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Another Alkivia Chameleon Problem fixed

Some might say it’s not entirely worth it, but Alkivia Chameleon is a very nice and very popular theme, so I wanted it to work!

Unfortunately (as others have complained), since the latest update (was it the WordPress update? or the Chameleon update? I’m not sure), sites using this theme no longer have any posts appearing on the home page. Yuck. It’s like losing your whole homepage. And the workaround (using widgets) just wasn’t very useful.

So I did a little poking around, and until and unless the theme author gets things working again, I have a temporary fix that seems to work just fine. It seems that the file front-page.php was the problem. I went in via FTP, renamed that file (could have deleted it, but thought I’d better not take a risk in case I still needed it. So I just called it “nono.php.” Choose your own clever name).

So anyone else who has alkivia chameleon and WordPress 3.0, and wants to keep using both, just get rid of (or rename) front-page.php and you will once again have posts on your front page. Phew!

Three New Plugins for Teaching with WordPress

Thanks to our great Macaulay ITF Michael Porter, there are three new plugins in the WordPress plugin repository which will be fantastic for anyone using WordPress as a platform for teaching (and in the case of the third of them, eportfolios!).  Mike developed these specifically for needs we had discovered at Macaulay, but I think there are plenty of others who will find them useful.

  1. Search by User
    Search by user adds an author filter to the post admin page. The drop down list includes all registered users for the site.  This grows out of the case of a class site, where all the students are posting, and the instructor (for purposes of grading, or working with the student to see how participation is going, or any other reason) wants to see all the posts by one student, on one screen.  The plugin makes that easy, right from the dashboard.
  2. Grader
    This plugin also grows from the case of a class site, with lots of students contributing, but speaks specifically to the function of grading. We had faculty who were using WordPress to manage class sites, and having students required to make posts as part of the class activities. They wanted to grade those students, and comment on their posts, but to do so in a private way-so that a professor’s response and grade to an individual student would not be visible to the whole class. With this plugin, the instructor can just begin a comment with a token (by default it’s @grade–but can be changed to whatever you want), which marks that comment as something that only the author of the post and the administrator can see. No complicated gradebook or back-end fiddling–the professor just reads the post and makes the grade and comment–but both are invisible to anyone except the student and the professor.
  3. Site Template
    This is the one that I specifically requested, and it’s the one that’s most exciting to me.  We were finding that although students had lots of different uses for the eportfolios, the default theme they got when starting a new site didn’t really open up those possible uses.  At first I thought I would just create a new default theme, so everyone would start with that, but this plugin gives so much more functionality.  Site Template is a plugin that allows site administrators to set up “site templates” for their WPMU or wordpress 3 (with networking enabled) sites. When a user creates a new site, she gets a set of options of different templates to choose–“What kind of site do you want to create?” Each template represents a different type of site, like basic, reflective, resumé/career, photography/artwork, study abroad, travel, fun/whimsical, or of course “other.” Depending which choice they make, students get a specific theme, options, widgets, plugins, placeholder posts, and so forth.  But the beauty of this is that we can create any kind of template we like–as many as we like–and even better, none of the choices are permanent.  Students still have all the options to change all the features after the site is created.  The templates provide scaffolding and starting points, not limits or rigidity.  So we have not just one default starting point, but a range of default starting points, and then the complete infinity of modifications growing out of that initial range.

This is one of the real strengths of WordPress, of course–not just that the base platform is so robust and flexible, but that plugin development can make it even more so–pretty much if you want a function, it can be added (although we haven’t yet implemented the clairvoyant-telepathic-post-pre-writer plugin . ;))  And of course all our plugins will always be GPL, open and shared.

Alkivia Chameleon Theme in WordPress 3.0 with Multi-Site

A very technical post–warning!

I thought I would post this, in case anyone out there on the web runs into the same problem and might google up this solution.

We make fairly extensive use of an excellent WordPress theme, Alkivia Chameleon.  It’s a very handy and customizable theme, with a nice options page.

The problem was that after an upgrade to 3.0, that nice options page was no longer available to administrators of sites using the theme–it was only available for super-admins. Not good!  And the theme is no longer being updated or maintained.

So in order to fix it, I followed a lead from Andrea, and then another lead that Boone found in fixing userthemes for us.

Alkivia Chameleon has a fairly complicated structure (to me at least!) so it’s best to document what I had to do.

Here it is–

1. Open up wp-content/themes/alkivia-chameleon/includes/theme.php (not functions.php as it would be in any ordinary theme).

2. Around line 177 you will see

function adminMenus()
 {
 add_theme_page( __('Customize Chameleon Theme', 'aktheme'),
 'Chameleon',
 'edit_themes',
 $this->getSlug(),
 array($this, 'settingsAdmin'));
 }

3. Change that line 181 which says ‘edit_themes’, to say ‘switch_themes’,

4. That should do it!

Simple enough to do, and it allows us to keep using that very nice theme.  I’m not entirely clear why this works, but it does!

Alternate Worlds: The Final (?) Chapter

(or: More on Teaching with an Open LMS).

I meant to post a midterm follow-up to my two earlier posts (Part One and Part Two) about my Alternate Worlds course. But time got away from me, and I was having so much fun actually teaching the course that that didn’t happen.

But now as we prepare for Convocation here at Macaulay, and the students are on the verge of submitting their final projects, I thought I would at least provide a kind of wrap-up of final thoughts.

First and foremost–just on the level of a course, without considering the LMS (open or otherwise), I had a blast with these students and this course!  My idea, originally, scared me a bit because I was asking students to do something that was unusual for them, and unusual for me.  The course was thoroughly interdisciplinary, and thoroughly reflective.  Not only were they thinking and reading about the future of education, I was actually treating them as the experts on the subject–since they were the ones actively engaged in their 14th (or so) year of education.  They were a diverse group, with a diverse range of educational experiences, and they completely jumped on the chance to think deeply and critically about those experiences.
I am now thinking very seriously about ways to make a course of this type more widely available.  I think that reflection and integration of learning experiences is really the core of what should happen during the college career.  This is a “capstone” experience (even if it’s during the progress of the building, rather than capping the construction), and it works so much more deeply and completely than the usual “thesis” requirement (a long research paper) that gets plopped onto students in most capstones.  These students reported (and I could see it happening) that they really learned about themselves and their classmates, in addition to their own majors and their own coursework.  It was learning about learning (or as a colleague and I have experienced in a different context, “Looking at Learning, Looking Together“).

And that last connection is an important one. For me this course grew out of my own interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning–and my own conviction that meta-learning, SoTL work carried out by students and teachers working together, could be a new and productive direction.

I learned a lot from teaching the course–and so did the students.  I won’t quote excerpts here, but I hope people will take the time to look at some of the students’ final reflections and evaluations.

One of those reflections, you’ll notice, is in the form of a video log.  The course as a whole was open (quite intentionally) to all kinds of alternate expressive media.  Students experimented with mind maps and comic strips, video and voicethreads, rather than just papers (although they did some papers, too).  The results of that were mixed–in a good way.  Students used the opportunity to try new media, and learned (maybe mostly from when those attempts were not successful) what those media supported or did not support in their own learning styles.  As the final projects come in, I think that I’ll be seeing experimentation there, too.

(Students were also surprised, I think, although I wasn’t, to find that they actually got to know their classmates better, felt a more personal connection, in a class where they never actually saw those classmates in person.  I know from teaching online for so long that fully online courses almost always, if they’re thoughtfully designed, result in more student-student and instructor-student interaction, not less, than face-to-face course do.  The students did wish for just one or two in-person meetings–maybe social ones for a meal or a movie–and we may still do that now that the semester is over.  I think I will build at least one of those into future iterations of the course.)

Now about the Open LMS experiment.  First I can say, categorically and without hesitation, that WordPress, with assorted plugins and a slightly customized theme, works extremely well as the platform for a fully-online course.  Far better than Blackboard, in fact, because I could make the design of the course match my objectives and style.  And I could have degrees of openness, and the students (and I) can know that the course is there for the future.

The students did decide that the forum should be closed, just for the class.  Late in the semester we did agree to take just a few of the forum posts and make them public (as “forum gems“).  There was a lot more that happened on the forums, but the students wanted a bit more freedom to talk informally, not worrying so much about polish, and to talk more openly about things that they might not like about other courses.  All very understandable, and in fact they still did quite a bit of direct and honest discussion on the public areas.

I was hopeful, as one of the goals of making the reflections open, that we would get comments from people outside the class on those posts.  As it turns out, that didn’t happen.  Maybe people who were reading the posts (and I know that there were some) felt like they didn’t want to intrude? But the option is still there, and in a way, comments on the students’ thoughts even after the course is “over” would still be a good thing.

I also thought that I would be using Google Forms for quizzes.  The process worked, it wasn’t very difficult, but as it turned out, after the first experimental quiz, I never used any more.  In teaching online in the past, I’ve always used quick low-stakes quizzes as a kind of enforcement to make sure that students do the reading.  But I wasn’t experienced with Honors students.  They not only do the reading, they also do the optional reading, and they integrate it and use it.  I would like to think that this happened because I used such extremely interesting readings (and in some cases that might have been true), but even in cases where they told me they were not enjoying the readings (and audiobook, in one case, that some students found frustrating), they were clearly reading and thinking about what they were reading.

In terms of replicating the course, I’ve now got the framework very well established, and know how to tweak a theme and use the right plugins (Dropbox plugin for submitting assignments. KB Gradebook for grades, for example.  Neither of those is perfect, but both are very, very good).  Students made good use of RSS feeds and subscriptions (and I can’t say enough about Simple Press Forum.  It is a fantastic forum software–and all as a free plugin right in WordPress.  Extremely impressive.  Far superior to any of the other options), and for announcements, a text widget with a picture which I changed every time I changed the announcement worked very well.  When I really needed to “push” an announcement, I could easily push out an email to all “authors” on the site.  (one lack in that plugin–something a faculty member requested for another course yesterday–the ability to add attachments to those emails.  I don’t know how easy that would be…).  I feel very confident that with any fairly-skilled faculty member could take this framework and easily run a similar online course.  And with an ITF, the faculty member wouldn’t really need to have the skills at all.

There’s so much more I could say about this course.  It was a terrific experience and I very much hope to do it again–and share it and have others teach it, too.  But more than me talking about it, I really would refer anyone interested to go to the course site and browse around yourself.  And leave comments.  I’ll add that link, one more time.  http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/alternateworlds.

I titled this post “The Final (?) Chapter” and that question mark is there for a reason.  This is really a starting place–I hope not to make this a final post for this course or these questions.  Not just because I want to teach the course again, not just because the course remains open to the students and many other audiences, but because I think we are just beginning (the course was only one beginning) to question what a “course” really is.  I don’t think that my students will accept that question as an obvious one anymore, and I think the challenge for all of us is to continue to see the “Alternate Worlds” that are in our futures.

KB Gradebook

I’m going to be posting a “midterm reflection” about the Alternate Worlds class soon.  But before that, I wanted to put up a post that (maybe) will be easy to find for people trying to use the KB Gradebook plugin that I mentioned in the earlier posts.

This was looking like a very good way to let students see their grades throughout the course–an important feature to students in an online class (and others, too, probably).  I was very happy to have found it, especially because it allowed for actual written comments, not just letter grades or numerical scores, but shortly after my (successful) testing, it started to fail to work.

The first problem was that I would get a message saying

“Sorry, but your CSV file has too few columns.”

When I knew that it had plenty of columns.  A bit of googling tracked down the answer to that problem–something about the way Excel on a Mac saves CSV files with some problematic end-of-line encoding.  There’s probably a way around that in the setttings of Excel, but I took the (somewhat clumsy) workaround instead.  I just made the file on my Mac in Numbers (instead of Excel) and exported to CSV from there.  That was fine.

But then the second problem was more serious, and seemed insurmountable for a while.  Uploading new grades gave an error message of either

“There is no grade information available for this course. Since there was as of the last step, it’s possible that another user is also working on your grades right now.”

or

“Unable to write CSV data to database. Please try again in a couple minutes.”

All my googling turned up several people who had encountered the same problem, but nobody with any solutions, and even the person who originally steered me to the plugin, Kyle Jones, said that he had no solution and had ended up having to abandon the plugin–wishing that someone would have the skill or time to troubleshoot it. (the original developer had decided to let it go–no more time to work on it and wasn’t interested in using it anymore).

I thought about hiring a programmer to troubleshoot for me–it was certainly beyond my skill to fix, but it seemed like a plugin that could be really beneficial to anyone using WordPress for courses.

So I kept plugging away at it, trying to figure out where those errors were coming from, trying to see if I could find a fix or even a workaround.

In thinking about hiring someone, I needed to see if I could reliably reproduce the problem and describe the symptoms.  And I couldn’t.  On my MAMP test bed, it seemed to work fine, no matter how I pushed it.  But no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get it to work on my production server.

Then finally I decided to go to a low-level examination.  I looked very carefully at the database itself (Sequel Pro is an utterly fantastic tool, by the way).  And there I noticed that the tables did not include all the information that should have been uploaded in the CSV files.  There was an abrupt truncation, and when I looked closely, I saw that it was where I had left a student a comment, not just a letter grade, and part of that comment was the phrase “you really haven’t…”

The whole table stopped at “you really haven..”  It was the apostrophe!  Once I made sure there were no apostrophes, everything worked just fine.

So for anyone who is trying to use this plugin, if you want to leave students comments, do not use any apostrophes in those comments.  Quotation marks and slashes might cause problems too, I suspect, but I haven’t tested that.

Boone tells me on twitter that there might be a way to fix it for real with mysql_real_escape_string (on the way in) and stripslashes (on the way out).  I will have to learn to do that–maybe with Boone’s help–and maybe find out how to get the plugin updated in the repository, if the original developer will allow it.

But for now–anyone using KB Gradebook who might come upon this post–if you have those error messages, check carefully for apostrophes or other odd characters in your CSV file!  That just might do it!

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

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)

BuddyPress and WPMU Upgrade for Macaulay

Inspired by Boone’s generous help and guidance in describing how the BuddyPress install here at the Commons went from 1.0 to 1.1, I wanted to describe how I took the Macaulay install from 1.0 to 1.3.  There were some hiccups and difficulties, and maybe others can benefit from reading the steps.

Since I had tried and failed once before in going from 1.0 to 1.1, and was only saved by a careful backup which I could restore, I wanted to be especially careful with backing up this time.

More than that, I took that backup and installed it locally and got it up and running locally (using MAMP), and did the whole process there, first, on that local version.  This is really a good practice, and I wish I had the patience to do it all the time.  I recommend it.  I have a personal install of WPMU and BP on another server that I often use for testing, but that’s not the same as testing on an exact duplicate of the production system.  Having done that made the whole process much less stressful.

Here’s a quick summary of the steps I took, with details below.

  1. BACKUP
  2. Deactivate BuddyPress-related plugins
  3. Deactivate BuddyPress
  4. Switch my main blog to the default WordPress theme
  5. Overwrite the BuddyPress folder in wp-content/plugins with the new (downloaded) BuddyPress (I used FTP rather than the “automatic” process)
  6. Upload a new theme (bp-fun, but it could be any BuddyPress-enabled theme) to wp-content/themes
  7. Rename wp-content/bp-themes (to elderlybp-themes, or anything like that)
  8. Move bp-sn-parent and bp-default out of wp-content/plugins/buddypress and into wp-content/themes
  9. Move bp-global-adminbar-css.php to wp-content/mu-plugins (taking it out of the bp-fun folder)
  10. Reactivate BuddyPress
  11. Switch main blog to BP-Fun as its theme

That was about it!  Everything seems to have worked smoothly (relatively) and it also gave me the opportunity (the requirement, really) to change the theme on my main blog (which was a bit overdue–that theme was looking tired and dated).  The only remaining problem is that for groups that existed before the upgrade, it’s impossible to create new forum posts.  That could be serious in some installs, and I would like to track it down and fix it.  But I’ve been unable to, and in our install it’s not so important because groups and group forums aren’t really in frequent use yet.  I can just create new groups and for new groups, the forums work fine.  Still hunting down a few other bugs, as I go along.

Now some descriptions and details–no need to read further unless you’re really interested.

  1. BACKUP–Can’t overemphasize this.  DO IT.  Back up your files, but most definitely most importantly backup your mysql database.  If your install is small (mine is not) you can use phpmyadmin.  But a much better solution is Sequel Pro (if you’re on a mac).  I’ve been using it for a while now and love it.  Terrific (free) program.
  2. Deactivate BuddyPress-related plugins.  If you’ve got any.  I had a few.
  3. Deactivate BuddyPress.  This is one of the mistakes (I think) I made when I first tried this upgrade.  If you try the upgrade with BuddyPress active, if you don’t deactivate it first, you’re in trouble.
  4. Switch my main blog to the default theme.  This was also key, I think, and it’s not very well documented.  Maybe a bit dependent on the way I was doing things.  In my install, my main blog (http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios) was using a regular old WordPress theme (Freshy) that I had customized.  But that theme was not at all compatible with BuddyPress, so my BuddyPress pages (/members, /groups, and so on) were just using BuddyPress Default theme, lightly customized.  None of the methods I saw for dealing with this situation worked for me.  I either got white screens of death or just badly mangled css that made the pages impossible to read or see after the upgrade.  Switching the main blog to the default WordPress theme before doing the upgrade seems to have dealt with all that.
  5. Overwrite the BuddyPress folder in wp-content/plugins with the new (downloaded) BuddyPress (I used FTP rather than the “automatic” process).  FTP is always safer than the automatic process, I’ve found.  This was easy.
  6. Upload a new theme (bp-fun, but it could be any BuddyPress-enabled theme) to wp-content/themes .  This was also important–so I could have something to switch my main blog to, and then customize that.
  7. Rename wp-content/bp-themes (to elderlybp-themes, or anything like that).  Have to do this so BuddyPress will not look there for the old theme scheme.  Can delete it entirely, but seemed safer to just rename it until I was sure I wasn’t going to need to revert to it.
  8. Move bp-sn-parent and bp-default out of wp-content/plugins/buddypress and into wp-content/themes.  As per instructions.
  9. Move bp-global-adminbar-css.php to wp-content/mu-plugins (taking it out of the bp-fun folder).  I don’t know if this was entirely crucial.  But it wasn’t there (in mu-plugins) before, and it did seem like some problems (mainly with that admin-bar) were solved by doing this.
  10. Reactivate BuddyPress. (and say a prayer)
  11. Switch main blog to BP-Fun as its theme.  And then make sure that that theme (and the other buddypress themes) are not available to other users–just for the main blog.  And then work on customizing that BP-Fun theme a bit (I remove the signup link, I remove “blog” from the nav menu, and a few other things.  The theme itself has a good theme options function, so you can do a lot of customizing with that.  Beyond that you’ll need to edit the theme files).

I had been dreading this for a while, but with good backups and a good test environment, it really worked OK.  A few weird moments (at one point uploading a group avatar caused a WSOD, but logging out and logging back in–the dashboard was not white-screening–took care of that.  Don’t know why, and I haven’t been able to recreate the problem.  Weird.)

(Oh, and WPMU, Too)

While I was at it, I decided to go ahead and do the upgrade from WPMU 2.8.6 to WPMU 2.9.1 (feeling daring).  That had a scary moment when the whole install went WSOD, but that was my own fault–because of impatience, in uploading the new files, I tried to have several FTP processes going at once, and one of them must have been corrupted or interrupted.  Reuploading took care of the problem right away.

2.9.1, the last WPMU upgrade before the switch to the integrated WP and WPMU with WP 3.0 (!!!!!!), is a big improvement and well-worth the upgrade.  I would say do not wait for the integration (Commons staff, what do you think?).  Even if the integration is coming soon (or soonish), that promises to be a bigger and scarier upgrade, and many of us might wait a while even after it’s available.

But 2.9.1 offers something very very good, that my students have been asking for and that I’ve wanted myself, and it’s worth the upgrade just for that.  In 2.9.1, there is now image editing (basic–but it’s got cropping, resizing and rotating) built in to the media upload feature.  It works very well, it’s smooth and nicely designed, and a great feature that has been missing for a long time.

I did have one problem with the 2.9.1 upgrade, and it’s not solved yet, and it’s bothering me.  The upgrade seems to have broken the excellent Userthemes plugin.  That’s very bad, because although I had only a few blogs (class blogs and individuals and some staff sites) using it, those that did use it needed it.  I’m hoping somebody (maybe me, but probably not) will find a fix soon, or I’ll have to find an alternative.  Fingers crossed on that.

Alternate Worlds: Teaching with an “Open LMS”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future?
The Future?

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

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

WordCamp NYC

Coming this Saturday, and it should be a great day. Many CUNY colleagues presenting and (I hope) attending, too. I’ll be on the roundtable on the future of WordPress in Education, and presenting my own eportfolio spiel:

Eportfolios are (too often) seen as tools for assessment, for assignments, or for career placement. But thanks to WordPress and BuddyPress, at Macaulay Honors College, we’ve been able to set up an entirely flexible and free tool, allowing students (and faculty, and instructional technology fellows) to redefine the term “Eportfolio” and to let them each create a “Cabinet of Curiosities” or a “Museum of Me,” which promotes reflection, interaction, and truly integrative learning. These eportfolios are student-driven and student-designed, and the flexibility of WordPress allows us to watch as students forge new paths, and create an eportfolio model which is new in higher education, and which has the potential to work for students beyond the classroom, beyond the college.

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