5 Tools for Building a Next-Generation ‘Hybrid’ Class Website


[Nicholas C. Martin is a visiting professor at American University and the United Nations University for Peace. He is also co-founder and president of TechChange, an organization that trains leaders to leverage emerging technologies for sustainable social change. TechChange specializes in creating “next-generation” e-learning content, tools and communities. You can follow him on Twitter at @TechChange.--@jbj]

Last month, I co-taught a course at American University’s School of International Service entitled ”Applications of Technology for Peacebuilding.” My organization, TechChange assisted in the development of the course and our goal was to create a truly dynamic model for blended learning: where the latest learning technologies were integrated into every aspect and every activity of the course.

Prior to the course, we created an online social learning community in Drupal with a number of innovative features. We experimented with a variety of open source Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Content Management Systems such as Moodle, Sakai, WordPress, Joomla, and Plone. All of these platforms have relative strengths and weaknesses, but we decided to team up with a company called GoingOn, which creates a custom social learning layer on top of Drupal. The tools we discuss below can be embedded into any open source LMS and down the road we plan to revisit other platforms, but for the course we felt Drupal was the most effective system for organizing our content, capturing key learnings and facilitating a social learning environment.

Once we got the Drupal site up and running we began creating and embedding various tools to support the learning process. Here are five types of tools that we used:

  1. Self-Guided Pre-Course Assessments: We wanted to provide a fun and relevant introduction to the course as well as learn more about the biases and backgrounds of our participants, so we created a module that asked our participants (1) how tech-savvy they were and (2) how optimistic or skeptical they were about the impact of technology in addressing social problems. Based on participants’ responses, the module recommended readings and multimedia that were specific to them (one to reinforce their position and one to challenge them to think differently). To build the module, we used a rapid e-learning authoring tool called Adobe Captivate. Some other popular programs for this kind of rapid authoring are Articulate and Lectora. Captivate is great for building interactive self-guided simulations and branching scenarios. Adobe Captivate outputs to Flash Media files, which can be a problem for older browsers. However, Adobe has just released a Flash to HTML5 converter, which should expand accessibility to browsers such as Google Chrome and Safari for mobile devices such as the iPad and iPhone.
  2. Visual Maps of Readings and Other Multimedia: We also sought to find new ways to visualize course content (readings, videos, case studies). One tool we really like is called PearlTrees, a visual social bookmark and curation tool. We created our unit in PearlTrees by adding links to all the web-based readings, videos and articles for the course and then embedded it into our LMS. Seeing all the content in one space gave participants a better top-level understanding of the material and afforded them the flexibility to focus on the content they found most interesting, all without having to leave the class website. The students indicated they preferred using Pearltrees to access materials relative to the static .pdf syllabi found on traditional course support platforms.
  3. Zooming Presentations: To date, zooming presentation tools such as Prezi have primarily been used as PowerPoint alternatives because they allow for more engaging and non-linear navigation of content. We decided used Prezi to create a Case Study Library with six categories (Health, Education, etc.) to introduce our students to the tools organizations are using to address different elements of the peacebuilding and international development spectrum. We divided the class into small groups and had each group explore the profiles of three tools listed under each category. Our participants definitely enjoyed the non-linear navigation and integration of multimedia that Prezi provided, although the tool can be a bit buggy at times–particularly when trying to use the YouTube video embed feature. Hopefully we’ll begin to see some other tools competing in this space soon.
  4. Community Links and Bookmarks: Over the past few years as a classroom teacher, I’ve often lamented the fact that when participants share relevant web-based articles, organizations, or projects during discussions there is no way to capture them for others to revisit later. However, new tools for social bookmarking allow participants to share links and to add tags and descriptions to shared content. Our LMS had a built-in functionality for users to submit links and tag them, but other options include setting up a class Diigo account with one class username and password. If the majority of participants are already on Facebook and Twitter, other options include creating a dedicated course Facebook group to share content, or setting up a class hashtag (ex. #AU1234) for Twitter to categorize and easily reference all class tweets. (Read further ProfHacker reflections on teaching with social media.)
  5. Shared Whiteboarding and Mindmapping: Finally, we’ve also tested a number of interactive whiteboard and mindmapping tools. Some of our favorites include, Edistorm, and Mindmeister. Before the course, we asked students via email to post what specific skills they wanted to gain from the course and what questions they had. They used to capture and visualize their individual expectations and view comments from other students. In our first in-person meeting, we discussed the corkboard and used it as a framework for the remainder of the course. At the end of the class, we reviewed it to assess if all of the expectations had been addressed. Students greatly appreciated the ability to add input and shape the direction of the course. It also made our job easier as facilitators in making sure that we were aligned with student interests. One challenge to note is that it can be cumbersome to have students use a separate login account to access these tools. does not require students to be logged in, but the drawback is that there is less accountability for posted content.

This course was just the beginning of our attempt at TechChange to go beyond what industry leaders like Blackboard and others currently provide to find and implement the most effective technologies and platforms to support dynamic learning. The feedback from the participants was remarkably positive, and the model is something that can easily scale with the right tools and training.

If you’re interested in seeing some of these tools in action you can view a sample TechChange Unit.

What We’re Working on Next:

  1. Gamification: After reading the article on ProfHacker about How to Gamify your Class Website [Look for a follow-up on this in 2 weeks!--@jbj], we are working to integrate video game layers and gaming pedagogy into our upcoming TechChange online courses as a way to better incentivize learning and enhance engagement. As educators, we realize that this this must be done responsibly so that gaming aspects complement as opposed to overwhelm the desired learning outcomes of the course.
  2. Social Mobile Learning: At the moment, we’re somewhat skeptical about m-learning and its ability as a medium to foster deep-seated critical thinking skills, as mobile devices thus far have limited screen real estate and functionality. However, there are a handful of new tools and companies working in the “social mobile learning” space and we expect it to grow rapidly in the coming years. Our work will focus on how to effectively deliver interactive and innovative courses over smartphones and tablets for high and low bandwidth environments.

The TechChange team will be teaching graduate courses at American University, George Washington University, George Mason University, and the United Nations mandated University for Peace in the near future. We will also be helping universities and organizations with their own education and technology needs. We’re interested in hearing from others who are working to develop new models for hybrid learning, education 2.0, next generation eLearning tools, and more.

Join us in the comment section below to discuss how you have implemented hybrid models of learning in your class? What specific strategies and/or tools have worked well and what have you struggled with? What have your students been most engaged by?

Photo provided by Nick Martin.

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