Archive for December 2010

Updates to Online Users Map

Online Users Map with OpenStreetMap

I’ve finally had a bit of time to work on the online users map block I wrote a while ago – the recent release of Moodle 2 being a bit of a spur. Two main changes I’ve made:

Firstly, I added the option to use either Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, with the default being OpenStreetMap, but you can easily change it in the block settings.

Secondly, I managed to get the block up and running in Moodle 2 (see it in action). It needed a few changes over the previous version to get it to work. I’m still having a few issues with getting the block to update the cron field in the mdl_blocks table – so currently you need to update the blocks table manually to enable the cron function, which automatically updates the user locations.

Any feedback welcome 🙂

Course content management and synchronisation in Moodle

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on writing some more courses in Moodle for use in Mekelle Uni, other parts of Ethiopia and hopefully further afield. There are a couple of us working on writing these courses, which we’re currently working on using the Moodle installation on my ISP (at: Given that we’ve both got reliable and fast internet this isn’t a problem.

However at some point we need to export course to install on the servers in MU, and possibly other places where they don’t have a quick reliable internet connection and won’t be able to rely on connecting to my website (for example, MU recently had hardware issues with their core switch, which messed up their internet access for several days).

If we have the course completely finalised and polished, we can use Moodle backup and restore to move the course around. But (and this is possibly very likely) if we need to update the course, perhaps we need to restructure the content or activities, or even make small edits, we’re in the position where we need to either:

1) manually make the changes on both sites to keep them in synch (my Moodle would be the ‘master’ copy); or
2) overwrite the copy in MU and risk losing the user data.

I’ve not tested this all thoroughly, but my impression at the moment is that if you restore a revised course over the top of an existing one, you could lose some or all the user data (forum postings, submitted assignments etc). I’m grateful for any information that says otherwise. I know we could back up the original course to keep the user data, but would it still be accessible in the revised course?

Making changes manually on one or two copies of the course isn’t a big deal, but it will become a problem if we want to host the course on several more Moodle installations. The courses will quickly become out of synch.

Has anyone else had to deal with this type of problem and if so, how did you deal with it? I know the OU stores it’s courses in it’s own XML format for republishing or updating a course with edits, but they’ve had to write a stack of code to enable this – not the route I’d like to go down.

What would be ideal for us would be for courses to automatically synchronise themselves from a master copy when their internet connection allows. Maybe this is too much of an obscure use-case for anyone to have dealt with before? I realise there could a be a stack of synchronisation issues to deal with.

This also ties up with my previous post about the cost of internet access (and data limits), if I could work offline at home on the course, then just go online to synchronise, this would save a lot of hassle backing up and restoring courses, with the risk of overwriting someone else’s edits.

I’ve seen some of the mobile Moodle applications, so students can work offline on their mobiles and then synchronise when online again, so this could be an extension of the same principle, but probably more complex.

One of the themes at next years eLearning Africa conference is how to deal with bandwidth/connection limitations, so maybe if I get chance to go, I’ll get some ideas from there.

The price of yet more sim cards and dongles

I’ve now added to my growing collection of mobile voice and internet sim cards, dongles and pay as you go (prepago in Spanish) accounts. Today, with a lot of help from my Spanish speaking colleague Jaime, I got myself sorted out with a local mobile internet sim card with dongle. Buying the sim card and dongle was no problem language-wise, but getting the information as to how to top up, where I can buy credit, getting the correct settings for Ubuntu etc needed a long phone call to their tech support helpline.

As I’ve mentioned before, not staying in the same place quite long enough (or not knowing how long I’ll be staying) doesn’t make it worthwhile getting a contract account (or broadband installed at home) so means I’m paying the top price for all the phone and data services. The cost of mobile broadband is far higher here in Spain than the UK. In UK I paid 15GBP (around 17EUR) for 3Gb to use within a month, which I thought was bad enough, but in Spain I’ll be paying 20EUR for 1Gb to use within a month. So more than 3 times as much. The small consolation I have is that after I’ve topped up 3 times, I get 2Gb free – so that’s 60EUR for 5Gb.
Hopefully though, whilst in the UK my mobile dongle was my only means of internet access, here I can use the office connection much of the time.

One slight quirk with my new internet account is that to find out how much data I have left for the month, I need to send an email with my phone no and ask for the data balance. When I asked what format the email needed to be in (assuming that it would be an automated response) I was told that the format doesn’t matter as it will be a real person looking up my balance and replying manually – possibly one of the reasons for the high cost.

On the move

Araya, Mihret, Selamawit and me at the Bernabeu

Just moved into my 7th different house/flat for this year, so an average of less than 2 months per ‘home’. I’m now in a flat in Madrid, so hope to stay put for a few months at least.

Work has been relatively quiet this week, mainly due to Monday and Wednesday both being public holidays, which then also makes Tuesday almost a holiday too. We’ve been planning out what to focus on over the next few months – until summer next year – and also deciding what we should focus on when we apply for larger, longer term projects.

As far was I can tell the elearning in Mekelle is going well, the Moodle site is getting several thousand hits per day with students now taking part in the activities their teachers have produced.

I have a bit more to say on the social front… this week 6 of us went to see the Champions League game of Real Madrid vs Auxerre at the Bernabeu stadium. The result (Real won 4-0) was going to be irrelevant to both teams – but was good experience anyway. Then I’ve also been ice-skating (for the first time in about 5 years), had a night out in Madrid, where we must have found the only bar in Madrid that didn’t sell wine, then the only club which didn’t serve beer. Then yesterday a few of us went to see El Escorial and I forgot to take my camera.

Me, Araya and Gabi

My Spanish is improving very slowly – though now, with a bit of a commute, I have little excuse for not listening to the teach yourself Spanish mp3s. I’ve found a few places to do evening classes in central Madrid, so plan to start these in the New Year.

Photos from Toledo

Yesterday, Araya, Selamawit, Tsegay and I had a day trip out to Toledo, so here are the photos:

I’m also testing a out a WordPress Flickr plugin for displaying my photos (Flickr Gallery), rather than having them all uploaded directly into my blog. Seems to be working well.

Testing alternative thin-client server solutions

The thin client solution we currently have running in Mekelle is based on using OpenSolaris and we have a variety of terminals – a mixture of SunRay 1’s, SunRay 2’s and Nortech clients. Using sun ray session server, the sunray terminals are performing well, but when we have the labs full of students, the Nortech terminals are significantly less responsive. There are a number of possible reasons for this, the protocols used, the network amongst others. There is a huge range of other configurations and technologies we could use to provide a robust and scalable thin client architecture.

I’ve spent a few days this week in Barcelona with Cast-Info investigating their Desktop4All solution, which we’re looking to trial as an alternative to the OpenSolaris setup we currently have. Goitom, one of the phds students from Mekelle will spend the next few weeks based in the Cast-Info offices, learning how to install and set up the server system used for Desktop4All, with a view to installing this when back in Mekelle in a couple of months.

Desktop4All, based on Linux, is a set of integrated open source applications. It’s likely to produce a similar end result to the solution that we already have running with OpenSolaris, but the main advantage for us will be in the support and documentation available as a reference. Testing out Desktop4All will give us the opportunity to collaborate in the development and to investigate whether we get similar types of issues arising as we have had with OpenSolaris.

When we started the Digital Campus project, I think there was some concern over whether the students would need much training in how to use a non-Windows operating system, given that much (all?) of their previous experience of using computers/pcs was with Windows (usually XP). This has turned out not to be the case, given that many students have had limited time to become locked in Windows, we’ve found few issues with students being unable to navigate the interface or use applications. I suspect we don’t always give the students credit for their ability to adapt to new interfaces and systems (especially judging by how quickly they find their way to webmail, youtube and facebook).

Settling in Spain

Has now been a couple of weeks since I arrived in Spain and started to get settled in properly. Although it’s been a relatively short time, I’ve met up with people I knew from both the Open University and from Mekelle. In both cases it’s just been coincidence they’ve been here. I’ve also had chance to visit a few places, to see Guernica at the Reine Sofia museum and to spend a weekend in Salamanca. Strangely most of the people I’ve been mixing with so far have been either Ethiopian (we now have 5 students from Mekelle in Alcala) or Romanian masters students studying Spanish to Romanian translation.

in Salamanca

In sorting out a new bank account I was surprised to find that my signature was required even more times than when I open an account in Ethiopia, quite impressive given that the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia needed my signature more than 12 times.

Much of what I’ve been working on over the past couple of weeks has been about how we can offer out Basic Certificate in Online in Education to more universities and organisations in Ethiopia. We’re currently planning to give the training and certification to members of the eCompetence Centre teams, hopefully we’ll be starting the initial face to face sessions in February or March next year – but dates and location aren’t yet fixed.

I’ve been working with a team of student developers in the Engineering Faculty in Alcala, who are starting to develop a virtual keyboard to enable the input of Ge’ez characters into Android. We’re also looking at how to translate some of the core applications and interface elements of Android into Tigrinyan and Amharic. Enabling the input in local languages and scripts should help once we start to develop applications and training to be used by the Health Extension Workers (HEWs).

Although I’ve found out that Ministry of Education has stipulated that all post-secondary education and training must be given and tested in English, there will be some way to go before the HEWs have the level of English necessary for this. Although I can understand the reasons for using a single language (rather than trying to give training in all the possible local languages), it would appear to me that by first needing to raise the English levels would delay the effects of any advances that can be made in improving the healthcare delivery.