The way we look at education and its delivery is changing drastically. Though we’ve had the Internet long enough, it seems that the idea of using it to make education more accessible is only being recently executed.
The term “open education” and the abbreviation “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Courses) are buzz words being mentioned all over the web. Open access to research papers is being advocated as a solution to incredibly high costs of traditional subscription methods. Even Google is on the bandwagon to expand educational content delivery.
The interesting thing is that educators are using WordPress on campus as a solution to some of their needs. But seemingly, often not fully realizing its true potential for course delivery and making education accessible to the masses.
We’re going to explore that idea in this article.
How are Universities Using WordPress in Education Today?
For Course Management
If you read Joseph Yannielli’s article from just September of last year titled, “WordPress as a Course Management System,” you can already see a desire among professors for being able to use a custom solution for managing courses and students.
Yes, commercialized software like Blackboard – or even education-based open source tools like CourseWork – can provide a ready-made tool for hosting courses, and are tailored for such. But they can also be limiting in some ways, and aren’t always being updated by the conjoined efforts of a massive developer community (as WordPress is).
Joseph, who works at Yale University, puts it eloquently by saying,
Compared to WordPress, however, they can seem arcane and downright unfriendly. Although studies of course management systems are sporadic and anecdotal, one of the most common complaints is “the need for a better user interface.” Instead of working to improve these old methods, perhaps it is time to embrace a new paradigm. Why waste time training students and teachers on idiosyncratic in-house systems, when you can give them more valuable experience on a major web publishing platform?
One professor at Concordia University, Chitu Okoli, told me that although his university supports Moodle, the school’s set up won’t allow him to publish his course material publicly, which he wants to do.
The interesting thing is that professors like Joseph Yannielli are not necessarily WordPress developers by trade. But it’s beautiful that non-developers are making websites for their own lesson-giving needs. Who said it has to be ‘fancy’ or ‘perfect’ to be effective? WordPress as an open source platform is allowing this professor, and others, to teach in a new way: through what started as blogging software.
The 20% of the Internet that WordPress dominates is now entering the realm of education websites.
But it’s been doing so for a while; perhaps quietly. In his article, Joseph links to a post from 2009 by Andrew Cullison, which lists many plugins that were available at the time for conducting online courses.
It’s fascinating, because WordPress wasn’t as advanced then as it is now, yet he still found a way to make it useful for education (there were no custom post types at the time – that’s how far back we’re talking). Much of Andrew’s list of plugins are outdated or no longer supported.
For Assignments and Grading Performance
Next, if you read a 2010 article on Chronicle.com titled, ‘A Rubric for Evaluating Student Blogs,’ you’ll see that blogging is being used to grade performance in a course setting. That’s right, blogging is not just cool, it’s school (I had to throw that in).
With free blogs available on WordPress.com and the Multisite network capability available on any WordPress.org install…well, you can see how WordPress can easily enter our classrooms at a wider scale.
And there’s also Edublogs.com, which is a huge blog network focused on teacher and student publishing. The idea with this network is not to provide a platform for managing grades and teaching modules per se. Its aim is to allow the education world, from elementary schools to universities, to publish blog posts. Check out this post on “The Top 10 Ways Blogs and WordPress Are Used in Schools.”
According to Ronnie Burt, Director of Operations at Edublogs,
We believe strongly in open and public discussions – leveraging the WordPress publishing platform to provide students an authentic writing audience and making it easy for educators to create online spaces to share resources.
…Edublogs is instead used more for student-created content, as opposed to course delivery. Students write blog posts and share ideas, thoughts, videos, links, etc. They also comment on the blogs of their classmates and peers as part of the learning process. Edublogs is also used heavily as a public class website where teachers and instructors can share daily lesson agendas or resources – open on the web, discovered in Google.
For Providing Open Course Content Across Universities
When interviewing Chitu at Concordia, he explained that his reason for using WordPress was to avoid his content being locked behind a registration system.
I am very much into the open content movement (in fact, that is my primary research focus). As part of this, by default I license all my material with a Creative Commons license, and only copyright restrict materials that are not my own work. I have greatly benefited from other teachers who have freely shared their materials, and I want to share mine, too.
His usage of WordPress (or any CMS, as he has noted) has helped him make his course material public, which I found amazing. The ironic thing is that he also teaches WordPress at a university level, and all his material on this is publicly available.
Some of us go to great lengths to find paid resources for learning WordPress to advance our careers, but here is a teacher who is giving it all away for the online community’s benefit. Imagine the benefit to humanity as a whole when being able to access professional education on other topics too, especially in parts of the world where funding for education or skills training is desperately needed.
Here is a snippet of Chitu uses his personal WordPress site to make course material public:
I use WordPress to display:
- General course information
- The official course outline
- The schedule
- Learning modules
- The term project
- Homework assignments
For all Kinds of Other University Needs
The best way to explain this is to just let you read the e-mail the folks at the University of British Columbia sent me. I thought this was amazing, and had to share it, since it’s a wonderful resource for other educators looking to implement similar projects.
My original question was:
It would be great to talk to someone who sets up these sites for UBC and discover how they are used, what plugins are used, how they are secured, and their usefulness to the education system at UBC in general.
Here is the amazing-ness I discovered, straight from the horse’s mouth:
WordPress is being used in different contexts.
The list of available plugins can be found here (this list is probably out of date).
Also we publish all our plugins that we write here.
We take security very seriously. We keep our installs up to date, any only install plugins that are used widely and are supported. The key is to keep the code base to a minimum.
Here is our plugin evaluation criteria.
The same applies to themes. We keep them to a minimal. Our blogs have only a selection of about 30 themes on our sites platform only 5 themes.
And you have to request and have a good reason to switch to a non UBC common look and feel theme.
However [our themes are] quite powerful and [have] a lot of options.
What We’re Learning from all This:
Blogging provides access to freedom of speech and publication.
Nowadays, its underlying tools are providing freedom of structured education (as in, not just Googling or YouTubing to learn whatever).
Get where this is going?
How Can WordPress Change Education?
Recently I was exposed to the concept of the flipped classroom model by the director of Eastwood College in Lebanon, which implemented the first iTunes University in the Middle East (an area where funding for education is limited).
The idea is that a teacher records a lecture via video and the student watches it at home before coming to class. Class time can then be spent discussing the lesson and asking further questions. In other words, homework is done in class, and lessons are learned at home.
Why didn’t we think of this earlier?
Well we didn’t have the technology to do it until recently.
But that’s all changing now. And WordPress can help!
With Course Plugins
Yes, there are other options for providing classes online, both paid and free. Udemy and iTunes University are two examples. Then there are companies like Lynda.com with a specific focus on learning within niche markets. Organizations like Coursera, edX and Future Learn are attempting to create MOOC platforms. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Wide World Ed, an organization with goals to bring MOOCs to Canada.
These are wonderful and should continue doing what they’re doing. The point we’re making here is that WordPress is becoming an alternative; a fairly attractive platform to choose from for educators. This is great for educators who want the ability to customize and have their own ‘kingdoms’ to set up course sites the way they want. They can do so with the many limitless possibilities of the entire WordPress eco system.
In short, these plugins are replicating Learning Management Systems (LMS). They provide the ability to deliver course instruction through video, and grading through quizzes and tests (including the ability to upload files for essays, etc.). They use WordPress user roles to create student registration capabilities and most of the time can integrate with other popular membership plugins tailored for WordPress.
When visiting the sites of WP Courseware and LearnDash, you can see that universities and other organizations are already making use of these types of plugins.
ManageWP will release a three-part article describing these plugins in detail – stay tuned!
However, when it comes to course management at larger universities, Chitu brings up a very important point where WordPress may fall short:
Why would I use a WordPress teaching site when my university supports a dedicated system that already has student logins, grades, and all the general LMS features I need? … I think very few professors would need or want to do that. It would require students to create multiple user accounts (the school’s official system plus the WordPress site). It probably would not be a one-stop shop, since grades are usually tied into the school’s databases, linked only with the officially supported system.
A Conclusion: My Distance Education Love Story
When I was in university I loved taking distance education courses. My friends thought I was crazy because, for them, being accountable to yourself was harder than having to show up for class. My problem was that I didn’t like showing up for class. I liked learning on my own time by using online tools. Even discussions were great to do online. I got to spend my last semester abroad because of distance education (which ironically required a lot of paper mailing).
I once had a teacher who defied my university’s standard by not employing the more common course management software being used on campus (WebCT, now owned by Blackboard). He felt it was limiting his students, and in his mind, the course would be better run with his own, custom-built…(wait for it) “class wiki.”
Well, it was a wonderful idea when you think of freedom through technology and technology through freedom. But it was also probably a premature idea, because everyone found it really hard to use the class wiki compared to the commercialized system all their other teachers were using. The two worlds of an education-based software and the freedom of customization were not colliding.
I also remember when some teachers were allowing their lectures to be recorded and then be accessed online later. This was almost a disruptive, yet truly pleasant idea for students. I think the hesitation stopping all teachers doing this was not the technological means available to them. It was the question of, ‘what if no one shows up for the real lecture?’ Somehow being physically present was equally, or more important than absorbing the information and doing the work. Remember getting credits for class participation?
So here’s the thing: educators like Joseph and Chitu and the folks at UBC don’t face the limitations my former teacher faced with his “class wiki” idea. But they also need more support from the WordPress community to help them use the free software to its fullest advantage, for the betterment of education everywhere.
Thankfully we see that trend happening, and I hope it evolves further.
You can help the cause!
We mentioned Eastwood College as a school trying to improve education in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon. They are hoping to build a recording studio to make their educational system accessible to a wider reach of children in the area, free of charge. Public resources for education are limited in this country and the Eastwood project will help change the quality of education for children outside private, tuition-based institutions. You can donate to this cause by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
Are you an educator using WordPress for learning? If so, tell us how in the comments below, and what plugins you’ve found useful!