The Tao of Posts

injured books and ribbons

I’ve been having quite a few conversations around student portfolios eportfolios online representations of their learning over time. These conversations have mostly centered on using WordPress and, almost inevitably, the first instinct is to create a series of pages that are aligned to either courses or assignments. Those pages usually contain a number of different pieces of content. That structure makes the most sense to people who are used to building websites in the Dreamweaver/static paradigm. I don’t think this is the right path in most cases. It’s easy in the short term but starts to limit you (absent lots of work) in the long run.

Strange that I don't really know what a web page is anymore. Individual tweet? Blog post? Flickr image? #vcuols

— Tom Woodward (@twoodwar) May 14, 2014

At the heart of this is the issue that “page” is hard to define. In the broadest sense anything I can address with a URL is a webpage. That’s a big bucket. WordPress makes things more complex by including a way to create pieces of content called “pages.” Pages are usually contrasted to posts. I usually described1 the page/post difference was that posts were pieces of content that flowed with the timeline (more ephemeral but archived) and pages were pieces of content you wanted to be more permanent/static. People also usually consider the post content to be “blog”2 related.

To complicate things (at least in my head), if I click on a category or tag I end up on a page (although not a WP defined page) and that page is composed of posts. Additionally, some themes have page templates that present posts. The more I think about it, the more potential for confusion I see. I can’t find it but there’s a twitter (page) out there somewhere with Alan saying blogs and posts are the same thing in the WordPress database.

It may appear that this is one of those irritating discussions that while true are only of interest to nerds and have little practical value.

Nothing3 could be further from the truth. The tao of posts is a way of life and the way you think about constructing a portfolio-ish thing matters quite a bit in terms of what you want to do and what you can do.

To begin with the “page” is much like the desktop folder of old, or old school browser bookmarks- it is directly hierarchical and content can only exist in one place at a time. This sucks. It is especially bad when you consider that the purpose of many portfolio-thingees is to try to get students to understand (and reflect on) the interrelationship of concepts and courses. Their content might be completed as part of a specific course but it’s also tied to a particular skill/understanding or many skills/understandings. That’s a good thing. It’s a blurry world. We want interdisciplinary, vertically aligned, transmedia, multi-whatever but when you build with pages you’re almost certainly making that kind of consideration antithetical to the way you’re organizing the content.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you are giving up the ability to tie content to particular courses (or any other concrete categories for that matter). You can still do that, you just do it through categories and/or tags. That’s going to allow the “learning artifact”4 to be associated with whatever concrete things you need. It is often handy to be able to associate content with courses but that association tends to be functional. It’ll help with grading or with creating lenses of focus etc. The aspirational/philosophical elements tend to evolve and overlap in ways that extend between and beyond courses. Now that assignment/work/product can be found via UNIV200, via “critical thinking”, and via “integrative thinking”. If you tried to do something similar with that piece of work in a page things would get ugly very quickly.

None of my thoughts are unique or groundbreaking but they’re often absent from these conversations. The very same forces that have driven users to adopt tagging in social bookmarking, smart/virtual folders, and search as an interface could provide not just solutions but actual advantages in considering presenting and interacting with student curated content. These dynamic aggregation opportunities have distinct advantages if they’re considered in light of learning goals and the way you’re going to encourage students to think and interact with their own work. It’d be difficult to say the same thing for the static presentation considerations forced through the typical page based construction.

1 Past tense

2 Cue the useless-Internet musical equivalent of Dueling Banjos- maybe the Nyan cat song. Pages are for the serious work. Posts are for your cat videos.

3 Well. Somethings could be. Probably many things.

4 It hurts to write that.

12 thoughts on “The Tao of Posts

  1. I’ve been fascinated by the application Known for some of the thinking around this recently, and will be deploying it for ds106 this Fall. Every student gets a Known and pushes their work to a course hub. No mroe pull. Here’s mine, not fully fleshed out yet, but it’s like open source, slef-hosted Tumblr sites that we can federate easily as a course:

    Does exclude WordPress, but that’s just another thing in your environment.

    1. You may regret commenting as I’m going to ask more than a few questions.

      Do you mean “does exclude WP” or is that a typo?

      I think I like the Known stuff. I may have seen Timmy messing with it. I thought of it more as a super aggregator of all things. Am I mistaken/over limiting? Are you seeing it as the authoring vehicle which populates out to everything else? Is it a system setup (like WP multisite)? I checked yours out but couldn’t seem to comment without signing up.

      I’m still (over) processing the difference between push and pull in these scenarios. Pulling into a course seems to be an invitation in with the onus on the instructor. Pushing maybe is maybe more like a target selected by the student? Different responsibility?

      VCU has a number of “e-portfolio” things going on. Some are in WordPress. All the ones in WP I’ve seen use pages as the entire organizing structure. This post was in response to three or four meetings that felt like very similar conversations.

      1. Sorry i suck at writing, I meant does not exclude WordPress. Keep in mind Known is early stages, but its pretty robust given how young it is, and I am really thinking of it as a post dashbaord for all your services. Post to Flickr, send to Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, etc. It’s a thinlayer for managing many of your services, and with some thought and hacking, could make a very elegant space for displaying the work you’ve done. what I like about it is it breaks me free a bit of the WordPress dependency. And few folks have loved WordPress as long and hard as me, but I still want something that helps students abstract out a layer beyond the idea of a blog. I want it to be their web dashbaord that cuts across ll their space, but they own and manage in their own. what’s even cooler is it blows opena broader discussions of integration, APIs, and a host of other issues I think would be essential to any menaingful digital portfolio that most applciations wat to bury.

        As far as push pull, you ar eright on. Move outside of the limits of RSS, and put it within the power of the student to target where they send their work. Not only different responsibility, but even more crisp notion of ownership.

        The eportfolio question won;t die, I jsut think we are equipped to attack it with more sophisticated conceptual weapons ๐Ÿ˜‰

      2. “I want it to be their web dashbaord that cuts across all their 3rd party spaces, but they own and manage the content in their own. Whatโ€™s even cooler is it blows open a broader discussion of integration, APIs, and a host of other issues I think would be essential to any menaingful digital portfolio that most applciations want to bury.”

        From my copyeditor, who was pissed I commented before running it by him.

  2. Whew that was helpful to hear a framing of what known offers. I’m still peeking over the fence, and only because so many circle are interested.

    What’s more important to me, whether it is known, WordPress, or parcheesi, is that we can help people have a conceptual understand of what the thing does, and not just at the dashboard level.

    I agree with Tom that WordPress’s nomenclature of Pages vs Posts is confusing, and is compounded because we refer to things on the web as “pages” (little “p”).

    What the typical users deals with is an abstraction of what is in the database; not only are pages and posts in the same table (called wp_posts) but so are is data of your uploaded content (attachments). It would not take much for a page to become a post, it’s just a column in the database.

    To confound it more, category and tags are really the same thing, and the database structure there gets spread around 3 tables that I usually get lost in, but they are really all terms in taxonomies. Categories just have the extra ability to have a “parent/child” relationship.

    Pages have uses, and I have a maybe upcoming post on two projects where I was handed a sprawling page structure of maybe 100 of them. There is a way to use them like “smart folders” by using the parent/child relationship, for sites then end up building hierarchies of information.a lot of times I see the parent page being manually edited to be index of the children. but a plugin like PageList makes sites flexible by the index auto generated by a shortcode that uses the hierarchy structure, even using the sub page thumbnails. This would not have been easy using just posts.

    But hey bring on something new, I’m ready. I’ve been near the bottom of the wordpress engine (actually not anywhere near it). But we got so caught up in the tool of the appearance that people never get an appreciation for what they can do beyond that (that having been dealing the last month with clients who just do not conceptually understand categories and pages, and things that just keep me employed)

    1. It is truly a strange world. I’d like to see the site you’re talking about if you want to throw me a link.

      I think the key is to figure out what you want to do and then choose something that helps rather than hinders that pattern of thought. Too often it feels like those two things opt in opposition.

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