Posts in "JMC"

Media and the End of the World (The Podcast)

Recently, Ralph Beliveau and I launched a podcast called Media and the End of the World. Podcasting is a medium I’ve wanted to delve into for awhile now and after a couple false starts trying to get one going, I’m really thankful Ralph asked me to join him in this endeavor.

The format is fairly simple: we do a weekly half hour podcast which covers the latest news of the media. The name of the podcast is a riff from the following:

We ought to see this moment—that of the end of the world as we know it, in which the Internet assumes its place in a new informational order—as one in which environment and anti-environment are colliding.
– Gordon Gow, Marshall McLuhan and the End of the World as We Know It

Of course, our take is tongue and cheek, and that’s what I like most about it. It’s fun to aesthetically tap into apocalyptic rhetoric as it walks the line between a close reality and incredible exaggeration. It’s also really fun to do it with Ralph, who is not only a really good friend, but who taught the very first course I took in Mass Communications and made Berger’s Ways of Seeing a required reading. As someone mentioned on my Facebook wall, Ralph was the instructor who made you question both what life and media even was.

As someone who likes the technical side of both audio and the web, this particular project is like a dream come true. The TV4OU station was kind enough to repurpose an unused soundboard and hooked it up so that anybody could fairly seamlessly record a three person podcast in one of Gaylord Hall’s audio booths. Per usual, I’m trying to find a cost-effective way of creating media. I’ve opted for Soundcloud as the host. Soundcloud gives you 180 free upload minutes a month, which comes out to 45 minutes per week. That’s just enough buffer space for our half hour format to slot in quite nicely. After that, I purchased mediaandtheendoftheworld.com on Hover for $12.99, hooked it into my current hosting space on OU Create, installed good ol’ WordPress, and submitted the Soundcloud RSS feeds to iTunes and Stitcher (I’ve got a request in to TuneIn as well, but they have yet to green light us).

We’ve got a handful of episodes up now, which makes me comfortable enough to start promoting it a bit. So, please take a listen and subscribe, be it on iTunes, Soundcloud, or Stitcher.

A Web Diet: Converting WordPress Sites Over to Static Sites

Over the years, my main course web project, PR Pubs, has became one sprawling beast. For the most part, people know prpubs.us as the homepage for the course, but I haven’t actively used that space for a few semesters. Thus, in May I made it one of my summer goals to rework prpubs.us in such a way that both narrates and preserves the history of the course and the space. The story of Pubs is an epic one with many twists and turns. Once upon a time, it started as a blog feed, morphed into a full open course, vacationed for a summer on the Jekyll CMS, and is now more integrated with Canvas, our LMS. Nothing really captures this story well and for good reason: I’ve tried counting and I believe it’s existed in eight separate places since 2014. In fact, out of all the spaces, my own personal blog is probably the best representation of the evolution:

I got interested in archiving a bit more while visiting Middlebury College last Fall where they’ve started a project out of their library to preserve student web work at the request of students. I should also mention that Kin Lane has been a major inspiration in helping me see the benefit of static sites. The point being that I’ve known good and well that no CMS is in for the long term. I’m a data pack rat so I’m always thinking about the long term.

At the heart of every course site has been the blog feed powered by the FeedWordPress plugin. Students are writing between 250-500 total blog posts per class per semester. I’ve systematized the process of preparing for the next batch of PR Pubsters. Every semester, I clone a clean version of my syndication hub which is already preloaded with theme, plugins, and custom code that I need to make it work. Over the past couple years, I’ve probably done this a dozen or so times across various courses and thus end up with a ton of WordPress instances.

Eventually, the semester ends and these 250-500mb spaces of content become dormant. There are tasks that I’ve done in the past to close a course site which basically involves unsubscribing to student feeds. But recently I’ve decided that for better preservation purposes, I would rather have a fully static HTML version of each course site. In a lot of ways, it feels like I’m putting it sites on a diet. “Why consume all of those data-dense databases?! Stick your macronutrients: HTML, CSS, and JS! Get rid of your addiction to Cigawordpress!”

What are the upsides to doing this?

  1. You know no longer need WordPress or any other CMS to be the engine of the site. The biggest benefit is that you are less vulnerable to becoming infected through an out-of-date theme or plugin. If you aren’t actively updating the site, you are making yourself susceptible to a lot of mean people on the web.
  2. You can host it on any type of web server.
  3. You can even just keep it locally on your computer and access it via your web browser.
  4. Because of it’s portability, it’s much easier to share a static site as an open education resource (OER). You could even host them on Github allowing people to create forks of the site if they so choose.

Jim Groom turned me on to a tool called SiteSucker a few months back because that guy is always thinking a step ahead of me… SiteSucker does exactly what I laid out earlier. And Jim lays out a strong argument:

I don’t pay for that many applications, but this is one that was very much worth the $5 for me. I can see more than a few uses for my own sites, not to mention the many others I help support. And to reinforce that point, right after I finished sucking this site, a faculty member submitted a support ticket asking the best way to archive a specific moment of a site so that they could compare it with future iterations. One option is cloning a site in Installatron on Reclaim Hosting, but that requires a dynamic database for a static copy, why not just suck that site? And while cloning a site using Installatron is cheaper and easier given it’s built into Reclaim offerings, it’s not all that sustainable for us or them. All those database driven sites need to be updated, maintained, and protected from hackers and spam.

Side note: Isn’t it always a let down when you are trying to write a blog post and you realize that someone has already made your argument and in a much more succinct fashion I might add? That Groom! But, nevertheless, I’ll continue on in hopes of imparting a little bit more wisdom…

Sitesucker grabs your site contents and converts it into HTML, CSS, and JS. You can also set how many links deep you want to pull content. For me, I wanted to grab all my students blog posts, but I didn’t necessarily want the links they were referencing in their blog posts, so I went three levels deep (front page, pages, blog posts).

What are the downsides?

  1. Because it is a static site, it can no longer make dynamic calls. Dynamic calls are when pieces of the web resource are being constructed when the URL is first called. This includes comments, searches, and other organization features like categories and tags that are native to WordPress. Now SiteSucker will generate a copy of these dynamic calls and turn them into static, but after that they will cease to function. None of the content disappears but it can’t be regenerated, so no new comments. This isn’t a big deal for me considering the sites are completely dormant, but it does sting a bit to lose search functionality.
  2. You need to understand basic HTML and CSS to make any significant edits to the site after it’s in it’s static state. Remember, you longer have access to the nifty WordPress WYSIWIG editor. This is where the OER argument gets tricky. Yes, it’s more portable, but potentially less editable depending on the user’s knowledge.

John Stewart was kind enough to test it for me with prpubs.us and it worked like a charm. I then went and grabbed static versions of the other course sites followed by hitting that scary “delete” button in Installatron which made the WordPress instances go away.

Last, I redesigned the prpubs.us front page to better tell the historical narrative of the course. There you can find images of past versions, full information on the technologies that powered each, and links to the archived versions.

Hopefully this is a much more helpful resource for visitors and student alike. Either way, I feel like the state of the health PR Pubs is at an all-time high. Here’s to surviving.

Testing out a new grade scheme

This semester, I tested out a new grading scheme for my face-to-face version of PR Publications. I’ve taught the class 10+ different times over the past few years, and while all of them have been different to some degree, this semester was different in that I completely eliminated numerical grades from the final grade equation.

I want to preface by saying that I don’t believe this is possible to do in every course and every discipline. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it for most. But for a class like mine it was the right way to go. My class has no quizzes or tests as it’s  project based. These creative design projects have small tasks that lead up to turning in the project and several of those tasks are feedback loops where students both give and get feedback from peers and myself on how to improve their project. Because of the amount of iteration that takes place before a project is turned in, the majority of students are turning in what I consider (again, very subjective) to be “A” work. Students who don’t do well in my class (and there are very few) don’t do so from a lack of talent or creative ability but usually because they simply didn’t complete the projects.

There were two main drivers in making this decision. One was that, with the move to the Canvas learning system, I could now make assignments simply “complete/incomplete” which I found to be quite nice. Points were no longer a necessity to have a grade book. The second is that, after reading and hearing Dave Cormier talk about learning contracts for many years now, I took it upon myself to read the actual syllabus/spreadsheet (novel concept I know) to get closer to fully understanding the model and I think get it now. I’ll admit I’m still not sure I fully understand his specific model or that I am doing it correctly, but I’m happy to say I’ve settled on a version that works for my course’s needs. I

And so let us imagine the type of questions you are asking so let’s have a pretend conversation….

So how exactly does this work? What’s your grade scheme.

Great question, faithful reader. So before I answer this I have to explain what class used to be like. For the last couple years, I’ve been using the curriculum for the online version of PR Pubs in my face-to-face class as well. You can see that course here. The way that course works, is that the course is broke up into weekly lessons which is broke up into 5 to 10 tasks or “micro assignments.” Most of these micro assignments require students to turn in some type of artifact, usually a blog post, to prove that they have completed the work. A complete course is close to 100 individual gradebook assignments. For me, this has been great for online where I’ve found it better to have students show work through artifacts. It also gives them a very clear path towards completion. But this method hasn’t been super necessary for the face-to-face simply because I physically watch their progress happen in the classroom so the act of turning in of all the individual assignments feels a little bit more like a formality than anything else.

So the first thing I did was simplify assignments. One weekly (16 total) blog post. Five total design projects. You can’t turn in a project until I tell I say you’ve done enough work on it. And I reserve the right to make you revise your work as many times as I think are necessary. All assignments are complete/incomplete. And, YES, students still earned a letter grade. Grade mix was as such:

A: Earn completes on all design assignments + 15 blog posts

B: Earn completes on all design assignments + 13 blog posts

C: Earn completes on all but one design assignment + 12 blog posts

D: Earn completes on all but two design assignments + 10 blog posts

F: Student has failed to earn completes on three design assignments and 10 blog posts

Attendance matters. Students drop a letter grade after two missed classes for each class. I usually don’t like being an attendance stickler (attendance for my class is always high anyways), but my class is lab format and not lecture so students are accruing work hours not just listening hours in my classroom. And sitting and doing work is the only way you actually improve, and in a class like mine where improvement is the name of the game, it’s necessary.

But how do students know how they did if you don’t grade it?

Complete/incomplete as an assignment grade doesn’t mean they don’t receive feedback. As I mentioned, students do SEVERAL iterations on the projects. I believe that my role as instructor is to give my students the opportunity to produce their best work. That means not just accepting a first draft, but giving students the opportunity to rework a project multiple times if necessary.

As for blog posts, I use a rubric not to grade the blog post but to give them feedback on how to improve their blogging. I also frequently gives comments on every blog post. And, yes, I read every blog post.

Last, and I’ve talked about this before, I am as interested in doing reflecting on what they did as I am the work they do. Drawing from art pedagogy and metaliteracy, I’m hoping students achieve self actualization as much as anything else. I say all this to say I want students to learn to be critical enough of their own work to be able to tell me how they did, where they fell short, where they grew, and where they still see room for important. Somewhere on my soapbox I’ll usually talk about how students tend to not get a lot of experience doing this even though it’s incredibly critical in life post-college. Further, I have students doing a reflection posts reflecting on the idea of blog posts (soooooo meta) and a common arch is a student saying they found it pointless and repetitive at first but later found it to be therapeutic and necessary and that they are grateful to now have the collection of all of their reflections.

Did student work suffer?

Absolutely not though I won’t say I wasn’t initially concerned this would happen. I will say that I find it deeply troubling that there is a belief that students will only do work if they are given specific numeric points. I think this is a model that proves students can be engaged beyond points. More on that from a student’s perspective below.

How did the students respond to the approach?

The funny thing is we didn’t really talk about it a lot. And in fact I think that was one of the benefits. Grading creative work is incredibly subjective, but this grading method allowed students to have a complete transparent view of where they stood in the class grade wise. And I’m not looking for great work; I’m looking for their best work. Because students always knew where they stood, I never had many questions about grades. So with that I asked students on their last blog post to reflect on the course format. Students said the following:

The grade scheme relieved initial worry.

Lastly, the “complete or incomplete” grades in this course made me enjoy this class that much more. Instead of worrying about adhering to A-worthy designs, I got to focus on learning and creating. Not having to worry about my percentage throughout the course was refreshing, because it gave me the opportunity to focus on other things rather than making an A. This course’s grading style was definitely unique and effective. Demery Pennington

It did not hamper student effort.

What probably made me the most jubilant was the fact that there we no quantitative measure of grades. We were only asked to do the project and have it approved for submission. The pressure of getting an A left my shoulders. I still understood that I had to create quality work though. I never EVER slacked on making projects for this class. I always gave it my all and I would go outside of class to finish my work if need be. Brian Keener

Students found it fair.

The grading policy was probably the fairest of any course I have taken thus far in my college career because my instructor knows that creativity is subjective. It would be unfair to assign a letter grade to work we put much into. Knowing that as long as I gave it my best and submitted work on time reduced stress. It also allowed me greater time bravely to explore the creative journey. Wyatt Stanford

They also found it student centered.

I’m thankful to be in a class that was centered around the student. Having a class that grades weren’t the main concern allowed me to be able to express my work in a more creative way instead of being restricted to guidelines and classroom expectations from a rubric. Micayla Payne

It allowed them to take risks.

When I first started this class, I was super surprised to hear that instead of getting actual grades on our work that it would be more of a completion grade. This was my first class formatted in this way. I was a little nervous that I would allow myself to not take this class seriously since I did not have to worry about grades, but I am glad I did not do that. I think taking away the grade aspect of this class helped me tremendously. Instead of focusing on getting an A, I was focusing on letting my creative side shine and enjoy what I was doing. Sierra Abbott

Though it could have been more clearly stated.

At first, it was unclear to me if we’d get a letter grade for this class or receive a pass/fail, though. I could’ve simply been distracted when you went over this, but I think making that more clear would be beneficial to students in the future. Sami Canavan

So I’ll go ahead and restate that I don’t believe this method is for everyone nor would it solve the issues I still see with letter grades in general. But this was a way in which I could play within the system given to me but also shift the grade book away from a false sense of mastery and towards a method of gradual progress. I’ll be curious to see the course evaluations (where the critical feedback tends to come) and I’m excited to tweak the recipe a bit as necessary as the course evolves.

Sticking a Fork in the LMS

I had a moment of panic over the weekend. I was expecting to teach my summer course from June 14 to Aug 5. It turns out that due to an administrative error (which, quick frankly, I should have caught earlier) it was scheduled to start on Monday.

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It usually takes me a full eight hour day to really get my course site/D2L site turned over for the new semester. I’m mainly fighting battles with changing due dates and what not. Not to mention summer session requires me switching up content to better fit a 8 week programming schedule instead of 16 weeks. PRPubs.us has now been the course site for two full years, five semesters, and seven sections of the course. I’ve never really done a legitimate spring cleaning which makes it a rather bloated application at this point. So after I added the ingredients of little timing and not wanting to battle usual course site, I’ve taken my doctor’s advice and opted for a more nutrious, trimmed approach for the summer season.

This summer, I’m hosting all the course content and assignments in a Github Pages site:

The site is powered by a single README.md file. That’s right–ONE file. One thing that is nice about it being one file is that you can edit it directly in Github, so you don’t have to download the code itself.

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One thing I’m always interested in web is load speed. Time will eventually tell what the load time will be for this, but I’ve already moved 7/16 of the course and we’re at 3.7mb in size and at 776 lines of code. I did a load test and here are the early results:

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Ok. So, the Github site is larger (again, because we’re loading all the images at once) but it loads more than a full two seconds faster. That’s really quite fascinating considering that the front page of PRPubs.us is really just that–a front page. And with the Github Pages site we are loading literally all of the content. It’s also got a much higher “perf. grade” from the site whatever that means. Before my website was 44% faster than other websites. Now its 80% faster! That’s a 36% increase in retention! :-)

The theme is a very, very basic theme that uses the Jekyll framework. This means that it takes that lonely markdown file (which only has MD and HTML) and processes it through a single layout template file, which spits out this public page with an autogenerated menu based off of the equivalent of H2 and H3 tags. It’s really quite brilliant work. I happened to stumble upon this when I was prepping for the OLC Fork U! session. A course at NYU SPS on Advanced Javascript utilized Github heavily for their courseware and projects, and this happened to be the template for their syllabus.

Of course, this means that you can grab a copy (or “fork”) of the course whenever you’d like. You can also grab multiple versions, say for instance if you want it from a previous semester, as Github is version-controlled.

I’ve also set the site as my homepage in D2L, so the only piece of the course that will be utilizing the native functionality of the LMS will be quizzes and gradebook.

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To me, this is what OER for the web should start to reflect. It won’t just be a CC bumper sticker in your website footer. Those really don’t make much more than the text really remixable. We need the web to also be portable.

But is this the perfect solution? Nah, probably not yet. We’ve got a long way to go. As appealling as it is to me to have a course be one single file, there’s still a level of knowledge needed to really interact with it that can be deeply intimidating for someone will little to no web coding experience. I’d be much happier if Github would build a WYSIWIG editor into their web app.

But am I completely out of line in this way of thinking? I don’t quite think so. Github is merely an application built on top of the open-source language of Git. There is nothing saying that there can’t be a “Github-like” application built for education that’s a lot less intimidating and utilizing familiar verbiage. Like, really, do we need to say “Commit changes?” Why can’t we just say “Save?” One example that Alan Levine referred me to is GitBook, which is really slick and integrates quite nicely with Github itself. Here’s a study guide a student put together from his class notes:

This means this students notes are 1.) shared 2.) forkable 3.) as well as downloadable in a variety of formats such as PDF and ePub.

Again, quite brilliant for a student to do this. I’m really liking what I’m seeing from this forkable future! If you are interested in this, seriously, just create a Github account, fork the course site, and tinker with it. You aren’t touching any of my own site (in fact, it’s now YOUR site) and it will give you a sense of how this whole forkable/connected copies/federated world works.

Featured image is a flickr photo shared by othree under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license