josh-willcock-photo 150pxIt’s taken almost 1,000 hours, and a ton of biscuits, to create an easy to use, open source Hierarchies tool. Josh Willcock explains how one ‘little’ Moodle plugin is making a big difference to managers’ – as well as L&D practitioners’ – working lives.

So what exactly is this whizzy new hierarchy reporting tool? What does it do? What makes it so special?
Hierarchies is a Moodle plugin which enables managers to have a great overview of what their learners are learning. It does this by allowing organisations (of any size) to replicate their management structure within their learning management system (LMS), enabling leaders to oversee their own team’s learning.
The tool itself doesn’t provide any visible output, but it’s happily working away behind the scenes. We’ve designed it to enable developers to add functionality to their learning management systems.
The Consortium has already integrated the Hierarchies tool into our reporting function and activity bars and it’s also a core part of our new ‘My Planner’ tool which we’re designing.
Although it’s not making a song and a dance, it’s special because it’s one of those things that will ultimately make managers working lives simpler. Also, we’ve worked with large organisations with over 800 offices, to smaller organisations with just 20 in their team, to ensure this one offering is fit for anybody. So this really is a case of one size fits all. At the moment we believe the Consortium is the only organisation in the world that is offering this functionality.

What need does it meet for organisations using it? How does it help teams and managers?
From working with our members, we’ve found that they want to enable their managers to work more efficiently, by giving them more abilities and privileges. They also often need to share the responsibilities of the learning and development (L&D) team throughout their organisations. The Hierarchies plugin enables them to do all that, and more.
The Hierarchies tool allows L&D teams to give their managers access to the information they need, whenever they need it, without intervention. For example, when using the reporting tool with Hierarchies, managers are able to check the status of their learners’ mandatory training and see who is taking an active role in their own development.
When Hierarchies is integrated into the ‘My Planner’ tool, which we’re currently developing, teams may also be assigned learning. This is ideal for larger organisations, perhaps if one of their regions trials something new, for example, or new legislation comes out in Scotland but not the rest of the UK. It will also enable countless other tasks to be automated. That’s not bad for a little tool that your learners may not even be aware is even there, is it!

How many hours do you think it took to create?
So far we’ve put more than 400 hours into creating Hierarchies. On top of that there has been around 300 hours of user testing and recently we invested another 70 hours in optimising certain areas. We’ve probably consumed a mountain of coffee and biscuits to keep us going along the way, and we haven’t finished yet! In fact, Hierarchies doesn’t have an end point to its evolution – it will constantly be developed for many years by ourselves and hopefully others, that’s the beauty of being an open source tool. This aspect of open source development fits really well with the Consortium’s ethos of knowledge sharing and collaboration too.

Were there any particular obstacles that you had to overcome? Any eureka moments when you knew you’d cracked it?
We knew of two other hierarchy plugins available for Moodle, but both are very costly to purchase and require a lot of expertise to set up. We therefore wanted to make our system open source, and make it as simple and flexible as possible.
In terms of design, we were keen to have an unlimited number of tags (eg south west) inside each category, and an unlimited number of categories (such as ‘region’ or ‘department’). When we achieved that, we were thrilled, and we knew we had made great progress to our end goal. Essentially, the only point at which you can’t add more tags and categories to our system is if your servers can’t handle it.
The other obstacle existing hierarchy plugins faced concerned the amount of levels which there may be in an organisation. For example, if one part of an organisation needed five tiers of learning resources, all aspects of the LMS had to have five tiers. Our dynamic tagging system changes that, allowing one user to have 40 tags in 40 categories and other users to have one tag in just one category if necessary. The key to this was ensuring that the structure could automatically adjust for each user. This has been a revelation in terms of simplifying set-up for our members. Incredibly, we’ve been able to set up the new Hierarchy system in under 10 minutes for some organisations.

How good does it feel to have created the only unrestricted hierarchy plugin? Was it worth all the blood, sweat & tears?
The charities we work with really needed something like this. Their other options were restricted, often cost a lot of money and required a lot of time to get setup. So it feels great to achieve what we set out to do. We’ve created a hierarchy plugin which could work for a family home or for the country’s largest retailer. The most rewarding part to creating this was seeing it being implemented across lots of L&D teams, who just don’t have the time to manually do everything they want to do. Seeing them with so much more time, once such a large burden had been automated, has been fantastic and has made it all worthwhile.

What have you personally learnt along way? If you could travel back in time and do it all again, what would you do differently?
If I started this project again, the first thing I would do differently is establish a strong, simple method to integrating the Hierarchies tool with other Moodle plug-ins. We’re able to support any developer who needs our help with this but at the moment we still don’t have a ‘standardised’ way of doing this. We’re now working on this but I would have loved to have had it much earlier on.
Overall, I have learnt that no matter how large the project, or how impossible it may seem at the beginning, there is no limit to the potential we can offer. This is only the first part of what we are hoping will be a whole system that can help all our members and others too.

What’s next in terms of development?
I’m currently working on developing a ‘My Planner’ tool, which will tie in very closely with our work with hierarchies. My Planner will replace, automate and improve many aspects of the Moodle platform, and that’s for all for organisations using it, regardless of sector.
We’re hoping to automate many of the mundane tasks (such as assigning learning, or helping to make learning plans) that take up a lot of an administrator’s time, to make the day-to-day running of their learning management systems even easier.

Josh Willcock is a Solutions Developer in the Web Development Team at the Charity Learning Consortium He edited his first Moodle theme in 2009 and has been a Microsoft Student Partner for five years. He previously ran his own company called METROhub, has a degree in Multimedia Web Design from the University Of Gloucestershire, and is rather partial to custard creams. Connect with him on Twitter @josh_willcock