By @mhawksey

(M)OOC in a Box: Turning WordPress into an Open Course Reader #ocTEL

Back in August 2012 having surveyed the technology behind a number of connectivist orientated MOOCs (cMOOCs) and I came to the conclusion that:

It’s apparent from the survey of MOOC technology that course teams are taking a loosely joined set of tools that they are comfortable with to facilitate a shared experience with the learner.

I also asked:

Even with the bespoke nature of MOOCs there are still opportunities to start collectively raiding the parts bin. … Given the wide use of WordPress … are there opportunities for MOOC specific themes or plugins?

At the time I highlighted the prevalence of the FeedWordPress plugin for WordPress, which is used to aggregate content from other sites via RSS feeds. Six months on and reading posts mainly from Alan Levine the WordPress parts bins has well and truly been raided. Alan is at an advantage having been involved with the open online course in Digital Storytelling (DS106) and it’s been incredibly useful to see how his recipe has evolved. At the same time others have been turning to WordPress to support their courses. Of note are E-learning and Digital Cultures on Coursera (#edcmooc) , which challenges the division of connectivist (cMOOC) and instructivist (xMOOC) by using the FeedWordPress recipe; and the Open University/OpenLearn/Martin Weller course in Open education (H817).
This last example is particularly interesting because as you’ll discover by reading this post by Martin Weller you’ll see he’s embraced the DIY approach, confronting the challenges of being your own IT support head on. In the post Martin concludes:

One last plea – I joked with Alan that I needed DS106 out of a box. I think I’m serious though – it would be great to have a step by step, idiots guide to installing and setting up a DS106-like environment. The rest of us don’t have Alan and Jim’s tech skills, so getting to the starting line is difficult. I know they’ll say you should invent your own way, but they done so much great work that I don’t think they realise just how much expertise they have. A simple installation that let the rest of us get started, would mean we could all go off in different directions then. So any of the DS106 crowd up for it? And I do mean a simple guide, it has to be Weller-proof.

Personally, and at the danger of frustrating Martin further, I think it needs more than just a guide. In my original post I highlighted how aggregation of data was key. This still holds but with all data the next challenge is turning it into something actionable. What pathways might be useful for users to make sense of what is going on.
Looking at H817, EDCMOOC, DS106, ETMOOC and others you have a lovely, gorgeous, wonderful flow of creativity, ideas and reflections, but often this is hard to navigate. Even when you use post excerpts a page of the last 10 posts is at best over 3,000 pixels long. Add in the issue that you might be pulling in content from 100s of sources and those 10 posts could quickly disappear.
Taking a step back a considering what FeedWordPress is doing, its a feed aggregator so are there any cues we can take from feed readers to make it easier to users to browse the content. That was the question I found asking myself when I was recently asked to contribute to ALT’s Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning (ocTEL) [starts 4th April – still time to sign up].
Take Google Reader for example (don’t even get me started on Google’s ridiculous decision to close this in July). Reader is able to allow you to easily browse 10 posts in 300 pixels and if there are over 10 posts as I scroll down more content is automatically added. If there is anything I look the like of I can click the title to get the content. I can also see the things I’ve read and options to ‘star’ and share (although sharing has been compromised with the introduction of Google+). Feeds can also be organised into folders making it easy to filter content.

With these ideas in mind I scoured the WordPress plugins database to see how much of this functionality I could recreate. And here’s what I’ve come up with:

I’ve got more tidying up to do with the code before official release but you have have a play here (if you want to test read/favouriting then register here) and here is the current code (very poorly documented).

Thoughts and reflections

A group RSS reader

When I started making this custom child theme Google Reader was going to live to a merry old age. Given it’s death in July and having already started my search for a replacement I’m wording if reusing this recipe and my existing feed subscriptions might be the way forward – particularly as the base theme is responsive and works well on mobile. Taking this idea one step further there are potentially some interesting collaborative opportunities beyond an open course context. In particular I was thinking of enabling the WordPress commenting system which would allow discussion of posts, the scenario being your team want to monitor and comment on a set of feeds (I’ve disabled commenting for now as I want people to discuss content on the source post, the issue though is the comment activity is not captured and displayed … one to add to my TODO).

WordPress as an open course platform

Pro – flexibility allows you to find and install themes/plugins to get your desired functionality
Con – flexibility means you’ll spend hours looking for the right plugin then discover it doesn’t quite do what you want and which point you either (if you can) tweak, live with or spend hours more searching for an alternative
Pro – wordpress has numerous well documented internal functions and an architecture to easily add custom functionality (functions.php) and creating themes based on existing templates (child themes)
Con –  custom functionality takes time and can easily break if dependencies like plugins or parent themes change (for example my current child theme is broken by the very latest version of the responsive theme)

Box of bits and no instructions

One of the things at the forefront on my mind is this is potentially an open course platform in a box, but the box contains a random selection of pieces and no instructions. The guidance can be written, its finding the balance between ‘flat pack’ and bespoke.
As always you thoughts and ideas greatly appreciated
BTW  I final got a nice blog registration integrated into FeedWordPress. More about that next time (code is in the repo

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