Ditching Blackboard, Hacking WordPress

One of the more time-consuming experiments I have recently made in my teaching was to get rid of Blackboard.

I hate Blackboard. It is the absolute fucking worst. It’s broken in nearly all of the ways, including but not limited to: it has absolutely terrible interface design (if design we can indeed call it); I don’t know how much it costs, but it has to be way too expensive for its quality; and it’s always a walled garden.

So, in May, in a fit of procrastination, I started thinking about alternatives. I had a particularly satisfying and elaborate fantasy of designing and developing a lightweight alternative “learning management system” (the broad class of software into which Blackboard falls, along with the upstart Canvas, about which I occasionally fantasize, which fantasy is always followed by a bout of depressive irritation that Blackboard is bad enough that it makes me fantasize about a different learning management system). Anyway, I was thinking that LMSes tend to try to be all things to all teachers (since it’s universities that purchase them), and that there might be some real value (probably not monetary, whatevs) in making something specifically tailored to my ways of teaching—which I take to be reasonably representative of how humanists teach. Not only for this, but in anticipation of my Media Theory/Media Practice graduate class I’m planning next semester, I taught myself Ruby on Rails (which was the most fun I’ve had mucking around with computers in a long while). (FWIW, I came to the conclusion that I might teach my grad students some basic coding using Ruby, but that Ruby on Rails is absolutely several bridges too far students who don’t already have lots of background in web tech, which is to say, my students.)

I tried to convince myself my little hobbyist Ruby on Rails LMS wouldn’t take very long, and wouldn’t interrupt my humanities research. I failed to convince myself of that.

So instead, this fall, I took it upon myself—as many others have done before me—to hack WordPress together into a facsimile of a learning management system that would respond specifically to my teaching needs. And so, behold: Feeling Networked/Networked Feeling.

In general, I try to ensure that the form of knowledge-production I ask my students to engage in responds in some meaningful way to the course material. (E.g. last semester, I taught students in my Experimental Media class how to use Twine, including a primer (read: bootcamp) in coding, so they could make experimental video games as part of their final projects.

And so, in a course about networks, I am: (1) hosting, on my own little Digital Ocean droplet, not only my own WordPress site, but all the blogs for all the students; (2) asking my students to use blogs as their only form of writing over the course of the semester; and (3) demanding that they write on these blogs in ways that are actually, you know, blogging: with pingbacks and actual engagement with others’ words and an audience that is not only your friends but some vague address to the internet at large.

As I said, none of this is especially new: not student blogging, not using WordPress as hacked-together LMS. But I thought I’d engage in a little documentary blogging, sharing what I did, and what I’m continuing to do this fall, so that some folks—not least myself—might not have to reinvent the wheels that I myself invented, or hammered out, or discovered, or borrowed, or simply used.

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Scott C. Richmond

Scott C. Richmond is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Wayne State University.

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