Blog Archives

Make your own online courses

So I thought, “Hey, how would I make an online course if I didn’t have access to edX?” Because edX and Coursera are nice, but you sort of have to be affiliated with a major university in order to get involved with them.

One web search later, I have a bunch of links and some time on my hands, so I thought I’d do a compare-and-contrast exercise. These links are in no particular order.

There are some common features that I initially listed, but then decided were so ubiquitous that I might as well take them out. The following features are present in basically every provider I looked at.

  • Discussion boards on every page (with the possible exception of quiz pages)
  • Completely linear content – no branching paths
  • An extremely limited number of question types – multiple-choice and typed response are the most common.
  • If it’s a commercial site, you can build courses for free but need to either pay by the student, or have the students pay.

Without further ado:


  • Link:
  • Interface: Fairly wysiwyg editor.
  • Guide: A “101” course:
  • Good: Automated due date reminders. Custom problem types for larger creators (in their “partnership” model). Can also customize content for each student (though naturally it could become time-consuming).
  • Bad: Build courses for free but pay for each students. (It’s a fairly small fee.) Must award points for each piece of content.
  • Commercial: Yes
  • Notes: Can offer scheduled and self-paced versions of the same course. Fairly well-polished.


  • Link:
  • Interface: Fairly wysiwyg editor. Does both uploading and embedding for videos.
  • Guide: An “instructor course”: and a “knowledge base”:
  • Good: Inline place for student notes. LaTeX for math formatting.
  • Bad: Course pricing seems fairly high.
  • Commercial: Yes
  • Notes: Fairly sizeable audience. The instructor course actually has a good amount of video production advice. Definitely one of the better-developed environments.



  • Link:
  • Interface: Authoring tool with preview and some import tools.
  • Guide: A help site:
  • Good: SCORM compliant.
  • Bad: The authoring tool is slow and parts of it seem not to work. The “marketplace” is flooded with test classes.
  • Commercial: Yes
  • Notes: This site’s logo lists it as being in beta, which definitely seems to be the case.


  • Link:
  • Interface: Checkboxes and pull-downs.
  • Guide: A help site:
  • Good: Extensive, lots of features. You can run a school with this.
  • Bad: A little tricky to navigate sometimes. Not for single users. No online assessments.
  • Commercial: Yes, but not at the student level.
  • Notes: rCampus is designed as a whole-school product. It’s not really made for online courses.


  • Link:
  • Interface: Checkboxes and pull-down menus
  • Guide: Teacher’s course at
  • Good: Built-in notes section.
  • Bad: Teacher’s course videos seem to be entirely blank. Multple-choice questions only.
  • Commercial: Yes
  • Notes: Fairly bare-bones stuff. The errors in the teacher’s course seem like a substantial issue.

Google Course Builder

  • Link:
  • Interface: “To use Course Builder, you should have some technical skills at the level of a webmaster. In particular, you should have some familiarity with HTML and JavaScript.”
  • Guide:
  • Good: Open codebase.
  • Bad: Limited response types – MC and custom-coded fill-in-the-blank only.
  • Commercial: No
  • Notes: This is very much a set of tools – not a template-driven approach or a “fill in the course” approach, but something you can use if you have the tech skill for it.


  • Link:
  • Interface: Editor uses Markdown
  • Guide: A how-to course: and
  • Good: The badge system is course-specific and peer-driven. The site collects some explicit metadata about the course, which is good from a research perspective.
  • Bad: No heirarchy of course items. No quizzes or assessments.
  • Commercial: No
  • Notes: As the name might indicate, there is a strong focus on peer critique and feedback. There is no other assessment of the students. The site also makes a distinction between “courses” and “MOOCs”, for reasons unknown to me.


  • Link:
  • Interface: Checkboxes and drop-down menus. There’s a lot of stuff here, so it takes a little getting used to. If you’re running the server yourself, you’ll need to be familiar with a command line.
  • Guide: Documentation at, forums here:, and even books:
  • Good: Extensive support.  SCORM compatibility.
  • Bad: Takes a lot of setup work. You’ll need to run your own server or find someone else who will.
  • Commercial: No
  • Notes: Moodle isn’t as much of a “run your whole school” site as rCampus is, but it’s close. If you work in education and haven’t heard of Moodle, you should probably learn a little about it. They’re fairly ubiquitous.


You can also run your own instance of edX’s server (here’s their GitHub repository). There are instructions, but you’ll really need to be a programmer. It’s not for most individual teachers.

If you have a site that you’d like to see added to this list, let me know. Always glad to learn more.

Journal Club

(The first rule of journal club is…)

If you have some time to read over the weekend, I highly recommend this series of articles:

The “RYSK” label on that blog stands for “Research You Should Know”. There are six articles there currently, with the possibility of more appearing, each of which goes in depth on a particular piece of research. All of it is math-related, but should also be applicable to many science-oriented fields.

If you have any favorite pieces of education research, feel free to add them in the comments. I’m always interested in hearing more.

Copyright in the Classroom

This is a continuation of Friday’s post on intellectual property. Today I’m going to talk about different aspects of copyright and how they relate to classroom materials. Let’s start with licenses.

Standard copyright is the most restrictive intellectual property license you can get for copyrightable materials. There are a few common licenses that are more permissive: Creative Commons and the GNU GPL and FDL are the most common. (If you haven’t seen the FDL before, many of Wikipedia’s images are licensed that way, and its text is dual-licensed under CC and FDL.) The most permissive thing you can see is something released into the public domain.

Some folks confuse “public domain” and “fair use.” These are not synonyms; they’re not even particularly related to each other. “Public domain” means that something is not protected by copyright: free for anyone to use for any reason at all, in any way. “Fair use” is when someone uses a work that is under copyright, but in a legal manner. If you want to take advantage of someone else’s copyrighted work, you can do it, under certain guidelines. Note: not laws, guidelines. This stuff is all suggestion and case law, with very little hard legislation.

There are a few major considerations for fair use:

  1. What am you copying from? This is perhaps the least important consideration – only the most historically important or purely factual items will be exempt here.
  2. What are you making? Is it for educational use? For non-profit use? Is it a parody? This is not a sufficient condition on its own, but it helps. Let me repeat that: educational, non-profit use is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. It helps.
  3. Is what you’re doing transformative? That is, are you turning the original work into something with a different purpose? Placing a clip from someone’s amusing YouTube video into your educational video is more likely to be ok than putting it into a video intended for entertainment. The reverse is also true – making an amusing remix of PBS Nova clips is more likely to be legal than sticking clips from Nova into your own educational video.
  4. Are you harming the ability of the original copyright-holder to make money off their work? For instance, if I took someone’s textbook, rewrote it better, and released it, I would have hurt their ability to sell their book even if mine is free. This is probably the biggest consideration. (There are also trademark and “derivative work” issues in this example, but those are separate issues.)
  5. How much are you using? Did you copy an entire chapter from someone’s novel to add to your textbook? That’s probably not going to fly.

Now, all of that is fairly general. If you’re a teacher, and you’re wondering whether you can use something in class, there’s a special protection for that. If what you’re doing is the one-time, spontaneous use of a particular resource, that’s fine for a teacher in a classroom. This is designed for the day when you say, “Oh my god, this passage will be perfect for my history class in half an hour! I’m going to make copies for my students!” If you planned ahead for that one-time copy? That’s not spontaneous. If you use it again next year? That’s not one-time. I haven’t seen any word on how this guideline applies to online education, but my guess is “badly,” since online education resources are stored in perpetuity.

I’ve seen some guidelines that list a certain number of lines of poetry, a certain number of minutes of audio, a certain number of words that you can excerpt – those are wrong. I’m not sure where they come from, but all the more reputable sources I’ve seen say that there are no solid numbers that will keep you in the clear.

As far as student use goes, that depends. Students creating works for their classroom teacher alone would probably fall under “private use,” and thus would be more of a fit topic for classroom and school policies than for law. However, if you’re creating works for public  consumption, just because you happen to be a student doesn’t give you any special protection.

It’s weird that all this is something teachers have to know about, but it’s not going to get less important anytime soon.



Fair use and classroom examples from the US Library of Congress – probably the best resource for classroom teachers.

Copyright law at the US Copyright Office

Fair Use guidelines at the Center for Social Media

NASA’s images are generally not under copyright. This is also true of most other government agencies. The rationale? The public already paid for this; they don’t have to pay to use it again.

Morguefile is my favorite resource for nearly-public-domain images.

There are whole blogs about this; here’s one: Copyright on Campus


If you have any other resources that you like, feel free to list them in the comments.

Intellectual Property

This was originally going to be a single post, but it was large enough that I split it up. Today’s post is about intellectual property law in general; Monday’s post is specifically about copyright, with a focus on educational situations.

When I was at WRPI, and when I was writing some of my books, I learned a good amount about copyright and trademark law. I’ve run into some persistent confusion and uncertainty about that in my time in high school and higher ed, so I wanted to make a few remarks on the topic here.

To define some terms:

  • Trademarks are words, designs, and logos that are part of a particular company’s or product’s identity. The raised TM or circled R are both trademark indicators (the latter is a “registered trademark”). Trademarks and patents are overseen by the US Patent and Trademark Office.You have to apply for a registered trademark, but you can get a regular trademark just by claiming it (marking it with TM) and defending it. Trademarks last as long as they are maintained and defended – that is, you use them, and you actively work to keep other people from using them. If some granny in her basement started making a soda and naming it Coca-Cola, you can bet that Coke would go after her legally. If they didn’t, anyone else could then start to name their soda Coca-Cola too. The trademark would be gone. Them’s the laws. Trademarks almost never come into education discussions, but I mention them here because people confuse the concepts.
  • Patents are legal recognition and protection for a “new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” You can also get Design Patents for “new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture”, and Plant Patents for “any distinct and new variety of plant.” Sort of a blast from the past, that last one.You have to apply for a patent. Patents are expensive enough that the average person would think twice, but not so expensive that companies can’t snatch them up by the dozens. They last for a specific amount of time, which is renewable a certain number of times at increasing cost. There is no obligation to defend a patent; you don’t lose your right to sue if you wait for a year while someone else uses a method that you patented. This is a common method for “patent trolls” – patent something, wait until someone else is really entrenched in using it, and then sue them. Again, patents don’t come up much in education, but some of the concepts seep into discussions when people don’t know the difference.
  • Copyright is, fairly literally, the right to make and display copies of something. It applies to creative and technical endeavors of all kinds, including writing, artwork, music, computer code, and more. Copyright is overseen by the US Copyright Office.Copyright is different. Copyright does not have to be defended, and does not have to be applied for.

Every work created in the USA (and most other nations) is protected by copyright automatically, the instant it is created. There is no registration process, you do not have to apply, you do not even have to state “all rights reserved” or use the circled C mark.

Furthermore, copyright never has to be defended. The original author/artist/programmer can allow others to use the work as they see fit, and can pursue lawsuits against some offenders but not others without weakening the copyright. When lawsuits are pursued, the general principle that is considered is whether the defendant is damaging the author’s ability to make money off his or her work.

Copyright also lasts a long time – an uncomfortably long time, for those of us who believe in the value of the public domain. The shortest amount of time that copyright lasts is the life of the author plus 70 years. Depending on how long the author lives, work created by a corporation can be protected even longer. Don’t talk to a public domain maven about Mickey Mouse unless you want to hear a diatribe.

When it comes to education, copyright is the most important and most commonly discussed item. Teachers using materials in their classrooms, textbook companies looking for pictures or diagrams, and students creating papers all fall under slightly different rules. It can get confusing.

On Monday I’ll try to untangle what can get used where, and why.

The U.S. ED, part 2

Here’s a link to part 1.

So what exactly is the US Department of Education? It doesn’t directly set or enforce policies, so it’s actually rather dissimilar to many other federal agencies. It’s much more like an advisory body, except that it also hands out money in fairly specific directions.

The largest amount of the ED’s money, from what I can tell, goes towards people who might not otherwise get an education. Students with disabilities. Students with significant financial needs. Career and technical education. Programs with names like “Ensuring Equity.”

I think it’s important to do that. I don’t know whether there needs to be a full Department for that purpose. I’m not saying that in the way that some peoples’ “I don’t know” is really a “clearly not,” I’m genuinely saying “I don’t know.” Right now President Obama is asking for the authority to combine some federal agencies in much the same way that Homeland Security was created out of the Coast Guard, TSA, FEMA, and so forth. No matter how I might dislike Homeland Security these days, the combination was a great idea. Maybe Education could get combined with Labor, Health & Human Services, the NEA and NEH into some general “quality of life” bureau.

As for the advisory part of the ED’s job, I’m clearly biased. I think that education, being most of our lives from age 5 to age 21, is an incredibly big deal, and that there should be someone in the president’s cabinet who brings those matters up. Getting rid of the Department of Education entirely, without folding it into some other group, seems like it would remove a voice for 20-25% of our life experience.

I do believe that states need more ability to work independently. The ED’s current approach encourages grants applications to be written in very specific ways, effectively creating direction without creating policy. I’d rather that they consider grant applications on the basis of potential merit rather than on the basis of alignment with current departmental goals. I’m aware of how tough it is to define “potential merit,” but education is tough in general and we shouldn’t shy away from such approaches just because they’re difficult. If we need to do more research on what “potential merit” means in education, so much the better.

More than just state-level independence, however, I think that individual schools need the opportunity to try new things. Most of the opposition to that comes from the states themselves, not from the federal government. I don’t think that getting rid of the ED would free up individual schools at all.

So that’s where I am right now regarding the Department of Education. I think it does many worthwhile things, but that we might do well to combine it with another couple agencies and focus it away from broad trends and toward individual excellence.

The U.S. Department of Education

I recently received a challenge from a friend of mine to write a post about the U.S. Department of Education – their policies and general existence. Since I should really know more about said department, I set about working to… uh, educate myself.

One of the problems I ran into quickly was that there is essentially no non-biased information available on the ED (ED = Education Department; DoE = Dept. of Energy). Nearly everyone who writes about education is fairly biased, as you may have garnered from my own work here. Most of the stuff I read was either very pro, very anti, or very bland. Even things like the General Accounting Office’s report on the ED get criticized, and the criticism gets taken apart, and the whole thing is a giant cluster where you can’t tell who’s being honest and who’s running for office or protecting their cash cow. So a lot of what I say here will be matters of general principle rather than responding to what the Department does right now.

One of the major arguments against the ED is that  it is inefficient, either by its very existence or internally. Arguments go both ways here; the department itself claims to give 99 cents on the dollar to its beneficiaries, while the aforementioned GAO study claims that there are serious inefficiencies when it comes to the student loan program.

Several GOP candidates this year have talked about “giving the money directly to the states,” thus cutting out the ED as a middleman. However, the ED doesn’t give public schools that much money overall. According to the department itself, “the Federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is about 10.8 percent” and “89.2 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources” for elementary and secondary education. So it’s a fairly small amount, percentage-wise. In terms of the department’s overall discretionary budget, “Title I Grants” (which are for local educational agencies, be they state departments of ed or regional school boards) take up about 21%, and IDEA grants (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, given to states) are another 17%. Those two large programs account for about $26 billion. Given the department’s own figures, a total of about $122 billion is contributed to local education by the federal government. Since I can’t find that in the ED’s discretionary budget (which is only about half that), the rest of it must either be coming from other departments (NSA, DoE, DoD) or from mandatory rather than discretionary funds.

The ED also gives a large amount of its budget directly to students: Pell Grants are another third of the ED’s budget at $23 billion or so. Student loans are not part of the budget, exactly; they make money when things are working right.

The Department of Education does not set curricula or develop standards; however, they do give money to local education agencies for such purposes. Because part of the ED’s mandate is to “identify the major issues and problems in education and focus national attention on them,” they are a major policy-driver through indirect means. The department’s choice of what a “major issue” is naturally shapes how states will write applications for Title I grants.

At this point in my research, I think this needs to be a two-part post. I don’t want to shortchange it, but I think there’s enough here to chew on (mentally speaking) for a day or two.

Useful links:


Nearly all of this is about college-level admissions rather than private school admissions.


General information:

Student athletes in the Ivy Leagues and the Academic Index:

Admissions About Admissions:

People Fighting the Good Fight:


Sudbury Schools

One of my goals for this blog is to provide a view into different ways of learning and teaching, and how different schools or non-schools are set up.

Before I get into this, I want you to know: as someone who loves alternative education in general, I’m unlikely to be completely unbiased in any of these reviews. I’ll try to present some pro-and-con, but primarily in the links that I post rather than in the central description of the school and its methods.

With that in mind, I present the first installment:

Sudbury Valley Schools

I’ve been fascinated by the Sudbury Valley School approach since I first heard of it. Here’s the basic way it works:

  • Students must be at the school for the state-mandated time per day and days per year.
  • Adult staff are on hand. (There is no teacher/staff distinction.)
  • The school is democratic. Everyone gets a vote in the running of the school: staff, students, and parents, one vote each.

And that’s more or less it. There are no regular classes; thus, no grades or homework. There are occasionally classes taught by staff or by students, but no “Algebra II” or such. The hours of the school allow flexibility in when students arrive and leave. When students are admitted to the school, there is a vote (typically just a formality), but no lengthy vetting process. Instead, the student (and family) faces the central question: “Can I learn in this environment?”

The original school is in Framingham, Massachusetts. If I refer to SVS, that’s them. If I refer to “a Sudbury school,” thats a school that uses their general model. There are some Sudbury schools in other locations, with varying degrees of success, as is common when trying to spread an approach to a school.

I got to visit SVS during one of their open houses. As with many New England private schools, it’s centered around a single old building. There’s a kitchen, a pool table downstairs, a TV, some computers, a dance studio, and thousand upon thousands of books lining the walls. There are some outlying buildings as well; barns and such where student bands often practice, a small pond.

Something one might not expect from such a “hippie” school: there are rules for everything at Sudbury. Everything. You want to use the computers? You need to be certified for the computers. You want to use the crayons? You have to be certified for crayons. (Naturally, the process is not exactly strenuous.) Want to fish in the pond?… It seems like the sort of thing that might be overwhelming if you’re not used to it. In the “How to Run a Sudbury School” book that they sell there are dozens of pages devoted to the various signs and notes that are hung up around the school. There are also informational items around, such as reports from the judicial committee posted near the room where they meet.

The school stretches across a wide age range, from grade school through high school. There is no attempt to segregate by any measure. Ten-year-olds can easily serve on the judicial committee, or learn computer programming if they so desire.

The core idea of the school is, essentially, that students are mental sponges that pick up knowledge and ideas all the time. Children learn, it’s what they do. Their students learn to read, but not because they’re in classes for it. They learn because reading is so mind-bogglingly useful that to do the things they want to do, they realize that they’ll need to learn how to read. Those who want to go to college study for the SATs, or apply to schools that don’t care about them, because that’s what you have to do if you want to go to college.

Here’s some more useful information

  • The school’s official FAQ
  • Wikipedia’s pages on the SVS and Sudbury Schools in general. I include these to note that these pages are on the low end for Wikipedia articles, so seek other sources as well.
  • An article from the Seattle Times about the Clearwater School, a Sudbury school
  • A review of a book about SVS’s graduates. The comments are also worth reading.
  • An article on the school from Psychology Today.
  • An opinion article in the journal Science Education.

I would be glad to answer what questions I can.

Seeking Experts

Are you an expert on a particular type of alternative education? Did you attend a Waldorf school? Do you homeschool your child? Do you work at a Montessori school? If so:

One of my goals for this blog is to have articles about different types of school (and non-schools). However, I’m not an expert in every type of education. If you’re interested in writing an article about your area of expertise, let me know in the comments here and I’ll be glad to post it for you.

Here are the guidelines:

  • You should present the core ideas or methods of this approach.
  • You can talk about details, but please don’t go over 1000 words.
  • Being pro-your-school in your discussion is ok, but no gushing. Try to be more informational.
  • You should provide links to more information. These should present both “pro” and “con” responses. Bonus points for scholarly articles.
  • Schools and school systems outside the US are definitely of interest.

I intend to write articles on traditional boarding schools, the Hyde School model, and the Sudbury Valley model myself, but if you’d like to contribute to those, that would be cool.