Moodlefairy does Languages in Russia (Part 2: Languages)

Note: This blog is in two parts – the first about Moodle and Language teaching, the second only about Language teaching. So read one, both or neither, depending on your interests!

During the three days of the ITMO conference, I was delighted to attend, as a regular participants, sessions on ESP teaching. These were practical, active, hands-on, engaging sessions – exactly the kind of methods you’d like to think students would be experiencing! As with all good conferences, I couldn’t attend simultaneous sessions and so, sadly, had to choose some and miss out on others. I enjoyed Head of ITMO Foreign Languages dept Yulia V. Ryabukhina’s session on Project and Problem-based learning (two different things), particularly as we were constantly questioned, asked to reflect, to think, to predict what happened with her real-life example class. Yulia also chaired a panel discussion on the Role of Materials in Student Motivation during ESP classes.  On the panel were representatives from three publishers and there  was much talk of the huge preparation time needed to provide learners with interesting and relevant ESP materials. It occurred to me that Moodle users (and maybe non-Moodle users?) should  have this problem alleviated with the advent of resource sharing in the new MoodleNet. It’s worth keeping an eye on the ongoing progress of this new, open, social media platform for educators.

Discussion Panel

Elena Belyaeva of St Petersburg State University (and formerly my son’s manager!) did an excellent and interactive workshop on authentic learning for students. I was particularly interested in this because I know the difficulty of providing authentic materials for foreign language learners. Elena’s take on this was that she didn’t only mean authentic paper materials – but an authentic experience. So she took us through  a typical experience her students have where they first discuss the benefits and drawbacks of studying abroad, they then research possible scholarships (with differentiated tasks and more or less assistance depending on their needs) and eventually will produce a scholarship application. It’s authentic because, as graduate physics students they may well be doing this. Elena even thought to make our own workshop experience authentic by having us research teaching scholarships rather than Physics graduate ones. (Sadly for me, one of them required Russian nationality!) In undertaking these tasks we first reflected on our own, then with a partner, then with a different partner – I was reminded of ‘think/pair/share’.

Elena Belyaeva

This active, student-centred learning was very present in another workshop I attended – and unfortunately my poor photographic skills meant my pictures aren’t good enough to show. (Yes, they’re of even poorer quality than the ones  I have chosen to show!!!) That’s a shame because the workshop was run by Aleksandra Shparberg and Maryam Reyhani (EMI co-ordinator) from ITMO University. (Maryam is from Perth Australia -home of Moodle!) The two delivered a masterful double act, from the first five minutes when we all had to get to know each other via paper aeroplanes to the last five minutes where we were each teaching the group about considerations in English as a Medium of Instruction. By the end I really, really wanted to be part of their department! I wanted to be a teacher again, to inspire and engage and all the things  I had forgotten I’d enjoyed during my 28 years teaching.

The final keynote was delivered by Robert Cote of the University of Arizona. He’s visited before, several times and he intends to return. “Though our governments and presidents may not get along, the people certainly do.”

Robert’s presentation was full of interesting and entertaining facts and information along with many practical hints for getting the most out of your English language learning students.

English Prevalence

I loved the TV news and weather reports, and was reminded that I did that years ago with my own students, at a much lower level, but with their enthusiasm nonetheless. He also encourages blogging and I realised that my own personal learning Russian blog, while useful as a self-disciplinary task, really ought to be written in Russian now my skills are improving. Or some of it at least. I’ll think about it :)

Big thanks to ITMO for allowing me to attend the conference. It was a pleasure both from a Moodle and a Languages point of view. And, of course, thanks for the lovely cakes!

ITMO Cakes


Moodlefairy does Languages in Russia (Part 1: Moodle)

Note: This blog is in two parts – the first about Moodle and Language teaching, the second only about Language teaching. So read one, both or neither, depending on your interests!

While British, Russian and American politicians engage in serious handbag flailing, ordinary people in each country are getting on with each other and with their lives. Thus it was that I arrived in St Petersburg last week to attend a conference on English for Specific Purposes at the prestigious ITMO university. Several of the English faculty completed our Learn Moodle Basics MOOC in January (Quick plug: sign up now for the June 3.5 MOOC!) and so  I was invited to give an overview of Moodle and its possiblities for teaching English. Apart from a brief time during my student days, I have never actually taught English to non-native speakers, but I have taught foreign languages to native English speakers, and as I discovered, the skills are very transferable. So transferable in fact, that by the second day of the conference I began to think I’d taken the wrong career path thirty years ago – but it’s a bit late now!


I started by explaining the background to the Moodle open source software, as the conference participants ranged from those whose universities used it fully to those who’d never heard of it, from those who used it on their own within a higher education establishment to primary and secondary school teachers who saw its potential for their classes. This is where Moodle has real value: with technical knowledge you can install it and maintain it yourself, for free; as an individual teacher you can use MoodleCloud offerings where the hard work is done for you, or if you have money and specific needs you can engage a Moodle Partner. See all three options here.

I then went on to highlight the benefits of Moodle when teaching languages, be that ESP, as at the conference, or other Modern Foreign Languages, as in my own experience. For ease of explanation, I divided it up into four areas, and below is a summary. I chose to talk only of standard or free plugins, although I do know there are some very good paid options for language teaching with Moodle as well.


  • Easily drag and drop your reading materials (such as PDFs) onto the course page in seconds
  • Make your readings more accessible to mobile app and device users with Moodle’s Page  resource and Book resource. (I was keen to point out how Moodle’s mobile app allows students to access all standard activities and offers offline access if the internet is poor or costly)
  • Use Moodle’s superior quiz features: while many learning platforms, apps and sites offer different quiz question types, none offers the number and functionality that Moodle’s quiz does. Worried your students might benefit from guessing in multiple-choice quizzes? Use the Certainty based marking feature. Need to control the order in which students answer questions? Use Conditional questions. Not satisfied with the standard question types? Choose from the many contributed question types (such as WordSelect from Titus Learning’s Marcus Green)


  • As with your documents, easily drag and drop your own sound and video files, and remember too that Pages and Books display external media such as YouTube videos very well….
  • as do Assignments. Offer a student an embedded YouTube video to watch/listen to and set them a writing task to summarise it
  • Use the popular, free and trustworthy RecordRTC plugin to record extracts of poems which students must respond to in quizzes: UPDATE: This plugin is now standard in Moodle 3.5 in the Atto editor!


  • Video conferencing. There are many options out there. Big Blue Button, the open-source video conferencing system integrates beautifully with Moodle if you wish to communicate with your learners out of class – or if you want them to communicate with each other remotely…
  • and if you want to set a speaking homework, RecordRTC’s video option allows your learners to make a mini-presentation as an assignment. (I did a demo of this too but I’m not going to display myself here!) UPDATE: This plugin is now standard in Moodle 3.5 in the Atto editor!


  • For non-graded or collaborative writing, Moodle’s wiki activity serves you well. Or why not embed a Google doc (or Microsoft equivalent)?
  • For graded written tasks Moodle’s Assignment activity offers a rich variety of features – too many for the time I had. Did you know you can set a word limit, allow groups to submit, annotate and comment directly on submissions, use percentages, letter grades or any complex rubric you choose?
  • Need a template for scaffolding with less confident students? You can upload an additional file to aid students in an assignment but you can also provide a template in  the Quiz essay question
  • Want Moodle to do your essay grading? Sadly  we’re not there yet! But there are some options worth exploring, which go some (small) way towards it. These contributed plugins rely on the teacher inputting key phrases, words, expressions which the student should include, and the essay is graded according to how many are included. The most powerful (and complex) of these  is the UK Open University’s Pattern Match . I have also heard of, but have not personally tried, Gordon Bateson’s Essay auto-grade, only available on Github. (Gordon moodles in Japan, and a couple of years back, I was lucky enough to attend the Japanese Moodle Moot where I spent several blissful days in the company of English language teachers using Moodle. They’d get on well with ITMO university English teachers :) ) I chose  to demo the Essay question from H5P – a free open source product that also integrates with Moodle.  Explore the H5P Moodle plugin here.  Here’s a really basic example:


Some ideas for all subjects, not just English and other language teachers:

.. that leads neatly into a Competencies  and Learning plans in ESP courses workshop I was fortunate enough to attend on the second day of the conference. This was run by John Kuti of ITMO and was in the style of a worldcafe, where we sit in groups at different tables, explore an issue, move around, and so on. We did it as a kind of Musical chairs with added Learning! (Hence the triangle…)


We looked at the Common European Framework Reference for Languages and how it could be enhanced for ESP teaching, and how such a competency framework would fit into a Moodle course. John helpfully had a sample learning plan and competencies set up in a course on his Moodle site for participants to explore. (Download the CEFR as a  Moodle Competency framework from here.)

In Part 2 I’ll focus on the other sessions I attended, not directly Moodle -related, but putting me back into Languages Heaven :)



Learn Moodle Basics Week 4: Ticking all the boxes

As the Learn Moodle 3.4 Basics MOOC draws to a close (last official day Sunday 4 Feb), participants are busy ensuring all the activity completion boxes are ticked so they can download either their completion certificate (35 activities including a peer assessment workshop) or achievement certificate (34 activities, without the workshop for those who didn’t organise themselves to meet the deadline) It’s often the manual completion boxes that get left until last and cause confusion – participants just need a quick reminder that they must tick them themselves, and they’re away! This final week  also sees a flurry of participants starting new discussions multiple times in the Introduce yourself! forum to get the completion tick, sadly because they simply didn’t read the instructions.

Introduce Yourself

On the other hand, it is thanks to the eagle eyes of our MOOC participants that bugs with Moodle features get noticed and fixed. Each run of our MOOC results in improvements to Moodle core and plugins for the community as a whole – an excellent benefit.

On another positive note, what has been particularly heartwarming this time has been the number of responses to participants posting their practice courses for review in the Show us your Moodle course! forum. With such a huge group of participants, it’ s difficult for everyone to get feedback, but it is encouraging that there are fewer courses with no replies. This is in part thanks to our regular MOOCers and thanks to experienced Moodlers who enrol in a lot of courses to offer suggestions. Ideally, everyone who shares their practice course should get at least one reply with feedback but we’re not there yet. I personally vow to engage more in this review activity next time.

Did I say next time? Yes! The next MOOC - Learn Moodle 3.5 Basics – will start on June 18 for four weeks until July 15. Sign up will be announced on our social media channels (and I will post on here too) nearer the time. Why not just enable sign-up now? Believe it or not, MOOC work doesn’t end when the MOOC ends :) Behind the scenes, facilitators and administrators have to close down the current course and prepare for the new course. To give you an idea, here are a few of the jobs which must be done:

  • make a copy of the current MOOC and restore it so there is a framework to adapt for next time
  • change permissions on the current MOOC so participants can no longer engage in it (for example post in forums) in the absence of facilitators and official monitoring
  • change dates and wording in line with the next run
  • delete all the current practice courses after February 18th
  • go methodically through the Feedback responses and Tell us what you’ve learned! forum, noting down suggestions for improvements
  • discuss in a debriefing session which improvements to make
  • get various statistics to share in a later report (keep an eye on if you want to know our completion figures :) )
  • …and more! (Not to mention the ongoing work of keeping the site version up to date and updating the materials)

We have a checklist for such tasks and tick them off as we go along. In fact, ticking boxes was mentioned in one of the forum threads this week, and we’re very happy to read it:

Ticks Boxes

Learn Moodle MOOC week 3: We’re all in it together

Week 3 of our Learn Moodle 3.4 Basics MOOC is all about learning together: practice courses are being shared and the My home country workshop submissions are being automatically allocated to participants to peer assess and experience the process of one of Moodle’s most powerful activities.

While it’s possible to ‘teach yourself Moodle’ and work efficiently in isolation, reading and watching the materials, trying them in your practice course, it’s not only more satisfying but more fun if you can engage with other learners as you do so. We keep coming back to the referents of social constructionism laid out by Chief Moodler Martin Dougiamas in the documentation on Pedagogy, and in particular this one:

All of us are potential teachers as well as learners – in a true collaborative environment we are both.

Thus it’s great to see participants commenting on each other’s courses in the Show us your Moodle course! forum:

Show us Course feedback

Although the MOOC is in English, participants are welcome to post in their own language and are well supported by others. As a result of this, practice courses may also be shared in languages other than English:

Russian Share course

There is a YouTube playlist of videos for the course. Our Greek Moodle partner WIDE Services already translated the subtitles into English, and we thank two course participants Alejandro Vásquez and Mónica Sánchez for their Spanish translations :) Anyone who wishes to is welcome to translate Moodle HQ YouTube videos into other languages.

The other main event of  Week 3 is the ongoing peer assessment workshop. This really is a collaborative effort, and it is this aspect which unfortuntately causes some confusion amongst participants. It is mentioned right at the start of the course in the Important dates page and the Week  1 tutorial that this activity is the only deadline out of 35 activities. Participants must submit a short piece of work ( 3 sentences, an image and a link to a website, all about your home region) before the 24th January. It is also emphasised that the quality of this work does not matter – the object of the exercise is to experience peer assessment with the workshop. The deadline of 24 January is so that Moodle can then hand out to participants five pieces of work from other participants and they then have until January 31st to assess them according to simple criteria. In our final live BBB session on 26 January we again welcomed Helen Foster who screenshared as her test student demonstrating how to do the peer assessments:

BBB Session 26 Janfter the 31st January, we check all is good and close the workshop. Only when the workshop is officially closed do participants receive their completion mark and only when they receive their completion mark will they be able to download their certificate of completion. So you see, we only have a couple of days before the weekend and the course ends for this to take place. For this reason and because of the large number of participants we don’t allow late submissions. (It’s also good for educators to experience deadlines to better empathise with their students.)

At the moment, it’s not possible for participants to submit and peer assess at their own pace. When it is, it will be a great boost to our MOOC!  In the meantime, knowing participants are busy, we offer them as long as possible to submit their three sentences, image and link (between 15 and 8 days depending on the path you take) and then a full week afterwards to peer assess in the hope as many as possible will find the time. And no need to worry if you were too busy during those three weeks (or reading the instructions slipped your mind) because we have a new  certificate of achievement for everyone who completes 34 out of the 35 required activities. I’m  looking forward to the end of next week to see how many participants complete the course (all 35 required activities, including the workshop) and how many do well enough to obtain the certificate of achievement too. Watch this space :)

And the last word, again, goes to one of our reflective bloggers:Reflective blog


Learn Moodle MOOC week 2: Endless learning!

Indeed :) Learning knows no bounds, has no limits in this latest Learn Moodle 3.4 Basics MOOC, according to some participants:

Endless learning

While this is a lovely thing to hear, other participants in week 1 felt a bit overwhelmed, thinking they needed to watch, read and do absolutely everything. In week 2 they’re feeling more confident, helped by the wise advice of a fellow learner:

Wise advice

We often get people doing the MOOC several times, and one of our regulars explains why here:

Taking the course again

Week 2 of the MOOC includes a peer-assessment activity, Moodle’s powerful workshop. This has always caused confusion with some people not understanding why their completion tick is not immediately visible. Each time we try to improve the explanations a little to make it clearer, and I’m pleased to note that we haven’t had as many queries about the process as previously. (We’ve still had some though!) In our live video session on Friday, Community Manager Helen Foster shared her screen  as a student submitting the workshop, while Research Analyst Elizabeth Dalton fielded questions in the chat box.

BBB live session

Encouraged to reflect on their learning, participant blogs continue to highlight useful aspects of Moodle – such as comments about the Atto editor:

Reflections in blogs


As for facilitators – a couple of things we’ve learned this week:

  • there can be confusion over how courses with dates appear in the course overview. Some participants panic if they think their course has disappeared, when in fact they changed its start/end date and it’s simply in another tab
  • there is also confusion over the location of the live sessions and their recordings. We assumed that everyone would know to click the link Live session to join in and would know to click the same link to access the recording, but it seems we didn’t clarify this, so we’ll make sure to do so next time :)

Week 3 is probably my favourite week, not only because participants are exploring each other’s courses but also because there are optional mobile activities. We feel designing for mobile is very important so we have included this for those who’d like to learn more.

Not signed up for Learn Moodle 3.4 Basics  yet? There’s still time! But if you want a certificate of completion, you only have two days to submit to the only activity with a deadine.. so be quick :)