Experimenting with Moodle LMS – risk-free!

Are you new to Moodle LMS? Worried that you might break something in your Moodle LMS-based site? You are not alone. This is more common than you might think. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to minimize any risk and allow you to experiment and try things to your heart’s content almost risk-free (no guarantees in life except death, right?).

Develop courses on your live Moodle LMS site

If you are developing a course, I always recommend that you do it on your live server to make sure all the links work as expected. When you create a course on a different course development site and then move it to your production site, you may discover that some links that you manually inserted still point to the development site. Instead, develop your course on your site, and then set the course’s visibility setting to Hide so that the course will not appear on your Moodle site until you are ready to have it go live.

If all you are doing is working in a course, this can be perfectly safe. Periodically backup your course and download it to your computer. If anything goes wrong, just delete the whole course and restore your latest backup. If you want to experiment and have the capability of creating new courses, you can easily make a copy of your course in its current state and experiment on the copy. Then apply your newfound knowledge to your course in development.

Cloud-based public Moodle LMS site

Cloud-based Moodle LMS sites are simple, quick and completely free solutions that are available to the public. Anyone can sign in as a Student, Teacher, Manager or other role with very few restrictions.

Head on over to the official Moodle demo site where you will find links to two demo Moodle sites:

  • Mount Orange School: This is a Moodle site which is fully configured similar to the way an actual school might be set up, complete with courses and faculty accounts.
  • Moodle Sandbox: This is typically an empty Moodle site, similar to what you might see when installing Moodle for the first time.

The catch? There are several limitations that you should be aware of:

  1. The sites are shared and open to the world. Do not put any information on these sites that you would not want others to see.
  2. Even if you make the biggest mistake that you can possibly imagine (like deleting the whole site), you need not worry because these sites are completely reset every hour of every day.
  3. The amount of time remaining can be seen in the (?) popup menu in the bottom right corner of the screen. Don’t start anything that might take more than the time remaining or you might not be able to finish up. If you start creating a course and want to keep it for your own Moodle site, be sure to back it up and download it before the site resets or it will be gone in the blink of an eye when the hour is up.

Want to try out 3rd party plugins? Checkout plugins.moodlebites.com, a free site provided by HRDNZ, which hosts around 60 Moodle plugins.

If you don’t have a live Moodle LMS site yet and are just itching to get started developing your course, you can get a 45-day free trial account on MoodleCloud. Unless you plan on continuing with this service after the free trial period, be sure to backup and download your course before your 45 days are up so that you can upload your course to your live site.

Backup/Restore tips: Some things like glossary entries and badges are not included in backups unless you have users enrolled in the course, you include them in the backup and restore them with the course. It is therefore always a good idea to try restoring your course to make sure the backup captured its entire contents. This applies regardless of the type of Moodle site on which you are backing up your course.

Personal Moodle LMS on your computer

Moodle packages for Windows

What if you are working with confidential or proprietary information that you don’t necessarily want to share with the world? Or perhaps you want to try doing some development in Moodle, are curious to see what happens when you sign in as an administrator, or have concerns about how to backup/restore a course, or want to perform bulk actions by uploading a CSV file into Moodle. Maybe you are thinking of trying out some Moodle themes or other plugins, to see what it is like or to test them out before installing these on your live site.

Moodle is available as an installable Moodle package for Windows, available for free, that you can download and install on your computer. Be sure to get permission from your employer first if you want to install this on a business computer.

Although this article only describes a solution for working on a Windows-based PC, Mac OS X users will be able to find similar information on installing a Moodle package on Mac OS X.

Tip: Choose the Moodle LMS version that is closest to the version that you are or will be using on your live production site. These packages include everything you will need to get Moodle up and running on your personal computer including a web server, database server and programming languages.

DO NOT consider using these packages for a production-facing site.

The web server and database server in these packages are not configured to be secure or to handle more than just a few concurrent users. You may also find it slower than a properly configured production site on a Linux server.

Setting up a personal instance of Moodle LMS is a bit more involved than the method mentioned in the previous section:

  1. In your web browser, download the Moodle package for Windows that best matches the version used on your live site.
  2. In Windows Explorer, navigate to where you downloaded the ZIP file and right-click on it.
  3. a) Slow method: If you do not have 7-Zip installed, select Extract All, uncheck the Show extracted files when complete checkbox and then click on the Extract button in the dialogue box that will appear; OR
    b) Fast method: If you do have the free 7-Zip tool installed on your computer, select 7-zipExtract to <TheFilename> where <TheFilename> is the name of the file that you downloaded without the .zip filename extension. 7-zip can extract files from a ZIP archive in a fraction of the time that Windows takes and Moodle LMS sure does include a lot of files.
  4. Right-click on the folder created by the extraction process in the previous step and select Rename to rename the new folder to moodle. It does not have to be this particular name but the folder’s name must only contain letters (a-z, A-Z), numbers (0-9) and/or dashes or underscore characters.
  5. Move the moodle folder to c:\ or d:\ (if you have one). DO NOT put it under C:\Program Files or C:\Program Files (x86).

Starting your personal web server

To start the web server, use the Windows File Explorer to navigate into the \moodle\ folder and double-click on “Start Moodle” or “Start Moodle.exe”. Note that it is normal for a window with a black background to remain open while the server is running. You can simply minimize it.

Windows Defender firewall (or one from your favourite security suite) is blocking communications with Apache or MariaDB. When you first start the Moodle web server, you are usually prompted to allow a connection. You must allow connections over the private network at the very least.

Accessing your personal Moodle LMS web site

Next, use your web browser to navigate to http://localhost (or click on this link) to access your Moodle site. The first time you do, Moodle will take you through the installation process and then begin the installation of Moodle. Be patient as this can take a while depending on your computer.

Stopping your personal web server

When you backup the /moodle/ folder, make sure that you run “Stop Moodle” first. The integrity of the database can only be assured if the database server was not running while the backup was performed.

When you are ready to shut down the server, use the Windows File Explorer to navigate to the \moodle\ folder and click on “Stop Moodle” or “Stop Moodle.exe”. The Start window that you previously minimized will disappear. Important tip: It is always best to do this before shutting down, logging out or rebooting Windows to avoid corrupting the Moodle database, especially on Windows 11.

What if something goes terribly, horribly wrong, and you are having a no good, very bad day? Just restore your backup (you did create one, didn’t you?) or delete the /moodle/ folder and start over again.

Did you know? Putting this stand-alone sandbox type installation on a laptop can be useful for demonstrating Moodle anywhere, anytime, even when an Internet connection is not available.

Potential issues

Sometimes the web server or database server will not start. Although rare on Windows 10 and 11, this could happen:

  • If there is another application listening on ports 80, 443 or 3306. The solution is to turn off the application causing the issue or configure the web server and/or database server to listen on a different port number.
  • If your firewall is blocking communications with Apache or MariaDB. You must allow connections over Private Networks, at the very least. How you do this will depend on the security software installed in Windows.
  • If you installed the website’s folder in a path/folder which contains one or more characters other than letters (a-z, A-Z), numbers (0-9) and/or dashes or underscores.

Is this really a 100% risk-free solution?

Perhaps not, but with a little common sense, these methods are convenient to varying degrees, are safe and can serve you well. The trick, of course, is to experiment on systems (web server, database server, Moodle code) and data (courses, settings) that will not affect your learners.

For a longer-term and more sustainable solution that would be easier to update or upgrade, and potentially offer the option of having multiple versions of Moodle running at the same time for comparison, demonstration and testing, you may want to consider a more advanced solution which could involve using XAMPP or WampServer, or a virtual machine running Linux and a LAMP stack, and installing Moodle using git which would involves performing advanced manual configurations of the web server.

See you next month!

Michael Milette

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Michael Milette

Michael Milette is the owner and an independent consultant with TNG Consulting Inc. in Canada. He works with government, non-profit organizations, businesses and educational institutions on Moodle-related projects. Michael writes about implementing Moodle LMS, developing in Moodle, Moodle administration, using the FilterCodes plugin (his own project), creating multi-language Moodle implementations and courses, and WCAG 2.1 accessibility.

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