The reusability paradox – WTF?


The reusability paradox.  How can reusability be bad?

When first presented with this concept last year, I must admit I really did struggle with it.  As a techhie, every fibre of my being compels me to focus on reuse.  Hence, the paradox.  After some weeks of struggling with the reusability paradox, it did start to make some sense, emphasis on some’.

I have recently revisited this concept, both in discussion with my (to be) PhD supervisor, but also in my day-to-day work as an Educational Developer/Lecturer/Educational Technologist.  My revisit has prompted this blog post as a way of recording some connections I have made to real-world examples of this phenomenon, and how this impacts my thinking about technology (re)use.  This thinking is far from crystalised.

David Wiley explains the reusability paradox in the context of reusable learning objects, and more broadly, the open content movement.  When this concept was initially presented to me, it was already positioned in terms of technology.  I find it easier to start with the original context in learning design.

What is the reusability paradox?

David explains it quite succinctly as:

A content module’s stand-alone pedagogical effectiveness is inversely proportional to its reusability.

He explains that the more contextualised a learning object is made, the more meaningful it becomes to that context.  However, it also means the learning object becomes less reusable to other contexts.  We have a trade-off situation – effectiveness (in learning) vs. efficiency (in scalability). David concludes:

It turns out that reusability and pedagogical effectiveness are completely orthogonal to each other. Therefore, pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another, unless the end user is permitted to edit the learning object. The application of an open license to a learning object resolves the paradox.

I don’t think an open licence alone will resolve the paradox, but that is a discussion for another post.

The reusability paradox in the wild

So enough of abstract concepts – how does the reusability paradox play out in the wild and in other ways besides learning objects?

“I see dead people the reusability paradox.”

I often see the reusability paradox when working with lecturers – conceptually the same as David Wiley explains, but at a higher level.  My particular experience relates to the contention of reusing units of study between different awards/degrees.  This is pretty typical in the STEM areas – in my institution we refer to them as service courses (units).  I work with a science school, and a key foundation unit of study taught from the school is anatomy and physiology.  There would be a dozen or more degrees that require students to have a sound knowledge in this area.

Conventional management wisdom seeks to reuse anatomy and physiology units for health related-degrees.  This is efficient use of resources, right?  And “why re-invent the wheel?”

But before I explore those questions, let’s first take a step back for a moment.

The key criteria for reuse is applicability to other contexts.  If there is sufficient overlap or congruence with another context, then a reusability factor could be considered high, thus worthy of reuse.  Learning is very contextual, particularly when you factor, as David does, the underpinning of constructivist learning theory.  Learners construct new knowledge, upon their own existing knowledge.  This is very individualised, and based on each learner’s past experiences, and ways of thinking.

Learning designers have some tricks to help deal with such diversity, such as researching your cohort, conducting a needs analysis, and ultimately categorising learners and focusing on the majority.  Clearly, this is flawed – but this is how massification of education works.  For instance, if you are preparing a unit of study for nursing students, then you can make some reasonable assumptions about those students motivations (i.e. they want to become a nurse); their prior formal learning (i.e. previous units studied within a structured nursing curriculum); and even down to smaller groups such as pathways to study (i.e. were they enrolled nurses – ENs or school-leavers). These assumptions of course aren’t always correct.  Nevertheless, the key point is that this unit of study is reused by all nursing students studying for the Bachelor of Nursing degree.  A more or less reasonable trade-off between effectiveness and efficiency.

So let’s return to the example of an anatomy and physiology unit of study.  In this instance, we see different discipline areas, albeit health related, attempting to reuse a unit of study.  Despite all being health related, a paramedic student’s needs aren’t the same as physiotherapy students’, or medical science students’.  And while some disciplines hail from within the same school, others disciplines are situated elsewhere within the organisational structure.  Now, consider the diversity of the cohort.

So to cope with this type of diversity, I typically see three approaches:

  1. Make the unit of study as abstract (decontextualised) as possible making no assumptions about learners or their backgrounds, and “teach the facts”.
  2. Design the unit to cope with the highest represented context (i.e. the discipline with the most students).
  3. Design the unit of study to address multiple contexts, in an attempt to make it meaningful to multiple disciplinary groups.

In other words, make it meaningful for no-one; make it meaningful to the biggest group, and nobody else; or, try to make it meaningful for everyone.

Approach 1 is obviously ineffective, especially considering constructivist thinking.  You end up with students asking “why do I need to know this?”, or “that course was so dry and boring.”

Approach 2 while not quite as flawed as approach 1, can be less than ideal.  Particularly when the highest represented group is small compared to the entire group.  In such cases, the other groups feel marginalised, “I want to be a Paramed, not a Physiotherapist.”

Approach 3 can also ineffective because you can end up with a study unit that is incredibly complex.  This group of students does this, that group does that.  As the lecturer, you have to manage the mixture.  The students too can become confused about requirements. You can also run into “equity” type policy constraints, such as “all students must do the same assessments.”  This is an important point.  If you end up with such complexity, you really have to ask the question, “why not just have separate units of study?”

But solving this challenge isn’t the focus of my blog post.

The Reusability Paradox as it Applies to Education Technology

So does the concept translate to technology?  Yes it does!  And similar issues arise as a result.

Recall the three approaches I see people use to deal with the challenges of reuse for multiple contexts?

  1. Make abstract
  2. Contextualise for the largest group
  3. Contextualise in multiple ways for multiple groups

Let’s consider Approach 1

David Wiley says of the reusability paradox:

The purpose of learning objects and their reality seem to be at odds with one another. On the one hand, the smaller designers create their learning objects, the more reusable those objects will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning objects are, the more likely it is that only humans will be able to assemble them into meaningful instruction.

I think this statement has some “translatability” to an education technology context as:

On the one hand, the smaller developers create their learning technology tools (e.g. programming libraries rather than complete systems), the more reusable those tools will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning technology tools are, the more likely it is that only developers (and not designers) will be able to assemble them into functional learning technologies.

David Wiley also says:

To make learning objects maximally reusable, learning objects should contain as little context as possible.

To remove context is to make something more abstract – to take away intrinsic meaning or specific function.  Indeed this makes things more reusable, it also requires re-contextualisation.  In the context of technology, abstraction leads to dependence on the developer.

Let’s skip to approach 3.  With this approach, we end up with technology that attempts to do everything for everyone.  These technologies become so complicated to use, that people simply don’t use them.  My favourite example of approach 3 is the Moodle Workshop activity which is a “powerful peer assessment activity”.  I consider myself to have a reasonable grasp of technology, and yet after 45 minutes of tinkering with the workshop activity in Moodle, I gave up.  I have only seen 1 person at my institution use it.  It has so many options, too many options, because it tries to account for all the different ways one might attempt to embed peer assessment into their course.

So what about approach 2?  We reuse a learning technology without change – meaning it is focused on the majority of requirements (however that might be determined).  This is typical of COTS (commercial off the shelf) solutions.  This inevitably leads to functional gaps – “the system does this, but I want to do that.”  If the gap is substantial, it can lead to workarounds.

Does technology need to be reusable?

This is where I struggled last year with the reusability paradox.  If you can’t reuse a technology, then isn’t that a serious limitation?  Management are constantly looking to replicate successes – “This worked so well, so how can we use this in other areas?”

When I am creating/adapting/augmenting technology for others, I have to demonstrate “bang for buck” in terms of my time invested.  Does what I create, at least have to pay for itself in affordances?  I normally look for economies of scale, and the obvious way is through reuse – it is usable by X number of people.  Management/decision-makers get this – easy. However, technology can offer other economies.  For instance, depending on the technology, it may instead allow a specific group of people to do something much better, quicker, cheaper, or if its very innovative, something they couldn’t do before.  But that something might be very specific, so specific that it isn’t very reusable, and limited to a small audience.  Yet, if it still yields a net gain, is that bad?

What if a technology is so specific, it’s designed for just one person – yourself?


At some stage in our lives, we have all had to engage with some form of workaround to get from A to B.  Not just in terms of technology but life in general.

If you create a workaround, does it need to be reusable?  Perhaps not.  But what if you want it to be?  How can you go about it?

This is where my time (and thinking) ends for now.


Moodle Activity Viewer – in the cloud?

So what is MAV?  An introduction to MAV written in 2013 is available.  Features have been added, but the core concept remains unchanged.

In a nutshell, it allows you to visualise student click activity within your Moodle course site using a heat map, colouring links lighter or darker according to the number of times they have been accessed.

A very early version of a home page has also been established for MAV.  This will expand in the weeks to come.

The computer source code is also available for the enterprise version, available for download from github.  This version must be installed by your IT folk onto one of their servers for you to use it on your Moodle at your institution.

So is there a ‘personal’ version available?  What would that look like?

Could anyone using Moodle (and Firefox for now) use it, without requiring your IT department to install a plug-in for your Moodle server?

Would you be interested in using MAV this way?

What are the ethical challenges to overcome?

I’d love to hear your thoughts/suggestions in the comments below.

Being BAD at task management

I have co-authored a paper with a colleague, David Jones which was published at the ASCILITE2014 conference being held in Dunedin New Zealand.  The paper was titled Breaking BAD to bridge the reality/rhetoric chasm.  The reality/rhetoric chasm is best expressed through the following metaphor, in the words of Professor Mark Brown:

E-learning’s a bit like teenage sex.  Everyone says they’re doing it but not many people really are and those that are doing it are doing it very poorly. (Laxon, 2013, n.p).

A central tenet of the paper is the following argument about this chasm:

Our argument is that the set of implicit assumptions that underpin the practice of institutional e-learning within universities (which we’ll summarise under the acronym SET) leads to a digital and material environment that contributes significantly to the reality/rhetoric chasm. The argument is that while this mindset underpins how universities go about the task of institutional e-learning, they won’t be able to bridge the chasm.

Instead, we argue that another mindset needs to play a larger role in institutional practice. How much we don’t know. We’ll summarise this mindset under the acronym “BAD”.

A comparison of SET and BAD is provided in the following table:

Component SET  BAD
What work gets done? Strategy – following a global plan intended to achieve a pre-identified desired future state Bricolage – local piecemeal action responding to emerging contingencies
How ICT is perceived? Established – ICT is a hard technology and cannot be changed. People and their practices must be modified to fit the fixed functionality of the technology. Affordances – ICT is a soft technology that can be modified to meet the needs of its users, their context, and what they would like to achieve.
How you see the world? Tree-like – the world is relatively stable and predictable. It can be understood through logical decomposition into a hierarchy of distinct black boxes. Distributed – the world is complex, dynamic, and consists of interdependent assemblages of diverse actors (human and not) connected via complex networks.

The paper uses the establishment of the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV) at my institution as an example of using BAD principles to improve e-learning.  However, this is not the focus of this blog post.  As a means of improving my own conceptions of BAD, SET and their interplay, I have begun reflecting on how I have unwittingly applied BAD principles to my other endeavours.  A recent example relates to my use of task management software which is detailed in a recent post, but for which I’ll summarise here for brevity.

I recently switched to a new task management system called Omnifocus.  Omnifocus provides the ability to select what it calls perspectives to show your tasks in different ways according to your workflows and context.  One such perspective new to their recently released OSX version is called the Forecast Perspective.  This perspective for the coming days, shows what tasks are due to be started (deferred to a later date when entered) and what tasks are due to be completed.  This information is then augmented with appointments found in your OSX calendar application.  Its a lovely way to see what you need to do, along side what existing time-based commitments you have to help plan to get things done.  But there was a problem.  Any deferred tasks that were not completed on the date they were deferred to, would not shift to the next day in the Forecast perspective.  Instead, they simply disappear from the perspective entirely until their due date.  Through an online search to see if I had mis-configured my database or if anyone else was as baffled as I was, I came across the following entry on the Omnifocus discussion boards:

I’m going to submit this as a feature as well, but I figure I’ll post it here to see whether it can get more traction. My issue is this:

If I have Deferred something to a start date in the future, odds are I probably think it’s pretty important that it starts on that day.

However, what happens if that day comes and goes and I didn’t start the item? In Forecast, the item disappears. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Forecast shouldn’t only be showing me the “past due” things I assigned dates to, but things I didn’t touch that I was supposed to.

Seems I was not alone in my frustration.  The forum continued with discussion of various work-arounds, none of which I found particularly suitable to my context.  So I sought other possibilities to resolve my problem.

Omnifocus makes use of the OSX Applescript frameworks which provide a high-level scripting language that can be used to customise behaviour and automate tasks to make things work in ways not originally conceived by software creators.  A handful of applescript contributors exist that have created some very useful Applescripts for Omnifocus.  One such contributor Curt Clifton has created a script that identifies projects where there is no next action to perform, suggesting that the project may have stalled.

The significance of this script is that I have been able to adapt it to solve my problem with deferred tasks disappearing from the Forecast view when they are not completed on the defer date.

Returning to the principles of BAD, there are some alignments undertaken by the Omnigroup company to allow customers to ‘break bad’ by customising their Omnifocus product to yield to their ends.  In the absence of the Applescript integration in Omnifocus, there would be little hope other than waiting for Omnigroup to implement a feature to address the limitation.

The integration of the Applescript framework into Omnifocus allows Bricolage to occur.  It offers Affordances such that I and others are able to solve problems locally and contextually according to our own specific needs and wants.  The creation and use of this bricolage is distributed – Omnifocus do not have direct control or management over the extensions that can be applied.  Things can be developed and/or shared in a Distributed fashion according to the needs of individuals.

While the use of the Applescript framework won’t solve everyone’s issues and challenges, like many products that do integrate an Applescript Dictionary, it does shift away from the traditional SET mindset of software development.

How to Install Backintime Backup Software on CentOS/RHEL/Scientific Linux 7


Hopefully the title of this post is explanation enough.

Backintime is a neat backup solution that mimics in some ways, the abilities of OSX’ Timemachine backup system.  At predetermined time intervals, Backintime will sweep configured directories on your computer, and only backup the differences since the last sweep.  It results in an efficient use of storage resources on your backup destination drive by hard linking identical files.  Unlike the OSX Timemachine solution, it does not hard link directories, as only Apple’s HFS+ filesystem supports hard-linked directories.  This makes Backintime portable to Unix-based Operating Systems using a variety of filesystems.

The reason for this post is to document some trickery necessary to make Backintime work on our favourite North American Linux vendor’s enterprise operating system, the derivative on which that I use being CentOS 7.  CentOS 7 like its other cousins in the Red Hat family only includes Python interpreter version 2.  While Backintime is written in Python 3.  I have had only a little experience with Python, and it does have some great features (built in multi-threading), however making the two versions incompatible is such a nuisance.  Whinge over, the trick to allowing Backintime to work on CentOS 7 is to install a 3rd party Python 3 interpreter.  The following instructions achieve this end.


Download Backintime from their website, and follow the installation instructions from the README file.

Next, you will need to install a 3rd-party YUM Repository called

yum localinstall
yum install python33

Then create a script file to execute the python3 interpreter with the command python3 by creating the following shell script as the file /usr/local/bin/python3

scl enable python33 -- python $@

Then compile and install Backintime from the downloaded

./configure --python3 && make && make install

Omnifocus2 – A tale of the disappearing deferred tasks

Sadly due to work commitments, I have neglected my blog over the past 2 years.  I plan to reinvigorate things again, starting with this post that I wrote back in August 2014, but never actually pressed the ‘Publish’ button.

I have recently switched from my existing Mac-based task management software Things, to a new product called Omnifocus.  Without getting into the details that have lead to this switch, suffice it to say that Things development moves at a slower pace than I am satisfied with.  I have been trialling Omnifocus for about a month, and while it does have some extra features over Things, it of course has limitations.

Understandably, creating task management software that will yield to the demands of a diverse user base is nigh impossible.  Omnifocus is no exception. One demand of the software that I have is to be able to better plan/schedule my projects and tasks into a calendar.  Omnifocus includes what is called a Forecast Perspective on your projects and tasks.  It is a way to see in a somewhat calendar type view when tasks are scheduled to begin (deferred), and when they are due, along-side my daily appointments as gleened from my Mac OSX Calendar.

This I thought was wonderful as I could then plan out my days and weeks according to what was in my calendar in terms of appointments, and what tasks I had to complete.  But then a problem arose that was unforeseen, and that afflicted more than just myself as explained in this forum post excerpt on the Omnigroup discussion forums:

I’m going to submit this as a feature as well, but I figure I’ll post it here to see whether it can get more traction. My issue is this: If I have Deferred something to a start date in the future, odds are I probably think it’s pretty important that it starts on that day. However, what happens if that day comes and goes and I didn’t start the item? In Forecast, the item disappears. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Forecast shouldn’t only be showing me the “past due” things I assigned dates to, but things I didn’t touch that I was supposed to.

If a deferred task is not done on the day it was deferred to, the following day it would simply disappear from the forecast view altogether.  Not very helpful when forecasting. The discussion thread continues with contributors arguing the merits of changing the software to overcome this limitation, along with a swathe of work-arounds, none of which I found particularly satisfactory to my needs and context. This got me thinking… what if each morning, there was a way that I could select all tasks that were incomplete and had a defer date earlier than today?  I could then update the defer date on all these tasks to be today, and voila, they reappear in my Forecast Perspective.

But how would I do this? Omnifocus makes use of the OSX Applescript frameworks which provide a high-level scripting language that can be used to customise behaviour and automate tasks to make things work in ways not originally conceived by software creators.  A handful of applescript contributors exist that have created some very useful Applescripts for Omnifocus.  One such contributor Curt Clifton has created a script that identifies projects where there is no next action to perform, suggesting that the project may have stalled. The significance of this script is that I have been able to adapt it to solve my problem with deferred tasks disappearing from the Forecast view when they are not completed on the defer date.

If you are frustrated with this limitation of Omnifocus, and you don’t mind losing your originally specified defer date for your tasks, then my DeferOldToNow Applescript might be of use to you.  What the script does is, recursively traverse all of your active projects, looking for incomplete tasks that have a defer date that is older than the present date.  On finding each task, it then sets the defer date to the present. If you are interested in the Applescript code, or would like to contribute updates, the source is available on github.

When the script completes, visiting your Forecast Perspective will once again reveal all tasks that were past their deferred date, and incomplete.  They appear under “today”.  Once they reappear here, you can then defer them again to some time in the future if you need to, but at least they are visible and you are reminded that they haven’t been done. I hope this Applescript proves useful to other users of Omnifocus.  If it does, give me a shout out in the comments section.  Happy Omnifocussing!


The Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV) – Heatmaps of Student Activity


This blog post introduces an emerging implementation of learning analytics for lecturers that offers a novel approach to the visualisation of learning analytics within the Moodle LMS called the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV).  The motivation for its design was born from the frustration of using the standard analytics reporting functions available in Moodle 2.2 by lecturers at my institution. While there are many efforts underway to improve this functionality within the latest releases of Moodle, at least for my own institution, these improvements are likely to be years away from adoption.  One emphasis with these improvements, is a greater use of graphs over tabular lists, most common in earlier Moodle 2.x versions.

What is MAV and How Does it Help Lecturers?

MAV takes a fresh approach to representing student activity within Moodle, by using heat maps (or click heat maps) as shown in the screenshot below:

Heat map of Resources Usage by Students using MAV
Heat map of Resources Usage by Students using MAV

In the example above, MAV is representing the number of students who have accessed various resources and activities on a Moodle course site by colouring the links accordingly.  In this way, MAV is focused on assisting with teacher reflection – identifying which elements of the course were used by the most students, and those which weren’t.  On presenting the above snapshot to the lecturer,  they responded: “Aaaah that’s interesting.  I’m surprised that as many students as that used some of the links.”  After further discussion, they shared the following comments:

I do feel that [the course] is guilty of that to some degree that we baffle them with BS and overwhelm them with far too many resources till they can’t separate the forest from the trees. I was certainly in two minds about even including most of those resource links at the beginning of the semester. I can certainly understand the results in the mid-term tests…they were compulsory

This is exactly the sort of teacher reflection that was intended by its design. Another excerpt from a Moodle page rendered using MAV from a much smaller postgraduate course is illustrated below.

Heat map of Assessment Resources Usage by Students
Heat map of Assessment Resources Usage by Students

The lecturer of this course has been experimenting with MAV for a few months, and had the following to say about what changes might be made in future offerings:

… academics as students may already know and understand about the feedback resources I gave them, that is why they didn’t bother reviewing. Now I’m thinking of removing them. But in saying that, it is up to me to provide the scaffolding they require, so I’m thinking I should leave it there because it is good practice, even though I know they aren’t using it, but could potentially use it for their own students.

When asked about MAV’s ease of use:

It was very easy to use MAV to get an insight into useful resources. I
would have no idea how to get this info through normal Moodle tools and
activity reporting.

Within higher education, learning analytics is predominantly used to identify “at-risk” students with the view to prevent or limit student attrition (Chatti, Dyckhoff, Schroeder, & Thüs, 2012; Lodge & Lewis, 2012).  Identifying learners “at-risk” is only one, albeit important complex issue to act upon.  MAV in its present form is designed to assist lecturers with teacher reflection and course learning design.

Why heatmaps and How Does MAV Work?

How to turn on and off the Moodle Activity Viewer (MAV)

Norman (1993) reminds us that “We humans are spatial animals, very dependent upon perceptual information. Representations that make use of spatial and perceptual relationships allow us to make efficient use of our perceptual systems, to think experientially.” By using heat maps, it allows the lecturer to visualise student activity spatially within the real-world Moodle site itself, rather than through abstract graphs or tabular totals.  This is not to say that graphs and tables are not valuable.  The heat maps are just an alternate approach, and one that is more accessible to a broader cross-section of lecturers, as it easy to use and requires no training or guided instruction – it simply leverages our anthropological intuition.  The screenshot (left) shows how the MAV can be switched on and off in the same way that Editing mode can be turned on and off – something even the complete Moodle novice quickly masters.

The tool presently has a modest list of configurable options, which it is planned to expand over time.  This expansion will be balanced with the value of keeping the tool simple and focused on the tasks that lecturers wish to perform.  At present, the options are largely focused on teacher reflection where lecturers are able to change the following properties of the representation:

  • display count of clicks versus count of distinct students
  • select specific weeks of the term for activity (incomplete)
  • select specific groups within the class
  • select either a heat map visualisation or a font size (think wordle or tag cloud) visualisation (for those with colour-blindness)

These options are changeable through the dialog (below) that is presented in the browser page, when the lecturer clicks on the Activity Viewer Settings option immediately beneath the on/off option in the settings menu (shown above).

MAV Settings Dialog within Moodle Page - Display Mode
MAV Settings Dialog within Moodle Page – Display Mode

How is MAV Implemented?

In its present form, MAV has limited affordance for action.  It like many other existing analytics tools focuses heavily on information, and not enough on supporting action.  For MAV however, this is surmountable due to its technical architectural design, which is somewhat unusual. MAV is not implemented as a Moodle plugin on the Moodle server, but rather as a browser addon on the lecturer’s computer.

Student activity in Postgrad Course Moodle Book Table of Contents, using MAV

This browser driven approach is not new.  SNAPP, a tool for conducting social network analysis within Moodle uses what’s called browser bookmarklets and has gained considerable popularity.  Another approach more closely resembling MAV was taken by Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al. (2012) who created a browser addon that “talks” to a related server component sitting along side Moodle from which it retrieves analytics data, and is then “drawn” into the Moodle page as a graph in a custom block.  To the viewer, the graphing block appears as a seamless part of the Moodle page, but in reality, the information has been synthesised between the analytics server and Moodle. MAV too has a server component that “talks” to a copy of the Moodle database and extracts statistics for display by the browser addon.  Where MAV diverges from the approach of Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al. (2012) is that it is not focused on the conventional approach of using a Moodle course block to display information.  Instead MAV treats the entire Moodle page as a canvas for conveying information, and in a way that is contextual to the canvas itself.

The problem with traditional Moodle plugin development is that “the LMS is commonly managed at an institutional level and it must support several courses, [and so] installing a customised module becomes a complicated procedure both technically and administratively.” (Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al., 2012) By using a browser addon and matching analytics server, “we simplify the task of providing visualizations to participants of the course, valuable for the execution pilot studies or the evaluation of visualizations.” (Leony, D. Pardo, L. et al., 2012)

This approach makes it easy to be agile and innovative without disturbing critical high-availability environments such as Moodle.  If the browser addon breaks in someway, it is easily disabled in the browser settings restoring the default Moodle functionality.  It is of course not without drawbacks.  To name a couple, changes in Moodle are likely to break the Browser addon and there are sure to be variations to consider between Moodle versions.  It is believed on the whole, that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.  This thinking will be tested over time.

MAV and Open Source

MAV is licenced under the GPL, and will be made available in the coming weeks via github.  It is hoped that other educational institutions using Moodle may be interested in collaborating with the technology and the approach to refine and improve on the concept, and implement new ideas.  Research is planned around its design and use.  An announcement will be made when the source code is available and how people can get involved.

Heatmap of Undergraduate Course Home Page using MAV
Heatmap of Undergraduate Course Home Page using MAV

MAV in the Future

The following outlines a sample of ideas for MAV in the future.

Allow the lecturer to visualise the activity of individual students

As a scenario, consider an assignment extension request from a distance student.  In evaluating the request, one of the things lecturers often consider is the amount of work the student has done leading up to the due date, offset by any mitigating circumstances that may have prevented such work.  Using MAV, the lecturer could select this student through the MAV settings, and see how often the student has accessed relevant aspects of the course, when, and perhaps in what sequence.  This would assist the lecturer in making an informed decision about the validity of the student’s extension request claims.

Provide affordances for action based on the analysed data within MAV and Moodle

As previously mentioned, MAV presently offers little in terms of affordance for action on the visualised student activity.  One useful function supportive of teacher reflection would be to assist lecturers in capturing their reflections on their course sites while they view the heat maps.  In the examples given at the start of this post, the lecturers were analysing the student activity and making decisions about how they might change their course in the next offering.  What if lecturers could click on a resource that they wish to change in the future, and make notes within the Moodle site itself using MAV.  The change and their thinking is captured immediately as they reflect, without having to venture somewhere outside of the Moodle site and thus breaking the natural flow of their reflective activity (Villachica, Stone & Endicott, 2006).  A small icon could be attached to the resource or activity as a reminder that a change is to be made.  Then when they need to update the course for the next offering, sometimes in a years time, the information is readily available and still in context of their course site.

Integrate contextual information in Moodle pages in other ways besides heatmaps

As an example, wherever a student name of number is displayed on a Moodle page, provide a hover menu or visual that provides additional information about the student.  This could be things like their contact details and other info from their profile page.  But it could also be a range of information from other sources (see next point).  This also marks a shift from the low hanging fruit that is clickstream data to information that embodies more depth.  As a contextual menu to each heatmap link, options could be provided to see a list of students who haven’t, and perhaps just as importantly have accessed a given resource.  These students could then be contacted via mail merge either encouraging them to engage with the resource or activity, or praising them for doing so.

Using the browser addon architecture to integrate and aggregate other information services and data

The browser addons need not be limited to aggregating/synthesising information from only the server analytics component and Moodle.  Opportunities exist to integrate MAV with other initiatives at my institution such as the Student Support Indicators Project (SSI).  This integration can work in both directions.  Identify using MAV which students have not made use of critical resources or participated in activities, and then look up their student success factors through the SSI.  Similarly, on identifying a student within the SSI who is showing lower engagement with their course, redirect the lecturer to the Moodle course site with MAV switched on, and only showing the elements of the course used by the student, giving further detail to their behaviour.


Chatti, M. A., Dyckhoff, A. L., Schroeder, U., & Thüs, H. (2012). A reference model for learning analytics. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6), 318. Retrieved from

Leony, D., Pardo, A., Valentın, L. de la F., Quinones, I., & Kloos, C. D. (2012). Learning analytics in the LMS: Using browser extensions to embed visualizations into a Learning Management System. In R. Vatrapu, W. Halb, & S. Bull (Eds.), TaPTA. Saarbrucken: Retrieved May 25, 2013, from

Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart: defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Villachica, S., Stone, D., & Endicott, J. (2006). Performance Support Systems. In J. Pershing (Ed.), Handbook of Human Performance Technology (Third Edit., pp. 539–566). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

McLuhan’s Tetrad

McLuhan’s Tetrad comprises 4 laws of media that can be used to analyse the effects of technological change on society, rather than the causes.

Timothy Kraft describes the tetrad as:

The technology must enhance some capability of the person. The medium is an extension of the person.

The result is a retrieval of some earlier service or capability that was lost and is now brought back into play in a new form.

What is pushed aside and made obsolescent.

If the new media is taken to extreme what will result that reverses the original characteristics of the media when it was first introduced.

While the first three of the tetrad seem quite obvious to me, the fourth, “reverse” has troubled me somewhat.  McLuhan suggests that a medium “overheats”, or reverses into an opposing form, when taken to its extreme.

Reading articles of how people have interpreted and applied reversal to other medium has caused some confusion, as I think many who have written about the Reverse law of the tetrad may have misunderstood its meaning.  Or perhaps it is just different interpretations of what McLuhan defines as the reversal.  Or more likely, maybe I have it all wrong.🙂 After reading through some of the Canadian Library Archive notes about McLuhan’s work, and listening to a radio interview with Nina Sutton in 1975, it became more clear to me.  McLuhan says that when a medium is pushed to extremes, it reverses or flips into an alternate form.  In an excerpt of an interview with Nina Sutton hosted on the Library and Archives Canada webiste, McLuhan discusses the revolution of the steam printing press to the telegraph press.  When the telegraph press emerged, the way that people wrote for newspapers changed immediately and flipped.  The type of writing that was required for the telegraph was inverted so that all the very important information was transmitted first sentence, and then all the other information followed in order or most importance.  This was due to the risk of the transmission being interrupted, so that the critical information had the lowest risk of being lost.

The misunderstanding of the Reverse is derived from the word “extreme”.  I wonder whether the flipping or reversing is not a result of extremes of adoption as seems to be alluded in examples online such as here or even here where the more it is used, a flipping effect occurs. I take from McLuhan’s examples, the demonstration that it is extreme changes to the medium, rather than the application thereof that is the catalyst for the reversal.  I don’t know whether this is significant or not.  The flips that McLuhan speaks of are in response to extreme changes in the medium, that then have extreme impact on their use.  So the flipping of the steam press was a result of introducing the telegraph press, rather than changes in how they used the original steam press or how much the stream press was used.

A different take on an analogy for McLuhan’s press example for flipping or reverse, is with the mobile phone as described by Library and Archives Canada.  Mobile phones changed things a lot and brought to prominence aural communication, over written anywhere anytime.  However, the mobile phone taken to extremes saw the advent of SMS texting, which became very popular and evolved as a result of the high cost of mobile telephony.  SMS Text Messaging quickly became much more frequent than mobile phone calls.  So the mobile phone taken to the extreme (at the time) has flipped the prominence of aural communication to short written messages, perhaps akin to the telegraph.  Of course mobile phones have evolved considerably more since text messaging, and McLuhan in his radio interview with Nina highlighted the fact that there has been many “flips” in the printing press leading up to the 1975 interview.  So extremes seem to be able to persistently take on new heights again and again, flipping as they evolve.

Looking at internet technologies is considerably harder than the examples of printing presses and mobile phones, because the rate of change is significantly faster, and because of the modern convergences of technologies.  I also wonder whether many of these technologies have not yet reached the extremes necessary to cause a reversal.  Dan Pontefract’s article highlights the following reversals for Learning 2.0 as a medium:

  • Everyone is an expert
  • Content & opinion overload
  • 90-9-1 hypothesis
  • Time mismanagement
  • Learning groupthink
  • Loss of certified company staff

I suggest that each of these items is part of the extends or enhances category.  These are aspects of learning 2.0 that are enhanced, intensified, made possible, or accelerated as a result of the learning 2.0 medium’s introduction.  They are just some of the negative outcomes that sit along-side the positive ones, and likely emerged around the same time.  In other words as learning 2.0 extended positive things like formal classroom/eLearning, Social Networking/Web 2.0, Traditional Corporate University, and so on, it also extended the everyone is an expert paradigm, content & opinion overload and so on.

So what would I consider the reversals for learning 2.0?  Well I guess it depends on context.  My context in higher education and curriculum development appears different to Dan’s article which uses terms such as training which makes me think of VET type education rather than education via the academy.  This assumption may be incorrect of course.  Nevertheless, from a university context, the first thing that comes to mind in terms of pushing learning 2.0 to the extreme is the explosion of the MOOC concept.  Within higher education, MOOCs have flipped the learning 2.0 medium by breaking the mould of the traditional university course as being closed and elitist, to open and accessible.  It is the MOOC that has pushed learning 2.0 to extremes that has caused this flip, rather than the amount of people engaged in learning 2.0 in higher education.

The idea of the reverse law sings to the swings and round-a-bouts we see in technological circles.  McLuhan’s tetrad is a fascinating construct for analysing the influences of technology on society.