Horses for open courses: Making the backend of a MOOC with WordPress #altc2013

Talking dirty codeOn Tuesday (10th September, 2013) I’ll be giving a short presentation at altc2013 on using WordPress as a course platform for ocTEL. You can read the full presentation abstract here. It’s been useful to think about what it all means. WordPress is a fantastic platform for putting things together. The diversity of plugins and themes, the majority of which are open source, means you can quickly put together a powerful platform. The huge headache having now gone through this process twice is integration.

For example, in ocTEL learners had their profile which they could edit using the forum plugin bbPress. Separately the FeedWordPress plugin was used to pull content from spaces being used by students such as Twitter and Google+. To allow students to administer their own blog feed as a source for this required this, this and this (and no doubt some other code I’ve forgot to highlight). If you were wondering what the image down the right hand side of this post is it’s the functions.php code written for ocTEL. This along is over 400 lines and there is more for page customisation.

In some ways this extra code isn’t needed, it’s there for a better user experience. Other staff including Martin Weller have very successfully used WordPress/FeedWordPress as a component of their online courses. The downside is that administrative burden is placed on the tutor rather than distributing to students (this burden could actual be a positive thing. If you are asking students to self register feeds there is a good chance it won’t happen. If you are is the position to directly ask or make response a requirement, say at entry, then it’ll get done.)

So do we wrap these experiments in a box or do we stand back, admire the fine lines and let the next platform author decide what ideas, snippets of code they want to reuse? This is the question Alan Levine (You Don’t Get ds106 in a Box) and Jim Groom (ds106: Will Work for Feed Syndication Framework), and I’m sure others, have been recently asking.

Boxing some of this would be good but whereas previously I was thinking about big boxes I’m more inclined to keep the boxes small and interoperable. Already Alan is extracting the ds106 assignment bank into a theme others can use. I recon my offer should be to turn the Course/Conference Reader into a plugin and revisit the Feed+ Machine to plug some of the syndication holes. 

Anyway I hadn’t planned to talk dirty code and I’m sure anyone who was planning on coming to my session is now having second thoughts. I promise to keep it light, to prove it my current slide desk is here (work in progress).


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  • Jim Groom

    I’m with 100%, small pieces that come in neat packages might be a lot more useful approach to building open source learning environment with some real level of customization. I’ve been workign with Howard Rheingold on just these issues ( and the strange thing to me is it is so close to being fairly simple while still empowering. I will always err on the side of making it easier for faculty and students, but at the same time portable, open, and customizable. We’re getting deep into these questions at UMW as we try and get every faculty and student their own hosting and domain spaces to realize how manageable some of this is. I think it shoudl and can be messy, but it shouldnt be alienating and rarefied—and I have to admit much of that depends on the culture and the attitude of exploration.
    Alan’s theme approach to the assignment bank is an excellent model, and we need to find some serious funding for more of that, including the work you are doing. It’s high time we start shoring up some of the gaps (even if temporarily) to start empowering mroe and more people to build and manage their own learning environments on the web. The vision is solid, it just needs some funding married to faculty outreach. We should talk about a broader HASTAC?JISC grant series for just this–the future is nigh!
    Also, I love the idea of Tony Hirst saying “find the feed” —he is truly a web Jedi of the highest order. It is awesome to see the lineage of his genius.

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