Moodle 3.9.1: Upgrade and First Impressions

Moodle 3.9 was released in June 2020 with a minor update released in July (3.9.1). Major changes include H5P integration, improvements to accessibility and the ability to copy courses. I’ve just installed the new version and these are my first impressions.

So as usual I wasn’t actually planning on upgrading my Moodle instance. I’ve been planning to write a blog post about creating interactive video using Camtasia vs. H5P (the Moodle plugin rather than the WordPress plugin) when I hit a snag. The H5P plugin uses the Font Awesome library and I noticed that half of the buttons used on the interface of the plugin weren’t appearing. After uninstalling the plugin and troubleshooting the issue, it looked like the problem was to do with the way the site fetches the fonts. I just couldn’t get it to work and rather than hacking around with it I decided to try upgrading the instance instead.

The installation process

I always seem to find the Moodle installation process painful – this is because my internet upload speed is dire when transferring files over FTP. I’ve found the last two upgrades particularly painful and they’ve never worked right away and there has always been a degree of troubleshooting – UNTIL NOW! I actually decided to ditch the Moodle recommended installation process and do it my own way instead. I can afford to take these types of risk as the site has very few students accessing it.

So this time I didn’t bother with a backup (!) it takes too long. The entire site is backed up weekly and I have a manual backup from a few months ago – not a lot has changed. My process was:

  1. Download the new version of Moodle
  2. Upload the new version to a folder called new_moodle
  3. Rename the old folder moodle_old
  4. Change the name of the new folder to moodle
  5. Check and upload the config.php file

One thing I did differently this time was not to change the location of the moodledata folder. Because this lives outside of the installation folder, there’s no need to upload it again. This saved loads of time and I don’t know why I didn’t do this previously. I was literally downloading it in a backup then reuploading it.

Once installed, the Moodle screen appears with a list of all the new changes and settings. I actually just kept all the defaults here as I thought I’d come back to it later if needed. When I’m in, the first thing I notice is a new menu labelled “Content Bank” after doing some research this is now where the H5P content needs to be stored.

New Features – H5P

The good news is the upgrade fixed the Font Awesome library issue and interactive video is now working. The H5P plugin is now integrated into Moodle, so it doesn’t need to be downloaded as a plugin anymore. However, it was confusing to get it working. Previously you’d select the content you wanted to add into your course then just…well….add it. Now you need to find a template from the H5P website, download it, upload it into the content bank THEN create your own content based off the template.

Not only that, you have to download a template for every content type, so I had to individually (as there is no bulk tool) download and upload all the templates one by one. Only then could I start building out my content. Although the initial setup was a bit of a head-scratcher, the content bank does seem to offer more flexibility in regard to reusing content more easily throughout the site.

New Features – Copying a Course

Now this was a feature I was very excited about, the ability to easily copy a course. Previously if you wanted to do this, you had to export and import a course, which was just slow and messy. Turns out the new process isn’t that much better.

To copy a course all you need to do is select the Copy Course option from the settings cog, choose a course name, a course code and decide whether to hide it or show it. You’re then taken to a “Course copy progress” page which displays the current operation with a progress bar. The process of kicking this off was a lot easier, but it didn’t seem to be any quicker. In fact to copy my test course (which is literally made up of about 6 activities) took a couple of hours (!) to complete. I also couldn’t cancel this once it had started. Obviously the time this takes is going to vary depending on your web host and infrastructure.

Copying a course: Progress screen

Perhaps there something in this course the copy function didn’t like….

Accessibility Improvements

The Atto text editor (or “content editor” or “moodle text editor” as I often refer to it in layman’s terms) has had an update which allows content to be more friendly to people using AT. Examples include changing some of the HTML e.g. b tag to strong and i tag to em. I have to admit this is something I often forget to do so having it automatically apply this in the editor will be useful.

Safe Exam Browser

The safe exam browser allows learners to complete a quiz in a secure/cheat proof environment. Students will still need to download the browser, but it’s useful to have all the settings and information available to implement into the quiz in Moodle. Again, this is another integration so no plugin needed. I experimented with this a bit, but not enough to write about the experience. I might leave this for another blog post.

Summary

I’m looking forward to continuing my experiments and using all the features 3.9 has to offer but at this stage I am slightly underwhelmed. I’ve found the new features a bit clunky and they haven’t really improved my workflow. I’m hopeful that with more use maybe my opinion will change. I’d always advise upgrading software when available as alongside new features bugs are usually fixed and security flaws are patched. Depending on how large and complex your Moodle instance is testing in a sandbox is always recommended.

This has been a brief snapshot of my experience of 3.9 over a couple of hours of use. The features I have mentioned are just a few new improvements included in the update. If you want a full breakdown of all the fixes and improvements make sure to check out the release notes.

Resources

After I finished writing this post I found a video which sums up the new update and outlines some of the features (see below!).

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