WordPress Multisite for Class Blogs – Why WordPress?

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TL;DR

  • WordPress MultiSite is not the easiest blog tool for your class, but it offers a lot of advantages:
    • Professional standard web software (for free!)
    • Good opportunity to model with your own blog or site
    • Students have ownership of their own site to use as permanent digital portfolio

 

Any teacher who wants to set up a class blog for them and their students has a multitude of free and easy tools to use. I’ve seen teachers with absolutely minimal tech expertise set up whole class sites in KidBlog, for example, in less than an hour and with minimal coaching. You can find great tutorials on setting up an easy platform to get you and your students rolling immediately. This is not one of those tutorials. Given so many quick and easy options, this is the story of deliberately choosing an awkward and slow one. For my Intro to Digital Media class, I decided to take WordPress’ new Multisite mode out for a spin. Today, the first of a series in how it works for my students and I. First, though, why on Earth did I choose WordPress when there were so many easier options out there?

The Professional Standard

My course is called Introduction to Digital Media. Where in the past, this course was heavily based in traditional “computer lab skills,” I’m steering it to more of a social media direction. Students are learning to use social media as a learning tool through blogs and networking, and are producing content to share with other learners. From the content lens, I think that there’s an argument to be made that WordPress is an important tool in the social media world. It has evolved from a blogging platform to a comprehensive website management platform for many businesses. As of today, Web Technology Surveys has identified WordPress running on “59.6% of all the websites whose content management system we know. This is 20.8% of all websites.” Using ¬†a tool for a Digital Media class that is being used on one out of every five websites in the world immediately gives the curriculum real-world validation and opportunity for students to continue with their own.

On “real-world” skills: 24 hours after I mentioned to the class that we’d be using WordPress, I had a student with his own WordPress blog running outside of class and a list of plugins and themes that he had researched to use for our class blogs.

The Time Tradeoff

Make no mistake: WordPress will take more time both in setup and in-class execution. Students will need more time to get comfortable with using the technology than something like KidBlog, and the demand of management, teaching and setup are all much higher on me than any of the other more common class blogging platforms. I’m comfortable making that tradeoff because this is a course focusing on technology, and teaching time spent on the tool is totally in line with my course design. If this were an English or Math class, I’d think differently about that tradeoff.

This leads to many questions about your technology integration philosophy as a teacher, and they’re important questions any time you want to invest your students’ time in learning a major piece of software:

  • Whose job is it to teach application usage?
  • When is it worth spending time teaching tools/applications rather than “curriculum,” and how much time are you willing to give on this?
  • Where do the skills of the application overlap with skills of the discipline or course?
  • What resources/expertise can you rely on to help students learn the program?

In the “computer lab/technology class” model, the answer to all of those questions is usually: ask the technology teacher to teach it during their tech lab time. Those of us that ascribe to complete technology integration, however, might have to think about these questions differently. An English teacher, for example, might look at writing for online publication as a necessary part of literacy (the National Council of Teachers of English certainly does!) and decide that some class time on setting up an online journal is worth it. A Science teacher may see learning an application as a chance to demonstrate the scientific process over a long period of time and deliberately choose a tool for online lab notebooks that offers more benefit at the expense of a little more setup time.

The Personal Comfort Angle

Perhaps on the flip-side of that argument: I know how to use WordPress and use it quite regularly. Because I know the program, including some of its challenges and opportunities, I can project what students might¬†accomplish with it down the road instead of being stuck with what they can do with it today. I can also use my own blog for demonstration purposes and model the same skills and thinking that I’m asking of them.

The Large-Scale Digital Portfolio

And here’s the kicker for me, and why I chose WordPress over other classroom blogging platforms: I don’t want this to be a class blog for my students. I want them to each have a blog that is their learning portfolio. For right now, it will only host material for my class, and that’s okay with me. But if the students have success with it, and see where it can apply in other scenarios as well, I want them to be able to use it in other courses down the road.

When I put on my mad scientist hat, I envision a school where every student has a blog that is their complete portfolio. It lives for multiple years as students continually revise, add to, and expand it. They tag posts and artifacts with interdisciplinary connections, and use tag clouds to identify themes, strengths or most common types of assessment in their own learning. They reflect on its content. You may say, “Doesn’t a good learning management system do that?”

No, it doesn’t. And it doesn’t for the same reason that I’m not using KidBlog: it’s organized by class. With WordPress Multisite, I create a separate blog (with myself as uber-administrator) for each student totally independent of class, subject or grade. I want a system organized by student, not course. I want my students to take their portfolio to a class next semester and when a teacher asks them to share or demonstrate something, they will do it from their blog (when appropriate and following our blogging guidelines). When students have their Student-Led Conferences, let them share everything from their blog.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

This means that I will individually create a user account and blog for each of my students. It took about a minute per student for my first class, and was a great “stupid movie and bowl of popcorn”-type project for one evening. Again, it’s a question of priorities– I believed strongly enough that this tool was a good fit for this situation that the extra time was worth it. In other scenarios, I might have (and often have) arrived at a different conclusion and chosen a different tool. Again, it’s easy to find “easy class blog sites”– that wasn’t necessarily my goal here.

If you’re interested in learning more about WordPress Multisite for your class or school, including the master network settings and the permissions I used, I’ll dive into that next.

2 comments

  1. Terrific post Jeff! I am particularly interested promoting the concept of blogs as digital portfolios. Ease of use, tagging, chronology, and discussions through comments are the reasons that students at my school give for pursuing this endeavor. Teachers and students appreciate having a voice in an authentic arena. Since we are a GAFE / iPad district, nearly all of our students are using Blogger. What’s really cool is that we have teachers subscribing to student blogs, and then flip them into a Flipboard magazine for easy, attractive, curation and review. Here’s my post with the details: http://goo.gl/4WeN5p I enjoy reading your posts – thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

    • Jeff says:

      Robert– I looked at Blogger (and some at our school are using it). We’re also GAFE, so it would be an easy option as well. I love using Flipboard personally, but I can’t get my mind around it in the class yet. Thanks for sharing your post– I’m hoping to be convinced!

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