The World Wide Classroom

Cara Bonnett

This story, in a slightly different form, was published originally on Wednesday, January 20, 2010, in DukeToday.

Laurent Dubois had never blogged or even built a web page before last summer.

But when he found out that more than 50 students had signed up for his “World Cup, World Politics” class—he’d been expecting 30—he realized that a blog could provide an alternative discussion forum.

Not just for his students, as it turned out.

Dubois’ class blog—one of about a dozen developed last fall as part of a Duke Digital Initiative pilot of the flexible publishing platform WordPress—sparked conversation between his class and readers around the world. They included a graduate student in England, a native Kenyan and a Michigan State University professor.

“I didn’t expect readers outside Duke, but suddenly there was a leading soccer scholar (MSU associate professor Peter Alegi) engaging in conversation with us,” said Dubois, a professor of romance studies and history. “This makes the boundaries between the classroom and the world much more porous.”

The pilot will be expanded this spring, based on feedback from Dubois and other faculty and students, said Shawn Miller, a consultant with Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology at Perkins Library.

Flexible publishing platforms such as WordPress offer an alternative to Blackboard and other traditional course management systems. “Student work can potentially be published for the wide world—not just uploaded to a private, university space,” Miller said.

Open source blog software also gives professors more ability to customize their online classrooms. And, some instructors say, there are benefits in teaching students to create blogs using systems they might encounter in future jobs.

The Duke pilot allowed students in intermediate German classes to create enduring online portfolios of the work they produced during the semester.

“WordPress is ideally suited to this purpose. It does not require HTML programming skills, it is extremely intuitive, and its results look great. In short, it strikes the perfect balance between usability and quality of presentation,” wrote Christophe Fricker, visiting assistant professor in Germanic languages, in an e-mail encouraging other faculty members to participate in the pilot. “Students will appreciate the transferable skills they learn, as well as the opportunity to showcase and regularly (re)view their work.”

The platform offers an easy way to interconnect students’ work across courses, said Susanne Hall, a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program. Students in her Writing 20 class, “Literature of Your Lifetime,” used the blog to review recent works from an online literary journal.

“If they’re blogging in different courses, this can potentially provide a sense of authorship in a centralized place,” Hall said. “We can see the work our colleagues are doing in their classes. We can collectively author a document that would be reference for everyone. The possibilities are exciting.”

Dubois and other instructors said they appreciated the ability to share their students’ work with a broader audience and build a resource for other students and researchers.

“Knowing these sites are public puts pressure on students to do better,” said Daniel Foster, an assistant professor in theater studies whose students created Web sites as if they were dramaturgs preparing a production. “Their work is out there in the world, not just ‘for school’ but as a resource that could be useful for someone else producing a play.”

In addition to the academic uses, about a half-dozen groups and individuals—including the Multimedia Project Studio and the eLearning Roadmap Group—participated in the pilot for non-course uses.

More information about the WordPress pilot and other DDI technologies can be found at the DDI site.

Cara Bonnett is Managing Editor, News & Information, at Duke’s Office of Information Technology.