Beginning this Fall semester, Michael Stephens and myself (Kyle Jones) began piloting an open source learning management system (LMS) built on WordPress Multi User (WPMU) and BuddyPress. This post explains our history with WPMU, the move to BuddyPress, and some of Michael’s initial thoughts on the pilot.
For the past two years I worked closely with Michael as his Graduate Assistant during my tenure in Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. During our discussions about education and technology we were always miffed by the closed door learning management systems we both encountered; him as a professor, me as a student. From my perspective I wanted the opportunity to truly get to know my peers with whom I was engaged online, to have the option to communicate with them and share opinions and knowledge gained throughout the course in a variety of ways. Michael sought a learning management system that was flexible not only for his administrative needs, but for his students also. Together we felt that online learning shouldn’t be defined by one company like Blackboard, it should be defined and customized by the students for they all have unique learning needs and wants.
We sought to break the bounds of Blackboard by implementing the open source blogging platform WordPress Multi User (WPMU) at Classes.tametheweb.com. In brief, WPMU provides a blog or multiple blogs per user/student. Each blog is customizable with themes and plugins and students have control over the look and feel of their own domain. More importantly, the content they published was open and created for an authentic audience – the world. Michael used individual blogs for each course – three in total – and put his entire syllabus, readings, and learning projects online.
As students we were taught about RSS feeds and used them to our advantage in tracking postings by our peers and discussions made in comments. At times we were surprised about not only the accessibility we had to each others’ work but also the way the professional library staff and other outside commenters would read our work and respond – truly an experience unable to be had in Blackboard.
But still students and professor were disconnected in many ways. With all this information being created, with all the discussions being had, with all the inherent ties we had to each other with our intertwining interests we were still having to work hard to make and keep connections with each other.
Both Michael and I are clearly active and connected online with a multitude of social networks. We saw the value in these networks and how a variety of information objects became related to each other through intelligent systems like Facebook. Because when you drill down to it, Facebook is more than a social network, it’s in some ways the ultimate representation of connected metadata. And we wondered: Could we take Classes.tametheweb further and improve connections (student to student, student to instructor, student to course material, etc.)?
BuddyPress is a package of plugins and themes for WPMU that turns it in essence to a social network. The key social networking components are all there: User profiles, friends, direct messaging, groups, micro-blogging, extended blogging, member directories, activity streams, avatars, forums, and more. Activity streams help students see what content has been created, who created it, when it was created, and what discussion surrounds it. Everything is searchable: At a macro level with groups, members (and their associated profile metadata), and blogs, and then at the micro level within individual blogs. The aggregation of content via activity streams is what impresses me and what could potentially create many more connections between students and discussions site wide.
Furthermore, BuddyPress doesn’t degrade the learning system we had created with WPMU originally – it only makes it better.
Before I had graduated from Dominican Michael and I had watched BuddyPress with wishes and prayers that it would successfully come out of a very buggy alpha development stage and flourish into a stable, usable application. For me it was sad that this didn’t happen in my time as a student. But as we both saw it arrive this summer with all its parts intact we knew we had to jump on this opportunity to better the learning system we had originally created.
Beginning this Fall semester, a few days ago, we began piloting a BuddyPress enabled version of our WPMU learning system at Classes.tametheweb.com. We believe this is the first of its kind of implementation and hope that our observations and communications with students over the next several months prove to show the power and benefit of BuddyPress and a social network-like learning management system. When Michael returns from Australia and we both have a bit more time, we hope to officially research Classes.tametheweb.com with IRB approval and present our findings.
Since my role in this endeavor is more of technical advisor and support, I asked Michael a few questions about the teaching and learning aspects of the project:
1. How do you think the integration of a social networking twist to a learning management system will affect learning outcomes?
For my social media class it’s a perfect fit but I’m also curious to see how it will play out in core courses. I’m hoping the ease of use Buddypress affords increases the feedback I’ve received from students. A three weekend hybrid course spread out across 15 weeks can seem disjointed but I had a few students express the opinion that staying connected via Twitter and their blogs really helped. They also will “know each other” a bit more before meeting in class if they spend time looking at each other’s profiles.
2. Do you have any concerns about student ability to navigate, use, and add content to what may be seen as a complex site?
No. I think every class has a continuum of student ability and interest to engage with technology. Some will excel, others will struggle. Overall the features – similar to Facebook, Twitter, etc – will probably seem familiar to many.
My philosophy of teaching includes instilling in my students a sense of exploration and play. And dealing with change. The Buddypress site is an extension of that. In my email to my classes as school starts, I asked them to configure their blogs, get an RSS aggregator and explore the site. Explore is the keyword.
3. You’re preparing future LIS professionals. How does this “classroom” experience prepare them for their careers?
Library work has changed on many levels. I want our students to leave the Dominican program with experience and knowledge of what’s possible online, understanding of how to participate in the rich tapestry of professional discourse available out there, and an attitude of “Change? new technologies? Bring it ON!” I believe these skills will better equip students to meet the future needs of people who will be living and conversing in online spaces.