Virtual Language Studies: A Brief Technical Overview (pt 1)

I have been working for the last nine months or so on a project that is attempting to re-think language studies using a fully online model. It is know as the Virtual Language Studies project being run out of Drake University. I was called in, along with Barbara Sawhill and Ryan Brazell, to come up with an infrastructure that might be used for such an online course. We immediately experimented with WordPress Multi-Site, BuddyPress, and some other plugin and configurations, it was our idea to have everything running in WP/BuddyPress, but Moodle was part of the grant already, so we needed to integrate WP/BuddyPress and Moodle, which we did with some success.

Below is a breakdown of the technical framwork we created and some of the details surrounding this experiment.

Loosely Integrating WP and Moodle
The open and syndication driven publishing platform model that many have experimented with using WordPress Multi-Site was the basis of our setup. The ideas we finally settled on this past Summer was that WordPress would be the forward-facing site where students and faculty would blog their process out in the open. And our Moodle install would be the space folks went to for more secure, management-based resources like grades, quizzes, and other “sensitive” materials. I didn’t manage the Moodle installation given it is not really my strength—I know next to nothing about Moodle–but we did manage to get Cast Iron Coding to develop a plugin for this VLS grant that enables single sign-on between Moodle and WordPress Multi-Site. It works pretty well, the only issue is that it depends upon Moodle for the login and registration info and passes it from Moodle to WP, so you would have to populate Moodle with all that data and then anyone with a Moodle account can login or start a blog on the WordPress install.

You can find the plugin for integrating Moodle and WP Multi-Site (title “Moodle Network Authentication”) here.

Designing the Syndication Bus
After WP and Moodle were loosely integrated the next step was to make sure we had the syndication working for this space. In short, we had about five or six different courses each with about ten students. Everyone, including faculty, would have their own blogs, and we would syndicate the various posts onto the front page to highlight faculty posts as well as student posts. What’s more, each semester we had at least three Russian language classes and three Chinese language classes, so we also wanted to post all the applicable Russian language course posts in one blog and all the Chinese language course posts in another, which would give us a way of visualizing the work across classes in one space. We termed the spaces Chinese Notebooks and Russian Notebooks (mainly because the push was to refer to the blog as a “notebook” rather than a blog, which is probably not the best idea, and one I recommended against).

So, we could aggregate all the student work from either the Russian or Chinese courses into one blog, and then filter it all by the use of tags. In fact, we used tags for this syndication rather extensively, and you can see the glossary of course tags here.

The syndication onto the front page as well as into the Chinese and Russian Notebooks was accomplished using two plugins: FeedWordPress and Sitewide Tag Pages Plugin.

In combination, these two plugins work together to create a pretty slick syndication framework that allows for us to pull posts into any blog or onto the homepage according to a specific tag. This is what is populating both the Chinese and Russian Notebooks, as well as various, targeted content on the homepage.

Social Networking and BuddyPress
The design is a loosely distributed publishing model that enables student and faculty work to be re-published easily around the environment. What’s more, with the integration of BuddyPress we can easily create directories of all users, sites, as well as highlight the recent activity around the site. Additionally, each user has an extensible profile with information about all the work they have done for a specific class, including their comments (something that was previously more difficult to keep track of on a user-by-user basis. BuddyPress can also showcase users that are online at a specific moment, or even enable such social networking features as groups, friend networks, and promotional tools for various content. We have used this on the Virtual Language Studies site for the member and site directories, as well as sitewide activity. The potential for these tools in creating an open and social space for online learning is an extremely powerful, and as of yet under utilized. That said, you can see a few excellent examples at Baruch College, the University of British Columbia, and the CUNY Academic Commons.

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One Response to Virtual Language Studies: A Brief Technical Overview (pt 1)

  1. Pingback: Virtual Language Studies: A Brief Technical Overview (pt 2) | bavatuesdays

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