Friday, August 21, 2015

The Course Web Site - Out in the Open

I've been putting together my class Web site the last few days.  There is still some work to do on it, but there is enough done at this point for somebody to get a decent impression about how it works.

It is not glitzy, but I believe it is user friendly.  It doesn't use any tool that is brand new.  Nor does it use any tool that is specific to education.  The basis is Blogger, then Google Calendar, and files are made available from  There are a few Econ in the News items posted.  These make use of the snipping tool Kwout, which provides a link back to the source in addition to the screen shot from the piece.  I do exactly the same thing on my own blog.  I believe it is perfectly consistent with Fair Use and thus is not a copyright issue.  (More about copyright below.)

The domain is rather than and there is no campus branding on the site.  Some may consider that a limitation of this approach.  I do want to note that the Campus offers a blog service (based on WordPress) and I did briefly consider it as an alternative host to the approach I've adopted.  The WordPress blog that I experimented with didn't offer the sidebar gadgets that I've got on this site.  It would be less convenient for the student user.  In my way of thinking, convenience trumps branding.

During the first several class sessions I make a PowerPoint file associated with a particular class session available in advance.  Those PowerPoint files have images culled from the Web, but the various images come from different sites, with no one site contributing more than a single image.  I think that too is consistent with Fair Use.  However, I embed a musical selection that plays throughout the presentation when it is viewed in slideshow mode.  That is probably not consistent with Fair Use, especially when the music is there just to provide entertaining background rather than to enhance the educational purpose.  (One might make a case that the music for this particular presentation contributes to ideas in the presentation.)  If I were teaching a class with hundreds of students, I'd select the music from the Public Domain, such as is available here.  But that would add yet another layer to my time in developing the content, as I'd have to listen to this music first and determine whether it is appropriate for the presentation.  Given that the enrollments in my class have hovered in the mid 20s the last few years, I've not done that and instead inserted music that I was already familiar with.

My main reason for making these presentations was for students who add the class after the first day, so they can catch up on what they've missed.  The presentations can be viewed in two different ways.  In slideshow mode with the timings already built in, the presentation can be seen in a few minutes.  Part of the role of the music there is to convey that the presentation lasts as long as the song lasts.  This gives the student a quick overview of the content.  There is then a written explanation available in the notes pane that goes into some depth and will take the student more time to get through.  I post PDF versions of the presentations that students can access as an alternative to the PowerPoint.  Here is an example.   The preview that Box makes of the PDF is good enough for viewing, so the file need not be downloaded and the student needs only a browser to access the content.  However, the links don't work in the PDF and the music doesn't play, so it is less fully functional than the PowerPoint itself.

The copyright issue aside, everything else I'm doing could be emulated by other instructors and with campus sanction.  I do want to note that I need an electronic gradebook and a way to distribute files that should not be publicly viewable, made available to the class only, such as their responses to an online survey (for which I use Google Forms to administer).  So I do use an LMS for these functions.  But that use is quite limited.  The bulk of the interaction happens out in the open.

That does not seem to be the norm and nobody I know who works for the campus in the learning technology area seems to be pushing for open class Web sites.  It seems to me that should change.  We need to get past the lawyers putting fear into us, which is one reason why LMS class sites still prevail.

One benefit of open sites, were they prevalent, is that students who are trying to decide which class to take could look at the site from the previous offering of the class and get a lot more information about the course than they can get just from the course description.  So students would clearly benefit from that purpose.  Another possible benefit is from re-use of content by others who are not in the course: students elsewhere, instructors elsewhere, and those among the public who might be interested in the subject matter.  We are the land grant college for the state of Illinois.  This sort of re-use is consistent with the land grant mission.

What would it take to get my campus, or any other campus, headed down the path toward open course Web sites?  I don't know but with this post I hope to nudge others to help move us in that direction. 

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