May 20, 2010, 10:00 AM ET
Hacking an Alternative Department Site with WordPress
The department website, standardized across an institution, has become a common feature of the digital landscape of higher education. Although it is possible to create something useful with a great deal of work, passionate advocates, and skilled people, in most cases the static, limited department site, often with a single gatekeeper or two, restricted formatting options, and limited multimedia usage doesn't do a good job of meeting the main goals of a department site.
These sites should, at a minimum, allow faculty of a department to share disciplinary resources, practical announcements, and student/faculty accomplishments with current students. These sites should also increase interaction with the faculty of the department (preferably by doing more than just including email addresses/phone numbers/office hours). Ideally these sites should facilitate communications with alumni and advertise the department to prospective students, the school, and the outside world.
One Potential Solution: WordPress
The Department of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington decided about a year ago to add a WordPress-based blog to complement our official department site. The materials we kept on our official department site are items that rarely change during the course of the school year: faculty areas of expertise; reference materials for our methods class; writing/researching guides; links to basic school resources such as the catalog.
As seems to be the case at many institutions, campus-wide online publishing and content management tools such as Adobe Contribute work well for ensuring institution-wide consistency, top-down control, and largely static pages, but are less easily turned by individual departments toward easy updating, creativity, or student engagement. [An informal survey of colleagues at various institutions suggests that frustration with the limits of third-party tools and some internally developed systems abounds.]
In my department, our static site is now complemented by our departmental blog and announcements site. We acquired our own domain name (umwhistory.org), though it's not necessary to do so; and we've built it on UMW's in-house WordPress blogging platform (UMWblogs.org), though another department might choose to use wordpress.com or your own hosting account (see Julie's post on hosting and domains for a good primer).
WordPress is a good choice for working with faculty, for a number of reasons, including: the ease of use for faculty (or students or staff) regardless of their level of technical expertise/comfort; the ease of adding images and video (useful for departmental events or guest speakers); the ease of linking to online resources; and the remarkable flexibility in terms of templates, plug-ins, and the large developer/support community. The blogging post/page system makes it easy to differentiate between constantly updated announcements and more lasting items (e.g., links to departmental course sites). WordPress widgets offer a number of ways to organize access to content for both the blog and our static web site. WordPress also makes it easy to have multiple authors posting to the site.
In our department, four of the twelve full-time faculty post to the department's blog and announcements site. This means that we don't have a bottleneck of posts waiting for a particular faculty member to get to. It also means that the workload of keeping up with the flood of departmental and speaker announcements, job and internship opportunities, even the process of identifying good resources or exceptional student work to showcase, is spread out among those faculty members interested and willing to contribute.
Another powerful reason to use WordPress is the large number of plug-ins available. Of particular interest for us recently is Find Me Else Where, which enables automatic republishing of content on twelve different social networking sites (though we only use three). So, when one of our department's authors posts something about a UMW student winning a Fulbright Award, it automatically is sent to our department's Twitter feed (@umwhistory), Linked-In account, and Facebook page. [We can debate the merits of wanting to be present on Facebook given their current privacy woes, but many students and alums continue to inhabit the space.]
This plug-in allows the department to reach out to current and former students in a variety of social media channels, but with virtually no extra work on our part.
There are a few issues that you'll need to consider if you want to try this with your department's site:
- First, be aware of institutional regulations about information content, format, and site location. Public Relations offices may see any site outside the school's domain as confusing the school's marketing campaign or image branding; IT may have rules against purchasing outside domain names or hosting solutions; most schools want every department to have an official site that clearly looks like the rest of the site. Better to know these rules before you are forced to take a site down.
- Second, web publishing and site management tools are constantly changing, so it's likely that the people responsible for managing your school's online presence are considering new options right now. If you ask, you might even be able to be an effective part of that conversation.
- Third, make sure you have a conversation among all the authors about the goal of the site and the kinds of posts that engage students and benefit the department.
- Finally, be sure that you're willing to publish new content on a regular basis. The dates on blog posts make it quickly clear to a site visitor how often such additions occur. Similarly, most social media network feeds are a constant stream and without regular contributions, departmental posts might not even be seen by the people you are trying to reach.
Despite these cautions, I'd recommend exploring WordPress as an option to the standard department website. Though it's too early to tell for sure how well this new multi-channel publishing system works in conveying information to students and alums (especially in comparison to more traditional avenues such as snail mail or email), so far anecdotal feedback has been positive and limited analysis of site views over the last few months indicates increasing student visits to the WordPress site.
What has your department done to liven up its online presence? How have faculty members at your institution reached out to current, former, and prospective students online? If there are barriers at your institution to this kind of innovation, what are they? What platforms, plug-ins, social networks have you found to be the most effective?