Wednesday, October 24, 2007

VSO’s experiences in setting up Moodle

By Leonie Meijerink, VSO

It can be challenging for VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteers to access adequate learning support once they are in their placements. Conditions in the field are constantly changing and volunteers need support that is flexible, adaptable, and timely. To maximise our support in the field, VSO’s International Training Team has been working on a strategy called CLIC (Continuous Learning in Country). The strategy is a combination of building an online learning environment and a face to face implementation strategy.

Distance modules and e-courses are part of a repertoire of blended learning methods designed to let volunteers access information at their own pace, and to maximize the distribution of shared learning. VSO has selected Moodle as our online learning environment. Moodle was selected because it supports low bandwidth and has a lot of social and interactive features. At the same time we will be making Moodle available offline on USB sticks so that volunteers who do not have easy access to Internet can still benefit from it.

In November 2007 we will launch Moodle to our volunteers. Moodle will contain online modules that feature information exchange forums and home-grown "wikis". We will also experiment the use of wikis to find other volunteers with similar expertise areas, and to share videos via YouTube links. We will launch Moodle as a ‘baby’ that will need to be fed by the contributions of volunteers.

A bit of History
After exploring different open source tools, and getting acquainted with Moodle in the January e-collaboration meeting, we decided to choose Moodle as our new online learning environment. We created a test Moodle environment on a Dutch server in February 2007 and since then we have been training staff in competency-based learning and how to develop distance modules. In the period July to now we have contracted an e-learning designer who has been adding e-learning modules to Moodle. We copied the test version to a hosted environment in September. We are working on the final touches of the web design (with the help of our partners in India), and have started to do functionality and usability testing.

E-collaboration meeting
In the e-collaboration meeting of October 12th we have conducted a usability test of VSO’s Moodle. This gave the members a chance to see how we have set up the Moodle environment for our volunteers. It gave me the great opportunity of testing our Moodle site with some experts in the field of e-collaboration. A grasp from some of the conclusions from the testing:

- Participants tended to get lost between Moodle sites and internal links. Changing the colour of the Moodle site, and opening other sites in pop-up windows can prevent this.

- There’s many different ways in which participants explored the environment, which is good fun to observe. For example, not everyone scrolls down automatically. This meant some testers didn’t find the editing functions in the wikis.

- Moodle offers a ‘search courses’ function. It’s easy to mistake this for an automatic search the site function. It’s quite a disappointment for participants if they can’t use the function as they expect to.

- Is the environment too course oriented? Do I need to focus more on the interactive functions?

Furthermore it was extremely useful to have experts around to give me some creative suggestions. For example: connecting to maps so participants can spot where everyone is located, discussions on building in security tools. Or how about using a package that can build a module in Moodle offline, and who knows… pod casting may be an interesting new project to explore, next to our YouTubeWiki.

Of course I hope this has also been useful for the testers. For those of you who haven’t been able to attend the testing, and would like to find out more about how Moodle is used in VSO, or about our tests, please send me an email:

Meeting a Moodle expert of Ned-Moove, Pieter van der Hijden
Now that we have our own Moodle environment, I felt it was time to get in touch with more experts in the world of Moodle. The Dutch Moodle union was the right place for me to connect to. Pieter van der Hijden talked about this group of 80 members who are all using Moodle, varying from administrators, to teachers, and aid workers. They organise at least one big event annually. This means easy access to a lot of Moodle experts. You never know when that might be needed! Individual membership costs € 25,- a year. More information can be found on their site or moodlemoot.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Experimenting with Twitter

We conducted a week-long experiment with Twitter, for 12 people who were not yet familiar with the tool. In this blogpost, we'll describe the experiment, and we'll summarize the reflections and new ideas for applicability of the tool. I'll also share my own ideas about Twitter in more detail.

Twitter is: A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? Basically you update your information continuously with short messages (max. 140 characters) and you can follow/be followed by others who read those messages.

Our experiment was introduced with the following instructions (here summarized):

  1. Sign up for a twitter account at (in the right upper corner) and add a photo of yourself by clicking on Your Profile and share you twitter account (eg. in the wiki and Add the other participants to your twitter to follow them.
  2. Twitter away during the week…. You can twitter by logging in to Twitter.
  3. Experiment with messages for the whole group by using @ecollaboration
  4. Type of content: Share what tools you are working with, what tasks you are busy with in your organization, and ask the (stupid) questions you never dared to bother others with.
  5. Write down your experiences in the wiki.

The experiences summarized:

Though the interface looks clear, people needed quite some time to find their way. How to find the message? Where to reply to a direct message? etc. Someone felt like she might have missed some opportunities in the tool. It doesn't take a lot of attention, but needs frequent attention, hence people felt that it is time-consuming. People differed in their opinion of seeing added value: "it's fun to know how the others spend their time, but not really helpful" someone said.

Possible applications of Twitter:

It's interesting to see that people have very different opinions ranging from "The additional value of use isn't big", via "I would focus to use it for information exchange such as questions or recommendation and not to exchange moods or any kind of actions" to "I can see the potential for project teams that need continuous communication, or organisations or people that want to communicate to their "followers" about a conference, a campaign, or general news and progress. Also for theme focused groups (like e-collaboration)".

For me it has shown again that a new tool can be very uncomfortable in the beginning, especially if you don't know how it's going to help you to do your work. It may actually take longer than a week before you get at a certain level of comfort. Personally I started to enjoy Twitter after some days, because I really got to know some people better by what they are doing. I also got some interesting links to blogposts etc. but to follow that up takes time. So it easily diverts your attention from what you were doing. A colleague in Ghana added me to twitter too, and that experience made me realize that you can be very close with a group of people anywhere through twitter, much closer than through mailing lists, online forums, or an occasional chat session. Knowing his concerns, and frustrations (eg. with uploading) reminded me of the different context in Ghana.

But as someone said: it needs discipline to exchange and have added value. And it seems that this is not for everyone. That brings me to the observation that tools like twitter can bring new linkages and communication (I learned quite a lot more about the 3-5 people who were very active!) but you have to be carefull not to create too many divisions if people who don't find a tool intuitive are left out. On the positive side, almost half of the people who twittered, were not at the face-to-face meeting, so it is a way to engage a different group of people than with a face-to-face meeting.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Mashed potatoes: mixing google earth with wikis

Riny Heijdendael has given a short introduction on how to use mash-ups
of different techniques to connect existing Wikis to Mapping tools like
Google Earth.

Milieukontakt International supports a global network of environmental
NGO's. Since 1.5 year they deployed a Wiki for their network development. They use it to connect countries and (mainly) environmental themes, exchange professional experiences and develop project proposals and intern(ation)al strategies.

Riny Heijdendael explained during a meeting what he is working on right now: One of the major problems I encountered was that more and more the network faced the problem of finding the relevant information, both on a geographic as a thematic scale.

Questions arose like these:

  • How do I know what other themes are being addressed in my region or

  • Who is working on the same theme as I am?

  • How can i quickly connect to the part the network that can enhance my strategy for my own region or theme?

  • How do I present my local knowledge to a broader audience without having to set up a "website", including all the hassle?

  • How can I setup a joint strategy with my local network about a certain case (without learning any new system)

The Milieukontakt International already used a wiki for a time, so it seemed to be good idea to try to integrate these questions with a more "visual approach". Maps perfectly fits this vacancy. Connecting the geographical oriented and visual approach of Google Earth with the existing wiki was a logical step.

For this an online database has been created, that collects locations and themes, and could be presented it in such a way that you can browse countries and themes in Google Earth and Google Maps. Once you see the selected regions or themes, you may see public information about this location. The public information is handled by the wiki, and the content is delivered by anyone in the network, mostly the people that reside in the area of this location.

But once you are a member of the network, you have the ability to use the location as a starting point for joint strategy formulation with other NGO's that operate in this region. This information though is not visible to the general public. In this way it is possible for local NGO's to both present public information about the specific location, as well as to define a joint strategy on how to deal with this location within the network.

Of course these mash ups already exist, like wikimapia and countless others. What we try to show here, is that restricting the information to a certain domain (in this case, environmental issues) and combine it with a restriction of access (general public versus network members), you can use these mash ups as a strong tool for public participation.

A concise diagram below explains how the dots connect..

A short visual on how this could look in Google Earth: Since I just chose a country and a theme, I think you'll forgive me that
this is only a sample :-)

And even as an author you have some remarks (who hasn't..):

Worldkit, an alternative mapping application framework, was my favorite because it has the opportunity to "timestamp" locations: in this way it would be possible to record issues
and locations at a certain time. As you may know, a lot of problems occur because of the history of a location like: "did you know in the 50's there used to be a chemical factory here?". Even better: for strategy formulation the knowledge about future plans is invaluable, and
this type of "future mapping" is possible as well with worldkit. I decided however (for now) to comply to KML standard, because I expect that a lot of other institutes might provide their data layers soon as well. In this way we can combine quickly environmental data from, let's say UNDP or FAO with our own data, which could provide valuable insight in causes and effects. In the future I am thinking about transforming KML to be available to Worldkit as well, hopefully by XSLT conversion.

Well thats it for now, I hope you enjoyed this explanation. Please feel free to comment to riny [ at ], and as a last remark: all this stuff is NOT about geekiness, but about

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