I am technically a “mentor” for the UBC Blog Squad. Although I haven’t done much mentoring. In fact they pretty much school me in dedication and writing ability. Many of them have written some absolutely fantastic stuff.
So here goes, my attempt at a bit of helping out:
I’ve noticed that many of you haven’t changed your blogroll yet (although I see that Genevieve has added a bunch of things to her one). Your blogroll can really complement your blog, by telling people at a glance what you are interested in. It shows people what you are reading and gives background for your own writing. It also doesn’t have to simply be one long list. If you go to the “blogroll” tab in WordPress you will see that you can add categories.
You can then add specific blogs to each category. Here is a quick example of what this would look like:
There is also a link at the bottom of the “add to blogroll” section that you can drag into your browser so that when you see a site that you really like you can add it to your blogroll very quickly.
P.S. My actual blogroll is a terrible example. Seeing as I am not using WordPress at the moment changing it is a lot harder for me to do than for all of you!
So here they are, examples of the three kinds of blogs that I outlined in this post, as well as explanations for how to create them within WordPress MU. Jon has kindly let me use his Spanish 312 class as and example, so some of my examples are actually fully populated and active courses. (click on the headings to see the actual blogs)
This blog uses BDPRSS to output the content of an aggregated feed of the class. I created a widget to add to the list in BDPRSS so students can auto-populate themselves into the course. The other feature that I developed for this blog is an auto-populating class list (with the heading our class). The class list is the reason that I took so long to get these examples up and running. I spent a good chunk of this week working on an “add to blogroll” widget so that students could add links to their blogs in the sidebar. I tried many methods, but just couldn’t get the plugin to work. Gardner Campbell was paying a visit to UBC and while he was showing me some of the successes and issues that he has been having with his course blog Rock soul Progressive I saw that he was using the BDP RSS widget to display comments. A light bulb went on and I realized that I could simply tweak the widget to show a list of blogs in the course. Here is what you have to do:
- Create and output format in BDP RSS that contains the same blogs as the one that is being used to display entries in the course.
- In the “output format types” section select the radio button that says “list by sites alphabetically”
- In “about the items” set “maximum items per site” to 1, check “print site names” and “only display item’s title”. Uncheck “print the item’s age”
in the “XHTML formatting” section, add list tags around “title for each site” and comment tags around “each item’s title”. (see picture )
If you add the BDP RSS widget for the output to the sidebar then you create a class list.
This blog uses a spamblogger (I’m using feedWordPress because it actually updates posts if they are changed in the original feed) combined with BDP RSS to quickly create the course. Basically what happens is a feed aggregated by BDP RSS is fed into the spamblogger and feedWordPress republishes it. I have three reasons why I run the feeds through BDP RSS before I feed them to the feedWordPress:
- I’ve already created my Add to BDPRSS widget to add feeds to BDPRSS. If I wanted students to add their own feeds to the spamblogger I would have to create another widget (and the widget would have to be specific to the spamblogger).
- BDP works really well with a large range of feeds as well as with a large number of feeds. It acts as a kind of normalizing process, ensuring that each entry is parsed in the same way.
- It allows for the auto-generation of a class list as described for the ghost course blog.
This Blog is the simplest to set up and is probably closer to what most faculty members will imagine when they think of a course blog. I simply use the sidebar add user widget to add authors and the Wp-Authors widget to display the class list. Quick and simple. My example isn’t as good as the others simply because all of the content had to be written from scratch (or copy pasted from Wikipedia). K1, one of the work study students at OLT was kind enough to post a few items under different authors to show how this kind of course blog would look.
A fourth option is of course mashing the Spam Course Blog and the Communal Course blog together, thus giving students the option over whether or not they want to have their own course.
If there is anything that I am missing in my thinking here, please let me know.
Some notes on policy and where I’m going from here: As I have been making these ways for students to self-populate a course, the question keeps on coming up “what if people who don’t belong to the course add themselves”? At the moment the sidebar add to BDP widget gives three levels of permission, global (anyone), system (on the same MU system) and blog (subscribers to the blog). I will be working on changing the “add user” plugin to accept a list of people (I’m thinking student numbers or emails?) and check those against people who are trying to add themselves to a blog. This would mean that a professor could just paste a list in the control of the widget and not have to worry about people who are not in the class adding themselves. Then to close off the spam and ghost course blogs one would set the sidebar add to bdp widget permissions to “blog” and display the add user widget forcing students to add themselves as subscribers to the blog first so that they can be checked off against the class list before adding their feed.
Here is my first WordPress plugin. It is meant to extend the excellent BDP-RSS plugin by Bryan Palmer. This plugin allows users who are logged in to a WordPress MU system to add feeds to the BDP-RSS feed aggregator from the sidebar. It is primarily designed to allow students to add the feed of their own blog to a class aggregate blog.
Please let me know what you think.
Just download, unzip, then drop the plugin into your plugins->BDPRSS folder and activate in the plugins menu.
Update: For some reason the control is not saving the options properly. I’ll fix it on Saturday morning.
Update: Version 1.2 released.
Changed the way that permissions work.
- Simplified things by only allowing registers users of the community to add their feeds.
- Gave admin the option of password protecting a blog so that only users who know the password can add feeds
As always, let me know what you think of the changed.
Update: Version 1.1 released.
- Fixed subtitle bug
- Added control over what type of user can add feeds.
- Global: Anyone can add a feed
- System: Anyone on the Mu System can add a feed.
- Blog: Only a subscriber to the specific blog that the widget is on can add a feed.
- Made it so that if a user cannot add a feed, they don’t even see the text box.
In a comment on my post “who owns a class blog“ Jim Groom said:
That is the rub, when you open up a system like this, there are a number of ways of going at it, and having the ability to meet as many of them easily makes your life simpler.
I agree whole-heartedly with Jim. My judgment has been clouded lately by the Wp-o-matic’s ability lack of to update posts on the fly and the lack of a “delete all” button on any of WordPress’ pages. Today though, I saw the light. I now have a clear vision of three simple, definable, student driven course blog structures.
The ghost blog:
This blog is for the professor who doesn’t want to be confused by hundreds of student posts knocking around his/her blog. The blog simply uses BDPRSS and my add-to-BDPRSS widget (source code coming soon I promise) to populate a WordPress page with aggregated student entries. When another year of students comes, the old posts will still be there (or not, or in another blog that that the new blog links to), but as newer posts come in, the old posts will fall off of the bottom of the feed and the blog will have just new fresh content. No having to delete anything!
The Communal blog:
This blog is for the professor who wants to get stuck into the blogging experience with the students. This also probably the easiest (although I used to think it was the hardest) to implement. Jim reminded me of the “Add Sidebar Users” widget, which I will tweak slightly to make setting up this kind of blog super easy. Our new blogging service will allow students to sign up as just subscribers if they want to and with Campus Wide Login they won’t even have to remember their username. Zero work for the professor!
The spam blog:
Jim did great things with WP-o-matic. I found a tool that works even better for what we want to do (in fact, it is the one thing that I can now do better than the current incarnation of eduglu). FeedWordPress by Charles Johnson is another spamblogger that updates entries if they change in the feed. The biggest problem that I had with other versions of spam blogging tools was that they took dynamic content, republished it and then made it static. This might work for blog posts (which don’t generally change very much after they have been written)… but for something like a course syllabus or wiki feed (I’ll save that discussion for a later day) the content in the repository has to be continually updated. Otherwise we just have old junk entries lying around. FeedWordPress fixes that. FeedWordPress also has a nice “delete all” button that will get rid of feed entries that are marked for deletion. Best of all, the author has provided an excellent API and a bunch of hooks so that I can massage this plugin into doing my complete bidding.
I will be finalizing and testing these methods tomorrow and over the weekend and will hopefully have some concrete examples by early next week.
One last thing. These structures do not have to be independent. the communal blog can be combined with the spam blog (giving students the option). A ghost page can then be created in a different tab, feeding in content from other sources as examples and even points of discussion for future posts by the students. A ghost blog can be archived by simply feeding it into a spam blog and so on.
Why do I care about Educational Technology? I don’t know any other students who truly do. Here is a part of the why:
A year ago I didn’t care about education and technology at all. I really didn’t. One day I realized that UBC was missing some kind of events calendar. so many great things happen on campus that are under-attended because people simply don’t know about them. I contacted Tlell Elviss (one of the most awesome people I know) and she told me that she had just been contacted by a student who was also interested in the same thing. We got together and talked about it (along the way she taught me about this obscure piece of technology called RSS). Things evolved and now the University is in the midst of creating a usable tool.
In the second term of my first year I became immensely annoyed with the fact that WebCT locked away all the examples from CPSC 111 that I had used in the first term. Those examples could have helped me immensely in CPSC 211. I felt so utterly cheated, nobody told me when I came here that all the resources that I am given at University are equivalent to trial software… you can use them for a few months and then suddenly it gets taken away from you. I was angry.
Shortly after that I decided that UBC was missing something else. A simple way to plan your degree. Thousands of students do it every year using sheets and sheets of paper, crossing things out becoming really confused ending up spending an extra semester or year in university. I decided to build something in Java (the only programming language I knew back then) and after obtaining a quasi-working model I realized that the job was too big for just me. Instead, I created a simple template in excel that provided a clear way for students to map out their future.
That was what got the ball rolling. Over the Summer I work at UBC Student Development on LEAP and there learned the I am truly interested in educational technology. I can see so much potential for them to make student’s lives better. I started Get Teched Up as a result.
I spent my last term at school using as many learning technologies as I could get my hands on and following the exploits of many of the edubloggers. That is why I am really not deserving at all of Jim’s praise… I’m not new to this, I don’t understand eduglue because of some innate ability, I understand it because I’ve been thinking about it for almost half a year now.
On a more fun note, if anybody wants to play with my latest plugin, go here and add your feed into the box. Give BDP a few seconds to poll your feed(don’t worry about any error messages… it’s still in production) refresh and then look for your posts in the featured blogs list.
So after a lengthy discussion with Vince today I have decided to change my mind on a few of the things that I seemed so certain about just a day ago.
So here is the deal:
I wrote that we would allow professors who so wished to republish all of the student’s blogs into a class blog using wp-o-matic. I’m not sure if we should do that anymore. My reservations come from that fact that if it is republished in the Professor’s blog then I feel that the students loose ownership and that rings strange to my sense of morality.
Let’s consider a few hypothetical situations where a student writes for a class and his blog entries are republished in a class blog :
- A year down the road the student realized that what he wrote does not represent him and he wants to get rid of it. He can delete the entries in his blog, but they will still be saved in the class blog. He could of course ask the professor to take his posts off, but what if it is 10 years down the line? What if there were a lot of other students who feel the same way?
- The student decides to delete his blog. If the professor decides to publish the class posts (without attribution), the student has no way of claiming authorship over the post.
There are also hangups for the professor:
- If the professor accidentally resets wp-o-matic It will recreate all of the entries. WordPress doesn’t have automatic mass deleting of entries (I mean we could write a plugin for it… but plugins take time).
- If the student updates their blog then those updates are not automatically reflected on the class blog.
- If a student adds a strange feed (one with say 150 items regarding unsavoury topics) then if those are republished, it is a nightmare to get rid of them. If we just use BDP RSS, all it takes to undo the damage is delete the feed in the BDP RSS options menu
There are probably many more reasons why actually republishing would not be a good idea.
So it comes down to figuring out why we wanted to republish the posts and finding alternatives.
- Creating a repository: I don’t think at this point we are wanting to create a repository, this isn’t eduglu (as I may have wrongly alluded to in my previous post), it is a blog based course platform where student input is used. A repository of teacher resources should be done in an entirely a slightly different way.
- Keeping examples of what students did previously: Why not just leave the blog active and create a new blog for every year that links back to previous years. Not only would this give the students an opportunity of pulling out if they don’t want their work published anymore, but it would also allow them to continually update what they have and allows the course to have a history. Using templates and import/export It would be much easier to create a new blog than to get rid of everything from the old blog.
I’m wondering does this make sense? Or are we missing something? We will probably change our minds a hundred times between now and October, but for now I think this model is the most sustainable and easy to implement approach, for us and for the professors.
I’ve just come back from Northern Voice 2008, an absolutely phenomenal experience that I learned a ton of great things from (and will blog about it as soon as I have got the important stuff off of my chest…).
Probably the most important thing that I learned is that the work that Vince and I are doing for UBC Blogs matters to others outside of UBC. From reading posts on Brian Lamb Jim Groom and D’Arcy Norman’s blogs I knew that a lot of people were struggling with the implementation of a free, easy to use “course management system” based on blogs, but for some reason it just didn’t click that I could (and should) be helping everyone out by describing what we are doing. It was only when Jim Groom and Lloyd Budd both on seperate occasions excitedly asked the question “where are you blogging this stuff” that I realized that I have been neglecting my duty to the community by not outlining our solutions to the problems of implementing a university-wide blogging platform.
So here it is, my plan for using WordPress as a University wide blogging platform:
To start off, I’ve been mentally breaking the problem down into two parts. We are in a sense providing two completely different services. One part is that we are providing a platform and community for student bloggers. The other part is that we are providing a course management system for professors. Although both services are interlinked, they each have their own fundamental challenges.
Challenges in providing blogs for students:
We want to provide students with a way to easily tell their story and with a way to find other students who are interested in their story. The second part is a little easier to do (seeing as umwblogs has already successfully done it), using plugins like muTags, List All widget and BDP RSS we are hopefully going to be able to provide enough ways for students to connect with each other when blogging and help them to easily form that community that so many bloggers crave. for a sneak peek here is the link to one of our many dev sites (warning., it is a dev site, so don’t expect it to look the same every time you stop by).
the “easy” storytelling part is the true challenge. Despite what many professors might think, many students are scared of technology and the thought of having to learn an HTML tag or two sends many students running away screaming. Students are also scared of registering for too many services online, I know that we all have that fear… but many students find it crippling. Solving the “no HTML” problem was easy… we used WordPress. Solving the “signup” problem was a bit more difficult. We (and when I say “we” I mean Enej and John and Vince, with me shouting out ideas and debugging from the sidelines) created a plugin that integrates UBC’s Campus Wide Login (CWL) with the WordPress login. The process is a bit intricate so I will dedicate a full entry to it tomorrow.
Challenges in providing course blogs:
How to use WordPress to create a versatile, easy to use eduGlue blog? At Northern Voice, Vince, Jim, Brian and I met to try and figure it out. Here is what we came up with:
The first step is to create a widget plugin that can be embedded in the sidebar of the course blog. That widget would have fields for students to paste their name, RSS feed and blog URL. The name and blog URL would be added to the course blogroll and the RSS feed would be added to the BDP RSS aggregator. BDP allows one to aggregate blog posts and display them in a fully customizable way (and touch wood… we haven’t been able to break it yet). A professor who wants a ghost blog (one that doesn’t keep the student’s entries when they leave) would simply output the BDP feed into the course blog and everything would work well. If the professor wants to keep a repository of all the posts written for the class by students, the BDP aggregated feed could just be fed into wp-o-matic the spamblogger that Jim has been experimenting with. Professors want this kind of flexibility and this solution provides it quite elegantly, only requiring a few simple plugins.
This solution allows students to post in whatever medium they feel comfortable with, it allows students to keep their content and it stops professors from having to do anything technical when setting up a blog, aside from applying the course theme that we create that lets professors choose whether or not they want to keep their student’s content.
Whew… so that is what we are doing… in a very general nutshell.I will be elaborating in weeks to come, but for now if there are any questions, comments, suggestions, pieces that I can elaborate on etc let me have them and I will be sure to act on it.
WordPress and I have a love-hate relationship. I love WordPress for the fact that to do simple things, it is incredible simple to use. I hate it for the fact that to do less simple things it baulks. It screams “SSH into the server and play with my core php files biutch!”.
I guess I should provide some background on why WordPress and I have any relationship at all. At the moment I am developing a blogging platform for UBC to replace weblogs.elearning.ubc.ca. This project will hopefully allow bloggers at UBC to connect with each other and inspire the creation of some rich academic and personal content. We are trying to do this all with WordPress.
At this year’s Northern Voice Conference Jim Groom (a true expert on WordPress who’s blog and creation have helped me solve so many problems with my own blogs) is thinking of hosting a WordPress anonymous session that welcomes all WordPress lovers as well as “haterz”. I am neither, but I have started dreaming about WordPress so I guess I should really attend.
I do have one big complaint about WordPress that I need to get off of my chest now (and will probably continue to rant about at NorthernVoice):
I’m bitterly upset over the fact that WordPress trusts nobody! Without heavy plugins and hacking you just can’t do anything fun… no matter who you are. Admin has no ability to upload theme files and page templates. I know that security is an issue (especially in WPMU) but I just wish there was a simple way for an admin to say: “Ok, WordPress… I trust this user and his blog, why don’t you go ahead and let him use a tiny little embed tag…?”I know that there are probably plugins or hacks to do that… but they are not easy to find. Assigning “superuser” roles that don’t strip you of any advanced coding or limit you to pre-installed themes and templates would be such a great addition to wordpress… and would probably convert many of the “haterz” out there. I mean think about it… with that kind of functionality… who needs Movable Type?
As I said in my previous post… I’m not doing school anymore. I am on Coop, which means that I get to work full time and still be a student. It’s a pretty sweet deal. I’m working at the UBC Office of Learning Technology and it is a great place to be.
My current project is recreating weblogs@ubc. It’s going to be based on WordPress, with a lot of cool features, including CWL login. Soon I will also be working on UBC wikis so look out for posts about this in the future. I might even need some help from some UBC students in order to get some of the community based initiatives off of the ground.
So, after a term of study and using all of the technologies that I have been speaking about… it’s time for the moment of truth, time to ask the question: “did they make a difference at all?”
My grades say no. According to my grades, I’m almost exactly in the same place that I was a before I got involved in LEAP and experimenting with learning technologies. However, I don’t think my grades tell the whole story. One has to remember that in addition to the fact that my courses were a lot harder this term, I am also a Residence Advisor, which seriously reduced the amount of time I that have to study. In fact, my grades staying the same speaks volumes about the tools that I have been using. I have used different technologies and techniques to make my learning more efficient and organized… and me keeping my A average is proof of that.
As for what was the most useful… here is a small synopsis of some of the things that I felt helped me most:
Due to all of my involvement outside of school, I would never have been able to survive without this. Google Calendar is super easy to use and maintain. I can plan my days and weeks, look back at what I have done and coordinate with other people in my team. Google Calendar takes paper agendas, chews them up and spits them out… it really, really does.
I raved about quizlet earlier… but using quizlet for exams blew my mind. There were literally pages on some of my exams which I just flew through… all the time saying to myself “Thank God for quizlet!” Quizlet is easy to use, collaborative… and above all… just a little bit fun. Of course flashcards can’t be used for all subjects, but for those in which it can be used… you would be a fool to not use quizlet.
Microsoft Office OneNote:
This was indispensable this year. It does such a good job of keeping all your notes in one place and eliminating the need to print out pages and pages of course notes. It would make your life almost paperless if you have a tablet pc, but even if you don’t have one… there is no better way to organize you school life.
Those were the “super useful” technologies. I used others like electronic mindmapping, but I feel like those still need a lot of work before the concept can revolutionize the way one studies. As far as mind mapping goes… next year I plan to just put up massive sheets of poster paper around my room and map in my courses as they go. Electronic mindmaps just don’t have the dynamic interface yet that would make them revolutionary.
So there we go, experiment over for now. School is done so I have eight months to find a whole new set of tools to help me get through it all again in September. I am on coop now at the Office of Learning Technology, so even though I can’t really test them… I can still write about the great technologies that I will be finding/building in my work.