Why I Hate Moodle

Or at least my university’s implementation of it.

Let me begin with two assertions about what I see as the strengths about the nature of the web, so that people who see things another way do not need to bother themselves with either reading further or in arguing with me.

The first thing I want to note about the web is something I, and thousands of others, have observed in countless other ways and places and that is that the web is the platform without parallel for the delivery of content. Let me emphasize content, which I do over and against the delivery of an experience. The content itself may involve the user (or viewer or reader or listener) in some kind of experience, but the web itself is less about the delivery of experiences.

The second thing I want to observe about the web reveals my age: the web is at its best when it is semantic, when the way content is structured is part and parcel of its meaning. And I mean semantic in a deep sort of way, with UX/UI at the surface but reaching all the way down to <tag>s.

So, let me walk you through the way Moodle is set up at my university and you can begin to understand why I think its anathema to the promise of the web. And we can begin with the way I begin, which is to click on a link to a course that I am teaching in order to manage some aspect of it:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 11 49 PM

There are two things that I find difficult to accept with this: first, the content, the actual content of the course, is squashed between a whole lot of navigation and other matters that amount to little more than unnecessary cognitive overhead. Sure, I could customize the interface to get rid of all the extraneous blocks, but I use the default setup because it’s what I see most, if not all, of my students using and their experience of the course is my concern. If I design things based on my tweaked-out setup, and those things do not look the same for them, then I have failed them.

The second thing seems obvious to me: I’m a teacher. I’m coming to Moodle to do things, but in order to do things I have to click a button. And I can’t tell you the number of times I have scrolled down the page to start something only to realize I have to scroll back up, click on the edit button, and, then, scroll back down to the section I want to edit and click on the Add an activity or resource button.

And speaking of too much scrolling and clicking, when you do click on the Add button, you are greeted with the following pop-up:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 12 22 PM

Congratulations if you want to add one of a dozen of Moodle’s “activities” designed, one supposed to “enhance the educational experience” — because what undergraduate doesn’t want to use Hangman, or a Hidden Picture!, to learn about speciation or topic modeling? So more scrolling in order to get to ways to add actual content: URLs, pages, files, etc.

Perhaps the most fundamental, the most basic form of content there is is a web page. Setting aside that this web page is a column squished between a whole lot of other material, if you attempt to paste it into a text box, your formatting options look like this:

Screen Shot 2019 01 31 at 5 28 16 PM

Forget meaningful things like H1 headings or passages of code, because you aren’t getting them here. For a while, if you dug deep enough into Moodle’s bowels you could enable a Markdown filter, so that you could write and maintain pages as semantic plain text, but they have moved that switch around so much that it’s clear they don’t want you to write structured prose, just roll back to the 1980s and WordPerfect for DOS and stick to one-off formatting of text.

Moodle is ugly, takes too many clicks to do anything meaningful, and it undoes everything that was once semantic about the web. Which is kind of like Facebook, which I guess makes sense.

David Rumsey Map Collection

The David Rumsey Map Collection is a pretty impressive accomplishment. According to the site, the collections “contains more than 150,000 maps. The collection focuses on rare 16th through 21st century maps of North and South America, as well as maps of the World, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. The collection includes atlases, wall maps, globes, school geographies, pocket maps, books of exploration, maritime charts, and a variety of cartographic materials including pocket, wall, children’s, and manuscript maps. Items range in date from about 1550 to the present.”

Rooth 1980: “Pattern Recognition, Data Reduction, Catchwords and Semantic Problems”

If, like me, you are committed to finding prescient work in the realm of computational approaches to the humanities, it means you are often tracking down somewhat difficult to find volumes and quickly photocopying an article or two while you still have the volume in your hands. Anna Birgitta Rooth’s “Pattern Recognition, Data Reduction, Catchwords and Semantic Problems” is one such article, and the PDF I am making available has been OCRed.

The Mathematics of Arches

Arches are part of the design feature set of our house — so is a mansard roof, but I am not as keen to replicate it — and as I add or replace various features on the house, I would like to add the same kind of flattened arch that features on facade of the house and in some of the cabinetry. For that, I need math. In particular, given the width of a given opening and how high I would like the arch to be, I need to be able to calculate the length of material of the resulting arch.

For those who missed this particular part of geometry, here are the parts involved:

Arch

For the math, we need the following:

[code lang=text]
(x – x[0])^2 + (y – y[0])^2 = r^2
[/code]

Or:

[code lang=text]
x[0] = c/2

y[0] = (s – x[0]^2/s) / 2

r^2 = x[0]^2 + y[0]^2

Y = y[0] + sqrt(r^2 – (x – x[0])^2)
[/code]

The Room in Which I Work

The room in which I work is not part of our home’s heating and cooling system. It was once simply a space between the house and the detached garage that a previous owner of our forty year old house decided to enclose both to make it possible to bring in groceries while not getting rained on. It measures 89 inches wide by 101 inches deep for a total of 8989 square inches or 62 square feet. (That’s a little under 6 square meters for my European friends.) The hallway between the garage and the house is about the same size. To be clear, whoever had this space built was no fool, for the space doesn’t seem small, thanks to a large skylight and a large sliding glass door, which open the space to the world. And being so small makes it fairly simple to heat on cold and gray winter days: a cheap little heater from a big box store usually does a reasonable job.

And, too, I am fortunate enough that I can work almost anywhere these days. All I really need are my computer, and, for noisier environments, a pair of headphones or earbuds that, plugged into my phone, can block out most distractions. I am not keen on fighting volume with volume, though, and I prefer quiet spaces over noisy ones for working.

Working in such a small space means I have a kind of physical limit to my impulse to collect things. As much as I might like to accumulate piles of books and papers and memorabilia, I cannot. There is no room for it. In fact, with so little room, a certain minimalist mindset has slowly crept into my aesthetic, which, to be fair, has long been shaped by the modernist impulses of my childhood homes. The result is a kind of slow inculcation of a resonance to this space that makes me want to work within it.

Over time, I have also slowly succumbed to the dictates of this space by dispensing with any of the ordinary furniture with which I might fill it. The only furniture here that I have not built is the chair. The shelves, the desk, the monitor stand were all custom built so as to take up as little room as possible, and even now I am considering taking the two shelf units that are currently vertical, and thus taking up floor space, and stringing them up along the top of the wall like the other two units, leaving only the long narrow desk at which I work, and the chair, on the floor.

The only real problem with that plan are … files. Oof, folders of paper. Paper, paper, paper.

One thing I could do, I must admit, is to go through all that paper to determine what actually needs to be kept and what might be better kept and what can be tossed. Things like records that have to kept are easy. What’s hard is those things which force a decision: what are the projects that are going to move forward and what are those projects which will, in all honesty, never leave the Someday pile? That is hard, because it also reveals the reality of time, of death, and my own nature.

There are so many projects which I have marked as “someday” which I really should have done, if only I had been better disciplined. Not only scholarly projects, but the notes for stories that I have not written. Pulling those folders out is like having to revisit so many one’s own worst regrets, facing all the things about myself that disappoint me.

At the same time, letting those projects go might free up physical, and thus also mental, space to get new projects done…