The Hidden Features of Open edX Studio - Part 1 - Appsembler

The Hidden Features of Open edX Studio – Part 1

(This post is part 1 of a 2-part series about the hidden features of Open edX. See part 2 here.)

Open edX is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to Open edX.

Mangled Douglas Adams quotes aside, there’s a lot of features hidden in Open edX Studio that can help you take your courses to the next level and tap into the full power of Open edX. In this post I’m going guide you through some of the features that you may have never encountered. As the first in a three-part series about the hidden features of Open edX, this blog post will focus on the Advanced Settings section of Open edX Studio.

If you’re reading this, chances are you have a passing familiarity with Studio, Open edX’s authoring environment and content management system. If not, I’d recommend putting your feet up, and watching our webinar on the basics of authoring in Open edX before digging in any further. I can wait, I’m not going anywhere. Once you’re done and have familiarised yourself with the environment, we can get started.

Advanced settings

The Advanced Settings menu is home to almost all of Studio’s hidden features. To get into this chamber of secrets on your own course, go to the Settings menu, and select Advanced Settings.

Open edX Studio - Advanced Settings
The Advanced Settings menu within Open edX Studio.

Scrolling through this page, you’ll find about a thousand different things you might not have known Open edX can do, but I’m going to pick out the best ones. All of the features listed below are available on Tahoe, but you may find some of them need enabling on your site if you’re not a Tahoe customer. Just shout if we manage your site, and we’ll get them set up for you.


First, let’s talk XBlocks, chiefly because it’s the first thing on the list. We’ve got a page in our glossary on XBlocks so I’m not going to go into detail on these, but in summary, XBlocks are extra course building blocks or plugins that you can add to your course. These include things like:

  • Extra interactive exercises
  • New ways of presenting information
  • Easy insertion of external tools like Google docs and LTI-enabled tools

You can find a full list of the XBlocks available to our Tahoe customers on our knowledge base, and there’s a list of XBlocks on the Open edX community wiki. Enabling XBlocks once they’re installed on your site is simple, you just add whatever short name they go by to the list of Advanced Modules, and they’ll be available to course authors.

Open edX Studio - Enabling XBlocks
Enabling XBlocks in Advanced Modules.

Personal favourites of mine include:

  • Polls
  • Peer Instruction
  • Drag and drop (although drag and drop is so good that it’s less hidden now, you’ll find it under Advanced Problems)

Display Strings

When you first set up your course, you have to set a few things like a course number and organization name. While you can fix these by exporting and importing your course, they do make up your URL, and as such they can’t be changed without completely replacing your course.

That’s where display strings come in: Course Display Name, Course Organization Display String and Course Number Display String.

Open edX Studio - Course Number Display String
Open edX Studio - Course Organization Display String
Open edX Studio - Course Display Name

It’s worth noting these won’t change your course ID, which is used in your URL, but they make for a great quick fix of minor issues, like putting spaces in your organization name, or correcting a typo.

These fields will literally take any string. Want to say “Spring 2020” instead of a specific date? How about “Take this course next, Eric” instead of your organization name? That’s a bit weird, but it’s ok, the Display String settings just display text strings, they don’t judge.

Discussion Topic Mapping

By default, in Open edX Studio you’ve got a single “General” topic. It’s all alone, sad and lonely. Maybe it gains a few in-content discussions later on for company, but no others of its kind. It’s tragic, really.

Open edX Studio - General Discussion Topic
The “General” Discussion topic.

This is how many Open edX courses stay, because the topic mapping for these course-wide topics is tucked away in the advanced settings. Let’s change that.

These course-wide topics are incredibly useful for keeping your discussions clear and organised. “General” is a good catch-all, but if you want feedback on your course, why not have a Feedback topic? How about a Help topic to make sure people know where to go to get assistance? It’s definitely easy to overload this with too many topics, but having the right balance can really help your learners figure out where to go to post.

Let’s set up our own. The Discussion Topic Mapping under Advanced Settings lets you set up however many course-wide topics you want to use! You want a Tech Support topic? Alrighty.

Open edX Studio - Discussion Topic Mapping
Setting up course-wide topics in Discussion Topic Mapping.

Boom – it’s done:

Open edX Studio - Discussion Topic Mapped
Alone no longer. We’ve just created the “Tech Support” topic.

Warning: Don’t include periods in your discussion topic mapping. It will break, you will be sad.

Discussion Sorting

Speaking of topic lists in discussions, there are two modes by which discussions are sorted. By default, discussion topics are sorted by creation date and time. If it was created first, it comes first in the list. That’s a bit weird, right? Fortunately we’ve got the other method as an alternative – Discussion Sorting Alphabetical. This will put all of your topics in alphabetical order, both in-content and course-wide. Just flip it from False to True.

Open edX Studio - Discussion Sorting
Sorting discussions alphabetically.


Want to provide small, self-organizing group discussion topics instead of huge broad ones? What a coincidence; that’s what Teams are for!

Let’s say you want to allow learners to create and join their own study groups of no more than 5 people, based on either what topic they want to discuss or where they are in the world. We feed the Teams Configuration field a little JSON (it’s nowhere near as scary as it may seem, there’s instructions under the field!):

Open edX Studio - Teams feature
Use the Teams feature to provide self-organizing group discussion topics.

Once that’s done, we gain a new tab in our LMS, which allows our learners to select a team, complete with its own discussion area.

Open edX Studio - Teams
Neat. Teams have been created.

Timed exams

Want to set a time limit on completing an important set of questions? Enable Timed Exams.

Open edX Studio - Timed Exams
Enabling the Timed Exams feature.

Once this is enabled, you can head over to the course outline and enter a time limit in the settings for a subsection in order to make a subsection a timed exam:

Open edX Studio - Setting time limits for timed exams
Setting the time limit for your timed exam.

Here’s what learners see when they hit the start of a timed exam:

Open edX Studio - Timed Exams for Learners
Timed exam from the learner’s perspective.

Subsection prerequisites

Want to limit access to something based on someone completing your new timed exam? Then boy do I have a feature for you. Enabling Subsection Prerequisites does exactly what it says on the tin – it allows you to set one graded section as a prerequisite for another in the subsection settings. If a learner hasn’t completed the prerequisite, they can’t access the content.

Open edX Studio - Subsection Prerequisites.
Enabling the Subsection Prerequisites feature.
Open edX Studio - Setting subsection prerequisites limits.
Setting the minimum score for subsection prerequisites.

Hide your course and make it invitation only

This is something I always set up at the start of my courses, as anyone who’s been a part of one of my training sessions can attest, but it’s so useful that I’ll never not mention it.

By default when you create a course in Open edX, anyone can enroll and it immediately appears in your course catalog. This is usually not optimal. The two advanced settings we need to stop this are Course Visibility in Catalog and Invitation Only. By setting these to “none” and “true” respectively, we lock the course off from anyone enrolling or seeing the course before we’re ready for them.

Open edX Studio - Setting Course Visibility
Prevent learners from seeing courses before they’re ready with the “Course Visibility” feature.
Open edX Studio - Invitation Only
Setting courses to “Invitation Only”.

Next Up

As you can see, there are plenty of features within Open edX Studio’s Advanced Settings menu alone to help spice up your courses and your learners’ experience.

This isn’t the end of this story, as the Advanced Settings are just one place where the hidden power of Open edX can be unleashed. In our next post, we’ll dig into some really cool things you can do with HTML in Open edX.

Are there any hidden features from the Advanced Settings menu that you’d like to learn more about? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!