WordPress as a Course Management System

I am a big fan of the WordPress publishing platform. It’s robust and intuitive with an elegant user interface, and best of all, it’s completely open source. Content management heavyweights such as Drupal or MediaWiki may be better equipped when it comes to highly complex, multimodal databases or custom scripting, but for small-scale, quick and dirty web publishing, I can think of few rivals to the WordPress dynasty. About 20% of all websites currently run on some form of WordPress. Considering that Google’s popular Blogger platform accounts for a measly 1.2% of the total, this is a staggering statistic. Like many digital humanists, I use WordPress for my personal blogging as well as for the courses that I teach. Yet I often wonder if I am using this wonderfully diverse free software to its full potential. Instead of an experimental sideshow or an incidental component of a larger course, what if I made digital publishing the core element, the central component of my research and teaching?

YouTube Preview Image
Jack Black as a course management system.

What follows are my suggestions for using a WordPress blog as a full-fledged course management system for a small discussion seminar. These days almost all colleges and universities have a centralized course management system of some sort. In the dark ages of IT, a proprietary and much-derided software package called Blackboard dominated the landscape. More recently, there is the free and open source Moodle, the Sakai Project, and many others (Yale uses a custom rendition of Sakai called Classes*v2). These platforms, sometimes called learning management systems, collaboration and learning environments, or virtual learning environments, are typically quite powerful. Historically, they have played an important role in bridging analog and digital pedagogy. Compared to WordPress, however, they can seem arcane and downright unfriendly. Although studies of course management systems are sporadic and anecdotal, one of the most common complaints is “the need for a better user interface.” Instead of working to improve these old methods, perhaps it is time to embrace a new paradigm. Why waste time training students and teachers on idiosyncratic in-house systems, when you can give them more valuable experience on a major web publishing platform? Why let technology determine the limits of our scholarship, when we can use our scholarship to push the boundaries of emerging technologies?

Before getting started, I should point out that there are already a wide variety of plugins that aim to transform WordPress into a more robust collaborative learning tool. Sensei and BuddyPress Courseware are good examples. The ScholarPress project was an early innovator and still shows great promise, but it has not been updated in several years and no longer works with the latest versions of WordPress. The majority of these systems are more appropriate for large lectures, distance learning, or MOOCs (massive open online courses). There is no one-size-fits-all approach. For smaller seminars and discussion sections, however, a custom assortment of plugins and settings is usually all that is required. I have benefited from previous conversations about this topic. I also collaborate closely with my colleagues at Yale’s Instructional Technology Group when designing a new course. It is worth repeating that the digital humanities are, at their heart, a community enterprise.

Step 1: Install WordPress. An increasing number of colleges and universities offer custom course blogs along with different levels of IT support. For faculty and students here, Yale Academic Commons serves as a one-stop-shop for scholarly web publishing. Other options include building your own WordPress site or signing up for free hosting.

Step 2: Find a good theme. There is an endless sea of WordPress themes out there, many of them free. For my course blogs, I prefer something that is both minimalist and intuitive, like the best academic blogs. The simpler the better. I also spend a lot of time choosing and editing an appropriate and provocative banner image. This will be the first thing that your students see every time they log in to the site, and it should reflect some of the central themes or problems of your course. It should be something worth pondering. Write a bit about the significance of the banner on the “About” page or as a separate blog post, but do not clutter your site with media. As Dan Cohen pointed out last year, effective design is all about foregrounding the content.

Step 3: Load up on plugins. Andrew Cullison provides a good list of course management plugins for WordPress. Although almost all of them are out of date now, many have newer counterparts that are easily discoverable in the official WordPress plugin directory. Among the more useful plugins are those that allow you to embed interactive polls, create tag clouds, sync calendars, and selectively hide sensitive content. ShareThis offers decent social media integration. WPtouch is a great way to streamline your site for mobile devices. Footnote and annotation plugins are helpful for posting and workshopping assignments. I also recommend typography plugins to do fancy things like pull quotes and drop caps. A well configured WYSIWYG editor, such as TinyMCE, is essential.

Step 4: Upload content. Post an interactive version of the syllabus, links to the course readings, films, image galleries, and any other pertinent data. Although your institution probably has a centralized reserves system, it is perfectly legal to post short reading assignments directly to your course site, as long as they are only available to registered students. In some cases, this might actually be preferable to library reserves that jumble all of your documents together with missing endnotes and abstruse titles. Most WordPress installs do not have massive amounts of media storage space, but there is usually enough for a modest amount of data. If you need more room, use Google Drive or a similar cloud storage service.

Step 5: Configure settings and metadata. Make sure your students are assigned the proper user roles when they are added to the blog. Also be sure to establish a semantic infrastructure, with content categories for announcements, news, reading responses, primary documents, project prospectuses, etc. Your WYSIWYG editor should be configured so that both you and your students can easily embed YouTube videos, cite sources, and create tables. Depending on the level of interaction you would like to encourage on your site, the discussion settings are worth going over carefully.

Step 6: Figure out how you’re going to grade. After a good deal of experimentation, I settled on a plugin called Grader. It allows instructors to post comments that are viewable only to them and the student. Check out Mark Sample’s rubric for evaluating student blogs. Rather than grade each individual post, I prefer to evaluate work in aggregate at certain points during the semester. I also tend to prefer the 0-100 or A-F scale to the alternatives. Providing substantial feedback on blog posts is probably better than the classic √ or √+. You should treat each post as a miniature essay and award extra points for creativity, interactivity, and careful deliberation. If you are serious about digital publishing, it should account for at least 30-50% of the final grade for the course. Although I have not experimented with them yet, there are gradebook plugins that purport to allow students to track their progress throughout the semester.

Step 7: Be clear about your expectations. It can be difficult to strike the correct balance between transparency and simplicity, but I usually prefer to spell out exactly what I want from my students. For a course blog, that probably means posting regular reading responses and commentaries. In addition to response papers, primary documents, and bibliographies, I ask students to post recent news items and events pertaining to the central themes of the course. I encourage them to embed relevant images, films, and documents and to link to both internal and external material. I also require students to properly title, categorize, and tag their posts. Because what good is a blog if you are not making full use of the medium?

Step 8: Publish. Although there are good reasons for keeping course blogs behind an institutional firewall, there are equally good reasons for publishing them to the world. An open blog encourages students to put their best foot forward, teaches them to speak to a broader audience, and leaves a lasting record of their collective efforts. If making your blog publicly accessible, allow your students to post using just their first names or a pseudonym. This will allow them to remain recognizable to class members but relatively anonymous to the rest of the world. It is also a good idea to restrict access to certain pages and posts, such as the course readings and gradebook, to comply with FERPA and Fair Use guidelines.

I always review my course blogs on the first day of class, and I spend a fair amount of time explaining how to navigate the backend and post content. I also find it useful to reinforce these lessons periodically during the semester. It only takes a few minutes to review proper blogging protocol, how to embed images and videos, annotate documents, etc. If possible, project the course site in the background during class discussions and refer back to it frequently. Make it a constant and normal presence. Depending on the class, discussing more advanced digital publishing techniques, such as SEO, CSS, and wikis, can be both challenging and exciting. It is also important to remember that course management systems, like all emerging technologies, are embedded in larger social structures, with all of their attendant histories, politics, and inequalities. So it is worth researching and supporting initiatives, such as Girl Develop It or the Center for Digital Inclusion, that seek to confront and redress these issues.

Please feel free to chime in if you’ve tried something similar with your courses, or if you have any questions, suggestions, or comments about my process.

About Joseph Yannielli

I am a doctoral candidate in History at Yale University. I am the primary web designer and project manager for the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal, and I participated in the conference on the Past's Digital Presence held here a few years ago. I am also a HASTAC Scholar.
This entry was posted in Research and Teaching Tools, Yale Projects and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to WordPress as a Course Management System

  1. Stukadoor says:

    Drupal will eventually get there, maybe just not now.