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.

Thinking inside the box

I’ve been doing this PD-genre gig for close on 10 years now. And largely, my efforts have to date have focused on either satisfying the demand for F2F standalone workshops, or venturing outside the box with almost exclusively online nonstandard stuff. Which has seemed logical to me, online stuff is flexible, accessible and low cost. But what it also is, is ignorable. When you live and die by the provisions of the clock or lack thereof, it’s easy – too easy – to delete an email, forget to visit a website, say you’ll access a webinar recording after the fact and never do, swipe away a notification.

So one asks – how do we make things harder to ignore?

For this I’m starting to stuff my thinking back *into* boxes – literal boxes, and figurative boxes.

Section 1: Literal boxes

I’ve been watching, lately, the subscription box trend. People pay a certain fee to have a box with unspecified contents of a certain genre sent to them each month. Adult kinder surprise, if you will, except instead of horrible chocolate and nasty little toy*, you get a selection of food or wine or makeup or whatever. The novelty here of course being both the anticipation of discovering unknown contents, and the promise of trying something new that perhaps you wouldn’t have chosen on your own. Plus the ability to post twee unboxing videos on instagram or facebook or wherever.

So I started thinking – what if you did subscription boxes for PD? People would sign up for a physical box to appear in their pigeonhole each month, contents entirely unknown. Maybe one month it’s coffee, biscuits and alternative assessment strategies, maybe one month it’s a pack of cards to start thinking about games-based learning, maybe one month it’s Google Cardboard and an edict to explore low cost VR. Who knows. But it would be a physical box occupying physical space with an element of curiosity and potential promise of novelty, and that’s somewhat harder to ignore than the 9 millionth email or portal site in Moodle.

The tricky part is thinking about how work that is largely conceptual and theoretical interfaces with physical space and objects. How do you put thinking in a literal box? I don’t actually know but it seems like a fun thing to try.

Section 2: Figurative boxes

Somewhere on the list of thingshipsterslike.tumblr.com is maker spaces and gatherings. Probably. Not maker spaces in the hackerspace sense so much, but more in a bunch of people knitting in a pub sense. We have one here that meets in the campus bar, you probably do too. It’s a dedicated time blocked out in whatever convenient space is available, where people turn up, hang out and make stuff. A figurative box in the calendar. Specifically, a regularly occurring figurative box. Anyone who’s worked in a university for any length of time knows that things don’t tend to happen unless you block that shit out in the calendar, and that’s the main issue anyone who might be vaguely inclined to make change to their teaching practice runs into.

So what would happen if you took a ‘if you make them come, they will build it’ approach? Schedule a small block of time every week or fortnight for people to come to a room, bribe with treats, enforce a Pomodoro-style no distractions or multitasking policy but allow them to work on whatever interested them just for that period of time. C.f. the standard higher ed type of workshop which is mostly a euphemism for a lecture and is never spoken of again the second everyone leaves the room. Really, just being an agent for boxing out the time people can’t make for themselves, then being on hand to facilitate thinking and creating. Could even change my job title to Change Agent or Innovation Catalyst**.

Both are mostly just vague, un-fleshed-out ideas at this stage. At any rate though this is where my thinking is going this year. Boxes. Call it analogue PD, call it Strategic Alignment™, call it futility in the face of the eternally unsolvable, call it yet another painful pun opportunity, but boxes – there may just be something in it.

*Hat tip Bill Bailey

**Kidding, srsly

Second verse, same as the first

So the PhD is a thing again. I’d put it on suspension for a year while I had a kind of mental sabbatical, but now I’m back at it again with the white vans (oh god please stop with the outdated meme references).

The essence of my PhD is unchanged, which for those of you who haven’t been playing along since back in the day when I started a masters is ‘ok how do we do some cool stuff while everyone around us is simultaneously banging on about innovation and not giving anyone any funding or support?’. But out of necessity the structure and focus has changed so I thought I’d tell you some stories about that.

The key problem I have is that because a) the work that I do and the sphere that I work in means the stuff that I do is very much of a time and prone to becoming outdated very quickly and b) I am angling for what feels like the world’s longest candidature – if I get it in under 10 years I’ll be happy; current trajectory is 8ish years. And I went back to what I’d written and the projects I was doing when I first started out and it was kind of like when you look back on photos of what you were wearing in high school or find an old journal full of teen emo poetry. There was no way I could submit that as some kind of endorsement of my current thinking.

Since starting again from scratch was approximately as appealing as dental surgery, my solution is to approach my PhD as a kind of longitudinal autoethnography in the form of project case studies. Longitudinal because I’m taking a freaking long time to do this thing, auto because the projects I’m writing about are the ones I’m involved in and ethnography because that’s how the case studies will tell a story. A story of how grassroots innovation happened in the changing climate of higher education and what we might be able to learn, or not, in terms of how to actually do innovative stuff, from each of the case studies.

You’ll all be surprised to learn the structure I have pitched is unconventional. While the thesis will be topped and tailed with normal bits like a lit review, the body of the thesis will be a modular situation, made up of ten tripartite case study sections. Tripartite because each will have an article describing the case study (may be published, may be not, you may have already read or seen me present on some of them), an accompanying exegesis that positions the case study in the overarching narrative – why this type of project with this type of thinking happened that this particular point in time, and what impact may have been had, and then the project artefact itself. Since all of these projects involve the creation of a site – Moodle Dailies, Coffeecourses etc etc – I feel like it’s essential to include the site within the work, much like a creative practice doctorate includes the creative product as part of the work. We – educators, ed devs/learning designers/academic developers/instructional designers/whatever you want to call our sort of people, researchers – frequently produce creative pedagogical output that is as valid as creative arts and design work and should be acknowledged as such. So I suppose it’s a portfolio of sorts, as well as an unconventional thesis.

At any rate, watch this space. Could be fun, could be terrifying. But importantly, could be a thing.

It’s just a jump to the left

So. Workplace change. Super fun happy time. I shouldn’t complain too much, because I’m in the fortunate position of having a continuing appointment so I will more than likely come out the other end still having a job. And yet. The new org chart removes all but one academic positions, so it’s essentially guaranteed that I will lose my academic position and be reassigned as professional staff.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve been an academic for five and a half years now. I never planned to be an academic, just kind of fell into it. Despite this, I seemed to be rather suited to it. I made a fairly decent name for myself as an unconventional scholar. And without really meaning to it’s become fairly tied to me as an identity. When people ask what I do I say I’m an academic. It’s no secret that I’ve been ragingly cynical about many aspects of academia and have criticised the sector heavily along the way, but despite that it was still my niche. A far better fit for me than the classroom ever was. And I’m not sure how I feel about leaving that behind not by choice.

Ostensibly, it’s not a huge shift to step into learning design on a professional classification. I’ll get paid more, for one (I still think someone should do a ‘Things that pay more than Academic A” tumblr). The work will probably be similar, given how far my role has morphed away from academic development in the last year or so. I’ll have the same colleagues. I’ll lose the dead end career path associated with academics in central non-teaching roles. And yet. And yet.

I got an email from Academia Obscura the other day, noting that I was on some list or another as a ‘favourite academic tweeter’. This site still gets hits daily from being listed on The Thesis Whisperer as “more like us”. I have half a PhD done (albeit once again on suspension through not winning at work/life balance). The academia category on my blog is fairly extensive. It’s a lot of stuff to turn around and mark as no longer relevant. I think more than anything the thought of no longer having an institution to poke from the inside bothers me. Cowboy learning designer seems like a different genre. Not that I’ve done all that much poking of late but the principle is still there.

So, I don’t know. While no new positions have been allocated yet it’s certain I won’t have an academic one so I suppose this counts as my obligatory ‘leaving academia’ post, without the catharsis that would have come with doing it of my own accord and saying ‘sayonara suckers’. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of things I won’t miss. But, being the rogue academic isn’t one of them. I’ll miss that title. Onwards, though, I suppose, and I will see you all in another dimension, with voyeuristic intention (do I get bonus points for both beginning and ending with a painful musical reference?).

 

Re: elephants

In my post yesterday I referred to a myriad of elephants in the room regarding the teaching of academic integrity, which I thought I’d unpack here a bit. Many of them are symptoms of sector-wide problems and tie in with other significant issues like casualisation. I’m certainly not saying anything new but I still think it’s worth discussing.

1. Expectation vs reality

When teaching academic integrity people expect you to refer to the policy and the consequences of transgressions. If you do plagiarism, disciplinary action will happen. It sounds good in theory, but realities are very different. Let’s talk about the casual lecturer who isn’t paid for administrivia and red tape. Let’s talk about the lecturer who’s so time poor it’s more trouble than it’s worth to follow up investigations. Let’s talk about the lecturer who is pressured to pass full-fee paying students and turn a blind eye to plagiarism. Let’s talk about all the systematic issues that mean the likelihood of consequences eventuating for plagiarism and cheating is not nearly so high as everyone would like to believe.

2. Assessment

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Essays are the #1 easiest type of assessment to plagiarise and cheat on. Ghostwriters are everywhere and ridiculously easy to engage. Quizzes and exams are similarly easy to cheat (if you’re not convinced, search youtube for ‘how to cheat on an exam or quiz’). Until we have a system that supports the use of more authentic assessment types, this is still going to be an issue. And using more sophisticated and restrictive technologies to try and catch them or lock them down is not the solution, students who have access to a massive online hive mind will always be one step ahead.

3. Do as I say, not as I do

All academics adhere to the principles of academic integrity without question, right? Sure, we might know how to cite. But how many of us are attributing images we use in our online courses, or seeking permission for those bound by copyright? If it’s on Google it’s free to use, right? There are some significant holes in our understanding of things, particularly regarding the use of digital media.

4. Biting the hand that feeds you

It’s a hard reality that many universities are extremely reliant on full-fee-paying international students. And any significant disciplinary action runs the risk of jeopardising that. In some instances the customer really is always right.

5. Representation vs stereotyping

A particularly fraught issue when using actors is – do you cast characters that international students can identify with, or do you shy away from that lest you be seen as typecasting?

6. Siloing

Finally, the complex issue of life management. It’s easy to think academic integrity exists in a silo, just learn this and don’t do the naughty things and it will all be fine. But the reality is that many students are managing complex issues, some of which take priority over studies and over behaving with integrity. For some the shame of failing pulls far stronger than any potential risk of being caught.

 

So there you have it. None of these elephants can be addressed, all of them will impact the ability for any kind of strategy around academic integrity to have the level of impact we’d like. But until we see significant changes in the system, all we can do is fix the things we can. Godspeed, Brenda and Damo, godspeed.

Re: academic integrity

One of the projects I’ve been working on of late is redesigning our whole approach to academic integrity. Now, because we can’t just direct students to dontbeanidiot.org (although I dearly would love to substitute that for most policies), it’s been a fairly substantial project. How do you teach 20,000-odd students academic integrity with any sort of impact? It’s fairly safe to say that current practices are not particularly effective. In general it seems to be something that’s approached from a compliance training perspective – read this policy, take this quiz.

It’s interesting to notice how educational research dovetails into parenting. I’d read Alfie Kohn years ago as an educator, but he has also done some significant work on parenting, particularly gentle parenting and the ineffectiveness of punitive discipline and punishment. And while the concept of discipline is usually applied to younger children, it makes sense to extrapolate to adults and assume that trying to teach by saying ‘here are all the ways you will be punished if you don’t learn this and do something wrong, now prove that you remember them’ is probably not all that effective a strategy.

What’s the alternative? The key problem is – how do we convince people that this matters? If someone looks at a list of punishments and balances that against the likelihood of being caught, the perceived difficulty of actually learning the skills involved and the potential ramifications of failing, one can understand why one might be tempted by the ease of procuring ghostwritten work (which is astonishingly easy, if you’ve ever looked) etc. What’s missing is making that choice matter to the student. What’s in it for them? How does acting with integrity benefit them? Reputation is a currency people understand.

People also like stories. Stories and games. Stories invest people emotionally. Games give safe spaces for skill development with immediate feedback. Compliance training doesn’t do any of this. For academic integrity training to have impact, students need to care about the benefits to them and to others, to understand how cause and effect works (not just cause and punishment) and be able to develop skills without fear of ramifications.

Which leads us to the Academic Integrity Kit. I’m not sure where Kit came from but it’s stuck. What it is, is a digital storytelling narrative crossed with a FPS (first person shooter, for non-gaming types) and a choose your own adventure book. Rather than the standard approach to scenarios and storytelling where it’s observed at a third-person remove, we shot all the footage either over the shoulder of a playable character or as a screencast so the narrative is brought into the first person. Each character is a messy, real-life trope with complex competing priorities, rather than a black/white good/bad positioning removed from any context. Students make decisions on behalf of their character and see immediate consequences of these decisions, both in terms of policy and of the effect on their reputation and future career prospects. One key point that we’re trying to make is that it’s not just academic integrity, it’s integrity in general and the principles apply in all areas of life – like the mother in law who posts photos of your kids to Facebook without asking. And it’s all held under the umbrella of the excellent dad-joke tag line our graphic designer Ivan came up with – ‘it’s your CV, not ctrl-C ctrl-V’.

It’s not a panacea. The dialogue is contrived as we weren’t allowed swearing or slang. Artistic liberties were liberally taken in order to fit 9 designated areas to cover into a designated ‘half hour or less’ module with at least a semi-believable storyline. We had no budget to speak of so acting quality is not great in places (largely due to me having to play one of the characters – those who know me will know how ridiculous that concept is). There are an astronomical number of elephants in the room (which I’ll cover in a different post). It’s built in Captivate and auth-walled in Moodle which frustrates the open-or-die side of me. But – it’s a better way of thinking about academic integrity, and hopefully a better way of doing. It may or may not have more impact, since it’s yet to be tested, but it’s a strong entry into the ‘we really need to be doing this better’ conversation around the teaching of academic integrity.

While you won’t be able to access the full kit, you can take a look at the mockup splash page that introduces the module and a couple of screenshots, so here you go. I’ve also submitted a poster to Ascilite on this so if you’re lucky you can come chat to me about it IRL too.

Splash page

Project team is myself, Steve Carruthers who I think only exists online in his photographer form, Iain Mackay and Ivan Thornton who I am not sure exists online at all.

Badge literacy: a field guide

Following on in my thinking about badges, Colin’s comment re: badge literacy on my last post deserves some exploration. Little graphics that you stick on some website somewhere are a hard sell to a university, because:

1. Boy Scouts. The actual concept is identical and the niche for this type of credential is identical but the association of nine year olds in funny hats sewing patches on their shirts is not doing us any favours.

2. Gamification. The idea that you can bribe students to do things with cutesy digital carrots is also not doing us any favours.

3. Related: academics are generally allergic to anything that is not dripping with rigour.

4. The buzzword bingo keynoter set who like to simultaneously hype and fearmonger badges under the guise of ‘future’.

5. Anything that involves new technology generally sounds bad, because generally universities have a history of implementing new technology badly.

In short, badges suffer more than their fair share of bad press. And as such, the idea that “badges have the potential to support by surfacing the less-obvious learning that is often hidden due to the focus on grades and transcripts” sounds fairly implausible.

So how do we sell it? In my completely anecdotal experience, people generally fall into three camps regarding badges – the Boy Scout set, the fence sitter set and the gamification set; dismissal, ambivalence or poor fit for use. Which tends to be a recursive loop of doom; the more the Boy Scout set see flippant, gamified use of badges, the more they are dismissed as trivial and gimmicky and the more ambivalent the fence sitters become.

All of these groups have somewhat disparate needs in regards to raising badge literacy; here is my quick and dirty field guide.

Badge literacy for Boy Scouters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Badge graphics that look ‘serious’

A badge that looks cutesy or gimmicky or uses poor graphic design will only damage perception of badges further

Scholarly evidence

Evidence to support the notion that badges and microcredentialling are not passing fads and executive whimsy. Actual policy a bonus.

Concrete examples (either theoretical or best practice from other institutions)

Demonstration of the process in practice, ideally from someone who has already done it because people like the word ‘leading’ in theory but in practice nobody wants to be the first institution to do crazy things.

Badge literacy for Gamifiers

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve, as separate from superficial learner engagement and motivation

Emphasis on ‘big picture’ (professional portfolio usage, context, durability etc)

Awareness of where badges sit as part of an individual’s overall portfolio and knowledge of the intended audiences to put individual badges in context

Reputational awareness

Awareness of the implications of public-facing badges and how media and research coverage of badge use will reflect on them and their institution

Alternate strategies for motivating learners

Since an already-identified need for learner motivation exists, this group needs alternate strategies to address this need that do not require the use of badges

Badge literacy for Fence Sitters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Assurance of technical stability and ease of use

People get very tired very quickly of yet another system that’s going to be hard to use, break a lot, and probably be superseded in a couple of years.

Compelling arguments

Mostly a combination of items from the previous two groups. Shiny powerpoints optional.

Obviously this is by no means exhaustive, but it’s something to chew on while sitting in red tape purgatory.