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!



The Changing Context of Learning

In 2013 Charles Sturt University, my workplace, decided to develop a new project aimed at creating a space and forum to think through some of the issues, challenges, problems and opportunities we face as an institution. The Think Pieces Project was born and I was asked to contribute, which is a real honour. Initially I just needed a title so seeing as I was working on mobile learning I figured that “The Changing Context of Learning” sounded like a good fit.

When I actually came to sit, think and write-up the presentation it became a little harder than I thought. For starters there was a time constraint which I was determined to stay within. I needed to ensure I was concise and I was starting to realise I already had way too many ideas to stuff inside the presentation – the result being that everything was touched on but nothing was explored to any depth. I needed to think harder!

After a number of drafts, slide revisions and a lot of practice I really felt like I was getting to the heart of the problem – a single, simple idea that I think goes to explain some of the issues we face in Higher Education. My talk evolved into discussing the need to shift the perspective through which we view the context of learning – away from the campus and onto one more centred around the student. This reframing and changing of perspective allows us to rethink the role of the university and as well how we think about pedagogy, practice, content and technology. 

I would love to get some broader feedback – as hopefully it does provoke and prompt some thinking to occur! If it does, even if there is disagreement, debate and conjecture, I think I fulfilled the task at hand.

The Think Piece is available as a Slideshare with audio or as a video if you prefer. Feel free to share and comment here or on twitter @timklapdor

An Online Learning Environment looks like…

So in the last post I discussed the case that regardless of what you deploy – to provide a good online experience you will end up with an Environment. It might be made up of a group of single systems but in essence it operates and functions like an Environment.

To help define what an online Environment might look like I thought it might be best to start off with listing what the Environment should DO!

What are the core functions of an Online Learning Environment?

  1. Single Point of Access
    Users of the system want the simplicity of a single point of access. They want one location to go and perform their tasks, not migrate from channel to channel, system to system.
  2. Single Identity & Profile
    Users want one log in, one profile, one bio and one password! Developers want this too – one set of users, one set of permissions, one source of data.
  3. Structured Collaboration
    The environment needs to be able to set up groups or sites according to their enrolled courses and subjects. This creates a space that is unique to that group and centralises access to all systems, resources and tools for that group.
  4. Fluid Collaboration
    Structuring groups around courses and subject is nice for administration purposes, but with the advent of social media that can hardly be considered best practice any more. Users want and should have the ability to define their own groups and collaboration. From study groups to social clubs – these are all part of the learning process.
  5. Scalable Provisioning & Administration
    Setting up groups, defining membership, access levels, adding, removing, editing and merging sites – these are the facts of administering an LMS and it happens every single session so it should be simple, automated and scalable – from 40 students to 40 000.
  6. Content Development & Delivery
    Academics aren’t designers or publishers but they need a way to develop and deliver content in a variety of forms. More importantly students need to be able to access this content on a variety of devices in a variety of contexts.
  7. Online File Storage
    Despite the post-PC age being upon us we still have files and we need ways to share & store them. The cloud provides a key to unlocking the potential of improving a multitude of systems and creates a space for users and systems to read/write/share information.
  8. Real Time Communication
    As we head towards a more blended approach to our learning and teaching methodologies there is a greater need to offer equivalency or replacements for face to face. Webinars, online meetings and video chat provide ways of replicating some of our spacial settings but in far more dynamic and flexible ways.
  9. Asynchronous Communication
    Chat, email, forums, discussions, comments – are all ways of improving the flexibility of our teaching and communication with our students.
  10. Group Communication and Notifications
    Academics and Universities need to be able to communicate and inform large groups. Staff and students as a whole want to remain connected and know what is happening, how and when.
  11. Rich Media Delivery
    Video and audio are becoming a bigger part of the resources we provide to students. They provide unique opportunities to show students and improve their ability to comprehend. Rich media also forms the backbone of the Flipped Classroom and other initiatives (MOOC, EdX, iTunesU etc)
  12. Assignment Submission & Return
    Key to all educational institutions is the ability to assess. The online environment needs to provide a round trip for students and academics to submit, mark, grade and return assignments in a range of formats.
  13. Evaluation and Feedback
    Key to the development of our academics and their students is the ability to provide be evaluated and receive feedback – early and often. Facebook’s Like button shows how easy this could be from the user’s perspective.
  14. Analytics
    Data drives evolution in a digital sense. We need opportunities to harvest data – but more importantly we need better ways of analysing, interpreting and using it.

That’s my list of the key features. Feel free to contribute any others you can think of!

Sit down, we need to talk about the LMS

Big news this week when it was announced our university will be looking for a new LMS to implement in 2014.

While I am a great supporter of our LMS (Sakai), I have never been a big user. I’m not an academic so I don’t have any learning to manage and with a background in web development I never had a problem getting content online. It’s in these two areas that have been the big wins for our university – managing our complex enrolment profile and getting people and their content online.

So at the moment the question is what replaces the current LMS? Is it another LMS or should we be looking for something else?

Lets start by talking about the current technology landscape because a lot has changed since our first implementation:

  • For starters the world of the web has changed dramatically over the last 5 or so years. The extensible servers of the Cloud and the anywhere, anytime access that mobile brings are huge shifts in how we build large-scale systems and how we access them.
  • At the same time our web ecosystem has broadened. So many new best-of-breed tools are now available that its hard to justify the centralised Swiss army knife approach of the traditional LMS.
  • Finally, there is a push for universities to provide a more personalised and customisable learning experience. The traditional LMS does not provide that, instead it offers a cookie cutter approach that’s easy to scale, maintain, deploy and sell.

At this point I’d recommend some reading to understand that this is a big issue for higher education across the globe – first this article by David Jones especially the discussion in the comments. This series of articles from Canada a are extremely relevant. Finally this presentation from Whitney Hess on framing the problem.

OK finished? I hope that helps frame my thinking – let’s move on.

The dilemma that we face is one where we need to define what it is we are trying to offer in the online space: Are we looking for a Single System or an Environment?

Single System vs Environment.

The Single System approach continues the paradigm of the LMS. A centralised hub that provides a defined set of tools. There is limited customisation available to the teacher, the student or the pedagogy. It provides a management approach to learning and teaching where things are controlled, standardised, measured and scheduled.

The Environment approach instead looks to create a suite of separate tools that operate as a cooperative ecosystem. This approach is highly customisable by both teachers and students and allows each subject or course to be developed and delivered to match the content and context. Rather than a structured approach the Environment provides organisation and a way to navigate.

Reality is…

The reality we actually find ourselves in is… even if your university has the latest and greatest LMS you’re probably still running a patchwork of separate systems to provide all the functions for your university. Despite best intentions technology moves too fast and there is no one size fits all approach. Yes, it would be nice to have a system that can do everything, but it’s not a reality. Despite what an LMS offers the reality is that it is a jack of all trades master of none. To get the quality and performance required you end up with is a patchwork environment of specialised tools and single systems.

So the solution? Well take it as a given and embrace the fact that whatever you deploy it is going to end up as an environment. So take the time to design and plan it properly, make sure it can talk to each other and use the best systems and specialised tools to provide the core functions.

For higher yields and healthier fruit you plant a garden that is symbiotic and complementary rather than throwing seeds to the wind.