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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Blackboard Part II - Student Blogs & Privacy

In my first post I explained how I am using Wordpress as a course management system, and in this post I will explain how I was able to easily add students to the class and set up their blogs. Keep in mind that my new course network is completely private, so only registered users can see who users are and participate in activities. To achieve this privacy, I installed a plug-in called Private Wordpress. “Private WP will make sure people can only read your blog after they log in. Already logged in users will see no difference. Users who are logged out will get the login page, and only that.” I like to keep my options open, so although we are completely private, I still set up the students so they can have an option to use an alias.

First I added every student as a user to the main “hub” blog using their MEID and their Maricopa email address. This information is easily accessible in both Blackboard and SIS so I can do this before the semester begins. After I add them to the network, students are sent an email with log in instructions and a password to access the site. When they log-in they are instructed to edit their profiles to add their real name and a photo. At this point they can choose to display their first name only, first and last name or just their MEID. They can also use a chosen alias instead of their real names if they want. Students cannot change the initial username given (MEID), so no matter what they provide for their names, I can always identify them on the back end by the MEID. So far, all of my students have chosen to use their real names or stick with the MEID as the display name.

Next I create a blog or site for each user. You are given the choice between sub-domains or sub-directories in Step 4: Installing a Network. This means each additional site in your network will be created as a new virtual subdomain or subdirectory.
  • Sub-domains -- like site1.example.com and site2.example.com
  • Sub-directories -- like example.com/site1 and example.com/site2
I wanted to try them both, so ENG101 uses sub-domains and ENG102 and ENH295 both use sub-directories. I think I like sub-directories better so. To add a site I need a site name, site title and an admin email. For the site name I used MEIDs again because they will be easily identifiable by me, and if students neglect to make their site private, they are not automatically identifiable to the world. For site title I use the student’s first name temporarily, and then I add their Maricopa email for the admin email. Once I add the site, students are sent another email with log in instructions. They are then instructed to either leave their blogs public or make them private by using the same plug-in I used on the main site. If they choose to go private, I instruct them to choose the option to “Allow all feed access - Guests may continue read your blog via feed readers. “ This is essentially the same option we would have in Blackboard if our district had the balls to turn it on. The blogs are not accessible by search engines, and you have to have the feed url in order to see the posts. So it’s still private, but I can still access it via a feed reader. This makes me very happy. :)

Students are also instructed that they can change the title of their blog to whatever they want, thus removing their names. So they can change Mary’s blog (default) to MJ’s Hangout if they want. I don’t really need to have their name in the title because when I set up the blogs initially I created a blogroll for each class using their real name and subscribed to each blog using the real name. This blogroll list is only viewable by logged in users from the main site, and my Google Reader list is private as well. When I want to grade Mary’s blog, I either click on her real name or visit my GReader. And if I ever get confused I can just look at the URL: http://eng102online.com/mar1234567 (fake) and the MEID on the end will identify the student. My initial impression is that either students don’t care about privacy or they’re too confused to care. Not one student has changed the name of their blog, and I haven’t check to see if any have gone private. I’ll do that soon.
Blogroll at the bottom of the main course site.
Students have most of the same controls over their blogs that I have over mine. When I add and install plug-ins to the main blog, I have the option to activate site wide meaning students will now have access to the plug-in on their site. I can even control what themes are available to students, so if I want for their blogs to all look the same, I could just provide the one option. Or in the future I like to create a custom theme built just for writing portfolios for my ENG101 class. I could have all the pages prebuilt to make it easier for students. It can be a little confusing at first for students because they have two sites, the main class site (hub) and their own blog. When they click from the main site to go the dashboard, they end up first in the main site’s dashboard and there is not much there. They have to then click on the My Sites to see their blog and to be able to get to that dashboard.

Students cannot add themes or plug-ins to their site on their own. They can only activate themes or plug-ins that you have activated sitewide. The only problem that I can see so far is with the spam filter Akismet. I activated it sitewide so that all the student blogs could be protected, but it prompts all students to add their API key that you get by signing up for Wordpress.com. I didn’t want to have students go through all of that, so at the moment all their blogs are exposed to spam. I like how the Private Wordpress plug-in reminds students to activate privacy on their blog in case they missed my instructions to do so.



Overall, I'm pleased with how it’s all working out. I created lots of screencasts to help students, and I haven’t had too many questions about how to do things. I haven’t had too many complaints yet either. Only time will tell. In my next post I’ll talk more about how I’m collecting assignments and doling out quizzes and grades.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Blackboard - Part I

Ah, free! It’s a great feeling to be free of the closed course management system. I could say tons about why I wanted, craved this freedom, but I have enough to say with how I freed myself. So this post will focus solely on that -How I said goodbye to Blackboard for good.

First off, let’s discuss what I’m currently using. Wordpress recently came out with the latest version, 3.0, which added the old Wordpress MU install into the regular installation. What this does is provide the opportunity to create a network setup where you can have a blog as a hub, and then have students’ blogs branch out from the hub to create a network or class. So you have a class site (hub) that students are all users, and each of the users (students) has their own blog. For a writing class this is a perfect set up. Students have space to write and collaborate with classmates. So Wordpress replaces the main CMS function of housing course content and student interaction (blogs, groups, discussions), but I needed some other tools to replace the other functions of a CMS like gradebook, dropbox, and quizzes. I will talk about these functions in a later post.

Setting up Wordpress is actually quite easy, but if schools adopted this method, the most challenging part can be done by IT departments before a faculty member even signs on for this adventure. This part involves installing Wordpress on a server and setting up the network. Since I don’t have help from my IT department, I did this myself. Most hosting companies have one-button install, are cheap, reliable and optimized for your WordPress blog. I currently use HostGator and Siteground to host my blogs. For my three classes this semester I’m paying $6 month to host all three sites on HostGator, and HostGator has one click install.

Adding the network part is a little more difficult, but not impossible. You just have to follow directions and know how to edit the wp-config file. You also have to be familiar with FTP programs. I followed the directions straight from the Wordpress site – Create a Network, and I used the FireFTP addon for FireFox to upload files to and from the server and Notepad on a PC to edit the wp-config file. This is the part that IT professionals could do in support of faculty if a college chose to support this. If that were the case, then faculty could start the process with choosing a theme and adding course content.

Wordpress lets you create pages and blog posts for adding content. I use the blog posts for announcements and weekly activities (semester specific content), and I use pages for permanent course content (assignments, etc.). If you choose the right theme, you can have nestled pages with dropdown menus. I’m using the Mystique theme by digitalnature for all three courses. See photo below. This provides easy navigation for students. You have to really think about how you want to organize your content for this to work. It helps if you have modules. I can also set the default front page to be a specific page (i.e. syllabus) or my blog posts. I use my blog posts for announcements, so that is my default front page. Once students log in, they are dumped into the front page where they can read any new announcements before moving on to access the course content. This is where we see the first advantage over Blackboard. Since the announcements are now individual blog posts, if a student has a question about the announcement, they can quickly hit Add a Comment and leave their question. All students can see the question and any subsequent answer I provide.

Once you figure out how you want to add your content, doing so is quite simple. You can type directly into the page edit window in either Visual (WYSIWYG) or HTML. You can also cut and paste from Word documents using the Paste from Word option. This cuts out all the crappy Word code that you normally get. Mark that up as another advantage over Bb which takes your Word code and mangles it, making it almost impossible to edit. You can also set up page templates to help customize your content pages. Templates help remove the sidebars if you need to so you can have a bigger column for showing movies or just to have less distraction on the page. My current theme came with built in templates, so I’m current just using those.

For my discussion forums, I had a few options. I started out with a plug-in called Mingle Forum, and it worked well, but there was something missing. Can’t remember what. So instead, I decided to just use blog posts for discussions since they have threaded comments built in. In order to get them to show up on a page and not just in the blog post (announcement) page, I had to install the Page Links To plug-in, which allows you to create a page that links to a URL. So what I did was created a category for discussions and added each discussion question post to that category. Then when I click on the category tag it takes me to a page with all the posts in that category. I grabbed the URL and add that to the Discussion page I create. Now when students click on the Discussion tab they see all the discussions in one place. To participate in a discussion, you can just leave a comment. Commenting in Wordpress is threaded, so students can comment to each other, and it’s very easy to follow the conversation – another plus over Bb. Also their profile pictures show up next to their post so it adds a little personalization to the discussion. I can turn off commenting on any post at any time, in effect closing a discussion. So far it works great.

In my next posts I will talk about adding users (students) and user blogs to the main site. I will also share with you how I replaced the other aspects of the course management system, like gradebook, dropbox, and quizzing.