Having experimented in my courses with a variety of technologies like wikis, blogs, online learning records, and Zotero libraries, I discovered that I and my students needed a way to integrate the different tools into a single site. In the past, Ive had a blog hosted on one site, wikis on another, and other resources on yet another, a situation which led to confusion for students, difficulties for me to keep track of all materials, and less engagement overall with the resources available. To solve these problems, I decided to create a flexible, easy-to-use course website that would integrate all the different technologies I wanted my students to employ. Blackboard, however, was not an option: students invariably hate it and dont use it; I also find it hard to navigate and customize. Here's the resulting site: Technological & Pedagogical.
Some of the features this site brings together are: student blogs, course assignments, syllabi, calendars, OED word exercises, a shared class Zotero library, online Learning Records for each student, private reading and discussion logs, absence lists, and the ability securely to upload and retrieve essays. It has been a great success. Creating a single online portal for the students seems to have significantly increased their engagement. For example, whenever a new blog post is written, all students in the class receive an email about it. I have seen, in turn, far more unprompted comments from students on their peers blog posts and more blogging generally than in the past. Having all the latest updates, assignments, discussion topics, and recent Zotero items on a single page also keeps students continually aware of the resources available to them and how they relate to the reading and writing done for the course.
- To increase student interaction with course-related technology
- To provide multiple forms of participation to students
- To gather evidence of learning in a single location
- To centralize the technologies for easy use
- To simplify management of student work for students and instructor
I chose Drupal 6 over Drupal 7 for a few reasons. Drupal 7 is a very new release and Im always wary of new releases, especially for something that needs to go into production. There are also multiple modules I use in my site that are not yet available for Drupal 7, even though the most important ones are now part of the Drupal core. The main modules I use are Content Creation Kit (CCK), Views, Panels, Taxonomy, Rules, Calendar, Event, WYSIWYG, and Signup. I believe CCK and Views are now part of Drupal 7 core. For those unfamiliar with these modules, here's a brief run-down:
CCK -- allows creation of any type of content with any fields necessary. For instance, because Im using the Learning Record for student evaluation, I needed a content type that allows for interviews, mid-term analysis, final analysis, etc. I also needed types for word definitions, discussion topics, and assignments. Using CCK, I was able to define the fields necessary for each.
Views -- permits powerful queries of the database based on practically any number of criteria. For example, each student is able to see a list of all essays (another content type made with CCK) he or she has uploaded, each log entry, etc. I created an administrative view that allows me to see and filter every bit of submitted content to the site, the date submitted, who submitted, and which course it's for. Here's a sample, with student names removed:
Panels -- allows flexible, custom layouts of data. Because the main course page needed quite a few different sections and needed to choose only updates for one particular course rather than site-wide, I created several Views that take the course name as an input, then added these Views to a Panel. The landing page for my Banned Books course is designed through Panels.
Taxonomy -- organization of content. From the start, I realized I would want to use this site again, but to do so requires some way of separating content by courses. Even though I only teach 1 course per semester now, I still need a way to separate them. I also wanted a way to separate content if and when I get to teach more than a single course in a semester. So, I created a Taxonomy vocabulary called Course, then added a vocabulary term with the course name, semester, and year. All content that students can create requires them to choose a term from the Course vocabulary before they can submit (this requirement is set through CCK when defining a content type). When they do so, it then allows the system to sort content by course, which I use in Views, Panels, etc. I also have a vocabulary for each assignment and text so that students can link everything they add to the site to a specific work and assignment. For example, heres how a student would upload an essay that does a close reading of Lolita:
Rules -- performs administrator-defined actions when things happen on the site. Since most students dont use RSS regularly, I wanted a way to easily let them know when there are new blog posts, comments on their posts, and assignments. Rules allowed me to configure the system to send an email to the appropriate users when these and other events happen on the site.
Calendar and Event -- These modules allow me to create a calendar of all course events, primarily assignments and discussion topics. Rather than the traditional course schedule chart, however, these events are visible in an actual calendar. Students can also filter the events depending on what they need to see. For example, if they only want to see upcoming assignments, they can choose to see only those types. The events also allow me to show upcoming discussions and assignments in the course landing page via Panels. Here's a sample calendar for March:
WYSIWYG -- This module is the basic What You See Is What You Get text editor familiar to anyone who uses Word, OpenOffice, or other word processors. One problem Ive had in the past is the hurdle students face just learning how to format their pages on a wiki or some similarly unusual format. This module lets them type away with all the formatting functions theyre used to having.
Signup -- allows students to sign up for events and then receive email notifications. Im the type of person who has all his due dates in his Google Calendar, then sets it up to send emails a few days in advance. I wanted to let students have this functionality for the course, too. For any assignment, therefore, students can sign up and receive emails a few days in advance so theyre not caught off guard by due dates.
Building the Site
With all these modules installed and configured, as well as a few others for some minor tasks (if you see something on the site youre curious about, just ask and Ill explain how I did it; I highly recommend Administration Menu, for instance), it was time to start defining the types of content and how students would interact with it.
First, I did the easy parts: writing up a syllabus, course policies, and the like. These I put into a Book, a basic Drupal content type that allows for hierarchical organization. This information is in the first box on the course page (http://www.michaelwidner.com/courses/content/34795).
I then defined some different content types: assignments, discussions, essays, words, texts, learning record, log entry, and wiki page. Each has different permissions. For example, everyone can view the assignments, discussions, blog posts, and texts. Words are OED definitions of words found in reading our course texts and, through CCKs node reference field, linked to those texts and browsable through a custom View (http://www.michaelwidner.com/courses/wordlist). Essays are private to the students; all papers are uploaded to the site, where I download them (no more messy inbox when papers are due), comment, then upload a new version to the same node for the students to review. Learning records and log entries are similarly private. These privacy settings keep the site compliant with FERPA requirements and grant students more freedom to write whatever they want without worries about what their peers think.
I also wanted students to see all the recent updates to the site and to the group Zotero library (the only thing thats not hosted on the site itself) from a single page. The landing page Panels, then, also have columns for recent blog posts, recent content (of any kind other than blog posts and that isnt private), and recent Zotero items. The Zotero column is updated via an RSS feed from Zoteros site. The other two are custom Views that take the Taxonomy term from the Course vocabulary as an argument (thus differentiating one course from another while allowing me to reuse them each semester without confusion). For the curious, heres a screenshot of the recent blog posts View. Without this query, I would be unable to show only posts for a single course.
Finally, I needed a menu that made the various things I expected students to do easy to find. I wanted them to be able to see all the different types of content theyve created, add new content, see the calendar, find the course landing page, and see other resources. Hence, the drop down menus. Each of the entries under My Work is a different View, which returns on the content created by the user currently logged in. Under Write, students can do the different types of writing I ask them to do or upload their essays.
Student Use of the Site
So far, I feel the site has been a success. Students have been able to use it without almost no problems. Ive noticed more blog posts and more comments on blog posts, too, than in the past. I think the email reminders and the fact that all the course information is in one place may help. In previous courses, Ive used third-party blogging platforms like Wordpress.com. While that is a nice site, I had to require posts or Id see weeks go by with no activity. With the new course site, I often see several new, unprompted posts a week and multiple student comments on almost every post. For example, I had to cancel class for a few days recently, yet the students went on discussing the texts through the blog. When we reconvened, several even mentioned how it felt like class kept going even in the absence of a physical meeting because of the course site.
Through my administrator view of all submitted content, Im also easily able to see who is regularly adding content and what types of work theyre doing. Some students, for example, have really taken to the OED word lists, often adding 10-20 definitions per text. As a result, weve built a nice resource for their OED exercises. Rather than digging through their notes or the books, students can just look at the course site, choose an appealing word, and then write an essay that focuses on how that word informs our understanding of the text.
Many other students add regular log entries that reflect on their reading, the class discussions, and their own challenges and successes. Part of the Learning Record method of evaluation emphasizes self-reflection; these log entries seem, so far, to be helping many of my students construct a narrative of their learning that they can review at a glance through (you guessed it) another custom View keyed to the logged-in user.
One content type that hasn't been used so far is the wiki. I had planned before the semester started to make collaborative work a key component. The blog posts, word entries, and Zotero library, however, have so far met this need, leaving me little reason to have students write wiki entries, too. I may, in the future courses, emphasize the wiki more. I do plan, for their final papers, to have them work on group essays via wikis. I will give them the option of writing their final papers on an original topic of their choosing or, if they want to explore in more depth the ideas weve discussed in class, writing a group paper of considerably more length.
Students also dont seem to have made use of the ability to sign up for email reminders about assignments. I don't know if this lack of use results from a failure on my part to encourage them more or because they dont think its useful. Either way, it was easy to set up and unobtrusive, so leaving it in place does not cause any problems.
Because I teach in a computer-assisted classroom, we've also been able to interact with the site during class. For example, one day was devoted to learning and using Zotero in preparation for an essay in which students read, summarized, and analyzed a peer-reviewed critical essay. After making sure everyone had a Zotero account and had joined the group library, I had students do research in class and save their findings to the group library. Not only did the additions show up in their Zotero client, but on the course website as well. Moreover, as students have continued their research, the entire class has been able to see when new items appear just by looking at the main course page.
We've also had an in-class peer review day that relied on the course website. Because everyone uploads their papers to the site, they were able to login, retrieve their papers, have their peers read and comment on their work, and then upload the comments back to the site. No need for USB keys, email, reams of paper, or anything else. Instead, all the results of the work stayed together in a single, digital place.
Further Evaluation and Changes
One of the key components of the Learning Record is a mid-term evaluation not only of the students own progress, but also of the course. After Spring Break, Ill be asking students to evaluate the course site, how theyve used it, what changes theyd like to see, and what parts have worked particularly well. One change I plan to implement based on my views of their work so far is to warn them if they havent created a log entry in over a week. Because they should be doing this work regularly so as to construct a narrative of their progress for their portfolio, I think regular reminders (through the Actions module) would help keep them on task. I also intend to ask why some abilities of the site are or are not used in an effort to get a better sense of how my students see the site.
Overall, Im very pleased with student use of the site. Ive made a few tweaks throughout the semester for my own convenience, such as having all papers uploaded be automatically renamed with the students name and the assignment, but for the most part the initial design has worked well. Ive been able to add only the things I need for my course (unlike Blackboard, which throws everything at you) and lay it out on the page in what I think is a visually appealing, easily comprehensible manner.