An Aggregation Fiesta

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump — call it a “pregnant pause” — and I’m deterimed to bootstrap myself out of it.

Part of my block has to do with the fact that there is so much going on, I’m not really sure where to start. I’ve got four or five posts brewing from ELI that I’m hoping to work through in the next few days, but for today, I thought I’d start by talking about a project I’ve been working on with Steve Greenlaw.

I don’t get as much time as I’d probably like to work on a lot of projects directly with faculty these days, so I’ve been really enjoying diving into his TLT Fellows project. Last fall, Steve and I started talking about how we could build an online learning environment for his advanced macroeconomics class that would really foster collaboration. He blogged a bit about it in December. In the past, he’s struggled with how to get the students to really synthesize all of the work they’re doing on a topic into a coherent, analytically rich final project.

In the end, we shied away from designing some more complex collaborative writing environment, opting instead for a rich course site that did everything possible to expose the work students were doing around the different topics at hand. Steve also altered his assignments slightly, so that collaboration was happening more in the earlier stages of the course, with a greater emphasis on individual work (building out of the collaboratively generated and aggregated content) for the final project.

For me, the challenge has been really pushing the boundaries of what we could do with RSS aggregation in a WordPress blog. None of it is earth-shatteringly innovative, but it does represent the most complex course aggregation site I’ve ever put together. It’s a completely unsustainable model for individual course site creation. But, as a proof of concept, I’m hoping it will point out to us whether or not this kind of rich aggregated environment is even useful. If it is, then I think that points us in interesting directions for future development. If it’s not, well, that’s another story.

I  wonder about that “other story” a lot. Deep down, I’m a geek at heart, and I love the challenge of figuring out how I can slice and dice feeds together to create interesting views of content. I often wonder if the compelling pull I feel towards building these environments has more to do with feeding my own needs and interests and less to do with what’s really useful resonant for students.

You can see the site in action at http://stevegreenlaw.org/econ488.  For those who are interested in the details, here are a few explanatory comments:

  • While the students are all blogging in UMW Blogs, we had to build the course site with an individual Bluehost install of WP. That’s because of the complexity of what I wanted to do with template editing and multiple sidebars. In theory, this is possible with UMW Blogs using Userthemes, but it requires someone to create, at the very least, the blank templates on the server and upload them. It’s not easy to do this with our current UMW Blogs workflow, so I opted for the Bluehost route.
  • Each course topic has a page on the blog that includes the following:
    • Resources (added by Steve)
    • Aggregation of feeds from each student’s blog. The students are using a common category for each topic, and the site uses BDP RSS to grab the category feed and create views of each set of topical feeds. Big kudos go out to DTLT aide, Shannon, for major BDP RSS wrangling on the site. This approach results in about 90 separate category feeds, organized into 9 different views. Like I said, not really a sustainable approach. . .
    • A link to a page in the course wiki about the topic. There’s not much going on here yet, but I’m hoping it will become a space for the students to work through their final projects.
    • A link to a collaborative Google Doc (made public) that two students are writing in each week during class to record notes. I haven’t seen many of these yet, but I think the approach is going well. For this kind of note taking, Google Docs is much better than Mediawiki since it allows for simultaneous editing. The problem is figuring out where to send invites (as some students have Google accounts that they prefer to use).
    • An RSS feed of delicous bookmarks for the topic. Steve is asking students to bookmark resources for topics by combining a course tag (e488) with a topic tag. That allows us to have a “mother” delicious feed (using just e488) that we display on the course home page.
    • Both the link to the wiki and the link to the Google Doc are just text widgets that get manually created/edited. I quickly ran out of enough of them (the max number you can get in a default WP install is 9), so I had to hack the functions.php file to increase the number I could create. I had to do the same with RSS widgets for the delicious feeds.

Overall, I see the course site as serving two main purposes. As the students are working through a topic, it becomes a single-source for reading and reviewing all the relevant resources. Later, as they are working on their final projects, it becomes a single-source for each author to work from — sort of a virtual research center, collaboratively written by the entire class.

The hardest part of all of this has been getting all of the templates and sidebars worked out so that the topic aggregation is working properly. At some point, I’ll try to document the steps since I had a hard time finding one place that outlined all of the customization I did.
In the meantime, over in UMW Blogs, we’ve got tagging enabled, and I hear that may change everything when it comes to flexible aggregation. If it works the way tag feeds at WordPress.com do, we may not need BDP RSS anymore. . .