This post isn’t about the OpenCourseWare movement (which I think is really cool) but instead about using open source and/or free online tools to enhance the way we teach online courses. This is my first semester teaching the Social Media in Higher Education course (syllabus) that I developed. For logistical and administrative reasons, I’m teaching the course completely online which is a first for me. Some of you may know that I’m not a big fan of online courses. I know, it’s funny – you’d expect me of all people to be into online ed. But I’m not– I much prefer the engagement and real-world contact with my students in traditional classroom environments.
In addition to not being a fan of online courses, I hate (yes, I’m using the correct word here) Learning Management/Course Management Systems. They aren’t intuitive at all, they aren’t social, and they seem to be designed by people with little background in usability or in creating engaging virtual communities (as good counterexamples, check out any popular social media website: Reddit, Twitter, and even *gasp* Facebook). Since my course is about social media, I figured I’d use as much social media as possible as part of the process. Here are the open source/free applications we’re using and why:
For threaded discussions: Instead of using the threaded discussion feature of D2L for our required weekly discussions, I’m using a self-hosted install of phpBB an open source forum platform. Clearly, I’m technologically-minded and have pretty good tech skills; however, it took me 30 minutes to create a discussion forum under the “week 1″ section of my D2L course. Alternatively, in 30 minutes I had completely installed and configured phpBB, created my profile, and created discussions for both weeks 1 and weeks 2. I’m using a separate thread to discuss “housekeeping” items including questions about the syllabus. phpBB has a comprehensive user’s guide for my students and a great documentation for me. Lastly, phpBB has powerful security controls allowing me to keep these conversations private.
For blog posts: I’m using WordPress as a blogging platform– one of the most popular blogging platforms and my favorite. As part of the course, students will blog weekly (starting in two weeks) to critique and expand on social media research. We’ll also use the blog to engage an audience beyond course participants (that means you). I’ve set up the multi-author Social Media in Higher Education course blog using my own hosting and domain. Like phpBB, WordPress offers fantastic documentation. A special thanks to Dean Chris Long at Penn State for inspiration and examples of graduate student blogs.
For reference management: In addition to being required to discuss readings in the course forum and on the blog, students are required to build and maintain a Mendeley library and to join a Mendeley group for our class. Mendeley merges the functionality of an academic social network with reference managing software. Accounts and desktop clients are free (up to a certain upload limit) and work across OS platforms. Mendely automatically populates reference entries from PDF metadata and allows for synching of research papers to the web and across all of your devices (yes, Mendeley even has an iPhone app).
For file-hosting: My go-to app for document synching across devices and platforms is DropBox (referral link which gives us both extra storage for free). For the class, we’re using DropBox to host the readings for each week, arranged in separate folders.
For communicating with other scholars and higher education practitioners: I have experienced both the personal and professional benefits of engaging in communities of scholarship and practice on Twitter. Therefore, my students will be required to “attend” a number of the education-related chats on Twitter. Furthermore, students will learn how to engage in a Personal Learning Network to both receive and give support in their scholarly pursuits.