Rebelling Against Blackboard with Posterous and TinyChat

One-room schoolhouse[This is a guest post by Trent M Kays, a PhD student in the Department of Writing
at the University of Minnesota. His studies focus on digital rhetoric, critical
pedagogy, and the Internet. His writing has appeared in GradHacker, The Good Men
, and The Minnesota Daily, among other places. He teaches writing, loves his
job, and tweets a lot. You can follow him on Twitter at @trentmkays.--@jbj

During the 2011 fall semester, I’m teaching an online section of first-year writing for Hawaii Pacific University (HPU). The course is WRI 1200: Research, Writing, and Argument; however, I discovered the learning management system, which HPU employs, is Blackboard. I’ve worked with Blackboard in the past, and it’s left me with a strong distaste for it. Given my aversion for Blackboard, I inquired about alternatives for my students. Luckily, I was allowed to set up another learning space for my students and only use Blackboard as a backup.

The perverse and ironic issue with Blackboard is despite being a learning management system it rarely encourages learning. I’m not the first to express skepticisms about learning management systems: David Parry wrote a piece for ProfHacker suggesting WordPress is a better learning management system than Blackboard, and Lisa M Lane wrote an article in First Monday detailing how course management systems influence online pedagogy, so these issues have been and continue to be discussed in higher education.

Drawing some inspiration from my colleague, James Schirmer (known as @betajames in the Twitterverse), I decided to create a learning environment using a free publishing platform: Posterous. My goal is to use Posterous to fully replace a learning management system because I can create (as I’m sure most teachers can) a better and more engaging learning space using Posterous than any current learning management system can provide to students and instructors.

For those not familiar with Posterous, it is a publishing platform similar to Blogger but with a greater ability for customization. Posterous seems to not get as much publicity as Blogger, and, given the amount of availability of website platforms, I can understand the lack of publicity. My own personal website is built on a WordPress platform, and I’ve had it for several years. I like WordPress, but it isn’t the most intuitive platform, especially for novice users.

I selected Posterous because I wanted a learning space that was easy to access, understand, and engage; Posterous satisfies those qualifications for me. Posterous has two choices for its platform: a site or a group. The difference between the two choices is based on one significant factor: user interaction. A site focuses more on the presentation of information and the interaction between the site information and its audience, while a group focuses on the interaction between members or contributors of the group.

Screen capture of Posterous

Click for full-size

I wanted both aspects of interaction to be available to my online students, so I created a site, a group, and integrated them. The group is a private space where course students can interact with each other and post select writing assignments, mostly reading responses. On the main site, all the information for the course, including the syllabus, course schedule, and assignment sheets, are available in PDF format. I embedded the documents into the site using Scribd, so my students could view and download the documents anytime. What’s available on the site, beyond the aforementioned documents, includes an instructor blog, forums (the private group space), live chat (expanded on below), information on using Twitter, a He-Man GIF (for fun), and helpful links, which provide students with resources for grammar, writing, and citation support.

While I have much praise for Posterous’s ease of use, sites and groups could be better integrated on the back-end of the platform. Currently, you have to create two separate parts, which exist independently of each other, and add people to both parts. Basically, you need to do everything twice; it’s easy to do, but it can be tedious. If sites existed with the inherent option for group integration, then it would alleviate my issues with the back-end of the platform.

Creating the space where my students can interact was easy. Moreover, adding students to the site and group is as simple as inputting their email addresses; however, one interaction I wanted to have in my site, one which Posterous and most learning management systems don’t provide, is video chat.

To remedy this lack, I created an account on TinyChat, and I integrated it into the course website. TinyChat is a live and free video chat room service, and students aren’t required to sign-up for an account. If they have the password for the video chat room, then they can simply follow the link, input the password, and begin text and/or video chatting with me. Even in online courses, it’s imperative students have the ability to see the instructor. The live video chat option gives my students an opportunity to easily see and talk with me.

The video chat is an open group area for all my students to talk to each other or me. It isn’t meant to be for one-on-one chat, though I suppose it could serve as such. For one-on-one chat and conferences, I’m going to use ooVoo Video Chat. Since this is an online course, I don’t have specific office hours. My office hours are technically by appointment only and, then, only in ooVoo Video Chat; however, on Wednesdays, I will be available all day in TinyChat in case any students need quick help. It’s easy for me to keep TinyChat open in my browser while I work on other things.

I believe I’ve created an excellent learning space for my students, and I’m excited to see how well the course proceeds. (Check the site out for yourself: I am rebelling against Blackboard and other learning management systems because I find them inadequate and cold. A learning space should be a space filled with life and be infused with an instructor’s spirit and passion, and I’ve created that type of space.

How have you made your courses’ digital spaces more warm and inviting? Have you experimented with alternatives to Learning Management Systems? Let us know in comments!

Photo by Flickr user Corey Leopold / Creative Commons licensed

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