I’ve made lots of arguments for using WordPress in education over the last 10 years or so. I’ve had a decent amount of success in getting people using it in K121 and higher ed.2 Some of the rationale has changed as WordPress has become more sophisticated and more popular. Some of the arguments need to be re-thought through the context of an increasingly diverse array of tools that do similar things and it’s easy to forget that lots of people are coming to this fresh.3
Open Source and Popular
WordPress is open source software which means students can easily run their own copy for free.4 You are giving them a tool that is available to them outside of a subsidized educational environment. It’s also a tool that free humans use out of choice at scale across the world.
While there are many other open source publishing platforms WordPress is by far the most popular. That means that any skills students gain working with WordPress in an educational environment can be directly applied to roughly 25% of the sites on the Internet. These skills have direct value outside of education. You may have some transference of skills from one platform to another but WordPress offers a very direct tie to a widely-adopted platform. I have never seen anyone looking for people with skills in Wix. I’ve been contacted by students who said that their knowledge of WordPress made a difference when they looked for jobs after graduation. I’ve never had that happen with Blackboard skills (even in educational hires).
Large scale popularity also means that WordPress will be around and if you find a better tool in the future then there is a very high likelihood that you’ll be able to import your WordPress content into that new tool. WordPress is also popular enough to shape how people build future tools so basic understandings/vocabulary are likely to be part of future systems.
Low Threshold and a High Ceiling
In a scenario where I’m deciding what tool to talk about with students/faculty, this is something I look at quite a bit. Can I get them started pretty quickly and is there someplace interesting to go as needs/sophistication increase?
There are many tools that are easier than WordPress- things like Tumblr or Facebook or Google Sites5 even Google+6 In any case, there are lots of tools to put content online. The difference comes in a couple of areas. Most of these tools are very much like Apple’s iWeb product. It’s great if you want to do exactly what they want you to do. You have to know anything except how to drag/drop. That is also the problem. You can do nothing more than drag/drop. There are no deeper concepts and there is virtually no way to do more than what you can do on day one. There is no ladder of progression. It is what it is. You can color in the lines and that’s pretty much it. Sometimes that’s what people want/need. I find it limiting. Even in a multisite environment I can provide a wide array of options and power for those that want it. It is important to realize that if you don’t explore any of that power or possibility with intention (your assignments/projects/how you use the tool) then the vast majority of students won’t ever realize it’s there. That’s due in part to growing up with with technological platforms that have no options.7
This is, of course, shaped by intent. If you don’t ever want students to do more than what the simplest tools allow then a high ceiling on possibilities is pointless. That’s shaped by your hopes/goals but mainly by the way your structure your assignments. Using WordPress as a way to submit standard assignments and figuring the rest will take care of itself is a recipe for a sub-par experience for you and the students. WordPress is not a good way to turn in professor-facing papers. Interesting comments and community might happen magically but it’s unlikely. If your assignments are all text and written according to the typical goals of academic papers (X words, Y citations) then that will likely be what you get. As with most things, thinking hard about your goals and the way in which the tool might impact those goals will result in a much better experience. Asking yourself if you’d like to read the responses is a good first step. If you don’t want to read them . . . This is a different environment than Word provides. Take that into account. Consider the role images play? When do you hyperlink and to what? How does encouraging linking to other students help build community through trackbacks? Does this count as multi-modal argumentation? Are you helping students develop digital fluency? It certainly sounds fancy if you say it that way.
There’s also the idea that WordPress can help people experience and then understand aspects of technology like databases, CSS and RSS/JSON. Once again, it could happen incidentally but you’ll get much farther if you do it with some intent. It is certainly a lot easier to understand things like structured data or CSS after you’ve seen what it can do for you. This kind of thing can open up a very different kind of thinking (rather than replicating old design patterns in new technology).
There’s also the chance that you want none of that. You want the fastest path to standardized content online. You’re focus is on something else entirely and the technology is just a path to that thing. That is, oddly enough, another place I’ve found WordPress to shine. You can build really specific workflows built entirely around form submissions. Students are guided towards a consistent product which adds to a greater whole. They can do this with in any number of ways. Alan and Brian built SPLOTs. I’ve done a lot with Gravity Forms.8
With WordPress expanding the JSON API things become more interesting in this sphere as well. I’ve dabbled in it and found it enables me to build interesting things very quickly while using WordPress as the tool for content creation while using something else for the display (usually called headless WordPress). This, for instance, takes my site’s json feed and makes a bar graph displaying word count and urls in the last 30 posts. Similar things are being done on my somewhat revised portfolio page which uses JSON to display my weekly photos. The interesting part there is I can display that content on GitHub or any server without the need for PHP. That opens up some options for people and building displays for this type of content without the full WordPress overhead simplifies things in lots of ways.
WordPress can also be the doorway to actual web development and programming. It’s certainly been the case for me. I first dabbled in CSS, then did some minor PHP modifications, and now can do substantially more but it happened gradually and was driven by my own desire to go a little bit deeper . . . but for any of that to happen I needed the ability to go deeper. I fear that when we adopt tools with no depth, we are walling off a huge chunk of possibility (even if it turns out that not everyone wants that possibility).
Blogs grew in popularity due in part to the ability to comment, to engage the author in conversation. I find this kind of conversation to be different than one I’d hold in a discussion board/forum or in the comments of a Google Doc or the Talk page of a wiki. It is the author’s site after all so there’s ownership there and blog comments tend to be subordinate to the post content. At the same time the post itself can be oriented to take advantage of the fact that comments are available. That’s quite a bit more than ending each post with “What do you think? Let me know in the comments.” There’s also the option to focus more on paragraph commenting with plugins like Comment Press or Inline Comments. This isn’t where I’d do peer editing.9
1 In Henrico they went from blocking the word “blog” to a division-wide implementation of around 40k users. Granted, most of this happened after I left so I’m mostly just happy something happened rather than claiming credit for it.
2 Rampages continues to grow in scale with pockets of increasingly interesting tools/communities.
3 aka without my ten+ years of repeating things in various ways
4 Sure the server will cost you something but Reclaim has student accounts with domains for $25 a year. That’s less than I might spend on bacon for a meal. Full disclosure – I like Tim and Jim and I might eat several pounds of bacon in a single meal. You could also run VVV (or something similar) and continue to develop your skills without any cost on your local computer.
5 With a new refreshed look for 2007! (May not be available in your area).
6 It still exists, at least when I checked a few minutes ago.
7 Facebook knows best. Know your role. Turn over your information for tracking.
8 Stuff like this for field botany, this for Gravatar bios, this for simply posting papers for comment, collecting grave marker information, logging bike safety information on a map etc. etc. The options are endless.
9 I’d do that in Google Docs