Website Development Update

Posted: Sept. 19, 2019.

I thought it might be nice to reflect a bit on what’s happening behind the scenes with The Nature of Writing. I won’t touch on everything, but here are a few noteworthy items.

A Big Makeover

Over the last year, I have spent hundreds of hours to give the site a new look and create a different experience. The content is all the same, but instead of using a third party application for the quizzes, we now use a learning management system (LMS) called LearnDash. This way the quizzes are all internally hosted. The old setup always caused problems for Mac users, and since many students love their Apple products, this was always an issue. Hopefully the new interface is more polished and works smoothly!

A Registration Option

You can now create your own student profile! To manage the influx of students, I’m rolling this new feature out slowly. At the moment I’m limiting the new registration option to students at my university (Concordia University of Edmonton), but I would like to open this up to other users. If you’re interested in this functionality, send me a note! For now, user profiles are fairly primitive. You can primarily check your course progress and see your quiz results. I would love to add some gamification (points, badges, etc.) to make this more fun. Hopefully next summer!

Protecting Student Data

One reason to make registration optional is that I wouldn’t want to pressure students into creating an account. You can easily access the materials without needing to log in. The website is meant to be student centered, which is also why the quizzes are meant for practice, not for testing (though that option is not entirely excluded). In sum, there is much work to be done here, and I’ll continue to work on limiting student data collection.

Sustainability is Key

Over the next year, I have to make some important decisions to ensure the sustainability and development of the site. I’m committed to open access learning, but giving away content for free comes with challenges. As an aside, I’m not sure students always realize just how much content they have access too, with 200+ videos and lessons and 100+ quizzes.

My institution has been amazingly supportive, but to grow the resource it may be necessary to make a leap to another level. This may involve incorporating as a not-for-profit to make it easier to ask for donations. Another option is to monetize the registration component and provide an enriched experience for logged in users. If I were to pursue the latter option, I would keep registration free for my own institution but charge a fee for others.

My ideal goal would be a model like the Khan Academy (and keep everything free), but of course I don’t have Bill Gates backing me. It may be more realistic to provide something similar to Lumen Learning, which provides free instructional materials but charges for supplementary aspects (the user interface). Either way, as a proponent of Open Educational Resources, or OERs, I want to find a way forward that keeps the content accessible for learners around the world.

New Lessons

I really wish I had more time to add new content. This fall I hope to add a section with some fun writing exercises. I’ve also heard the announcement that the 7th edition of the APA style guide is coming out in October. Updating that section will be a tremendous amount of work, but it’s also an opportunity. I haven’t made a lot of APA videos, so here’s a chance to add something new even while revising the existing content. Finally, I’ve realized that my most popular videos tend to be on literature or literary theory, so I’ll be adding more of those!

OER Awareness

I’ve spent a lot of time this last year working with my own post-secondary institution to create a campus policy for Open Educational Resources (OERs), to provide presentations and do in-depth policy research. This has been very rewarding, and it’s given me more of an appreciation of the complexity of the OER landscape. When instructors ask me for advice about creating their own open textbook, I tend to suggest they look into publishing in an OER repository (such as the wonderful BCcampus). There are drawbacks to repositories, but they are the easiest way to reach a broad audience. Starting your own website (like The Nature of Writing) can be quite a daunting task.

That’s it for now. There are a bunch of decisions to be made but I’m happy to start the next phase of development. It’s been quite a journey the last few years and I hope the positive reception continues.

— Conrad van Dyk


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