UX developer Chris Young explains why he and other members of our development team decided to build Spark, an exclusive LMS theme for Moodle and Totara.
How did the Spark LMS theme come about?
Chris: It’s really been around as an idea since 2017. As a development team, we were working on different client projects and it started to become apparent that many clients were requesting the same custom features for their bespoke LMS theme. We began sharing snippets of code among the team to limit repetition and build some consistency in our coding for these features.
As time went on and we saw the same patterns continuing, we decided to consolidate and develop the work we had done into a single LMS theme that would give our clients the option to access some of the most popular custom LMS functionality without the expense of bespoke development.
It was a case of us sitting down to think about the things we’re asked to do time and again by clients. That gave us an initial 11 features, which we’ve since expanded to 17 features.
So collating the existing snippets and then expanding them into a theme: plain sailing, right?
Chris: No, it was really stressful at the start because we were heading into uncharted territory. It was a balancing act of continuing the old ways of working while getting the theme to the point that it was ready to be sent out into the wild. A lot of people think a custom theme is the only option; that anything that’s not bespoke must be inferior in some way. So we needed to be able to demonstrate that Spark isn’t your average LMS theme before we showed it to clients. It was August 2020 by the time we had done all the UX design, development and testing to get Spark to that stage.
Why would someone opt for the Spark LMS theme over a bespoke LMS theme?
Chris: With a bespoke LMS theme, you’ve got the initial cost of all the development work to build your theme from scratch, plus a labour-intensive process to scope out exactly what’s needed in terms of design and development. When you come to upgrade the LMS, you’re more or less doing the same again.
We like to think of Spark as being like a pavlova. It’s a great base layer in its own right; it does everything you need an LMS theme to do and more, incorporating elements of user interface design, interaction design, information architecture, visual design, functionality, usability, typography and content strategy that you will need for your LMS.
But then we’ve got the custom and premium features, which are the various fruits and cream. You put onto your pavlova the toppings you want, but the key thing is that they’re all sitting prepared and ready to create whatever makes the perfect pavlova for your organisation.
Even for clients who, against our better judgement, are determined to go ahead with a bespoke theme, Spark still provides the base on which to build as many flourishes as are needed.
Then there’s the quality assurance and testing aspect. No single client could afford to put their LMS theme through the level of QA that Spark has been through. We put months of work into making sure it does exactly what it’s supposed to on various versions of Moodle and Totara, so that we’re now happy to stand by it.
When there’s a new version of Moodle or Totara released, we’ll start the QA process again and make sure we’re happy for customers to upgrade. Since there’s so little need for custom coding when you’re using the Spark LMS theme, upgrades will be much smoother than with bespoke themes.
Which of Spark’s features – or pavlova toppings – are getting the biggest response so far?
Chris: The Team Chart premium feature is really popular. That allows managers and admins to easily monitor their team’s progress in a visually neat graphic. The chart displays the number of courses completed, in progress and not yet started for each team member in an easy to read, colour-coded interface, while the integrated slider ensures that even the largest teams can be included. The manager can simply click on a learner’s profile image for a more detailed look at their progress.
But the biggest reaction is just from seeing what can be achieved without any bespoke development being required. Clients are being blown away by the sheer functionality of Spark.
People are coming to us and saying: “We know we’ll need custom development to do this.” We’re able to show them that Spark can do most of those things straight out of the box. So, it’s a big “wow!” to be getting that level of functionality plus direct consultancy from the team that built it.
What does the future look like for the Spark LMS theme?
Chris: To keep spotting gaps and keep revolutionising. We want to continue to complement the core code of Moodle and Totara, so we don’t meddle in anything that Moodle and Totara already have in hand.
We focus on the things that the core code doesn’t do that our customers need, so that’s what we’ll continue to do. We want to listen to Spark customers and hear from them where there are gaps that still need to be bridged.
Find out more about the Spark LMS theme or fill out the form below if you’d like to see it in action.
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