Weblogs in education as courseware

Posted September 9, 2003 to Weblogs category.

So where do weblogs fit in the learning scheme of things? Read on below for my journey into the world of educational software, and my attempt to build a courseware system using movabletype.

In reality, a weblog is just another website, but they differ from websites in that you do not need to know anything about HTML - they are very easy to update. Technically, it's a very small step and it's been possible for over a decade now, but this small step has caused a paradigm shift in publishing.

In documenting your experiences and opinions in a blog, you start the process of reflection, whilst at the same time opening up your opinion to the critical eye of others. Similar arguments can be made for reading the weblogs of others.

In bringing together the acts of publishing and reading, we can progress to another stage. That of opening up a dialogue between authors, and the opportunity of debating points of interest.

In addition to sharing opinion and opening up debate, you also have the opportunity to build a collective database of knowledge and opinions, an informal knowledge management system, where your authors (your subject experts) regularly update their content. You keep up to date with the latest issues and you can quickly identify where you can get further information when you need it.

Among the problems cited by educators in teaching critical thinking skills to students are the lack of access to primary sources of information, the inability of students to experiment with thoughts and concepts before committing to them (on a test for example), and the difficulty students have getting multiple, valid outside reviews of what they are thinking. Weblogs are a solution to these problems. Weblogs allow teachers to guide informal classroom activity and to see student's work before its time for the test or final paper. Students gain a vehicle for creatively experimenting with thoughts and concepts and easily accessing, cataloging and storing outside information related to their interests.
>> Weblogs in Learning

Existing open source courseware systems are mostly too complex and hard to customize. Weblog software on the other hand requires heavy customization to serve as courseware, but it's relatively easy to do so, and there is a large community of users to draw upon. While courseware has been getting better over the years, the following sums up the experiences of a large number:

So far, we're off to a bad start. Simple things that I ought to be able to do aren't possible at all - from moving a reading from one course meeting slot to another, to creating custom dropboxes for file submissions. The labels for sections and tasks are counter-intuitive, and the entire system seems to have been designed without regard for the user's needs (at least the faculty user - we'll have to see what my students say). While some of the Prometheus system is apparently customizable by "IT Administrators" at a given school, none of it appears to be customizable by the actual people who have to use it. I can?t make it less ugly. I can?t fix the UI problems. I have almost no control over the look-and-feel, which is a very large part of the overall "online classroom" experience.
>> open source courseware

A weblog is well suited for discussions, and it's far easier to use than discussion forums let alone complex CMS systems. Weblogs work because they output standard web pages which people are now familiar with and feel comfortable using. Another advantage of using a weblog software is that urls can be structured so they make sense. Most of the open source courseware's available have undecipherable url structures, not to mention they're hard to customize.

Some feel that using Weblog software to drive academic courses is akin to driving nails with a saw. That might be so, but people are already using Movabletype as courseware and it does the job. I went through a number of open source courseware which have demo's available, and it seems a lot of them do less then what can be accomplished with Movabletype! There are now a large number of opensource coursewares out there, so why use a weblog tool like MT? One of the primary reasons is familiarity. As Professor Lawley said, it's easier to customize MT then it is to learn a new system which fits the bill out of the box. I came across a number of professors fustrated with courseware like Blackboard, which is supposedly one of the best, and a few are even moving courses on Blackboard over to Movabletype.

A quick overview of the best open source courseware:

CourseWork is a open source course management system based at Stanford University which has 12,000 users of over 400 course web sites.. About the only additional thing it has is grade management, and I wasn't particularly impressed by that. It seemed clunky, and too much seems to be hard coded, with the subsequent problems of customizing it.

Segue is another open source courseware developed at Middlebury, and the mission statement is very impressive. Some serious thought and development work has gone into the project, yet this also doesn't do much more than what can be done using MT. I poked around a bit, and again, besides the quiz/grading module MT does everything else.

Moodle is yet another one which promises the world, but again besides the online quizzes and automated grading it doesn't seem to offer much else.

For more, see: Free Software - Open Source --> Content Management Systems and the list at the bottom of this article.

Open source courseware like Moodle and Segue were designed from the ground up to fit educational needs, yet somehow it seems that while all these academics were sitting around taking a very high level approach to what needed to be done [just read any of the descriptions of the above systems on their websites] they missed out the fact that these are all essentially websites with some sort of easy to publish system. For example, despite being somewhat web-savvy, I had to read the following description thrice to grasp it:

Segue is based on a publishing model of content delivery which regards faculty not as course managers but as authors and/or editors and students as contributors/collaborators. Indeed, Segue encourages the publication of course work (where appropriate) and opens the classroom to the world community. At the same time, Segue allows for a site to become a personal workspace, where site owners can develop ideas in a private web-based environment accessible anywhere; or a community workspace, where individuals or groups can share ideas amongst only themselves.

Segue is browser-centric and relies on hyperlinks to provide both site navigation and organization. Built into its interface is a customizable three level navigational structure. This means that a given site can be organized into sections each of which can contain any number of pages. Pages in turn can contain any number of independent timestamped content blocks (text, images, file downloads). These content blocks can be sorted by recent first or recent last, or can be sorted by user's who added or edited them, sorted alphabetically or sorted by some custom ordering.
>> Segue

In simple English, the above is a very good description of a weblog. For those wondering what the hell a weblog is, see my previous post What is a Weblog. Also see this post about Why Weblogs over at Weblogg- ed.

Below, I've attempted to list what is possible using Movabletype as courseware, and I will be implementing the required templates and documentation over the next 2-3 weeks.

Using Movabletype as courseware:
A class using MT as courseware: Professor Lawley's Fall 2003 320 Section. It's a work in progress and as the semester just started things should get interesting in 2-3 weeks. She has put up her mt courseware documentation and templates.
The following is what I've come up with so far:

Every page will have a banner across the top with the following info:

  • School/College logo
  • Search box [this can also go in a sidebar]
  • Home
  • Contact ? this will take the user to a form
  • Help ? Introduction to the new system etc.
  • Course List ? listing of all courses with links to the course page
  • Below the header a breadcrumb navigation system example

The front/portal page on the site would have the following content:

  • Administrative news i.e last date for exam fees soon etc, or school closed.
  • Upcoming events ? concerts, contests,
  • Links to the School Sections classes. [e.g Arts, Engineering, Computer Science]
  • A small box of student edited news
  • Link to master Schedules, Class timings, Important dates etc.
  • A small box with a random picture from a previous event.

The School/College Department pages:

  • Links to all the classes for that programme
  • News that is department specific
  • The top 10 recent posts from all the classes in that programme.
  • News/Info about that particular programme.
  • Other info?

Class pages/website:
Each category page will contain all posts made in that category. The front page for each class will have the last 15 posts from all the categories, or the particular categories which should appear on the front page can be defined.

  • Syllabus
  • Course Outline
  • Past Papers and Quizzes
  • Lecture Notes
  • Readings
  • Resources/Internet Links/
  • Homework
  • Assignments
  • In-Class Exercises
  • Discussion questions
  • News
  • A small box with the instructor details (name, email address, office hours)
  • In the sidebar, a few important permanent links to resources on the internet relating to the class.

Comments will be turned for all entries by default, so that students can ask questions about specific posts. New comments will be automatically emailed to the author of the post, so questions can be answered and points clarified. Comments can be turned off by default, or disabled for specific articles/entries.

Students can also maintain their own weblogs/sites which they can customize as they wish. Informatics staff can always revoke posting privileges, or ban/disable students who are putting up inappropriate material on line.

Automated grading and online quizzes seems to be a very popular feature present in almost all the open source CMS packages. That is one thing which cannot be easily done with Movabletype, but if needed this functionality can be programmed as a plugin and integrated with Movabletype.

The look/feel of individual classes can be customized by the owner/teacher.

Access and control of the system:
Currently, Movabletype has a basic user control system, so to make administration easier, the following :
There will be one top level user who can make/delete users, websites, content, etc.
This user in turn creates other administrative or limited users.
Each limited user can have access to sites as defined by the superuser. There can be a department login under whom all the department sites fall under, and so on. They in turn create the users which will have posting permissions to these sites. So the main department administrator only sees the sites in his department.

For example, teachers will have full access for the websites of their particular class, or as many as the superuser wishes to assign. The teacher can now create other limited users for students in that class to post to the class website. For example, while a teacher has full control over the site, students can be allowed limited posting rights, so that any entry by a student goes into the system, and when the teacher logins in he/she has to approve it before it goes public. While this is possible, I would strongly recommend against this as this can create delays and frustrate users. It would be better to revoke/delete posting privileges for those students abusing the system then to limit all users.

Note: At any time, the top level user can delete/suspend/change all other users and websites. Each site will be in its own directory and a user of a particular site cannot make changes to any other site.

Structure:
The structure and layout of the site is very important. The easier it is to use, the more useful it will be. New students will be given handouts describing the system and how they can interact with it. Teachers will have to be made aware of how they can utilize this system, and why they should be doing so. At the end of the semester, the existing site is continued to be used, with the older material automatically archived.

Most schools already have systems in place for grading etc. and one of the major weaknesses of Movabletype is that it does not integrate into such systems. Another feature which I would like to have is every student should have a personal portal with their classes, grades, schedules, a organizer, email, etc. A number of universites do have such systems in place, but they all seem to be proprietary.

In the end, while a all singing/dancing courseware system would be the best, it requires a massive investment of time, effort and money. Most institutions are lacking all three. The next generation of coursewares should be a lot better, but till then a simpler, easy to implement system is enough. For schools with tight (read: zero) budgets going open source is essential.

Essential Links:

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