Blog? Student blogs? LMS? Uh oh. LMS.

Planning my first online History honors course, I immediately assumed I’d be doing something different, more connectivist, more open-ended. I figured it would start, as so many good things do, with a fresh WordPress blog.

But then I thought, the students should each have their own blog. Edublogs and WordPress.com don’t have enough free features, though, and they might get caught in freemium traps. That’s OK – my college now has WordPress. I found out that another instructor had set up blogs for all his students last semester. Except that it was extremely time consuming, involved a separate server, and he used an assistant to do the hands-on setup. I have more students and no assistant –  I’ll end up teaching WordPress more than history and dreading sys admin as a massive time suck.

Better go with a single blog under my own control, multi-author.

So I made one. Even made a really cool banner.

 

Then I started thinking some more, as I began downloading the many plugins: Akismet for spam, Comment Form toolbar so they could embed media in comments, Comment Image for a similar thing, comments-like so they could “like” each other’s comments, Custom Meta for better guidance signing in, Email users so I could email them all, iframe Preserver to help the pages with info, nCode Image Resizer to prevent huge images, Simply Exclude to control visible pages, Top Commentators to add a little competition, User Photo, WP Super Cache to prevent overloading the CPU, etc etc etc.

I started to realize what I was doing – trying to make WordPress more like an LMS. Moodle in particular.

What was gained by doing this? A public space, which they may not want anyway. My own control with my own rented server, which I could also have using my own Moodle. A blog format, with more independence and reflection. Did I want that?

I started to think about my students. Yes, it’s an Honors class, with a lower enrollment cap so we can get to know each other better and a tip hats to more individualized instruction. But only some students are from the Honors program – the class is open to anyone. I lost a student in my standard class this semester and encouraged her to enroll for this one. Even a higher number of Honors students doesn’t mean they’ll know anything about blogs. I’ll still be teaching WordPress.

That’s OK, said I, let’s look at pedagogy! To go all connectivist and bloggy, I’d have to give up some things. Textbook? No big deal getting rid of that. Quizzes? I’d love to ditch them. My forums where I have them post a primary source then write about the collection they’ve built, and it all shows on the same page so they can compare their work and revise?  Um…..

No. It came down to a pedagogy meets technology decision. For students to post sources each week and form a collection on a blog, they’d need to use tags (for both era and topics) so the sources would post onto a page for that era or be easy to find later. They’d need to search tags to find evidence. I’d need to set up many pages. The format would be sloppy, and as the class advances into using more evidence for writing, things would get very confusing. Blogs are call-and-response systems, not repositories. Tagging is not natural behavior for ordinary mortals on the web – it must be taught.

Perhaps my goals don’t really dovetail with the blog format. It’s not like ds106, where you pick and choose and create and move on – here the work is dependent on that of others, not just referencing that of others. It’s not like a CCK class, where you participate in the sections you’re interested in. Here there is a set curriculum, and a particular method I want to use, a method that has students discovering, interacting, writing extensively, practicing… it sounds blog-like, but it’s done a different way.

I started to argue with myself. Again, what was I gaining from using WordPress? Did I want the shift to reflection implied by the use of ongoing posts? Did I want to recreate something like the POT Cert Class? Did I want to teach the students, not only about WordPress, but about the big web world, the people who might read and comment, the difference between the open web and an LMS, the possible joys and dangers? Sure, I could do all this, but did I want them focusing on that stuff instead of finding great primary sources, observing their colleagues, and creating their own theses based on a slow, modelled, practiced development of their historical thinking? With so little time that they’d be willing and able to dedicate to the class, did I want to use time teaching these (admittedly valuable) things, when they were not central to my objectives?

So I’ve backed away, to my own Moodle install. I feel like a traitor, but it won’t be the first time. I’ve created something, a method I love, a method I want to write about and publish about, and I happened to create it inside a particular LMS where it works well. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work outside it. I can indeed recreate it inside WP or a Ning or somewhere else (though Blackboard would be a nasty challenge). If I combine this method with the convenience of grading posts, having them spend their outside recess time looking for sources, and teaching them about sources and citations and writing and how to use the big web to do history …it will be better for all of us.

Alan Levine made this for me only a short time ago (translated roughly as “I use an LMS only for management”). I wonder whether this is already not true, or whether it’s management in the sense of managing a pedagogical process, or whether it’s just a matter of choosing the best tool for the job. Maybe I’ve never risen above having too many students in each section, and I want that drop-down grading menu. Maybe I’m maturing away from the knee-jerk reaction against an LMS, a reaction which makes no sense anyway given my own ability to twist the suckers into almost anything I want them to be. Maybe it’s all a massive justification to keep a familiar workflow so I can focus on developing a new class.

I confess – I’m really not sure.

 

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12 comments to Blog? Student blogs? LMS? Uh oh. LMS.

  • Ed Webb

    Re: your penultimate and ultimate paragraphs – I’m not sure it matters exactly why you ended up with this decision. The point is being equipped to assess alternatives and arrive at a purposeful decision that serves your pedagogical purposes, which is the process you describe here.

    There is no a priori best solution for delivering content, facilitating exchange etc. The essence of edupunk is using the tools that work the way you want to use them, not any predetermined hierarchy of course infrastructures.(1) And for all that St Jim of Groom has disowned the term, I think there is much that is redeemable in it. You’re one of the edupunks who do it right.

    (1) OK, hating on Blackboard is canon.

    • I questioned whether I should post the ending, but hoped that maybe sharing my doubts would help someone, if only on the principle that one often starts with doubt to initiate change. At the same time, I confess to my discomfort that there’s even an emotional aspect to such a decision.

  • Thanks for this post, Lisa. I think it will resonate with many of us. As you explain so well, there are many elements involved in deciding where and how to build a course online, e.g. the curriculum (or lack thereof), the learning methods, our students’ abilities and expectations, and indeed our own abilities and expectations. Quite often the push to achieve all objectives in each of these areas is impossible, as you detail here. Our own tendencies (openness! personalisation! freedom!) may clash against the needs of our students, e.g. structure, clear link to overall curriculum, safe spaces to develop and explore. Your explanation of your decision process sounds like a triumph rather than a capitulation to me. You’ve weighed up everything — even gone down one road and backtracked — and chosen a solution which you believe will maximize the learning experience for your students.

    My solution this year is an open course blog — but continuing to use our university LMS (Blackboard) for adminstrative tasks, assigment submission (the early ones, anyway) and grading/feedback. That won’t make sense, of course, without also knowing that this is a module focusing on communication and social media in a 2nd year BSc Computer Science & Information Technology curriculum, for students who are already experienced programmers.

    There’s much more I’d like discuss with you — but thanks very much for sharing your thoughts.

  • Thanks, Catherine. I like your framing this issue as our own tendencies at odds with student needs or desires. At the same time, I fully understand the benefits in pushing their desires into a zone of greater openness and sharing – it’s been a goal of mine for awhile. Challenge is good. This just didn’t feel like the challenge was worth it.

  • I’m most interested in your critical reflection, Lisa, and not your decision. I think seeing the wheels turn in the pedagogical grappling of others spurns us on to turning the lens inward. At least, this post did for me (as your posts often do, I might add).

    I had my own Moodle before the university and enjoyed teaching my grad students in education how to use Moodles. Now, I use open blogging on WordPress and will explore a switch to Tumblr soon. I sometimes wonder if it would serve my students-teachers better if I continued to model Moodle (+ BuddyPress) but I think they need to experience the freedom of owning their own blogs and the exploration of the Web and real-world networking.

    Thanks for nudge to think about this challenge some more.

  • I’m using Edmodo for a lot of my teaching / training now. Since it looks a lot like Facebook, it has immediate appeal. It allows discussion, uploading & sharing files, quizzes & grading, a gradebook, etc. I’m not saying it’s perfect or that it would even be classified as an LMS, but it works for me.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I remembered I had an old account, so I went to look and it had a class set up for Fall 2010. :-) It is indeed an LMS.

  • I think you nailed it when you said:”Perhaps my goals don’t really dovetail with the blog format.” It states what has been becoming more apparent to me: that most of the tools for sharing student work openly on the web are blog tools and blogs are blogs. They’re great for episodic writing, but not so good for the MANY other things you want students to do. I think an LMS (particularly a more open one like Canvas) plus open tools gives the best of both worlds.

    Thanks for detailing your thinking process on this.

  • [...] This was a big reminder that Moodle is still an LMS, and that sometimes I simply cannot configure it to do what I need. In WordPress such a thing is a no-brainer, and of course I can set this up in WP, but didn’t I just decide there was no real need for that? [...]

  • Sarah Schrire

    Lisa, the externalization of your reflective process is invaluable! Thnx for sharing,and I will use this as an example to my teachers in training of the serious deliberations we should all be going through when making pedagogical choices about technologies. The final decision isn’t the main thing here.

    • Hi Sarah! Thanks – I often hesitate to post thought processes, then conclude I should do it for me anyway in case I come to that fork in the road again. Glad it’s helpful!