Spring08: students want their own widgets

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day (a welcome holiday after the hectic first week of classes), but I got a very interesting email during the day from a student - she wrote to ask if it was possible for her to put the "Random Internet Bumper Sticker" widget that I have put in our Desire2Learn course homepage (more about that widget) on the homepage for her other Desire2Learn courses.


The simple answer to her question was "no, she cannot put the widget on her other course homepages" - but thank goodness all the students in my classes publish their own webpages, outside the narrow prison cell that is Desire2Learn, so she can do with her own webpage whatever she wants - adding dynamic content, images, embedded videos, all kinds of good stuff. So, that is the positive outcome for the student: her creativity can be expressed at her own webpage, no matter how badly the course management system thwarts her attempts at self-expression.

Meanwhile, though, for me the question still lingers. Why CAN'T students put their own widgets on "their" course homepages? On their Facebook pages, they can put widgets all over the place, which I am sure is what prompted this student's question.

The problem, of course, is that the course homepages are not "theirs" - the course does not belong to the students in any way, shape or form. It belongs to the instructor.

Which is bad enough (I don't like being the tyrant who decorates the walls of our classroom so that everybody sees exactly what I see...) - but the worse problem is that the other instructors do not do ANYTHING to decorate their homepages, which is surely why this student asked if she could add the Internet Bumper Stickers to her own course homepages. Her other course homepages I suspect are very unstimulating, indistinguished, one just as blank as the next, so she wanted to do something to spruce things up. Understandably. (This student took a class with me last semester and I know she is a great designer; her website was one of the best I have seen for my class, lavishly and beautifully decorated.)

I know if the STUDENTS had control over their Desire2Learn course homepages they would find all kinds of ways to make them look great, just as they tinker with their Facebook pages. But the faculty just don't see it that way... and, unfortunately, it is the faculty who have total, absolute control over the page. If students chose not to decorate their course pages with widgets, they would have only themselves to blame, of course - if the page were bland and boring, it would be their own choice, which is fine with me, too. The problem is simply that students do not get to choose.

Just as a quick comparison, I will show what the standard homepage configuration is for courses at my school (and 90% of the courses all look EXACTLY like this, absolutely identical) - and a snapshot for my course. Which one makes you feel like you have walked into a stimulating environment with important information and images and ideas? (Plus, even better, the content on my page is dynamic, changing at random or new every day - so that the students can always find something new.)

Standard course page (this is, in fact, the "model" course page that is supposed to teach us online instructors how to do our jobs...) - you will see there is a LOT of white space - the system contains plenty of room for widgets... but there are no widgets installed!

Homepage for my course; click on the image for a more detailed view - there's a lot to see, widgets which I built myself but which are perfectly easy for anyone to use since I have published them online precisely for sharing. :-)

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