Seven Steps That Will Change How You Share eLearning

Introduction:

These steps might not rise to the level of the seven articles of the US Constitution but, hype aside, these seven steps will change how you store, version control, publish, and share your work with the eLearning community.  If you attempt these seven steps, you might get frustrated and even fail at first.   But, if you persist,  in time, you will become comfortable with the process and never do things the ‘old’ way again.

The Problem

Traditionally, instructors have worked on interactive learning activities and then published them to learning management systems like Moodle, BrightSpace and Blackboard.  The project sitting on the instructor’s hard drive lacks an easy-to-retrieve back up and the project uploaded to the  learning management system remains siloed.

By siloed, I mean that when the instructor wishes to share the project with a broader audience or register the project in learning object repositories like Merlot, OER Commons and Curriki , the problem becomes even greater.  Normally, you can’t share your project that is sitting in an LMS with an Open Educational Resources (OER) repository.  If you wish to publish to an OER repository, you must solve a number of problems:

Where does the project get stored? 

Most OER repositories are referential.  They don’t store; they reference material that is stored on the web somewhere outside the repository.  As an instructor who wishes to share with a larger community, you need a website.

How does the project get backed up? 

You need some sort of backup solution.

How does the project get versioned?

You need a version control system.  With a version control system you can revert changes,  create different versions of the same project, and much more.

How does the project get shared with other instructors? 

You must use DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive.  But none of these systems allows you to publish directly from their shared drives.  Creating websites from DropBox, Google Drive and OneDrive is disallowed.

One solution doesn’t address all of these problems.  You need a combination of things — or, you need GitHub.

Introducing GitHub

GitHub offers you a place to store, secure, version-control, publish and share your project with others.

GitHub allows you to publish your projects through the web and, optionally, share your project for collaboration with other instructors.

In GitHub,  you can store anything that you can create with tools like LodeStar, including learning activities, geolocation stories, interactive fiction, interactive case studies, WebQuests and eBooks – all for a nominal subscription fee payable to GitHub.

Collaboration

For more advanced users, you can invite collaborators to your project.  With the GitHub Pro plan, you can keep your authoring files private but still publish the project as a website for your students, colleagues, and OER repositories to see.   That means that your project files stay private and the public only sees the end result (the HTML).  You can keep your authoring files private and invite collaborators to help you work on the project.

What is GitHub?

GitHub has traditionally been a place for computer programmers to store, secure, manage and share versions of their code.  It has been the place for openly sharing code.

The very mechanisms that enable programmers to share their code will enable  instructors to publish their projects to the internet, and secure, store, backup and, optionally, share their work with other collaborators.   By default, under the GitHub Pro plan, projects are secure and private.  The instructor then has control over whether or not the project is published to the internet as a website.

Technically, GitHub is an open-source repository hosting service, which means cloud storage for code. That code can include projects created in LodeStar.  GitHub hosts your project and  keeps track of the various changes made to every submission or, in technical speak, commit. The service is able to do this by using git, a popular revision control system.

So GitHub is both powerful and sort of geeky sounding.  But, if instructors follow some very basic steps, they will harness the power of GitHub to store, publish, and optionally share their projects just like any computer programmer.

So how do I get started?

LodeStar 8.0 build 4 and later support GitHub.  This build is now available.

In  broad terms, you create projects such as Interactive Case Studies in LodeStar.  Each project is matched with a GitHub local repository (folder).   As the project is being developed, you export the project to the local GitHub repository.   You use GitHub Desktop to commit the project to a master and then push the project to the repository in the cloud.    When you’re ready, you publish your project to the web.

It looks like this:

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Getting Started in Seven Steps

Step 1. Install and sign into GitHub Desktop

Download GitHub Desktop from https://desktop.github.com/

GitHub Desktop supports both Windows and Mac.

Launch GitHub Desktop and follow the initial welcome screen to sign into your GitHub account. You’ll see a “Configure Git” step, where you can set your name and email address.   Be very careful with selecting a name.  The name will appear in the web address for your projects.

Step 2. Create a new local repository

You’ll see a “Let’s get started!” view, where you will see some options, including create a new repository, or add an existing repository.

Select ‘Create a New Repository on your Hard Drive’

Remember our diagram?  You first create a local repository on your hard drive and then push the contents of that repository to the cloud.

Fill out the fields:

  • “Name” defines the name of your repository both locally and on GitHub in the cloud.
  • “Description” is an optional field that you can use to provide more information about the purpose of your project.
  • “Local path” sets the location of your repository on your computer. By default, GitHub Desktop creates a GitHub folder inside your Documents folder to store your repositories, but you can choose any location on your computer. Do not choose a LodeStar directory.   You will want to keep LodeStar projects and your repositories separate until you are ready to export.  Write down the location of the local repository.  You will need to point LodeStar to that repository in a latter step.
  • Your new local repository will be a folder inside the chosen location. For example, if you name your repository myEBook, a folder named myEBook is created inside the folder you selected for your local path.
  • Don’t worry about more advanced topics like Readme files, licensing and the ‘Ignoring files’ selection. Let’s stick to the basics.

Click Create repository.

When you have been working with GitHub for a while, you can add a new repository by selecting the ‘Add drop down menu’ to the right of the current repository.

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So that you can follow along, I will create a repository for the web version of the Arles Geolocation Story that I’ve written about in past blogs.

Here is what the dialog box looks like.  I’ll click on ‘Create Repository’ to create the folder.

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Side note. Understand GitHub Desktop

Below the menu is a bar that shows the current state of your repository in GitHub Desktop:

Current repository shows the name of the repository you’re working on. You can click Current repository to switch to a different repository in GitHub Desktop.   Pictured below is the repository I was working on before transferring my Arles project to a repository.

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In the screen shot above, I am working on a project named ‘CRM’.  That is the current repository that is selected.

If I clicked on the words ‘Current repository’, this is what I would see:

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The Arles in the listing is my Arles mobile app.  What I am about to demonstrate is the creation of a repository for my Arles Web app.   In the list are all my projects that are matched to their own local repositories.   If I wanted to work with a different local repository like Composter, I would click on its title  to make it the current local repository.

Side note.  Ignore the concept of Branch right now.

Branches is a term used in versioning systems like Git. This has nothing do with LodeStar branches.  Essentially you can clone your project and make independent changes to the clone (the branch) and the original.   For now, our current branch will always be master.  If you choose to become more skillful at using GitHub, you can learn all about branches and forks and pull requests.  But you don’t need to go there.  Making changes to the current branch labeled ‘master’ is sufficient.

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Step 3.  Publish Repository – but not quite yet

You will see Publish repository button on the right, but let’s leave that alone for a while.

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You are done with the initial set up.  Now, we’ll get into the regular flow of exporting a project and then pushing the local repository to the cloud.

 

Step 4. Set up a LodeStar project to export to the local repository

You will need LodeStar 8.0 Build 4 or later for this step.

Open an existing LodeStar project or start a new one.  Once you are in the project, select Tools > Repository Option.

In the screenshot below, I chose the directory that I created in Step Two: Create a new local repository.  In my case it is c:\git\Arles-Web but more typically it will be [username]/Documents/Git/repository name.

By selecting the repository directory, you are associating the LodeStar project with this repository.  Click on the ‘Save Repository Directory’ button.

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Please note: Each project is associated with its own repository directory.

Step 5: Work on your LodeStar Project then Export it to the Repository

You do not need to complete your project before exporting it to the repository.  Exporting to the repository, then pushing the changes to the cloud will serve as a backup of your project.  At this point, no one will see it but you.

Once you have done some work on your project, then select Export > Repository.

Fill in the fields and click on ‘Create Export’.

You are essentially copying your project to the local repository associated with this project.

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Disregard the exports directory that you see in the dialog above.  That is a more advanced topic.  The destination is the Repository Directory. You will see a confirmation that you are exporting to the repository directory in the following dialog.

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After the export, go to GitHub desktop.

Step 6:  View the Changes in GitHub Desktop

The Changes view in GitHub Desktop will now show all of the files in your LodeStar project.

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I’m not displaying all of the files in the screenshot above.  There are 189 of them.

In future exports, only the files that have changed will be listed.  The Changes view shows changes you’ve made to files in your current branch but haven’t committed to your local repository. At the bottom, you’ll also notice a box with “Summary” and “Description” text boxes and a ‘Commit to master’ button.

Type in a sentence for ‘Summary’, and a detailed explanation in ‘Description’.  Your first commit might be labelled as ‘Initial Commit’.  You can repeat that in the description or be more descriptive about the project.

Initially there are 189 files in this project, which includes all of the data files, html, css, scripts, audio files, and imagery that LodeStar manages in a project.

Again, fill in the summary and description.

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Click on the ‘Commit to master’ button.   This commits the files to the master branch in the local repository.  I know that I haven’t explained the concept of ‘master’,  but just know that, for our purposes, committing to the master is a good and necessary thing.

After all of the changes are processed, click on the Publish Repository button to send a copy of your local repository to the cloud.

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You will see this dialog:

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Review the name and description.  Keep the code private.  That means we are keeping the cloud version of this project private.   If you subscribe to GitHub at the Pro level, you can keep your repository private, but still publish to the web.  You cannot do this with the free version.   You must make your repository public in order to publish your web page.

Please note:  If you make your repository public, anyone can copy your project to their own.

 The Pro plan allows you to have your cake and eat it too.  You can keep your repository private, but still publish your project to the web.  In other words you can create a website from your private repository.  Specifically, you can create a public website from the master branch of your private repository.

You can create a private repository with the free plan, and then, when you are ready, upgrade the free plan to the pro plan.  (I’ll show you how at the end of this article.)   At the time of this writing, the Pro Plan is $4 per month.

Step 7:  Publish the index.html page

The index.html page is the launch page for your project.  It is currently private.

To see your project in the cloud.  Click on the ‘View on GitHub’ button as seen below.

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This is what you will see when you get to the cloud:

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Pictured above is the typical appearance of a GitHub project in the cloud repository.  It is starting to look really geeky and spooky, but don’t worry.  It’s just heads on stakes.  Ignore everything for now.  Click on Settings. Just focus on ‘Settings’.

In Settings, scroll down until you see GitHub Pages.   If you are on the Pro plan, you can now select ‘master-branch’ as the source for your GitHub Pages.  This means that Github will publish the index.html file that LodeStar automatically committed to master.  Remember, ‘master’ is good. If you’re not on the Pro plan, we’ll show you how to upgrade at the end of this article.

The publication takes a while for the first time.  The message reads:

Your site is ready to be published at https://bbilyk1234.github.io/Arles-Web/

Update:  the location is now

https://lodestarlearning.github.io/Arles-Web/index.html

 

Once the site is ready, the message will change.   The site will be slo-o-o-w the first time you access it, but that will change once Github caches your files for quicker access.

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How to upgrade from GitHub Free to GitHub Pro

At the time of this writing, GitHub Pro users are billed $4 per month.   With GitHub Free you can create private repositories but not publish them to the web.  You can publish public repositories, but your project can then be copied by any subscriber to GitHub.

To upgrade, log in to GitHub in the cloud at:

https://github.com

Click on the rightmost menu.  See the arrow on the far right in the picture below.  Then select ‘Settings’.

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Select Billing from the menu on the left, then click on the green Upgrade button.   GitHub Pro is likely all that you need.  It enables you to keep your project repositories private, but still publish them to the web.

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Uploading Changes

Once you’ve committed a project and uploaded it to the cloud repository, you are bound to make changes.

In my example, after I uploaded the Arles-Web project, I decided to add a link to the mobile app version.

After making changes to your project, do the following:

  1. Export to the Repository again.

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  • Open GitHub Desktop and make your project the current Repository.  I’ll make Arles-Web the current repository.  View the changes but be patient.  It might take a couple of minutes to place the changes in the repository.  The list of changed files will update.

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  • Fill in the summary and description for this commit. You do this to describe every commit.

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  • Click on Commit to master.
  • Now here is a new step! Click on Push origin either at the top or by clicking on the blue button.  Both are pictured below.  Technically, this is called pushing the commit to the origin.  But, basically you are copying the changed files in the local repository to the cloud repository.  If you published your project to the web in a previous step, your changes will be almost instantly published to the web.

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Conclusion

Seven steps will change your life.  At least it will change your approach to sharing eLearning.  You will be in control of your work like you never have before.  You will be able to safely back up your files, version control them, keep them private, publish them, share them with other instructors – all in one amazing platform, GitHub.

Once you are confident that you have mastered the basic steps, you can read dozens of articles and see dozens of YouTube tutorials on how to do the fancy stuff in GitHub.  Remember, however, that if you accomplish the seven steps, you’ve accomplished a lot.  Those seven steps alone will change how you work and interact with the eLearning community.

 

Open Educational Resources: An Alternative to Publisher Platforms

Introduction

One could easily vilify the textbook publishers and their online learning platforms.  In higher ed, we hear the student complaints.  They pay tuition with the expectation that faculty will help them build competence and credentials.  They trust the instructor to select or write  appropriate content, design support activities that help students understand and apply the skills, elicit performance, provide feedback and so on.  They are placing their trust in the instructor and their trust in the institution.  When students perceive that instructors have transferred that responsibility to textbook publishers, they make comments like “Why am I not paying the publisher directly?”

But my intent is not to vilify publishers.  They have obviously responded to a strong demand and need for their platforms and resources. In many cases, instructors don’t have the time, dedication or wherewithal to develop courses.  They don’t have time to create the content, develop the activities and assessments and still be engaged in the course discussions and in providing constructive feedback to their students. In some cases, they concede that they couldn’t match the publishers’ course material and the quality of their offerings even if they wanted to.  After all, how many faculty write their own textbook?

Rather, this post recognizes the challenges that constrain faculty and offers an alternative to publisher platforms.  Chances are good that you follow this blog because you are concerned about making your online courses better.  You choose to be in ‘control’ of your course.  The publishers may be broadening their reach to include your discipline – but you wish to select content carefully, add activities and assessments and continually improve your course based on student feedback.  Your student feedback. And yet you are faced with constraints on your time and, perhaps, lack of support.

Textbook Publisher Platforms

You stand in stark contrast to the current trend in education. For better or for worse, higher education is ceding control to the textbook publishers.  The publishers are developing new business models that include online learning platforms, online courseware, adaptive learning, and digital books, all of which, they claim, improve quality, reduce costs and provide a more stable revenue stream to them in the form of subscriptions.

All of these platforms are not alike.  The offerings are on a continuum from supplemental resources to pre-made courseware to integrations with university learning management systems to full-blown adaptive learning platforms with supplemental instructor resources and more.

Textbook publishers carefully vet their content and do the best job possible without knowing the specifics of your students and the context of their learning.  At the very least, the courses are well-organized. When publishers are in complete control, the outcomes match the readings and activities. Errors, inconsistencies and incongruities are exposed and eventually removed.  (When publishers are in partial control, misalignment occurs between the publisher materials and, for example, dated faculty-generated quizzes.)

In 2014, Slate published an article titled “College in a Box” that explored an emerging state of affairs related to textbook giants and online college courses. The article described two college students who were separated by 600 miles attending different colleges but taking the same course, produced by a major publisher. The students read the same online textbook, watched the same media, and completed the same assessments with little interaction with their professors. The students were generally happy with the courses, received good grades, got assistance in the form of well-produced videos and, presumably, progressed toward graduation.

Publishers have long had tremendous influence over a course. This isn’t new.  In my first year of teaching, our department assembled and planned curriculum. The curriculum plan was based almost entirely on the table of contents of the adopted text.  (As a young teacher, I heard how the textbook purchasing power of California and Texas dictated the content of the textbooks for everyone. Today control has shifted from the state to the districts and textbooks are not required to meet 100% of the state standards.) In recent history, publishers have become more sophisticated at producing online courseware. Today, students pay fees to access publisher course material, which include activities and assessments. Undoubtedly, in many cases, the publisher content and collateral is much better produced than the homespun online course.

I can’t even begin to address the societal implications of this development. Slate asks “Why are universities buying ready-made frozen meals instead of cooking up their own educational fare?” The suggestion, obviously, is that textbook online course sites are the ready-made frozen meals. The benefit to universities is that the cost of course development is passed directly to the student. Rather than a university compensating faculty with stipends or release time to develop online courses, students pay a fee to publishers. Research will eventually disclose to us the full cost of abrogating the instructor’s role in course development. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t account for the unique situational factors of the class.  And other concerns surface. Will publishers’ courses eventually end-run colleges and universities? After all, don’t employers in some sectors care about competence over degrees? Finally, what role does the instructor play? Is the instructor replaceable by a person of lesser rank and cost?

In the end, I believe that economics will win out. Publishers are putting to use all of the great developments in the last few years at a speed and economy of scale that most mid-sized universities cannot match. I am thinking about adaptive learning, rich interactions and even Open Educational Resources (OER). Their systems are improving; their design is improving. They lessen the load on instructors and shift the cost to the student.

But even in the industrial revolution, certain guilds of manual artisans survived.  That’s how I picture the online instructor who designs his or her own course:  An artisan.  I think of the positive aspects of a course crafted with care, compassion and skill.

Today, conferences such as OLC Innovate convene educators who share their views on online learning, emerging technologies, and best practices. OLC Innovate celebrates instructors who post their intellectual property to repositories like Merlot.org and participate in editorial groups.  It is a homespun, cottage industry – but it is vibrant.

I anticipate that dedicated artisan instructors will prevail. They will continue to participate in membership groups and conferences of like-minded people. They will embrace a raft of tools to help them communicate with students, motivate, collaborate, challenge, and assess.

They’ll embrace digital stories, eBooks, simulations, videos, and whatever they need to engage students.

Fortunately, exceptional support for the artisan comes in the form of the open education movement. For some, Open Educational Resources (OER) may represent a significant alternative to publisher platforms.

OER_Logo_Open_Educational_Resources

image credit:  Wikimedia Commons

Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources are typically open textbooks, software, web pages, learning activities, simulations, case studies, quiz banks and media that are available to faculty and to students for free. Typically, they are licensed under Creative Commons, which means, in all cases, that you must provide the author attribution.  The debate about what constitutes “open” gets more complex when you ask the question “Can I change the resource and adapt it to my own needs.  Can I offer the new ‘derivative’ product to another professor?”  Some would argue that ‘open’ requires the ability to revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute.

Others are content with a narrower definition.  The Hewlett Foundation, an ardent supporter, defines OER as

“teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”

Today, university systems are bootstrapping OER in a number of ways. They are utilizing open source repositories like Islandora and Equella. They are paying faculty to review open resources and participate in editorial teams for such altruistic efforts as Merlot.org, a curated repository used all over the world. Universities house and support a network of OER repositories, the breadth of which is evident in this Google Map: http://maps.repository66.org/

In my experience, the bane of OER was in the search and discovery of resources that closely matched our course learning outcomes. It required patience – and busy faculty quickly became disillusioned.

Today, search and discovery are easier.  A number of federated search tools have been developed and made available through such organizations as Merlot.org, Creative Commons and even the federal Department of Education.

Recently, I learned of something that suggested better times to come.  A colleague at the Minnesota State System Office introduced me to Intellus Learning.

Intellus Learning is a subscription-based platform that makes it easy to find high quality OER content.  Instructors find content aligned to their objectives, embed that content into their learning management system and monitor student usage.  Intellus searches across many OER repositories, saving instructors considerable time.  I’ve only trialed this tool, but I can imagine a new breed of software that makes it easy to discover, explore and mash-up open resources. My searches returned materials from OpenStax (open textbooks), EBSCO, YouTube, OER Commons and dozens of other places. I conducted the same search using no-cost publicly available search tools and came up short in comparison. The exception was Merlot, which provided me with a useful listing of resources.

Again, in my experience, the single-most deterrent to the use of OER is the time wasted in search of materials that truly align to the course outcomes. OER has the potential of leveling the playing field.  If instructors can find quality content, free-of-charge and aligned to outcomes, then the majority of their time can be dedicated to designing interactions between students, between students and their instructor, and between students and the content.  In short, instructors would have more time to address the cognitive and social needs of their students.

In contrast, I’ve observed too many instructors burning up their time in producing text content.  The acts of writing, finding and organizing content challenge instructors.  It is a lot of work – and yet, only the beginning of the effort.  Instructors complete the marathon, only to find themselves at the starting line of another.  Organizing content isn’t the end of it. What about motivating students, establishing relevance, developing clearly understood expectations and syllabi and other course documents? What about the stumbling points in the curriculum and the prerequisite skills and the recall of prior knowledge and the assessments and discussions and capstone projects?  How about usability and analyzing whether or not the activities promoted or impeded the outcomes?

OER can help lessen the load on instructors  – but, as a community, we need to uncover a process that makes it easy to find OER and, in the future, align activities to OER content.

One example of alignment is that of LearningPod with OpenStax. For example, OpenStax offers an introductory text on biology. LearningPod offers a test bank that is matched to that open text book.

Many for-profit entities are leveraging OER faster than universities.  Adaptive Learning Vendors (Knewton, CogBooks and Acrobatiq) are using OER in their content delivery systems.  Their value-added is in the learning paths they have generated, the mapping of prerequisite skills to targeted learning outcomes, decision-making algorithms, and the analytics that are generated on time-on-task, confidence and performance.

Conclusion

OER matched with activities, discussions, and assessments are an effective strategy for busy instructors who wish to maintain control over their courses.

Large higher ed systems like SUNY and Minnesota State have the opportunity to incentivize faculty to develop, share and evaluate resources.   In the past, such efforts were too small in scope and scale to succeed.  Times are changing.   Today, we are achieving a critical mass in many content areas.  We need mechanisms (application programming interfaces, import tools, discovery standards, metadata standards, package exchange notification services, etc.) to align and integrate the types of activities that this web journal is dedicated to:  case studies, decision making scenarios, leveled challenges, geolocation-aware activities, simulations, games, and stuff that will help students understand, apply and synthesize the content.

In short, we need the option to take charge of our courses and help students succeed.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on Open Educational Resources.  Successes?  Great resources?  Concerns? Please register and share!