Teaching for me has included wide experiences, ranging from ESL English to Art and Design, at a variety of schools such as LINC and Settlement agencies and colleges like Centennial and George Brown. I’ve also been involved in training which entailed computer and website development and maintenance.
Overall I have been a creative and technical person seeking tools to help make the work more interesting and get tasks done. I’m a bit of an artist and nerd.
One of my philosophies has been to find out how to get things done independently. Sometimes this means seeking solutions outside of the usual framework.
I’ll give you a few examples.
Example 1: Using WordPress websites and blogs to support blended learning in a college English program
During 2012 I worked in the EAP English department at George Brown. Unfortunately they didn’t have this department connected to Blackboard so there was no LMS available to us.
I used a WordPress website to host materials for my students. It was a great solution. I could password protect the pages for them. It was a big help. I created blog posts and pages that supplemented the workbooks and in class material.
Of course no system is perfect. A year later I was contacted by a fellow teacher who asked me to remove a piece of content that was indexed in Google search. I know now that in the settings I should have checked the button that says “discourage search engines from indexing this site.”
In any case the “Mike’s Class” site was a success. One of my colleagues also got herself web hosting and created a website for a similar purpose. I even presented this tech to a small group of teachers and received recognition for providing PD.
Example 2: DIY LMS via Moodle and Schoology (Private training course)
I’ve experimented with alternate learning management software in order to run online classes and to get more familiar with the tools.
I first ran an online class about this topic about a decade ago. I had about fifteen students. We used WordPress in conjunction with an LMS called Schoology (kind of similar to the very popular Edmodo and Canva software systems).
Of course there are some limitations to the software but using free versions of the leading learning management software is quite similar to the setups at colleges or universities.
Schoology looks like Facebook and has quite a bit in common with Brightspace and other modern looking software. It’s relatively easy to get started and run an online class this way.
What I find even more amazing is that it is possible to use Moodle with your own web hosting. Anyone can sign up, work through the settings and have the same software available to them as that used by places like McMaster or York.
Anyone can Moodle. And I estimate the cost of hosting averages about five to ten dollars a month which makes it accessible.
Of course one challenge is that there may be some obstacles to individuals getting to know about these possibilities and a further challenge in their openness to trying out self initiated solutions.
By the way I can proudly say that my training course had about 4 out of 12 complete the training and stick with it which is a very good rate for an informal non-certificate class. (I understand many MOOC type free online courses have extremely high dropout rates).
However I can vouch that free software is often very useful if your school or organization doesn’t have any of the typical learning management systems in place. You can even mix your tools, as in this case, the WordPress CMS (content management system) with an LMS.
Building on These Experiences Informs My Current Project
I am still seeking DIY solutions to educational software. It’s partly the dual facets of seeking to keep costs down and seeking tools I can manage myself.
My current project is creating an online membership community targeted at creatives. (I may also develop something for my fellow teachers if this is successful).
It’s the biggest technical challenge of my life. I have spent fifty or sixty hours researching WordPress software and developing versions of the website.
In 2017, during Canada 150, I created a similar site: https://www.ancestryproject.ca/.
That program acquired over 100 registered users but I eventually decided to pursue other activities so it is public but I don’t actively work on it. The members were spread across Canada. It was a really interesting experience building that site. It won an award from TESL Canada which I’m quite proud of.
However my current situation is different. I believe my new site could acquire around a much larger group of members in the next year as I have a massive social networking base in the art and photography communities of Toronto.
I am very close to launching. My testing is complete and I have only a few design, content and technical issues to work through.
Members will sign up for a free account with an option to upgrade. All members will be able to access the members only blog, profiles and directory, and paying members will have access to courses I’m developing.
WordPress is the most important part of all of this. It’s a very flexible tool that allows you to create a visually attractive user interface and extend the functionality of your site to encompass many different types of uses, from social networking to courses to the conventional blog posts and forums.
The issue for me is that I didn’t want to buy a turn key plugin that would simplify the process but cost from $150 to $300 per year. So I was forced to experiment with a couple dozen plugins to make it all work. In the end I found about 3 or 4 key elements that will allow this to work.
It’s been challenging but very exciting. I think the experience is a good one for me because I’ve learned that I am quite interested in the development of websites and e-learning.
Of course I want to develop a profitable business that also serves people, but even if it’s only modestly successful I will have made a leap forward in terms of my skills, knowledge and understanding of design and user experience.
Since 2010 or so I have conducted multiple workshops and training sessions to help educators get a better understanding of the potentials of tech to support their work.
My explorations have led me to conclude that whether you are using a powerful yet relatively simple tool like Flipgrid or a full featured LMS it is quite possible to supplement your existing tech with new tools.
I think it took me only five minutes to get acquainted with Flipgrid for the class assignment and ten minutes to fully complete the assignment by doing the voice recording.
On the other hand, exploring Moodle and getting started in developing a course with it would be in the order of a few hours to a few days of work but it’s within the realm of possibility.
Right now I’m quite excited about incorporating these extra tools in my project.
Though my foundation for registration and member management, and the general content of the community is based on WordPress I can easily imagine using tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Skype or Google Meet, and software like Flipgrid for the interaction with my course students.
As an aside I did locate a plugin for WordPress that creates a simple but effective course platform (WP Sensei by Automattic, the same people who make WordPress). The beauty of the use of WordPress for this is the membership plugin that is able to restrict access to the course content based on the membership level of the user.
The membership site is not live but when it’s published I’ll be sure to let you know.