Hello, Teaching With WordPress

Well, it seems that despite having been looking forward to participating in the UBC Teaching With WordPress open course for quite some weeks, I’m a few days late getting started.  Ironically, the delay is due to participation at Miami WordCamp and the necessity to spend a day or so getting my summer session online macroeconomics course started, which is largely taught in the open using WordPress. I have a lot I want to say as well as learn in this course but for now I’ll remember that “done” is better than “perfect and comprehensive”.  So today I’ll settle for a self introduction and a brief overview of ideas I’d like to see discussed in the course.

As my Twitter handle (@econproph) and many of my domain names suggest, I teach economics.  Specifically, I’m Professor of Economics at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan, US. (obligatory: my comments are my own and do not reflect the opinions of the College).  I’ve taught at LCC for approximately 14 years. I’ve taught both face-to-face classes, hybrids (a.k.a blended), and online.  As the years of passed, I’ve shifted to more and more online.  This long time online has also meant I’ve taught with straight HTML pages, Blackboard, Angel, uCompass, Moodle (my own install), MoodleRooms, Desire2Learn, and now I use WordPress as much as I can.

For readers who might not be familiar with U.S. community colleges, especially our Canadian and outside-U.S. friends, let me give a glimpse. I do this because I think we need to keep professors at community colleges, small teaching universities, and even the for-profit schools in mind as we discuss Teaching With WordPress, open resources, and open pedagogy.  In the U.S. roughly 1/2 of all higher ed students attend a 2-year community college.  Unlike Canadian colleges, the majority of US community college students are on a transfer path.  Yes, there’s a lot of tech and career oriented programs at CC’s – they get the media & political attention – but the real action is in transfer. Students take 1-2 years at CC and then transfer to finish at university.  We also get a lot of adults and part-time students. CC’s are big in online.  The school I teach at has 1/4 of enrollment is pure online. We’ve been doing it since 1996. Average age of students at CC’s tends toward 26-28.  The faculty teach. They don’t do much research. They teach a lot. Typical full-time load is 32 semester credit hours per year. That’s 8-11 semester long courses each year.  Many full-time faculty teach even more. Most faculty, in fact, often as much as 80% of the faculty are adjunct (sessional or part-time).  Oh, and the IT support at most CC’s is minimal at best and too thin to contemplate much WordPress stuff.  They’re often stretched to the max keeping folks enrolled, the money counted, and Blackboard/D2L/Moodle running.

So what’s that have to do with Teaching With WordPress?  Well, I’m all for openness. I get truly excited about open, connected, domain of one’s own, PLE’s, and all these concepts. But I’m also painfully aware how limited and insignificant the efforts of those of us who “teach with WordPress” are. For the dominant number of faculty, teaching with WordPress is a pipe dream, a fantasy. They haven’t the experience, the tools, the support, or the time to climb the learning curve. I know. I encounter fellow faculty all the time that express interest in how and what I do with WordPress. But its’ one thing for me to do it. I used to be strategy and technology consultant in business for 20+ years. I’ve had my own domains and hosted my own stuff for 20 years. Sure I know how to do it. But they don’t and the mechanisms aren’t there to help.  And I want to change that and I hope we (you the readers and me) should talk about it. I think this course is a good step in the direction.

So now on to the preview of some of the ideas I hope to contribute to the course.

  • My Journey: Next week, as I promised, I’ll add a video and some post material documenting my journey to teaching with WordPress.  It started in 2008 when the world went into recession financial collapse (I teach econ, remember).  I’m now not only a teacher using WordPress, I’m an evangelist that helps folks at other schools get started.
  • Voice of Our Own:  The wonderful work Tim Owens and Jim Groom are doing at ReclaimHosting with Domain of One’s Own efforts are fantastic. I love them. But I want to take the idea a little further conceptually. The importance of open pedagogy, open resources, and having a domain of one’s own goes beyond digital identity, keeping education affordable, or even owning one’s data. We, all of us in higher education but faculty in particular, need to assert a voice of our own.  At one time in the distant past and the fantasies of Hollywood script writers, professors were the source of the ideas, the teachers, and the mentors of students. The reality is far different today. Higher ed has evolved to where most faculty are really just teaching somebody else’s textbook. They’re facilitating or grading but less and less of their own voice. At some schools, the online courses are pre-packaged by instructional designers and distant “content experts” at some publisher – a “course in a box”. This is a dangerous path. Teaching with WordPress can help us regain our voice. I know it has given me a voice.  I mean who would ever have thought that a econ prof at a community college in mid-Michigan would be read by people on the other side of the world! But it happens every day (thank you WordPress).
  • LMS of Our Own:  I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to replace and improve on the standard LMS. They are all pretty much the same in concept: Blackboard, Angel, Canvas/Instructure, Desire2Learn, Moodle, etc.  They’re also largely dreaded by faculty and students alike. Conceptually these tools represent the very best of 1998 thinking. Yet, they do perform some critical functions. I’ve long been fascinated wondering what could replace the LMS. Unlike most faculty, I’ve had the experience of helping invent new electronic systems to meet new business models and new needs for 30 years. I even own one of the very first patents in e-commerce (before I got open religion). Very recently (as in last weekend at Miami WordCamp) the pieces are starting to come together in my mind.  I think it’s possible to replace the massive LMS systems with a decentralized network of WordPress-based installs – a kind of “LMS of Our Own” for each professor or department. I hope to share some of these ideas and get some reaction.
  • Connections: One of the biggest barriers I see to the spread of open pedagogy and open teaching is the hierarchical and “silo-ed” nature of higher education.  It results in a lot lone wolf’s who all have to reinvent the wheel. Those of us who have been teaching with WordPress for years have gotten pretty good at helping students make connections – connections with the Web, with ideas, with each other, and with the course hub.  But collectively we the faculty of higher ed are pretty lousy at connecting with each other. We’re organized work-wise into departments, colleges, and institutions, usually with people with whom we don’t always have much in common.  I’m struck by the time several years ago when a professor (actually chair of a very, very small program – indeed the only undergrad program of its type in the state) “inherited” a course at the last-minute due to resignation of an adjunct. That’s a common scenario: “spin up this course you’ve never taught with 2 weeks notice”. The same course was being taught somewhere by someone in the U.S. It would have been nice to be able to instantly find, share, and connect with somebody who had taught the course. A jump-start assist would have been nice. But it was too hard to find.  We need a better way to establish and maintain connections with each other.  Perhaps this course can help begin that.

I’m looking forward to this course. It’s near and dear to my heart and it’s stuff I’ve been focused on for years now.  Let’s go!  (and thanks to UBC for putting this together)

One thought on “Hello, Teaching With WordPress

  1. Hi Jim, so great to meet you! I really, really enjoyed your post. Sorry I’m so late in replying…I’m teaching a summer course, which is taking up most of my time right now!

    Your point about keeping instructors at community and technical colleges, and other institutions with fewer resources, in mind when we talk about teaching with WP is important. We are incredibly lucky here at UBC that we have the resources to host an institution-wide install of WP and to provide support for it. Most of our professional development workshops and a lot of the online documentation is for the main LMS, but we do have some people working on WP and providing support, enough to help those of us who want to transition over. But it is a lot more work than just plugging and playing the LMS. It gives you freedom, as you note, but with that comes the need not only for technical skills on just how to use WP, but also the time to use that autonomy and independence to create courses the way you want to. And time is often the barrier in higher ed.

    I really like your point about a “voice of our own,” rather than being smashed into the one-size-fits-all box of the LMS. We have talked in the team of people that created this course that one value of WP over most LMS’s is that it is more of a blank slate. Sure, there is some ability to customize the LMS, but baked into that structure is a particular pedagogical approach. That’s not necessarily the case with WP, because you can do many different things with your courses, depending on the teaching and learning goals you have.

    I am so glad to meet you because, well, I guess I feel like I’m an open and WP cheerleader too and it’s great to connect with others, and then work together to try to spread the word and do what we can to help others!

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