Finding My Voice – My Teaching With WP Journey

Note: I think I know how my online students feel when they fall behind because “life and work”.  I haven’t been able to participate as aggressively as I wished in #TWP15 Teaching with WordPress, but hope springs eternal.  Here goes my story.

In the video here I explain my journey to teaching with WordPress. I teach economics at Lansing Community College (and occasionally elsewhere).  As a community college professor, that means a lot of classes and few resources. I’ll confess, my journey to WordPress was originally motivated more by a desire to save time and simplify my workflow than by any great goal for improved pedagogy.  The improved pedagogy and learning outcomes happened anyway, whether I was trying or not, which has made it very interesting.  Simpler AND better. We don’t find that very often in higher ed tech.  I cover more of the details of how I progressively got pulled into the WordPress world in this video. It’s a bit long for an embedded video which is no surprise to my colleagues who know I love to talk.  The sound quality isn’t quite what I want, but I hope to edit it and improve it soon. But posted is better than perfect.

As I mention in the video, I’m not claiming to be the world’s pedagogical expert at teaching with WordPress.  I’m still experimenting. I’m trying. And I’m learning myself.  What’s been amazing to me is how things I’ve done because I wanted to save time or improve workflow have also led to better and improved learning by students. They love it.

I’ve actually used WordPress in several different ways as a professor. And in most of my uses, I haven’t replaced the traditional school LMS such as Blackboard, D2L, Moodle, etc. In fact, I can’t completely replace it (yet) because there are some minimum uses of the LMS that are mandated by my school. Don’t get me wrong. I want to eventually replace the LMS as we know them and I think WordPress can help us do that. I just am not there (yet).  So, I want to go over some of my uses and provide some links and screenshots.  I hope to share a little of what I’ve learned and maybe I can help other professors get started.  I want to emphasize how using WordPress can help us as professors to find our voice.

Note: I’m going to use WordPress somewhat generically. Yes there’s other open source tools available to run a website. Known and Jekyll-Git come to mind and if that’s your thing, great. But IMO, WP is the best combination of power, flexibility, supportive community, and stability available.

EconProph.comscreenshotThis is the website where you’re probably reading this right now (unless it’s been syndicated or copied elsewhere which is OK as long as it conforms to the Creative Commons license I assign).  I use this site to collect, curate, and comment on other economics and higher education related material I find on the Web.  It’s my editorial and general publishing platform.  I think all professors need a site like this.  It helps establish an professional voice for the professor. Increasingly academic research discussions and debates are being held on the Web via blogs of the professors.  Certainly they are in economics where journal publications have become kind of “tombstones” as Paul Krugman calls them. It’s where the final resting place for some academic argument lies. While the argument is raging though, the action is on the Web. In the lay world the same discussions are happening on the Web, only they happen in places like Facebook and Reddit.  The problem with  those is that once you post there, it’s not really your voice anymore. They own it. They control it. They can make it disappear. We need to have our own voice and the only way to do that is with our own domains and our own sites.

Teaching-wise, a site like this is really useful for online, hybrid, and f-2-f classes. It’s been many, many years since I’ve needed to copy a hand-out of some form for my classes.  It’s also an excellent way for students to see how their professor engages with the topics and materials.  That builds the professor’s credibility and it models the right thinking for students.  Even if you don’t teach a class with a WordPress, all teaching professors need a site like this.

The next site is my “teaching portfolio” site.  I think of it alternatively as “the world’s dullest site” or “my office in the cloud”.  It’s a great place to collect stuff for reuse later and where others can find or use them – things like vitae, syllabi, presentations, and comments from students.  It also makes a great background/bio/self-intro site for my students.  By the way, with the help of 1 or 2 WordPress plugins, creating and publishing new semester syllabi and schedules becomes a 5-10 minute breeze. It helps them see me as a professor, learn more about my background if they’re interested, etc.  It really builds a professional identity. It also helps me keep track of all the “service” stuff I do that my administration will ask about sometime next year but I will likely have already forgotten. I can embed my current calendar too.  and and

Econproph on Macro screenshotI teach the principles courses of economics. Micro in one semester and macro in the other, although lately I’m mostly a macro workhorse.  I teach these courses a lot. Fully online courses (students from 5 continents so far – come on Australia, you can do better).  But also traditional lecture face-to-face class and a 50-50 hybrid version as well.  I use the school’s LMS for grade reporting and any assignment where I want to use the auto-grading and auto-recording of scores features of the LMS. So basically quizzes are in the LMS (and right now discussion forums, too, but those are moving to WP soon).  Everything else is on a single WP site. My “lecture” content, assigned readings, videos, annotated version of the textbook table of contents, worksheet assignments, practice quizzes, and even additional links to explore the topic more.

The benefit for me is great. It’s one place to edit.  Fix a typo in one place and it’s updated in all sections of the course. The editing interface is much better than any LMS. Media storage and embedding is great. And help is only a Google “WordPress how-to …..” click away.

For students the benefits are even greater. IT’s easy to read and navigate on mobile automatically. It’s quicker than most LMS’s. Most important, it’s friendlier to read. WordPress allows and even encourages material to be presented as a narrative. That makes navigating the course easier.  And easier makes more better learning. Instead of the tech distracting from the content, WordPress features the content.

This brings me to idea of story-telling. We learn by stories. Humans always have. It’s part of being human. And a course should be giant story with little stories and analogies embedded in it. WordPress helps you tell stories.  You might want to check out post on Courses as Stories.  The first WP version of my principles courses (what you’re seeing if you’re clicking in summer 2015) started some of this narrative-oriented layout to the course, but version 2.0 in the works will do even more. and

econhist screenshotMy other two major courses are a little smaller. Unlike the 4 or so sections of macro I might teach each semester, I teach only one section of Comparative Economic Systems (spring) or Economic History (fall) at a time.  These courses are different.  I’ve also setup WordPress sites for them and have all the content on there. However, in these two courses I either have students post their “research papers” and discussions on the course WordPress site, or I provide them each with their own blog and syndicate their course-related content into the course hub site.

The advantage here is improved writing and engagement. Students like becoming creators on the Web and not just passive consumers. They also respond well to the idea that the writing assignments are not disposable assignments that only the professor may ever see.

This format of connected courses has a lot of potential and I know I’m a follower and not so much of a path-breaker in this format. Most of cMOOC style courses have operated this way.




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)