Using Moodle to support an online conference

Despite being an education technologist of sorts since 2005 there’s one, almost compulsory badge of honour that has eluded me. Or I’ve been avoiding.

And it’s Moodle.

JISC e-Learning Online Conference Homepage

JISC e-Learning Online Conference Homepage

This is the first year that Netskills has managed all the online systems for JISC’s Innovating e-Learning conference. We’ve hosted the Blackboard Collaborate/Elluminate platform for a while but the website which hosted the resources and asynchronous discussions was previously managed by Geoff Minshull.

The planning team wanted this to be provided on a Moodle platform. Despite briefly dabbling with it while in Sheffield it’s been a foreign country to me.

As it’s bread and butter to so many other learning technologists I’ve felt like it’s one key bit of knowledge that I should know more about. The conference gave me a chance to get familiar with it.

That’s not to say I’m now a skilled Moodler. The reason the site worked as well as it did was down to Jon Agland at JISC RSC Wales’s hosting arrangements, Simon Fitzpatrick’s knowledge of structuring an effective site and Steve Boneham‘s expertise with HTML and CSS. An honourable mention also has to go to Ralph Holland at South Tyneside College for talking sense to me when I was getting stuck with user management.

The best thing about Moodle seems to be the people!

In the end we had a site that was an effective and easily navigable home for the conference resources, discussion forums and links to live sessions.

Showing the activity

As the whole conference was online it was especially important to create a site that showed that an event was in progress. There was plenty of participant activity on the site in the discussion forums and blogs but these were taking place several steps in. The front page needed to reflect  the activity too. At a live conference people are all in the same place, so you have them captive to an extent. The risk is, online, if people aren’t aware of that buzz of activity they wander off and do all the other things that demand their attention.

Some of the things we had in place to do this were:

  • a Moodle side bar block showing users who are currently online. If you can see other people are around it feels like an event. It also makes it easy to contact people by the Moodle messaging system.
  • Twitter stream in the side bar. Creating a Twitter widget for the side bar meant we easily bring in the conversation that was happening on that platform and bring it into ours.
  • A what’s on box. Simply a manually updated HTML box in the side bar showing the sessions that were happing that day with links to get quickly to the resources and links to live sessions. It would have been great to have this updated automatically but it wasn’t too much hassle to change.
  • Keeping the main block of text up to date. The main part of the page was some explanatory text about the conference structure. We changed this from time to time to highlight current activities and also to showcase some of the artwork that was being produced by Joel Cooper to highlight some of the conference’s emerging themes.
  • RSS feeds from the conference blogs. James Clay was the conference guest blogger and was posting very frequently. The interpretation he was putting on the conference was part of the glue that help the event together so having this visible on the home page was essential.

A bridge between Moodle and Collaborate

We considered using the plugin that creates a bridge between Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate early on but decided against using it. This was mainly for practical reasons. The bridge means that Moodle can create individual sessions in Collaborate that are only accessible to people registered to the conference. Recordings are instantly linked to once they have processed which would have saved me one of the most frequent tasks during the event. In the end though there was flexibility in just having one live session that remained open all through the conference as well as resilience should Moodle have failed us. There was a single session URL so people could bookmark this and access it without Moodle.

The Collaborate Bridge would be a great tool if we were running a course but for an event like the conference it was less of an advantage.

In the end, the manual process  of waiting for the session recordings to process before manually adding the links to the relevant pages only took about 15 mins or so from each session’s close. Not bad going really.

For next year I’d like to be able to put into place some of the other more social features we thought about early on. The main one was creating a blog of blogs where participants can flag up their own external blog posts using tags, widening the conversation further that the Moodle discussion forums and Twitter. How people are encouraged to participate in that is another matter.

A human face: the killer feature

Of course, if you want to have a conference where participants feel like they are being supported by humans the important thing is to talk to them. If someone was having a problem either with Moodle I tried as much as possible to either phone them or message them through Moodle. This meant problems got sorted out faster and prevented a frustrating backwards and forwards email conversation that meant people missed out on live sessions while they waited for a fix.

We were fortunate that the stability of the site and the planning we’d done meant that there weren’t many problems, so dealing with each individually was possible. If we hadn’t had this the 2 weeks of the conferenwould have been a very different experience for Netskills and the participants!

Netskills were also present in the dicsussion forums, live session chats and blogs so hopefully we didn’t seem just like a distant support desk, but had an interest in the conference too.

I also thought it was important show participants the faces of the people they had been supported by. James Clay was good enough to let me do a guest blog post on the support side and I made sure we had a nice pic of smiling Netskills faces which I think people appreciated given the tweets and comments in the forums afterwards.

The Netskills conference support team

L-R: Christina Hunter, Phil Swinhoe, Chris Thomson, Steve Boneham and Simon Fitzpatrick

What next?

Well the dust is still yet to settle so there are no concrete plans for the future yet.

But one of the things we’re going to have a play with is whether WordPress would be an alternative platform for hosting online conferences.