Goodbye WebCT, Hello WordPress

For several years now, I’ve been using WebCT as the online course environment for my translation classes, first at the University of Ottawa, and now at York University. While the University of Ottawa has discontinued WebCT in favour of Blackboard, York still offers only WebCT or Moodle as course environments.

When I first starting using WebCT, I found it easy enough to organize my classroom material: I could post PowerPoint presentations and the documents we translated in class, along with the tests and assignments students needed to complete. I could also add links to glossaries, term banks, corpora and other tools we would use throughout the semester. As for the students, they could post their homework online via the discussion board I’d set up.

But then I started teaching more than one course per term, and I also started teaching the same courses over again. That’s when I began to get annoyed with the limitations of WebCT. I had a lot less time for fiddling around in the system and just wanted to get course material up online as quickly and painlessly as possible; WebCT just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Let’s say, for instance, that I need to upload a significant number of files all at once. The WebCT interface forces me to select and upload them one at a time. Or, maybe I want to quickly double-check whether I’ve uploaded a particular file or added a link to a new resource. I need to log-in to WebCT, then click through four or five pages just to get to that information. And what happens every single semester when I want to create a course website, even if the site is supposed to look exactly the same as it did last year? I need to email a request for each course (and each section) to the IT department so that they can create (either from scratch or from a backup copy) a course for me in the system. If I make a course request close to the beginning of term (as many other professors do, I’m sure), it can take a few days before one of the support staff is able to respond. I want to be able to create the site right away, when I’ve got the time and inclination to work on it. Which leads me to my first resolution of 2011: ditch WebCT altogether and migrate to WordPress by September.

WordPress offers enough plugins and customization options that I should be able to offer my students everything they were getting via WebCT:

  • Course material: I can post the course material each week as part of blog post, which also gives me the possibility of providing students with a few details about my expectations for the upcoming week and my thoughts on the previous class–something I can’t do with WebCT.
  • Student submissions: Students will be able to use the commenting function to submit homework or share their thoughts about topics we’ve discussed in class. I think this will provide a better environment for interaction between me and the students, as well as among the students themselves.
  • Links: I plan to include links to resources in the sidebar, which means no one will have to click through three or four pages just to get to the list of links, and I’ll be able to group the various types of resources more effectively.
  • Privacy: With WordPress, I can choose whether I want to make the course accessible to people who are not registered in the course, but the course website does not have to appear in search engine results. WebCT users are generally limited to York students, staff and faculty, so WordPress will give me more flexibility about who can read, download and respond to course material.

Has anyone else tried to use tools like Blogger or WordPress to post their course material? What were your experiences like? I do plan to post more about my switch to WordPress as I work on the new sites over the summer, but I’d appreciate feedback from anyone who has tried something similar in another course. Leave a comment or send me an email to let me know what you think.

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