This summer I’ve been experimenting with a new approach to teaching and learning online. I’ve officially (ok, secretly) broken from my institution’s BlackBoard learning management system in favor of an open-source, decentralized alternative. This summer [singlepic=498,300,300]  A screaming fossil?we are using a WordPress MU installation bolstered by the social networking component BuddyPress and further supplemented with Twitter. I’ve knitted these pieces together into what I think is a pretty effective way of teaching and learning writing online–through community and conversation, as I have taken to calling it.

an audience less captive

I’ve been running this as a hopeful experiment this summer after several years of increasing frustration with earlier iterations of my online composition courses. Despite my best efforts, I felt that students were becoming less and less engaged (if even present) in my online course. My attrition rate was off the charts and those who did remain often failed. I worked hard to create what I thought was compelling and thought provoking content–rich in mixed media including images, audio, video, and interactive features. I diligently took steps to build community–setting up group work activities, collaborative projects, workshop opportunities, discussion boards, and the like. I poured all my energy into creating thoughtful, meaningful projects for students to exercise their minds in real-world contexts and to learn lessons they could carry far beyond COM101 or COM102. Despite its grandeur, though, very few showed up to witness the magnificence of my online class. I was teaching shadows–names on a roster and little more. With each weekly announcement I detected my tone and tenor changing as my frustration grew. I often felt that I was yelling at an empty room. I did not have a captive audience, as no one was logged in to hear me. There was a problem. Something had to give.

…the exact wrong population of students… students who want a wholly independent, self-paced, solipsistic course experience…

Many causes contributed to the problem I was having, one of which is that the exact wrong population of students was enrolled in my online course–students who would rather not take the course at all so why not take it online, students who have taken the course in a traditional face-to-face fashion and failed so are now retaking it online as it will most certainly be easier, students who don’t have time to take the class (at all) and think taking it online will require less time, students who know nothing about and/or hate computers and yet elect to allow the a computer to mediate their course experience, students who want a wholly independent, self-paced, solipsistic course experience, and on and on.

Well, I probably wasn’t going to be able to change the student population any time soon; although, I think the College might want to address this at the institutional level. I blame them, in part, for marketing online courses inaccurately and to the wrong populations and for not instituting appropriate prerequisites for a student to enroll in an online course. It’s a big problem. Back to my issue…

a systematic removal of choice

I started looking more closely at the “system” which housed my course–BlackBoard. The College (or should I say the students) pays close to $80,000 a year for this system (a deal, so I hear), but I don’t see the value–not at the teaching and learning level anyway. I find the system big, clumsy, slow, and limiting.

Education–teaching and learning–for me has always been about choice.

Actually, from my earliest days with BlackBoard, I’ve been using it merely as a “shell” for students to access my real content that I host elsewhere on my own server. After trying the features with good intentions, I made a deliberate decision to invest little in BlackBoard, to allow it only to frame my course. I would use the discussion board tools and the general menu structure, but all the links would take students to content I designed and hosted outside of the BlackBoard system. Even with this method, I felt the weight of this institutional giant on my course. I felt the heavy hand of administrative control–watching unnamed users pop in and out of my course, seeing administrative/college messages pop up in my course announcements area, pushing my announcement to my students down on the page, and so on. Whose classroom was this anyway? Mine? My students’? The institution’s? Blackboard’s? All of this weighed on me, not to mention the icky taste I got in my mouth every time I heard more news about BlackBoard’s business practice of snuggling close to Microsoft and buying out or suing its LMS/CMS competition left and right. This is the work of a corporate giant. I got into education, in part, to get away from such unsavory influences.

teaching, learning, and choice reborn

Education–teaching and learning–for me has always been about choice. (And, most recently, tenure guarantees me that.) That is why I chose this summer to dump BlackBoard in favor of a more flexible solution–one that makes my course feel less like a fossilized product and more like a space where things happen, where community members meet to converse, to exchange ideas, to read and write and challenge one another, where no one person or power has a more dominating presence over the community. I know my description sounds ideal, and while I may not have fully realized this ideal, the way I’ve reconceptualized and rebuilt my course holds real promise and its beginning to deliver.

…less like a fossilized product and more like space where things happen…

I call it I’ve stripped out all the busy work I used previously to keep students, well, busy. I’ve given each student his or her own space (a blog) and I’ve taken one, as well. Together we read, write, and comment on what we’ve all written. BuddyPress is a social networking technology that overlays the WordPress blog network we are using and ties everything together with profile pages, a messaging system, and so on. I’ve thrown Twitter into the mix as a communication tool in lieu of a traditional discussion board. Students can quickly post via Twitter from their computer, phone, or other mobile device. I ask that they do this daily. Ideally, they should post on the reading we are engaged in–to keep a sort of Twitter-based reading log, but any daily post is welcomed–just to stay connected to the course. This seems painless for students.

I decided to add Twitter to my online course bag of tricks after attending a 4Cs session on using Twitter in the classroom. The idea is that it’s a technology that many traditional college students are familiar with but not too familiar. It’s enough like Facebook status updates to appeal to the droves of Facebook users, but currently it’s hot just outside the college student demographic, so students would be less likely to feel that the likes of “school” and/or some doting English teacher are appropriating their online territory.

The experience has been a refreshing one for me–perhaps, in part, due to simply mixing things up, but I believe there is more to it. Twitter has made a big difference. In the old online space of my class, it was pretty much me and sound of crickets, but in this latest version, there is activity and energy. People are communicating. I’m not quite sure about the quality of this communication, but I’m just excited to see people actively engaged at this point. There is a much greater sense of community (maybe Twitter got it right), as students reach out to one another, offering points of insight, words of encouragement, and so on. I think there might be something magical about the 140-character-or-less limit on the Twitter post. There is still room, though, for longer, more developed discussion within the course blog(s), and students go there of their own accord when needed. I like this. It feels more organic–closer to the democratized, self-sustaining kind of learning community I’ve been striving for for some time now.

I’ll continue this experiment this fall, which will be a stronger test of the viability of this new approach. (Sometimes those “reverse transfer” kids make things easier.) I’ll keep you posted…