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Interview with Nick Freear, Author of Moodle 2 for Teaching 4-9 Year Olds

Nick is the author of our recently published Moodle 2 for Teaching 4-9 Year Olds: Beginner's Guide which will teach you to adapt your existing lesson plans to online Moodle courses and will give you ideas to create new activities, quizzes, and puzzles to make the learning process fun and interactive for young children.

Nick is a Web developer in the Institute of Educational Development at The Open University. His interest in Moodle, e-learning and open source software grew from his previous position on the Virtual Learning Environment development team at The Open University. He now helps develop sites and software applications for various University and research-based projects.

He lives in sunny Milton Keynes, in the UK with his wife and daughter.

Do visit his blog. You could also check out his book.

Packt: Your book is published now. How does it feel to be a published author?

Nick: It feels great. I'm happy to have finished the book, and proud of the result. And it feels like the right time to look back. I've also become interested in the whole process of writing.

Packt: What benefits did writing a book bring to your specialist area?

Nick: I don't deal with Moodle on a day-to-day basis in my current job. I did do development on Moodle in my previous position at The Open University, but you gain a whole new perspective on software through writing about it. Other benefits are the confidence I've gained in my research, development and writing abilities.

Packt: Our authors usually have full-time jobs whilst writing for us. Was this the case for you and how did you approach managing your time?

Nick: Yes, I'm a full-time Web developer at The Open University. Obviously it was a challenge to do my regular job and the book at the same time. I did a number of things to help me manage this. First, I talked to my boss at The OU while I was planning the book, to check if he was OK with it. Will was very supportive. I tried to set realistic targets for my writing schedule. I'm fortunate to get quite a bit of leave at The OU, so I used that.

Packt: Whilst writing your book, did you find that it overshadowed personal life in any way? How did you deal with this?

Nick: Yes, it did take over my life for a while. I received great support from my wife, and I continued to talk through lots of detail with her. We were both relieved when I finished.

Packt: Do you have any advice for other authors who may be interested in writing for Packt, but are still unsure?

Nick: Talk it through with your spouse or partner before you start, as it's a big commitment. Also talk to your boss if you work, and other colleagues. Be realistic about the amount of time you will need. Take time to research similar books and your topic. Discuss your ideas with an editor from Packt. Don't be intimidated by the subject. And most of all, go for it.

Packt: Do you have any tips for other authors, or tricks that you learnt whilst writing, that you'd like to share?

Nick: Work on a detailed book outline with your acquisition editor. The more details you work out and put down on paper ahead of time, the easier it is to write. At the same time, be prepared to modify your plan if the environment changes. I think at times I wasn't flexible enough about my plan. Ask plenty of questions and bounce ideas off your editor. Even if you get stuck sometimes, try to write something. Let your editor(s) know early if you become particularly busy at work. Although it's good to stick to your deadlines, there is usually some flexibility. And, try to have fun while you write. My feeling is that if you have fun writing, the reader will have fun reading.

Packt: How did you find the overall experience of writing your book for Packt?

Nick: Overall it was a positive experience writing for Packt. I remember the first few chapters were deceptively easy. I then slowed down in the middle and it became difficult - you'll find the gory details below. I learned a lot about writing, and I discovered what was important to me. Keeping my interest and that of the reader, and using and promoting open content and free/open source software.

Packt: During the writing process, did you come across any issues/ difficulties that affected your writing and how did you overcome these?

Nick: There were a number of challenges for me during the writing progress. Moodle 2 was released when I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft. Although I had anticipated that it would be out while I was writing, I considered this with my "developer's" hat on, not my "writer's" hat. I hadn't appreciated the extent to which Packt would want to support the current version on publication. I ended up writing the book for both Moodle 1.9 and 2. A lot of things changed, so I had to re-create lots of screen-shots, explain which instructions applied to Moodle 1.9 and which to 2. It became quite fiddly and stressful. (Despite all this fun, I hope the results are readable.)

Another challenge was the extent to which I wrote my own software plug-ins for Moodle. (I also used some third-party ("contributed") plug-ins and modified others.) Many technical authors write example or demonstration code for their books, but not so many write software that will be used in production. In anger, if you like. I felt it was valuable to write new plug-ins. When I thought about my target audience (teachers of 4 to 9 year olds) I realized that there needed to be a particular emphasis on fun, visual exercises. Moodle is a great general purpose VLE, and any general-purpose tool would need some adaptations for this particular age group. Anyway, I'm happy to have released the Moodle plug-ins under an open-source license, and some of them have sparked interest quite apart from the book, and from people teaching different age-groups.

Packt: Was there anything interesting that happened during the writing of the book?

Nick: Yes, the release of Moodle 2 was definitely interesting! Moodle, like other software projects (for example, Firefox) moved to a more frequent, agile and incremental release cycle while I was writing. This may make it more a challenge to write this sort of book in future. And more of a challenge for small schools to upgrade.

Packt: How did Packt’s Acquisition Editors help you - what kind of things did they help you with and how did they support you throughout the writing process?

Nick: My Acquisition Editor was a big help, particularly in the early stages. Sarah provided some of the initial ideas, from which I developed the outline. She provided feedback on the outline and detailed feedback on the early chapters.

Packt: What projects, if any, are you working on at the moment?

Nick: I continue to work on some interesting projects at The Open University related to e-learning, multimedia, accessibility and HTML5. I have some bugs to fix and improvements to make in my Moodle plug-ins. I'm catching up on work for my house. And I'm continuing to blog. I don't have any immediate plans to write more books, but I do have a few ideas. Who knows?

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