Paper packages tied up with string

Yeah I went there. Not even sorry.

Lately I’ve been musing on adaptive learning. I’m not going to talk about the Moodle lesson module, which I have a long illustrious history in hating, or proprietary solutions like Smart Sparrow or anything Adobe branded, which I also have a long illustrious history in hating. The latter are useless when you have budget and resourcing constraints. The former is just an infuriating UX.

I’ve never been big on adaptive learning as driven by education, because generally games do it way better than we ever do when we’re focused on the outcomes rather than the experience. But since personalisation is the newest buzzword on the edublock (or I may just be late to the party, one or the other), one can’t ignore it forever.

What to do? Well if games are doing it better than we are, may as well game engine it up.

Twine is all my favourite things – free, open source, platform agnostic, lightweight, spits out html and full of retro nostalgia for text-based choose your own adventure games. Another instance of me being late to the party since it’s been around for years, but it’s not really me if I’m not flogging old horses for new tricks now is it.

The main benefit for me of Twine is that it has a visual node based backend. Which for people like me who struggle with the visualisation of adaptive and branched things makes life very easier because you have a built-in map of all the various nodes and branches.

Look at all the nodes. Look at them.

So what am I actually doing with this?

Let’s say you’re Ed. Let’s say you’re sick of wasting time telling students how to navigate the dumpster fire of a uni website to locate the fact sheets and resources they need. Let’s say that you’d rather just give students a resource pack and get on with developing more valuable skills. How do you create a customised resource pack based on different study paths of students, whilst also giving students some agency in telling their own study stories?

So I’ve been experimenting with hanging fact sheets, policies and links off various nodes, which allows students to navigate through and answer various questions to build their own starter resource pack based on their journey to study, enrolment path, need for support etc etc. It’s not an elegant solution because it doesn’t automatically generate a zip file at the end or anything and unless you get hardcore CSS-ey the interface is very 1980s text-based choose-your-own-adventure game, but that does hold a certain level of appeal for me. It does, however, allow for very rapid development with no need for budget or resources (theme song for my life).

Whether it ends up being an ultimately usable solution remains to be seen, but Twine is definitely staying on my radar of neat free tools to pull out when the situation warrants.


Front-ending student generated content in WP: A story slightly more exciting than that title suggests

If you’ve been paying attention to my work for any period of time you’ll be aware that me working on student-generated/collaborative content in WordPress is nothing new. But when I started doing this years back, I was using a centrally-administered WP install over which I had no admin rights and no ability to customise. Which meant creating student accounts, teaching them how to use the back end of WP to post content, and a whole bunch of compromises. Ultimately it worked and many good things happened but it was a PITA and huge time sink and ultimately not particularly sustainable or scalable.

Fast forward several years after I’d gone more cowboy and learned how to be my own sysadmin, I can run pretty much whatever I need to now off my own rogue hosting. I once again was approached about making some kind of *thing* where students generate all the content. In this case, a collaborative database for maritime archaeology fieldwork. Moodle database tool was immediately voted off the island for being boring, inflexible and both temporally and physically locked. Plus it just looks a bit crap. Sorry Moodle. I naturally then turned to WP, but recalling the pain of managing student logins and training last time, and the knowledge this time that when you go cowboy, you’re the only support you’ve got, getting students to use WP in the standard way didn’t really seem viable.

Enter WP User Frontend Pro (standard version is free if you don’t need the extra features, I needed gmaps and pagination and things so actually spent some money for once). Not the only plugin around that allows people to post content from the front end of course, but this one works well and served my particular needs. This allows students to create posts via a standard (well, conceptually standard, fields are custom) web form served on the front end, no need to log in or learn the WP admin interface. Now admittedly I’m working behind password protection atm so I’m not sure how hard this gets hit by spambots in practice, but that’s a bridge crossed easily enough later. Ultimately I’d rather have to slay some bots than provide bespoke tech support to a whole cohort. At any rate the form works nicely and the pro version allows you to get quite complex in the number and type of fields you use.

Now that the ability for students to post from the front end with no special knowledge or logins is go, the further question is – how much control do we want to give students over metadata and taxonomies, given it’s supposed to be kind of proper database-y and will have potentially 300 entries? Folksonomies giveth, and yet folksonomies with 300 misspelled and typoed tags that are conceptual duplicates taketh away. Asking students to enter post tags manually seemed like a slightly bad idea. Enter custom taxonomies. Again, a number of plugins exist that can do this job, I’m using Custom Post Type UI. A couple of hours* with a cup of coffee and some data entry later, you can have a whole host of custom taxonomies to play with. And both plugins play very nicely together so you can then ask students to categorise their posts in multiple and flexible ways using finite dropdowns or checkboxes instead of free text input. The end result of which is a really robust structure that allows eventual public visitors to explore and filter the content in multiple ways, and also makes export of content to other systems (if necessary) more effective.

This particular project is still only at proof of concept stage and won’t run with actual students for another month or so, but I’m hoping this setup will really streamline the experience of student-generated bodies of work, not only in terms of student UX but my own workload and sustainability and scalability.

*Probably won’t take you that long if you don’t have 200 different kinds of boats to enter.