The illusion of the LMS/cloud-based/self-hosted solution

It happened all of a sudden. The feed from one POT Cert Class participant just wasn’t coming into the Pedagogy First aggregated blog. I spent hours trying to figure out why not – the feed finder screen would just go blank on only her feed. I Googled, I pounded, I went through what there is of FeedWordpress documentation. Mostly I wished I were Alan Levine  or Tim Owens.

I have mentioned before that technologies known for doing some really cool things are becoming unreasonably complicated. This particular technological problem rests on a self-hosted installation of the software WordPress (built and maintained by a wonderful community) and the FeedWordpress plugin (built and maintained by a wonderful coding person). When one gets updated, it often doesn’t play nice with the other. And I can’t fix it. I say again unto you, I am not a coder. I find code, I steal code, I envy code, but I do not code.

I finally asked that a new blog be created for this participant, and it seems to be feeding. For now. Of course, the other one had fed too, all of the first semester. Given my own significant limitations, we will not be able to do this again this way next year.

The recipe at the moment is this. Start with recent adventures with self-hosted Moodle, add this new self-hosted WordPress crisis, mix with a dash of cloud failure (Google abandoning Reader, Posterous closing shop, and SeesmicWeb being bought and killed by the inferior HootSuite ). Stir and cook with a big dollop of my recent participation in reviewing a publisher-created program for grading student essays, and you have the kind of disillusionment you get by realizing you have already been devoured by the whale but didn’t know it.

hydraThe monsters (big proprietary systems, cloud-based sites, self-hosting) appeared to be separate, but were actually all parts of the same beast.

Self-hosting, a domain of ones own, the path of ds106  and the noble D’Arcy Norman – this has been the antidote to the bullying tactics of the LMS and publisher-created content. I have held it up as the way to avoid both big proprietary monsters and the vagaries of the disappearing web apps and fly-by-night cloud offerings. I have scoffed (quietly) at those who said they could not run their own blog, it was too hard. While I have not been guilty of encouraging anyone to run their own Moodle installation, I have persisted in doing it myself as a bulwark against Moodlling ignorance and exterally-run systems.

All this begins to seem like folly, a folly based on desire. An example: I want nested discussion forums where students can post multimedia, so I have Moodle. I find out today that (cloud-based) Schoology has nested forums! Yay! No! Wait! They are touted around the web as a “start up” of four years or so who use proprietary code (cue John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back music). I will have a free class, but never be able to access it otherwise, years down the line.

Fact is, none of these options are perfect, or even sufficient. The big LMS systems (including Moodle) upgrade and you can’t restore old courses and actually view student work – they say you can, but in fact it doesn’t work. I have all my courses backed up as Moodle .zip files, but now they’ve changed to .mbz.  Out in the cloud, I can export my Posterous as they close down, but when I import it into WordPress a bunch of stuff is wrong or missing or ugly. These things weren’t built to be transferrable, or to cater to the archiving tendencies of the mere customer. Whether proprietary and exorbitantly priced, or open source and impossible to run without an IT degreee,  none of the options have a sense of history, only a blindered vision of a future fulfilled by profits, market share, or geeky street cred.

Perhaps I am dissembling now to be running a class encouraging faculty to plunge into explorations of web tools and new technologies. I cannot in good conscience suggest anyone build a course around any of them. My colleague Todd Conaway  says that it’s better to learn from creating, to meet the challenge of the occasional failure, to engage the technologies and learn from them even if they’re transient. I know that is true. But if you spend too much time in the belly of the beast (whether self-hosted, cloud-based, or LMSed) , things start to smell fishy.


More on setting up a WP/FWP Open Online Class

I administer the technology for our POT Certificate Class. This is despite the fact that I do not code, don’t know PHP, and basically taught myself anything I happen to know, with a lot of help from my online network. Over a year ago, I posted about the initial setup.

One of our class participants, Jaime Oyarzo at the University of Alcala in Madrid, is trying to create a similar setup at his place, and so has been asking me about what I’ve done. Responding to him gave me the opportunity to pick apart what I’ve done a little more.

Participants set up their own blog wherever. Then I need to get the feeds from those blogs into the Pedagogy First! aggregated blog, using FeedWordPress.  I use the Add Link widget (yes, I know it’s old) so participants can add their own, and have provided more extensive instructions for them about blogs and feeds. In particular, we want people who post on many subjects to not only use the “potcert” tags for their posts, but use the feed for that tag only. This is so only their class-related posts show up on the class blog.

The back end of this process is a little more complicated. When participants enter their information in Add Link, it goes directly into the Blogroll. The Blogroll is what feeds into FeedWordPress as a default.

I customize the titles of feeds and the names of participants to use their real names for everything. I change the titles of feeds by going into FWP’s Syndication area and using Feeds & Updates. Using the drop down menu to bring up a particular blog, I change the title and click manual control so it doesn’t revert back the next time the feed updates. When I do this, it seems to update automatically in the Links area. Then I go to Users and make sure their names are their full names by editing them individually.

I also want a widget listing everyone’s blog so that readers can go directly to anyone’s blog at any time. For this, I use a Links widget with a Link Category (this year I called it “Certificate Students, Mentors and Facilitators”). On the Links page, I make sure that everyone’s blog is in that category so it shows.

I created this visual primary to show Jaime what I was doing – he helped me refine it:

For some reason, this year I have experienced no CPU throttling that I’m aware of. I’m using CPU throttling to check load because I had big trouble with it in my summer Moodle class – only 40 students and it was constantly overloading. But despite last year’s problems, I haven’t seen any problems yet, even though I forget to optimize the database more frequently than every two days, the default setting.

So just FYI for anyone trying to do this without knowing how to code.

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 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.


Previous posts along similar lines:

Dividing the Pool

photo cc finalgirl via Flickr

I’ve gotten out the rope with the red floaty balls and divided the pool.

The main page of the POT Certificate Class now features posts from those who enrolled to earn a certificate, their mentors, and our facilitators. It’s the shallow end. We’ll all do the same thing, learn the same strokes, wear the water wings, till everyone is comfortable.

A separate page now features posts from those who wanted a larger experience, not so guided, more open to big ideas, comparisons and experimentation. It’s the deep end, where you can dive, swim laps real fast, or do cannonballs, and no one will complain.

Getting ready for the POT Online Certificate Class (the SMOOC)

I’m getting the new Pedagogy First! blog set up for the Program for Online Teaching Certificate Class, our open online class to help prepare folks to teach in a web environment. We’ll start officially September 1. It’s a 24 week class that runs 12 weeks in fall and 12 weeks in spring. People can participate from anywhere as we learn and blog our progress together. We’re still drafting, but the syllabus and instructions are being set up here.

We had 90 participants to start last year, from all over the world, with 16 completing the full requirements for the certificate.

Our big change from last year is that, like the wonderful ds106 at UMW, we’re going to expect participants to set up their own blog in a hosted environment. Last year we encouraged the use of Edublogs or, but we quickly found out that these services are starting to charge money for the basic things we need to do, like embed media.

So we’re doing two things to encourage people to get in there and get dirty early on. The first is a two-week workshop prior to the class starting, which will take place in the POT Facebook group. Led by myself and Todd Conaway, we’ll try to answer questions and help people out. Our second approach is to move some of the reading and other tasks for later in the course, so that people can have more time to wrestle with WordPress in the first couple of weeks.

I’m having my own technical problems, of course, just like I did last year. Again, I am unable to figure out why some of the syndicated feeds coming in through FeedWordpress are saying “Comments are closed” even though they are set to open on both the home blog and in the theme and FWP settings on the aggregated blog.

As always, it’s just us, a small group of volunteer faculty we call the Program for Online Teaching, plus our previous participants and certificate earners helping as mentors and moderators. We call it a SMOOC because it’s a Small to Medium Open Online Course (unlike the Massive MOOCs with thousands of people – we’re small and we’re proud).

The tag will be “potcert12” in Twitter and elsewhere, and you needn’t commit to a certificate to join in the fun. Open, casual, one-night-stand participants are welcome – we’ll just need the feed for your tagged posts when the time comes. Won’t you join us?

Where’s your class? musings on course location

I noticed that Dave Cormier is using a single course blog for his ed366 class, with students as authors. Back in November, I was working on this issue with Brandon Davis-Shannon, whether it is better to have students run their own blogs or work on one big blog, and I’m thinking about it again as I plan my History 103 for fall.

I have done one big blog before, but never many student blogs (except for the POT Certificate Class). Dave has done both and notes:

It is interesting to me that engagement would be lost when students run their own blogs, versus posting on one big blog. It brings up questions about where students perceive the course is located, as well as the usual issues about motivation and self-motivation.

In addition, it may be about the changing world of online courses in the past year or so.

The typical online course offered by an institution is one kind, and for this model students translate their classroom thinking to the online class. The thinking is that on-site the class is held in Room 601, and online it’s held in Blackboard (or another LMS) or at a particular URL or website (though that’s more rare).

It’s hard for students to really see a course that’s held “on the web”, or one where their work is based in their own space, and aggregated somehow for all to see. That involves a mental shift much greater than just on-site to online.

That mental shift is encouraged by MOOCs, at least in their Couros/Siemens/Downes/Cormier/Groom model. Self-direction and/or connectivism are engrained in the format of the classes. (I’m gonna call it the CSDCG model, because no one can stop me.)

But there is another pseudo-MOOC model now, subdivided into two categories which sometimes overlap: institutional (think Stanford, MIT) and commercial (think Curtis Bonk’s class in Coursesites). These are beloved by the New York Times and the Chronicle, who are seeking to reframe educational trends. They are becoming the mental-shifting model instead of the original MOOC design.

That may be because they are held in Learning Management Systems or sites that act like LMSs (I’m afraid I have to count WordPress here, because of its use in this context). This model perpetuates the idea that “class is here“. Yes, you can run your own blog, but it’s preferred that you blog “inside the classrom”. It’s just easier for people to get their head around the idea that the class is at the instructor’s website. It fits with their current thinking, but expands it into the world of blogging. It also fits for instructors who need the two things LMSs are best at: enrollment management and grade tracking.

That seems to be the middle ground, and pedagogically it may be better not to push the envelope too much with students (at least if you want them to stay enrolled). Despite my own learning preferences, which are open and aggregated, most students aren’t conceptually ready for this kind of learning, and the cognitive dissonance overcomes their willingness to engage (which, for some, wasn’t that high to start with).

We can argue for years whether their lack of readiness is apathy, behavioral training in K-12, or cultural ennui, but most of us “practitioners” are interested in what works: what keeps them enrolled, encourages engagement, allows some independence, but doesn’t cause panic. Plus there are increasing concerns about asking students to create their own space at third-party sites, which collect and use student information and content in ways we may not consider ethical.

The WordPress Multi-User site, or the LMS that’s open to all, or the main blog where all blog within it but can have their content exported to save (which is what Dave is doing) may then be the preferred models for balancing these issues with those of exploration and innovation. They are being chosen because they take into account concerns of pedagogy and comfort, not because they can handle 1,000 students and use their content and personal information for other ends, but because they work.

NB: The only obvious exception to this balanced model is Jim Groom’s (plus) ds106, with its student-run blogs aggregated to a main WP site, and where clearly something magical happens. And possibly my own POT Certificate Class, where I have no idea why it (sort of) works, but I dare not apply it to a standard college class.