Building with Howard: Creating an Open Source Learning Environment Pt 2

This is part two of a series Howard Rheingold and I are working on wherein we’re openly building the framework for his Social Media Issues course using a variety of open source tools, plugins, themes, extensions, etc. This is really a blast for me because I haven’t gotten into the nitty gritty of a one-off open source learning environment like this since 2007 or 2008 (although ds106 was exactly this in 2011, but I gotta a lot of help). I’m really loving the work with Howard to build out his course site, and once again explore for myself what’s possible with tools like WordPress and MediaWiki. In fact, the whole idea around ds106, Domain of One’s Own, Reclaim Hosting, etc., is that you dig into stuff like this and have a community of support to help you. A huge reason why folks wouldn’t even consider this option is that it’s way too onerous to do alone, but we may just solve that by working on this stuff as a community. Open and distributed edtech—you have a problem, we can help you fix it! We’re DEDtech! Anyway, that’s the dream.

As for this episode, Howard and I spent some time in the beginning on the WHYs. Why have your students blog openly? Why have them take control of their digital domain? Why build these aggregated spaces? What has been the biggest treat about pairing up with Howard is that he makes me explain some of the assumptions I’ve been carrying around for years. I’ve been pushing syndication of student blogs into course hubs at UMW for six or seven years now. We’ve been using the FeedWordPress plugin for five or six of them. This stuff is like water to us, and while others might be waking up to it recently—it’s been part of our edtech DNA at UMW for a while. So having Howard have me try and actually explain why a faculty member might want to do this is awesome. What’s more, as we go through these sessions it’s a real conversation between two people who are negotiating what the course framework might look like. The coolest part is we’re sharing it in hopes that others get some ideas, frame their own questions, and potentially work through a similar model. I feel like I am doing the best kind of instructional technology again: exploratory, customized frameworks that scale to the size of a single professor—a hub that reflects the personality of a course, but refuses to subsume the students within it. This is the kind of instructional technology that truly rocks—LMSs still suck!

After the WHYs, we covered a few customizations to his WordPress hub such as adding a widget for the Twitter conversation around his #comm182 course hashtag. Thanks to Tim Owens, I recommended the native widget from Twitter that actually works well. Just go to Your Twitter settings–>widgets and you have all sorts of options.

Twitter Widget

After that we discussed how to create custom menus in WordPress to organize pages on the course hub. What’s more, the links option in custom menus is a very useful feature that I think a ton of faculty will find appealing for loosely integrating a range of external sites into one central hub. We flirted with the idea of themes, but we’ll be spending more time in the next episode—which is Tuesday, August 20th btw—talking about the myriad possibilities in that department. About half way through we installed a MediaWiki and went over the affordances of that technology. I particularly liked our discussion about wikis because we actually went back-and-forth about what he may or may not need. I don’t recommend MediaWiki lightly because it can be a real pain in the ass, at the same time it is powerful and every time I set one up for a class I see the immense possibilities all over again. That said, when I soon realize I have to edit a localsettings.php file to get a attractive icon for branding a new wiki some of that luster is lost. Truly a love hate relationship.

I’ve demonstrated some basic editing for MediaWiki that we have document for the course here, and I am working on a broader HowTo wiki page for this class that I’m expecting other folks who want to do a course like this might use, copy, or customize for their own course. I’ll be talking about integrating WordPress and MediaWiki more tightly in the next episode, as well as the possibilities with plugins like Wiki Embed—which I think is awesome. I also found this cool MediaWiki extension I hadn’t seen before that enables seamless Poem formatting, which is a complete nightmare in WordPress. Who knew? I’ll highlight all these MediaWiki extensions, integration, and WordPress themes and more in the next episode. Until then, stay syndicated baby!