Category Archives: Open Online Courses

Polarization and profits (#engageMOOC)

For topic 2 of #engageMOOC (Engagement in a Time of Polarization), we read an article by Chris Gilliard called “Power, Polarization and Tech,” and Chris was also part of live conversation for the course (I couldn’t join it live but watched the video recording). We also watched a couple of videos, and some of what by Zeynep Tufekci had to say in a Ted talk from September 2017 really stood out to me. Here I’m going to present some somewhat random reflections on both of these–things that really made me think.


I and a few others engaged in some annotations on his article “Power, Polarization and Tech” through I noted there that, while I’m embarrassed to admit it, I hadn’t really fully grasped how social media, and perhaps other aspects of the web based on making money through keeping our attention, are designed in order to increase polarization. “Polarization is by design, for profit,” Gilliard notes, because it keeps our attention on the platforms that drive it (I mentioned this in my previous post for #engageMOOC as well).

It’s not just that Facebook and Twitter (for example) attract people who get enraged and abuse each other, nor that they don’t do enough to stop abuse (though they don’t), it’s also that people getting angry and outraged and posting about that new horrible thing the other side did is what these platforms require in order to continue to be financially viable…it’s what makes them tick. It’s built into the design of their profits so it’s not going to go away. At least not so long as those who create and run the platforms make their money through our attention and our data.

In the recording of the live discussion with Chris for the course, he points out how many of the apps and social platforms we use suck up our data in ways we don’t realize, and do with it things that we don’t know. He noted that when you update apps, you should re-do your privacy settings, which I hadn’t thought about before. The problem with this is not just “do you have anything to hide” but also that you have lost agency if you don’t know what’s happening. You can read the Terms of Service, of course, but they are often vague and don’t really tell you what is happening with your data. And it can end up, through being sold to others, affecting what kind of insurance you’re able to get (for example). Again, the issue here is in part about agency, about being in control, and we’re losing that with regard to our data.

Which is why, in my previous post, I wondered if one way to help address this issue would be to rethink how we engage on social media and in other apps. We have gotten used to the idea that the web is free (of cost in the sense of money) and so all of these wonderful free services seem like just the way things should be. But of course we are paying in other ways, and not just with our data; we are paying with divides between people built on outrage that is part of the bread and butter of our free services. And as we’ve been hearing lately, it’s all too easy for people to create bots who will stir up that outrage for political (or other) gains.

I have started to make a point of finding online apps and platforms I think are useful and paying for them. Partly this is to support those who I think are providing good things in the world, and partly because I think that this is one small way forward: if the people who create such things can make money in other ways, there will be less need for us to pay in data and attention (at least, I hope so). I realize I’m privileged in this regard; not everyone can pay for such things. And Gilliard notes in the live discussion the limitations of individual actions–just because I take shorter showers doesn’t mean things are going to change. I agree that bigger efforts on a larger structural level are required too. But smaller efforts aiming towards what one wants to see are at least something (and Gilliard notes they aren’t a problem, just not enough usually).

That’s one of the many reasons I prefer Mastodon to Twitter: I pay with money, not my data. And there are actually enforced rules against abuse (and a specific no-Nazi policy, as the instance I’m on is based in Germany). No emphasis on “freedom of speech is always good and we just need more of it to drown out the Nazis” kind of rhetoric on the instance I’ve joined. Find me at I’m also at, but I post less there.



Zeynep Tufekci, by Bengt Oberger, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons

I really found her Sept. 2017 Ted talk quite powerful. I don’t have a lot of time so I’ll just mention one or two things in particular. Tufekci was talking about machine-learning algorithms and how the mountains of data that are being provided about us through our interactions with platforms and apps can lead to personalization of content. Some of it seems innocuous, like when you look at some product online and then ads for that product follow you around in other apps and platforms. Some of it even seems beneficial, like how you might get discounts on something you want, like tickets to Vegas. But it can be dangerous too, because the algorithms may realize that the people who are really likely to buy tickets to Vegas are those addicted to gambling, and since they have no ethics the algorithms will target such people. And further, they can work to provide you with more and more of worse and worse content once you start, e.g., watching something a little bit fringe or violent on YouTube–the suggestions on the right are poised to take you further and further down that path (which, as a parent  of a pre-teen boy I really paid attention to).

One thing that hit me in particular was that the personalization these algorithms can do can lead to use getting different content in our social and news feeds–that’s not news to me, but Tufecki pointed out something I hadn’t really focused on before: “As a public and as citizens, we no longer know if we’re seeing the same information or what anybody else is seeing, and without a common basis of information, little by little, public debate is becoming impossible ….”

If the algorithms are showing us different news stories (e.g. on Facebook) and posts from different people with very different political leanings (because they think you will like one kind of post and I another, and we don’t see the other posts even when we’re following the same people), then no wonder we end up unable to have effective public discussions.

I guess I have always held hope in the idea that people who genuinely want to come together and find solutions will do so. There are many people who really want to consider various sides carefully, who want to listen and consider the “other side” and whether there is anything there they should be paying attention to. But people like that are going to have a really hard time coming together if they don’t even have a shared basis of information or if the “other side” they see is interpreted through lenses that demonize them because this is what keeps your attention, and this is what the algorithms think you want in order to keep your attention.


Awareness as a first step?

This is all very depressing and all I can hope right now is that helping people see what is going on will encourage us to change the structures that continue to support it. Gilliard talks about looking at the EU as a start, where some of the privacy regulations are much more stringent than in the US as regards companies like Google and Facebook collecting data. It may take governmental regulation to help us move in the right direction. But it’s also going to take awareness on many people’s part to even see the problem.



Creating meaningful communities (#engageMOOC)

I am participating in a two-week long MOOC called “Engagement in a Time of Polarization,” hosted on EdX. It’s related to the Antigonish 2.0 project (you can read Bonnie Stewart‘s May 2017 Educause article for more: “Antigonish 2.0: A Way for Higher Ed to Save the Web.”

The course is broadly about what the title says: how to engage people together when the context around us emphasizes polarization. At least, that’s what I’m getting from the bit I’ve done of the course so far. As Chris Gilliard notes in his post “Power, Polarization, and Tech,” polarization is profitable for social media and many other parts of the web: “Polarization keys engagement, and engagement/attention are the what keep us on platforms.” So how do we engage with one another, create meaningful communities, work together to address issues we face in our local contexts, when our digital lives are influenced by moves towards polarization?

Meaningful participatory communities

Today I watched three videos in the course, from people working on different aspects of creating meaningful communities, of helping to create “participatory public engagement” (in the words of the introductory video for Topic 1 of the course). The Highlander Center in Tennessee, USA, is one group working on such efforts. According to the video interview of two people from the Center, (among other things) they bring people together to learn from each other about issues in their own communities, plan actions to address them, and carry those out. The emphasis here is on people bringing their own experiences, their knowledges and cultural practices, and learning from each other through those.

This sounded like an amazing group (they’ve been at it since the 1930s), and I couldn’t help thinking: okay, so the people involved learn and take action, but what about the next generation? And the next? How do we build something like this into just part of what it means to be living in a society (or at least, a democratic one)? I suppose one can do so through the three levels of the Angtigonish movement: local groups, k-12 and higher education, international networks.

Meaningful participatory communities on the web?

How might online platforms or other aspects of digital life contribute to such communities? Right now, often they don’t. As noted above, much of social media is based on profits that can be made through engagement, for which polarization is an important driver. What other opportunities exist?

I like to think blogs are one option here: they can encourage longer writing, longer reflections, deeper engagement. And then through comments people can connect together. But I’m finding there aren’t that many people commenting lately, whether on my blog or others’ (this is purely anecdotal!), and I wonder if social media is taking its place. Just do a quote-tweet instead and that’s your comment! And maybe doing so can connect more people (the message about the post gets amplified beyond one’s own original message on social media, e.g.). Still, social media posts, while permanent in some ways, can often be hard to find later, whereas blog posts and comments are a bit easier I think. Not to mention that social media platforms can filter what you see, or when you see it.

drawing of an elephant with an "m" and "" underneath it

Find Mastodon logos and stickers through their press kit at

Another interesting option is social media that isn’t driven by profit. I posted about Mastodon on this course’s discussion board as one such option. The discussion question was about this quote and whether it is correct:

“It’s not that there’s anything particularly healthy about cyberspace in itself, but the way in which cyberspace breaks down barriers. Cyberspace makes person-to-person interaction much more likely in an already fragmented society. The thing that people need desperately is random encounter. That’s what community has.”

– John Perry Barlow, 1995, from

I posted on the discussion board and then realized that that is not visible to people outside the course, and also that it will disappear once the course is finished in two weeks.

So I’m reproducing my post below.

There are probably never any truly random encounters in online spaces, because where you go depends on your past, your current experiences, your desires, etc., and others end up there too because of their context…but I have found that I have been able to reach out beyond my fairly small social bubble online through a new-ish social media platform, Mastodon ( When I joined in the Fall of 2016 it was a small space with a small number of users, few of whom were from my own, already-established online circles. As soon as I made my first public post someone replied to welcome me, and for awhile there was a culture of welcoming new people with a friendly reply, which I joined in as well. I got to know a number of people in those early days, some of whom are still there and some of whom have moved on. But it felt like a small community of friendly folks that I didn’t meet randomly, but that led to connections I would not have made on my usual social circles online.

Now Mastodon has gotten much bigger, but the nature of how it works still fosters small communities if one wants them. It is a federated social network, which means no one big person or company owns all of it. You join an “instance,” which can be big or small, general or focused on particular interests, and run by one or a group of people. The code is open source and anyone with the tech know-how can spin up an instance (and the helpful thing to do is to contribute to your instance host’s expenses and time with a regular donation such as on Patreon or something like that). Each instance has its own rules and policies; many are much stricter on hate speech and harassment, for example, than what you’ll find on Twitter.

But the beauty of federation is that you can still talk with people on other instances. You can either just see the posts from people on your own instance, or on all instances that yours federates with (usually, if one person follows someone on another instance, then that leads to the instances connecting to each other; but this may differ according to different instances’ rules/practices).

Not random encounters, but expanding circles. the ability to stay in a small community or branch outwards, The ability to be on an instance with policies you agree with and people you want to spend time with. And while there are disagreements and some ugliness at times, it is nowhere near the deep polarization and horror I sometimes see on places like Twitter.

I should also mention that there is even a co-op instance on Mastodon, where the members collectively run the instance, decide on policies, etc.:

I am not claiming that Mastodon will solve all our social ills…far from it. But I think it’s a move in the right direction because the way it’s structured has the capacity for instances to focus on engagement rather than attention, connection rather than polarization … in a way I don’t see current mainstream social media platforms doing.

And if you don’t want your attention and your data to be the product, be willing to put forward a little money to support your instance host! :)


Summer of tears and hope

This summer has been tough. Hell, this year has been tough. Okay, this lifetime. But it seems there have been more and more reports, each week, of atrocities around the world. And each time they hit me hard.

Somehow the attack in Nice, France on Bastille Day 2016 hit me the hardest. Maybe because it was a family event, a happy and fun event I can imagine my family going to anywhere in the world. Maybe it was the extreme violence of it. Maybe it was just because it came on the heels of so much else. But it’s really hard for me to take.

So I decided to draw a picture. Maybe art therapy would help? It helped a little.



I was trying to express my crushing sadness without letting it crush me, while also reminding myself of hope and work to be done and beauty and love that still exist and that we must cultivate.


I also took up an invitation to participate in a collaborative poem through #clmooc, on this post by Terry Elliott.

He had taken a poem by someone else and focused on a few words.

picture of a poem over another poem with words turned into colours and a circle image

Image from here, original here


Now, this original creation (the words in colours) came from work many of us did in #clmooc. See Deanna Mascle’s post about it.

Then Terry invited others to play with his creation on a Hackpad, so I did. And the result kind of resonated with my feelings today and the image above, without me trying to have it do so. I kept focusing on the words “struggle” and “love,” and realized they can go together and help me think through my pain and outrage. Struggle and love.

So I, too, took words from the picture and then added them to Terry’s chosen words. I then left some of it for others to play with, later. The first screenshot below is Terry’s poem; the second is my additions (at the top).



I have to say, doing all this today has helped me feel a bit better. Especially the part where I am in a collaboration with others to make things, things that make you think, that invite others to join in. That’s really what I need right now. Maybe many of us do.


Post script later that day…

Daniel Bassill added to my drawing in a fantastic way that extends its meaning and impact. Please see here!

Having someone else resonate and connect and extend what I did is amazing. Thank you, Daniel!


Intro for #clmooc2016

I have sometimes participated off and on in #clmooc–Connected Learning MOOC. This is an open, online course that’s about connecting with others and making things. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to participate this year either, but I’ll do what I can!

The first “make cycle” is all about introducing ourselves and getting to know others. We were encouraged to introduce ourselves in one of numerous ways. I’ve recently been trying to practice more drawing because it’s the one thing in my life I feel like I just “can’t” do, and that poses a challenge–well, I won’t be able to unless I practice more! And I got inspired to do that at the Sketching in Practice Symposium at the end of June. So I decided to do a drawing.

I was inspired to do this particular one after reading a blog post by Helen DeWaard called “The True You: Iterations of a Bio.” She reflects on bio statements and how we craft different ones for different purposes. When I thought about this, I realized that most bios I’ve written are still just about my professional life. Maybe that’s because the contexts are somehow related to my professional life, but still. I feel like that aspect of my life takes over a lot of the rest of it, too often.

DeWaard also asked a question that struck right at the heart of this issue for me:

When it comes to social media, your bio is part of your presence. Do you reveal who you are or what you do? Is there a way to reveal both?

Mostly I reveal what I do. Or what I care about, but even then it’s related to what I do.


Thinking about these things, I came up with a series of drawings to act as a preliminary intro to me. To who I am and what I do. Or maybe just what I do but not all about work. I still haven’t decided how to reveal “who I am.” Or really, who that is.

You can see the images larger if you click on each one…




I taught myself some CSS! (and am very excited about it)

I am working on a teaching and learning portfolio right now because I’m going up for promotion to Professor of Teaching (the highest rung in the “teaching” faculty track here at UBC). I decided to create it on my own domain I got with Reclaim Hosting, so I could have more control over the theme/plugins (and the freedom to break it, of course, that goes along with that).

Through this experience I’m beginning to understand why UBC Blogs only has a few themes available; I have tried numerous free themes on my own WordPress install, and have found several problems with many of them. Only after working hard to customize them the way I want, of course. Then I find out something is weird/buggy/doesn’t work the way I need, and I don’t have enough expertise to fix it.

I finally found a theme I think I can deal with, Moesia, which I first heard about through Alan Levine, and which was recommended when I took the You Show course (well, I participated a little bit at least), so I figured I was probably safe with it not having too much wrong.

Here’s the shell of the site so far (content to be inputted this week!):

(On this domain I also have my DS106 blog:, but don’t try going to because you’ll just see a message about it being under construction. Later I’m going to make that my general hub of info/links about me, but it’s not ready yet).

Teaching myself CSS

So I liked a lot of things about Moesia, but there was still a problem. The menu items in the Section Widget (see here for plugin–made here at UBC!) were showing up with a different colour for links than the rest of the links on the site. What’s worse, they were a kind of medium-grey colour, and you couldn’t really tell they were links until you moused over them. I wanted to change those links to the same colour as the rest of the links on the site.

Enter web search for “change colour of links CSS.” That works fine if you want to change all the links on the site, which actually I wanted to do because I didn’t like the colour of the links on the main pages of the site. From this site I learned you can do this:


/* unvisited link */
a:link {
color: #FF0000;

/* visited link */
a:visited {
color: #00FF00;

/* mouse over link */
a:hover {
color: #FF00FF;

/* selected link */
a:active {
color: #0000FF;


Of course, you just add in your own colour codes for what you want.

That would have worked fine except it changed not only the links in the body of the pages but also in the title and menu bar, which I didn’t want. The title and menu were white on black, and when I changed the rest of the links these looked bad on the black background.

Enter “inspect element”: go to a place on a page, right click, and select “inspect element” (at least that’s what it says on Firefox). I learned this trick from the WordPress drop in sessions at UBC. Then you can mouse over various parts of the code on the bottom and see what they refer to on the page. Below I have the problematic section widget highlighted.


Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 9.38.50 AM


From this page I learned how to change the colour of links in a particular section of a site. And from here I learned the difference in the CSS for div vs. class.

I tried at first to change the colour in the “page-list” class, but that didn’t work. I can’t remember exactly what CSS I used, but it didn’t work anyway.

Here is what I finally came up with that worked, after many, many trials and errors. I figured this out by looking in the right pane on the screenshot above and finding where the colour was for the links.


/*changing colour of links in sidebar pagelist widget*/
.widget-area .widget a {
color: #B42C03;
text-decoration: none;

.widget-area .widget a:hover {
color: #2b7291;
text-decoration: underline;

.widget-area .widget a:active {
color: #000;
text-decoration: bold;


Then I got bold and decided I wanted to change the colour of the other links in the site, but not the ones in the header bar–the title and menu. Using the same process as above, determining what the section was called for the body content of the pages (I tried “body,” but that didn’t work), I came up with this:


/*changing colour of links*/
/* unvisited links */
.entry-content a:link {
color: #B42C03;

/* visited links   */
.entry-content a:visited {
color: #B42C03;

/* user hovers     */
.entry-content a:hover {
color: #2b7291;
text-decoration: underline;

/* active links    */
.entry-content a:active {
color: #000;
text-decoration: bold;


I left the “visited” and “unvisited” both there even though they’re the same colour, in case I want to change that colour later (the code is there and I don’t have to try to remember it later!).

Then I realized the comment forms still had the old link colour, so I changed those too:


/*changing colour of links in comment form*/
.comment-form a:link {
color: #B42C03;
text-decoration: none;

.comment-form a:hover {
color: #2b7291;
text-decoration: underline;



The last thing I wanted to change was the colour of the links in the sub-menus in the menu bar. Here is what it looked like before:


Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 1.39.05 PM

It’s not too bad blown up like this, but on a big screen those links were hard to see against the white background. I wanted them the same colour as the other links on the site.

When I did “inspect element” on that section it said <ul class=”sub menu” style=display: block;”>.  So I tried the following, and it worked!


/* unvisited links */
.sub-menu a:link {
color: #B42C03;
text-decoration: none;

/* visited links   */
.sub-menu a:visited {
color: #B42C03;

/* user hovers     */
.sub-menu a:hover {
color: #2b7291;
text-decoration: underline;

/* active links    */
.sub-menu a:active {
color: #000;
text-decoration: bold;


Again, I left the “visited” and “unvisited” links both there and both the same colour, in case I want to change the colour of one of them later.


Next steps

I really don’t know what I’m doing with CSS. This was the result of a lot of trial and error over the past couple of days. And I still don’t really know when to use something like .sub-menu versus #sub-menu (one is for a div and one for a class I think, but I don’t know which is which so I just test them out; and I don’t know what a div or a class is, actually).

I’m a total geek about this stuff. I really love being able to do this, to have control beyond what the theme allows under “customize”–if they haven’t provided me with the option to change the link colour with the free theme, I want to be able to do it anyway. I vividly remember my first coding experience in junior high school (grades 8-9), in BASIC (yes, I am that old). I loved it. It was like a puzzle and you got to see right away if you figured out the answer b/c things either worked or they didn’t. Then I learned some FORTRAN at university, but then didn’t do anything after that. And I kind of miss it.

If I had time I’d do a course on html and CSS, like this one from Code Academy.

But right now I’m busy working on my promotion portfolio. Maybe I’ll keep learning CSS as I go, as things come up that I want to do.

Like for instance I want to change the font size on this site (I’m getting old and can’t deal with small font)! Gotta figure out how to do that….

Students posting on WordPress on the front end

I use WordPress for all of my course sites, and for some of my courses I ask students to post directly on the course site (for one they set up their own WordPress sites and they are syndicated to the course site). So far when I ask them to post to the course site I’ve had to teach them how to sign up as an author on the site, then log into the dashboard and make a post, how to add images, etc. It is quite a to-do, as the three screencasts I created for a course this summer attests to. I’ve decided to look into a front-end posting system and see how that would work.

The first thing I thought of was gravity forms, because that’s what we have used for the Directory in the Teaching with WordPress open online course I’m helping to facilitate. For that, we asked people to upload an image, gave them input boxes for text and also for a URL if they wish to connect a website. It seems I could use something like this to ask students to:

  • write a blog post on something associated with the course (differs according to different assignments)
  • include a URL or two if relevant
  • include an image if relevant

What I’d also like them to be able to do is to embed a video file from the front end, like you can do from the dashboard in WP where it just embeds automatically from YouTube and Vimeo (and maybe others too…those are the two I’ve used).

For example, this summer term I asked students to find and write about philosophical activity out there in the world beyond the course, and they had to include at least one image or video embed or audio file. It would have been great if they could just fill out a form on the front end to do so.

I don’t know how to use Gravity Forms for this; Rie Namba set it up for us on the Teaching with WordPress site. But I can go to a WordPress drop-in at UBC to learn (we have a two-hour drop-in time every week, which is just super cool to have).

And Pauline Ridley sent me this link on Twitter, which talks about how to set up a Gravity Form so users can submit a blog post with images through it: This looks really useful!

When I tweeted about this desire of mine, Mariana Funes reminded me about the P2 theme for WordPress. She and John Johnston have set up a P2 demo site for Teaching with WordPress, and anyone can play along if they contact Mariana or John (try Twitter, or if you want to contact them but don’t have a Twitter account, comment below and I’ll connect you to them!). I forgot about this site and haven’t tried it out yet. I’m going to as soon as I get my login credentials (again…can’t find them) from Mariana. Then I’ll be able to see if it can do all of what I want.

screen shot of TRU Writer

Screen shot of TRU Writer

Alan Levine created some things called SPLOTs for Thomson Rivers University, which are super excellent, easy way for people to make various kinds of posts on the front end of WordPress. The TRU Writer looks particularly good for my purposes. But it’s not (yet?) easily available as a WP theme; the source code is on Github, but that’s beyond my abilities to deal with. And plus, I can’t just upload new themes to our UBC Blogs site where my course sites are; the themes and plugins are controlled centrally. Hmmm…maybe I could convince them to try the SPLOT? :)


Editing after posting?

One thing I’m wondering, for all of these options; is there any way for students to edit their posts after posting from the front end? I know that’s not the case with the Gravity Form we used for the Directory for the Teaching with WordPress course. Any edits that needed to be done were done by one of us after it was posted. And the TRU Writer says the post is final once it’s submitted as well. Not sure about the P2 theme.


Anyone else have another idea to try for front-end posting?


A web, not a website

In Teaching with WordPress, one of the week 2 topics for discussion is to think about how to design a web. This comes from a quote from Stephen Downes in a presentation called “Design Elements in a Personal Learning Environment,” where he says: “A MOOC is a web, not a website.” Now, in this he is talking about what later came to be known as cMOOCs, or connectivist MOOCs (see my blog posts here and here for a discussion of cMOOCs). Many MOOCs today are more like websites than webs. But what does that mean, really?

To me, having experienced several open online courses that I would call “cMOOCs,” designing a course as a web means that one focuses more on providing opportunities for people to connect with each other than on providing content that they all need to get and be assessed on. The curriculum comes in large part from the participants, who shape what is talked about and how the course goes by what they write, what they link to, the questions they raise, etc. And perhaps most importantly, the best value for me in such courses is that the connections I have made continue onwards, long past the end of the courses. From my experience in various open online courses I have gone on to collaborate with people on designing and facilitating an open online course, on research projects, and, well, just on fun.

I will tell anyone who will listen that my experiences in connectivist-style open online courses has changed my life. For example, here’s a map of all the things that have changed in my professional activities as a result of taking my first open online course, ETMOOC, in early 2013. (The embed interface is not that great; I used MindMup for this map, and it’s a little clunky…it’s just that that is what I started with so I kept it in there!) This link should get you to a full page version of the mind map.


But my question is, how do I design my own on-campus courses so that they are more web-like and less website-like? I’m not thinking that my students’ lives are going to be changed in quite the same way as mine has been changed by my experiences in open online courses, but I would like for there to be more connections between students, and between students and myself, through online interactions. And there isn’t much that is doing that in my WordPress course websites right now.

Right now my WordPress sites for my on-campus courses don’t do a whole lot beyond giving content: here are the readings, here are the assignment instructions, etc. That’s a website. For example, see the website for the course I’m teaching right now, Introduction to Philosophy, here.

Sometimes I also ask students to do blog posts (depending on the course); so, for example, for Arts One their blog posts are aggregated onto our class website under “our blog posts,” here. Sometimes I ask them to post some of their work publicly (it’s always up to them whether or not to do it, though), such as with the “non-traditional artifacts” here or the “philosophy in the world” assignments here.

And for the first time ever, just this week I asked students to participate in a discussion on a WP site through comments, using a shortcode to get two pages with the discussions onto a single page: Here’s a short post on how I did that.


I guess I just feel like I’m mostly replicating an LMS with my WordPress sites. And I want to know how I can use the power of the WP blank slate to do more interesting things. That’s one of the things I am hoping to get help with. And a question I asked on Twitter earlier this week is a start!


I made discussions on WordPress!

Okay, so it’s not that fancy, but I’m pretty excited that I got the following to work.

So in my PHIL 102 (Introduction to Philosophy) course this summer, I took one of the sections of the course and did a little bit of a “flip” of it, where I asked students to watch some videos ahead of class, in addition to doing the reading, so I wouldn’t have to do all the lecture in class and we could spend more time face-to-face on what F2F is good at: discussion, interaction.

But I wanted them to also do some kind of activity with the videos so the material sinks in a bit better, and to connect the work outside of class with the videos to the work inside class with the activities. So I decided to ask them to post comments on one of two discussion questions, and I would bring their answers into class to share, and talk about them a bit. noun_17047_cc

But I didn’t know how to do that on WordPress until I became part of a team of designers and facilitators for a course on Teaching with WordPress. One of the people designing the site set up our front page so that we could show announcements on it, using a shortcode. I copied this idea for the PHIL 102 class. You can see the page where I embedded the discussions, here.

I made each of the two discussion questions a post under the category “discussions.” Then I used the following shortcode on the page linked above to get them onto the page: [loop query=”posts_per_page=3&category_name=discussions” view=”archive”] That requires a plugin that allows for the “loop” shortcode: loop shortcode plugin, made by people at UBC. That’s the same code we use on the front page of the Teaching with WordPress site to get the “latest updates” to show up.

Then, I just asked students to comment on those posts. I told them they could make up a fake name, or use their initials, or use their real name if they wanted. I always want to give them the option of not posting publicly if they choose.

I think it worked pretty well. There was good discussion on the two pages. I’m not sure how well it would work if I had a big class, though–this one is only 40 students, so the discussion didn’t get overwhelming where you have to scroll for days.

Open course design challenges (#TWP15)


One of the questions for the weekly discussion for week 1 of Teaching with WordPress is: “What’s your biggest challenge in designing for open?”

I have several course websites on WordPress, and one of the challenges I’ve faced in designing each of them is determining just where to put things and how to hierarchize them in menus so they can be easily found. I don’t know if this is my biggest challenge, but it is one I face each term as I think about redesigning my sites. It is made more important by the fact that the sites are public on the web, and I hope that others who visit them might find the information there useful. So they have to be clear even to people who are not in the course and don’t get the benefit of me talking about where things are on the site!

Here are the sites I have so far:

Introduction to Philosophy (PHIL 102):

Introduction to Moral Theory (PHIL 230):

Continental Philosophy seminar (PHIL 449):


Where are the lecture notes?

When I created the PHIL 102 site in the Fall of 2013 I made a mistake that I rectified when I taught that course again in the Summer of 2015.

Screenshot 2015-06-06 18.17.03When I first created the site, I had a “weekly schedule” so students could find each week and see what they are supposed to read before class and what we’ll be doing in class. I created the weekly schedule as a way to be able to quickly update what students need to read/what we’re doing in case things change over the course of the class (which always happens!), rather than having a static syllabus/schedule. You can see the weekly schedule for the Summer 2015 version here:  Having a weekly schedule like this I still think is a good idea.

But I decided to put the lecture notes after each class on each of the weekly pages. So, the lecture notes for Plato’s Gorgias would be on the page that discusses what students are to read before the class in which we discuss the Gorgias. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking, because I can’t imagine that was very useful for students. They’d have to go to each page in the weekly schedule to download the lecture notes. And then I realized later that if anyone coming upon my site on the web wanted to see the lecture notes from the course they wouldn’t know where to look.

So now I’ve created a separate page in the course with just the lecture notes:  On the top menu of the course site I have a section called “notes,” and under that are the lecture notes and also notes from the students’ small group discussions in class. I think that’s pretty clear, though perhaps not perfect.


Too many menu items

In my PHIL 449 course ( I have too many items in the top menu.

Screenshot 2015-06-06 18.18.36

It’s just hard to read/find things. There were some things I wanted students to be able to find right away, like the bibliography (which they needed for their research papers), the critical abstracts (where they could read each others’ summaries and reviews of research articles or books), and the “non-traditional artifacts” (which were assignments students chose to do instead of essays). And I couldn’t think of a good way to put those things under something else. I’m still struggling with that, even a year later–I’m not sure how I’d categorize things differently so that there are fewer items in the top menu.

One thing I did differently for the PHIL 102 site is to combine the “home” and “about” pages so I don’t have to have two menu items for that, like I did for the PHIL 449 site. I also put the syllabus on the “about” page for PHIL 102 so I don’t have to have that in a separate menu item either (the menu item is called “About & syllabus”).


Re-naming the weekly schedule

Screenshot 2015-06-06 18.20.55

In my course site for Introduction to Moral Theory (PHIL 230), I didn’t make a “weekly” schedule, but instead did it by topic (moral relativism, utilitarianism, Kantianism, etc.). This was because I thought that students would be less likely to find things by remembering which week it was in, than by remembering the topic.

I think this was a good idea, but it also makes each page for each topic longer than they were before. And when I designed the PHIL 102 site for this summer, I went back to the “weekly” idea (but labelled each week in the menu with the author of the readings or the topic) because the pages were already pretty long just by having the schedule for two days on them. That’s because I include not only required readings, but lots of optional resources.


Where to put various resources?

In many of my courses I have handouts or links to other resources that are useful throughout the course. Sometimes I put them under a menu item called “resources” (see, e.g., the PHIL 449 site), but then I thought that students might not find them there. So for PHIL 102 for this summer I decided to put some of them under “assignments,” such as the page with “writing help.” If you click on “Assignments,” then “writing help” is part of the drop-down. And other resources I put directly on the pages where they are needed for assignments. For example, in PHIL 102 students need information on finding and using public domain and CC licensed works, so I put that directly on the page with the assignment they need this information for:

For that page I used the “wiki embed” plugin that UBC has installed on UBC Blogs, which allows me to write up the information on a wiki page and then use it in multiple sites. If I change the wiki page, then all the sites that have it embedded are updated. I did this with the public domain/CC licenses information because I figured I’d be using that in other courses as well.


Adding images

When designing the PHIL 102 site for this summer I added images to each of the pages in the weekly schedule. I realized that the pages were very boring with ust text, and I wanted a bit more visual appeal. So I found an image related to the readings for each class meeting and included it there. See, for example, the week we discussed John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer: They’re not the most interesting images, but at least it’s a start.

This is not really related to the issue in this post, which is where to put what/how to organize, but I thought I’d mention it as a change I made to try to improve my sites over time.

Screenshot 2015-06-06 18.25.51

Screen shot from PHIL 102 site, Summer 2015



What do you think?

I’m curious if anyone has thoughts about the issue of organizing/hierarchizing/making things easy to find for students and others, or any of the problems/solutions I’ve discussed above. I think I still have some ways to go to make my sites as clear as they can be.

Learning subjectives (#rhizo15)

A drawing I made for #rhizo14, last year

A drawing I made for #rhizo14, last year

I’m partially participating in Website for #rhizo15, an open, online course in rhizomatic learning. During week one, we were asked in a video posted on that site to think about learning subjectives in addition to (instead of?) learning objectives.

The idea seems to be this: we can never be certain exactly what is going to happen in a learning situation, where we’re going to go; we can have a general outline, but things take on a life of their own when we are learning with others. And even the clearest learning objectives are going to be taken differently, interpreted differently, experienced differently by different people.

Here are a few quotes from the video for week one posted on the #rhizo 15 website that are helping me get a handle on what the topic of discussion is:

How do we think about learning and designing for learning when we don’t know where we’re going?
…learning is an uncertain process, life is an uncertain place, right answers are things that will only exist in storybooks.
How do we still provide enough structure that people know what we’re talking about?

It is that last point that I really want to focus on here.

I agree with the point that we can’t ever know exactly where we are going to go in learning, and that everyone’s learning experience will be different. Those things seem quite clear. But I worry that at times we might move from there into saying, well then, let’s embrace the chaos and give the least amount of structure possible.

Kind of like the #rhizo15 course itself, for which the idea of the “community as the curriculum” is embodied in (at least) the fact that the only curriculum given by the person who started the course consists of short videos with thought-provoking ideas and questions. What else happens rests entirely on the actions and conversations of the participants–what they talk about, what tools they decide to use to do so (e.g., see this Vialogues discussion about week 2’s video), what artifacts they create. Who would have guessed ahead of time that a blog post with a dialogue (by Tania Sheko) would have led, within about a week or so, to the creation of a radio play? (A project I missed while I was at a conference, and am very sad about missing!)

Now, I’m not knocking this lack of structure as if it’s never appropriate. I think it works great for a course like this, one that people join into because they are simply interested, have some time to dedicate to it, want to connect with others who are thinking about these topics, etc. And it works well for thinking about one’s lifelong learning in general, as evidence by Sheko’s dialogue on her blog. Of course I can’t know for certain where my life is going to go, so it makes no sense for me to have rock-solid learning objectives ahead of time.

But it seems to me that the situation is, perhaps rightly, different for students who are paying for courses for which they are being evaluated in ways that attach to a record that is important for their future. I feel a moral imperative to provide enough structure in a course that they can have a good sense of what they need to do in order to earn the grade they hope to earn. There is a strong power imbalance going on in a “traditional” course where I am in charge of giving grades, and if they don’t get enough information about what the expectations are then I feel like I would be being unfair to them. So it’s vitally important to me to figure out a way to recognize and value the fact that learning is uncertain, and that it would be best if students can find their own paths and their own means of learning (with the community of the rest of us in the class) while still having enough structure that students can have a fair sense of how they will be evaluated and what to do to achieve the marks they hope to achieve.

Now, if learning subjectives are mostly a matter of giving students more choice, more freedom to decide what they want to focus on in classes, then I’m all for that. As Laura Pasquini puts it in a recent blog post,

The openness of learning subjectives provides opportunities for students to drive the course agenda and direct their interests for topics.

This is something I think would be great to do, and I haven’t done as much of that as I’d like in the past. I have offered students the choice of more than one kind of assignment to do in one of my courses (a paper or a more creative project), and I’m also experimenting, in upcoming courses, with students choosing how they want their course grade to be calculated–which assignments to count for what. I also want to involve students more in assessing their own work (I already have them engage in peer feedback quite often), so that they take more ownership of it than just relying on the instructor to assess it.

I’m also happy to say to my students that I’m not sure where our discussions of philosophy or literature are going to go, that we’re going to get together in a room and talk about what we’ve read and see what happens, that I can’t come up with learning objectives for each class meeting because the discussion may take us in directions I can’t predict. That makes sense to me too.

But a certain degree of structure is still crucial when we’re teaching courses for which we are evaluating others in ways that can affect their future, I think. I wouldn’t think it fair to walk into such a classroom and say to students that I don’t know what they’re going to be doing, exactly, or what the curriculum is going to be; all I know is I’m going to start with a couple of readings and questions and we’ll see what happens from there. That’s a fine and very interesting way to run an open online course–I love learning this way in courses like this, and thrive on seeing the unexpected things that happen! I’m not convinced it’s fair to students we are evaluating to do so.

Learning is uncertain, life is uncertain, but I feel strongly that I need to respect the imbalance of power between myself and my students and ensure that they have enough structure to be able to have at least a decent grasp on what the expectations are on which they will be evaluated. Maybe we will work on these expectations, perhaps a marking rubric for essays for example, collaboratively. Maybe we will work collaboratively on where we are going to go in the course, in a general sense. But regardless how we get there, I do think I want to try to direct the rhizome with some structure.


P.S. When I first heard about the notion of “rhizomatic learning,” it was in a presentation by Dave Cormier that included a discussion of how it is not necessarily a lens through which we should view all learning situations. I discuss that in a blog post from 2013, here (jump down to “when is rhizomatic learning appropriate?”). Part of the discussion there was that rhizomatic learning fits well in situations where there are not clear answers, but perhaps is not the way to go when one needs to learn certain basic facts before moving on to more complex domains where the answers aren’t clear. But so far in #rhizo15 I haven’t heard much or anything in the way of saying that maybe rhizomatic learning is good for some contexts but not all. I’m curious if people feel that it’s okay to not be rhizomatic in some contexts, or in some aspects of a course, or when learning certain sorts of things.