Moodle 1.9 Theme Design: Beginner's Guide

By Paul James Gadsdon
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  1. An Introduction to Moodle

About this book

Moodle is a highly extensible virtual learning environment and is used to deliver online teaching and training materials. Theming is one of the main features of Moodle that can be used to customize your online courses and make them look exactly how you want them to. If you have been looking for a book that will help you develop Moodle Themes that you are proud of, and that your students would enjoy, then this is the book for you.

This book will show you how to create themes for Moodle, change pre-installed Moodle themes, and download new themes from various resources on the Internet. It is filled with suggestions and examples for adapting classroom activities to the Virtual Learning Environment.

This book starts off by introducing Moodle, explaining what it is, how it works, and what tools you might need to create a stunning Moodle theme. It then moves on to show you in detailed steps how to choose and change a Moodle theme, and explains what Moodle themes are and how they work. It shows you how to change an existing theme and test the changes that you have made.

The latter half of this book will start you off on the road to creating your own themes from scratch. It provides detailed instructions to guide you through the stages of creating a stunning theme for your Moodle site. From planning theme creation, through to the slicing and dicing, and more advanced Moodle theming processes, this book will give you step-by-step instructions to create your own Moodle theme.

Publication date:
April 2010


Chapter 1. An Introduction to Moodle

Chapter 1 introduces Moodle, explaining what Moodle is and how it works. It will also cover why Moodle should be used. It is compared to other Course Management Systems (CMS) and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and it details Moodle's pedagogic principles. This chapter also outlines why the book has been written and who its intended audience is. Finally, it discusses what software and hardware tools you will need, and makes some assumptions with regards to the ICT and web design/development skills needed to get the most from this book.

In this chapter, we shall cover:

  • What a Virtual Leaning Environment (VLE) is

  • What types of VLE there are

  • What are the advantages of using a VLE

  • What Moodle is

  • Why we should use Moodle

  • What we will be doing in the rest of this book

  • What skills we will need

  • What tools we will need

If you teach or are involved in information technology for an educational institution, you will have probably heard the terms Course Management Systems (CMS), Learning Management Systems (LMS), and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). These three terms can effectively be grouped into one and for the purposes of this book—you will refer to them as VLEs. Ever since the beginning of the Internet, there were promises that technology would transform the way by which education and learning takes place. However, this didn't happen straightaway. Rather, these transformations have evolved slowly over time, and this evolution in the way in which teaching and learning takes place is only now finally being realized.


What are Virtual Learning Environments?

Virtual Learning Environments normally consist of a number of files and a database, and are run online over the Internet. Most VLEs are completely web browser-based, meaning that people can access them anywhere provided they have an active Internet connection and suitable web browsing software.

VLEs are software systems designed to support teaching and learning in an educational environment.

The idea behind VLEs is that they provide access to learner resources and can be used to provide an enhanced learner experience and therefore supplement traditional learner resources such as classroom-based teaching and tutorials. They facilitate online interaction between students and teachers, and provide a method by which distance learners can access course materials.

The functions and activities supported by VLEs differ across different VLE software packages, but most include at least some of the following:

  • Importing/exporting and/or creation of course materials

  • Delivery of course materials over the Internet

  • Communication and collaboration between students and educators

  • Online tracking and assessment of student progress

  • Modularized activities and resources

  • Customization of the interface

Let's have a quick look at each of these functions and see how they might be useful.

Importing/exporting and/or creation of course materials

Most VLEs provide a set of tools that allow the import and export of course materials. These course materials might have already been created by using other standardized e-learning packages or software and therefore can be imported and exported in specific formats. This is very useful for educators, as it allows for the creation of a standardized package that course materials can reside in. So, whether the educational institution uses Moodle, WebCT, Blackboard, or any other VLE, course material can usually be migrated between these platforms.

The creation of course materials enables the educator to design their courses to fit an online environment. Course materials can either be created through the use of online forms or can be uploaded in a variety of formats such as Word or PDF. Courses can also be structured in a variety of ways, such as weekly or by topics, so that educators are not bound by normal academic terms.

Delivery of course materials over the Internet

One of the beneficial features of a VLE is that VLEs are available over the Internet or the institution's intranet. So users of these systems can access their learner materials anywhere there is an active Internet or intranet connection. This is hugely beneficial, as learners can use the VLE when and where they want. This functionality has particular relevance to distance learners who traditionally only received an education pack to supplement their studies.

VLEs are normally protected through a login system that doesn't allow the general public access to the learner materials and therefore can help to protect the intellectual property rights of the learner materials. VLEs also provide access for the educators to add or create these materials from any active Internet connection, which can reduce the need for educators to be present all of the time at their workplace.

Communication and collaboration between students and educators

Communication and collaboration are the latest terms that people use when referring to VLEs and the benefits of using them. One of the key principles behind most VLEs is that they allow communication channels between students, and between students and teachers, to open up. Student communication—especially with distance learners—can provide additional learner resources and can help the students to construct knowledge to an extent that they might not have been able to without these new technologies. Distance learners, for instance, can often feel very isolated and sometimes struggle to understand concepts because they haven't had the opportunity to discuss these with other students.

VLEs use a variety of features that take advantage of the communication aspects of education, from online forums and chats, to blogs and even wikis.

This type of communication and collaboration is often referred to as Web 2.0, and is based on information-sharing applications and concepts such as social networking. VLEs are now moving towards this end insofar as they are starting to embrace the concept of communication in these ways.

Online tracking and assessment of student progress

Most VLEs have the ability to allow educators to track the progress of students and grade their work as they study. There are a variety of ways in which this can be done, from the grading of assessed work that is submitted to the VLE to simple quizzes and questionnaires that allow the educators to gauge students' comprehension of the materials and to check the students' progress through the course by less formal methods.

Modularized activities and resources

Many VLEs provide modularized activities and resources so that the educator can create course materials the way they would like to, and also pick what functionality best suits their educational environment.

Customization of the interface

VLEs normally provide the ability to customize their interface so that institutions can develop the look and feel that they require, or create a site that matches their institution's branding. Customization is a very important element of the functionality of a VLE, otherwise all VLE sites would look the same. This has particular relevance to this book, as you will later be learning how to customize Moodle in terms of its look and feel.


What types of VLEs are there?

There are a number of established companies producing what are, for the purpose of this book, called Virtual Learning Environments. There are also a few emerging commercial brands and some open source alternatives that are gathering recognition in the education sector. WebCT and Blackboard are probably the most well known of the commercial products, and Moodle is the best known free, open source alternative.

In most cases, you will find that the term Virtual Learning Environments can be used interchangeably with other terms such as Managed Learning Environments (MLE), Course Management Systems (CMS), Learning Support System (LSS), Learning Platform (LP), and Learning Management Systems (LMS). Although I prefer to keep it like that to makes things easier, there are subtle differences between these systems.

The one that really is different is an MLE, which is a system that is used to manage all of the ICT systems of an institution relating to the students' education, such as the student records MIS system and the VLE. So in these terms, a VLE or CMS would be a part of an MLE, being that the MLE manages all of the related student records and educations systems.


What are the advantages of using a VLE?

This is the big question and requires your organization to consider it in an objective manner. After all, we have been educating people for hundreds of years without the use of computers and the Internet. Classroom teaching is still the predominant method used in the education of people and will probably remain so for quite a number of years. However, VLEs can be an excellent way of supplementing traditional classroom teaching methods, and can also be used effectively as standalone teaching environments for distance learners. They offer a simple, streamlined method by which educators can create and publish educational materials and subsequently, offer a more accessible means by which learners can access learning materials.

VLEs provide timely access to learning materials and can supplement traditional teaching methods. They provide a platform for educators and support personnel to manage and execute all of their normal daily tasks including:

  • Student cohort administration, organization, and the management of learner contact channels

  • Assessment and monitoring of learners

  • The creation of structured learning content by using existing teaching materials

  • Management of student assessment and grades in one central place

  • Reduction of learner resources such as printing and photocopying

VLEs also provide a platform for learners and give them timely access to the learning resources and support their learning both in the classroom and at home. For example:

  • Students can submit their assignments online and track their progress over the course or degree programme.

  • VLEs normally promote collaboration and communication between learners and educators.

  • Students can choose to learn at their own pace. This is useful for accommodating any special needs of the students and distance learners.


What is Moodle?

Moodle is an open source software package that is used to create Internet-based learning materials and courses. Moodle is provided freely under the open source GNU Public License. This means that Moodle is copyrighted, but the users have the right to copy, use, and modify the source code provided that they agree to provide the modified source to others, do not remove or modify the original license and copyrights, and apply the same license to any derivative work. This, in layman's terms, means that you can do what you like to Moodle as long as you ensure that you do not attempt to copyright any of the modifications that you might introduce.

Moodle was originally an acronym for Modular Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, which of course is mouthful and not very useful unless you are an educational theorist. At the time of writing, Moodle has a significant user base of some 43,000 registered sites in 208 countries, and is continuing to grow at a significant rate.

Moodle can be installed and run on any web server software that uses Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP), and can support a SQL database. MySQL is the database of choice, but Moodle can nevertheless be run on MS SQL, Oracle, and most other types of SQL databases.

Moodle can be run on the Windows and Apple Mac operating systems, and can also be installed on many different Linux distributions, including Red Hat, Ubuntu, and CentOS.

Moodle has many features that are expected from most e-learning platforms, and also has some of its own innovative features that set it aside. Moodle is a modular platform and therefore can be built to order, and can be readily extended through the use of third-party modules and extensions.


Why should I use Moodle?

Why should you use Moodle over any other VLE? The problem here normally lies in the fact that people are often wedded to what they are already using and therefore prefer to remain using the VLE software that the organization has decided to use. Either that, or they just prefer traditional classroom teaching methods.

There are a large number of commercial and free open source VLEs currently in the market, all of which offer a basic feature set with some extra features that normally set them apart from other VLEs. Moodle, however, seems to have the most features straight out of the box and is therefore seen as the benchmark against which other VLEs have to judge themselves.


Moodle's features compare quite favorably against the other heavyweight, commercial VLEs insofar as over the last few years it has been Blackboard and WebCT's job to catch up on the feature list. Blackboard, for instance, has only recently had student peer review and HTML content creation functionally added to its feature set, whereas Moodle has had these features for a number of years.


Moodle has been designed to help educators create online learning materials and has been designed to support a social constructionist framework for education, insofar as its pedagogy follows the theory that groups of students or cohorts construct knowledge from one another in a collaborative way. So Moodle therefore supports communication and collaboration between students, groups of students, and tutors.


The support channels for Moodle are second to none, and are based on the open source philosophy. This means that there are a lot more support channels that can be accessed than with commercial software VLEs. For instance, there is a very large resource available on called Moodle docs. This has been based on a wiki engine and has been built through the hard work of the Moodle community. This is a huge resource and is far larger than any commercial VLE software could ever possibly create as it's been created by thousands of Moodle users. Moodle docs can be found at

There are also community forums on, which are accessed by tens of thousands of Moodle experts on a daily basis to get and give expert advice on every aspect of Moodle.

However, if an organization needs more timely support, then there are also a large number of commercial Moodle support companies (Moodle partners) that can offer paid support contracts and service level agreements. And as suggests on its website, this creates an environment of competition, thereby leading to lower prices, more choice, and better service.

Free and open source

Moodle is free, or is it? The open source movement often likes to use the free part of the title in order to immediately convince people that this has to be the way forward. It must be noted here that nothing is free—it might just be cheaper than a comparable commercial product. For instance, the total cost of ownership for Moodle is relatively low but it is not zero, or free in any way. Okay, Moodle is free to download and install and there aren't any application software licenses to purchase. However, in order for an organization to use Moodle, they will need to purchase the ICT infrastructure and either purchase a support contract or employ a Moodle administrator. And in my experience, a medium-to-large organization will nearly always need to have a full-time Moodle administrator or developer in order to manage this system.

However, the total cost of ownership is normally considerably cheaper than comparable, commercial VLEs.

The open source component of Moodle really makes it the best VLE currently on the market, as this means that you effectively own the software and can make changes to it as long as you redistribute these changes back to the community. This is aligned with the academic community insofar as it fits in with academic principles of knowledge sharing and peer review. It also means that there are thousands of talented developers working every day of every week to improve the software. It also means that there have been thousands of modules built to add almost every feature you could ever wish for in Moodle. The commercial products are unlikely to be able to provide such a huge database of add-on extensions to their products.


What will you be doing?

In this book, you will be learning how to create themes for Moodle. You will start by learning how to change pre-installed Moodle themes and download new themes from various resources on the Internet. You will then learn how to edit these themes by using a mixture of Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). In part two of this book, you will then move on to creating a Moodle theme from scratch—from the planning stages to creating the graphics needed for your stunning new theme. You will then learn how to "slice and dice" your graphic design and use it to create a completely new theme for your Moodle site.


What skills will you need?

For the benefit of you and this book, the following assumptions have been made with regards to the skills required to edit and create themes for Moodle.

You will need to be reasonably familiar with HTML and CSS and have some exposure to graphics manipulation software packages. By any means, you do not have to be an expert, as Moodle theming is quite simple as long as you follow the instructions carefully. So if you have built websites before by using HTML and CSS, then you should hit the ground running. If you have only dabbled in web design before, you still shouldn't have any problems with the exercises in this book. If you are a total beginner, you can still do this. All you need to know is that you will need to take your time and make sure that you understand everything that you are learning before moving on through the book.


Tools for the job

None of the software packages suggested in this book are totally necessary and all can be supplanted with something else. However, if you can acquire or already have these tools, you will find the exercises much easier to follow.


This may sound rather obvious but you are going to need a working Moodle installation, either as part of your organization's setup or as a local Moodle install. I would recommend a local Moodle installation, as this avoids the risk of bringing down your organization's Moodle server, and creates a more relaxed environment for you to work in. If anything untoward happens, you can just reinstall Moodle and start again.

If you haven't had any experience in installing Moodle, don't be too worried, as it is comparatively easy to install. There are various installation packages available on for most of the popular operating system platforms. Just choose the one that suits your computer setup, and follow the instructions carefully. I would recommend that you use the standard weekly install package and set up MySQL separately, rather than using the Windows install package because doing so will give you a better understanding of the platform and the install process. And in some respects this way is better because if you have any problems at a later stage, they will be easier to diagnose.

In case you have any problems, then use the community forums on to seek advice. You will be surprised how timely this advice will come.


I have tried to keep the list of software needed to undertake the exercises in this book to a minimum. In fact, all of the software except Adobe Photoshop is free and open source, so all you will need to know is how to download and install these packages.

Adobe Photoshop

As suggested above, this is the only paid software package used in this book. Adobe Photoshop can be quite expensive, so if you do not have it, then it's worth trying to find out if your organization already has a spare license for it, or whether they would be prepared to purchase one for you to complete this project. In most cases, your organization will be prepared to do this for you, as it's a small cost when compared to the yearly salary paid to have a Moodle administrator or developer.

If it's not possible to get Adobe Photoshop, then there are various cheaper or free alternatives that you might be able to use. But the exercises will be hard unless you already know how to use your chosen graphics software. For instance, there is a cut-down version of Adobe Photoshop called "Adobe Elements", which is considerably cheaper. You could also have a look at "Paint Shop Pro" or the free "Gimp" image manipulation software. Just search on the Internet for these terms and you should be able to find the software relatively easy.


My favorite web browser software is Mozilla Firefox. It is neat, free, and can be customized to suit everyone's web surfing needs. It is a great browser for budding or experienced web designers, and can be downloaded and installed in minutes. Mozilla Firefox has thousands of extensions, all of which are free and will increase your productivity as a Moodle themer by a magnitude of 10. In fact, there are tools such as Firebug that as a Moodle themer I simply could not do without.


If you are working directly on your organization's main Moodle server (which I do not really recommend), then you will need a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) software package so that you can move files, once edited, to the Moodle server. FileZilla again can be found by searching the Internet and what's more, it's free and can be downloaded and installed simply and quickly. If you use this method, then you will need to find out the login details for your Moodle server's FTP root folder. The server administrator will be able to give you this information.

Other web browsers

For testing purposes, you will need to have several other web browsers other than Windows Internet Explorer. I will spend a little more time on this a little later, and include details on where you can get these additional browsers. Suffice it to say that for now Google Chrome, Safari, and Opera are the other web browsers that you will need.



In summary, in this first chapter you have covered most of what there needs to be known about VLEs and Moodle. You have obviously already chosen Moodle, as you would not have bought this book otherwise. However, the preceding sections should help you to understand a little more about the Moodle application. You have learned about VLEs and their relationship to education: they are a tool used by educators to facilitate learning over the Internet. You have also learned about the different types of VLE that are available, and made some comparisons among these systems. You should now also understand what Moodle is and what advantages it has for teachers and learners.

Specifically, we covered:

  • What VLEs are and what features we should expect from them

  • We have looked into the different types of VLEs and the advantages that they offer over the traditional teaching and learning methods

  • We have learned about Moodle and why we can use it

  • Finally, we have learned what we will be doing in this book, what skills will be needed, and what tools will be required to work our way through the exercises.

Now that we've introduced Virtual Learning Environments and learned what Moodle can do for our organization, we can finally start to get our hands dirty and move on to some more interesting stuff, such as choosing and changing our fi rst Moodle theme.

About the Author

  • Paul James Gadsdon

    Paul James Gadsdon has been a web designer/developer since 1996. He specializes in graphic design, ASP,, PHP, and DotNetNuke. He has recently been working as an educational technologist and currently works as a Moodle Virtual Learning Environment developer for the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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