Meet Maria Erb

Maria Erb works as an Instructional Designer with the University of Portland. She joins us at WordCamp Portland to speak about how WordPress can save higher education. We got a chance to ask her a few questions about the talk.

How is the internet changing the landscape of higher education?
The Web first impacted the face of higher education about 15 years ago when LMS (Learning Management System) systems became widely adopted and suddenly something like “online learning” was possible rather than “distance education.” Even though the potential for something new and exciting was there, most people just didn’t know how to use the new medium so things stayed at a “meh” level for a long time. What is really kicking higher education in the face is MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) because now there is a way to network web savvy learners from around the world and turn them loose on engaging content and creative assignments. It’s like learning on steroids. It’s not a replacement for an intimate conservatory-like experience, but maybe not everyone wants/needs/or will pay for a conservatory-like experience. And not all MOOCs are designed well either. It will be very unfortunate if the whole thing shakes out along class lines with only a small portion able to afford friend to friend learning and everyone else relegated to MOOCland whether or not the MOOCs are good and whether or not they’re a good fit for your learning style.

What’s one e-learning problem you wish there was a WordPress plugin for?
Interface design. Collaboration. I’d like to see 3 or 4 different themes (based on the 3 or 4 stellar MOOC platforms I’ve seen) and then I’d like to see a BuddyPress-like plugin (much leaner) that lets students work on teams together and interact with each other. I’d like to see a good page layout plugin too. And everything super mobile friendly. Mobile design for learning is an area where even the major players are lagging.

Why should the WordPress community focus their attention on higher education?
The issue with LMS systems has always been poor interface design. While administrators focus on back end integration and security issues, faculty are usually stuck with clunky tools that make it difficult to engage students. The problem that MIT, Harvard, and Stanford just solved for nearly $100 million is one of interface design i.e. they came up with really nice interfaces that draw you in right away and make you want to engage with the content. Add the social components that weren’t a part of early LMS design, and now you’ve got a great experience all around. But anyone who cares about open education (and open software) wants to see the DIY culture prevail, or at least allow colleges/universities a choice in how they develop online courses. Right now, we can continue to limp along with Moodle which does some nice things but falls short of making it easy to create a dynamic interface or we can hope the WP community will put some muscle into e-learning plugins and themes.