Ridiculously easy and inexpensive course hosting will never fly

It’s not a revolutionary proposition that a blog platform can be a low-cost, low-stress means of hosting course materials. The argument was moved along nicely by a session Jim and D’Arcy did at last year’s Open Education Conference, and many other voices in the blogosphere have offered up such notions.

So David Wiley’s proof of concept showing how a free WordPress.com hosted weblog can serve up OpenCourseWare shouldn’t be any surprise. But when I actually looked at it, like Jim I had something of a minor eureka moment…

This particular case uses a free hosted weblog — 3 GB of file storage, management is simple, multimedia works like a charm, the content is highly portable and eminently remixable. The excellent RSS functionality opens up all sorts of syndication and mashup potential. And as David mentions, a campus-hosted version could go further, tapping some most-groovy WordPress plugins to deliver some nifty effects. One obvious add-on that Jim reminded me of is Simple Forums, which establishes a discussion board functionality. But of course, the really exciting potential of this approach is its inherent mutability, the opportunity to try stuff that no CMS has ever been able to do. Not to mention the ability to allow students to interact with their digital environment using tools of their own choosing, tools that are owned and managed by the students themselves.

But I’m losing myself in pointless reverie. This approach is fatally flawed in a number of respects and it will never catch on. For one thing, it is far too cheap, and can never justify escalating technology infrastructure budgets. Worse, instructors and students could adopt this technology with minimal assistance or oversight from instructional technology specialists. In this profoundly unserious framework, there is nothing to prevent students from previewing courses before they take them, or reviewing courses later on. Indeed, some “learner” might benefit from this content without being an enrolled student at all!

19 thoughts on “Ridiculously easy and inexpensive course hosting will never fly

  1. I’d also be curious to see Zoho Wiki used to teach a partially or fully online course–not sure about 3GB of space, but has lots of nice features (eg. great navigation, RSS on all pages, public/private/group settings for each page) and integrates with some of those other handy Zoho tools. http://wiki.zoho.com

  2. These things take time 🙂

    We are having pretty good luck implementing cheap and easy tools like Sakai, Moodle, ELGG and even Google Maps and Facebook in our faculty.

    Of course, we are a small, cash strapped unit and don’t really benefit from the massive amounts of funding going to implement WebCT at UBC ;).

  3. Sorry to introduce a somber note to your mirth, but I think you’re focusing on the tip of the iceberg. The container is not the real issue. The big thing is the (lack of ) available time of the content creator, on the one hand, and that all of us instructors who are loathe to put in that time nonetheless want content that is created in our own image, on the other. It might appear from afar that a combination of Merlot and some open container and there you have it. But both of those have been available for a while. Just what is it that we do have?

  4. Your thought that, “For one thing, it is far too cheap, and can never justify escalating technology infrastructure budgets” provided a huge insight for me. Expensive database servers, video servers, Flash servers, etc., are often justified on the basis of supporting the behemoth LMS that is entrenched…and then the much needed hardware is pressed into the service of some other project. It helped me partially understand the odd smirks I get when suggesting to our IT folks the viability of open source and hosted opportunities available…tough to request big ticket items on the backs of that…eh? Thanks.

  5. One of the very first experiments I did with the RSS feeds I generated from the OpenLearn XML downloads when they were first made available well over a year ago now was to import them into a wordpress blog.

    I have held off posting a demo of this approach using the official OpenLearn content feeds just to see if there was anyone else tinkering out there with the OpenLearn RSS feeds (importing RSS into a blog is one of the lowest hanging fruit ‘mashup’ approaches I can think of).

    I was also half thinking that someone in the OpenLearn team might try this out (I posted my original demo on a behind the firewall blog…) but as far as I can tell, they have no capacity for doing anything other than what they do…

    But from what I can tell, there aren’t really many obvious signs of ed techies playing with OER stuff across the board…? Or am I looking in the wrong places?


    PS what is it with everyone publishing stuff as PDFs? My vote would be for Hewlett to bung someone like Scribd to host all the PDFs, so at least we can play with displaying them using HTML and embed codes etc

  6. @tannis – I need to dive into Zoho… I agree that wikis are themselves useful for open content, though in my own experience I have found wiki content to be less portable (export is a pain, mark-up languages vary) and less syndication-friendly (wiki RSS usually just indicates changes, does not transmit content). Then again, projects like WIkiEducator are a marvel. There are some experiments at our unit that might address this… Novak has a vision of using MediaWiki as a content-authoring engine, pushing out live JSON bits of each section to whoever wants to re-display that content. (BTW Tannis — great to see you back in action, hope you are managing to keep upright!)

    A few people note my tone, so allow me to add that if nobody is going to take my arguments seriously (and I really have been arguing this stuff for years with minimal evident effect) I don’t see why I should always be dead serious. It’s likely that being snarky reduces my effectiveness as a communicator to some people (I’m hearing that more and more lately), but that’s the way I am and there are plenty of other people to read.

    @Lanny, my point is that this insane desire to keep educational environments closed and highly managed is not only ethically dubious but also creates headaches. I have taught a course in WebCT the past four years, and it forces me to enter a password, provide something like ten clicks (waiting each time for the thing to load) just to see if someone has added to a discussion. I literally could check up on a dozen blogs in the time it take me to get my first look at course activity. And you’d have to be huffing gold paint to think it is easier to author in one of these CMS’s than it is in WordPress or MediaWiki. So yes, the squeeze on practitioner time is a huge issue, which makes the endless hassles we cause ourselves by clinging to a closed model all the more problematic. Imagine if all the IT/support positions presently filled by people fighting bugs and addressing bewildered user questions were instead creative people using lighter and simpler open tools. Or imagine what kind of time/strategy options would open up to us if we weren’t paying out these licensing fees, or having to support the kind of infrastructure these heavy systems require.

    As for why people haven’t been doing this earlier, when the options have indeed been available for some time… I am far more baffled than you. As I noted, I’ve been making this argument for years, as have many others. What shocks me is that this approach, while it gets a more respectful hearing now that Web 2.0 is enjoying a vogue, is still seen as “unserious” (OK blog boy, you’ve had your say, now let’s talk ENTERPRISE SOFTWARE)…

    @Jeff I think your comment addresses my point more explicitly.

    @Tony – glad you chimed in here. Stephen Downes posted a link to this post, and drew a line between David’s work and what you’ve been doing, and I wished I had thought to do so myself.

    I think there is growing interest among ed techies to address OER directly, and for the OER crowd to use more creative technology, but why there even has been this odd cultural disconnect has always puzzled me.

    Nice point about the PDFs.

    Once again, I am honestly humbled by the calibre of discussion my ramblings can generate. (Not even a hint of mirthful sarcasm intended on that assertion.) Thanks to all of you!

  7. “(wiki RSS usually just indicates changes, does not transmit content). Then again, projects like WIkiEducator are a marvel.”

    wikieducator are experimenting with full content rss feeds, I believe, using http://jimbojw.com/wiki/index.php?title=WikiArticleFeeds_Extension

    Using mediawiki as a generic content publishing engine seems like a v Good Plan to me…

    JSON out would be interesting; i wonder whether it would make sense usign a de facto (wikitext?) standard, to e.g. point to things like embeddable video content (I think it’d be easier eg passing a youtube movie url in the json and letting the handler wrap a player round it, rather than passing a load of embed code?)

    re snarky comments not getting through – heh heh, that’s one of the reasons why we blog, isn’t it?

  8. I gotta love a blog post with a spice of snarkiness, but where the comment stream even surpasses the post in range and content.

    And I am ready to frame this quote, “And you’d have to be huffing gold paint to think it is easier to author in one of these CMS’s than it is in WordPress or MediaWiki.”

    Need to mull and chew on ideas presented here yet I see maybe 2 threads- one being the proof of concept of making OER thus portable (pretty much done by Tony and David’s work), and all of the tool centric things of making this happen. The second is the fundamental shift in how orgs can move from the locked down expensive bloat boat approach, and like you I remain highly skeptical of seeing that change. Thinking about that only depresses me, and pushes me more to ponder thread #1.

    My own puzzlement is wondering what do we do being EduGluing stuff together; it can be just one more pile of “stuff”; once we have all these portable pieces of OER, how do we recontextualize, add to it and then republish; or do we just rebroadcast it?

    Brilliant snarky post in how it generates this conversation…

  9. Tony – you’ve got quite the backlog of “been there, done that” posts in your archive, don’t ya? I’m glad you cite them though, I’ll admit that while I’ve admired what you’re doing for some time, it often takes me a few months or longer to fully grok it.

    Alan – it’s true, we don’t just want piles of Frankencontent — we need to find a place for thoughtful and easy recontextualization and revision as well. That’s why I find the prospect of authoring in blog and wiki environments so promising… and what will evolve out of this?

  10. Hi Brian,

    It is funny that David did not mention it on his blog, but here at the UNU we have building courses in WordPress for the past couple of years. He knows, cause we showed him the last time he visited Tokyo. Maybe slipped his mind.

    In fact most of our websites here at the UNU Media Studio, including the our main website are all WordPress.

    For examples see: http://www.mediastudio.unu.edu

    We have built a load of plug-in and customized polyglot to make a bi-lingual site in English and Japanese. More developments are in the pipeline.

    Brendan Barrett
    UNU Media Studio

  11. Hello, Brian,

    RE: “we need to find a place for thoughtful and easy recontextualization and revision as well. That’s why I find the prospect of authoring in blog and wiki environments so promising… and what will evolve out of this?”

    The “easy recontextualization” piece is frequently missing from existing implementations of Open Content — and using blog-like tools to author content overcomes this weakness: the republishing/remixing/reusing piece becomes a whole lot easier.

    I put some ideas together re one version of what could evolve here: http://openacademic.org/news/oers-publishing-easy-part



  12. Last year, blog boys and girls, I gave a web 2.0 talk to a conference. Next session, the CIO of a big school, about to speak to another topic, turned to the audience, looked for me, found me, and began “I’m going to talk about something *real*, unlike what we just heard.” Serious is right.

  13. Brendan – your stuff looks great! I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before, thanks.

    Bill – your post is an excellent synthesis of where things stand, I’m hoping to get a comment on there later today. And I’m glad you are underlining the role of these tools in reshaping materials — I think it’s key.

    Bryan – sometimes I worry that I can go a little overboard with this chip on my shoulder. Anecdotes like yours remind me exactly where we are…

    Again, thanks all for this stimulating and encouraging feedback.

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