WordPress as a Learning Management System – Move Over, Blackboard

WordPress as a Learning Management System – Move Over, Blackboard

kyleI recently had the opportunity to interview Kyle Jones, a Knowledge and Learning Services Librarian who is one of the pioneers in bringing a new social aspect to online course management.

His unique and innovative use of WPMU and BuddyPress in combination for learning services got us interested and we decided to see if he’d give us a peek into the world of WordPress as a Learning Management System (LMS).

Q: What is your background and how did you get involved with WordPress?
A:   As far back as my freshman year in high school I had wanted to be a teacher. I admired those innovative educators who pushed me as a student and taught the curriculum with a twist. I attended Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, IL and focused my studies on secondary education and English literature and composition. Along the way, I was introduced to amazing instructional technologies and felt that the future of education rested in the hands of the Read/Write Web and its philosophies of open and collaborative content creation. This was around 2005 and 2006.

I hadn’t really used WordPress that much up until my professional seminar in the spring of 2007. My host school wasn’t doing anything with blogs, but I felt that it was especially important that my composition students were introduced to publishing for each other and the Web – the greatest of authentic audiences. I set up a domain with WordPress MU and hosted about 50 student blogs with pretty good success.

I’m still very much in a teaching capacity but I’ve made a bit of a career change and moved into library and information science. I worked first as the Library IT Specialist at Elmhurst College and now as a Knowledge and Learning Services Librarian at Darien Library in Darien, Ct. At Elmhurst, I led the development of a WordPress MU installation for over 400 first-year student seminar blogs, created the library website with WordPress MU, and instructed many faculty and students on how to use this wonderful system.

During my graduate work and still to this day I develop WordPress MU course sites for Dr. Michael Stephens of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University. We began just hosting blogs but were blown away by the BuddyPress suite of plugins even when they were introduced in a very buggy beta stage. We monitored the development and then pulled the trigger in the fall of 2009 by creating a core installation of WordPress MU with BuddyPress and several sites.

It was a highly successful foray into using WordPress as a learning management system (LMS). The combination of communication tools like the wire, private messages, groups, forums, the site-wide activity stream, and profiles – not to mention the blogs! – led to a completely immersive online learning experience for the students. They engaged with each other, read each other’s profiles, commented on their notes and reflections – it was inspiring to see. Furthermore, when students acknowledged that they had a better experience over that LMS behemoth Blackboard we knew we had hit on something that had real merit. We’ve continued to improve on the system, taking their exit survey responses to heart, by improving our set of plugins, adding more features, tweaking the information architecture, and changing the theme to encourage even more interaction and peer learning opportunities.

Q: What are a few of the plugins that are indispensable to you for running WPMU as a Learning Management System?
A:   You can host blogs with WordPress MU. You can pull in feeds and do your utmost to connect people with communication streams. But it all pales in comparison to the power of BuddyPress. Even with the current set of plugins at WordPress – now at 8,152 and counting – nothing works on its own as an LMS.

I have to say that the definition and purpose of an LMS depends on the instructor. Due to the evolving nature of library and information science (LIS) and Michael’s philosophy of teaching, his classes place a high emphasis on exploring and understanding online environments like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and others as a way to comprehend, use, and remix information. BuddyPress gives the students hands-on experiences with this model.

But this is what makes using WordPress MU wonderful as an LMS: We’ve modified and tweaked it at the students’ request, making their learning space what they need it to be – not what some company says it should be.

Q: How have the WPMU Premium Dev services helped you to put together a full-featured LMS?
A:   We use the BP-Social Theme for the BuddyPress sites. This is the most obvious advantage of my relationship with WPMU Premium Dev. Clearly the theme was designed with Facebook in mind. To me, this is nothing but an advantage for an educational implementation. With so many of our students coming into the classroom with innumerable experiences in this social network, it’s such a blessing to be able to provide a user experience in a LMS that works in a way that students are used to and comfortable with. There are inherent stresses with online education: the lack of face-to-face communication, the inability to interpret tone in text, the discomforting anonymity of the faceless peer, so on and so forth. BP-Social helps break these stresses down to a manageable level, which I believe enhances the opportunity for learning.

Besides the theme, WPMU Premium Dev gives me direct access to the developers of its themes and plugins. If there’s a problem, I have confidence that it’ll get fixed and fixed quickly. The forums have been responsive and helpful. I love the WordPress community and have benefited so much from their expertise and collaborative spirit. I hope this interview and my other writings on WordPress are my little gifts back to the community.

Q: What are the pros and cons of using BuddyPress in an educational / classroom environment?
A:   No other LMS that I’m aware provides such a human touch on learning. We really see the students’ personalities show in BuddyPress – they open up to each other, they open up to the world. We get to read their academic reflections on their blogs and are provided insights into their thought processes on their wire posts. If you’re an instructor and you’re looking to create a personable and personal learning space BuddyPress is the way to go.

If you’re an instructor that prefers the lectern and strict office hours don’t come near BuddyPress with a 20-foot pole. There’s a real onus on the instructor to monitor the communication streams, not for behavior but to keep in touch with what’s going on in their online classroom and to be involved in a very dynamic conversation. In just over a few weeks of class, there have been over 200 different types of posts on the LIS 768 BuddyPress-powered course site.

But this the state of 21st-century learning with online communication technologies and the always-on classroom. There’s a higher level of responsibility placed on the instructor to stay tuned into the collaborative online experience that organically develops.

Q: What 3rd party services do you utilize in addition to your hosted blog network and why?
A:   I tap into WordPress communities and self-identified WordPress gurus in a variety of forums and on Twitter to garner more knowledge on the system. I’m not a developer. I just understand the backend of the system really well. I’m also willing to experiment and think beyond how others have defined what WordPress “should” be or does. But when I get myself in too deep, I look to others for support. Did I mention that I love the WordPress community? The software isn’t the reason it rocks, it’s the people.


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Michael hosts his blog and course sites with the wonderful Blake Carver over at lishost.net. Blake’s been supporting librarian web innovation with his hosting services for years – he knows what librarians are looking to do on the web. And when we can’t vocalize our thoughts well, he’s a damn good interpreter.

I have had wonderful service and support for my WordPress hosting at dreamhost.com. They’ve been my first and only host since September of 2006.

Q: What would you say to other educational professionals considering a switch from Blackboard to a WordPress-driven learning management system?
A:   We’re in a worldwide economic downturn and yet educational institutions – higher education, mostly – still insists on forking out thousands of dollars when we have an innovative, collaborative, and stable open source community out there that are building great LMSs. Instead of paying subscription fees to systems like Blackboard, invest in developers of these open source LMSs who will create the customized system your community needs – not the tiered system forced on you.

With that in mind, I’d say experiment with WordPress-as-LMS. Find that instructor willing to be your alpha tester and give it a go. Build a case study with one class, gather data, and be reflective about the process. You’ll find that WordPress works excellently as an LMS in some categories but is extremely weak in others. Only you can decide if those weaknesses outweigh the benefits.

Q: What kind of plugins are on your wishlist for creating a more robust learning management system with WordPress?
A:   There’s a thirsty market out there for a suite of educational plugins. Sadly, I don’t think plugin developers have really considered this community as a worthwhile time investment. I’ve briefly described a few must-haves below but would love to work with developers to expand upon my visions for these plugins.

I’m in desperate need of a developer who will build a full-fledged grade book. We use KB-Gradebook, which does the basics well in terms of reporting grades to the students. But I’d prefer to see something more comprehensive and built straight into the Dashboard both for instructor and student use.

In the same vein, I’d like to see an assignment plugin that pushes out assignments to the students. As the students finish them, they upload the documents or a URL to an assignment library (like the media library) that is accessed by the instructor in the Dashboard. The instructor would be able to quickly see who and who hasn’t finished the assignment with the option to send a quick reminder to do so or comment on their assignment (like the quick reply function in the comments).

Most of the time I end up looking at the LMS start-up Edmodo (@edmodo) and say to myself “I want that.” Edmodo gets what an LMS needs. I just wish it were open source and locally installable… But nonetheless, I give them all the credit in the world for their innovation and vision.

Q: After your success in using WPMU / BuddyPress as an LMS, have you seen other educators inspired to use it as a learning tool?
A:   I think that the little bit of notice that our WordPress LMS setup has gotten has provided a bit of inspiration to others to begin to think of WordPress in a different light. Only one other professor, a LIS educator, has taken up the WordPress LMS mantle: Kenley Neufeld. In fact, we were inspired by him for his use of the BP-Social theme.

But I have to give a lot of credit to the always hilarious Jim Groom and his cadre at the University of Mary Washington for inspiring my use of WordPress MU in the first place. It’s representative of how the WordPress community works: We learn from each other, we steal from each other, in the end, we try to give back to those who have helped us.

Q: Do you plan to upgrade to BuddyPress 1.2 during your Spring semester or will you wait until the courses have completed?
A:   Michael’s students are fearless. I like to give credit to him, them, and our profession for how much we tackle change constantly. When WordPress changed the entire look of the Dashboard (I believe in version 2.5) the class was surveyed to see if they wanted to upgrade. This was mid-semester. They basically said, “yea, we’ve got to be open to change – let’s try it.” That’s something to admire in my opinion.

But the difference between upgrading BuddyPress and WordPress is that you can almost bet that a new version of WordPress is going to be stable. The development team at WordPress has been doing this for a long time and generally don’t release junk. BuddyPress is still teething. It gets better every time there’s a new version but bugs do tend to pop up sometimes. I’ll continue to test the bleeding edge offline and we’ll upgrade after I know that all is well.

Q: Tell us a little bit about TheCorkBoard.org, the “WordPress for Libraries” project, and your hopes and objectives for instructional technology.
A:   I’ve been writing at thecorkboard.org since 2006. It’s always been a professional blog focused on technology and education but it gained a little focus on librarianship when I started graduate school. I like to throw my crazy ideas up on there and see what people respond to. I also use it to share what I know.

The “WordPress for Libraries” project is a brand new writing endeavor that I’m co-authoring with fellow librarian Polly-Alida Farrington. It’s a report of sorts on WordPress for libraries and librarians to be published by a section of our professional organization, the American Library Association. Our philosophy for our writing is not so much a how-to guide, but a way to gather the best uses of WordPress in libraries and outside of the field to showcase how this great system can be implemented. We’re inviting WordPress developers and practitioners, user experience gurus, and of course librarians to create a conversation around WordPress. We’ll be supplementing the publication with a BuddyPress-driven site to create a community around WordPress for Libraries and to highlight resources and screencasts.

I hope instructional technologists (and instructors as well) are always innovators, individuals who like to play and explore. And not just with the latest gadget. Play with ideas and norms – blow them apart and put them back together in new ways that help students do the same thing with their course material. Fail. Fail hard and talk about your failures and reflect on what went wrong. This is learning, is it not? This is ironic considering I’m writing about a platform on a platform-focused site, but always, always focus on teaching transferable technology skills and not a specific device or platform. I believe it’s only through this way that we develop students who can become flexible, competent professionals in the workforce.