Rethinking (& Generalizing) Course Blogs in WordPress

In addition to co-directing Camp Magic MacGuffin this summer, I still have a regular day job. And I want to use this post to outline a project I’m working on to try and regularize/generalize our approach to course blogs on UMW Blogs.

This project grew out of our Online Learning Initiative and conversations with an art history professor who is teaching an online survey course this summer. During our discussions with her, it became clear that she wanted to have her students blog, but she was concerned about the technical overhead of getting them up and running on UMW Blogs during a very intense five weeks. Some students will already have UMW Blogs accounts (and some of those may be comfortable with the system), but others will not have accounts (much less be familiar with WordPress).

While I’m a firm believer that WordPress is dead simple and anyone can learn how to author in it, I’m totally sensitive to the requirements of 5-week, online, summer course. The time flies by. It’s difficult to provide technical support right when students need it. It’s easy for students to get lost and then quickly fall behind. While we could put together a bunch of tutorials, screencasts, etc, from experience I know that this approach works for somewhere between 40%-60% of students in a class. Heck, when I go in and do a full hour-long demonstration of how to sign up for a course site and post on it, a good 20%-30% of students still need help when it comes time for them to actually do the work. In a traditional, 15-week, face-to-face course, it’s easier to provide the technical intervention at the right moments to overcome these difficulties. In an online course, not so much. (Particularly a course that has also has a heavy content load like an intro art history survey. Students will be very busy just staying on top of the coursework that needs to be done.)

I began to think that this might be an opportunity to rethink course blogs. Here are a couple of thoughts that are guiding my experiments:

  1. We have two primary kinds of course blogs at UMW (and I think most other schools using WordPress use two similar models). The first is a group blog.  In this model, every student (and the professor) has an account on a single blog where they post their work. The challenges in using it involve getting everyone set up on a single blog and working in the same space. Because different user roles result in different backend experiences, this can be a big jarring. What the professor sees is not necessarily what the students see.
  2. The second kind of course blog is an aggregate blog. Aggregate blogs syndicate content from individual students’ blogs. In this model, each student sets up their own site, and then we run Feed WordPress to grab new posts whenever they are available. These are republished (usually as excerpts) on the aggregate blog which links back to the originals for complete versions and commenting. The challenges in this involve getting each student set up with their own site and getting all of the syndication wires to work.
  3. In both models of course we still tinker with the way in which students posts are presented. Usually we have just a stream of the most recent posts in reverse chron order somewhere on the course site (usually the home page). But for an online course where one of the goals is to really promote independence and build community, it would be nice to have other ways of viewing/filtering posts. A reverse chron listing is fine, but it’s easy for things to get lost. It would also be nice to have an elegant way of seeing the work done by a single student, perhaps side-by-side with some other information about them.
  4. Thanks to the purchase of a few premium plugins for UMW Blogs, we have a few new tools in our arsenal to throw at this challenge. First, we have Gravity Forms. GF is an incredibly robust form plugin (that keeps getting better). The feature that I find most intriguing about Gravity Forms is that you can use it to do front-end authoring of posts (btw, I hear this is a feature coming soon in core WP). Basically, this means that someone doesn’t have to use the backend, dashboard interface to create a post. They can fill out a form on the front-end, and that post can automatically be published (or go to draft, if you prefer).

    Gravity Forms also has a premium User Registration add-on, which allows you to create user accounts from a form.

  5. We also now own Types (which is free) and Views (which is not). Types allows you to very easily set up custom post types in WordPress. Views allows you to very easily create custom listings/templates of those types (or of vanilla posts/pages). Before, whenever we wanted to create a  custom post type or do some kind of special filtering or presentation of posts, we had to hack the theme. With Views, this can all be done in the GUI interface and easily embedded in a page or post.

So, based on all of this I’ve started a project to create two custom hacks for these two kinds of courses. I’m not sure what the final product will look like — I may be able to do a lot of this within themes, but other things may require some custom plugins. We’ll see. In any case, here are my goals:

  1. Streamline the process of joining a course site. 
    • For users that need to join a group blog and don’t have a UMW Blogs account yet, I’m planning on using the Gravity Forms User Registration add-on. This means that by filling out a single form, someone can  add themselves to UMW Blogs and become a member of the course site. (I’ve managed to write the functions I need so that the form checks that someone is using a umw.edu email address to guarantee that our user base remains internal to UMW.) At the same time,  This form can contain additional fields/information that a faculty member might want to have students set up.
    • For users that need to join a group blog and already have a UMW Blogs account, I’ve built a form that just gathers any information the professor wants and adds them as an author on the course site.
    • For users that need to join an aggregate blog, I’ll basically do the same thing, but I’m hoping to have them enter the URL of their own site and then have that immediately become a feed for Feed WordPress.
  2. Streamline the process of authoring on a group blog. I’ve built a front-end form in Gravity Forms that allows a student to author a post very easily. I can embed a WYSIWYG editor (and choose which buttons are available). They can attach featured images. They can also categorize and tag the posts (and the added advantage here is that the faculty member can pre-populate the categories to reflect assignments, so there’s less of a chance of a student forgetting/misspelling the assignment category. These posts will automatically be associated with the student (who will have registered as an author on the course site as described above).

    One thing that can’t be done at this time is editing of posts by students on the front-end. They can, however, still access the backend if there was a need for this.

  3. Customize the views of student work. 
    • I’m planning to rebuild the author pages for these course sites so that they reflect the goals of the professor. I’m imagining author pages that would have the student’s avatar, maybe an introductory video that they provide when they sign up, information about social media spaces they use, and a listing of their posts.
    • I’m also hoping to build custom views for assignments since we’ll be able to depend on normalized categories as described above for identifying posts that complete particular assignments.

That’s a pretty rough outline of what I have planned. What have I missed? Do you think this could be useful? What features would you love to see in a (semi-)standardized theme for course sites in WordPress?