By Jessica Murray, The Graduate Center CUNY
The relentless forward march of technology can be overwhelming at times, for students and teachers alike. It doesn't help that some public universities can fall behind in keeping up with the latest technology because of limited financial resources, or choose proprietary tools which become familiar, only to replace them with cheaper options later on. The Futures Initiative started out a few years ago with a mission to reshape higher education. One of their key aims was to use network and communications tools to build community and foster greater access to technology. At the time, the CUNY Academic Commons (built in WordPress) was available only for graduate students, so the Futures Initiative created a new WordPress multisite, or network of sites, that was open for graduate students to develop course sites that they could use with their undergraduate students. As part of my role as a fellow for the Futures Initiative, I maintain this website and I teach people how to create their own site on our network. Many schools now host platforms like ours and the CUNY Academic Commons. If your school doesn't offer a place for you to create your own website, you can also create one on WordPress.org. This post offers a brief introduction to WordPress, but more importantly, encouragement, or what I'm calling my "pep-talking points." Hopefully by the time you finish reading, I will have convinced you to create your own course website on WordPress.
WordPress is a free and open source content management system that has grown from being a small blogging platform in 2003 to being the most commonly used website creation platform in the world, accounting for more than 25% of all the websites on the entire internet. For those unfamiliar with the lingo, open source means that the core software, over 50,000 plugins that extend the core functionality, and thousands of themes which control the look and feel of WordPress sites, are developed by a community of programmers around the world. Content management system describes the very act of putting a website together (managing and displaying different types of content), and more importantly, is a tool designed so people without coding experience can create and edit the content of their site with a web browser. Before WordPress and other content management systems, we had to create static web pages in HTML, including placing text, images, and hyperlinks into the appropriate spots, styling the pages with CSS, uploading all of the files via FTP, and testing to see how it displayed on different browsers. Back then, if your web designer went on vacation, you may have had to wait for their return so they could fix a typo, but today, you can login to your site, fix the error and publish the changes in a few minutes without special software. This may be appreciated more by people who remember the old way of doing things (myself included), but it also demonstrates pep-talking point number one: technology is getting easier, not harder. Once you get started, you'll see how easy it really is.
The Futures Initiative now hosts more than 50 course websites, some of which have more than 30 users, which illustrates pep-talking point number two: if hundreds of people at CUNY can create dozens of course websites in only a few years time, you can, too! Here at CUNY, some teachers have chosen to use WordPress instead of Blackboard because it can do all of the same things. One major benefit is that teachers have control over how they can use the site once their class is finished. Sharing documents securely, having a place for your syllabus, and creating discussion forums are some of the functions that can be replicated on WordPress. There are also some things that WordPress can do that Blackboard can't – a major one being, the opportunity for your students to write public posts. This is directly related to pep-talking point number three: creating content with WordPress is empowering! I have witnessed the undeniable look of satisfaction on the faces of many a workshop participant when they figure out how to add a header image to a page, publish their first test post, and see their changes happen in real-time. Once that happens, they're hooked. Making a website doesn't have to be daunting, and it won't be once you start creating your content. And, while you're doing it (pep-talking point number four): you and your students are learning valuable, marketable skills that will not only be a great addition to your CV, but also give you the tools to create your own online identity that won't cost you a dime. If I still haven't convinced you, and you don't know where to start, let me give you pep-talking point number five: start anywhere! WordPress has a pretty limited number of menu options. The key is to realize that you won't break anything that you can't fix, and the very best way to learn any software is to try things and see what happens. If you get stuck, Google your question and you'll find countless resources from a massive online community. There is a lot you can do with WordPress, but the most important thing is to publish that first post, bask in the glow of satisfaction that can only come from creating your own little sliver of the internet, and plan to inspire that confidence in your students by creating a shared course website in WordPress.