A Word about WordPress

It’s really great to see the Programme embracing WordPress at last! I’ve been pottering through the MSc since 2006, and we’ve had a white-knuckle ride through many different approaches to blogging, social networking, and similar online fun – from early ‘dark’ blogging, through Elgg/Eduspaces, and even feu Google Wave (not to mention, of course, FB and SL).

WordPress Buttons and Stickers by Nikolay Bachiyski on Flickr (CC:BY)

During all this time I’ve had a strong belief that WordPress was one-to-watch: it’s free-and-open-source, has a rapid and dynamic development cycle, a huge community of creative users, and an effective architecture supporting all kinds of third-party themes and plugins. I’ve tried out other blog platforms, including Blogger (which has much to recommend it) but what always impressed about WordPress was that with little, if any, programming know-how, you can still be immensely creative, whether you choose to download and host it yourself from WordPress.org, or use hosted options at WordPress.com or Edublogs. (A friend of mine who is definitely creative but definitely not a Web developer has created several impressive sites with it.) I’m really surprised whenever I discover people have chosen other blogging platforms, but generally not surprised to learn their experience is disappointing: I’ve had very poor reports from major institutions who have chosen solutions based on TypePad or Drupal.

WordPress has gone from strength-to-strength, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, and has an ecosystem all its own. When podcasting was the next-big-thing, plugins emerged to turn it into a podcasting application. Another plugin, ScholarPress, ventured to turn it into a VLE. One theme turned it into a convincing Twitter-like micro-blogging platform. There are plugins and themes to make it work with Iphones and other mobile platforms. Not all of them are perfect, but they all signal the huge potential of WP: essentially, wherever blogging is somewhere at the heart of requirements, WordPress has got to be considered.

The WordPress Multi-User version of the application – allowing a whole community of blogs to be created by multiple users within a single installation –  reached maturity in the last couple of years, and now the Single-Blog and Multi-Blog versions are released in the same package since Version 3.0. As we can see here, the BuddyPress plugin has taken it to yet another level, and demonstrates how easy it is to get one’s own mini Facebook-like community up-and-running. This MSc E-learning Hub looks like an ideal application for the package (another recent example is at the Digital Learning Network). Its potential as the engine for forays into Social Learning Environments is clear (if anyone’s researched this further, I’d love to hear about it). I haven’t yet found my own use case at my work, that will convert the sceptics and provide the critical mass to get one of these going, but I’m working on it.

But I have had fairly substantial and enjoyable adventures with WordPress. It was largely thanks to the confidence and insights I gained from the Introduction to Digital Environments for Learning (IDEL) course, about the value of blogging and online communities, that in 2007 I decided to ignore local apathy, antipathy and red-tape and set up my own departmental blog – which at length was recognised as a good thing! I encourage anyone and everyone to do the same!

Not long after that, I worked on a JISC Web Preservation project with UKOLN’s Brian Kelly – notorious UK Web Focus, irrepressible blogger and WordPress fan – and I learned a great deal more about the use and management of blogs. (At the time Brian was also extremely exercised by some new-fangled thing called Twitter…)

ArchivePress: Using WordPress for blog archiving

I was also a beneficiary of the JISC’s largesse for another WordPress related project, ArchivePress. For this we used the inbuilt functionality and structure of the WordPress system as a repository for archived blog posts and comments, and the RSS/Atom feed backbone of Web 2.0 as a platform-neutral, metadata-rich way to harvest that content automatically. This was another idea that grew directly out of my work on the MSc programme, this time an assignment for the Information Literacies (ILOL) course in 2009. In fact I’ve shamelessly made extensive use of this material, including an article in Ariadne and a workshop session at the annual Insitutional Web Managers’ Workshop (IWMW) – and another hush-hush opportunity in the offing! The ArchivePress project itself has not been quite as rapid as hoped, but has nevertheless already generated considerable interest and discussion about the theory and practice of blogs in relation to archives, libraries and academic research.

Another fascinating application of WordPress worth mentioning is as a collaborative document editing/reviewing tool. My friend  Joss Winn at Lincoln University spotted the potential of a WordPress plugin called CommentPress, produced by a project called  Future of the Book. Commentpress re-imagined the blog’s functionality as one that could provide the ability to develop documents on the Web that could be commented-on and reviewed interactively. With funding from the JISC’s Rapid Innovation programme, Joss invited the CommentPress developer to improve and enhance the plugin, to produce the JISCPress system, where JISC Calls and Policy documents could be openly shared and interactively reviewed. (Among the documents at JISCPress is the Guide to Web Preservation that I contributed to.) The enhanced version of CommentPress is available at digress.it.

If none of the above is sufficient proof that you can have a lot of constructive fun in our field with WordPress, I don’t know what is! So hats off to Jen and the team for taking the plunge with WordPress (it’s not always been easy to get institutional buy-in to using WordPress), and I hope (and expect) it will be a great success. Even though I’m putting my feet up before doing my dissertation next year, I’m sure I’ll be dipping in and out, and I’ll be watching it closely for hints and tips, as I’m sure I’ll also be getting something off the ground with BuddyPress before long.

4 thoughts on “A Word about WordPress”

  1. Thanks for the insight into WordPress, Richard. This is my first experience of this particular resource therefore it’s useful to hear your positive recommendation…and if I don’t like it, it’ll be your fault 😉

    I have a fair bit of experience using blogger and, although I sometimes find the design and layout a bit ‘clunky’, I like it’s simplicity.

    Up to this stage I’ve also used blogger as a platform for assessment, with my students using it to complete a reflective blog. It’s going to be interesting then to see if it’s worth moving to WordPress. I’m happy to be swayed.


  2. Hi James. Blogger’s good, I’m a fan. I think in any e-learning scenario needing blogs, I’d still table it for consideration, as long as everyone concerned were happy with using Google and working in the Cloud.

  3. I’ve now spent a couple of hours exploring WordPress. I don’t think it’s quite as straightforward as blogger, however that’s probably because it seems to have many more options.

    I’m looking forward to trying it out ‘for real’ in the coming weeks.

  4. Hi James – Yes it’s a horsesforcourse situation, and the comparison’s really between Blogger and WordPress.com, as ‘cloud’ services. I just found this interesting comparison. But as a self-hosted system (which Blogger doesn’t do), WP is essentially a toolkit (no less than other OS apps I’ve been involved with like Moodle, Mahara and EPrints): it’s essential to look beyond the default design and setup, and the site owner/creator has a lot of power (and responsibility) to fashion it how they want to use it, and how they want their users to use it. There’s a difficult and delicate balance to be struck between providing lots of features, and thus complexity, or locking the system down to simple essentials: either approach risks alienating someone! But there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had when you do get it right (ish).

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