Moodle 1.9 Theme Design

Posted on 16 June 2010, 12:19
Last updated 16 June 2010, 12:32

Having spent some time talking to users and exploring what they actually wanted from technology enhanced learning, I’ve been playing with Moodle themes and functionality to get comfortable with the sorts of changes we would need. I was just getting down to the serious business of overhauling the aesthetics and design of our site when Packt Publishing asked for reviewers for Moodle 1.9 Theme Design: Beginner's Guide by Paul Gadsdon. I hoped this would be an ideal opportunity to get not only good step-by-step instructions, but also some insight on the do’s, don’ts and processes involved in customising the site interface. I’m pleased to say the book delivered exactly that.

First impressions: The preface is nice and clearly structured – if you’re familiar with the Packt style you can skip ahead, but this nicely details what the book covers; where and how key elements will be presented and drawn to your attention. Overall this is a hefty tome containing structured information and graphical displays that can support the novice with little or no experience of web development or coding languages. Those with more advanced technical skills or who’ve already experimented with themes can skip ahead a few chapters to find meatier content.

To give the author his due Chapter 1- Introduction to Moodle is well written and gives a clear overview for those new to online learning environments, but I strongly suspect anyone buying this book with intent to use it already knows what Moodle is and does - anyone who needs this chapter probably isn’t ready for the rest of the book.

The next few chapters cover logging in to Moodle, locating and using the themes folder, downloading new themes and browsers through to making simple customisations. Some of this is very basic and covered in documents, but from the view of a beginner with no technical expertise tasked with customising their institutional Moodle this book provides easy step by step references and establishes good practice (not least do your developing on a test site rather than the live platform). Even experienced web developers would do well to refresh their memory with considerations of accessibility and usability; particularly given that many countries now have legislation in place specifically targeted at ensuring educational resources are accessible.

A minor quibble - file paths (e.g. where to find themes) and tools (e.g. zip genius) are specific to the installation of the author, and may be different for others depending on what, how and where Moodle and associated software are installed. Those who are experienced in file management or with alternative software will not find this a problem – but for the beginner it’s worth making this crystal clear.

As you reach the middle of the book understanding your target audience, branding and prototyping are discussed, highlighting the importance of these aspects. Very easy to follow instructions are given for putting together a sample theme, which will develop your understanding of the style sheet structure and how each change affects the aesthetics of the site, proving a solid grounding in the methodology for both customising an existing theme and for building a new one from scratch.

The methodology of additive theme building used – i.e. placing new code within a new page rather than heavily editing the existing theme should be commended as it enables the user to incorporate potentially complex new functionality into any future theme activity very easily, rather than having to recode from scratch. Added to this the ‘slice and dice’ approach of taking elements from one theme to include in another is also common practice, but for the uninitiated it rapidly reduces the potential workload of developing an entire new theme, a daunting piece of work once you consider the range of elements to incorporate such as the icon set, which has a significant impact on the usability and consistent feel of a site.

A key advantage in using a reference book such as this is that the instructions are comprehensive and supports the novice coder building a site that works effectively and addresses the needs of users. While there are plenty of video tutorials available that can talk you through elements of theming, they tend to focus on how a specific look or function was achieved, and gloss over consistency and coding issues that are picked apart in detail within the written format. This allows the user to gain a better understanding of why some theme elements are best developed in specific ways, such as taking a thin vertical slice of a graduated background graphic and repeating the slice rather than inserting a large graphic, ensuring a smoother finished look when resizing pages on-screen.

If you’ve taken the time to work through the sample exercises, by the time you reach the end of the book you’ll certainly be ready for the more advanced elements such as changing the look and feel of the course categories and blocks. Understanding where to start to ensure the presentation of the course page and core modules such as forums matches the style of the rest of your theme is extremely useful, and as with the rest of this book is explained clearly in an easy to follow format. This alone probably saved me a day of experimental tweaking and exploring code, as I now know which elements I’m looking for when I do this for real, and what to change ‘under the hood’ to get the desired result of a consistent, interesting and well designed site that doesn’t suffer from ‘out of the box syndrome’.


Profile Information

Gordon McLeod's profile picture

I am the eLearning & Innovation Officer for the College of Arts, advising on Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching at strategic and local levels, facilitating project activity, and providing specialist support to the 4 Schools of the CoA on Digital Learning, Moodle, Mahara portfolio, and all aspects of eLearning, online assessment and learner engagement.

Before taking up this role I was the Learning Technologist for the School of Veterinary Medicine for 7 years, transforming curriculum delivery into a fully blended interactive syllabus, and supporting staff and students develop confidence in using multimedia, eLearning and technology, with a particular focus on Moodle and Mahara. Previously I was the Learning Technologist for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, encouraging use of technology, digital and social media within performing arts education.

My past career includes roles as Learning Innovation Officer at Skills Development Scotland and learndirect scotland, managing the national learning bytes online platform, leading on EQUAL funded partnership projects, and delivering services to enhance learning opportunities nationally, Course Manager and Lecturer roles in Life Sciences within FE/HE institutions in England, and several years conducting research in applied animal behaviour and welfare, with a particular focus on zoo and exotic animals.

My core job interests include service design, accessibility and usability, learner engagement and creative approaches, gamification, eLearning development, and instructional design.

Contact Details:
Gordon McLeod | eLearning & Innovation Officer

College of Arts | University of Glasgow | 6 University Gardens | Glasgow G12 8QQ

  • First name: Gordon
  • Last name: McLeod
  • Occupation: Learning Technologist