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: https://blogs.ubc.ca/phil102/weekly-schedule/week-5/ 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!



  1. I use twitter as the daily communication channel for my course, http://econ201online.umwblogs.org . I pull all the tweets tagged “econ201online” into the course website, which gives students a reason to visit regularly. And of course, twitter is a way for them to connect.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I have sort of dipped my toes into the idea of using Twitter for classes, but haven’t gone all the way and that’s probably why there isn’t much uptake of it in my classes. In one class, a team-taught one, we encourage students to post questions/comments during class, but few do. In another one or two I tried giving out all course announcements using a hashtag specifically for the course; I never knew if anyone was reading those because there was no other activity on that tag. But looking at your site, I noticed that students can get participation points by posting on Twitter (or doing something else…there are multiple options for participation points), which is one way to drum up use of Twitter! I think if I made it one of the options for participation then it could be a useful way to increase interaction between me and students, and between students and students. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I really love this post. And the discussion we started on Twitter that resulted in Cindy Underhill’s trying to capture the types of questions that might generate “webs:” provocative, relatable, open-ended.

    That seems like the best place to start – something that feels less like an assignment and more like a prompt to start some interesting discussion.

    But how to encourage the actual web-building…yeesh. I keep wondering whether it’s more challenging with small numbers (vs., say, what we experienced in ETMOOC?).

    I have actually tried one strategy from ETMOOC that might be worth adding to the mix. I get very explicit in my course about trying to establish a culture of “commenting.” Much like you did here – read one, comment on two. This strategy, for me, impacts student blogging within our closed network mostly (a few students blog publicly). But I keep getting feedback from students that the nudge has an impact.

    This past academic quarter, I also borrowed a trick from Dave Cormier (I was lurking #rhizo15). He used Martin Hawksey’s Twitter archive tool and said “go connect with someone who is not connected.”

    So – I used Hawksey’s Twitter archiving tool did the same (I actually did this during the face-to-face class sessions, which are run over a 2-full-day period). Had it displayed prominently on a screen during the entire class session – mostly to demonstrate how our web of connections changed over time. But it turned out that all of the students got REALLY motivated to make sure that they personally had connections and webs in the diagram. Almost became a game.

    There is something in that – if you want to make a web, show everyone how much of a web there is. Not sure how I might use that again, but I learned something from that little experiment.

    I also keep thinking: What are the other types of nudges that allow us to set up a culture where building the web is normal?

    1. Hi Jeff:

      Somehow I missed this comment and only approved it now when I went to start a new blog post! Sorry about that.

      I love the idea of showing the TAGs Explorer on the screen and asking people to connect to those w/o connections! That’s a great idea. I wish there was an easy way to do that with blog posts and comments. The thing is, we can’t require that students join twitter b/c of a law in BC that says that if servers are outside Canada, then we can’t require that students use something that captures identifying info. They could join anonymously, I suppose, but that kind of defeats the purpose of making connections! So it would be super cool if we could easily visualize whose blog posts have comments and whose do not. But I can’t imagine how that would be possible.

      I have only required comments in one class so far where I’ve also required blog posts. I didn’t want to have to go through each post and count comments, so I asked them to send me a URL for their blog posts and for the ones they commented on, so I could check that way. This was a course with under 20 students, though; I couldn’t easily do it for a larger course. I think next year I will just say I’ll be looking, give them the “comment on 2” nudge, and see if it works without me checking that they’ve done 2 comments each time I’ve asked. Maybe if it just becomes a culture of the course, that when you post you also comment on two, the discussions will start to happen more spontaneously? I’ve noticed in etmooc & elsewhere that when someone comments on my work, I’m more likely to then go comment on theirs, so it will likely spread once you start!

  3. Good question.

    Creating/facilitating engagement over social media as a learning/networked learning experience.

    What are your students concerns, abilities, current level of expertise in the target social media, and how do they use and value technology educationally already.

    Also, what platforms and practices are you trying to culivate exactly, and how would you build them into your own intruction and time with them as a vehicle for engaging them.

    Concerns can be things like, students not wanting to share their social media with their instructors and institutions. Students often fear oversharing, either finding things out about teachers they don;t want to know, or having things like their own criticisms of their institution suddenly being shared with an instructor account. It;s a common concern.

    Lot;ls of students are not making the connection between their use of technology already, and it;s educational applications. Domain knolwedge transfer is tricky, and if they have expetrtise already they might not be using it in their learning. Building in how you want them to use technology in their learning explicitly into your own instruction could be key here. There;s some evidence indicating that for students genrally, how their instrictors use technology as part of courses is the major driver behind how students will sue it in their learning.

    If students don;t have expertise in the target techs, then it might be too much of an uphill battle. Converting someones already extant automaticity into networked elarning isn;t easy. Generating that automaticity, that fluency of use is harder still. There’s also a trend in students towards conservative educational use of technology.

    A lesson from VLE/LMS usage might be key here. Instituions that use the VLE well often have students who value the VLE. What is it your students will value, and will your target techs provode that. At a guess, additional resources, enhanced access to intructors, flexibility of office hours, and unique, engaging, funny creative or curiousity provoking social media experiences are likely to be good drivers.


    hmmm. wil have to think about this one a bit more.

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