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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.

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