Course files

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Note: You are currently viewing documentation for Moodle 2.2. Up-to-date documentation for the latest stable version is available here: Course files.

This page explains the legacy "Course files" area in Moodle 2, and related topics.

It's useful for any teacher who wants to know how to add files to a Moodle 2.0 course (especially if you previously used Moodle 1.9 or earlier).

Files in Moodle 1.9

In versions of Moodle before 2.0 all the files uploaded into Moodle were stored in a physical directory on disk known as the "Course files" area.

This is where a teacher might upload files to be part of the course content, but this area also included everything students uploaded, such as assignments and forum attachments. These "activity files" were stored in a special folder called moddata in a certain structure that helped modules keep track of their own files.

Typical Moodle 1.x workflows

The course files area was accessed in two ways through the Moodle interface by teachers.

  1. Through the "Files" link in the Course Administration block, or
  2. When a file was required in other places, such as a resource, or attachment.

When publishing a file as a resource, say a PDF file, a teacher might:

  1. Upload it to their course files area along with all the other files they intend to use in the course
  2. Add a resource to the course
  3. Select the PDF from the course files

Students did not have direct access to read the course files area. All they could do was upload files from their desktop computer straight into activities.

A less typical workflow

  1. Use FTP to push files straight into the course files area
  2. Add resources to the course by selecting these files
  3. Update the resources later by updating the files directly via FTP

This meant expert users could update course content with files or HTML mini-sites without having to change anything in Moodle.

Problems with the Moodle 1.x model

  • If the original file was deleted from course files area, or renamed, it would result in broken links everywhere where it was previously used
  • Storing files on disk meant file names were restricted (eg file names in Japanese would break on some operating systems)
  • All course files had to be readable by students (if they knew the URL) because Moodle had no way of telling what context you were viewing a file in (eg the same file might be in a HTML text in a forum and also in a resource). This meant that files stored in the course files area were not as secret as teachers thought they were.
  • Files could not be reused in several courses - that had to be uploaded to each course files area
  • Backups had to include ALL course files, just in case they were required, even if the backup only contained one activity
  • Images and other media might look fine for teachers, but others would not see it (eg in course descriptions)
  • When importing activities from one course to another, ALL course files were imported, as it was impossible to tell which files were needed

Files in Moodle 2.0

In Moodle 2.0 the files work a lot more like Web 2.0 systems, such as Facebook and Google Docs.

Each activity and each text has its own file area, and files are associated directly with the place it is used. For example, a file attached to a forum post is stored "with" the forum post, and becomes subject to exactly the same access restrictions.

The Files system is intimately connected with the Repository system, and a file picker which makes it easy to browse external and internal repositories for files, and then copy them into Moodle. Certain repositories also allow you to link directly to their media files. Repositories in general are the way of the future for content - most Web 2.0 systems are really repositories of data with various management interfaces.

A private files area is provided for each user to store a collection of files for their own use. This is useful for students as well as teachers, and makes it easy to re-use media across the Moodle site. Only you can access your own private files.

The course files area in Moodle 2.0 is deprecated and is not available by default due to the problems described above. When a site is upgraded from 1.9, all course files are migrated into new file areas and the old course files area is hidden from view.

Internally, files are stored in a "file pool" of blobs on disk with numbers for names. All the actual names and metadata are stored in a database.

Typical Moodle 2.0 workflow

  1. Edit a text or activity
  2. Use the filepicker to easily select the file from any local or remote repository

The file is then copied to Moodle and stored securely with the text or activity.

More advanced Moodle 2.0 workflow

  1. Edit a text or url resource
  2. Use the filepicker to easily select the file from any local or remote repository and select "link"

The file URL is then embedded into the text and when viewed, the media comes directly from the open repository.

Why is it better?

Integrity

If a forum post with attached files (eg images) is imported into another course, then the files move with it. Anyone in the new course will also see the files. This makes activities more portable and re-usable.

If two activities use the same file and one is deleted, then the other one is not affected.

There should be less problems with everything looking fine for teachers and not appearing for students.

Security

Access to files is governed the same way as the items that they attached to, which is what people expect. All files are now controlled by the settings in the Moodle interface, including roles and permissions.

Re-usability

It is now fast and easy to re-use files across Moodle. Using the file picker, a recently-used file may easily be chosen, or a file from any course a user has access to.

Backups

Backups of activities are small and accurate, because Moodle knows exactly what files to include. This is important for things like Community hubs, where sharing of courses and parts of courses will become more common, and sharing every file in a course may be unacceptable.

Internationalization

There are no restrictions on file names - even files with names in Japanese may be used.

Repositories

The world is turning towards better management of files and less "dumping" of files into disks. There are many repository solutions out there that focus on better management of files, with versioning, workflow, metadata and other features.

How to duplicate Moodle 1.x functionality in 2.0

If you really want to mimic older workflows in 2.0 then there are some solutions, although none of them are exactly the same.

FTP files into Moodle

  1. One way to do this is via the File system repository. This allows you to turn a directory on the server into a repository of files within the Moodle file picker. You can then use any server technology to access that directory from a desktop, such as FTP, Samba, Appleshare or WebDAV.
  2. See the direct WebDAV plans below.

Change a file once, have it update in many places

  1. If you use an external repository that supports linking (such as Alfresco) then you get this behaviour for free. Files in the repository can not have exactly the same access control as Moodle, but they can implement their own access control, especially if you use some sort of single sign-on.
  2. If you enable the Legacy course files feature in Moodle 2.0 then you can also link directly to files there using the Course files repository in the file picker. Even HTML mini-sites work. The caveat is that it only works in places where you can link to files. So, for example, it won't work for a forum attachment or the 'resource' module. But it will work for the url module (new in 2.0) and any media embedded in HTML via the editor.

Roadmap for future improvements

Based on recent feedback, there are plans to improve the model in 2.0 with new features.

File synchronization

Instead of having to choose between linking to a course file or copying it to the current file area, we could add the option to 'Always use the latest version' of the file. This would re-copy the file to the destination whenever the source file changed. Initially this would be implemented just for the internal repositories but could also be used later for some external repositories as well (those not requiring the Moodle site to authenticate as the user).

This feature has the potential to maintain all the benefits of the 1.0 model without compromising the 2.0 model.

However this feature is complex to implement because:

  • We need to cope with changing permissions in source and destination.
  • We need to cope with cases like Assignment submissions (students shouldn't be able to update files after the due date, for example)
  • We need some GUI solution to synchronize whole folders at once, such as a HTML mini-site.
  • We need some in-GUI solution to report what the source file is for any given destination file.

Linking ability to File system repository

The File system repository currently does not allow linking to files. This is because the files are in a directory inside moodledata and are not exposed by any direct URL from the web.

To serve them to the web we'd have to have some script like /repository/filesystem/file.php to serve them as links, which would allow relative links like HTML mini-sites to work.

The problem with this is that we are back to the same issues as 1.9 course files (or even worse), with no access control on the files at all. Some people may not care about this, but the solution needs to make this very clear to users.

WebDAV support for course files and user files

This would effectively replace direct FTP access to the file system with WebDAV access to the "virtual" file system inside these file areas in Moodle. It would allow people to update files without going near the web GUI.

See also