Wednesday, February 11, 2009

WordPress High

For the last few days, I've been tweaking my class blog site in response to what my co-teacher and I see as the needs for the site, not just in terms of organization (though that's important), but also to continue to foster a good online community there. I successfully implemented several cool features that left me feeling literally high (I think my endorphins went into overdrive). I even dubbed myself WordPress Goddess, which my co-teacher was quite amused by. So, I thought I'd continue to share my success with all of you.

First, on the organization front. All the students are posting at least once a week and sometimes much more than that, and that's all going well. But, Anne and I keep notes and other class-keeping stuff on pages and we are also having our students create pages for their papers, so as not to disrupt the regular flow of posts. I had used the parent-child scheme to organize some things and we'd kind of figured out the ordering process that uses a numbering/weighting system, but it was very clunky and we were concerned about that clunkiness from the standpoint of the student. To solve the ordering situation, I used PageMash, a simple plugin that implements a drag-and-drop interface to allow for complete rearranging of your pages. You can drag things from one parent to another, reorder the parents (the children tag along), hide pages from the menu and even edit them from this interface. It's really quite useful.

The second organizational problem we needed to solve was the paper submission situation. We set up a parent page and asked students to post their papers as pages and then to create a link to their page on the parent page. Well, this seemed like too many steps, so I went looking for a way to automatically generate those links. It took a lot of digging, but I found the perfect thing, List Subpages. You can see this in action on our notes page. It was the successful implementation of this feature that put me over the edge into WordPress High Mode.

On the community front, we wanted to create more intrablog conversation. We have Recent Comments highlighted at the top of the page, but we had noticed that many people seemed to be posting in a vacuum. I implemented Yet Another Related Posts Plugin to generate related posts at the end of each post (you have to be on an individual post page to see them) in the hopes of showing students what other people had written that might be related and that they might then go comment on it.

All of this work highlights a few things.
  • One, the technology needs of any given class are very individual and specific. I'm lucky in that my co-teacher and I are both tech savvy. We've both been teaching online for a while, so we know what our goals are. Those goals have shifted a little over the course of the semester, prompting us to make technical changes to the blog. But there are plenty of other teachers who still have those very specific needs, but don't have the knowledge to know how to meet those needs technologically. A good technologist should be able to help those people find the appropriate tools as well as implement them appropriately.
  • Two, it's really, really important for technology to not be a barrier to teaching and learning. It can't be difficult or cumbersome for students to post their work or for teachers to present their material and interact with and evaluate their students. As a technologist, you can't just shrug and say, well this is the way it is. You need to keep searching for the technology that presents the fewest barriers.
  • Three, doing all this right takes a lot of time. Even though I'm co-teaching the content for this course and not just serving as the technical guru, I think having a technologist deeply involved in a class would be a good idea. Unfortunately, that's not very cost effective. My idea would be that a technologist would work closely with maybe three faculty, including working with them during initial class prep and attending class. We kind of sort of tried to do this with students, but it wasn't entirely successful. But I think it would be really valuable not just for the teacher, but for the technologist, who would get to see things "from the other side" in a really concrete and detailed way.
I'm learning some important lessons, ones that I kind of knew before, but that have hit home more forcefully now.