is first using Moodle. But if you are revamping a course, this resource choice is worth serious consideration. Composing Moodle web pages provides instructors ample room to provide detailed directions for class activities without adding unnecessary sprawl to the front page of your course site. I will use some examples from a recent consult I had with Molly Shanley.

Molly wanted to meet because she had taught a course Poli Sci 278 before, using Blackboard. She was now getting ready to build her site in Moodle and wanted tips for building sites for Moodle courses that met biweekly. She had a syllabus that was 90% complete. I decided I would try and sell her on the idea of using Moodle web pages to help structure her course.

We built a few of the first class meetings with a web page for each meeting. This really reduced front page sprawl, especially in regards to the some of the early class meetings, which contained comprehensive directions and details. We discussed how this approach allowed the main topics of the course to stay afloat at the top level of the site, becoming a sort of topical outline for the semester. Students would be able to easily discern the arc of the course, and to place the topic for each class within that arc. At the same time, the full details for readings and assignments could be accessed quickly and easily. We were happy with the results so we copied and pasted the syllabus outline and fleshed out the bulk of the course.

Outline for Part of the Course

Each Class Becomes a "Branch" of the Course Outline (Draft Syllabus)

Here’s a sample “Moodle Web Page”, found by clicking on the corresponding link from the outline above:

Sample course meeting

Copying and Pasting Yielded Excellent Results

Since Molly had a well developed syllabus, it was a straightforward mechanical process to paste the details into a corresponding structure in her Moodle site. The front page of her Moodle site became an outline of the entire course. Each class meetings’ corresponding web page will contain detailed information about readings, activities and assignments. Building the design of your course into a corresponding visual and textual pattern in Moodle is excellent instructional design, facilitating the learning and teaching process.

Look forward to Part III where we’ll complete the Moodle site revamping process.


Moodle Site Revamp in Three Easy Stages: Part 1 of 3

by Baynard Bailey

Moodle sites are living breathing documents that evolve as the semester progresses. When push comes to shove during the semester’s crunch, one thing shoved is often an effective course site design. Thankfully, the semester ends and the mess goes away. But when it comes time to teach that course again, it is a good opportunity to revamp that course site. What to do first? Where to start? I hope to walk readers through some of the major steps and processes that will facilitate an effective instructional re-design of a course site.

Currently at Vassar, we are working with Moodle version 1.9.7 so my instructions are tailored to that, but I hope that some of the broader strategies could be applied to any Learning Management System.

In order to provide the best advice possible, I decided I would actually help revamp a site. I reached out to my friend and colleague Karen Robertson and offered to assist her in redesigning her Moodle site for Women’s Studies 240: Constructing Gender. The site was a good candidate for revamping. Prior to last year, it had been team-taught, so Karen had inherited the site and had yet to really “move in”. Last spring’s site contained a wealth of great materials, but the organization could be altered to improve the presentation. Karen warmly received my idea and so we met last week.

Mini Zen Garden

Good Instructional Design Reduces Cognitive Load

I had the goal to design a neat site with a clean and uncluttered look and feel (and then to share the strategies employed in our ACS blog). Karen and I discussed why it was important to keep an uncluttered appearance to the front page of the Moodle site. She reminded me that our goal was to develop a clear and easy to use site in order to reduce labor and cognitive load.

Step 1: Back up your old materials.

Before we began, we backed up the old site. Additionally, we printed out a copy of the main page so we could have a visual map of the old site. We also printed out lists of readings in the file areas so Karen could go through them on her own.

Step 2: Take stock of your current materials. Delete duplicates and unnecessary items (first pass).

We went through the site week by week, deleting unused assignments and various items that had been used in the past but were unnecessary now. Bear in mind, we didn’t go through all of her readings, we just deleted the “low hanging fruit”.

Step 3: Choose a style of course design that fits your teaching style

This is a big step. Karen and I discussed the pros and cons of topics versus weeks (these are the two most commonly used settings in Moodle). Topics are great in that users can choose to have as many or as few topics as fit their curriculum. Weeks are useful in that the dates are auto-created and visually correspond right away to the semester’s calendar.  Karen pointed out that some topics are much longer than others, and that weeks often bridge topics. She emphasized the importance of making it absolutely clear to students what was expected each class.

On my end, I wanted to avoid Moodle “sprawl”. Every time you add a topic or a week, it adds a space to a course site. Sometimes faculty use the “Topics” setting, and then create a topic for each time the class meets or just about any other reason. To make matters worse, faculty often include extensive directions in labels right there on the front page of the site. The end result is a Moodle site that is about ten feet long, difficult to navigate, and a hindrance for faculty and students alike. To avoid “sprawl”, I showed Karen how we could put in extensive and precise directions as a “web page” resource for each topic. Since the directions were web pages, we could even include links to readings, assignments, activities, or anything else we had in Moodle.

Generally, faculty have an excellent sense of the arc of a course and a strong understanding of the intended learning goals for the semester. How well those concepts are communicated in Moodle is a mixture of teaching style and sometimes fluency with Moodle. I wanted to provide Karen a tool that would allow her to describe the arc of the course in a glance, but also allow flexibility and specificity in terms of readings and class activities as the semester evolved. The end result was a compromise between “topics” and “weeks”; we would use the “topics” setting, but provide specific directions and links for each class meeting.

I thought we were done there, as determining the arc of the course would require some deep thinking, but luckily, Karen had already done the deep thinking and quickly summed up the major topics of the course:

  • Feminism and Pop Culture
  • Secret Life of Commodities
  • Visual Pleasure: Hollywood and the Gaze
  • The Romantic Industrial Complex
  • Postermaking

Our next steps would include organizing the files area to best fit the instructional design. As part of our conversation, we had made a prototype topic for the first few classes.

Topic Prototype

Our Topic "Prototype" Keeps the Main Page Simple

I offered to continue to make placeholders for the rest of course. Karen would review the reading list in preparation for our next meeting. It had been a really productive consult with good feelings on both sides. I looked forward to our next meeting.

To be continued…


Don’t Assume Too Much: Teaching the ‘Digital Natives’

by Baynard Bailey

In Academic Computing Services, we supervise a number of students that are truly experts in multimedia production in a variety of forms. They continually wow us with their outstanding project work. The students create remarkable multimedia in a variety of forms (video, web sites, sound projects etc.). Based on these wonderful projects, it would be easy for us to believe that all college students possess this remarkable level of digital fluency. Faculty that have also been ‘wowed’ by student digital projects could be lured to into making this assumption as well.

According to the British Journal of Education Technology article, The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence, despite students’ nearly 100% fluency in email, word processing and web surfing, “only a minority of the (students 21%) were engaged in creating their own content and multimedia for the Web, and that a significant proportion of students had lower level skills than might be expected of digital natives.” My experience working with Vassar students confirms this conclusion. Despite being very facile with computers, most students need guidance and support when it gets to the nitty-gritty of multimedia production, whether it is video editing or posting to WordPress.

[media id=1 width=400 height=300]

Alex Levy's ability to create beautiful video is the exception, not the norm.

If an assignment for class requires students to create some kind of media that isn’t a standard part of the course (like a podcast, movie, poster, website or digital story), arrange for mandatory skills training for the students. I’ve witnessed the best results when the workshops are scheduled as part of class time. In a pinch, arrangements can be made for something outside of class, though I’d encourage making it required. My experience is that if something is optional for students, they will opt not to come (and regret it later). In general, the students  have a tendency to overestimate their own digital production abilities, and then find themselves ‘stuck’ later on (e.g. two weeks after the workshop) when support is not available. At the very least, students should be put in contact with someone who can provide one-on-one help. Providing skill training as part of the curriculum will empower all students to have their best chances for success.


10 Tips to get the most out of your class blog

by Baynard Bailey

Last week was jam-packed as I provided workshops for seven different Vassar classes, introducing multimedia technologies for different projects. Five of those classes’ projects were using WordPress. It made me think— Some of these class blogs will flourish and some will wither and die. Why? What makes the difference? Here are some old-school tips to get the most out of your class’s WordPress site.

Faculty Investment:

1. Discuss expectations

When beginning to use WordPress, have a discussion with your students outlining your learning goals for the site. Provide clear guidelines and timelines for posting content. Discuss how you will grade their WordPress-published work. If the site is going to be public, have a talk about appropriate content and confidentiality. WordPress knowledge unfolds over time, so you may  want to let them know that it is a work in progress and that you look forward to their input on how to best incorporate the site into the work of the class.

2. Contribute content

Make your own contributions to the site in terms of page or post content. Modeling is an extremely influential teaching tool and I fear too often neglected, especially when it comes to technology.

3. Grade

It’s blunt, but effective. Assign an appropriate percentage of the class grade to reflect writing published on the WordPress site. Keep in mind that writing can be in the form of page content, posts and comments.

Promoting High-Quality Dynamic Online Discussion (AKA Scripting Spontaneity)

4. Vary “posting” with “commenting”

If every student is posting critical responses to the weekly reading assignments, who is left to read the blog? Mix it up a little bit. For larger classes, half can post one week, and then read and provide comments the next. You could try having one student being responsible for an excellent post, and then the entire class reads and responds.

5. Write your prompts carefully

A little extra time spent on crafting a great prompt can make for more meaningful responses, or varied responses. No one wants to read thirty responses all saying the same thing.

6. Participate

Project a presence into to your class’s blog by making comments to posts. Paraphrase and/or cite the best ideas in the classroom itself. Some faculty like to make printouts ahead of class and cite them during discussion. I think this is a fantastic technique. Students will get the message very quickly that their intellectual work published to WordPress is valuable.

7. Share with the world

Students will generally write better content when they are writing for a broader audience (campus, friends, family, the world etc.). Set your privacy settings to provide access to everyone and to be “Google-able”. (Hint: Be sure to discuss this with the students.) Invite participation from beyond the campus through guest posts or comments. (Turn commenting on). Recognize student efforts that result in community interaction.


Site Design

8. Consult with your ACS liaison

WordPress is customizable and extensible. Make sure it is working the way you want it to by contacting your ACS liaison. We can help you make your instructional technology dreams come true.

9. Recruit a student to administer your site

Ask your class if there’s someone with experience running their own blog. Chances are, there is. If you have a good relationship with that student, recruit them to help you administer the site. ACS is happy to provide training for students and research assistants.

10. Make your site user-friendly

Can on- and off-campus users find the content that is being published to your site? Imagine you’ve never been to the site. Does it make sense? Be sure to include widgets that make your site easy to use. Add a button so users can follow your blog with email subscriptions or an RSS reader. Include a link to the dashboard so blog contributers can log in easily. Add the Search widget to make your site search-able. Spend some time working on menus and structure so your site is easy to navigate.


Best Free Software for Vassar Faculty (& Others)

by Baynard Bailey

Recently, Pete Naegele shared via a NITLE mailing list an article titled “101 Free Alternatives to Commonly Used Paid Software“. I thought people might not have time to review all 101, so I’m cherry picking those I find most suitable for Vassar faculty. (Note: I’m also only picking things that are options for Windows AND OSX users.)


Google Mail

Google mail syncs with practically every email system out there. It’s a great client. It can handle multiple accounts and will automatically reply with the email account you pick. The Google search-ability and portability is unmatched. A Gmail account also opens the door for a whole host of applications they offer (Google Docs, Google Calendar, YouTube, Google Reader, the list goes on….) They’ve just released a new priority In Box feature that helps you deal with get control of your In box. Amazing! If you don’t have a Google account already, what are you waiting for?


Thunderbird is a cross-platform open-source mail client that works great. It even comes on Linux.

Office Programs

Google Docs (as an alternative to Microsoft Office)

Google Docs has the core programs of Micros, such as word processing, spreadsheets and calendars, and not only is it free, but it can be accessed anywhere thanks to cloud computing. You can also edit documents simultaneously with collaborators and/or publish to the internet. The online form enables you to collect data via email or websites, with instantly graphed results. Stop emailing documents to yourself and join us in the clouds.

OpenOffice (as an alternative to Microsoft Office)

As an open source office suite, Open Office allows for the utilization of the best office programs online such as word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics and databases. User contributions can be made to the project, which means that it is constantly growing and evolving.


An easy and efficient way to store, share and sync your files, Dropbox is a cloud service that allows users to access their files anywhere in the world. Very popular!

Website and Application Building

WordPress icon


WordPress is a simple and easy way to publish to the Internet. It can handle simple static sites or more complex sites. Faculty and students working with faculty can request a WordPress site hosted by Vassar here. Training and support available from ACS.


Free and open source web browser, customizable with tons of great add-ons. Empower your browsing!

Graphics / Photo Editing

GIMP (as an alternative to Adobe Photoshop)

Also known as the GNU Image Manipulation Program, GIMP allows for easy image composition, retouching and photo authoring. It also works on all operating systems. It does just about everything you need in Photoshop.

Flickr (online image collection and management)

Flickr is a great way to store photos and to share photos. It also comes with a whole suite of plug-ins and functionality. If you like to take digital pictures, you’ll instantly like and later fall deeply in love with Flickr. The free one is great and the professional upgrade (with unlimited storage!) is only $25.00 a year. It was developed by a Vassar grad! If you need uncopyrighted images, remember to visit the Flickr Creative Commons.

Audio & Video

VLC (video player and light video editor)

A player that is capable of playing almost every file and media codec, the VLC player means that you don’t have to open and close different programs to run DVDs, VCDs, CDs, web streams and other forms of media. Especially great at creating screenshots from DVDs or videos.

Audacity (sound editing)

Audacity allows for easy recording and editing of sound files, as well as the conversion of tapes and other media formats.

iTunes and iTunes U

Not everyone can go to college, but everyone who has a computer can access iTunes U. Filled with subscribe-able podcasts and video podcasts on every subject imaginable. The media can be played on phones, computers, .mp3 players, or i-anything. If you are interested in developing content for Vassar’s iTunes U, please email me (babailey [@] vassar.edu).


"The fabulous voice system able to put your family together.” Designed by advertising agency Moma"

"Skype: the fabulous voice system able to put your family together.” Ad designed by advertising agency Moma

Voip (voice over IP) service to make free computer to computer calls, or cheap computer to phone calls. Very popular amongst those who like to make calls overseas.


Hulu is a front runner of online video services. Their tagline is “watch your favorites, anytime, for free.” If you missed that last week’s episode of “The Office” and don’t have a DVR, this is the site for you. They have a bevvy of free content or you can pay a modest fee for upgraded services. Embed their player right in your Moodle site!


Great program for ripping clips off DVDs. See my post on Good News for Clip Rippers. Learn how to use Handbrake here.

Also available for Windows.

Let us know if you (at Vassar) need help with any of these programs!


Quick and Easy Screencasting

Why should a professor care about screencasting?

by Baynard Bailey

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. How many words is a video worth? Sometimes the best way to teach people something is to just show them. But what if I need to show students or project collaborators something now, but I won’t see them for five days? What if I need to teach them a procedure but I don’t want to repeat myself a thousand times? What if I want to create instructional materials that can be accessed independently on demand, this year and the next? One answer to these questions is screencasting.

A screencast is a video recording of one’s computer screen. Educators can use them to create instructional materials. They are also popular as a mode for technical support. To illustrate the concept, here’s a short screencast I made to show Vassar faculty how to add images to labels in Moodle:

I like tools that are easy to use and free. Here are a few popular sites that offer free screencasting utilities:

All of these require users to create an account. If you want to narrate your screencasts, make sure your computer has a microphone. Most laptops these days are sold with video cameras and microphones included.

If you are really into the idea of screencasting and want more control over the recording and editing possibilities, here are a couple of professional grade programs that are outstanding:

  • ScreenFlow – $99 http://www.telestream.net/screen-flow/overview.htm This is the Cadillac of screencasting utilities, in my opinion (mac-only). I’ve tried a bunch and I like this one the best. Below is a sample video that I used for training purposes that includes some of the interesting editing techniques possible with Screenflow (zooming, enhanced clicking graphics and sounds, callouts etc.):

FCP Training 04 Three Point Edit from Baynard on Vimeo.

To see video in its context, please visit it on the training wiki I created.

  • Camtasia Studio – $299 http://www.techsmith.com/camtasia.asp Virtually synonymous with the idea of screencasting; this is the most popular application out there. Now available on macs and PC. This is a very popular program because it is a very high quality program with a rich feature set.

Screencasts can provide valuable technical training that is can be used over and over. Lectures could be captured for students to refer back for later contemplation. Screencasts can free up precious class time. The utilization of screencasts is only limited by your imagination. For a rapid-fire summary of ways screencasts can be used in higher ed, I offer this quote from facdevblog:

Screencasts have been applied in a number of innovative ways in higher education including capturing lectures, conducting website tours, software and database training, demonstrating library functions, and providing feedback to students. Regarding feedback, students can benefit greatly as faculty can review portions of students’ submitted assignments on-screen, highlight specific areas of text, and give his or her audio feedback on the students’ assignments. Students can view the recorded feedback at their convenience and follow-up with questions via email or face-to-face.  Faculty can also assign students to develop their own screencast episodes for certain course activities.

ACS is happy to provide consultation or training in order to include screencasting into your teaching practices.


Good News for Clip Rippers

Library of Congress image courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Library_of_Congress_from_North.JPGby Baynard Bailey

This past summer, the Library of Congress issued a number of exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), one of which made it legal for academics to rip clips from DVDs, for use in their teaching or publishing.

Since June of 2009, Vassar has had a streaming media server that can deliver video clips to Moodle (and more recently to WordPress). The Wowza software streams video content quickly and beautifully anywhere on campus (best if using a wired connection). We were very excited to share this technology with the faculty, especially faculty members who work extensively with video. Faculty members who used our streaming server delighted in having the resources available via Moodle. The videos look great viewed on laptops or desktop machines. Streaming from Moodle during class made for a convenient teaching situation as there was no need to switch video sources or fumble with DVD or VHS controls. ACS envisioned a radical transformation of the Library Reserve desk where students could watch and re-watch films for class, on demand, and at their leisure. Students would not be tied down to three-hour reserve deadlines (or finding the video already signed out). Faculty members wouldn’t be troubled trying to arrange screenings for classes. The on-demand streaming video revolution that has transformed the outside world via Netflix and Hulu would now come to our campus!

DVD being interted into a laptop

Unfortunately, our fanciful visions melted to clouds of despair as UCLA came under attack from the Association for Information and Media Equipment. AIME’s accusations of copyright violation caused UCLA to suspend its streaming video service while they worked out the legal dispute. Educational institutions from all over the U.S. paid close attention, including Vassar. ACS had to reconsider how to inform the faculty about Vassar’s streaming media server, as our new policy restricted how we stream copyrighted material. There were more than a few awkward conversations with faculty members who had grown quite fond of our Wowza server, not to mention their concern about the time and effort put into curating video resources for their classes.

Since this summer, when it comes to clips, ACS can once again legally stream video ripped from DVDs. The Library of Congress exemptions impacted a number of areas, but the proviso that impacts scholars ripping DVDs reads as follows:

(1) Motion pictures on DVDs that are lawfully made and acquired and that are protected by the Content Scrambling System when circumvention is accomplished solely in order to accomplish the incorporation of short portions of motion pictures into new works for the purpose of criticism or comment, and where the person engaging in circumvention believes and has reasonable grounds for believing that circumvention is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the use in the following instances:

(i)  Educational uses by college and university professors and by college and university film and media studies students;
(ii) Documentary filmmaking;
(iii) Noncommercial videos.

In summary, clip-ripping portions of DVDs for academic fair use is legal. All previous laws and guidelines about the sharing of copyrighted material remain; what is new is that educators are no longer banned from the act of ripping materials from a copy-protected DVD. It is also legal for documentary filmmakers and creators of video not intending to make profit. If you are interested in learning how to rip clips yourself, I recommend this great guide for ripping DVD. You can also contact your ACS liaison for assistance in curating clips and how best to use them in your teaching.

If you’d like to learn more about how the recent exemptions impact the flow of information and pedagogy in the 21st century, I recommend this interview with Abigail De Kosnik, Gary Handman and Mark Kaiser of University of California, Berkeley.