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A Better Academic Authoring Environment

I’m putting all this out there beause I’d love to hear from anyone with suggestions or experiences with something similar. If you’ve got some nifty plugins, themes or code I could use, feel free to recommend them! I’m happy to provide feedback on how it goes and share the work on this openly.

Content is still very much the infrastructure in education. in this sense Learning and teaching, the associated activities and assessments are built on and around the content. For this reason concepts like openness, OER, OEP, shareable, reusable and forkable resources are important. But too often the process of authoring and publishing these resources leaves a lot to be desired. Many people utilise the LMS as both their authoring and publishing platform but having attempted to do this recently – it’s a terrible experience.

Things you take for granted when using something like Word – styling, editing, versioning, embedding, linking – are all incredibly difficult, if not impossible to do. It’s a clunky experience equivalent to writing webpages with a typewriter. Or transcribing code from a dictation. It simply adds work to the process. And don’t get me started on reuse!

As I’ve said before:

What goes into the LMS stays there … and then gets deleted.

A number of projects I’m involved in are focussed on reuse and developing resources that make sense to be available to many students across different courses, but available in the context of their study. Something that they can access from the LMS (as the central contact point) but it doesn’t have to be in the LMS.

Blackboard’s lack of anything that resembles proper support for mobile is another issue. At the moment the best option is to not use Bb at all as a content tool if you want the content to be mobile friendly. Why responsive design isn’t a feature of Bb yet I do not understand but it’s a massive barrier to making the system truly accessible.

What I’ve started to look for is a way of creating a simple tool/system for developing resources – and not just text but rich media – as well as publishing them to students. A singular environment that is built for the web and is of the web. Some of the resources, due to content and copyright issues can’t be made available openly so we need to authenticate users who wish to view it. I don’t want to store information about the student – just for them to be authenticated for access.

So my thoughts so far:

  1. WordPress – does most of what we need in terms of authoring and publishing. I can spool an install in matter of minutes thanks to @reclaimhosting and it’s completely customisable. In this way we can have rich and mobile friendly content available quickly. It also has roles and permissions and is generally pretty extensible in terms of the types of content and configurations we might need.
  2. H5P – if you haven’t come across this go an check it out. It’s an open source library for creating HTML5 media for learning. Using it with WordPress you can author, host and share media assets via an embed code.
  3. Quiz Plugin – a number of the projects utilise quizzing as formative feedback for students. I’ve noted there are a number of quiz plugins available for WordPress, so I think that ones covered. While H5P does have quizzing a couple of resources would like to utilise randomisation and question banks to improve reuse by students.

The last piece I’m currently looking at is the authentication into the site. From a student/teachers perspective what I want to offer them is a way to generate a link from the WP site that can be added to the site in the LMS.

So how can I do this?

Well my thoughts so far are that I can setup a specific Role (or user Subscriber) in WordPress that allows Read access to the private pages in a site. I should be able to turn off the Admin menu for these users too so it doesn’t get in the way of the experience. It also means I can create a few public pages so there is something front facing incase anyone stumbles across the site.

My initial thinking was to utilise LTI – but after searching through the plugins available it looks like LTI integration does way more than I want or need. I don’t want to provision sites, just access to existing ones. I’m also not sure if I’d need to do something in our Blackboard backend to enable the WP site for LTI. Might just be overkill at this point in time.

Another (probably simpler) option could be to utilise an “Auto Login” feature. I haven’t found a maintained example yet – but there seems to be few out there. It would be nice if it was a “proper” plugin too – so that someone can set this up without modifying code, just change some settings to access the URL to cut and paste.

I want to start putting this together in the next week so I can test it out – so feel free to comment below!



By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

3 replies on “A Better Academic Authoring Environment”

Great ideas here and totally agree with you about how hopeless BB Learn is in catching up with the times. Since we have BB Learn until at least 2019 when our contract is up for renewal, we’ve had to hack our way into better content management and user friendly interfaces. So at UBC we have one of the world’s largest higher ed uses of a multi-site WordPress deployment at (Course and student blogs) as well as (Academic public facing sites) with over 30,000+ active blog sites. What I’ve been specializing in is using WordPress course blogs that are subscriber only and linked to the enrollment of BB Learn courses via LTI Single Sign On integration. The way it works is that students who are enrolled in a BB Learn course that has the LTI connected WP blog will get automatically added as subscribers into the blog. The blog shows up in an iFrame in BB Learn but students have the option of opening it in a new window. Here’s a schematic of the integration

Recently we’ve been working on ways of completely by-passing BB Learn but still using the Single Sign on integration that authenticates them through our campus wide login and checks their enrollment in the BB Learn course (which itself is connected to the Student Information System managing enrollments). So what the student sees is a mobile friendly login page, then beams directly into WordPress, not even seeing BB Learn but being logged into BB Learn in the background. That allows for the ‘gate’ to still check their enrollment and make sure they’re a registered student in the course to subscribe them to the blog (in the case of a first entry into a subscriber only blog).

We’ve gone a step further in linking mailchimp RSS driven campaigns to the RSS feeds of these blogs (using a Feed key generator to work for closed to public blogs). So students get a branded, mobile friendly email every time the instructor posts, and we can take advantage of rich analytics both on the blog side (via xAPI / LRS learning analytics from student blog views) and email analytics from mailchimp. So that makes for a much more entertaining set up both for students and instructors.

Thanks Barish! This is a really interesting path you’ve gone down at UBC. After playing around this week with doing some user based functions in WordPress I’m really interested in how you’re “using WordPress course blogs that are subscriber only and linked to the enrollment of BB Learn courses via LTI Single Sign On integration”. Is that via an open or public process or plugin? That level of functionality would be perfect for what I’m currently imagining we would need.

You’re next steps are really interesting too. One of the coolest things I’ve seen recently in terms of SSO is which allows you to sign in and use the system using your university credentials. And because they’re hooked into the various shibboleth federations I mean your UBC account, just as I can log in via my CSU account.

These kinds of federated sign in tools coulee really change how we interact with these systems and make student lives far easier!

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