Home » Teaching and Learning with Technology » Alternate Worlds Part 2: The Class Begins

Alternate Worlds Part 2: The Class Begins

Alternate Worlds
Alternate Worlds

Now that the dust has somewhat settled from the beginning of the semester, I thought I’d give a first update on my “Open LMS” experiment (introduced in an earlier post).  The course is open (today is the fourth day of the semester, so it’s just beginning to get rolling), the students are in and active, and it seems like a good time to take a snapshot of my thinking now that the planning is done and we’re “live and direct.”

I’m very pleased with the framework I’ve got set up for the course.  The nav menu seems clear, the divisions are sensible, so that students will (I hope!) be able to find all that they need and know what they need to do.  Thinking through the information architecture was (as it always is) a useful exercise in setting up the content of the course, too.  I was actually surprised at how some of what I thought would be stubborn problems where I might need to accept compromises, just fell into place with the right theme and plugins and widgets.

It’s early to say, since the course has just begun, but I still think I feel confident enough to claim that WordPress really can work perfectly well as an LMS–even for a fully-online course (perhaps the most challenging context for any LMS).  At least it seems it can for a course that is organized and run the way I want to run this one.

  • Technical details.  The whole course is running through WordPress (MU for now, but that distinction will soon be moot) with assorted plugins.  That means all the course software is free and open source, and I have benefited from that fact by being able to go ahead and edit the code when and as needed to make it do what I want.
    • Theme. I’m using a fairly flexible theme, Alkivia Chameleon.  At first I was trying to use that theme with exclusively the customization possible through its own options menus, but I decide to go just a little further in customization, so made a copy and did a small amount of code editing. (It’s pretty clear that if one wanted to try to replicate this setup on an institutional basis, some custom-designed–or at least modified–themes would be necessary).
    • Plugins. These are what really make the whole thing work.  It doesn’t take many, really, but pushing WordPress to be an LMS does take some.
      • Organization–by default, WordPress does things with categories, posts, and pages which are typical for blogs, but not so typical for an organized course.  I wanted student posts when marked with specific categories to end up on specific pages, and I wanted clearly organized navigation menu–and I didn’t want to fool around with ordering my posts by manually fiddling with the date fields.  These plugins let me do all of that:
        • advanced-category-excluder. Some categories I don’t want appearing in the nav menus.
        • order-categories.  I wanted to decide in what order my categories would appear in the nav menus
        • just-one-category. By default when WordPress builds a category page, it includes the parent category and child categories.  I wanted pages for the parent to have just the parent, and child to have just the child.
        • astickypostorderer  .  Sticky posts in WordPress work only on the “front” page.  With this plugin you can have a sticky post (always at the top) on category pages, too–and decide what order the other posts will appear.
        • pagemash. In addition to category pages, I’ve got some regular static pages.  Pagemash, with a nice drag and drop interface, lets me choose the order for those pages, and also decide whether or not they should appear in nav menus.
      • Course Management Functions–These let students submit assignments privately, securely, with time-stamps, and view their grades, also securely, and privately.
        • dropbox-plugin . If you’ve got an account on dropbox.com (and if you don’t, you should), this plugin lets students submit assignments directly to a designated folder there.  (I created a new dropbox account just for this class, but that’s not essential).
        • kb-gradebook. I talked about this in the earlier post–it’s fantastic.  Students like to know their grades right away.  This also allows more than just letter grades.  Since it’s just reading a csv file, you can put extended written comments, too.
      • Communication and Interaction–for discussion, and mass emails and private emails
        • email-users (With Boone Gorges’ hack to make it work just for the one given blog).  Sometimes I want to email the whole class–or just a few students–without looking up email addresses.  This lets me do it right from the dashboard.
        • simplepress forum.  This is the real find, I think.  This is fantastic forum software.  A little difficulty to set up and configure–but that’s because there are sooo many features.
      • Multimedia–I want to embed multimedia easily, and I want students to be able to do that, too.
        • podpress. I know others have other preferences (Anarchy Media Player is popular), but as far as I’m concerned podpress is still the best plugin for embedding video or audio.  The ability to customize the player (particularly the still image when nothing is playing) is just unbeatable.  It also gives an iTunes ready feed–not that I’m using that right now, but it could be (podpress used to be installed here at the Commons, but now looks like it’s gone. Still, it’s a great plugin).
        • Unflitered MU and Google Maps Quicktags.  Between the two of these, it’s pretty much guaranteed that WPMU will stop stripping out embed tags, so students can add YouTube (and other) videos to their posts.  This is NOT safe if you have open registration on your WPMU install.  But I don’t have that.  I’ve had some issues with Viper’s Video Quicktags in the past (the other option for this), so didn’t even attempt that route this time.
      • Various anti-spam comment and anti-splog plugins.  A bunch of them.  It’s an ongoing battle.
    • Widgets. Actually, at this point I’m just using a couple of text widgets.  But I found these to be more important and useful than I had expected.  A text widget, always there in the sidebar, for announcements, turned out to be the simple way to handle this important function.  And a second one, just below that, for “when and where now?” seemed like a good way to keep an at-a-glance reminder of where we were in the course and what students should be doing at any particular time.  I used a tiny little snip of javascript to always have the current date displayed in that widget.  Simple and clear.  Later I will probably use some other widgets for things like upcoming skype or dimdim synchronous sessions.  If I do those.  Both KB Gradebook and the Dropbox plugin could be in widgets, too.  But I decided against that.  Having grades and assignments always in the sidebar of every page gives those two elements more importance in the course than I want them to have.

So aside from the technical details, I’m also starting to explore some of the questions and ideas that come up from a class that works in this way.

  • Priorities and values.  As I mentioned above, something I’ve noticed before became even more clear this time.  Laying out the information architecture for an online course pushes you to make decisions (and make them explicit) about course design.  Intellectual design, not just graphic design.  What is important in teaching the course? Where do you want students’ attention to go (and in what order)? How much do you want to talk to them and how much do you want them to talk to each other (and to you)?  When you are laying out menus and categories and tasks, these are all questions that have to be asked.  One example is what I mentioned about not giving too much importance to assignments and grades.  I’m also finding that a page (“Readings,” for example), which I first thought would be relatively static, might in fact need to be more dynamic–or have a more dynamic sub-page.  I keep finding new things (websites, stories, news articles) that I want students to read.  I don’t want those to have as much weight as the pre-established reading list (which is a bit of a contract, and shouldn’t be changed too much mid-stream).  But I do want them to be easy to find and I do want students to read them–even though they’re “extra.”  It’s early enough in the course that that hasn’t been a huge issue yet.  But I can see that I’m going to need a new “extra reading” page–where students can post extra readings, too.  Luckily, that’s easy to add.
  • How open is open? This is a big question, and one in which I’m hoping to engage the students themselves.  Right now it works like this:
    • Course information and (my) course content.  The syllabus, the reading assignments, the schedule, the policies, and all “my” mini-lectures will be completely open to the entire internet world.  Anyone can see them, read them, leave comments.
    • Student-generated content (What I’m calling “Reflections”–essentially student blog posts).  These fall in the middle.  Students decide for themselves whether these should be public to the world, public to just our class (or some segment of the class), public to just me, or public to just the author of the post (which isn’t really public at all, is it?).  I have a feeling (none of them have been written yet) that students are going to be quite willing to have these open and public to the world.  But by giving them the choice on that, I think I’m foregrounding for them the idea that this is something to consider and that there are advantages and consequences for any such choice.
    • Forums (the equivalent of class discussions).  I’m keeping these completely closed to the outside world–just the students and me can post, or even read.
    • Assignments, grades, private messages.  Of course these are all completely private, between just the student and me.  It’s possible that some students may want to share their assignments after submitting them (I’ve had students make that request before).  That would be fine, as long as they choose that.

    But this is all still open to discussion.  It is one of our discussion topics in the first unit, and I’m really hopeful that students will engage with this question–because it’s fairly central to the subject matter of the course.  If they can think and decide about “free-range vs. walled garden,” they’ll be right at heart of questions about school 1.0 and 2.0 (and learning and the new shape of learning more generally).  We’ll see where that goes.  For example, I’m wondering in particular about the forums. It’s possible that as the course goes on, we’ll want to have a forum topic that the outside world can read, but not post in…or maybe one where guests can post, too.  The simplepress plugin allows for a whole range of fine-grained privacy options.  It’s nicely flexible that way.  So whatever we decide we want to do in that regard, the technology won’t stand in the way.

I have to fight my impatience about getting started a little bit here.  I want the students posting every minute, right from the start, because I’m excited about the course (and I think they are, too).  But of course they have other courses and other things to do.  Still, I think the potential, even with a small group of students (I’ve only got a group of 8 at this point), is very strong.

One other thing I want to mention that has been a huge disappointment.  Because this is an interdisciplinary cross-campus course, offered through SPS, students had an incredibly hard time getting registered.  The e-permit system (which was really more often a paper permit system in this case) has been a complete failure for the students who wanted to register for the class.  CUNY campuses (and departments on those campuses) make it nearly impossible for students to register for classes that are outside the mainstream obvious course list.

I lost at least four potential students who just could not deal with the intense runaround they got in trying to make the registration happen.  And two more who actually did manage to register successfully, didn’t know they had been successful (communications are so poor), so went ahead and registered for other classes.  So now even though they’re on my roster, they’re not really able to take the course, and need to be dropped.

If CUNY is going to encourage cross-campus registrations, especially in innovative or unusual classes (and I definitely think we should encourage that!), we need to do a much better job of making the process work for students.  They are having to go, piece of paper in hand, from office to office and back again, getting contradictory and inaccurate information, and often being told that what they want to do (what they want to learn) can’t be done.  Only the most persistent and motivated students would ever stick to this process all the way through.  (And this is for Macaulay students, with dedicated advisors, with me and our Student Affairs staff providing assistance.  I can only imagine how hard it would be for a student without all that extra help).

But that’s a separate issue–maybe one to be taken up elsewhere on the Commons.

For now I’ll close this (long, long) update–and look ahead to the next one, as the course goes on.  I provided the link above, and here it is again–I definitely invite Commons colleagues to have a look at the open portions of the course, even at this early stage (with only the first Unit just beginning).  And of course I invite comments!

Alternate Worlds: Imagining the Future of Education


  1. This is fascinating, Joe. Thanks so much for sharing your process. I’m headed over to check out Alternate Worlds right now!

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