February 14, 2018

Adding RSS feeds in Moodle

As it's currently reading week at Warwick, why not use this opportunity to add some useful reading links to your Moodle page via the power of RSS feeds!

What is an RSS feed?

RSS feeds are a great way to provide your students with links to the latest content from external blogs, news, and other websites that may be of relevance to your module. It provides a constantly up-to-date list of the latest posts and articles from a chosen source, and is a really nice way to keep your page current and relevant without having to manually add new content.

So what does 'RSS' stand for? Well, there's actually some debate about that, but most people believe it stands for 'Really Simple Syndication'. Let's have a look at just how simple it is to set up...

Finding an RSS feed

First, establish the website that you want to draw content from. You'll then need to check that the site has its own RSS feed, so look out for a link or button with words 'RSS' and/or 'Feed', and in particular keep an eye out for the RSS icon, often shown in orange as below.

RSS icon

For this example, I'm going to use the BBC's Politics news feed and show how this can be embedded into Moodle. In this screenshot below, taken from the BBC Politics landing page, you can see the RSS feed icon that I've highlighted in the bottom-right. This one is quite small and not actually shown in orange (which demonstrates they can be a little tricky to spot at first), but nevertheless the feed is there.

BBC Politics website

On clicking that link you will usually be presented with the raw output of the latest posts, but it's not what we see on this page that's important but rather the link to the feed itself.

You'll need to copy the link to the RSS feed, either by right-clicking the link and choosing 'Copy link address' (or similar, depending on your browser), OR you can click on the link and then lift the URL from your browser's address bar, as pictured below. In this case, the URL is 'http://feeds.bbci.co.uk/news/politics/rss.xml', so this is what we need to copy to our clipboard.

BBC politics feed URL

Adding the RSS feed block

Firstly, you will need to 'Turn editing on' for the page via the cog in the far top-right of the module page. This will allow you to add content.

Next, at the bottom of the left-hand navigation menu, choose 'Add a block', as highlighted in red below. If you can't see the left-hand navigation menu, you may need to toggle it on by clicking the menu icon in the top-left of Moodle (also highlighted below).

Open menu and add block

You will then be presented with a list of possible blocks to add to your page. In this list, select 'Remote RSS feeds', as highlighted below.

RSS feed block in list

You will now see the (empty) 'Remote RSS feed' block appearing in the right-hand column of your module page, which you can now move, show/hide, or configure. It's the 'configure' option (via the cog drop-down) that we need to use to set up our feed.

Empty RSS feed block

Configuring an RSS feed

On the configure screen, you will see a number of options. You will also notice that there is a list shown of existing feeds that other colleagues have already added and made 'public' (feel free to make use of these if they look useful!).

To add your own feed (in this case the BBC Politics feed that we grabbed earlier) we need to click on the 'Add/edit feeds' link'.

Configure RSS feeds

Depending on your level of permissions, the next screen might show you some pre-existing feeds, or it might not. Either way, click on the 'Add a new feed' button at the bottom.

This will then take you to the next screen for adding a new feed, as shown below.

Add a new feed

You will need to paste in the RSS link that you copied earlier into the top box (Feed URL), and then you can choose to give it a custom title if you wish.

Naming it is optional, as the feed should generate its own title. In the case of this feed, the BBC actually provides an automatic title of 'BBC News - UK Politics', which is probably good enough. But, for some feeds you may wish to provide your own title for clarification, or perhaps just to shorten it. In the example above, I've decided to rename it 'BBC Politics'.

You also have the option to set it as a 'Shared feed'. This means that other colleagues at the University will be able to see it in the main list of existing feeds, but depending on their permissions they may be able to edit/delete it too! For this reason, I'd advise keeping this set to 'No', unless you have a good reason to do otherwise.

Click 'Add a new feed', which saves the feed and takes you back to the 'Manage all my feeds' page.

You now need to go back to the module landing page - the quickest way to do this is to click your module title in the 'breadcrumb trail' of links along the top. Then (as before) use the cog drop-down on the RSS side block and re-enter the configuration settings. You will then see your feed listed in the 'Choose the feeds...' list, which you can now select!

Select BBC Politics RSS

There are a few other options available on this screen which I will briefly explain:

  • Display each link's description - If the RSS feed supports it, you will get a brief description underneath the title/link to each resource.

  • Max number of entries to show per block - Pretty much what it says, but perhaps this should best be thought of as 'Max number of entries to show per feed' (see next point).

  • Choose the feeds... - As discussed, select your feed here. You can even select multiple feeds (by shift+clicking or ctrl+clicking), and then each feed will display the number of posts selected above - So in theory selecting 2 feeds with a max number of 5 would result in 10 posts in total on your block.

  • Title- If you want to rename the title of the block. If you leave this blank, you will get the title of the feed itself as the name of the block, which may be fine. I would definitely recommend inserting your own title if you are selecting multiple feeds, otherwise the block title will lift it from the first feed (which is a tad confusing).

  • Show a link to the original site - You will get a link saying 'Source site...' at the bottom of the block which will take you to the website of the feed provider (can be useful if you want to encourage students to read more articles, but note that this only works for the first feed if you select multiple feeds.

  • Show channel image if available - You may get an image/logo from the publisher at the top of the block, but not the words 'if available'... Some publishers don't provide them!

Due to the discrepancies discussed above in relation to 'number of entries' and 'title', I would tend to recommend only selecting one feed per block. Using multiple feeds per block can create some confusion, and you will be probably find the interface is cleaner and easier to manage if you simply add another block to your Moodle page and insert the second feed that way (if you actually want multiple feeds).

Hit 'Save changes' and you can then return to your module landing page and see the newly added feed on the right-hand side, as shown below (which may vary in appearance depending on the options you selected above).

BBC Feed added

And that's all you need to do! It may take you a few minutes to add/configure the feed, but once done you won't have to touch it again and you can benefit from a continuously updating list of news stories that will publish as links to your page whenever the publisher adds new content.

It's a great way to help make your module page feel fresh, current, and up-to-date, and also gives students more variety in terms of the range of sources that you direct them to read. We're already seeing some great uses of RSS feeds around the departments of PAIS, Philosophy, and Sociology at Warwick, so next time you're reading a relevant blog or website, do look out for the 'RSS Feed' icon and consider adding it to your Moodle page!

Any questions?

I hope this post will help you with adding RSS feeds to your Moodle page, and is something you may consider providing for students during reading week.

You can also find further support documentation over on moodle.org - Remote RSS feeds block.

If you have any queries or would like further support on your module page, please feel free to contact me.


February 07, 2018

Talis Aspire blocks in Moodle

Staff and students at Warwick can take advantage of the Talis Aspire reading lists to help organise and manage reading lists.

There are many advantages of using Aspire lists (compared to static reading lists), including better controls for integration with the library, the ability to link directly to resources, better sharing capabilities, features for tracking engagement, as well as ensuring a consistent approach across multiple modules.

It's also possible to automatically add a link in your Moodle module to the current year's reading list. In this post, we'll look at how to add and configure this feature on your Moodle page.

Adding the Talis Aspire side block

Firstly, you will need to 'Turn editing on' for the page via the cog in the far top-right of the module page. This will allow you to add content.

Next, at the bottom of the left-hand navigation menu, choose 'Add a block', as highlighted in red below. If you can't see the left-hand navigation menu, you may need to toggle it on by clicking the hamburger-style menu icon in the top-left of Moodle.

Add a block

You will then be presented with a list of possible blocks to add to your page. In this list, select 'Talis Aspire Resource Lists', as highlighted below.

Add the Talis Aspire block

The block will then be visible on your page (as shown below), and providing the current year's list has been correctly linked to your module within Talis then it should automatically display a link to the list, along with the number of entries it contains and the date it was last modified. It really is as easy as that!

Module with Talis block

Configuring the block

There are a few options available to you once the block has been added. You will need to ensure you clicked 'Turn editing on' for the module in order to see these options (This will already be the case if you have just added it via the instructions above!).

You can move the position of the block within the sidebar by dragging-and-dropping the 'arrows' icon shown below. You can also show/hide the block via the cog dropdown, and you can also use this dropdown to gain access to the 'Configure' settings for the block.

Reading list block options

Within the 'configure' settings, there are a few different options - But the one I would draw your attention to is the 'Display on page types' dropdown. This gives you three options to choose from, which determines where the block will be visible for students:

  • Any page
  • Any course page
  • Any type of course main page

The difference between these options may be a tad confusing at first, as they rely on a complicated combination of page types, page contexts, sub-pages, and permissions. There's a more detailed discussion around this over on the Moodle.org forums, but as a general rule of thumb: For Warwick's Moodle site, you should choose 'Any type of course main page' if you just want the block to appear on the module's landing page, or alternatively choose 'Any page' if you want it to appear both on the landing page AND any sub-pages.

These visibility options also apply to other Moodle blocks (such as the Echo 360 block) so it's worth knowing they are there. If in doubt, I'd stick with the default (usually 'Any type of course main page') as this is what most modules will be using.

Display on page types

Any questions?

I hope this post will help you with setting up your Talis Aspire reading block on your Moodle module page.

If you have any queries or would like further support on your module page, please feel free to contact me.


January 29, 2018

Adding mailto links in Moodle

As a course convenor, it's good practice to include your contact details in the opening section of your Moodle module, including your email address. To make things easier for your students to contact you, you can also create a clickable link (called a 'mailto' link) that instantly fires up an email to the convenor in the student's preferred email client.

This is a really simple tip that adds a nice usability boost to your Moodle page, but it has to be done in quite a specific way.

Adding a mailto link

Most module pages already have a space set up where the convenor's details are displayed, similar to the example below, so we'll skip over setting this up and jump straight to adding the mailto link.

No mailto set

In this example, the course convenor's name is a link that directs students to their staff profile on the web. This is indicated visually by the colour blue. The email address is currently visible, and students can manually highlight+copy+paste it into an email client, but it's not been set up as a link.

To edit the content and add the link, we first need to 'Turn editing on' for the module (via the cog in the far top-right of the page). Next, click on the smaller cog icon which will have now appeared at the bottom of the section (as shown above). You will find this right at the bottom of your opening section, which may not necessarily be immediately below the contact details, so you might need to scroll down to find it.

On the next screen, highlight the email address in the summary section editor, and click the 'link' button on the top-row of the toolbar as indicated in red below. You may also wish to 'copy' your email address to the clipboard (Ctrl+C / Cmd+ C) before clicking the link icon.

Link button

In the pop-up box that appears, you will now need to type 'mailto:' followed by your email address (which you can paste with Ctrl+V / Cmd+V if you copied it in the previous step).

This means the text box should read something like mailto:j.bloggs@warwick.ac.uk. Note that the 'mailto:' part needs to be added exactly as shown below, i.e. all one word and with a colon, but no space, before the email address.

Add mailto link

Now hit the 'Create link' button to add the mailto link, and then at the bottom of the page hit the 'save changes' button.

Checking the link works

Back on your module page, you will find the email address has now been visually styled as a link, and if you hover over it most browsers will indicate the destination of the link in the bottom-left corner of the window, as can be seen below.

Hovering over mailto

Clicking on this link will now launch our email client of choice, open up a new email, and populate the 'to' field automatically with the email address. The default email client for many people (if they are running Microsoft Office) will be Outlook (as shown below) but it can be configured to anything the user wants.

Composing an email in Outlook

Common pitfalls

There are two major things to watch out for when contact details are concerned, and even if you think your email link has been added it's always worth checking for these:

Firstly, if the 'mailto:' text has not been added in front of the email address, the link will break. In the case of Warwick's Moodle, if we create the link as simply j.bloggs@warwick.ac.uk then Moodle will actually interpret this as a webpage link to https://moodle.warwick.ac.uk/course/j.bloggs@warwick.ac.uk. This will launch a new page with an error message!

Secondly, sometimes when a course convenor has changed on a module, the text of their email address may have been updated but the mailto link might not have been updated.

Take a close look at the example below. It looks like the link will send an email to Joe Bloggs, but hovering over the link reveals that the mailto link will cause the email to be sent to Jane Doe instead!

Wrong mailto link

If you have this issue, simply edit the section as discussed earlier, then change the link target, being sure to retain the 'mailto:' text in front of it.

Any questions?

I hope this post will help you with checking your module's contact details and ensuring your email links are working as intended.

If you have any queries or would like further support on your module page, please feel free to contact me.


January 23, 2018

How to check if your Moodle sections are visible to students

The ability to hide/show sections in Moodle in an instant is a powerful way to control access to your content. For example, you may wish to temporarily hide a future part of your module until it is ready for release.

Unfortunately, when using certain course formats in Moodle, it's not always obvious which sections you have visible or hidden to students. As a result, sometimes we can forget that we have actually hidden a section when we in fact need it to be visible.

This is particularly common in cases where you might have inherited a module from a previous convenor, so it's always worth checking that all the sections you intend to make available really are visible.

In this post, we are going to see how you can check that your module page looks as it should to your students.

Topics format

If you are using the topics format (i.e. all your topics/weeks have their resources listed down the page) it's fairly clear which sections are visible and which are hidden. You will clearly see that the hidden sections are greyed out, indicating that they are not visible to your students.

In the screenshot below, the 'General resources' section is visible, while the 'Week 1: Introduction' is hidden.

In this image, the

Collapsed topics format

If you are using the 'collapsed topics' format, then it's not quite so obvious which sections are visible. If you take a look at the screenshot below, the only indication the 'Week 1: Introduction' is hidden is that it is written in italics.

Collapsed topics with the sections closed

Things are slightly easier to see when the collapsed topics are expanded, because in addition to the title being in italics we can also see that the resources are greyed out, similar to the standard 'topics' format.

Collapsed topics with the topics open

Grid format

Things get slightly trickier when we are using the 'grid' format. Unfortunately, there is no discernible difference in visible/invisible topics when viewing your module landing page, as you can see below.

Grid format

In this example, 'Week 1' is actually still hidden to students, but you wouldn't know it! If you click on 'Week 1' you will be able to see that the resources are greyed out, but this is time-consuming if you have lots of sections.

The best way to check if all your sections are visible is to 'Turn editing on' (via the cog in the top-right), and then scroll down the page to the editing area, where you will clearly see which sections are greyed out.

Grid format with the editing on

Here we can more easily scan down the list of topics and see that 'Week 1' is in fact greyed out (invisible).

Change a section's visibility

If we need to toggle a section's visibility, first we need to 'Turn editing on' for the page (via the cog icon in the top-right of the page). Then, alongside the section title we need to change, click the 'Edit' dropdown, and choose either 'Show section' or 'Hide section', as shown via the red highlights below.

Show section

Switch to student view

There is another, more reliable, method of checking your module page is displaying as intended, and that is by simulating a student view.

To do this, click the dropdown next to your name in the top-right, and then choose 'Switch role to...'.

Switch role to

On the next screen, you can choose 'Student' from the list options. This will take you back to your module so that you can view it as if you were a student (rather than an editing teacher) and you will now clearly see which sections are visible. Any invisible sections or resources will simply not display at all!

Switch role to student

To exit student view and return to your normal role, simply click the dropdown next to your name again, and choose 'Return to my normal role', as shown below.

Return to my normal role

Any questions?

I hope this post will help you with checking your module page and ensure all the right sections are visible to your students.

If you have any queries or would like further support on your module page, please feel free to contact me.


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