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NERCOMP Session – Supporting Learning Initiatives with WordPress March 11, 2008

Posted by ficial in conference, EDUCAUSE_NC08, Instructional Technology, NERCOMP.

I’m attending the 2008 NERCOMP conference in Providence, RI. This annual get-together provides networking with peers at other institutions, professional development in various presentations, and a sizable vendor fair. [My thoughts and comments are enclosed in square brackets.]

The first session I attended was about using WordPress to support learning initiatives. The presenters were Ken Panko (Sr Instructional Technologist), and Randy Rode (School of Drama IT Director) – both from Yale.

WordPress is well known as a blogging tool, but also works well as a light-weight content management tool. The big advantages of WordPress are that it’s fast (you can literally get a new install up and running in 5 to 10 minutes), it’s flexible (with themes to change the look and feel, plugins to extend functionality, and general page authoring as well as specific blog authoring), it’s cheap (the $$ cost is free, since the software is open source, and the actual support needed is minimal – the software tends to work well out of the box), and there are lots of options for running it (windows server, unix/linux/mac server, remotely hosted).

There are some pitfalls to WordPress as well. Probably the largest is straightforward security concerns (see http://secunia.com/search/?search=wordpress). Security holes get patched fairly quickly, but then someone needs to make sure all the installs are actually up to date (though there’s now an Automatic Update plugin that helps with that, or even manages it entirely). The other issue that comes up a lot is spam. There are two good tools to deal with that. The first is the Akismet plugin, which does content based filtering. The second is a configuration option that allows user filtering – WordPress can be set to make the first comment from any particular person require vetting by an administrator, after which that user is OK-ed to post future comments with out oversight.

[It’s worth noting that this entire talk focused on multiple instances of installing the word press system. Another option is WordPressMU, which is a single install that supports many blogs. WPMU is what Williams uses to run http://blogs.williams.edu, largely because of the central management features and the single-point-of-maintenance. However, if we were to use WordPress as a CMS we’d probably go with a separate instance. The latter would allow more customization for the particular application, and would have a more logical address.]

They note that it is possible use htaccess files or some other authentication system to limit access to a WordPress blog, but generally they leave them accessible to the general public. There is an intellectual property issue associated with using blogs in a class. Students sign some sort of IP release thing indicating they know that posts will be public. [Details on that were not available, but would be interesting. Perhaps someone who has a copy of the agreement could post it?]

They’ve found WordPress very appropriate and useful for rapid, light weight, perpetual-beta projects. For example a 6-12 month project probably would use some other system (they use joomla as their general CMS), while a project with 1-2 weeks lead time would probably be done using WordPress. The WordPress UI is pretty good, requiring little to no user training. It’s easy to make changes, allowing feedback to be incorporated quickly and easily as the system is used. After that particular project or class is over, it becomes something of an archive (which has its own plusses and minuses, but the talk didn’t really get into that.

To finish they ran through four examples that demonstrated different approaches / uses. The first two were covered by Ken:

Online Text Analysis – Shakespeare Analysis Course
– arose through talking to a faculty member whose office was next door [This is a great example of serendipitous project creation. While there are certainly some advantages to a central IT building, I think we miss a lot of opportunities by not being more fully integrated with the rest of the campus]
– uses the CommentPress theme, which allows line-by-line commenting
– For this class the blog is hidden behind a central authentication system, which deals with most (all?) of the general spam problems.
MIT has a full shakespeare text archive available, which this course uses (though it looks like MIT may just link to another source, at least in that course)
– There’s a plugin called Ajax Edit Comments that lets users edit their own comments. It has a time window option (so e.g. comments can be made and edited an hour or two after a class discussion, but are fixed thereafter).
– Total time to from project idea to implementation: 11/1 – 1/23, with a big break between. Really, mainly about 4 hours of actual work during Jan 2 to Jan 23. One very nice thing, the sponsor was able to check it out from Holland since it’s on-line.

Yale summer caberet
– student run project set up as a content management system.
– NOTE: site is no longer live since the summer is over.
– Ken set it up and then let the students do whatever they want. Essentially, he volunteered his time, so didn’t want much int he way of support issues/ time.
– Interesting note: plugins are used on pages as well as blog posts, which allows one to use a pretty interactive system.
– Created a custom theme – 6-12 hours of work (usual web site development stuff – messing with CSS, image creation, etc.)

Then Randy took the stage. He talks very quickly and ran very quickly through his slides. Partly just his nature, I think, but he was also pressed for time and was trying to fit in everything. He did a good job, but my notes on his stuff are a little sparse.

One example is a site set up for an architecture course. Students made posts instead of writing papers, which means the posts are LONG. He used the evermore plugin to make the blog more readable. There was a question later about metrics of student evaluation, and turns out that before the course started Randy and the professor got together to develop a rubric for good blog posts, which was then given to the students at the start of the course. Evaluating the posts in this case wasn’t much different from evaluating any other student papers [it’d be nice to get a copy of that rubric….]. This site was (is?) open to the public, and some of the student work ended up being linked to from the architects’ sites.

Randy runs through a quick demo of the WP back end. He also shows us a nice plugin, the anarchy media player, which plays many, many different kinds of media. In general, WP plays very well with multi-media (much better than Sakai and other LMS and CMS). Since posts can be tagged, and since WP can generate RSS feeds automatically based on tags, this makes it a great way to very easily produce a podcast (which can then be subscribed to as normal in iTunes or any other podcatcher). Also, the audio can be played directly from the web page (via anarchy) and and intermixed with non-audio posts (using tags to separate out the audio ones).

Randy has a few pages of How to Use WordPress that he includes in every install he does, but he finds that students pick it up very quickly regardless. A number of students respond (paraphrasing) “it’s just like setting up my facebook page”. [to my mind the good UI is the single strongest selling point of WP]

There wasn’t really much time for questions at the end, so that was pretty much it.

There’s a bit more info on the Educause NERCOMP 2008 blog, and there’s a PDF of the slide show on Randy’s blog.



1. Support costs of elearning - May 26, 2008

[…] as WordPress or Google groups, can provide content management for a course-like structure. See here for some discussion of how wordpress can be used to support […]

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