I had the chance to work more on the ANTH 101 site with Ryan and Mike over winter break. It’s a pretty significant change. It’s almost entirely gutted in terms of the WordPress side of things with a different theme, some new plugins etc. but also some significant changes on how student see and interact with the work they make.
Some of the initial conversations resulted in the Minimal WordPress work which . . . we ended up tossing.1 But what we ended up creating is pretty slick and does a number of pretty interesting things.
ANTH101 is a large class- several hundred students large – so a chunk of being able to deal with that is making things simple for students. A large chunk of work went towards simplicity. Another large chunk of effort went towards making it feel and look app-like on a phone. That’s the equivalent of making it look cool/interesting and feel modern – pretty much the opposite of most course site software. It was expected students would be using their phones to submit work and browse.
There are few different plugins that make it all work. The major ones are as follows –
- Visual Composer – both Mike and Ryan want to get their hands dirty and this plugin provides for a good deal of flexibility and control without needing high levels of coding proficiency. I believe Mike designed the entire front page with it.2
- BuddyPress – we’re running BuddyPress on a single site which is something I’ve never done before. It does provide a level of social elements that were desired but I’m not sure I’d go this route again. It was a big set of changes/features to add that mixed in odd ways with the theme (also new) and some new plugins. So lots of new stuff and I think BuddyPress if just far happier in a multisite.3
- BuddyPress User Blog – this is a pretty slick front end editor plugin that comes from the BuddyBoss people. We ended up having to customize it a bit as well but it pretty much ends the need for students to go to the backend entirely. The animated gif above gives you an idea how it works.
The course is built around ten fundamental lessons with parallel challenges that get students to put those ideas into real-life practice. The assignments are very visual and unique. These assignments are inviting and challenging and they’re the kinds of things that other students/humans will want to read.
That work is then aggregated to three places – the showcase page for that lesson, their clan4 page, and to the student’s portfolio page.
The clan page is built off the buddypress group page but with a customized template to show all group member’s blog posts and setting that to the be the initial view for groups (rather than actions).5 It provides a tighter view for TA-level groups. That’s handy for assessment/workflow and handy for building community in these large classes. You can see that Ryan customized the header and the icon for the group.
This actually deserves its own spot. This ends up being a customized version of the BuddyPress user page.6 This grew more slowly than I’d have liked but I think it ended up being one of the cooler elements in the site. I have to give all credit to Mike and Ryan for coming up with the idea. It takes the 10 projects and creates ten squares. When students have no work, those squares remain green and link to the assignment itself but as students complete assignments the squares fill up with the featured image for the post and then link to the student’s work. I just really like the tight integration and the visual, fluid nature of the whole setup.
Individual assignment pages are fairly typical but there are always additional ways to connect with other student work. Notice the right hand side where it indicates who is online and what work has been done recently. You may also notice a blue sidebar on the left that isn’t visible to you unless you’re logged in. That element made layouts far less fun.
The Planning Document Stats
There are twelve thousand things I wish I’d done differently (and I haven’t even asked Ryan and Mike for suggestions yet) but I check in on the site every so often and I’m always amazed at the content. It’s good work with good people. I love working with Ryan and Mike even though their passion can make it far more challenging. They want the best for their students and they keep working towards that even if it means last minute changes or radical re-designs. I think about that a lot as I read some of the texts for the digital history class I’m co-teaching. If I’d followed some of the advice I see in there, I’d need a team of 15 to do this kind of work and we’d still be in the planning stages. Scope and planning and all that stuff matters but I think it’s had too much primacy for too long. Diving into the fire and working at the edge of your competency7 is powerful stuff. Scary. Terrifying at times but good in many ways. It builds a certain kind of confidence.
2 I also hate it bc writing plugins for plugins like this is frustrating but it’s important to note that the professor ought to get what they want rather than the person doing mainly technology.
3 Nothing wrong with that. Live how you want to live BP.
4 Originally buddypress’s group terminology, then tribe (which has bad vibes in anth circles) and then clan (which appears to be ok — less ok in Alabama).
5 I’m going to stick to a non-technical post on this for now but better get in gear to write up something before I forget everything. Remembering this stuff done under pressure, especially after failing 47 ways, is harder than it should be.
6 and one I need to entirely re-write . . . I over-thought this so many times trying prevent extra calls to the database . . . eventually did a number of awkward things by hand . . . never say I don’t practice what I preach regarding putting non-perfect/non-good things out in public
7 maybe beyond in my case