Alternate Platforms*

Even if you don’t have a choice, you have a choice

Many online instructors are told which platform to use, and it’s usually an LMS hosted or subscribed to by the college. The tendency then is to get “trained” in the LMS, and adapt ones pedagogy to suit the system.

If one LMS or system is strongly suggested but not mandated, it is tempting to do something different. Entire classes can be created in platforms intended for blogging, customer service, or social networking. Some colleges have strict policies about using such “outside” systems, citing issues like lack of accountability and students privacy. We’ll discuss these in the unit on Open Education, but for now consider them as options.

If the college’s system mandated, it is still possible to do different things. One can link out to different services on the web, or even embed them so they appear to be inside the LMS.

Here we will discuss two of the most popular options: blogs and sites.  Social networks will be discussed later in this unit.

Blogs

Although originally a “web log” or online journal, a blog can be used for many things. These days, thanks to flexible web applications like WordPress, blogging platforms can be used to created static websites, host forums, or create an entire class website. This Learning Pathway is created as a WordPress blog.

Blogs can be used by us as teachers to create a monologue of our own posts, or we can post and students can respond, or students can be authors on one blog, or students can each run their own blog. Which option we choose should be based on our own goals. Here are some considerations:

These days, many LMSs have “blogs” inside them. Each student is assigned a blogging space, which can be linked to other blogs or course material, or kept as a private journal only the instructor can view. LMS “blogs” are not real blogs, for several reasons:

1. They are in a “closed silo” and cannot be read by outsiders.

2. The technological skills used to create and post to an LMS blog are those of the LMS, not of blogging.

3. They are very limited in their features.

Each of these reasons has advantages and disadvantages. If we want students to learn how to blog, to participate in a wider field of scholars, and to write in public, LMS blogs are inappropriate. If we want an internal set of class journals, LMS blogs can be useful.

The two main blogging systems in use for education are WordPress and Blogger, although the more nimble Tumblr is also a good option. Blogger was independent but is now part of Google. It is easy to set up and maintain, but has some limitations in terms of posting multimedia. Tumblr is great at multimedia, but its narrow format makes lengthy text annoying to read. WordPress, the most popular platform, can be used in several forms. Edublogs is a company that hosts scaled-down WordPress blogs for educators. Basic blogs are free but paying is required for a lot of features. WordPress.com also has both free and paid options, and the platform is more full-featured.

The ultimate way to control WordPress and get most of its features is to run your own installation on a rented server. We recommend this method highly as a way of becoming more technically proficient, controlling  your own work, and being able to back up everything to your own computer. It is not difficult, but requires some understanding. To look at setting up your own space, see our Creating Your Own Space on the Web. POT also has a set of tutorials for first-time WordPress users.

Ross Kendall on how he uses WordPress as an LMS:

Sites

An ordinary website can serve as a class location, particularly if there are options for interaction and assessment as well as information transmission.

Many ways of making a website are available. Two free services are Wix and the more full-featured Weebly. Setting up interactivity can be tricky, however, when using a platform designed to be a static website. That’s why we recommend Google Sites.

A Google Site can include forums for feedback and commentary. In fact, the whole Google suite of tools can be combined within a Site to create a full class.

Forums

The most popular forum for running discussions or full classes is Ning. Although it is a paid service ($25/month at this writing) it creates a community that can be closed in order to allow in only class members, and limited as to what outsiders can see. It has a highly effective format for discussions. See Classroom 2.0, one of the best Ning communities, to see a sample.