Blog platforms are so good and versatile that educators have all of the resources we need to run a course management website without the need for proprietary software. Blogs do just about everything a course management software system can do and more. There are also several other benefits to do something like this with a mainstream blog platform.
Last year, I started experimenting with using WordPress as a total replacement content management system. My thought was, I can make WordPress do just about everything I’d want from a content management system (and then some!)
This was largely an experiment, so I didn’t mention anything about it then. I think it was a remarkable success. I’m now willing to let everyone see my courses page. This is the actual site that I’m using, and the posts are from actual students in my classes. (Note: students are not forced to make their posts public, they have the option of making their posts private so that only students who are logged into the site can read them. There are clear instructions on the site as to how to do this, and it was demonstrated mutiple times in class.)
Part of my reason for doing this is that I’m dissatisfied with the current array of proprietary course management systems out there.
Here is a brief description of what my WordPress install is like. I also include my cost/benefit analysis.
WordPress Blog as Comprehensive Course Management
- Pages For Each Course
A page for each course. Course specific materials can be linked to there.
- Side Bar For All Courses
I find myself giving roughly the same set of general materials to all of my students. Those general materials can be in the side bar. The nice thing is that this should reinforce the idea that some of the things I rant about are applicable across all of the courses.
- One Blog to Rule Them All
A single WordPress install gives you a single blog apparatus. I think this is going to be a GOOD thing. The blog feature can be a discussion board that students from all of my classes post to and participate in. There are several benefits to this which I will list below.
If you’re a fan of open source – WordPress is one way to go. Colleges spend a lot of money on course management software. Why bother?
- Outside Access
Other people (including colleagues from other fields, prospective students) will be able to access your course information, and see a model. You can get feedback from other colleagues in the field, and they can get ideas.
- Gets Students Using a Standard Blogging Platform.
Once students leave college they won’t be using something like Angel, WebCT, or Blackboard. Why not familiarize them with a content management system that they might actually use one day in business or their personal blogging?
- Gets Students Familiar with other Web 2.0 apps
Almost all of my students in two of my classes didn’t know what an RSS feed was or what an RSS Reader was. Students will be much better off if they are familiar with the way the internet has changed within the last five-ten years. Familiarizing them with how blogs operate is the first step.
- Other Issues With Proprietary Course Management Software
Proprietary Course Management Software is light-years behind the tech market in terms of what you can do. It’s slow, clunky, not very user friendly, and doesn’t have nearly the flexibility that other content management software has.
- Update and Access the Site if Angel is Down
Since I started using WordPress as a course management system, my up time has been 100%. Angel goes down sometimes, and sometimes it goes down at very inconvenient times. Now, even if Angel is down, students have access all of the course resources.
- Consolidated Discussion Board Benefits
This is the one thing I’m really excited about testing this semester. A few students from each of my classes will be assigned to post (early in the week) about the readings for the next class session. The posts from all of my classes will be posted on the same blog (I know one could have three separate blogs, but there is a very good reason to try this).
First: My really motivated students, will have the option of being exposed to more philosophy.
Second: We often tell our students to write for someone who has no idea what the readings are about, but this is usually a game of pretend (because in actuality – only I or students from the class typically read the writing). Now students are actually in a situation where 2/3 of the readers will not have read the reading, and those readers will be able to question the author if they don’t understand something.
(Note: Students who don’t feel like reading posts from other class will have the option of only reading the posts from their class by selecting the tag from their class.)
- Student Studying
UPDATED: A student taking one of my classes pointed out an additional benefit of this blogging platform. It’s becomes a pretty useful studying resource. Since the blog is searchable, and I always have a few students writing analysis posts about each reading, it’s easy for students to use this site as a helpful resource for studying.
Costs (plus responses)
- Not Centralized
Some have suggested that Angel puts all of the student courses in one place. Response: You can embed the entire blog in Angel so when students log into Angel they are really accessing your blog. This is what it looks like for a student who accesses the blog via Angel.
- New User Registration
Students will have to sign up for the blog. This, however, is a minimal cost for both student and professor. Students must create a username and login. The only thing a professor must do is select all of the students and click a button to approve their status (this literally takes 2 seconds). I grant this is the cost, but this is one where I think the gains are well worth it. UPDATE: Plus there are batch upload plugins for WordPress. You can download your students to a spreadsheet, and upload them into the site in a few seconds.
- Can’t Use the Gradebook
A lot of people like Angel for the gradebook feature. I actually don’t use the gradebook for a number of reasons. First, it defaults to giving students more information about grading information that I have to turn off. Second, I prefer storing official copies of student grades off line apart from University servers, and emailing students their grades on a case-by-case basis. This fragments the grade data. If a student’s email were compromised, the malicious person would at most have access to that student’s grades. Students also have the option of deleting the email I send so that in the event of a security breach there is no grading data to be found. If, however, there were a security breach with respect to the Angel grade book – all of my student grades would be there in one location.However, if you’re comfortable with storing student grades on an Angel-type gradebook, guess what? WordPress has a gradebook plugin developed by Adam Brown, a political science professor at UC-San Diego. BTW – this plugin seems much easier than the Angel gradebook. And automatically emails grades to students at your command.
- Student Discussion Posts Made Public
Some might be worried about having students post discussion that is publicly available, but I think these concerns can be addressed. First, it should be made clear to the student that the default privacy settings for their posts will be that they are publicly available. It should also be made clear to the student that they have a wide range of privacy options in WordPress. Students can have their posts be made public and post under an alias. Their work will be publicly available, but their names will not. Students also have the option of making their post private, so that only other registered users can view the contents. Professors may also, if they choose, protect the entire blog so that only logged in users can view the site (although you lose some of the benefits listed above). Right now my favored method is to have the default be to have everything posted publicly, and make it clear to the students that they have both of the privacy options listed above.The reason I favor this method is that I think it is a GOOD thing to have students worried about how their ideas will be received by a more general audience. You don’t get a whole lot of secrecy with respect to what you say/do/write in the business world, and it’s good to start practice writing now with the knowledge that what you write on any site on the internet could be read by anyone.