Redesigning the open online class show: POT Cert

I spent last week at the Connected Courses workshop, where amazing people are creating an open online class about, basically, how to teach an open online class. The energy was such that it reminded me of my previous life working in the theatre. The design and beginning development of that class in many ways looks like our POT Cert Class looked last year. Or really, two years ago, when we ran it in WordPress, using the FeedWordpress plugin to aggregate the feeds from participants’ blogs.

But there’s a huge difference between POT Cert and the Connected Courses theatrical productions. Connected Courses is supported by a grant structure and has staff, techies, a paid director, and many resources in addition to the design team I got to be part of. A Best Play Tony would send 20 people up to the stage. POT’s certificate class has been run by community theatre style volunteers: myself, the POT leaders who wanted to work on it, and the generous moderators and mentors (faculty, ed tech folks, and others) who paid it forward after getting their own certificate or joined out of altruism, love, appreciation, or insanity.

la_cage_1

La Cage Aux Folles original cast, 1983

We have no money to act as either motivator or thanks – this is not professional theatre. We refused money years ago, because it corrupts our artistic freedom. But this isn’t a world where people can really afford to work for pizza (or retweets or good reviews), and no one wants to run the same show year after year. We must economize. Even Les Miserables and La Cage aux Folles have pared down their production designs. I think a lot of the POT Cert cast and crew have tired of doing it.

Another reason for ennui may be because the class never seems to move forward. Even the best, most experienced online instructor could become bored with the same interpretation of the same play.

I teach History to community college students. While my methods and materials may change each term, the students do not – they are beginners in History in the same way the faculty who need the POT Cert Class are beginners in online teaching. In both cases we’re trying to help newbies, not only by teaching them methods and having them explore content. Like any good play, we have a message. For History, my message is that primary sources can be put together into diverse narratives that answer the needs of society at the time. For online teaching, POT’s message is that faculty must begin with their own pedagogy, and then select and control the technologies that support and expand that pedagogy in the online environment. It’s the reason POT exists – to start faculty with pedagogy rather than letting technology control them. We don’t want an audience who’s seen this show before.

My emphasis in the old days was design, and in many ways it still is. Our current POT Cert design was moved from WordPress to Google Sites last year in order to simplify production with a smaller crew. As always, participants had to set up and run their own blogs, but instead of their posts feeding into a central blog via FeedWordpress, they had to post a link to their work in the discussion, and conversation took place at the Site instead of on their blogs. This worked well with the 25 or so participants we had, though I will never forgive Google Sites (or the many discussion forum alternatives) for not nesting replies cleanly, as WordPress does.

The number of participants in POT Cert has gotten slightly smaller each year, likely because there are now so many alternative shows competing with what we do (and I ain’t no Michael Eisner). Unfortunately, many of these Broadway alternatives provide technology training rather than pedagogical preparation, and are developed by educational technologists rather than in-the-trenches teachers. So what we do continues to be important. We rage against the Disney-fied edtech commercial culture machine.

Last year’s class in Google Sites was hard to run with three facilitators, though it was easier than in WordPress (FeedWordpress can have problems that would frustrate anyone who doesn’t code). And even with audience participation, the show runs too long for current tastes. At 24 weeks (a badge for each semester, and a certificate for completion of two semesters), it is a bit too Angels in America.

So this summer Laura and I began to design a self-paced learning pathway, with only six units, as a static WordPress site. It’s like the TV version of our class. The idea was that people could use the pathway themselves or in cohorts at their institutions. Communities using the content could be run elsewhere if desired, like friends sitting around a living room to experience it together. Or people could do the pathway on their own, and somehow automatically get a badge. But then the Connected Courses workshop reminded me that the cohort aspect of an open, online class is extremely important. The audience must feel and hear each other for it to work. I realized that the “self-paced” idea likely wouldn’t fly.

La Cage Aux Folles 2008 revival, London

La Cage Aux Folles 2008 revival, London

I think the new production will involve something like this:

1. Separation of the show from the audience 
This allows for more flexible use of the content, and a bit more instruction. And as we write it, Laura and I sense the joy of creation. Perhaps someday it will be a book, its own script.

2. Assigned seating 
Although anyone may use the content, we do need to “run” the community, and have continual feedback from other community members and ourselves. Without content, it’s just a community. Without community, it’s a disembodied course. With content and community connected, it’s a class. What happens on stage is only half, or less than half, of a successful show.

3. Audience as creators 
Our current class has always required participants to blog every week, with the final post of the semester and year consisting of a list of annotated links to all their previous work. It is that post, combined with their self-assessment, that we used to evaluate for the badge or certificate, since it puts everything in one place. Calling the blog posts something like Portfolio Assignments will make that clear from Day 1.

4. Angels in the Outfield instead of Angels in America 
If it has enough content, and more options for more experienced people, it should be possible to put what we need into a 12-week format.

So that’s where we’re headed, at least for now…I think we’ve got a show.

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 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.

 

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 WordPress.com, 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?