Muddling through Moodle books

I’ve spent more than a few hours this week plumbing the depths of Moodle books as a means of presenting online content in a course. In the end I think I finished with a suitable solution for the first course in which  I’ve tried it but that involved some tinkering that seems worth recording with some brief history for context.

When I first started here in 1991 there were no online courses but our postgraduate program was taught at a distance using printed study materials. When I first sought to deliver my study material to the publishing section as Word files on floppy disk I was a rarity. I’d been around computers long enough to have developed the habit of typing up my own material and correspondence in a word processor but most people delivered handwritten material that was typed and formatted by somebody in the publishing section.

As the university transitioned to online courses, it became standard for academics to type up their own material which was initially passed through the publishing section for conversion to HTML or PDF (or print when needed) before it was mounted on the web. Eventually the Integrated Content Environment (ICE) was developed to largely automate the process of transforming word processed content to HTML and PDF for presentation on the web or CD-ROM (Sefton, 2006). I was never an enthusiastic user of ICE but it was a clever system. Across that same period the university ran a web server with space for each course to publish materials. ICE even evolved to support automatic delivery of the web version to the proper location for access by students through Moodle.

Subsequently, there was concern that some staff might be illicitly hosting copyright materials in their course web spaces. Rather than educate the few who might have been a problem, the server was taken down and materials were placed directly into Moodle. ICE was eventually deprecated leaving most people with just their word processor to develop materials. Naturally that led to a profusion of Word and PDF files in Moodle spaces.

As recorded lectures became a thing those media files were added to the Moodle course sites. When the storage required to maintain multiple (semester) versions of course materials in Moodle increased to the point of being an inconvenience to the systems maintainers, Equella was introduced as a Learning Object Repository (LOR). It serves the dual role of limiting the number of redundant copies of media that would be required if they were held in multiple instances of a course in Moodle and managing copyright. It does both but not very conveniently.

Having developed and taught online courses since 1998, I am comfortable with preparing my materials as collections of web pages and placing them on a server. When the server officially provided for that purpose was withdrawn I switched to putting materials on my own hosted webspace with links out of Moodle. That allowed greater flexibility with live materials running up to and during a teaching semester. At the end of semester I could roll the frozen materials into the LOR and relink from Moodle to keep things tidy.

A common reaction of students when starting an online course seems to be to print all the materials and work from the paper copies. For the first while after ICE, which had provided an easily printable PDF version of each page, was deprecated students often asked where the PDF versions of pages were. Sometimes I provided those but more often I included a stylesheet to facilitate printing without navigation and other extraneous features and advised them to print direct from the web.

As we moved toward learners being more mobile I modified my page templates to be more flexible on mobile devices but continued using the offsite server. Over the past couple of years I started using Moodle books to encapsulate tutorial and other material for each week rather than invite the scroll of death by having 4 or 5 links in each weekly section.

I want to be a good corporate citizen but that can be difficult when the tools (like a web server) that enable you to do your job are withdrawn. Still that impulse got me thinking about using Moodle books to present study material. If that could be made to work, without subverting the quality of presentation of materials, it would get material in-house and offer advantages of being easily printed or downloaded as eBooks for use on computer, tablet or smartphone.

That’s how I came to be fiddling with Moodle books this week. I began by taking the relatively small volume of web content from a small online graduate course and making minimal revisions (assessment dates, fixed links) in Dreamweaver. I made a copy of that in Espresso for simpler, cleaner editing away from the templates of Dreamweaver and cleaned things up as best I could. Believing the Moodle book documentation, I zipped up the cleaned ‘site’, created a book, and imported the chapters.

Moodle book import does not deal well with image files and CSS in folders within the ‘site’. My images did not appear at all and the CSS was nowhere that I could find, access and modify it. Sometime later I discovered that the import function creates a copy of the CSS file for each page. For a while I played with embedding necessary CSS in each page but that was never a long term solution. Eventually I decided to link to the stylesheet I was working on which happened to be in Dropbox. Once I sorted the URL that worked OK in Moodle and I was able to tidy up the presentation to a point where I was reasonably happy with it. Linking to the images in Dropbox solved that problem too.

Things worked, mostly, until I tried opening the exported eBook (ePub) in iBooks and encountered errors that prevented rendering of every page. Working that out involved finding where iBooks stored its ePub, opening the package, editing files in BBEdit to debug in iBooks, and replicating relevant changes in the original files. Once I discovered that ePub was using XHTML and required closures with ‘/’ at the end of ‘br’, ‘img’, ‘link’ and other unpaired tags I was able to fix most of my errors. Some of the others came down to ePub disliking the alpha versions of entities like ‘nbsp’ and ampersands in URLs. Once I had those sorted I had my complete course package in a single Moodle book and could link to chapters/pages for modules or other features as necessary. I tweaked a few more formatting features to improve presentation. Students will be able to use the Moodle book online (it seems to work well enough on a mobile device), print it or download it to an ePub reader for use offline.

I’ve since taken the same line with one chunk out of a second course. That process was smoother since I had ironed out the wrinkles in my first attempt. I was even able to arrange a clean import of a set of files with CSS. Although that worked, it produced a separate CSS file for each page and offered no options for updating the CSS. I’ve reverted to a CSS file in Dropbox where I can adapt it as necessary without digging deep into Moodle. Despite its limitations the Moodle book does seem to offer what may be the best chance for packaging materials so that they can be flexible to support minor adjustments on the fly (impossible in the LOR) and provide students with choice about how they access the material.


Sefton, P. (2006). The integrated content environment. In: 12th Australasian World Wide Web Conference: Making a Difference with Web Technologies (AusWeb06), 1-5 July 2006, Noosa, Australia. Retrieved from