Building a Better Online Course
Last spring I was asked to teach an online version of HTML & Web Design. At that point I had never taught an online course, but my mind immediately started to run with ideas on how to make it a better experience for my students.
I wanted the site to emulate the social aspects of a physical classroom environment as much as possible, including:
- Student profiles for students to see and learn more about each other.
- A public stream for students to ask questions and share information and so I could share answers publicly with the class.
- Blog posts for announcements, assignments, lessons and course information.
- Comment threading used across the site to compartmentalize questions that students have about any piece of content on the site.
Nearly all activity, including assignment submissions, would be done through the site. In addition to providing the students with a single place to get information, this would allow me to use Google Analytics to track the site performance.
The extensible WordPress framework matched a lot of what I needed, but it was the social networking plugin Buddypress that was a perfect fit. WordPress allowed me to create posts and pages with post- and page-specific comment threading, and Buddypress added the core social networking aspects of the site. All other functionality was added with the following plugins:
- Contact Form 7 for all contact forms and assignment submissions.
- Custom Admin Branding for customizing the log-in page.
- Flash Video Player for embedding video screencasts into lesson posts.
- Group Email Subscription for notifying students via email when someone has added to the activity stream or posted to the forum.
- Members Only to keep the site private by locking out the rest of the world.
- Remove BuddyPress Admin Bar to remove the admin bar inherent in BuddyPress.
- SyntaxHighlighter Evolved for posting HTML and CSS in an easy-to-read and easy-to-copy format.
- WP DB Backup to backup the database daily in case the website or server goes down.
The course ran smoothly and met my expectations. The framework allowed students to get information quickly, easily ask questions and interact with each other, and the blog format allowed me to answer questions efficiently. In some cases I created new lesson posts to further extrapolate on a topic based on conversations in comment threads.
Students were not required to log in at a specific day or time. Instead they were provided with an announcement, assignments and lessons every Monday, all of which could be done at their convenience as long as they adhered to the assignment deadlines. I believe the autonomy, combined with the public activity stream and comment-threading, allowed them to learn the material in a way that worked well for the course content. The work that the students submitted was fantastic and showed an impressive grasp of the course concepts.
There are ways I could improve upon the site. First and foremost I would like to put more time into customizing the site design and layout. I’d also like to incorporate more socialized activities on the site, build custom contact and assignment submission forms and implement email notifications for announcement, assignment and lesson posts.
I’ve received a lot of excitement and good feedback from the college, but the implementation prospects for the website are not clear. I will most likely be putting it into use as a supplement course site for one or more of my undergraduate classes this coming fall semester. Now that the multi-site functionality of WordPress μ is built-in to WordPress 3.0, I believe it will be relatively easy to set up one-click installs for additional courses. I’m hoping this will come in handy in case I deploy this framework for multiple courses in a curriculum.
At the very least I will improve the site and continue creating a better course environment for my students.
Hat Tip: Friend and colleague Tim Bowen informed me that I can also add the line define('BP_DISABLE_ADMIN_BAR', true); to wp-config.php to remove the Buddypress Admin Bar. Thanks, Tim!