Enriching Onboarding Experiences in Moodle

Among the key issues of bringing students into a for them new learning environment is that they have to learn and understand the concepts and principles of the environment. Introducing students to these concepts has been popularized by Gilly Salmon as "Sparks". Sparks refer to short introductory learning activities that help learners to get used to the environment of the following learning activities as well as helping educators to understand the capabilities of their students in woring in the learning environment. Such activities can be fully automated and in online marketing these fully automated guides to learn about the environment are subsumised as "Onboaring". In this article I elaborate on one onboarding strategy for the Moodle platform and introduce a small moodle plugin to helps in this process.

Onboarding refers to the process of engaging new employees into an organization or familiarizing a new customer or client with products or services. For online tools this is designed as special guides for platform clients that show where to find functions and how they are effectively used. This often happens in the form of guided tours or pop-up information that points the users' attention to the respective features within the functional experience of the real product. The online learning management system (LMS) Moodle has such a feature built in.

In educational institutions the learning environment is not limited to a LMS. Instead, an LMS is just one aspect of the learning environment that is completemented by a wide range of different tools and plattforms. Moreover, the organisational culture and values refine how students are expected to benefit from the learning environment. Moodle's built-in onboarding is limited to the functions and concepts of the platform and does neither reflects the organisational culture of the institution that runs the respective Moodle instance nor embraces the technological ecosystem that supplements features missing in the LMS. Therefore, an organisation cannot entirely rely on Moodle's internal "onboarding" features, but needs to extend or to replace them in order to get learners into the flow of the organisation.

For our very own Moodle plattform we identified three use cases for onboarding, but they are somewhat universal:

  • Onboarding new students
  • Onboarding potential students
  • Onboarding new lecturers
  • Onboarding guest lecturers/external experts

These use cases refer to differnt information needs and flows through the onboarding.

Onboarding new students

Onboarding new students has been done typically towards the end of the freshmen week of the academic year in the form of in-class activities. However, it turned out that there are plenty of pitfalls that are not easy to solve with 20, 40 or 80 students within 20 minutes. Moreover, being located towards the end of the freshmen week and sometimes even at a later point during the term created a tension for the students, because many need that information much earlier in the process. Earlier means at least for our students after enrollment, because study information are published and prep-classes are often running prior to our freshmen week.

The onboarding process to the online learning environment includes the following steps:

  • Log into our LMS with their institutional credentials
  • Learn how to enroll into courses
  • Update the profile information
  • Learn about handing the different Moodle tools
  • Install and configure external tools

These activities are integrated in an ongoing moodle course that serves simultaneously as a tutorial and a source for help. Through Moodle's prerequisites rules, we can arrange the onboarding process and guide the students through the different activities.

Here I can into a challenge with Moodle's preconditions: While it is possible to identify authenticated and guest users, Moodle has no way to identify whether a user is enrolled into a course or not. In order to identify an unauthenticated user to a course, a precondition simply needs to test whether the email Address in the user profile is empty. The guest user is the only user in the system that has an "empty" email address.

For the course enrollment we cannot use a field in the user profile to test if a user us enrolled in the current course or not. Unfortunately, there is no precondition for that purpose available for Moodle. As I wanted to learn a bit about Moodle's precondition system for a while, I hacked a small precondition plugin for exactly that purpose. Course designers can now define preconditions for testing wether a current visitor is enrolled in a course or not. Obviously this makes only sense for courses that allow guests to access the course material.

With this additional plugin we can now build a storyline that follows this flow:

  • If a visitor is not logged in show the part of the story that explains how to login.
  • Once a visitor is logged in but not enrolled yet, congratulate and show the part that explains about self-enrolling into courses.
  • Once a visitor is enrolled, explain about the participant list and why the user photo is important.
  • Once a visitor has updated the user photo continue with the course activities and provide access to the external tools.

The present limitation we presently face with the different tools, is that we have no feedback channel for predefined tasks, so we can verify that the students actually succeeded in setting up the components.

Onboarding new lecturers

Onboarding new lecturers is pretty similar to onboarding new students. The main difference is that lecturers need additional information about building their courses. Therefore, we divert new lecturers in the last step of the storyline into our Blended Learning handbook course, where they can learn about different strategies and practices of using moodle.

Onboarding potential students

Our Moodle system is a front-facing platform and, thus, not only our students but also people who are interested in our programmes reach that system. Onboarding potential students means to help students to learn about how it feels to study online at our institution and help them to find the study programm that meets their interests best. The objective of this onboarding process is to guide these students to the application form.

Onboarding means that these students create "test"-accounts that allow them to access personalisable course materials and by that way get a feeling of our platform. For this kind of onboarding, Moodle administrators need to consider that these students will be regular users of Moodle and thus capable of self enrolling into different courses. Therefore, it is important that this kind of onboarding is aligned with the system wide course management strategies. The pro of this approach is that students already provided most information and indicate their study interests and capabilities, so they can be directly used for the later enrollment process.

Onboarding guest experts

Guest experts are very similar to potential studens as they need to authenticate against the system. The main difference compared to potential students is that these experts are invited by our regular lecturers to participate in regular courses. Once these experts authenticated with our Moodle, they can get manually enrolled by their contact point into the correct course.

Limitations for potential students and external experts

The key limitation of onboarding irregular users into Moodle is that the system offers no easy way for handling user groups from different origins. Once visitors are logged in, they look all the same to the system and restricting access to different groups requires manual work for the system administration. This is not really an issue for onboarding as such, but limits the last two use cases in settings, in which self-enrollment is heavily used, because these external audiences have also access to these courses. The limitation araise from the fact that all users can equally enroll into all self-enrollment courses, which is not necessarily what our lecturers want. All variants I could find for Moodle require manual interventions by lecturers or system administrators for handling users from outside the organisation, properly.


Onboarding becomes increasingly important as the digitization of educational institutions progresses. We need to understand onboarding as storylines that help students and staff to find their way around the learning environment. These storylines are also more complex than provided by vanilla Moodle.

In this article I outlined the reflections that have led to the idea of the enrolment precondition plugin. Go ahead and try the plugin for you onboarding experiences. You can find the latest release on GitHub