Sunday, March 2, 2014

Content Development: Time for a New Myth-Folklore "Website"

One of the frustrating things about a year-to-year appointment is that it really discourages long-term investments in teaching materials. My focus is always on short-term projects where I can see the benefits this semester or in the next semester, and I avoid projects that would take a year or longer to complete and share with my students. Now, however, the time has come to do something about my Myth-Folklore course website, which is now over 12 years old (it dates back to 2002). When I built it at the time (with Dreamweaver... back before Adobe bought them out), I was constrained by both technology and also available materials. Now, though, there is a whole range of technology options I can use, and the abundance of materials I can offer my students is mind-boggling. So, I need to think about re-developing my class content in a way that takes advantage of new technologies and new content.

At first I was thinking that I somehow needed to salvage my old site, migrating or converting it in some way. But just a couple weeks ago I realized that I really can, and should, start over. The site has served me well, but it has outlived its time. I need to assess the strategies I used originally and then rebuild from scratch. In a sense, my initial success with the site has been a limiting factor: exactly because I made so many good decisions (largely by accident!), I haven’t been compelled to redo the site in all these years. Now, though, there are some things I really want to be able to do that I cannot do easily.

Here are some goals I would like to achieve with a new site:

EXPAND STUDENT CHOICE. Right now students can choose one of two topics for each week, but I would like to dramatically expand that to at least three or four topics per week. I am thinking of going with a smorgasbord approach, so that instead of weekly topics, students just choose ANY unit they want to read in any week, pursuing their own interests, building their own course as it were.

ADD/RETIRE CONTENT EASILY. In addition to adding a lot of new content now during the reboot, I also want to make it possible to add and/or remove content easily in the future so that I do not get stuck in this same trap again. When I find a fabulous new public domain source, I want to be able to build a unit to the class and add it easily, and when it is clear that a unit is just not working well for students, I want to be able to remove it (temporarily for improvement, or permanently if needed).

CONTENT RATING. Since I have not had the flexibility to add/remove content in the past, it has not really made sense to build a system where I gather student feedback for the purposes of content development. Now, however, with a more flexible system, I will definitely want to gather student feedback - formally and informally, implicit and explicit - to help me focus my content development efforts effectively.

QUICK AND EASY EDITING. I’m the kind of person who believes in continuous editing, which is why I prefer web publishing to traditional print publishing. In print, a typo is forever. Online, you can fix things quickly and easily. Right now, though, my website is not very amenable to editing because content and design are not separated as they should be in a content management system. By going with blogging software, I can separate content and design more effectively, and that will allow me to continuous improve content on a small scale - basic editing, repairing/adding links, etc.

CONTENT REPURPOSING. Although my old site pages are directly linkable, I made some assumptions about navigation that are very limiting. In particular, I cannot reuse a story in more than one unit, even though that is a highly desirable thing to do. I want to be able to create reading units based on sources (Tibetan Folk Tales, Brothers Grimm, Dante’s Inferno), but I also want to create thematic units that draw on multiple sources (trickster stories, goddess mythology, supernatural monsters, etc.).

There are other desiderata as well, but those are the main things I have in mind. After pondering these questions, I decided to give Blogger a try since, honestly, I just love using Blogger. I know it has its limitations (I could draw up a long list of its limitations, in fact), but there are also so many things I like about Blogger; I’ll list in a separate post when I see as the pros and cons for me.

Anyway, just as a test, I decided to mock up a typical reading unit in Blogger to see how effective it would be, and also to get a sense of how much time it would take. I was AMAZED at how efficient it was. I was able to create a new reading unit on Tibetan Folk Tales in just a couple of hours! Again, in a separate post I’ll explain just what is involved, but you can see the results here: Tibetan Folk Tales.

And... those Tibetan stories are just fabulous, very much the kinds of stories I enjoy myself. I am so glad that I will be able to make them part of my class. At last!!!

Heartened by that success, I made a unit for English Fairy Tales. And since I was really on a roll, I did Rasmussen’s Eskimo Folktales. All in a single evening.

OMG: I had so much fun!!! Putting these units together made me realize how very much I want to do this redesign. When I built the first website (I was barely keeping a week or two ahead of the students that first semester), I felt such a thrill at sharing the stories. And now… there are so many more stories I can draw on and share. Literally hundreds of public domain books online that I can use for material.

So, I think this could end up being the most fun I have ever had in my work as an online instructor. Very ironic, since it was a task I have been dreading for years… and dreading is not too strong a word.

It just goes to show: learning to LET GO is essential. Once I realized I could just let go of the old site and start again, it all started to fall into place. I'll label upcoming posts as Course Content Redesign for anyone who wants to watch how this unfolds!

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