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WordPress a Better LMS

[This is a guest post by David Parry, assistant professor of emerging media and communications at UT-Dallas, who last posted here on the iPad.  Next week, Derek Bruff returns with a use case for WordPress as a Learning Management System.--JBJ]

Given that I do so much stuff online for my classes, other faculty often ask me how I use Blackboard. My response: “I don’t.” In my opinion, Blackboard and the other bloated Learning Management Systems (LMSes) get in the way of my students learning–and in fact it’s not just my opinion: see Lisa Lane’s article in First Monday, or these previous posts on ProfHacker.  Perhaps you, too, have felt dissatisfied with Blackboard (or your campus’s equivalent), but had questions: “What else can you do? Isn’t it the only option?”  The answer, quite happily is no.  “What do you do?”

Roll your own.

There are lots of ways to do this–some professors use wikis, other just design and code their own pages–for me, though, the most effective has been using WordPress. (I actually go back and forth between using WordPress and using PbWiki, but why and how is a discussion for a different day.)

Consider the advantages.

  • You can get an instance of WordPress hosted for free.
  • It is super simple to set-up.
  • It looks like the rest of the web, i.e. students find it much easier to use. (Indeed the fact that I don’t use Blackboard is one the most frequent and positive comments I receive from students on evals.)
  • It is open, i.e. it makes it really easy to share my material with other instructors around the web, and for me to see what other instructors are doing.
  • If you are hosting your own, i.e. not on the university’s servers, you own your own course material, making it easier to take with you when you go.
  • Did I mention that it is free?  Think of how much money this would save your school.

When I mention this to faculty I often get two initial objections, followed by many questions. First, they object that they are not tech savvy enough to pull this off for themselves. While I’ll admit that WordPress has a learning curve, I’ll say that once you invest a little bit of time it is actually exponentially easier to use than Blackboard. Second, they say, but then everyone can see the class. I won’t stage the long argument here, but I’ll just ask, why is this a bad thing? Indeed outside of grades there is little reason to keep things private, but you could always password protect your install and keep it available only to your students.

One of the major advantages of using WordPress is that, unlike Blackboard, it is highly configurable, and with one exception you can do everything and more on WordPress. I don’t have the time or space to show you all of the options, but there is a well developed community out there which can help you customize your site.

Things to Think About

  • Grades: This is the one thing I have not found a substitute way to handle (the one big exception). But I can still use our online system, Orion, to submit grades and students can see them. They just don’t post and update as with Blackboard.
  • Course Reserves: If your course reserves are handled through Blackboard you might have to find a different way to manage this. Here at UT Dallas it is not so I can just link to the library directly. For things which you can share publicly without worrying about copyright it is actually easier to just distribute the stuff in a public Dropbox folder.

Examples

  • University of Mary Washington: This is run by the edupunk guru, Jim Groom. Click on the menu items at the top to see sample courses. These really show the wide range of things you can do with a course blog.
  • David Wiley’s New Media Course: Example of a single class made into a WordPress install. Would work well as a class to be taught in multiple semesters.
  • CUNY Academic Commons: This is a really advanced WordPress set-up, something you can’t do on your own, but an example of what could be done University wide if the instructors wanted to drop Blackboard and commit to a better solution.

How to get started.

The easy way to do this is to have someone else host an install of WordPress for you. You can use Edublogs or WordPress.com to do this. Of course after you get used to this, it is worth considering buying your own domain and server space and moving your course to it, giving you even more options to tweak and trick out your course site.

This is just the seed. There are lots of good resources, and examples of people using blogs out there as a substitute LMS. So, leave your resources and examples in the comments.

Image by Flickr user dawvon / Creative Commons licensed

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