When students in Dr. John Beatty’s Online Journalism course enter the job market, potential employers will expect to see portfolios filled with evidence suggesting that these recent grads are worth hiring. Thanks to Dr. Beatty’s thoughtful instructional approach and use of a public facing course website, students in COM-356/ENG-402 will be all the more connected and prepared for the world beyond La Salle University.
While Dr. Beatty could easily facilitate his course through Blackboard, he has opted to house much of COM-356/ENG-402 in a class website built in WordPress, a popular web-based publishing platform. For Dr. Beatty, this public forum is the best preparation for the real world of journalism. When student work is required to be public, it takes on more real-world relevance and can serve as portfolio examples for job interviews. Classroom discussions often turn to valuable examinations of intellectual property issues that are not as likely to arise when student work is kept in a private location. In addition, academics from other institutions have been exposed to and commented on Dr. Beatty’s Online Journalism course website opening up networking opportunities for him and his students that otherwise would not have happened had all his class content been kept private.
While a website format certainly makes sense for a course in online journalism, the techniques Dr. Beatty employs can benefit a wide variety of disciplines. A key structure of Dr. Beatty’s Online Journalism class is that student work is public and accessible for anyone with an internet connection. To accomplish this goal, Dr. Beatty’s students create their own WordPress blogs where they post various writing assignments and projects throughout the semester. This useful structure adds an extra layer of accountability and peer review because students have an opportunity to see how their work compares to the other students in class. Due to the open format, Dr. Beatty can easily link to exemplary student blogs from previous course offerings. This, in turn, encourages consistent high quality student work from year to year. In addition to being a resource for students, having links to current and past course work lends Dr. Beatty a big picture view of how his course and his students have developed over time.
A class website adds some other handy features that could be applied to almost any other type of class. Regardless of content, the WordPress publishing platform makes it easy to customize the look and functionality of a website while maintaining ease of navigation. When a user arrives at the Online Journalism website, they will see a Welcome page as well as navigation links to other pages that house mostly static information such as class schedule, syllabus, assignments, and notes. For more dynamic content, Dr. Beatty uses a blog style page where he posts daily announcements, agenda items, resources, videos, helpful links, et cetera that are all ordered chronologically and tagged by topic into an easy in-line scrolling design. Since all of this content is organized and stored in WordPress, Dr. Beatty has over three years of searchable classroom archives that he uses to constantly improve his course each year.
Sidebar widgets are other organizational tools in the Online Journalism website that Dr. Beatty uses to chunk content in helpful ways. There is a calendar, a drop down menu of monthly archives, and a tag cloud for users to browse previous blog posts by date or topic. To connect students with external websites related to the course and previous student work, Dr. Beatty has organized many links by topic in the right hand column which is displayed on every page of the website.
Even with the class website, Dr. Beatty still uses the tools in Blackboard. Some class work like Discussion Boards are better off taking place in a closed forum where students can feel comfortable expressing their thoughts in private. To determine whether to put content in the insulated Blackboard environment or to make it public in his WordPress site, Dr. Beatty separates his job as an instructor into two key areas by asking the following two questions:
- Is he producing original content like lectures or class discussion meant specifically for his students?
- Or is he playing the role of a content aggregator that locates and organizes resources created by others?
Any content that is aggregated from outside sources or that can be helpful to both current and future students as well as members of the larger public finds a permanent home on the course website rather than in Blackboard where it will be difficult for students to access once the current semester ends.
In the current flood of digital information, faculty members may find themselves now doing a lot more content aggregation than content production. Since it is increasingly important for students to develop digital literacy skills and filter out superfluous information, faculty can help teach these skills by modeling this process in the instructional tools they choose. While products like Blackboard and other digital authoring tools are always improving, Dr. Beatty still considers his WordPress website the best option for presenting content to his students. Given its permanency from year to year, robust visual customization options, and its ability to house many types of media, the Online Journalism course website is worth checking out for educators interested in an effective, sustainable, and dynamic tool for content aggregation.
If you’d like assistance in any area related to educational technology, please contact the instructional design team at IDteam@lasalle.edu.