All posts by Martha Fay Burtis

Perfecting the Syndicated Blog Sign-Up

It’s hard to believe that Camp Magic MacGuffin finished weeks ago, and in another five days (yikes!), a new session of ds106 starts up here at UMW.

Alan and I ended up really tearing our hair out for the first few weeks of CMM trying to get everyone signed up with their blogs in FeedWordPress and tagged appropriately (in the CMM case, tags were used primarily for the bunk houses students were assigned to).

Going into the fall semester, I really wanted to clean-up this process.  Continue reading Perfecting the Syndicated Blog Sign-Up

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 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?


Woot! I’m Talking about Openness to Wooster!

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by MHorama

Tomorrow morning, I have the privilege of presenting (virtually) to a group of faculty at Wooster College as part of their participation in the 2012 Instructional Technology Faculty Fellows program. I’m slated to speak about “Extending the Walls of the Classroom with Technology” (and, perhaps, breaking down the walls).

I’ve been mulling the presentation over for weeks, but with Faculty Academy, bushwacking around Camp Magic MacGuffin, and catching camp plague last week, I’ve only been able to start really pulling my thoughts into something coherent over the last few days. (Shhh. . .don’t tell anyone but I’m a notorious procrastinator when it comes to presentation prep. I think I do my best work under pressure.)

The title of my presentation is “Doorways: Opening, Extending, & Multiplying the Course.” I’m going to start by telling a bunch of stories about the effect openness has had at UMW, especially through serendipitous contact made via student work on UMW Blogs. We’ve got some great examples of students being contacted by the very people they are studying and writing about, so this is always fun to talk about. In my mind, this kind of openness would be considered, more or less, passive. I’m not using passive in any kind of derogatory way. Rather, I’m suggesting that the faculty who teach the courses where these kinds of encounters have occurred haven’t actually sought out responses from anyone. Rather, they just valued the idea that students should work in the open, on Web sites that are indexed and searchable. Once you’re publishing in that space, you’re bound to have a few magical encounters. That’s kind of the beauty of the Web, eh?

From there, though, I want to talk about active openness — when faculty solicit and encourage interaction from outsiders within the classroom experience. For this I’ll be talking a lot about DS106, and Jim’s initial experiment in spring of 2011 to invite the world into the classroom at UMW. There’s lots of serendipity that occurs in these situations, as well, but there’s probably a better chance that someone will make a connection, since we’re actively encourage those connections among and between UMW and open participants.

I think most faculty will be able to wrap their heads around the notion of passive openness — simply open the doors and someone is bound to wander in.

The bigger challenge is to get them thinking about active openness. How do you go about inviting the world into your classroom? Who do you invite? How do you send the invitation? What do you ask them to do when they get there? How do you know if it’s “working?” And, most frightening of all, what do you do if no one shows up at the party? That’s a bummer.

Jim and I have talked in the past about how the success of DS106 rested in no small part on the strength of his network going into the experiment. He had spent years building and cultivating connections through his blog and Twitter. He had built some capital among that network by regularly sharing and contributing his ideas, becoming a member of a virtuous circle of sharing and using. Moreover, the people he was connecting with were the kinds of people who would be interested in participating in an open digital storytelling course.

Not everyone has this kind of network to tap. In fact, most people don’t. And building that network isn’t something that happens overnight, or certainly during a 30-45 minute hands-on session that I’ll lead for Wooster College tomorrow!

I had a few ideas of how I’d get them to at least engage with the idea of building a network, primarily by using Twitter. But a quick check with the organizers indicated that only a few of the participants are already using Twitter, and the rest are *not* interested.

So, an idea I had was to first talk to the participants about themselves and their professional/research interests. Then, I thought I might put out a series of tweets tomorrow morning asking people to help me find others on Twitter who share those interests. I’m wondering if after 60-75 minutes (when I’ll be done with my formal presentation), my network can expand enough to yield some results.

The risk, of course, is that it won’t work, and I’ll have not proved the value of Twitter. That would be sort of. . .unfortunate. I could do it without telling the participants I’m doing it. But would that be too underhanded?

Other “hands-on” activities I’m considering:

  • Simply showing them how to search Twitter and Twitter archives for mentions of topics of interest to them. Perhaps this is enough to get them considering that a social network like Twitter might have some value to them?
  • Get them to brainstorm in small groups about what doors they could open in their own classes. . .what assignments lend themselves to either passive or active openness?
  • Get them searching other social networking spaces/tools for people who share their research interests or teach similar courses to them.
  • ???

I’m looking for any and all feedback or additional ideas! And, most of all, would you be willing to help me spread the Twitter wildfire tomorrow morning to see if we can quickly build the beginning of a professional network for a group of faculty at Wooster?

Summer Camp, DS106 Style

This summer, I’m honored to be co-teaching DS106 with my new colleague, Alan Levine. We’re going to be teaching the class entirely online over 10 weeks. In typical DS106-fashion, we’ve invited the Web to participate. The class will be made up of a group of enrolled students at UMW as well as a cohort of open-online participants. We’ve got a lot planned.

First, and foremost, our version of DS106 will be taking place at Camp Magic MacGuffin, a very special summer camp for digital storytelling, creativity, and self-actualization. (I don’t actually know what “self-actualization” means, but it sounds nice.)

In a day or so, we’ll be sending out a welcome letter to our UMW students. Others who interested in participating should check out our welcome video and our special video for open, online students. You can also review the syllabus and packing list. And, if you’re really dying to know more, you can get to know Alan and me better or take a look at the folks who’ll be joining us as camp counselors.

For the duration of camp, I’m going to be blogging my entire experience on a shiny, new site. I’ll be feeding those posts to my Twitter account as well as showing them in my sidebar.

See you on the other side of the mountain!

Advocacy and Stories, in 3 (sort of 4) Parts

I. The Rise & Fall of Mike Daisey

Like a lot of other people, I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent revelation that Mike Daisey’s January piece Apple’s suppliers’ factories in China on This American Life contained some serious lies and fabrications. I listened to the original broadcast in January and was horrified by the descriptions of working conditions at technology factories in China. It definitely moved me as a story of greed and our culture’s obsession with consumption. And it made me think quite a lot about my own role in this (as well as the responsibility of companies like Apple to monitor working conditions and wages of their suppliers’ employees.) Continue reading Advocacy and Stories, in 3 (sort of 4) Parts

Failing: Now in New Ways!!

Some rights reserved by Pretty/Ugly Design on Flickr

As I’ve blogged about before, I’m teaching a course on digital identity this semester. When the course was scheduled, I was really excited. Talking to students at UMW about digital identity has long been something I find incredibly rewarding. I feel like I have a fair amount to share on the topic, and it’s always incredibly cool to have students share their own thoughts about the formation of their digital identity. Continue reading Failing: Now in New Ways!!

Guess we need to build a dog house in the office

Way back in the olden days of 2004: I was first getting my blogging legs under me. I had returned to UMW as an instructional technology specialist under the inspired leadership of Gardner Campbell. I began to find and connect with other people at other institutions who were doing amazing stuff. And I started to admire them and learn from them.

Somewhere along the way, I stumbled across this guy who blogged a lot and whose alter ego was a dog. He was REALLY smart and talented, and I started to read his blog regularly. At DTLT staff meetings, his name would come up, spoken in tones of admiration.

He was kind of a big deal. In fact, I remember the first time I left a comment on Alan Levine’s blog. (it took me 2 years!!) I felt like I was leaving a comment on a celebrity’s site!

I’ve gotten to know Alan a bit better since then, and I’m pretty sure he’d laugh at my calling him a celebrity. But, truly, within the field we work in, he’s someone whom I admire tremendously.

So, how exciting is it for me and all of us in DTLT that Alan CogDog Levine has come to UMW as an instructional technology specialist?

Looking around the room (which inclues my other amazing colleagues), I feel like we could do just about anything!

Undergraduate Research on the Open Web

For the last two years, I’ve been working with professor Denis Nissim-Sabat in the department of psychology here at UMW. He teaches a course every fall on the history of psychology, and in 2010 we started working on a project to transform the final projects students were doing in the class to digital presentations. Previously, students had worked in groups on particular historical topics of their choosing. At the end of the semester, they would present their work in a collaborative PowerPoint, with each student covering a particular aspect of the topic.

When Denis and I started working together, he decided he’d like them to develop an online site for their topics, with a particular emphasis on exploring how to build a Web-based information resource that integrates new media. (Big hat tip to Jeff McClurken who’s history of technology class projects inspired the approach, to a large degree).

My role in this course has been to introduce the students to UMW Blogs as well as give them advice about finding and using various kinds of media and tools in their sites. I also offer each group up to one hour of “consulting” time with me, in which they come in and work through specific questions and ideas.

Denis, of course, is the one who really lays the groundwork for how to construct a historical research project. And he pushes them to be both rigorous and creative in the development of their ideas and presentations. Over the last two years, we’ve had about 20 projects developed.  Overall, I think we both felt that it was successful, and we’ve also learnt something each time about how to improve it the next time around.

But I wasn’t prepared at all for the email he forwarded to me from the chair of the psychology department earlier this week. It seems she uses a textbook, Serial Murderers and their Victims, that is currently being revised by its author, Eric Hickey.  Apparently, Hickey (while researching the new edition) came across a Google map created by one of Denis’ fall 2010 student groups. The group was researching the History of Forensic Psychology, and they compiled a map showing the location of significant events in the history of forensic psych. Hickey wants to include the map in the next edition. How cool is it that this group of students could end up with their work published in a textbook — all because they not only were involved in an undergraduate research project but because they were required to share that work publicly and openly on the Web.

View History of Forensic Psychology in America in a larger map


This morning, as I was waiting in the car rider line at my daughter’s school to drop her off, I heard this on the radio:

“Rumors abound that gas prices are about to spike. They could go as high as $5.00/gallon at 8:42.”

Shit. I looked at the clock in my car. It was 8:31. Could I make it to the station by 8:42? I really didn’t want to pay $5/gallon for gas this weekend.

Right after dropping her off, I sped off to the station and arrived there just in time: 8:40.

As I was pumping gas, I thought, “It’s really weird that gas prices are going to spike at exactly 8:42 this morning. Really weird.”

Really weird.


At that moment I realized THIS was what I’d heard on the radio:

“Rumors abound that gas prices are about to spike. They could go as high as $5.00/gallon. [Story] at 8:42.”

Yeah. It’s been that kind of morning.