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The Mad Scientist and Online Learning

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

By Baron Justin VonMarquisenstein Ph.D.

There is a great appeal to the creative process, and we all enjoy it in some aspect of our lives. Maybe not as much as Baron Victor Frankenstein, but we can all relate to his excitement over the birth of something new. This is one of the reasons that I enjoy teaching and have so often volunteered to develop new courses. The mad scientist in me is always looking for ways to innovate in an effort to help my students learn more effectively and to allow me to learn something new in the process. So let’s conduct a little design experiment and see what we can cobble together for the online classroom out of interesting free bits and pieces from around the Internet that will result in a monstrous new creation.

The Monster’s Torso
The purpose of the learning management system, or LMS, in an online course is to integrate all of the course components in one location where students can easily access them, participate in the class discussions, and share documents. It is surprisingly difficult to find a good, free torso (LMS) with all of the necessary internal organs still in-tact and in working order. I’m focusing on free programs, so considering something like Blackboard or Scorm Cloud are not options.  Moodle requires a server to host the install and there is currently not enough information on Google’s new CloudCourse to get a feel for how well it would work. So I’m going to go old school and suggest creating a website hosted on either GoogleSites or the more intuitive and far cooler Wix.com.


Wix is a Flash-based site builder with extremely easy editing and site design capabilities that allows you to build a very slick Flash interface in minutes. It also contains plenty of widgets and the ability to add custom html code, so you can include almost anything in your site. Given those benefits, Wix is my choice to provide the torso for my online course monster.

Finding a Brain
Getting the body is great, but making it move and respond to commands will require finding a brain. In this case, you, the instructor, are the real brain, but you will need some help in record keeping and communicating online. We need to add a good online grade book feature and determine how course communication will happen.

I am choosing engrade as my online gradebook. It allows you to post assignments, view grades and have students submit homework – and it is free. Some other key features of the program are that it is housed online, contains its own hosted discussion forums built around assignments, has a quiz function, wikis, flashcards, attendance tracker, and is password protected on a secure server.
 

Introduction to Engrade for Teachers from Engrade on Vimeo.

For my classroom discussion forum I am going with ProBoards free discussion board platform. The free basic plan is customizable and includes unlimited categories, boards, members, topics, and posts, as well as the ability to share files. Additionally, the software allows you to conduct polls, embed YouTube videos, send personal messages, and password protect your message boards.

Stitching on Some Appendages
While the torso and brains of our custom-designed monster LMS are great, there are still features (appendages) that will increase the functionality of our system to make it the ultimate learning platform.

Collaborative learning is essential in my design of this brute, so including the ability to allow students to work together on documents is essential. Google Docs and Windows Live SkyDrive both allow document sharing and collaborative editing. If you are primarily using MS Office, Windows Live will be a more natural integration as it contains the online tools to edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote documents. Google Docs contains its own word processor, presentation, spreadsheet, and drawing programs. These applications are all free and the collaborative features are better than those in Windows Live. But really, you won’t go wrong with either one. Put one on each side of your monster and call them "arms."

The final essential appendage is a YouTube channel for sharing videos with the class. For me, there is a lot to be gained from giving your students a video-based mini-lesson, aggregating a collection of topically-relevant videos to share, or requiring student presentations via video. Adding annotations to your videos can give them a whole new life and provide the interactivity that makes them really good learning resources. The comment feature of YouTube also allows students to post questions directly linked to the video they are watching.

Bringing Your Creature to Life
Dr. Frankenstein animated his creation using the power generated by a lightning strike. Nothing so dramatic is required to bring your monster LMS to life. Adding Facebook and Twitter to the required student interaction in your class not only makes use of the communication methods most preferred by your learners, it provides that spark of always-on interactivity that can make a classroom come to life.  Building a community in the virtual classroom is nearly as hard as animating a monster stitched together from the scavenged parts of dead bodies. Using social media tools that your students are already invested in and use on a regular basis significantly reduces that challenge. Unfortunately, using these tools, means that you as the mad scientist/instructor must also use them fully and faithfully to connect with your students.

Tying this all together can present a challenge. Because of this challenge, using the basic website format described above allows you the flexibility to integrate all of these features in a way that makes sense for you and your students. But don’t let me tell you what to do. Be your own mad LMS design scientist. There are literally tens of thousands of free tools on the Web that you can stitch together into your own beautiful, monstrous creation in exactly the way the original Latin word "monstrum" implies: that which teaches.