WordPress LTI Testing: Part 4

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This follows on from a series of previous posts documenting some thinking about integrating WordPress with a VLE via LTI:

Doing the thinking above really helped me get my head around the functionality that we want to deliver within our Academic Blogging project and also helped me understand that whilst there were some good options to begin our investigation with, we actually did need to develop our own plugin because there were use cases that were not well catered for.

So that begs the question as to what have we done? I’m using ‘we’ here because my contribution was to draw up some flow diagrams as we sketched our ideas out, and think about some rules around naming, incrementing (where more than one blog per course is used) and data mappings. 2 very talented colleagues of mine actually laid down the code to make this work (building on an open source LTI library).

To be clear up front, I’m not very interested in pulling WordPress into the VLE via an iFrame or suchlike as a replacement for learning content in the VLE. Redeveloping parts of VLE functionality in WordPress doesn’t seem to me to be the most urgent or pressing requirement. I’m not suggesting WordPress isn’t a much nicer tool for authoring and delivering engaging learning content; it has a lot going for it over VLEs, not least it’s extensibility. But it feels very much like fiddling at the margins versus having good environments that support student collaboration and group work, or work on the open web, or work more clearly owned by students, or spaces that aren’t routinely tracked – things that virtually all VLEs universally suck at.

What I am interested in, is making it simple and easy for academic colleagues to get started with using WordPress as their blogging tool of choice, and making it easy for students to find and access the blog and do whatever it is that they are being asked to do. Time spent setting up lists of students, creating accounts, communicating logins, URLs etc is all time not spent getting excited about the possibilities, or working on learning activities that are authentic, engaging and meaningful.

To that end, we’ve built a single WordPress plugin which supports 2 different use cases:

1. A single blog that is shared by all students in a course. Teachers on the course will get Admin rights, students will be added as Authors.

2. A single blog for every student in a course. Students in the course will get Admin rights, and teachers will be added as Authors.

Differentiating these two quite different uses of blogs is done as part of setting up the LTI tool in your VLE of choice. Essentially you set up the LTI tool at system level twice, giving each instance a suitably descriptive name, and including a custom parameter that tells the plugin which behaviour to provide. Teachers are then able to drop an instance of the tool into their course wherever it’s required. Actually, they can have more than one instance of the tool per course – which could be useful for (1) above where you might want to have a few different activities within a course each of which are supported by a WordPress blog.

The other neat thing about (1) is that if you are using groups within your VLE to limit access to a series of resources that support a learning activity, you can drop an instance of the blog tool into each group and the VLE permissions that restrict access to the group will take care of making sure that only the students in that group can get onto the blog.

What I’m really pleased about though is (2). This was harder as we had to think about how you made a single link in the VLE take each student to their own blog (relatively easy) but allow each Teacher on the course to choose which student blog they had access to (much harder). We’ve done this by building some additional functionality in on the WordPress side of things. If you are a student you are taken straight through to your own blog (which is created for you upon first click of the URL in the VLE). If you are a Teacher, you’re taken through to a WordPress page within the plugin which lists all blogs associated with that course. Clicking on one of the blog links then adds you to the blog and gives you access.

If you would like to see this in action – there is a really rubbish video made by me available.

We’ve had to do some thinking about how to identify all blogs that belong to a particular course, which has informed some of our data mapping between the VLEs and WordPress (thankfully we have unique IDs in the VLEs for all instances of courses, driven from our student record – so Accountancy 1A in Semester 1 of 2018/19 is different to Accountancy 1A in Semester 2 of 2018/19 for example).

This is no bad thing however as we need to think about archiving and retention. We need to be able to find all the blogs associated with a course because when we blow that instance of the course away after 4 or 5 years (students here have access to all their VLE courses for their entire period of study) we need to blow away related blogs too. Unless we need to hold onto the blog for longer as part of a retention schedule (for example we have to hold some assessments for professional degrees for 7 years) or where the student has given us permission to retain ongoing. We’ve built some functionality to handle this too, which is another blog post.

Once we finish putting this plugin through it’s paces here, and hopefully get a little feedback from selected friends elsewhere, I’m hopeful we can make this available as open source for more general use too. I’m sure there’s at least one other person out there that might find this valuable. I’m also certain there’s a bunch of ‘features’ just waiting to be found when it gets used in a larger number of VLEs…

(Lewis Hine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

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