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Alternate Worlds: Teaching with an “Open LMS”

The Guardian of Forever (Gateway to Alternate Worlds)
The Guardian of Forever

At Macaulay, we’re using BuddyPress and WPMU (two-thirds of the same platform in use here on the Commons) for our student eportfolios–very broadly defined.  My vision of the system when it first started up last year was that these would be just individual eportfolios, pretty traditional.  But because the system is so open and flexible, we’re finding all kinds of different uses–including some, by classes, that are pretty close to what classes get from an LMS like Blackboard.

So this spring, I’m teaching a brand-new online course for Macaulay students (through the SPS and OLBA): “Alternate Worlds: Imagining the Future of Education.”  I’m going to be setting this class up in a new way, without a (traditional) LMS, but with something more like an “open” LMS–an experiment in using WordPress as a center for a group of “small pieces loosely joined,” which will provide everything needed for teaching a fully-online upper-level honors elective seminar…without the contraints or closedness or expense of a commercial LMS, but with the ease-of-use and convenience (for students and for me) that such a system offers.  An “alternate world” (which doesn’t necessarily require the Guardian of Forever in order to reach it).

The course opens in a week and a half, and I’ve still got some setting up to do, but I’ve got some basic concepts and ideas set up, and I want to introduce them now…and blog about this process as I continue the planning and set-up and the teaching during the semester, too.  I need this to work well, of course, this semester for these students, but I think it can also be a kind of proof-of-concept or pilot.  If I get a working system, even if it needs to be tweaked or customized for other courses, it should be replicable and could be valuable for others.

I’ll get to some practical details in a minute, but first I should spell out why I want to do this this way (and this is more than just “why not Blackboard”).

  1. This is a cross-campus, interdisciplinary course.  Sure, it will be offered through SPS, and the students are enrolled by permit, so they would have access to the OLBA Blackboard install.  But I’m interested in courses that work across campuses (not just because Macaulay is a seven-campus consortial institution)–and even, potentially, across institutions.  I want students to be able to engage in connections and conversations with other students–even those who may not be on their own campuses, may not be in CUNY, may not even be enrolled in the course.  May not even be students at all.  I need to give students both a protected private (“walled garden”) space, and an open, shareable, wide-audience for collaboration (“free range”) space.
  2. Similarly, I want this course to be available after the official semester ends.  Integrative learning, I think, requires students to be able to look back at a course (including what I say in that course as the professor–but more importantly what they say in the course as students) when they’re taking other courses, later on, or even when they’re entirely done with school.  The atomized model of a course that begins and ends just promotes learning for the requirements of that course which can then be dismissed or disappeared, rather than reflected on and built on.
  3. The subject matter of this course is about past views of the future of education, and about our (mine and my students’ and authors’ and thinkers’) views of the present and future of education.  The medium has to reflect that message.  I want to foreground some of the structures and built-in assumptions of learning management systems (which include classrooms, desks and chairs, chalkboards, and so forth).  If we try a new system, in a class about how these kinds of systems work and what they assume and mean, students (and I) can have the opportunity to question all these systems, and think about what learning design really can mean and do–especially with new tools and new freedoms.
A "Learning Machine"?
A "Learning Machine"?

Those are some of the basic ideas, and I’m sure I’ll tease out more as I continue to do this and blog about it.  To a certain extent, this is a gut-level instinctual plan, and while I’m a big fan of “evidence-based” scholarship of teaching and learning, I’m also (romantically, perhaps) aware of the fact that teaching is an art form, too–sometimes SoTL is really about finding the evidence for the magic that you just know is happening and working.

Now, practically speaking, what does this idea of an “Open LMS” need? What are the basic elements that I have to have in this system (and how am I planning to get them)?  Specifically for teaching online, what do you really have to have?

  1. The obvious–a place to post “static” material.  Course requirements, syllabus, assignments, calendar, and readings (either a book list or actual pdf’s or links to online texts), and so forth.  (Not all of this is completely static, but that’s part of the point of posting it online).  This is easy to achieve.  WordPress does it fine, or you could write your own HTML, use another blogging platform, Google Sites, me.com, any wiki platform, etc., etc.  Making some of it private to just the students (as it might need to be? I guess in the case of copyrighted readings where you have permission or fair use rights, but only if limited in access) is a little difficult in some of these platforms, but not too bad.  And WordPress does this admirably well.
  2. A place for the “lectures”–the course content.  Note that I do not mean “captured” lectures (see my earlier post!).  I mean content specifically created to be communicated by being posted online–created to take advantage of the benefits of this medium, rather than trying to transparently re-create the oral performance of an in-class lecture.  So this needs to be a place for text in short readable blocks, with images, multi-media, hyperlinks, and openings for comments and interaction and digressions.  And it needs to be organized, taggable, and searchable.  Again, lots of platforms can offer this.  WordPress is good at it, though, especially with categories that can be multiple and overlapping, and with easy links or direct forms for entering comments (which flat html doesn’t do so well).
  3. Threaded discussion.  For me this is the absolute heart of an online course–where most of the learning takes place, where most of the active thinking takes place, and where the ideas that generate good writing first appear and get challenged and improved.  Without a good, usable, discussion board, an online course is just a shadow of a ghost of a course.  I won’t say that a course without discussion is totally worthless, but it’s nowhere near what it needs to be or can be.  And those discussion boards need to handle threads well, including forums and sub-forums, need to be private or anonymous or public or closed as needed (depending on topics, ideas, individual posters, all kinds of variables).  They need to use avatars and smileys/emoticons, and be easy to follow the threads and edit.  Personal messages are a nice bonus, too, as is some kind of post-rating system.  This is something that WordPress does not provide out of the box, and I’m still considering how to provide it.  One option is just to link to a pretty good forum software package.  Simple Machines Forum or vBulletin are probably the top contenders there.  Or there are the BuddyPress forums (but they’re somewhat feature-poor).  I’m thinking as of today that I will probably go with the Simple Press Forum plugin.  I had a little trouble getting it installed and configured on my test environment, but right now it does seem to be working, and that’s looking like the best candidate.
  4. Quizzes/tests.  In an online class, every test is an open-book test.  That’s fine and it’s a good thing.  The benefit of open-book tests is that they push students to open the book.  In teaching online (and in the classroom, too), I’ve used open-book mini-quizzes as a quick and easy way to be sure everyone has done the reading.  I make them small and simple, and offer a big advantage (in terms of points or grades) for doing well on them.  And I make them so that if a student has done the reading, it’s trivially easy to do well on them, but if a student has not done the reading, it’s almost impossible.  The message gets across very quickly.  These are “policeman” activities, enforcing the law, not something for real thinking (although I do sometimes throw in a silly or ironic “trick” question in there).  For real thinking, for real demonstration of (and reinforcement of and growth of) learning, I use essays–real writing assignments–not tests (so that’s the next item on this list).  I haven’t completely decided on how to do these.  Blackboard does them well–grading them automatically (because I certainly don’t want to spend time on them!).  But I’m leaning towards making them even more “open-book”–and using a Google Form for each one, then just posting the results for students to grade themselves.  It could even lead to more discussion of the answers (correct or incorrect).  And how could that be a bad thing?
  5. A dropbox or way to submit assignments. This is maybe not so important, because email attachments (at least if there’s only one class) are not the worst thing in the world (although if assignments are big with multimedia, file-sizes for the attachments can be a problem).  Still, a central place where students can submit their work, with privacy and with time-stamps and name-stamps, categorized and organized, is a good thing to have.  I may be the only person who actually liked and had students use the old Blackboard dropbox, but it’s not a part of Blackboard anymore anyway.  There are several WordPress plugins I’m looking at for this.  One of them provides direct access for students to a folder on my dropbox.com account, and that’s a good possibility.  I haven’t decided for sure yet.  They could also just upload assignments using the add media button in WordPress, but privacy options are bit more complicated there.
  6. Gradebook. Again, this is not 100% essential, but students really do like to see their grades quickly and easily, all the time.  And they want to be able to see their own grades themselves, but not have other students be able to see them.  And it needs to be easy for me to enter them, total and average them, and change them if necessary (we all make grading mistakes sometimes!).  I’ve got this one solved very nicely, I think, and I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more about this plugin.  The KB Gradebook plugin is just perfect for me for this.  Once it’s installed and activated in WordPress (which was simple), I just need to upload a spreadsheet (which can be re-uploaded and overwritten when new grades are there), and there’s a simple tag which produces a form on WordPress (on a page or in a sidebar widget) where students enter their email address and a password (either randomly generated and sent to them by the plugin, or they can use their existing WordPress password), and they can see their own grades, and nobody else’s.  It’s robust and customizable.  Very nice plugin.  (There’s a good video tutorial for it produced by Kyle Jones)
  7. Everything else.  Group posts, aggregating RSS feeds of news sources, bringing in individual students’ blogs or eportfolios, YouTube or Vimeo or other video embeds, audio embeds, photo galleries, other tools like Umappr, VoiceThread, Google Sidewiki, maybe facebook integration (maybe?), live chats, videoconferencing, and things students will think of that I haven’t thought of.  I wanted a system where there was room for the “everything else”–where it could be easily linked and connected and brought in, and WordPress does that.  In a course on the future of education, it’s really important to have “head room” for the future!

So that’s a basic overview–there are other features I haven’t discussed.  Security and upgrades are important.  The ability to customize the look and feel is extremely important.  Having students learn a system which (unlike Blackboard) is relevant and useful (and used) outside of the college environment is also important.

The Future?
The Future?

And there are drawbacks, too: I’m going to have to support myself on this quite a bit.  Students won’t have accounts automatically generated or maintained (no “LDAP integration”).  There will be a bit of a learning curve for students (and for me) and there won’t be consistency with other online courses they may be taking on their campuses.

But overall I think this has the potential to work really well (and I haven’t even mentioned the content yet, really!).  More to come in future posts.


  1. Thanks very much for this great post, Joe — I’ve been checking it out as I’ve been setting up a site for a hybrid course I was assigned at the last minute. Please consider this an official request for an update!

  2. Thanks, Paul, those are great additions. There are some wiki-ish plugins for wordpress, but I haven’t been too happy with any of them, so there I would probably go with pbwiki as you do, or similar. My colleague Kimon has had very good results with wikidot (and of course we use mediawiki here on the Commons!).

    And the twitter addition is excellent. I will certainly be working with that, too. Thanks much for that.

  3. Great post, thank you. I agree that WordPress + select plugins provides many of the functions and features we need in an alternative LMS.

    A tool (such as a wiki) for collaboration and/or student-generated content is really important in the courses I teach as part of an alternative to LMS. In the last few years I have incorporated PBWorks and it seems well-suited to this.

    Another tool I’ve found useful is Twitter for announcements – I use it as an optional extra source of updates and some students find it useful. See this wiki page for some examples of uses that can arise organically:


    Thanks again for a great post…


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