Upgrade Strategy for UW-Madison Moodle Service
This article explains how and when the UW-Madison Moodle Service Team makes upgrades to the Moodle servers. This procedure is designed to give instructors and course designers plenty of time to work with new Moodle versions before using them in live classes. Since there are now several active Moodle servers, we also explain how instructors and students can find their courses without needing to know what server those courses are on. This article also explains some of the rationale behind our upgrade strategy and why we think this strategy works well for both our users and for the Moodle service team.
Moodle is a very active open source project which releases two "major" versions of Moodle per year. To minimize disruption to our customers, we try to make a major update to our code only once a year. Our intention is to introduce major changes in preparation for the fall semester, and stay with that major version for the remainder of the academic year. We plan to release new upgraded servers each year sometime around spring break or earlier. Summer classes will remain on the current servers, but fall classes will be on the new (upgraded) servers.
How and when we make major upgrades
Instead of upgrading our production systems, we create new upgraded Moodle sites for each academic year. This allows us to make the new servers available for course development for fall courses early in the previous spring. Meanwhile instructors of spring and summer courses continue using the version of Moodle they are already familiar with. If you are building a new course for fall, you will have the spring and summer to get comfortable with the new version, try out new features, and make sure all your existing materials are working correctly. Some things you should be aware of with this upgrade strategy are:
- Each academic year we will generate a new Moodle server at a new URL. The URLs will reflect the academic year and purpose of the server (e.g the main production server for the 2016-2017 academic year is
ay16-17.moodle.wisc.edu). Alongside the academic year servers we have also been hosting certain classes on "innovation sites" which run additional software, however we are discontinuing this model in Fall 2017 due to the campus migration to Canvas. Older courses on both academic year and innovation sites can still be found on prior year moodle servers.
- The UW-Moodle team has worked closely with the Learn@UW team to create the “Course Dashboard” which integrates links to courses in both the Moodle and Desire2Learn learning management systems. The Course Dashboard is available now and makes finding courses easier for everybody – regardless of which learning management system they are using. Course Dashboard is designed to work for students, instructors, TAs, and course administrators for the courses they are enrolled in. It can be found in the upper left-hand corner of the Learn@UW home page.
- Exception: LMS administrators and "Moodle category managers" may have access to a very large number of LMS courses. Listing all their courses in the Dashboard would not be helpful. These administrators and category managers will need to access the specific server hosting the class they want to work on.
- The course creation process will automatically redirect you to the appropriate server when you create a new timetable class. In cases where the appropriate server is not yet ready, you can create future classes on the current server, and we will help you move them to the correct server when it is ready.
How and when we make minor upgrades
While we don't make major Moodle version upgrades during the academic year, we frequently get minor upgrades, security patches, and other bug fixes from Moodle.org. Depending on the judgement of the Moodle service team regarding the value versus potential for disruption of implementing these minor upgrades, in many cases we do make those upgrades without waiting for a new academic year. These are usually done during the Moodle service maintenance window from 6:00 am to 10:00am on Sunday mornings. We generally post a site-wide Moodle news article notifying users about this upgrade a few days in advance. Besides the core Moodle code, our Moodle installations contain a number of plug-ins and associations with external teaching and learning services. These get upgraded on their individual schedules which do not always coincide with major Moodle version upgrades. We sometimes take advantage of natural breaks in the academic year of spring break, Thanksgiving break, and winter break to upgrade these components.
Why do we do it this way?
In earlier years we upgraded the Moodle site in late August, between the end of summer classes and the start of fall classes. We heard from instructors and support personnel that this did not allow them adequate time to be sure all course materials were working correctly with the new version. Also, there was not much time for people to try out the new features that came with the new version. Upgrading the site at such a critical time was also a high-stakes exercise for the Moodle team. We believe the new system allows everybody more time to adjust to the next version of Moodle well in advance of it's becoming critical to their immediate operations.
Why do we keep upgrading Moodle?
Moodle is an open-source software project that is under continuous development by a worldwide network of software developers. New versions contain new features, improvements to existing features, and security fixes. New features and feature improvements generally increase the usability of Moodle, and often solve teaching challenges that were difficult to address in previous versions of Moodle. Incorporating the new security improvements is essential to the continued safety and reliability of a system which handles a lot of sensitive student and academic data. We can only take advantage of these new features and improvements by upgrading our Moodle version. We understand that sometimes the user interface changes, things are re-arranged on the page, and things just "look different". We believe that the majority of our instructors and students will find that the changes will prove beneficial overall. We help our users adjust to new versions through knowledge base articles, live classes, and direct consulting.
What are all the Moodle "instances"?
It is now our practice to have three Moodle instances in production mode at any one time. These are:
- Main production server for an academic year
- These server names begin with "AY", and end with the academic year they serve, e.g. "AY16-17"
- Almost all timetable courses go here (exceptions explained below)
- Innovate server for an academic year
- These server names begin with "Innov", and end with the academic year they serve, e.g. "Innov16-17"
- Timetable courses using Moodle features that are still under development go here
- Note: Innovate serves real classes with real students and is treated as a production server by UW-Moodle personnel
- Starting in Fall 2017 we will no longer off new courses on innovation sites. The prior year sites will continue to be available for archival purposes.
- This server supports classes that are not associated with the timetable, e.g. shop safety, regulatory compliance, student support, ...
- Recently this server has also started supporting some classes in lifelong learning (non-credit) programs
- Since it's not associated with an academic year, it's name remains "Special"
- This instance is upgraded in-place on an as-needed basis