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Macaulay Springboards: The Capstone as an Open Learning Eportfolio

a later version of this essay appears in Eportfolio as Curriculum, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, from Stylus Publishing.

Macaulay Springboards: The Capstone as an Open Learning Eportfolio

Joseph Ugoretz

Macaulay Honors College, CUNY

 

Introduction

A department office at a large public university is often a busy place. When I was an undergraduate, long ago, that was certainly the case. There was a small room, though, through a frosted-glass door, attached to the department office at the university where I was a student, and that room was not busy at all. Nobody, it seemed, ever went in or out that frosted door. One day, while waiting for a signature on a form, I opened the door and looked in. The room was full of filing cabinets, tall, grey and solidly packed against the walls. Even peeking through the door, I could see dust on the tops of the cabinets. These were not cabinets for frequently-used files.

Closing the door, I asked the department secretary what those were. “The honors thesis files,” she said. “To graduate with honors, you have to write a thesis. When you turn it in, I file it in there.”

I was certainly not an honors student myself. I wasn’t going to write a thesis, turn it in, or have it filed anywhere. But I was struck by the dusty, secluded fate of those theses.

Later, as a graduate student, I would write a thesis. And a dissertation. I would serve as an advisor and committee member receiving and evaluating many of them. Later still, I would see the movement (in many institutions) from the strict definition of a thesis to the somewhat broader concept of a capstone.

It’s with that concept that I want to begin.

The Capstone Requirement

A capstone project is a project of significant reach and scope designed to bring together and demonstrate a student’s learning in a specific major or program. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities Brief Overview of High-Impact Educational Practices, “these culminating experiences require students nearing the end of their college years to create a project of some sort that integrates and applies what they’ve learned.” (https://www.aacu.org/leap/hips)

Generally speaking, a capstone, like a thesis, is supposed to culminate an educational experience and demonstrate that a student is now experienced and capable as a scholar and practitioner of the field in which she has been trained. The idea of the capstone is the idea of demonstrating and documenting and making clear that there is now a level of expertise and that there is a significant example of accomplishment that can be certified. Certification and exhibition are the keys to the capstone. Generally, these productions are judged, rated, accepted by some body of experts that rules them acceptable. A capstone is often supported by a course or group of courses, and may also include creative or artistic productions, but, more frequently than not, it is a long (usually, but not always, longer than the final assignment for a single course) formal paper. Often it takes the form of a “mini-dissertation,” complete with the sections that are often found in a dissertation or monograph produced by advanced scholars in the student’s chosen field.

My institution, Macaulay Honors College, is the honors college of the City University of New York. We have high-performing students across eight campuses, in over 300 different majors, united by a common identity as honors students, a common set of interdisciplinary seminars in critical thinking in the first two years, and a common set of rigorous academic requirements (spelled out in the student handbook at https://macaulay.cuny.edu/community/handbook/). One of those requirements, from the launch of the Honors College in 2001, has been the requirement to complete an honors thesis or capstone project. This is a common requirement in honors programs nationally; the National Collegiate Honors Council includes an honors thesis or capstone requirement as one of the “Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors College” (https://www.nchchonors.org/uploaded/NCHC_FILES/PDFs/NCHC_Basic_Characteristics-College_2017.pdf). At Macaulay, these projects were completed in the student’s own major or program on their own campus in most cases, and with the advisement of a faculty member from that department. The departments were responsible for assigning, reviewing and judging these projects.

Each year, advisors, campus directors, or the students themselves could nominate a thesis to be considered for the annual Thesis Award to be presented at commencement. These awards, in fact, were the only central review of the projects that took place, even though creating the projects was a central requirement. Almost every project nominated was, as should be expected from honors students, of high quality and broad scope, within a specific academic area. It was often difficult for the committee to select a winner, and the Thesis Award (later renamed the Capstone Award as that broader terminology became more current, but most awards were still given to students whose “capstone” was a thesis) was a pleasant surprise and a positive reinforcement for the students who received it.

Beginning in 2005, Macaulay Honors College also provided a course, a year-long (two-semester sequence) “thesis colloquium” as a purely optional or voluntary support mechanism for students who wanted extra structure and encouragement in completing their projects. This course accepted students from different majors or programs, as well as those who had interdisciplinary or hard-to-classify interests. It was a successful course and students who took the course had uniformly strong thesis projects at the end, as well as presentations at national and local undergraduate research conferences. Because it was optional and the students taking the course were self-selected, the numbers were always small—often only five or six students (out of a graduating class of approximately 500 in the honors college as a whole).

So this was the model at Macaulay—a not uncommon model for an honors college, or for many kinds of similar programs. Students were “required” (although the stringency of that requirement was somewhat inconsistent) to complete a project that was called (variously) a thesis or a capstone. The college (and the departments) provided varying levels of support and scaffolding for these projects, but for the most part, like a master’s thesis or a dissertation, they were independent projects, closely echoing the master’s thesis or dissertation but on a slightly smaller scale.

At the same time, we had introduced (beginning in 2008) our own eportfolio platform for all students. Eportfolios@Macaulay (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios), built in WordPress to allow maximum flexibility and individual control for students, was being used as a learning management system, as well as for group projects, individual student projects, student and faculty publications, class assignments, reflective travel journals, and a wide range of other purposes. The diversity and individuality of the eportfolios was appealing to students and the openness and flexibility of design and audience interaction was providing students with a strong motivation to do impressive work and spend time and energy on representing and reflecting on their learning.

As the then-Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Technology, I consulted with the instructor of the thesis colloquium course and showed her a few examples of the kinds of work students were doing with eportfolios. She was impressed by the students’ increased sense of ownership of their work, the integration of the diverse elements of their learning and the students’ participation in actively deciding what was most powerful and significant for inclusion in their eportfolios. She agreed to make a small preliminary adjustment to the thesis colloquium course. As an addition to the assignments and activities of the course, all of which led to the traditional thesis paper, we asked each of the students to create an eportfolio as a representation of the thesis project.

There was still a lengthy, well-researched written paper as a final outcome or production of the class, but some students (this started out as a non-required option) also elected to use an eportfolio to do something more than simply posting the paper online. They included early drafts, initial research directions that weren’t ultimately followed, and personal reflections. The first students to take this direction, in the spring of 2011, were those with interests that were more interdisciplinary, more connected to contemporary culture, and (not surprisingly) students who were more fluent and capable with digital tools.

And in the first projects that took this direction, we started to see a kind of richness, a kind of connection to the material, and a kind of life beyond the requirement, beyond the bachelor’s degree, and beyond the dusty secluded fate of the thesis room’s filing cabinets.

An early and successful example is “Ending Dualism at Hogwarts” (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/hpapocalypse/ ). There are several implications of this project that we noticed as the student was developing it and that we wanted to explore further. First, the student was able, through the “about me” section, as well as the FAQ, to provide a context and a connection to her own interests—to what made the thesis project interesting and valuable to her, beyond the scope of a requirement or assignment. “Why Harry Potter? Wouldn’t a more serious thesis be a better way to spend your time and energy?” the student asks in her FAQ list. Her answer,

[the enormous popularity of these books] puts a lot of kids (and adults!) on the receiving end of a pretty explicit moral message about the importance of love, selflessness, tolerance and social justice. I don’t think it would be a waste of time to study how Rowling was able to achieve that kind of success. It would certainly be of interest to future authors and anyone else who also wants to promote those values in a way people can understand and enjoy. As someone who falls into that latter group, I think this project is just about as serious as it gets.

links her own project to a wider universe of discourse, as well as to her own identity and personality.

Also, in making design decisions, in thinking about how to present and organize her eportfolio site, she was able to think about categories and taxonomies for her work (when is a draft a draft? What makes a revision into a separate direction?). And because the site lives on the open web, she could make decisions about licensing (she chose a Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial license) and sharing. Not only could she decide that her work (or portions of her work that she selected) could move beyond the secluded file cabinet, but she could actually invite and encourage further interaction beyond the moment of “completion” of the project and the degree. (And in fact, this student does still link to the site on her LinkedIn profile as of this writing, more than six years after she graduated, now that she is fully established in a post-graduate career).

As an English teacher and student of literature, I like to think through terms and terminology, and dig into metaphors. Looking at “Ending Dualism at Hogwarts” and other projects from our early efforts to use eportfolios as part of a capstone experience, I started to think further about the term “capstone.” A capstone is a crowning accomplishment, a moment of completion.

It’s also, as an object, outside of any metaphorical meaning, in the most literal sense, a stone. This idea was somewhat troubling.

We didn’t (and don’t) want the final project of a student’s undergraduate degree to be something heavy and limiting. A “stone” that is a “cap” implies an end to further exploration, a finished structure that can’t be altered, a maximum high point that can’t be surpassed. A capstone is something that will sit in one place, immovable and unexamined. But that was not the kind of product that we wanted these projects to lead to, and it was not the kind of experience that we wanted for our students as they finished their undergraduate degrees.

The Springboard Concept

It was this thinking that led to the idea of the “springboard” course and the “springboard” project. In using the term “springboard,” I was thinking of the typical understanding of the term–a diving board at a swimming pool–but I was also drawing on some of my own long-past circus experience and imagining an act that we called the springboard, but that I’ve since learned is usually called the Russian Bar (http://www.fedec.eu/en/articles/416-russian-bar) . The Russian Bar is held on the shoulders of two strong performers while a lighter agile performer (the “flyer”) does jumps, twirls and stunts using the launching impetus gained from the flexibility of the bar and the strength of the holders. I liked the idea of the project as a launching pad, an impulse to further growth and research and exploration, but more than that as a type of performance that was practiced but also public, meant to be shared and received by an audience, and actually even produced as a community effort. The student creating a springboard project, like the flyer on the Russian Bar, launches higher because she’s working from a flexible base and because there are others helping and pushing and working in concert. The individual performance is not completely or solely an individual effort based on individual strength. The concept emphasizes the reality (one of our desired outcomes) that every individual project is also collective. Without the participation of others, every project is incomplete and doesn’t go as far as it needs to.

So with this metaphor in mind, with this new approach developed, we recruited students for a new version of what used to be our “thesis colloquium.” This course used the eportfolio as a central organizing element of the curriculum so that students from diverse academic interests and with diverse types of projects could work together to produce the products, the springboard projects, that would be represented in the eportfolio projects that would be (along with the written thesis project that they still produced) the final outcome of the course. Students in the course would develop eportfolios as part of the process of taking the course, and a final eportfolio (sometimes, but not always, the same site) would be the final presentation and product, in addition to whatever written thesis or creative work their academic program required. This was an additional requirement in a course that already had a heavy workload, but by integrating the springboard project (the eportfolio) into the thesis colloquium, the additional requirement could work as a support system for the existing requirements. Working on the springboard helped the work on the thesis, and the thesis helped the work on the springboard.

We launched the course with a website (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/springboard/) , developing the idea and proposing it to interested students, in the spring of 2013, for students who would be able to begin the course in the fall of 2013 to graduate with completed projects in the spring of 2014. On the site, and in presentations for students to explain the idea, we started with a set of foundational principles:

The springboard project:

  1. Builds on a student’s earlier work and displays and reflects that work.

  2. Proposes new directions, asks unanswered questions, poses unresolved dilemmas. In response to these challenges, the Springboard Project proposes specific research and learning pathways, providing a plan with clear goals and defined next steps

  3. Includes personal reflection, uniting the affective and the cognitive elements of research.

  4. Includes multimedia facets, utilizing appropriate tools and presentation techniques to present extra-textual resources.

  5. Is presented to, and open to the interaction of, a wide public audience. It is a multidirectional communication.

These have remained as the guiding principles or ground rules for the course as it has continued to be offered, although we have continued to modify and develop the practical expressions of these principles. Each of these principles feeds directly into eportfolio-connected activities within the course curriculum, and each draws from the particular affordances of eportfolio pedagogy.

The Springboard Course

The springboard course, as the first principle states, is designed to be integrative, to pull together the disparate pieces of a student’s educational career (during college and before. And after). One way to help students make these connections, we have found, is to ask them to develop and post online digital, multimedia, educational timelines and to post those to their eportfolios. These digital timelines allow students to map out the course of their education from their earliest days (in elementary school and before) to the present and projecting into the future. Because the timelines are digital, students are able to include illustrative images, videos, links to websites and

other media to represent each of the separate moments or dates on the timeline—moments or dates that the students designated as significant in their educations—and to provide a sense of movement and progress that a static text-based timeline can’t easily communicate (we generally have students use the open-source TimelineJS tool for this). In most cases these separate dates or moments on the timelines were also developed and described in posts on the eportfolios. By building this assignment into the course curriculum and making the presentation of this wide-ranging timeline part of the presentation of the final project, we ask students to locate the final projects not only as culminations or final achievements of their education, but as connected pieces of the larger set of experiences. Students include classes and in-school activities and assignments in their timelines, but also life events and discoveries that are not connected directly to school (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/thevictoriaproject/timeline/ is one example. The student includes her daycare experience, various elementary and middle school teachers and projects that were memorable for her, college courses and study abroad trips, and more.

We also specifically ask students, in connecting their classwork and outside of classwork to these final projects, to look ahead, as well as behind. The eportfolios, by providing students a space to capture their research process and to reflect on it as it was ongoing, prompt a projection of their work into the future, beyond the confines of the undergraduate degree. Locating learning as a process that is ongoing and integrated helps students to see that they could plan out specific paths and directions (even when those were unclear at first…or even when they remained unclear) for uniting their interests and launching their learning into new areas and new interactions (“With my springboard project,” writes one student, “I sought to figure out what factors cause frustration in the math classroom, and then I looked at different techniques currently used by educators to reach ELL [English Language Learner] students. Hopefully, I can take these lessons with me, as I move forward with my goal of becoming a math teacher in the New York City public school classroom.” https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/mehnaj/springboard-project-improving-secondary-mathematics-instruction-for-english-language-learners/ ).

Similarly, we ask all the springboard students, no matter their field, to complete an assignment to create and post on the eportfolio a syllabus for a future class, that the student would teach, on the subject of her project. Even students who don’t have majors or career goals in education have years of experience with classes and syllabi (from the student side) and very strong opinions about what makes an effective or ineffective syllabus. This assignment gives students the opportunity to conceive of their education as something that gives them the role of expert, of sharer of expertise. Making their syllabi public on the eportfolio gives them a concrete reality and commitment to communicating their expertise and participating in the further development of their field.

 

One of the things that so often gets lost in the thesis or capstone project is, as our third principle tries to address, the affective component that is so critical to personal connection with the work. Advanced scholars know that the joy of research is what balances the frustration. The suspense and inspiration balance the tedium and the concentration. The eportfolio model, with reflection central and with a space (able to be prominently featured) for journaling the process as well as the product, allowed our springboard students to include, rather than denying, the different emotional responses they were having to the work. The students keep research journals right in their eportfolios, and that section can enliven the final product while still allowing the students to have and honor the emotional component as well as connecting it to the intellectual component (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/monsters/2016/11/08/salem-reflections/) “At some point in my research, I knew I would have to visit Salem,” begins one such journal from a student researching monsters in popular culture. Her journal entry details not just her research, but the entire process of dealing with an unfamiliar small town, problems with weather, businesses being closed and uncertain public transportation, and all the emotional effects of these obstacles.

When I could contact the family who tried to help me get out of Salem, I expressed my fears, uncertainties, gratitude, fatigue, and chill. I sent photos of how red my hands had become, jammed in the pockets of the winter jacket, and the inability to Facetime just covered the embarrassing tear-streaks over reddened cheeks as I tried to make my voice normal for them. I spoke more of the cold and the quick turn of the weather than the real life horror scenario I’d just run through.

And she connects her own experience to the subjects and her research,

My experience of uncertainty and fear was brief and largely psychologically built, but life in the colonies was filled with uncertainties and fears of that nature in day-to-day life. These could include insecurities about health of the self or young children, where mortality from sicknesses was much higher than today; insecurities about crops or catches leading to food insecurity or commercial insecurity; insecurities about the weather impacting home and property; insecurities about wild animals and other dangers of the wilderness surrounding them; and even insecurities in soulcraft, where Satan was real, his effects visible, devils prominent, and salvation uncertain and subject to rescindment.

In addition, because the eportfolio captures all the different steps of the process, students are able to evaluate for themselves what kinds of techniques (outlining, annotating, mind-mapping, interviewing, fieldwork, lab experimentation, etc.) are most effective for their own particular learning styles and topics. All these techniques and the students’ self-evaluations of them become pieces of the larger picture that the project presents—it’s not just about the product, but the entire process.

Eportfolios, unlike traditional written papers, provide the unique opportunity for the inclusion of multimedia materials. Interactive digital timelines are one such element, as discussed above. Beyond timelines, students include video, maps, drawings and photography, and audio files, as appropriate and connected to their projects. This has proven especially helpful for students who are using the springboard option to pursue a more interdisciplinary approach than their major field of study would normally include. When a student’s academic interests include both biology and art, for example, and she wants her research and project to include the connections she sees in these two areas, an eportfolio is often the best space to make those connections. Because an eportfolio can take a range of different designs and make connections via hyperlink, allowing the connections to be multiple, multi-directional and digressive when necessary, a student can create a design that is actually about (for example) medical illustration as a unified, complete and integrated interest, rather than segregating her skills in only lab research or only charcoal drawing. She doesn’t need to ignore or short-change any of her interests or diminish the connections between and among them. (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/wormsandlearning/)

The fifth principle of the springboard course and project is one that is uniquely fulfilled by the eportfolio, and one that is a direct response to the problem of the dusty filing cabinets in the thesis room with which I began this essay. Macaulay’s eportfolio platform, based in WordPress, provides a range of options for publication and sharing. Students themselves can decide whether to make their final eportfolios public, public only to the Macaulay community, password-protected (so that only individuals to whom they give explicit access can see it), or private. And they can make these decisions in different ways at different times, changing the settings themselves, as they develop the eportfolios. They can also choose to have only certain parts or sections of the eportfolio public, or partially public, at certain times. It’s not an all-or-nothing decision. This gives students the freedom to take risks and explore difficult material, but also to have sharing and taking part in a wider intellectual community as a sanctioned goal.

WordPress is (if the student sets the options to allow this) a platform that is extremely well optimized for search engine discovery. So students’ work, rather than sitting isolated and abandoned, is discoverable widely and by the entire range of learners who might be interested in their topics (to the extent that students share their work). And those external learners, that wider community, have (again, with the student’s control and moderation) the potential to add comments and further the discussion. This openness to participation from an audience is a key feature of the eportfolio. Some students, in fact, in a move that we encourage when appropriate, even actively promote and invite participation from their audiences, through FAQ’s, posting and linking to their eportfolios on social media, or even opening a “share your story” page right on the springboard eportfolio site. (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/storytelling/share/). In some ways this openness to external participation calls into question the traditional definition of an eportfolio. If an eportfolio includes the work of others, rather than just the student herself, is that still an eportfolio? Is it still the work of that student? These are open questions, not just about eportfolios as a genre, but about the overall nature of scholarly inquiry. They are questions that we want students to see as live issues, as philosophical positions on which they can have a stance and to which they can contribute. In making decisions about what kind of sharing what kind of participation they want to offer to readers, even into the future, students are pushed to actively consider and debate, rather than just passively receive, conclusions about research and scholarship that will continue to influence their learning far beyond college.

Not so directly connected to the eportfolio element of this course’s curriculum, but nonetheless critical to our efforts to have students open their projects to a wider audience, has been our commitment to having students present their work in this class publicly at national conferences (such as the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and others). Traveling together as a class, having the experience of acting as members of an academic community and sharing their research with other scholars across disciplines provides the students with a perspective on their work and its place in the intellectual landscape they are entering.

Conclusions and Looking Forward

As the springboard class and its curriculum has developed over the past few years, moving beyond the pilot initiative, we have noticed some surprises. Perhaps connected to the way we originally proposed and presented the course, we have encountered larger numbers of students who have interdisciplinary or otherwise unusual ideas for topics. A major challenge for the course and the students has been pushing the students to narrow and focus these topics. The freedom that the eportfolio curriculum offers, the inclusiveness of digressions and of a range of only minimally connected material, has sometimes been more of an obstacle than a benefit. Yet at the same time, the eportfolio’s emphasis on process and reflection has allowed the course instructors to point clearly and concretely to when these obstacles were arising, and for the students to take the advice (after narrating and processing it in the eportfolio’s research journal) to narrow and specify when necessary (while preserving the digressions and “unrelated” pathways as directions to be pursued in the future).

Another challenge for the course instructors has been that students sometimes undertake projects that have subjects well outside the instructor’s own area of expertise. The math major in a springboard class taught by a historian, or the comparative literature major in the course taught by an ecologist, have challenges that are not there for a more typical thesis project supervised by a professor in that particular field. We work with this challenge by asking for some consulting from colleagues when necessary, but also because one emphasis of the course and the project is in communicating to a wide range of audiences. A student writing a math thesis may have a thesis (that will be included in the eportfolio) that will not be readily understood by a non-mathematician. But the research process, the journaling and the reflection, as well as the student’s own summaries and proposals about the project are readable and understandable (and directed towards) by a wider range of audiences, who can then decide whether or not to read the thesis itself and will certainly have the context required to understand that thesis more fully, even if they are themselves mathematicians.

We also have found (what should not have been surprising) that this curriculum is not a panacea. The eportfolio-centered curriculum, the collaborative support and scaffolding of assignments, the shared commitment to presentation and personal engagement and integration—all of these are helpful for students with a wide range of abilities and levels of commitment to the project. The factors that make this class different tend to have a positive effect on even the weakest students, even those most distracted by life events and stressors. But the class and the project do still require intellectual ability, motivation and commitment. Even in a self-selected group of students, even in a course pilot that is optional and open, we still do not always see that.

Looking to the future, we hope to make this model more prominent, to convert a majority of our current thesis or capstone projects to springboard classes. Already in the few years since our first pilot, we have transferred the instruction of the course to several different professors, all of whom have added their own elements and refined the approach. Each year, the number of students volunteering for this option has grown. There are requirements to successfully implement this type of curriculum. The instructor has to have an interdisciplinary bent (in the 2017-2018 academic year we are experimenting with a team-teaching approach with two instructors and two linked sections of the course) and be willing to work closely with a group of students with varying interests over a full year. The class size has to be small (the amount of close participation in student work through many stages is otherwise too onerous). And the instructor has to be extremely adept in the eportfolio platform as well as the other digital and multimedia tools that the students will want to explore and utilize. At Macaulay, we assign an Instructional Technology Fellow (a doctoral student with both teaching experience and digital technology expertise) to assist in the course, helping students (and the professor, no matter how adept) to use the most current tools for research, communication and presentation, and to incorporate these into the eportfolio.

The eportfolio-centered curriculum of the Macaulay Springboards is developing, for our students, as a productive and powerful alternative to the dusty seclusion of the filing cabinets of the thesis rooms. Students in this program are able to complete projects, to develop eportfolios, that situate their learning in their larger life narratives, that integrate their studies across disciplines and fields, and that give them a place in the wider scholarly and intellectual communities across academia and the digitally-connected world.

 

Macaulay Eportfolio Documentation

I’ve been getting some inquiries, and it’s been a while since I last described our eportfolio setup, so I thought I might put it all in a post instead of copying and pasting into various emails.

Server

We host our eportfolios on an external server.  It’s a dedicated server, all ours–but it’s the same server we use for many other purposes, so it would be misleading to think that it’s all for the eportfolios.  But in any case, it’s got a quad-core xeon processor with 8gb of RAM.  We backup nightly, and backup the databases four times a day.  We currently have close to 2000 sites and a similar number of users.  At this point we’re doing fine on hard drive space (we have 150GB, with two drives in a RAID), but the vault we use for backups is smaller and getting pretty full.  I think we will be needing a storage space increase next year.

Software

We’re using WordPress (with Multisite), keeping up with version upgrades fairly religiously (3.1.3 as of today).  We’re running Red Hat Linux, and we have Apache 2.2.3 PHP version 5.3.6 and MySQL version 5.0.45.

The WordPress install is pretty much stock, out-of-the-box.  I try not to modify the core code if I can avoid it, because it just causes hell around upgrade time.  However, there are a couple of exceptions that help with security and spam prevention.  One is that I’ve renamed the file wp-signup.php, and deleted the wp-signup.php file that normally exists within BuddyPress.  The other is that I’ve completely deleted wp-trackback.php.  That means no trackbacks, but trackback spam was just killing us otherwise, and since we don’t/can’t use Akismet (more about that below) it was the only option (the nuclear option) to get rid of the trackback spam problem. I do also use a translation file to change the word “blog” to “site” throughout the admin interface.

Plugins

This is where things get a little complicated.  We have about 140 plugins available (219 themes), and just about all of them have some value, at least to someone.  There are a few that are orphaned, and I’m overdue for a cleanout of those, but for the most part they are there because somebody wanted them and is using them.  And I don’t want to really review/explain all of them.  But I will give the highlights–the ones that we use the most often and find the most valuable. (All of these, except where noted, can be found by googling–they’re mostly in the WordPress repository).

System-wide there are five plugins in our MU (must-use) folder:

  1. PostByMailEnabler–This one is probably not a total “must use,” but it has been useful for some students, particularly when traveling abroad.  It allows the “post by email” function that is otherwise only possible in a stand-alone WordPress site.
  2. Signup Question–This is a critical plugin for us.  Because we do not limit user registration by email domain as most campuses might, we have to have some way to control who registers–to limit it to our students and alumni.  Signup Question lets me pick a codeword, and only people who have the codeword can register.  It’s a simple matter to give the codeword to our students, or anyone else who we think should have an account, and when/if that codeword gets compromised, it’s a simple matter to change it.
  3. Userthemes Revisited Plugin–Actually, Userthemes, and even Userthemes Revisited, do not work in the current version of WordPress.  But thanks to the heroic efforts this semester of a student intern, we do have a working version of this plugin, with about 99.5% of its functionality.  It’s not in the WordPress repository yet, but I hope to get it there soon.  In the meantime I can share it by request.  This is a fantastic plugin IF you are running a multisite installation with some small group of users who are extra skilled and extra trustworthy.  They can (once you allow them) edit theme files to their heart’s content, without harming or affecting the theme itself–and you don’t have to give them FTP access or do any FTPing for them.  They can go beyond just editing the CSS, and edit the PHP and HTML code of the theme files.  As you can guess, this can be dangerous–they can do tons of damage if they’re malicious–so you really have to only use it for trusted users.  But for them, and in those cases where editing the CSS (more about that below) just won’t do what they need to do, it’s invaluable.
  4. WordPress MU Theme Stats–Probably not critical, but I find it useful to see what themes are being used by which sites, and it helps to know that it’s safe to eliminate some themes if they’re not being used by anyone.
  5. WPMU Plugin Manager–WordPress multisite with its “Network Activate” option for plugins takes away some of the usefulness of this one, but not all.  I like the fact that I can have some plugins I might not be ready to give everyone access to, but still have them available for my couple of super-admins, or with discretion for a few users. Sometimes there is a plugin that is good to have, but only for some users, not all. This gives that control.

 

Then there are a bunch of other plugins–here are some of the most critical. Some of these are most useful for class sites (and we have a lot of those).  In many ways, aside from using WordPress as a personal eportfolio platform, we also use it as a kind of an LMS–for “class eportfolios”–I’ll try to note those cases, because people looking just for individual eportfolios might not care about those:

  1. Add Users Sidebar Widget–This is one that is very useful for class sites. In fact it’s the main way we have students added to those sites.  It takes the responsibility for populating those sites out of the faculty (or staff or admin) hands, and puts it into the students’ hands.  They have to actively join the site, instead of waiting passively for “someone” to set up their accounts.
  2. Admin Ads–Maybe not critical, but handy for administrators to give a message to all users–like “we’re going down for maintenance tomorrow for three hours!” or “The eportfolio expo is coming up next week!”  You can style the announcements and add images…but of course, like any mass announcement, you want to use it sparingly.
  3. Anthologize–Takes your WordPress site and turns it into an ebook–or pdf.  Early stages, but awfully useful for archiving, and a kind of publishing.
  4. AStickyPostOrderER–an unofficial version by Max Bond to work with current WordPress version.  Allows manual ordering of posts, without the kluge of altering publication dates.  Really makes WordPress more of a publishing platform and less of a blog platform.
  5. Auto Thickbox–OK, not critical, but I like Thickbox popups for images.  I really do.  Students seem to, also, so this makes every image link into a pretty thickbox popup link.
  6. BuddyPress–Adds social networking to the eportfolio platform.  Groups, friends, profiles, for all users.  This is something students requested very strongly…but then never really used it too much.  It’s there, and some use it, especially as they’re getting started at the college, but they seem to migrate pretty quickly to their own other platforms (facebook).  A college-specific social network is something that seems nice in the abstract, but doesn’t appeal quite so much in the reality.  Still, it’s there, and it does get some use, and I wouldn’t want to take it away.
  7. Capability Manager–Very useful on some class sites where the standard WordPress roles and capabilities aren’t fine-grained enough.  Some faculty want students to be able to do some of what Editors do, but not all.  Or all of what Authors do, and even a little of what Admins do.  This plugin lets the admin choose exactly what each user role can do or not do.
  8. Category Order–Pretty much what it says.  Makes it easy to put categories into different orders for arranging menus.  Custom menus in newer WordPress themes makes this unnecessary, but for themes that don’t support custom menus, it helps.
  9. Digress.it–So powerful and useful for classes, and for individual publications, but hasn’t seen that much implementation for us yet.  Waiting for the right project, I guess. Allows paragraph-by-paragraph commenting (annotation!) on a posted text.
  10. Easy Facebook Like Button–Students like this a lot (ha!).  Their friends can easily “like” a post, and then everyone on facebook knows about it!  We have some students very savvy about social networking and promotion.
  11. Email Users–NOTE–this can NOT be used anymore!  Causes Mysql to crash in big installations! Critical for class sites.  One of professors’ most-requested features.  They want to blast an email to all their students, or to selected students, and this makes that relatively simple (sometimes students send the emails to their spam folders–not much to be done about that!)
  12. FD Footnotes–For students interested in using their eportfolios to publish research work, this makes footnotes extremely elegant and simple.
  13. Grader–For class sites. Enables administrators to grade posts, and for users and administrators to view their grades through a gradebook-like interface.
  14. Keep IFrame–stops the problem of WordPress stripping away iframe tags (for example, for google maps or dipity timelines) when they are in posts.
  15. More Privacy Options–Critical for us.  Makes privacy options human-readable and more fine-grained. Users can choose from:
    • I would like my site to be visible to everyone, including search engines (like Google, Bing, Technorati) and archivers
    • I would like to block search engines, but allow normal visitors
    • I would like my site to be visible only to registered users of this network
    • I would like my site to be visible only to registered users of the site itself
    • I would like my site to be visible only to Admins.

    This plugin (along with password protecting posts and pages), is critical to our philosophy of allowing the students themselves to actively consider and determine (and change at will) what is public and what is private on their eportfolios

  16. NextGEN Gallery–Very heavily used (although it’s a bit of a steep learning curve) in class sites and some individual eportfolios.  A great solution for displaying galleries of images (slideshows, albums, etc.)
  17. Page Links To–Lets you link a page to any URL–a specific post, an external site, whatever.  This makes organizing menus much more effective.  Along with custom menus, you can really design a site navigation with this.
  18. pageMash–Quickly and easily change page orders and parent/child relationships.  Another good navigation organizer.
  19. podPress–generally we encourage the posting of video files to youtube or vimeo, to try to spare our storage space.  But when that’s not possible, because of privacy concerns or other reasons, or when there’s an audio file to be posted, PodPress is an excellent solution.  Upload the file to the site, enter the URL in PodPress, and there’s a nice embedded player with good options and functionality.  Also can produce an iTunes-compatible feed, although that’s not something we’ve had much interest in yet.
  20. Private Comments–Mainly used for class sites–but could be helpful for any case when an outside evaluator is to look at a student’s eportfolio.  It lets the commenter preface the comment with a (configurable) short-code, and any comment so prefaced will only be visible to the commenter and the author of the post being commented on.
  21. Simple:Press–I can’t say enough in praise of Simple:Press for class sites.  This is a fully-featured, completely functional, discussion forum platform.  It’s not just a plugin, it’s the equal (or better) of phpbb or ip.board or vbulletin.  And it’s completely free.  Far better than bbpress. Because it’s so feature-rich, it’s a bit complicated to setup, but so elegant and usable.  There isn’t a better threaded discussion forum platform.
  22. Simple Import Users–for class sites–IF you don’t use Add Users Sidebar Widget (above). IF you’d rather import all the users from a list and set up their accounts for them.  This plugin does it.  But again, philosophically, I’m opposed to this approach for students.  I think the active engagement of creating and managing their own accounts is preferable.
  23. Site Template–This one is CRITICAL to our model of giving students freedom to design different types of sites, but still giving them some guidance as to the fundamental outlines or beginning steps.  Site Template lets a super-admin build some sites–selecting for each one a theme, a set of plugins, even default pages and text on them.  Each of those sites can then (with one click) be labelled as a “template” and any new site, at the time of creation, can choose to use that template. In this way students have a starting point–any part of which can be altered as they choose.  Templates can be added or subtracted at any time.  We currently give students six template options:
    • A Basic, Flexible, Reflective Eportfolio
    • A Resume/Career Eportfolio
    • A Photography/Artwork Eportfolio
    • A Study Abroady/Travel Eportfolio
    • A Fun, Whimsical Eportfolio
    • Other

    Each one has specific starting structure–but none of those structures are permanent. They’re just a kind of default scaffolding.  And we might well add another template or two soon.

  24. Subscribe To Comments–WordPress automatically notifies an author of a comment on a post.  But students who leave comments like to be notified that somebody else has commented later, and sometimes discussion gets going that way.
  25. TinyMCE Advanced–mainly useful for tables!  Students seem to want to organize content in posts into columns and rows (for example, to have control over where pictures and text appear).  They don’t have to know the code to create tables, if they just use the toolbar buttons TinyMCE Advanced can provide.
  26. Who We Are–For class sites, makes a nice-looking page of all the authors on the site, pulling their info and avatars from their BuddyPress Profiles
  27. WordPress.com Custom CSS–This plugin almost, almost, makes userthemes unnecessary.  For the more advanced design-minded students, they can control almost all the styling of their site, without ever touching the original theme’s stylesheet.  Safe and effective.  And (especially with Firebug in Firefox, or “inspect element” in Chrome–but I prefer Firebug), it lets students begin to learn some CSS, which is sure to stand them in good stead.  Even for things like removing the “posted on date” or “posted in category” lines below the titles of posts (something that many themes include, and many students don’t like), they can just learn the use of display: none; . Et voila!
  28. WP-reCAPTCHA–As I mentioned above, we can’t (aren’t presently willing to) use Akismet.  I understand that Akismet has to pay their own bills, and I understand that they’re trying to come up with some model for educational pricing (and I hope they will soon, and I think it will be fair).  But right now, for a network like ours, we would have to pay more than we can afford.  And I respect what they do too much to cheat on that.  So until the educational pricing model comes out in a way that will work for us, we have to have an alternative anti-spam solution.  WP-reCAPTCHA stops all the spambots (except trackback spam which I kill using the nuclear option described above).  It doesn’t stop human-created spam, but that’s a tiny problem.  I know that CAPTCHAs are a pain.  I know that they may discourage some commenters.  But for now, it’s the solution we’re using.  At least reCAPTCHA does some good for a larger project.

That’s about the size of it, as of the date of this writing.  In the fall, with a whole new crop of freshmen, things will change again.  And a new WordPress version will be along soon, too.  So I probably shouldn’t wait two years again without updating this!

(And I didn’t even talk much about themes–we’ve got an awful lot of those! and with userthemes and customs css, I suppose you could say we even have infinite themes!)

(other eportfolio thoughts and other WordPress thoughts are in other posts!)

Eportfolios to change Assessment

Eportfolios@Macaulay
Collect, Reflect, Present

Our motto for our eportfolios at Macaulay (one of our mottoes–I tend to proliferate mottoes) is “Collect, Reflect, Present.”  That spells out (not necessarily in order of priority) what I thought students would be doing with eportfolios, and those goals, from the beginning, have shaped the choices in building our platform. But there is another purpose to which eportfolios are frequently put, and it’s a purpose that I want to untangle a little in this post.

We don’t say “Collect, Reflect, Present, Assess.”  (Although it could be easily argued, and I’ll argue a bit below, that “Reflect” really can be a kind, an excellent kind, of assessment).  We didn’t implement a system or a platform that was primarily designed to assess our students’ or our program’s fulfillment of predetermined or externally structured criteria.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we have a system that works more organically, more flexibly, allowing students to determine for themselves what (if anything) will happen with their eportfolios, what they will collect, reflect, and present, and even what they will assess.  And as I described in that previous post, that choice of approach has had implications for what quality of eportfolios we get (in a very good way), and implications for what quantity of eportfolios we get (in a way we’re working on improving).

But we have also reached a point where assessment can be very productive–not the kind of assessment that checks whether standards are met or pre-designed structures filled in. I would call that kind of assessment “measuring up” (as in “does this eportfolio measure up?”).  We’re at the point where we can do something more difficult, but (possibly) more substantive and more useful…”measuring” (as in “how can we describe what is happening with this eportfolio? What does it tell us about this student?”)

For a long time I had a sort of inferiority complex about the question of assessment in regard to our eportfolios, because our approach is really not well-suited to the kind of quantitative, universal, standardized approach that many people mean when they say “assessment.” Because what our students are doing with their eportfolios takes so many different forms, it’s not easily possible to say “yes, this one measures up.  No, this one falls short.”

And the more I thought about this, the more I began to think back to my own history with portfolio assessment (before the “e” even existed) as a writing teacher. I thought about how and why portfolio assessment entered writing instruction and where it came from. The whole point of portfolio assessment, originally, in writing instruction, was to provide alternate assessments–richer ones. More nuanced and complicated ones. To assess the things (like writing ability) that are NOT easily or accurately assessed by a single test, or a single score.

Portfolios in writing instruction were about growth, about process, about diversity. They were implemented specifically because the picture of a student as a writer can not be reduced to just data or skills. Writing teachers sat with students’ portfolios for long periods of time. They looked at everything. They read drafts and students’ reflections of how drafts became final products. They read students’ thoughts about what each piece of writing said about the student as a writer. They thought about students’ choices, and their reasoning for their choices.  They thought about what and why students were collecting.  How and when they were reflecting on what they collected.  Where and to whom and how they were presenting what they collected.

Portfolio assessment at its best can be qualitative assessment, formative assessment.  Not just summative assessment leading to a grade or a score or a single evaluation, but deep description leading to more process and more progress, feeding back into more recommendations and more learning for the student, for the eportfolio system, and for the program.

I’m not sure why I originally fell into a prejudice that this kind of deep assessment was somehow “soft” or “just anecdotal.” Somehow not “real” or “valid” assessment. I know very well from my own research and scholarship that true observation and deep description are not less effective and less important than numbers and graphs or rubrics and scores.  In fact, in many cases, in many disciplines and types of research, from participant observation fieldwork to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, I know very well that measuring is actually often superior–more comprehensive, more insightful, more  detailed, more useful for planning and changing and learning, even more  accurate and “objective” and transferable–to measuring up.

Rather than scoring on a rubric, or checking off items on a list of competencies (and I do not want to imply that “measuring up” like that is never valuable), the kinds of questions we can be asking about eportfolios (and are starting to ask)–measuring, studying, deep assessment questions–are the kinds of questions that always get asked in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Pat Hutchings (in the introduction to Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) frames them like this:

  • “What works?”
  • “What is?”
  • “Visions of the possible”
  • “Theory building” questions

These are the kinds of questions that eportfolios like ours (and many others, I don’t mean to sound exceptionalist here) can answer so well (or lead to more depth in the questions).

So the techniques we’re planning and will be implementing over the next months for assessing eportfolios will take that kind of path.  We will work by selecting a representative (random or intentionally selected–there is validity in both methods) sample and doing some deep description, including content analysis, tagging, and coding for comparison.  Not starting with the rubric, but starting with the eportfolios (“What is?”) and moving from them to the careful and nuanced judgments (never complete, never finished) about “what works?” and then to those “visions of the possible” and “theory building.” We can see what is happening at certain points, and then see how that changes over time, and get a very accurate and well-developed sense of what is happening system-wide, or with individual students. We can do some almost-ethnographic work with the eportfolios, and start to measure how they work, what they can do, and we can see pathways that students are taking that we might not even have imagined.

To assess eportfolios in this way will not be rapid or efficient or automatic.  It will be time-consuming and push us to question what we’re looking at, what we’re looking for, what assumptions we’re bringing and what conclusions we’re reaching for.  It will push us to think about teaching and learning in deeper ways than “value added” or “standards-driven” or even “general education.”  And we will hew more closely to the origins of eportfolios in portfolio assessment, in authentic assessment.  When you select a sample and discuss and think about how it’s being sampled, and when you ask a team of experienced thoughtful raters to look at each eportfolio in the sample, and not just “score” it, but code it with keywords, describe it and analyze it, then you’re measuring.  And you’re getting a rich picture of student learning, with real results that can be applied beyond a grade or a score (for a program or a student). Some of this (once the codes are developed) can be done by content analysis software. But the bulk of it is human judgment.  And that’s what’s really good about it.

Maybe there’s an important fight to be had.  When administrators (and I speak as one) start to ask for assessment, maybe we shouldn’t (maybe I shouldn’t) be too quick to bend and say “yes, let’s see if they measure up.” Maybe we can find a way to use eportfolios to help with the process that portfolio assessment in writing instruction started…to promote alternate assessment where learners and learning are explored and understood, not just rated and scored.

Some early thoughts, anyway–lots more to be said on this.

(An excellent article on this subject, one that influenced me a lot, is by Minnes and Boskic at UBC from 2008 “Eportfolios: From Description to Analysis.” http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/download/502/1050)

The Macaulay Eportfolio Expo

Eportfolio Expo Flyer
The Eportfolio Expo Flyer

At Macaulay, for a wide range of reasons (some of which I described back when we first got started), our eportfolio system has always been what I like to think of as “organically” growing.  Our students build eportfolios because they want to, and develop them when they feel the need to, and (except for the class sites, which are a different kind of animal, usually), they aren’t really required to do anything in particular with them.  We try to support and encourage and recognize–maybe gently guide–with an approach of “opportunity, not obligation,” (or my own favorite metaphor of letting students make their own curving and self-directed paths across campus, rather than paving straight diagonals for them to follow).

This gives us a collection, we’ve found, that is long on quality (in many cases), but not necessarily so long on quantity across the system overall.  We have some very strong individual examples, but choosing any random eportfolio, it’s never very predictable what you will get.  Something just beginning? Something with a potentially great idea, not developed yet?  Some great blog-like reflections, without an overall pattern or structure?  A pattern or structure without much content in it? Or a fully-developed (but still quirky or individual) eportfolio?  In a system that grows organically, any of these are possible, and all of them are “success,” because it’s really about process, more than product.  An eportfolio that is almost empty today, with just a few default posts, is no more a “failure” than a freshly plowed field might be, before anything has been planted or sprouted.

But this year I wanted to think more about the “gently guiding” part of our obligation to support these projects.  Not to force or restrict or compel, but to illustrate and exemplify and honor.  I thought that by featuring, showcasing, some examples of the many approaches and processes that were happening with the eportfolios, we could achieve some goals that I felt were good for our students, for the project, and for the college (and maybe broader audiences, too).

Those goals were these:

  1. I wanted to recognize the diversity of eportfolio approaches
  2. I wanted (through peer pressure and positive reinforcement) to encourage students to spend some time and effort developing their eportfolios, no matter what the different approach they chose
  3. I wanted to draw some internal (among our students) attention (“buzz”) to the eportfolio system and its uses
  4. I wanted to do the same for external audiences
  5. I wanted to push students to reach out for help to push their eportfolios to do things (in terms of design, in terms of content, in terms of features) that they didn’t know how to do.

So, in other words, I thought we would have an “Eportfolio Expo.” This was not, by any means, a new idea.  Just about every eportfolio program I know of does some kind of “expo,” or “showcase,” or “festival.”  But my thought here, in this pilot event, was that we would solicit nominees–asking students to nominate their own or others’ as exemplary eportfolios in a wide variety of categories.  And we would have some prizes, too. And I would be happy if we achieved even one or two of those goals, even partially.

Eportfolio Expo Gallery
A screenshot of screenshots

So over the past weeks, we solicited nominations.  And we got fifteen solid ones–and they are fifteen diverse ones, too.  You can see all the nominees–with small screenshots and descriptions, and links (the title of each eportfolio is a link) to view the eportfolios themselves–on the gallery page that I set up (Next-Gen Gallery plugin FTW).

We did promise prizes (pretty nifty ones!) for the Judges’ Choice and the People’s Choice (more about that below), but one thing that really came out from the event on April 13, when the nominees presented their eportfolios, was that the evening, the nomination, the event, was about so much more than a prize.  The commitment, the dedication, the genuine interest in sharing and recognizing and learning from each other, and the real joy in the diversity of approaches, was just inspiring.  One of the Instructional Technology Fellows who was present even got a little teary-eyed at one point, and I have to admit to some of the same emotion myself.

It was a weeknight, a little before spring break (still during midterms for many students) but we still got about half of the nominees to attend, and several brought friends.  Even students from Queens College and the College of Staten Island (our most “far-flung” campuses) were there.  The students presented their work, we talked about eportfolios generally, we shared ideas about how to improve the ones we saw, we talked about plugins and class work and academic and professional work, and socializing and humor and movies and food.  And we ate Magnolia cupcakes and drank coffee.  Everybody got very jazzed and excited, and every one of them will be continuing to develop their eportfolios.  And the friends who came (five Queens College freshmen in particular) will almost certainly be building and submitting their own for next year.  The evening was promised to end by 8 PM, but we kept going until a bit past 9 PM–there was so much to show and learn.

While it was very much an informal and insiders event, I can’t say enough about how good the feeling and buzz was…even though none of the students who were there was the winner of the Judges Choice award (Maisha Lopa, the winner of the award, had to do a presentation for CUNY BA and couldn’t join us).  It was real feeling of pioneering, getting started, planning and being on the ground floor–exactly what a pilot should be.  Much of the talk was about how these eportfolios could and would continue to grow and change–how as nominees they were really snapshots of one single point in time of a picture that would never really be “finished” or set.  Just the kind of emphasis on process that I was hoping to promote! Students even had updated their sites on that same day, in some cases making some fairly substantive changes and additions, even though the judging was over.  And that same process, the same degree of ongoing change and looking back and looking ahead, has been going on even now that the event is over, too.

And now the event continues–because the voting for the “People’s Choice” award is still ongoing.  This is open internet voting, and I definitely encourage anyone reading this post to visit the gallery, check out all the eportfolios, and then vote yourself!  As of now, there are well over a thousand votes.  And (the best part of that) the nominated students are telling me that they are getting comments and suggestions and appreciation of their work and their ideas and their efforts from people who had never seen their eportfolios before–from family members in other countries, from employers and faculty, and from fellow students–inside and outside of Macaulay and CUNY.

The judges also decided, after the event on Wednesday night, that one single Judges’ Choice was not enough.  So there will be more Judges’ Awards, in more categories, after spring break when the People’s Choice voting closes.  Those, of course, will also be announced on the gallery page.

This was a pilot, a first annual event.  We’re getting great suggestions from students already about how to make it bigger and better next year, and I can really see this becoming a signature event–reinforcing something that is at the core of the eportfolio project–at Macaulay and everywhere.  Sharing, presenting, reflecting, interacting…it’s all part of seeing the bigger picture of the “Museum of Me” that an eportfolio can be.

AAEEBL Conference Thoughts (mine and others)

I’ve just returned from a good few days at the AAEEBL Conference in Boston (with lots of CUNY colleagues).  There are some good write-ups of some of the sessions on the eportfolios blog here at the Commons, and while of course there were ups and downs, as there are at any conference, I think it was generally a productive experience (maybe most of all because of a terrific, if too-short, breakfast discussion I had with Randy Bass.  More products of that to come later, I hope.)

One thing that kept striking me through the conference was the giant diversity of ideas about what we mean when we say “eportfolio” (hell, we can’t even agree on how to spell it!  Myself, I hate the camel-case “ePortfolio,” and don’t want to use it, but AAEEBL actually tried via a pre-conference email to get us all to standardize on that orthography.  Perhaps stubbornly, I did not comply).  I think that diversity is probably a good thing (at Macaulay, we have that very wide range of diversity within our own single system!).

I also got the chance to reflect a bit on the difference between a system like ours at Macaulay, which is student-directed, and other systems which are more rigorously structured and mandatory for the students.  I think there is a bit of a disconnect, sometimes, between what we want students to learn and where students want their learning to go.  The conflict is between the university’s function as an institution in the business of awarding credentials and its function as a suite of opportunities for self-directed learning and expansion.  I’m not saying that either of these functions has to be abandoned.

I sometimes detect that I’m being accused of a kind of elitism–“oh, that free-ranging stuff is fine for your honors students.  They can afford the luxury of being cool and sexy and creative.  But our students need real support and structure and job skills.  We can’t afford to give that kind of freedom.”  There probably is some justice in that accusation, but I also think there’s a false dichotomy there.  I think all students need support and structure, and all students need freedom and creativity.  And I don’t think that we have a world anymore where we can successfully predict what jobs will be or what skills will be. What we can give students is opportunities to develop habits of mind, real engagement, comfort with the unfamiliar and different perspectives, practice in collaboration and seeing problems from all angles and working within a wider community beyond the classroom.  I spent enough years (decades) working with community college students to know that this kind of approach (with sufficient support and scaffolding!) builds excitement and commitment…and growth and success…for students with weak academic preparation just as it does for academically strong students.

But that’s a subject for another longer post some time. For anyone who missed the conference but wants to get some idea of the many presentations, do check the eportfolio blog.

And if anyone is interested in a condensed, trimmed version of my own presentation, let’s go to the YouTube! 🙂

Radio Interview

I had a great time talking to the guys at the Vassar Talk Tech radio broadcast (WVKR 91.3) this week.  Not only did I get to talk about eportfolios (always good), but was able to stay and discuss the iPad.

Thanks, guys!

(click the player to listen to the whole show)

(oops. Looks like podpress got deleted here at the Commons? What’s up with that?  Anyway, go to my own blog to hear the show)

Macaulay Eportfolios Plugin List

One of our Instructional Technology Fellows asked for this list, so instead of just letting it sit in my sent email box, I thought I’d put it out for others to see.

These are plugins we’re using on our Macaulay Eportfolios WPMU install. It’s a snapshot, really, with some that I haven’t been able to make work, others that are just lingering because I haven’t found a use for them or gotten around to uninstalling, and a bunch that I plan to install simply missing. But this is the way the plugins list looks as of right now.

I’ve been using the plugin called “Plugin Commander” to determine access to plugins—some of them I want enabled just for class blogs, others for all blogs, others just on request. I’ll try to explain for each one whether and how we’re using it.

bbPress Integration–Provides single sign on login with a bbPress installation.
This is installed but not really working yet. The idea is to provide forums (for groups in buddypress). But I haven’t been able to make it work. The single sign-on part (see the next plugin on the list) is working fine, perfectly. But I don’t have group forums showing up on their group pages as they should. I think I will get it working this summer–there’s a new RC of bbPress that probably takes care of it. I’ve installed that, but haven’t had time to check it out.

WPMU Enable bbPress Capabilities–Enables bbPress member capabilities when a user is created within WPMU. This allows immediate login as a ‘member’ after a user is created in WPMU.
This one works—if you login to our WPMU, you’re also logged in to our bbPress, and vice versa, but since the forums don’t work in buddypress, it’s not of much use yet.

Ada Active Blogs–Adds a sidebar widget to let you display active blogs by post count from WordPressMU. By CAPitalZ.
Probably not useful for most users, and BuddyPress kind of obviates the need for it. I was using it to provide a list on the main Eportfolio Gateway page of active eportfolios.

Ada New Blogs–Adds a sidebar widget to let you display new blogs from WordPressMU. By CAPitalZ.
Same as above.

Ada Updated Blogs–Adds a sidebar widget to let you display updated blogs from WordPressMU. By CAPitalZ.
And this one’s the same as above, too. Useful for a gateway or overall main site, but if you have BuddyPress, that will take care of this for you. These widgets were great in the pre-BuddyPress era.

BM Custom Login–Display custom images on the wordpress login screen. Useful for branding. By Ben Gillbanks.
This one is quite nice—it’s what let me style the login page to use Macaulay red and our logo, instead of the standard WPMU login page. I’ve got a good-looking (in my opinion) login page with our logo and a nice graphic and our color scheme.

Embed Allower–Allows embed, object, and other security risks tags. LGPLv3. By Hendy Irawan.
A big security risk if you’re allowing open registration (which we’re not). Don’t use it unless you know and trust and can track your users. (But without it you can not embed YouTube videos or anything similar). In any case the Google Maps Quicktag plugin (see below) serves the same function and is easier to use. Still a risk, though, so understand that risk.

FeedWordPress–simple and flexible Atom/RSS syndication for WordPress By Charles Johnson.
This lets you have an RSS feed for all the posts in your whole wpmu installation. Very nice for me as the admin—I just subscribe to that feed and lets me keep an eye on all the new posts as they come in. I catch spam that way, and can see what’s happening on the whole site.

Google Maps Quicktag – MU–Google Maps Quicktag makes it convenient to open the Google Maps web site while editing, where you can generate your map and copy the needed code to paste into the editor. Due to a security concern, WordPress MU sites with open registration are not recommended. Use at your own risk. By Daniel Denk.
As I said above, this is essential if you want people to be able to embed youtube videos or google maps or anything with similar code. WPMU prohibits those by default, stripping the code right out of the posts. But it is definitely a risk, because people can embed anything at all—and execute code if that’s allowed—and bring the whole system to a crashing halt or worse. I limit our registrations to just our students (and ITFs) so it’s a little safer. But even so, I’m taking a risk. But I do want those videos and so forth to be embedded. It’s worth the risk to me, at least for now.

My Link Order–My Link Order allows you to set the order in which links and link categories will appear in the sidebar. Uses a drag and drop interface for ordering. Adds a widget with additional options for easy installation on widgetized themes. Visit the My Link Order page after updating WordPress to apply essential file patches. By froman118.
This looked good but I have not been able to make it work right. Oh well.

Privacy Options–Adds more privacy options to the options-privacy and wpmu-blogs pages. Just drop in mu-plugins, no core edits needed. By D Sader.
This is a nice one—I don’t know if anyone is actively using it yet, but I always want to give students a lot of choices about private vs. public.

Role Manager–Role Management for WordPress 2.0.x, 2.1.x, 2.2.x, 2.3.x and 2.5.x.. By Thomas Schneider.
A whole lot better than the default role management. Gives you really fine-grained control over what different roles can do and not do. Very useful for class blogs where students need to have specifically defined abilities and prohibitions.

Spam Karma 2–Ultimate Spam Killer for WordPress. Activate the plugin and go to ManageSpam Karma 2 to configure. See Spam Karma 2 About for details. By dr Dave.
This is no longer supported, not being developed anymore, but I still like it very much. I think it’s very effective. Eventually I’ll have to stop using it and switch to akismet, which everyone else uses for anti-spam. You absolutely MUST have something to prevent comment spam or you’ll be swamped almost immediately.

WPhone–A lightweight admin interface for the iPhone and other mobile devices. By Stephane Daury, Doug Stewart, and Viper007Bond.
Somebody asked for this, and it seems cool (I use it myself sometimes) but almost nobody else really uses it. How often do you (or users) want to administer (not read) your wpmu blog from an iPhone? Not that often. I have a new plugin on my own blog at mountebank.org/blog which gives you an iPhone READING interface. It’s very cool and I will probably install it on here if it’s compatible.

WPMU Mailer–Mass emailer for WPMU By Inviz.
BuddyPress obviates the need for this. But I did use it when we took the system down for the server migration.

WP Sentry–Granular user and group access controls for private posts. By Pete Holiday.
Installed it but haven’t used it yet.

BuddyPress–BuddyPress will add social networking features to a new or existing WordPress MU installation. By The BuddyPress Community.
Of course!!

Calendar–Nice and simple Calendar with events support and full customization:) By Vanguard.
Somebody wanted this for a class blog. Not sure how well it worked for the class, but it seemed like a good solution in my testing.

Email Users–Allows the site editors to send an e-mail to the blog users. Credits to Catalin Ionescu who gave me some ideas for the plugin and has made a similar plugin. Bug reports and corrections by Cyril Crua and Pokey. By Vincent Prat (email : vpratfr@yahoo.fr).
I was trying it out but didn’t really like it.

Custom CUNY Academic Commons Profile Filters–Changes the way that profile data fields get filtered into clickable URLs. By Boone Gorges.
Terrific invention by CUNY’s own Boone Gorges which lets users decide which words in their BuddyPress profiles will be links.

Flickr Photo Album–This plugin will retrieve your Flickr photos and allow you to easily add your photos to your posts. Configure… By Joe Tan.
I don’t think it’s been all that useful for our students. But could be good in a community (or class) where flickr is used regularly.

NextGEN Gallery–A NextGENeration Photo gallery for the Web 2.0. By Alex Rabe.
Very nice indeed! Excellent for photo galleries, lots of features. This one is really essential if you want to do work with photos. I think it’s probably the best photo gallery plugin I’ve seen. (But students need to be trained a bit to use it, and we haven’t quite got there with any of them yet. I’m hoping to get a few fore-runner/pioneer students using it well in the fall, so we can have some good examples).

podPress–The podPress pluggin gives you everything you need in one easy plugin to use WordPress for Podcasting. Set it up in ‘podPress’-Feed/iTunes Settings. If you this plugin works for you, send us a comment. By Dan Kuykendall (Seek3r).
I love this plugin. It lets you have a nice embeddable media player, with very few clicks, for video or audio. I think it’s far better than the other options (notably Anarchy Media Player) which seem more popular. Also gives easy and understandable iTunes integration.

ScholarPress Courseware–All-in-one course management for WordPress By Jeremy Boggs, Dave Lester, Zac Gordon, and Sean Takats.
Not quite there yet, but has a lot of potential. It adds schedule, bibliography, and assignments pages to your blog. Makes it into (almost) a course management system. I know the team is working hard to get it fully compatible with WPMU, and then it’s going to need some bit of tweaking. But we will be using it, I’m sure.

Simple:Press Forum–Fully featured but simple page-based forum By Andy Staines & Steve Klasen.
Installed it but haven’t been able to make it work in any very usable way.

(ALSO–I need to get CommentPress up and running. I’m hearing that it’s now–or almost–working and compatible again)

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