Saturday, July 3, 2010

Moodle 1.9 Theme Design: A Review

So you've been using Moodle for a while now and want to add some pizazz to your site. There's a new book out which will help you do just that.

Moodle 1.9 Theme Design: Beginner's Guide by Pail Gadsdon, is what you will need to get you started designing a site which is appealing to your users and reflects your own personality.

I'm relatively new to Moodle. My school district has set up a Moodle site which I have been using to develop a hybrid "Advanced Library Research" course on. I haven't really even had the time to experiment with the built-in Moodle themes.

I'm not a designer. As a matter of fact if there is any skill I'd spend time on getting to know better (if I had the time) design is what I'd like to explore. But this guide says it's for beginners so I thought I'd give it a try.
I am a very basic HTML user. I started my website using Netscape Composer and then migrated over to Adobe Dreamweaver several years ago. I still don't use many of the features available. For example, I just recently got to the point where I think I can use the template feature which could be very helpful as my site has many, many pages and it would be useful to not have to change things on each page or just copy a page when I want to make a new one. I do use the split view in DW so I can see the code. (I'm an old WordPerfect fan and can't stand the fact that MS Word doesn't show where those hidden codes are when editing.

Although the author expects the reader to have some understanding of HTML and CSS, the book takes you through the process of creating a theme in a step-by-step way that you can feel like you can work with the material and not feel out of your depth as you go along.

Chapter 1 provides an over view of virtual learning environments (which Moodle is) and a short introduction to Moodle itself and the skills and tools you will need to enhance Moodle themes.
Chapter 2 explains how Moodle's standard themes are applied and how you can download and add a non-standard theme to Moodle.
Chapter 3 shows how to change the header logo and footer details. It also reminds the user to check the appearance in different web browsers.
The next chapter looks at adjusting background colors and fonts using CSS. Accessibility issues are also discussed at the end of this chapter.
Layout issues are explored in chapter 5 and this was where I began to see the real value of this book. I'd seen other Moodle sites and noticed they looked quite a bit different from one another. I now saw how I could make my site look more custom-made and user-friendly.
As I stated at the outset, design is not my strong suit, so chapter 6 is very important for a user like me. It's where you begin to learn about "knowing your audience" and understanding the goals of the site before actually beginning to design something appropriate for your Moodle users. Once you've more or less made those decisions, the question remains: where do all those neat graphics come from and how do you make them fit the pages you've begun to develop? The chapter shows how to find and download themes for various age groups and types of users (young children, older students, college-aged patrons, disabled, etc.) as well as general design tips. The software used by the author is Adobe Photoshop but the instructions could be applied to any of a number of software products including some freely available ones.
Chapters 7 and 8 pull all the elements of our theme together from creating the mock up to testing the various components such as links, fonts, headings, background, and icons, and testing the various components as they are changed.
The final two chapters, both titled Under the Hood, consider how to style navigation, login screen, core functionality and modules, of your Moodle site.

I'm really looking forward to using this book to help me make my Moodle site as attractive as it can possibly be so my students will want to come back again and again to collaborate, complete assignments, and communicate with me a each other.

All in all, I think this would be a very useful book for anyone working with Moodle 1.9 to improve the appearance of their site. Although Moodle 2.0 is due sometime this summer many folks around the world will be using Moodle 1.9 for a long time to come so it should prove useful to those of us without much experience with design or knowledge of HTML or CSS.