‘Motivating’ users to quickly change their default user icon in Moodle 1.9.

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Do you use Moodle’s default user icon (avatar), or have you substituted it with an icon of your choice? In this post, I will talk about what I consider for my site, an ideal default user icon. The purpose of this post is find a way to encourage users or students to quickly change their default Moodle user icon.

In my classes, I insist that my students change their default user icons to images (faces) of themselves.  The reason for this is because, one, I get tired of looking at so many yellow smiley faces. Two, I want the Moodle course page to be a bit more Web 2.0-like in terms of having actual user faces. So, in every introductory session on Moodle, I inform my students to change their icons. There has never been much great urgency among some students to do so, especially among those who do not have a Facebook account.

However, I believe that with my discovery of a ‘different’ default user icon, I can get more students to make the change, sooner.

Before that, let’s dive into some Moodle trivia and history.

Back in 2001,  Moodle’s original default user icon, was a very male-looking silhouette named Shadowhead. Looking at it now, it looks to me like it came out of Aha’s artistic music video “Take On Me”. Ah (ha), that was in the 1980s.

Moodle 1.9’s default user icon, Smiley Cake, replaced it soon after, and is one of Moodle’s most recognisable icons.  Everyone loves a Smiley.

Sort of reminds you of cheesecake doesn’t it? In fact, it is a real cake! Maybe you’ve seen so many of them that you’ve grown tired of looking at one. For alternative icons, you can check out an interesting thread on default user icons here.

Smiley Cake came into being because its creator, Martin Dougiamas, wanted something more positive than the original default user icon, Shadowhead.  8 years later on 16th May 2010, Martin Dougiamas replaced Smiley Cake with a 2-D, bland and benign-looking icon.

“Changed default user icon pix to something very bland (bye bye smiley cake)”  Martin, 2010.

That might be a very good thing. This choice of icon is, I believe, a deliberate and calculated move to get users to change their icons. This is what this interesting link suggests.

 Yesterday, I stumbled upon an interesting article by Charles Kelly’s of the Moodle Things website. The article is entitled “Tweaks and Hacks”. In it, Charles explains that:

To encourage students to quickly upload their own photos, replace the default “user” icons with something less attractive.

Idea #1: Use a gender-free anonymous silhouette. (This is what we currently do.)

Idea #2: Use a gender-free image of a pig, a monkey, a frown face, etc. (We used a pig for a while.)

Where are the icons?
/moodle/pix/u/f1.png & /moodle/pix/u/f2.png
These are the 2 we are currently using. (The yellow matches the theme we use for forums and blogs.)


The larger icon is f1.png and the smaller icon is f2.png. I liked  Charles’ icons so much that I immediately ftp’ed them to my production Moodle site. Okay, the garish yellow shades definitely do not match my site’s theme. However, The default image is supposed to be something you don’t like, so you change it fast! Therefore I believe that such an image is fit for purpose, that is to have a short shelf-life and to be a constant reminder to the student who has yet to make the change, to upload an image of themselves.

Here’s the difference Charles’ icons make to my site now:

Now how can you ignore that “No Photo Yet” message?

Here’s  participants’ list:


Don’t those “No Photo” icons stick out like a series of sore thumbs?

So there you go! A functional Moodle default user icon that does the talking for me. What about you? Do you have your own favourite default Moodle icon that you have installed on your Moodle site? Why did you choose it? Could you share a link to it?

Happy Moodling
Frankie Kam
Melaka, Malaysia



Other ‘interesting’ default Smiley user icons – f1.png (left) and f2.png (right):

  Companion icon


  Companion icon



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