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Is LMS a new market for WordPress themes?

I occasionally peruse Themeforest to see what new offerings they had available and I’ve been surprised by the number of education offerings, in particular LMS imitator themes, have popped up over the last year. In fact, they’ve gone ahead and created an entire Education category for all the WordPress themes that are now available. To be the point a bit, two new LMS themes have become available just since August. One that went live at the beginning of September is titled “LMS | Responsive Learning Management System” and is designed by an incredibly popular author on Themeforest, designthemes.


LMS | Responsive Learning Management System.

The second recent theme is one called Clever Course and launched on August 21.


Clever Course.

Both themes seem to be focused on companies who want to offer suites of courses that end-users can purchase, but I’m interested to know how and if they are being used by instructors in higher ed and if anyone is using them in conjunction/as a replacement to the tool the institution is providing. Particularly Clever Course seems to be more focused on the instructor AND student experience. You can looks at screenshots of both the instructor and student backends here and here. The other integrates Sensei, a WooThemes plugin, which I’ve seen integrated in other themes as well. Sensei has been on the market for almost two years now and I still have yet to hear too much chatter about it.

But the majority of LMS theme sales seemed to be tied to two specific products: WPLMS (which Clever Course’s UX seems to be stealing a trick or two from) and Academy, which I’ve actually used before (more on that below). These two have nearly 7,000 purchases combined. Total, there are five WordPress themes of ThemesForest that are focused on mimicking an LMS and have 7,931 purchases combined. Is online for-profit education really that lucrative of a market that end-users have spent nearly $500K purchasing these themes? I have serious doubts. I can’t imagine that it’s anywhere close to 100%, and one would have to think a significant portion of those sales are direct to instructor.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the open web is becoming incredibly easier for anybody control. WordPress, specifically, has made some incredible strides in the last couple years and the more developers focus on drag-and-drop tools, the easier it becomes to create an entirely customized experience in mere minutes (particularly if you are using web hosting similar to OU Create or Reclaim Hosting which has lightning fast one-click application installs). So that being said, its theoretically possible, now more than ever, for instructors to build and take ownership of their own custom LMS space as long assuming you’re willing to give up some of the benefits of the institution supported system such as single sign on and dedicated tech support. For instance, in Spring 2013, I worked with a professor who wanted to offer a MOOC version of his Introduction to Management course. We used the Academy theme. With all open tools, we were able to replicate the majority of the functionality edX had at the time (you can still play with the site which has now been shut down on my subdomain

OU introduction to Management MOOC. Summer 2013.

OU introduction to Management MOOC. Summer 2013.

I need to be explicit that I’m not advocating for every instructor to take this approach, rather just that it seems easier to do and web developers are taking notice of the growing market and building low-cost products to sell directly to instructors. I should also note that for security purposes, students who took Intro to Management for college credit still used the institutional LMS for quizzes and assignment submissions, so it’s doesn’t have to be an “either-or” deal BUT the theme did give us enough tools to do some basic assessment and the ability to customize to the functionality we needed, such as the bbPress WordPress plugin, to create a forum space. While the open course design wasn’t anything to necessarily write home about, the platform did meet the needs of the instructor and aesthetically exceeded his expectations. So this all leads me to a few questions:

  1. Are any instructors using themes that are geared towards mirroring LMS functionality as a supplement or replacement to the institutional LMS?
  2. If not, why? Access to web space? Security? Time constraints?
  3. Has any institution adopted any process that discourages the use of these tools?
  4. Does anyone else have experience with these kind of themes? I would love opinions on theme or access to see what you have created with them. What’s an instructors or students point of view of the tradeoffs to moving to a WordPress LMS imitator?
  5. These themes seem to be doing pretty well on Themeforest. Seriously…Who are these 7,000 people and how we can start chatting?

Top image is a creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by lecercle:

Scaling Creativity

As I mentioned in a previous post, we’ve recently launched OU Create at the University of Oklahoma which affords students free domain and is powered by the good folks at Reclaim Hosting. Intro to Mass Communications, the introductory course out of the OU Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, is a course using to build websites where students can reflect on the course (which has been wonderfully redesigned this s by David Tarpenning). This semester, among several digital initiative integrations, are multiple guest lectures from industry and the first was Mike Boettcher, an award winning (two emmys!) journalist and war correspondent and visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma. Their assignment was to break up into teams of two and do a video interview reacting to his lecture that was then added to their blog. They also wrote a blog post reacting to diversity in mass media.

We created a hub where students can now view all of the videos from their classmates: To do this, we used a WordPress plugin called TubePress which will pull in feeds from YouTube or Vimeo (channels, playlists, searches, users favorites, etc.). We created a playlist for all the Mike Boettcher reaction videos so that playlist is now being automatically pulled into the website.


As of this post, there are almost 100 videos that top 2.5 hours of students talking about the lecture. For the students, this special moment in time… the first guest lecture many have ever seen has now been personally documented by the STUDENT and it is something they can refer to for years into their journalism program and beyond. Imagine being a journalist well into your career and being able to look back and see how you originally reflected on that first journalist you ever met who is talking about how he was literally putting his life in danger daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you watch some of these, you soon notice the inner struggle that students have with understanding the places one might go to capture a story and they debate on whether they would do that themselves. It’s some unreal stuff!

For the student, there’s power in both in the individualized space and the centralized hub. In their own blog, they own it. It’s not a paper that gets submitted through a learning management system for one person’s eyes to ever see. It’s exposed to the world. The centralized space allows them to see that distributed conversation in a “flow” persay. It lets them judge their work across their peers and push each others creativity. For an instructor to do this, you are tell the students that their voice actually has value in the larger conversation of the boundaries of journalism. We’re making creativity scalable as well as personally valuable (you, yourself, just have to have to see the beauty of both). The good news is you can :-) Check out all the student’s blog posts for the course here over on


Piloting Domains via OU Create

I’ve been involved in only a few number of projects that get me as excited as one that we are piloting this Fall. Roughly 18 months ago, inspired by projects such as Clemson’s ePortfolio project, we wanted to do something similar at OU. Hoping to find something equally as exciting, Mark Morvant, myself, and others across OU started looking at initiatives at other institutions.

Last Fall I saw a presentation at a conference by Jim Groom from University of Mary Washington about their initiative called “Domain of One’s Own” where UMW was exploring how what it would look like to simply give the student’s their own domain and webspace in which they could install open source applications, such as WordPress and MediaWiki. Since the initiative started, 700+ members of the UMW community have created these .com’s, which you can explore further on their community page, The work their university’s community has done was nothing short of inspiring and even led me to restructure the course I taught last Spring in the College of Journalism to a similar model. We followed the UMW project closely and couldn’t help but wonder, “What if we could do something similar at OU?”

I got to know Jim and his co-founder, Tim Owens, more over the following months and was excited to hear that they were thinking many of the same questions from the opposite direction—how can we make it easy for other institutions to replicate the Domains project? In June, they envisioned Reclaim Hosting, a hosting service they built to make webspace cost effective, with a new pricing model specifically for… wait for it…. universities. Music was played, songs were sung, dances took place on the rooftops, and a perfect union was made between Reclaim Hosting and Oklahoma, America.

This semester roughly 500 students will be piloting the project for us by creating their own domains as part of a course’s curricular activity to be utilize as blogs, wiki, and creative portfolios, and OU will pilot its own version of “Domain of One’s Own” which we are simply calling “OU Create” or I’m already excited about how a few conversations have led to an excellent lineup of courses utilizing OU Create: Art students are going to utilize OU Create to build portfolios of their semester work, Global Engagement Fellows are going to use OU Create to document their first semester journey into understanding global citizenship as well as their future study abroad experiences, Religious Studies students will use to reflect on lectures and interact with fellow students, Journalism students will use it to wrestle with some of the toughest questions of in the industry, and it will be utilized in one course to crowdsource an interactive timeline on the history of Christianity powered by a tool called timeline.js and Google Spreadsheets. Some the initial ideas are so compelling and we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface on use cases.

A few reasons on what I hope a project like this can accomplish:

1. Advance Student Success

Recent research at multiple institutions suggests that blog and e-portfolio usage correlates with higher levels of student success as measured by pass rates, GPA, and retention particularly when combined with high-impact practices such as first-year experience programs, learning communities, and capstone courses. Student success has to be our numero uno in what we do. While these specific metrics aren’t necessarily always the end-all-be-all, it’s encouraging to see that other institutions have been successful.

 2. Make Student Learning Visible

The public-ness of a project like this instantly changes coursework from an exercise into a creative experience that the student owns. There’s a excellent quote from Bret Eynon in the Peer Review:

E-Portfolio Initiatives Support Reflection, Social Pedagogy, and Deep Learning 
Helping students reflect on and connect their learning across academic and cocurricular learning experiences, sophisticated e-portfolio practices transform the student learning experience. Advancing higher order thinking and integrative learning, the connective e-portfolio helps students construct purposeful identities as learners.

The end of that last line is what really resonates with me: “construct purposeful identifies as learners.” Students have digital identities which are often rarely reflect them as learners. Your lifebits, a term from John Udell, are out there and form a collective you. What pieces of you can people find that identify you as a learner? I believe its (at minimum) an opportunity and (at most) the highest responsibility for the institution to guide students in shaping identities as learners.

3. Give Students Blank Canvas

OU Create gives students access to a suite of technologies which can simply elevate digital literacy campus wide.  Not only will students be able to highlight their creativity in their courses, they will be able to be creative in how it is presented by choosing the application that matches their goals for the sites. If they want something extremely user-friendly like WordPress, which focuses on blogging, we have that. Want to create your own Wiki? Use DokuWiki or MediaWiki (which runs Wikipedia). Want to create your own cloud storage solution and get off tools like Dropbox? Install OwnCloud. Want to display collections and research? Install Omeka. Want to use all of them? You can totally do that too! Jim wrote an excellent piece (if I do say say myself!) using the domain as an analogy for a house with subdomains as different rooms. You can use one or all of the applications as you wish.

4. Build a Hub For the Distributed Community

One of the biggest takeaways from seeing what’s happened for Domain of One’s Own is simply the website. While it’s the student’s portal into accessing and controlling their own domain, it’s actually also very community focused through directories, aggregated posts, and community statistics. We are modeling much of that at As activity grows, we’ll add more ways of interacting with community blog posts such as the ability to search by topics, courses, departments, etc. We will also be building in ways in which you can syndicate your existing blogs to the community site whether they are housed at OU Create or not. Essentially, we don’t want the community to even be limited by our applications as many people are already using hosted solutions such as, Tumblr, Medium, and Blogger.

While there is a lot to be excited about, this is still very much in a pilot phase and we have several questions, technical and non-technical that we have to answer. How scalable is this beyond this semester’s 500 domains? What support will the OU community ultimately need? Do we have a culture that can sustain and support it? Can we show similar results that student success was advanced? Do the students recognize the ownership aspect of a .com vs. gets a folder of an OU subdomain and do they deem that an important aspect?

I’ve got my own opinions to all of those questions and I’ll be sure to write about them as we make our way through this academic year, but I could definitely use your assistance in answering these as well. If you are a student, faculty, or staff member interested in what OU Create can offer, go logon to and fill out a form to request access to register a domain.

Putting a Bow on PR Pubs This Semester

This post is a bit overdue, but with the semester wrapping up and summer projects getting off the ground, I just haven’t dedicated the time necessary to update the ol’ blog. Well good news! Friday has rolled around and the offices are quiet enough to finally write the last post on my series about the revisions that I made to the course I teach, PR Publications. You can read my previous posts under the JMC 3433 Category, but a quick summary is that I decided to build a web presence specifically for the course.

This semester (lets called it “Phase I” or “Version 1.0”) was for it to simply be an aggregator of the blog posts student’s made over the course of the semester. They blogged chapter responses to Aaron Walters book, “Designing for Emotion,” reflections on design assignments, they did a design blitz at the beginning of the semester, wrote new assignments for a student-generated assignment bank (both of these were DS106-inspired), and ended with a course reflection. These posts were incredibly valuable in gauging how this format worked with the students. Some common themes I saw:

1. Students didn’t miss lectures and appreciated the hands-on help.

While I spent less time lecturing, there was certainly more to do in class. A lot of assignment got bulked up a bit. For instance, if they designed a newsletter, they were also required to do a e-newsletter version with Mailchimp, etc. Students seem to really enjoy this active learning format.

Student quotes:

This course allowed me to learn. Imagine that learning by doing. – Dusti Gasparovic

More classes should have this structure – independent work with a helpful guide close behind. Sometimes you have to learn with trial and error, and that is a lot of what I did. – Courtney Kittrell

I really would like to see more classes done like this. The hands on aspect of this course made the environment so much better for learning and I think I retained so much more this way. Spenser Hicks

Overall, I would say that this is one of the best PR classes in Gaylord. Although the class could be tough sometimes with making sure to have enough time to complete projects or not knowing how to do something on InDesign or Photoshop, I really enjoyed everything I learned throughout this class. Sometimes I feel like certain classes I take not meaningful and will not help me throughout my life. However, this course is the exact opposite. – Megan Young

The lab intensive format was very different for me, but I got a lot out it. I learn a lot better when I can actually experience what I’m supposed to be doing instead of taking notes on it. So the fact that we actual got to do assignments and learn basic skills that way was so much better for me. I wish more classes were this way because the skills we’re supposed to learning as PR professionals will stick better with students. If we can experience things and learn from our mistakes I feel like we will be better prepared for the tasks we will have to perform when we graduate. – Mary Morton

I loved having the format of a lab intensive class. There was no time wasted in this class, which I can honestly say isn’t the case in other classes I have taken here at OU. Our professor lectured every once in a while, but the lectures were about important topics that helped us with our assignments. – Taylor Jurica

2. The class bonded because the environment encouraged them to do so.

And, by the way, that didn’t mean I had to assign group assignments to accomplish it. Instead I created a physical environment that welcomed collaboration and peer critique. Most days I would play light music so students felt more comfortable to talk to each other and ask questions. Additionally, we would have a feedback day after every major assignment where students would “pitch” their design and then get feedback to the rest of the class. Not only was the feedback valuable to them, but they were able to physically see each other’s work (rather than me grading it behind closed doors and then handing it back). And if they missed class, they could peruse student work on the syndicated blog. Throughout the semester, I would start to see students attempt to recreate a style that another student did in a previous assignment which was awesome.

Student quotes:

Everyone in our class seemed comfortable with each other and I loved that everyone’s work was always available to use upon completion to get ideas or push our creativity further. I also liked that class time went by fast from having something to work on and keep us busy rather than being lectured – Brooke Strother

I thoroughly enjoyed having a small classroom as well. I think the bond that our classroom created was helpful in my success in the class because I was not afraid to ask their opinion on my product. I wish more classes were set up this way because getting feedback on your work only helps a student. – Claire White

3. Students feel empowered by hard skills.

This theme was one that kind of caught me off guard, but after some thought makes incredible sense. There were several mentions of how empowered students felt now that they have a based knowledge of a couple design programs. Sure, they were equating design thought in terms of programs, but student’s are scraping for ways to get a leg up on the future workforce. Being able to add Photoshop, InDesign, WordPress, Mailchimp, etc to a resume is real value add to them. Some were harsh on theory-based courses they had previously taken, but rather than looking at other courses critically, I would say that they were thankful to have a place to individually apply what they had learned earlier. And that individual is more important than one would think think. In several courses that I took, when students were asked to create big works, faculty caved and made it a group project. Inevitably, I would miss out on some of the work that goes into  the creation experience. I’m not saying I’m against group work, but I do think students really enjoy knowing they can accomplish large quanities of difficult tasks independently.

Student quotes:

I have discovered I learn best when I am learning practical skills and when I can practice them and try them out. I think I learn and retain the most in this kind of setting because I do not spend my time cramming for tests I will forget the information on. I am learning how to actually do something. – Makenna Rogers

I have really enjoyed this class. I enjoy any class, be they ever so rare, that teaches me a hard skill. too much of my college life has been spent talking about ideas and hardly any has been spent teaching me things that make me employable. You can’t put theories on a resume, but you can put “good at InDesign”. – Wes Moody

This has honestly been one of my favorite classes since I have been in college. I feel like I learned a lot more than I have in most of my other PR classes, because I had more independent thinking. I was able to discover my creative side and do projects over things that I am passionate about. – Tyler Mahoney

4. Don’t assume blogging is easy.

This was another one that I hadn’t planned for. I guess because I grew up during the birth of blogs and know that several of my peers use(d) the format that students would naturally excel in this area. Unfortunately, it’s not as intuitive out of the gate. This era of students has grown up publishing to closed platforms with walled gardens to audiences that they have created for themselves. Of course they have no problem posting in their snarky sense of humor to that type of platform. Blogging publicly, and particularly with an academic slant, is a (albeit small) hurdle. My critiques on students usually had to do with lack of context around the blog piece. They would forget to wrap the blog with context of the assignment and write it as if they were writing just to me (i.e. Posts would start with “In this chapter I really liked…”). Students had to learn that this wasn’t an in class pop quiz that only I read. Even with this course evaluation assignment, I feel students were too easy on the course as a whole. I know the holes of the course and would love for students to vocalize the same so I could be extra motivated to fix them. Students–give me all the honesty you’ve got!!

Student quotes:

I had to blog my progress to the world, which in itself was not necessarily difficult as much as it was weird. – Courtney Kittrell

I will admit that writing for a public audience was hard. Although I am a PR major I find writing is the most difficult thing we do and we do it A LOT. Trying to choose the right words and placing it in the right place is really hard. It’s also exactly why some people pay other people to do it for them. (i.e. Why our profession exists) But I found that with the progression of the class I became more and more confident in my writing and in my designs. – Mary Morton

Writing for a public audience was definitely a different experience. I have never owned a blog before, especially not one for a class. I found it harder to write for a public audience because I never knew exactly who I was writing to. Because I was writing for a blog, I had to think about all different aspects of an assignment or reading before I posted it so I didn’t leave the reader with any questions. – Sarah Spence

5. This course is ‘uniquely mine’

At this point, I’m just rehashing things I’ve said previously, but this quote sums up what I was trying to essentially create with the course. The course is not simply for me to impart my knowledge that students then consume and consequently prove how well they have retained it. My goal is to provide enough prompt and guidance to ignite the student’s creativity. Then it’s up to them to push that as far as they wish. Either way, the outcome is uniquely yours.

Student quotes:

My favorite part of this course was creating my own domain name and making it uniquely mine. – Dusti Gasparovic

“Phase II,” which may or may not come this Fall, will include porting on more course content to the course subdomain. I want the site to become the course “hub” where students can get the most up-to-date schedule and assignments, not just posts from other students. Schedules change too often (for instance, this semester it was weather) to keep a printed syllabus any more and assignments don’t change necessarily, but students want clarified parameters which I could easily document on the website. In the end, 16 students published 200+ posts to the web on the number one blogging platform. Oh yeah, and they get to keep it. And my course evaluations were better than ever… Not bad.

A GIF-Powered Time Travel of the OU Campus

Last week I was inspired by a blog post from the OU Institute for Quality Communities, which leveraged Google Map’s new historical imagery street view feature and GIFs to show the growth of OKC over the last five years. I was curious to do the same for OU as well to see if Google Earth Streetview what  snapshot of construction at OU since 2008 could be perused. A few neat findings:

1. Growth of the OU Research Campus




2. Addition of Sammy B to Heisman Park



3. New School of Social Work Building (Zarrow Hall) / Demo of Rhyne Hall




4. Finishing of Devon Energy Hall



5. Utility Plant Construction


There are a few key projects that unfortunately wasn’t recaptured by the Google Street View cars. Namely, the second phase addition of Gaylord Hall and the renovation of Gould Hall. There’s a good chance that Asp Ave. was blocked off due to construction when Google was making the rounds. It’s also very impressive how much better the camera quality is. The 2013 images are much clearer than the 2008 images.

One last thing I accidentally discovered perusing Google Maps was this collection of campus panoramic shots by Kevin Burns, a local photographer. He happened to capture the South Oval one rainy morning last Fall, right before the mums bloom for Homecoming:

You can check out some more of Kevin’s panoramic’s on this Google Maps | Views page which include inside the football stadium and the National Weather Center at night. This lead me down a new rabbit hole of what does it take to be a “Google Trusted” photographer. Ya know, cause that would probably make a pretty cool business card.

A Brief History of Digital Badges in Higher Ed

Yesterday I was invited to attend a meeting held by our IT Shared Services team who was giving a case study on their digital badges project. In short, they saw a professional development need for their team and wanted to build curriculum and a subsequent badging system for IT employees. IT employees now have a way to earn and document professional growth. There is also a motivation factor with a built in leaderboard so you can size yourself up next to your peers. I’ve spoke to them about their ideas previously, but I continue to be impressed by the effort that has gone into it, and I’m happy to see that it will be a scalable service to the rest of the University. Their pilot project is a textbook example of how to good IT departments can deploy technology properly: Figure out how IT could use it and prove out the concept. If IT can find a use case for the technology, that ownership is helpful to gain momentum campus wide. But this system will be an excellent resource for instructors and other departments looking to make the leap into open badges.


As they were presenting about the project, they went into the background of digital badges and the Mozilla Open Badge project which I’m very familiar with. But one thing that caught my attention was a comment that this is not really being implemented heavily at a higher education level (most of the movement is in K12 and public services). That was a little surprising since I’ve considered incorporating badges into my course the next time I teach it. I couldn’t imagine actually I would actually be that early of an adopter. Last night I was Googling for a list of higher ed projects using digital badges–either at the faculty or institution level, but I was hard pressed to get more than a couple of examples at a time (usually Purdue or UC-Davis). Thus I sat out to uncover every higher ed project I could find that incorporated badges. So without further adieu:

  • Purdue University – Purdue developed Passport in 2012, a mobile app for earning and disseminating badges. You can see a demo of the platform at from the learner’s perspective, and get a grasp of the faculty offerings (such as badge design templates) here. It has been integrated by Bill Watson in a course on learning-systems design as well as Purdue’s self-paced platform NanoHubU, which focuses on science, engineering, and nanotechnology.
  • UC Davis – UC Davis Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Major has became the go-to example in media for badges in higher ed, though, as recent as Feb 2014, they have said they have yet to implement them. Their badge system is baked into a custom e-portfolio system for the program and is focused around core competencies and individual achievements. They also plan to be fairly egalitarian with it, allowing anyone within the system–students and faculty alike–to create new badges. You can read a nice and thorough case study here as well as the Inside Higher Ed article.
  • Carnegie Mellon – Students can earn badges by participating in Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Student Network where they develop computer science skills and knowledge. Website is explicit that faculty may utilize the badges for formative assessment. Badges are based around a formula they call the “MAGIC” formula (cute) Motivation Assessment Guidance Identification Certification/Credentialing. Several links to research that been done in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Seton Hall – Created campus wide badges for students who participate in campus events. It’s pretty neat because students can simply swipe their ID card at events to earn the badges. They have another program where freshman earn badges by attending mandatory freshman events. Their badges have a very similar look and feel to Foursquare badges (not surprising) and you can even see a public leaderboard (Congrats to Thomas Zucker, who leads the pack with 44 badges and 76 points!)
  • Longwood University – Longwood has leverage BadgeStack by Learning Times to build a badging system for workplace development for high school students. Students participate in “quests” to earn badges like Thinker, Networker, and Communicator. According to this report, 28 percent of those who signed up earned all 10 individual badges.
  • University of Central Florida – Faculty from University of Central Florida’s School of Visual Arts and Design built their own learning management system for a course called Adventures in Emerging Media that has badge achievements built in. Students indicated that they were motivated seeing peers atop leaderboards and event create that a special Facebook group where students could discuss how to earn hidden badges. Here’s a slideshare on the course.
  • Indiana University – Daniel Hickey integrated badges for his doctorate course on educational assessment “Capturing Learning in Context.” He utilizes ForAllBadges to deploy the Mozilla badges and wrote up a nice blog post about the specifics.
  • Borders College – Created a university-wide badge system through their e-learning team to help promote use of Moodle.
  • Brigham Young University – David Wiley (now with Lumen Learning) used badges in his graduate seminar (and now open course) “Introduction to Openness in Education.” I can’t find much about the endeavor as the original site is been pulled down, but here’s a blog post on the build. He was also kind enough to develop Badge Widget Hack which allowed his students to display them outside of their backpack (also available on GitHub). He was (at one point at least) very vocal in the New York Times about how quickly alternative credentialing would catch on.
  • Quinnipiac University – Alexander Halavais (now at Arizona State University) created digital badges for a master’s level Sociology course. According to this EdWeek article, students grades were simply based on how many badges they earned. He has gone on to publish a wonderful piece on the “genealogy” of badges as well as a thoughtful critique titled “The Skeptical Evangelist.”
  • Ohio State University – This one is a stretch. I can’t tell whether this one got off the ground or not, but OSU was one of two winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition: Badges for Lifelong Learning competition that was tied to a university. This initial proposal was that OSU Game Development Team would partner to build a badging system to “encourage learning by connecting identity or motivation for visiting museums and parks with content” and promote Native American history and culture. Sans a placeholder website, and a few blog HASTAG blog posts from 2012, I can’t find much progress.
  • Lipscomb University – Students earn badges that measures 15 competencies, based on the Polaris® Competency Model. These competency based assessments can translate up to 30 credit hours. Thanks Laura Gibbs for the information!

So there you have it. Eleven examples of projects: Six led by faculty, four by administration, and one from the department level. I was surprised to only be able to find a handful of efforts (some of which are no longer continuing) but this should be the most exhaustive list to date. From my findings, the OU Badges project is one amongst a few and has a solid strategy: create a space that makes it easier for open badges to be adopted throughout the community.

My hope isn’t necessarily to debate the merit of the badges (much smarter people than me make much better arguments on both sides–I recommend reading Alex Halavais “Skeptical Evangelist” post mentioned above as well as Tuft’s working paper “New and Alternative Assessments, Digital Badges, and Civics”), but to simply show the potential diversity of digital badges because of the openness. In the case of open, what is its upper hand is also being argued as its biggest pitfall. Openness brings rich diversity and use cases through accessibility. At the same time accessibility breeds heavy skepticism to the validity and quality of open badges. It’s safe to say that it is (virtually) uncontrollable, but I could make a good argument that’s exactly what one should want. There’s a lot of learning that can happen in the uncontrollable[ref]Or as Amy Collier and Jen Ross put it, the “messiness”[/ref] that simply can’t be blueprinted by one person.

Last week, while attending a Sloan-C conference, there was an excellent presentation on digital badges by Brad Zdenek from Penn State. I tweeted one of his slides that really stuck with me:

At a classroom level, can open badges help decode what our transcripts aren’t designed to convey? One other thought I had yesterday is why institutions aren’t doing more to help guide the discussion of what can and should  equate to a badge. It seems like one of the academy’s core competencies is credentialing, and we would be better suited to lead the discussion instead of sitting back and see if open badges stick around. I would love if someone knew and could point me to a consortium that’s exploring how universities can unite around micro credentials in efforts to give them more validity and industry acceptance. But that’s probably going to take more than 11 use cases.

An Update On My Course’s Web Project

This semester, I decided to switch PR Publications, the Gaylord College course I teach, around a bit. I spoke about this in a previous post, but the main idea was that the final project students used to do, which was a web portfolio, was going to be moved to the beginning of the course, and the student’s would now be leveraging the blog portion of their portfolio to chronicle the course itself.

I decided that there would be three different types of assignments students would do: 1.) weekly reflective posts for an ebook I had assigned called “Designing for Emotion” 2.) a design “blitz” were they would go across campus and document design concepts in real lifeand 3.) reflection posts on each design project, which will ultimately reside in their end-of-class portfolio. Additionally, I would create a separate blog that aggregated all of the student’s RSS feeds. To see each of these assignments, you can go to and click the appropriate assignment tag in the sidebar.

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So far, my favorite portion of the blog has been reading the ebook chapter reflections. My prompt for them was short and sweet: tell me your biggest takeaway from the chapter and something, if any, that you disagreed with. I made it a point to encourage them to not simply summarize the chapter (since I had already read the book!). Very quickly, students were no longer just writing to that prompt but going above and beyond. Quickly students were using the blog as an outlet to connect the text to the design work they were doing inside, and sometimes even outside, of the classroom. Here are some of my favorite blog quotes from the first half of the semester:

“This chapter was one of my favorites so far. I loved the examples it gave on how to attract the customer and make them feel special. I have never thought about using surprise, delight and anticipation in such strategic ways. As a PR professional, giving one’s brand a personality is so important. This is something I will always remember once I get out of college and starting putting these strategies into play.” – Taylor Jurica

“This chapter was really just a big ‘agh haa’ moment for me because it explained the way we think about design and what appeals to us as humans the most. It made me reflect on what designs I like the most and why. I realized I do use sites that have a more human element to them, or even an element of surprise that makes me invested.” – Makenna Rogers

“That is when it started to click with me that I need to figure out before I begin my designs what persona I want it to have. Is it going to be my supervisor who is very uptight, but provides hard, factual information or is it going to be my college buddy who I can laugh with and trust?” Tyler Mahoney

“Something I have recently noticed and enjoy about this book is how everything Walter says is true and applies to Public Relations. For example, when he mentions that our goal is not to trick the public and “Your audience will catch on to your game and not trust your brand if you are deceitful,” this is extremely relevant to our field of study (Walter 49). In addition, I have always liked learning about new things, and this chapter is chalk full of them, such as Photojojo and Wufoo. I had never heard of these before, so it was interesting to read about them.” Megan Young

“I really enjoyed this book a lot. Usually, it’s really hard for me to pay attention while reading books (especially for school), but Walter did a great job at catching and keeping my attention throughout the entire book. I thoroughly enjoyed the examples that he used for each topic he talked about because I was able to picture it and relate it back to how I could personally use it.” Sarah Spence

My hope is that other courses (especially in the College of Journalism) considers a blog style format to their course. While students can be hesitant at first, they really seem to appreciate picking up the hard skills that come along with managing a blog. I’ve had multiple students who have since gained confidence in their web skills and have taken on roles in their clubs and organizations that give them website responsibility. Additionally, they’ve been able to watch other student’s work progress in the class and pick up tips and vocabulary from their peers.

Starting in two weeks, the students will be beginning their final project which will be to convert their blog into a portfolio-style presence. I’ll be sharing examples of those final projects when the semester is over. And, by all means, if you like what you see, I don’t think they would be mad if you hired them. :-)

Everything I Know About HTML I Learned From An 11 Year Old

Later thisweek I’ll be speaking at Oral Roberts University to a student group called Enactus (from their Twitter “Using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better more sustainable world”). I plan to just share my story: how I leveraged my web design skills in various non-technical marketing positions and how it inevitably circled back around to what I do today.

The truth is, while I spent the last two years in a marketing/pr role, I found a way to earn roughly 20% of my annual income doing freelance web design for various local businesses and consultants. This was born out of necessity for my family as we had recently had our first child and were fairly strapped for cash.

Having a newborn meant I had to be incredibly efficient with the little time I had to do freelance work, and this attracted me to solutions like WordPress. I could install the application on a server and identify a suitable theme in minutes, which would usually get me 80% of the way there on the back-end work allowing me to focus my attention on front-end design. Shortly thereafter, my project management and design skills became known more broadly around the University where I work, which landed me projects like designing and managing, a civic education video platform,, a MOOC from a buddy/professor named Jeremy Short in the Price College of Business, and for presidential campus events like the OU Teach-In. Being given these tasks allowed me to hone and more fully understand my passion the intricacies of web and higher education. I poured much of my free time into reading about different platforms and learning models for online learning.

For this event, I’ll be using pieces of a former talk I gave at a conference called Confluence, but I’ll be re-writing the majority of it since that event was more of TED-style conference for social media professionals. This one will be slightly more technical and contain less “every day tips and tricks” as the conference planner suggested I do.

The thing I didn’t like about the final version of this talk was that the more I attempted to weave in tips and tricks the further I got from my actual story. Stripping away the unnecessary recommendations will allow for a much more fluid narrative and help me focus it. So this time I’m setting out to dig up some of my own history. What was is like to work on the web 15 years ago? What did it feel like to create pages on some of the early personal page providers such as Geocities and Angelfire?

Well, for starters, when I started 15 years ago… I was 12. Soo my interests weren’t incredibly broad. I was interested in building websites dedicated to baseball or WWF. That’s it. I remember the first time I signed up for Geocities and picking my “neighborhood.” I remember printing out the entire terms and conditions[ref]Can you imagine doing that these days? It wears me out just to think about it[/ref] and reading them word for word, asking my dad to clarify any of the questions I had. The very first site I did on Geocities was a click through slide show of different pictures of wrestlers I liked. I remember my first problem was when I realized everything I had coded the image sources to my hard drive’s direct path (i.e. C:\Pictures\etc…) instead of an online source. Thus only I could properly render the images. So I figured out how to upload pictures via Geocities’ FTP web tool which allowed you to do one file at a time. This was about a 90 second process per picture on a 56k modem and felt dreadfully long on 56k.

But where did I first learn how to code rudimentary HTML? All I could remember was this image in my head of a brightly colored site specifically for kids teaching you HTML. So after a little Google hunt, I was actually able to find the site because, as luck would have it, It’s still up. It’s called Lissa Explains:

The layout I remember from 1996. Source:

A few years ago, “Lissa” was kind enough to update the website and give a little background information on the site:

I was just 11 years old and in 6th grade when I started Lissa Explains it All… I had kept the fact that I had a Web site from all my friends at school. I didn’t want them to think I was a geek or anything, so I just didn’t tell anyone. At that time I had over 500,000 page views a month. Then, when I was 13, I went to a computer convention with my school, and Sun Microsystems found out about my site, and that I was there at the convention. Sun Microsystems called CNN, and CNN came out to do a story about me and my Web site. Soon my whole school knew about it and I was SO embarrassed. When my friends found out I was making money, they were all impressed and I didn’t feel so embarrassed anymore.

Wait. WHAT?! I was learning from ANOTHER kid?! The website doesn’t mention how up-to-date the About page is (it refers to her as now 21 years old) but I found the site’s Wikipedia article and it turns out Lissa and I were the same year in school! How incredible is it now to think that my 12 year old self was learning how to build webpages from another 12 year old? What a testimony to every good reason why students should be given ample opportunity to create on the open web, right? Students learning from other students’ learning. It’s a wonder (and yet not surprising at all) that another kid was able to build such an informative website (now a living part of history) that successfully connected directly with its intended audience: other kids. Better yet, the impact was most likely MUCH broader given that only 20% of American adults were online in 1996. How many websites were pulling 500k views per month?

On a similar thread, Jim Groom tweeted a link to an archived version of the Geocities FAQ page last week:

The FAQ has this statement:

The Web promotes the free flowing exchange of ideas and information among all citizens on the Internet. The Web has flourished because technology has provided us with a way to link people and their ideas together in a way that was never possible before. We aspire to be positive contributors to this new culture. We’re committed to developing innovative ways to foster the spirit of community that is so vital to the future success of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

I would love to imagine that sounded revolutionary in 1996. Today, the average user would translate it as suspect at best and more than likely assume its Silicon Valley speak for “please contribute via our platform so we can have your data.”

But, further, I grow more concerned that most, unfortunately, value the web based solely on what it can offer to us instead of what we have to offer.. How possible is this sort of mission in this consumer-driven world wide web where most “production” is taking place in walled social media gardens that largely consist of your self-curated friend circles? Further, information has become so easy to access that we take for granted the work that originally went into its creation. And I feel strong in saying that only because I hold myself guilty for these kind of feelings. When it used to take me two to three minutes to upload a small photo–when sharing new knowledge required building the entire page it would exist on–I could appreciate and empathize more with websites like Lissa’s and thus feel more compelled to give back and contribute to those who have came before me.

Ah, but now… Now I can hand you a completely adequate and most definitely technology trendy responsive, parallax, HTML5 site in mere hours. Yet I can’t decide whether I should be in awe or hate that fact.

Friday Web Roundup

I’m going to attempt to leverage my blog as almost a running summary of things I’ve read/watched/consumed over the week. I tend to default to reading articles on my phone or iPad when I have a few minutes, whether that’s waiting for a meeting or at eating a quick lunch. I also tend to do this at home when I finally have a chance to check social media channels like Twitter (and consequently tend to get in trouble for good reason). These lists will rarely have rhyme or reason. I imagine it will be a smorgasbord of articles relating to my occupation in higher education, technology, and pop culture. But we’ll see right?! Without further ado…

1. Favorite article involving a company bent on world domination

“Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” by George Packer, New Yorker

This paints an almost ruleless picture of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. I had similar feelings reading this as I do watching Don Draper on Mad Men. Their shrewdness makes me want to hate them, but I can’t help but see the genius as well and feel even more compelled to root for Amazon. Either way, this article is like mashing up every good article about Amazon I’ve ever read and chronicles its entire history, hitting on everything from the legend of books as a mere customer-acquisiton strategy, to the battle for the ebook with Apple, to relentless tax evasion, to buying the Washington Post, to the (so far) failure of Amazon as a media company. At its core, I think Amazon represents the full spectrum of 21st Century business criticism. History will decide whether society holds them up as heroes or villains.

“You’re not hired to do a particular job—you’re hired to be an Amazonian. Lots of managers had to take the Myers-Briggs personality tests. Eighty per cent of them came in two or three similar categories, and Bezos is the same: introverted, detail-oriented, engineer-type personality. Not musicians, designers, salesmen. The vast majority fall within the same personality type—people who graduate at the top of their class at M.I.T. and have no idea what to say to a woman in a bar.


2. Favorite new event coming to OKC




This idea seems similar to Better Block, but rather than reimagining a distressed/unoccupied block, it’s bringing the walkability conversation to already flourishing.

3. Favorite blog post relevant to what I do on a day-to-day basis

“Building the “new data science of learning” – #eli2014 reflections” by Amy Collier, Stanford

I’ve been impressed by Amy for awhile. Her reflections on digital learning are strong and incredibly learner-focused (as opposed to a lot of criticism that I read which tends to be institution or faculty focused). Her call for more qualitative research on the learning experience in a world where the conversation is dominated by the implications of large big data sets is brilliant.

4. Favorite line from a book I’ve finished reading this week


“When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.” – Steve Jobs

This is taken from The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus. This “myth” was the “The Originality Myth” and did a great job of walking through the controversy about how Steve Jobs had always remarked that Bill Gates and Windows copied the Mac. When in reality, Jobs had also been inspired by the GUI: Xerox prototype, which had also been inspired by 1950s DARPA technology. The Jobs quote comes from the idea that creativity is not about complete originality, but it’s about being able to connect ideas in ways they have never been connected.

Full disclosure: David Burkus is a friend of mine who spoke last year at TEDxOU and gave me a copy of the book to say “thank you.” The last chapter of the book, “The Mousetrap Myth” is essentially his talk. It’s crazy to think that you can go from one year where all you have is some loose pieces of chapters and no book title to sharing your story of the a fully published book at the next year’s conference. It’s been truly remarkable to watch David Burkus and his drive over the last year.


Unfortunately, after reading the book I now realize that David’s assertion that “This all started at TEDxOU” actually violates “The Eureka Myth” which states that, instead of a quick spark, insights are actually the result of hard work on a problem or project. But nice try, David.

5. Favorite Photo Esssay


I can’t believe the first time I post a weekly roundup that it includes something from Buzzfeed. What I do like about Buzzfeed is that they don’t do it in a slideshow or carousel. This is a sampling of the “Lean In Collection” on Getty Images. 1.) This is a just an inspiring collection of photography. The photographer in me wanted to go shoot after looking at it. 2.) As both someone who is occasionally looking for stock photography for graphics and someone who teaches a PR design course, this was a sigh of relief as you can feel creatively stifled always looking a photo that appears has a handshake (the stock photo universal symbol for business) of two “diverse” individuals.

Follow Along With My Students’ Work This Semester

This semester I’ve created a web space ( to aggregate all of the student’s blog posts for my PR Publications course (JMC3433 in the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication). The idea is that the students (and really anyone) can follow along as they (for the first time–mind you) begin to understand design technique and execution as it relates to public relations publications highly targeted at specific publics. Students are now required to standup an instance of WordPress on their own server space at the beginning of the semester, and they will use the site to 1.) document their semester progression through blog posts on assigned book reads and completed design assignments and 2.) create a portfolio website that can live on for them well beyond the 16 weeks they’ll spend in my JMC3433 course.

In previous semesters, I’ve had them write one page reflection papers to go along with their design assignments. But in early December, I was fortunate enough to attend the MOOC Research Conference in Arlington, TX and was inspired by what keynote speaker Jim Groom was doing with his DS106 digital storytelling course at the University of Mary Washington and how his students use blogs to not only document their own work but write create new assignments for future students. I wish I had a link to that specific keynote, but just watch his recent TEDx Talk to see how exciting this guy is:

His talk was convincing enough to make me move students off of reflection papers and onto the blogosphere, as well as leverage the blog RSS feeds through a plugin called FeedWordPress to create the aggregated version. The syndicated blog is the first step in moving all content elements of the course into an open, digital environment.

I will admit that this blogging format might not work for every course in every discipline, but I’ve adopted it JMC3433 for a few reasons:

1. Content creation has evolved beyond print.
Previous versions of this course have traditionally focused on print design, which is an excellent starting point for any designer. All design principles were essentially created and are rooted in this medium. But the late 20th century brought the rise of marketing public relations (MPR) and PR practitioners are leveraging online tools like blog and social media channels more and more to become real-time, vocal “brand ambassadors with a real understanding of their brand’s value proposition.” [ref]Apasolomou, I. & Melanthio, Y. (2012). Social Media: Marketing Public Relations’ New Best Friend. Journal of Promotion Management, 18 (3), 319–328.[/ref] I’m not saying anything that is earth shattering, but direct content creation no longer only takes place in a print design realm. But almost all of my students have never touched WordPress before, so the practice of that in and of itself is a valuable experience since it’s the content management system that powers close to 20% of the web and will likely be the platform most will use out of college to management websites.

2. Students get an e-portfolio out of the deal.
The content my students create (newsletters, post cards, business cards, etc.) naturally lend themselves to a blog structure and e-portfolio since they are visually stimulating. Educause has been a huge proponent of e-portolios and says faculty should encourage students to post samples of written work and projects (among other things) as a way to showcase their work for potential employers. I’m all for anything that puts my students ahead, so we make sure everything they produce for this course (and others) has the opportunity to broadly be seen.

3. Part reinforcement. Part self evaluation.
Student’s self reflection blog posts are essentially the students going through the motions of walking others through their thought and creative process. They are also able to tell me what they were attempting to create in the event it didn’t turn out they way they had originally planned (and in turn we can have conversations about what went wrong and how they might have got there).

4. To show that we are all in this together.
Last, I simply want the students to know they aren’t alone in this endeavor. At first, this course puts most of my students in an incredibly uncomfortable and vulnerable position since they have little-to-no computer design experience. The aggregated blog allows students to watch everyone else walk through the fire with them.

The first set of student posts are reflections on a book titled “Designing for Emotion” by Aarron Walter, from A Book Apart, a series of short books for web designers. As mentioned above, PR publication design focuses heavily on how to create targeted pieces for publics who share characteristics and interests. Emotional design, a term made popular by Donald Norman‘s book of the same name, speaks to how beautiful design can actually evoke a position emotional response to the brain, which is a response PR tends to constantly trying to elicit. While this book’s focus is primarily web design, we’ll be using the principles to thinking broadly about design beyond web. I picked this book in particular because it has some great modern examples of design application and it’s available in both ebook and paperback form. Students even get a decent discount if they wish to have both to fit multiple learning styles. Through the Gaylord College, several students have been given an iPad mini as part of a small scale tablet initiative, so I’m hopeful the ebook will be a viable option.

In the spirit of the idea, I’ll also be blogging about how the course is going and what the student response to the project is, as well as how the book adoption is going. I’m particularly interested in how many students like the shorter format, how many have opted for the ebook version, and how they are primarily reading the book (tablet, desktop, printed out, or print-on-demand by publisher). Until then, enjoy watching the class at!