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What’s in a setting?


Perhaps one of the most misunderstood setting that Moodle has is the ‘Course layout’ setting, see docs.moodle.org/35/en/Course_settings#Course_layout, that you find in both the Topics and Weeks core course formats:

Course layout setting


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The setting in its current form was introduced by MDL-35770 in for Moodle 2.4 as a part of the course formats refactoring in MDL-35218. However the actual functionality itself (as far as I can tell) goes back all the way to the creation of the Topics format itself: github.com/moodle/moodle/commit/0b35af180a5ff45548f85147dac7cff9dcab263f#diff-dc0eaec66fd20683e1cdc96bfe8976a1R24 and then from the Weeks format github.com/moodle/moodle/commit/600149be34bf366a7dad7f2e9d8f089f3422aefb#diff-9b5704acbc9a40e82b130d34b4717caeR20 in version 1.0.


What it does

From version 1.0 to 2.2 the educator could select the current topic / week and that would be fixed for the course and presented as such when the user visited the course. After 2.3 the focus changed but the principle stayed the same in being able to present a single section (topic or week) on its own. With 2.4 introducing the ‘Course layout’ setting, note: this is from memory and inspection of the code and not a running instance of the specific versions. This new focus has the educator choosing the view of all sections on a single page or a single section. But with the single section view the user gets to see the list of sections as a series of clickable links that then lead to that section being presented on its own. Such as:

List of topics for the 'one section per page' course layout setting value.

leading to

Single section page on a course where the course layout setting is 'one section per page'.

It is perhaps the list of sections without content that causes the most confusion because the question ‘Where has all my resources and activities gone?’ arises when the setting is changed.


Collapsed Topics

When the functionality changed in Moodle 2.4 I changed Collapsed Topics (CT) to follow suit, thinking that it would avoid confusion when moving to CT from a core course format. However, what to do with the linked sections page? There was no ‘content that needed to be toggled’ on the page, so why does there need to be toggles? The answer at the time was to remove the toggles. This unexpectedly caused confusion as now educators and users whom were expecting to see the toggles did not and compounded by that they were confused by the single section page. For years I did not have an answer or realised (despite tool-tip explanation and my help of the ‘Courses and course formats’ forum) what an issue it was. There needed to be a compromise, one that would allow the functionality to exist so that existing users whom need the view still have it and new users don’t get confused.

After much head scratching I thought ‘why not combine the functionality of both values of the setting and then remove it?’. Could this be done and how would it work? In CT (like Topics and Weeks) there is a right hand (left on right to left languages) column on each section, this is normally used when editing and in CT can have the section number when not editing. What if this was a link to the single section page? Bingo! This is it. But what happens when there is no text? Use an icon! Thus starting with version (for Moodle 3.3) the current compromise solution was created:

Collapsed Topics solution to the course layout setting showing the single section link.

and the confusing setting was removed. Note: the orange glow circle is to highlight the functionality here and does not exist for real. I have over time received mixed feedback about it, but there are in general less questions than before.


The jump to menu

On the single section page there is a ‘Jump to menu’:

The 'Jump to' menu shown on the single section page that is used for navigation.

At first this was removed when the new single section functionality was introduced. But even given the inevitable ‘fear of change’ factor that makes you want something back not because it is good but because it was familiar a discussion lead to a tracker (MDL-34917) which then put it back.

For this there is no setting, but themes could if they wanted to, remove it. So why mention it here? Well, it demonstrates how something relatively insignificant can affect the user interface to change the dynamic of the interaction. Here I consider it changes the nature of the course layout setting to be from something restrictive to that of usable in the right context.



Overall I have mixed emotions about the course layout setting. I know that Moodle tries to be all things to all people but the setting can be confusing. It has a dramatic impact on the look and operation of the course. This removes the familiarity that users expect, especially when the setting value is changed on existing courses. I can see why it is there and why splitting the functionality between different course formats would have duplication of concepts. But maybe, just maybe that is the way forward, separate ‘Topics’ and ‘Single Topics’ course formats.

For the time being though, I recommend that you plan your courses first, decide on the value for the course layout for each course then stick with it and not change it.

Gareth Barnard
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Gareth Barnard

Gareth is a developer of numerous Moodle Themes including Essential (the most popular Moodle Theme ever), Foundation, and other plugins such as course formats, including Collapsed Topics.

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