After a highly successful foray into using WordPress as a learning management system (LMS) in the fall of 2009 (see my debrief), Michael Stephens and I continue to tweak and enhance the system for his three classes this spring in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University (GSLIS).
As a quick reminder, we used the following setup in the fall at one class site:
- WordPress MU (WPMU) 184.108.40.206
- BuddyPress 1.0.3
- a small slew of plugins and large collection of themes for use
For the spring we’re going with the following for three class sites:
- WordPress MU (WPMU) 2.8.6
- BuddyPress 1.1.2
- a much larger slew of plugins and even bigger and updated collection of themes (see the end of this post for details)
The Working Combination
Maybe you noticed that we downgraded our WPMU installation and are not up-to-date on BuddyPress. When we were cutting edge the site wide activity stream wouldn’t work. It’s a bit of a jumble at this point, but I think when we downgraded BuddyPress but kept WordPress at cutting edge we would then lose the RSS feed for the site wide activity but get the stream back. Odd. Michael encourages his students to not only watch this stream but keep track of it in an RSS reader. Needless to say, we needed it to work. Eventually we came up with this combination which works just fine.
You also might have caught on to the fact that we’re supporting three separate sites now. In response to student exit survey results we’ve split the site into three ways, one for each class. There was a general feeling of information overload on the site wide activity stream with three classes and no way to filter the stream with the current version of BuddyPress and its default theme. You can find the new sites here:
- LIS 701 – Introduction to Library and Information Science
- LIS 753 – Internet Fundamentals and Design
- LIS 768 – Library 2.0 and Social Networking Technologies
Michael and I discussed back and forth on the pros and cons of splitting the site and felt that this was the best way to do it. To still give students a window into the work of their GSLIS peers in Michael’s other classes, I’ve created custom RSS feeds from Yahoo! Pipes. These feeds use the site wide activity feed and filter the content for just blog posts. I’ve employed the RSS widget from WordPress to display the post titles.
A New Look
We’ve also adjusted our “look” for the three sites by choosing WPMU DEV’s BuddyPress Social theme. “Inspired by Facebook,” describes this theme. Indeed. We believe this is an advantage for Michael’s students. Since so much of the student population is already engaged with or at least aware of Facebook, providing a learning environment that is familiar has its inherent advantages:
- It sets the tone: This is a social learning space, a space to connect with your peers and learn from them – not just the professor
- Multiple ways to communicate: Just like Facebook, BuddyPress and this specific theme invites users to send messages, post to their wires (like Facebook walls), and join groups
We’re both extremely pleased to see that the BuddyPress Social theme incorporates filters into the site wide activity stream. Although this doesn’t have associated RSS feeds per filter, it is a wonderful step in the right direction. If there was any desire to have more RSS feeds I could always create more custom Yahoo! Pipes.
Better Information Architecture
The way students access core course information has also been reorganized. Whereas before students would be shunted off to a separate course blog with an entirely new look, course materials are now embedded on the main site with purposefully designed nesting of pages with the same feel of the landing page. Although 81% of the students surveyed in the fall felt that class materials were easily and moderately easy to find, that’s 19% we can improve on. To help us make adjustments we’ve instituted Google Analytics on all sites to get a feel for how students are getting around their course site.
Michael is continuing to use the KB-Gradebook plugin for grade reporting. I personally still feel that the biggest weakness of using WordPress-as-a-LMS is its lack of a customizable, solid gradebook. Although KB-Gradebook generally works well enough, it could use some visual enhancements and complete integration into WordPress as it requires a .CSV file be uploaded. Also, at one time last semester we had turn the plugin on and off to reinitiate it. If you’re interested in using KB-Gradebook, check out this screencast I created last semester.
Michael encourages the use of social media and social networking in LIS 753 and even more so in LIS 768 as a way to create personal learning networks online. Specifically, LIS 768 has evolved to make heavy use of Twitter (see the #lis768 hashtag for examples). In order to further support this and to help students create a bridge between their tweeting and blogging, Twitter Tools has been installed as a plugin for those who want the option. BuddyPress’ wire feature can also be combined with Twitter using the Twire plugin – this has also been setup as an installed and active plugin.
More of a tricky addition than a necessary feature, all course sites and student blogs are mobile phone accessible via touch smart phones like droids, Blackberrys and iPhones using the much loved WPtouch iPhone Theme plugin. While we are unsure at this point how many of the students actually have a smart phone capable of taking advantage of this plugin, Michael has seen an increase of such devices in his classroom. As we complete exit surveys for the spring 2010 semester we’ll ask specifically about smart phone use for learning.
An Alternative LMS
It’s my hope that a post likes this encourages others to look to WordPress as a valid and feasible LMS. It’s open source community is amazingly friendly and responsive to questions and I see innovative plugins and themes sprout up on a weekly basis from developers. As a student and past academic staff member, I experienced and observed the struggles of the locked down (and costly!) Blackboard. The flexibility and customization of WordPress leads itself to be an excellent LMS alternative choice.
Full Plugin List
The following plugins are used on each site. Please note that some plugins are only available by purchasing a WPMU DEV account – these are marked “wpmu dev.” Thanks to James Farmer for allowing us access to these excellent resources and supportive forums.
Site Wide Active Plugins
- BP Events
- BP Hide Widgets (wpmu dev)
- Broken Link Checker
- Smart YouTube
- Simple Trackback Validation
- Twitter Tools
- WPtouch iPhone Theme
- BP Redirect to Profile for BuddyPress
- Plugin Commander
- Google Analytics
Course Site Active Plugins
- BP Expand Activity
- BP Member Filter
- Custom CUNY Academic Commons Profile Filters
- Group Forum Subscription for BuddyPress
- WP-Table Reloaded
Inactive Course Site Plugins for Future Review