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May 20, 2010, 10:00 AM ET

Hacking an Alternative Department Site with WordPress

Department Web SiteThe 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

As you may have noticed, we here at ProfHacker like WordPress. No really; we really, really like WordPress.

UMW Dept of History and American Studies

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.

Find us Elsewhere

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.

Cautions

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?

 

Comments

1. cnast - May 20, 2010 at 11:15 am

Sounds great. How often are updates published? It's frustrating when lots of effort goes into creating the blog/twitter account/etc but then no one updates after the first few weeks.

Also curious: did you make any effort to match the theming between WP and your official department site?

2. jmcclurken - May 20, 2010 at 01:33 pm

cnast,
We don't have any regular update schedule, though it tends to be about once every couple weeks during the school year.

And no, we didn't try to match the theme to the official site, though we certainly could have.

3. jmcclurken - May 20, 2010 at 01:41 pm

I should also mention the core of the site was built by my colleague Sue Fernsbener (with assistance from the great people at UMW's Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies). My other two co-authors on the blog are the Director of American Studies, Krystyn Moon, and one of the department's Career Advisers, Steven Harris.

4. ericstyrer2 - May 20, 2010 at 06:57 pm

this article should have a big caution label on it. WordPress as an option for a Dept website? are you kidding? have you heard of cross-site scripting, SQL injection, spoofing etc? what about Accessibility requirements? Validation?

I know marketing, public relations folks are a bit idiotic.. but maybe you should spend some time with your CIO getting a CMS that can be deployed institutionally and has the tools to work collaboratively. Let IT handle IT and you handle the content.. after all you're the subject area expert.

5. francesg - May 20, 2010 at 07:48 pm

ericsturer2, there are all kinds of protective measures in wordpress that can be taken against hackers, etc, and most wordpress themes are both valid and accessible. Many universities, including my own large research university, do not in fact have IT units capable of providing a workable CMS, believe it or not, so letting IT handle IT is not an option for many of us. (Plus, an increasing number of faculty members are in fact IT experts.) I agree that a university ought to provide up-to-date flexible IT services that meet a range of needs, but the fact is that many don't, and in many cases the beaurocracy is such that "spending time with your CIO" to make such changes is an impossibility.

6. billso - May 20, 2010 at 08:43 pm

Nice article! I use WordPress for my own web sites, and I've used it to post content for my courses. If your university's administrators and IT department will allow it, WP really is a good alternative to enterprise CMS (content management systems).

7. billso - May 20, 2010 at 08:53 pm

ericstyrer2, I agree with francesg's answer. There are a number of services and plugins that can harden a WordPress installation, as well as managing comment spam.

I do agree with Eric, that maintaining a secure WP install may be a challenge for the average faculty member. Best practices for WP security include staying on top of security patches and updates, and proper configuration of the server, which is almost always running Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (LAMP). In my experience, most faculty use Windows on the desktop, and have little experience with Linux or server administration.

Outsourcing your WordPress hosting to a willing and capable university IT department or a high quality web hosting company is usually better than hosting WP on one's own server.

The next version of WordPress (3.0) will support multiple blogs and users on a single installation. This feature set was available in WPMU, but WP plugins and services needed tweaking to work with WPMU. The addition of true multiuser features to the core WordPress software may make WP 3.0 more attractive to university IT managers.

8. ericstyrer2 - May 20, 2010 at 11:58 pm

yes there are many types of protective measures a sysadmin can take.. the best one being disconnecting your system from the net.. but then what good would it be? You better be worth your salt when someone hoses or defaces your site because you rely on the same plugin that joe, bob, and bill are using and its all based on the same code. There are some plugins that can be used to enable better security, however how much do you trust the codebase of the plugin dev? WP's main codebase still has major/outstanding bugs waiting to be fixed (presumably in 3.0, though getting smaller). PHP its self is no pretty picture either.

http://secunia.com/advisories/search/?search=wordpress

WP is not enterprise grade.. WPMU is a whole other monster, with 8 tables per blog. I've got 970+ blogs in our eportfolio box eating nearly 80% of a 8 quad-core Xeon box with 32gb of RAM when everyone is on it.. Its fine for small and medium scale stuff.. but its a mess on a large scale. Wordpress.com is finding out that this monster they created is becoming to big to handle with MySQL and MemcachedDB.. Trying Cassandra and 'No-Sql' keystores... At some point there will be a revision or discussion on where to take WP and those storage technologies. Are you ready for that?

>>(Plus, an increasing number of faculty members are in fact IT experts.)

Its been my experience that faculty 'think' they're IT experts as much as I think I'm an 'expert' in Medical Anthropology or Forensic Accounting. No, Faculty may be keen on using, teaching, adopting technology, but just because you read this article in the Chronicle about WP and come to me wanting to suddenly run a blogging platform for your Dept site doesn't mean your an expert. Again, its analogous to picking the right research method for any given project that you'd be doing right?

I guess my point (and maybe yours too) is that IT in Academia is a mixed bag.. and hopefully this will change as some of the old cruddy-duddies die off. The us/them mentality of Academic vs. administrative computing needs/wants needs to be broken down. Equipping faculty/staff and students with say a good CMS like Plone (what my institution implemented across our whole institution) or Drupal (I'll stay away from the commercial vendors for now) will give everyone the same damn toolkit to collaborate. Secondly, transitioning this handshake approach that Administration takes to matters such as blogging, writing, contributing, maintaining, the web presences to a real honestly funded and regarded endeavor will ensure that content creation will become organic.. and not the dreaded what happened in the English dept.. nothing's changed on their site in 200 years.



9. george_h_williams - May 21, 2010 at 05:49 am

@ericstyrer2: Clearly security and reliability are important issues when choosing a CMS. And just as clearly, a department should consult not only with the campus public relations (or communications) office, but also with the IT staff before adopting a CMS and changing the look and functions of their web site. Your point is well taken.

Now, let's try to get the conversation back to Jeff's original questions:

"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?"

10. george_h_williams - May 21, 2010 at 05:59 am

We created a Facebook page a couple of years ago, and we use it to make announcements. Generally speaking, it works pretty well, though not all of our majors and minors are on Facebook. And of those who are, not all are our "fans" (to use Facebook's term), meaning they don't get the announcements via status update.

11. ted_major - May 21, 2010 at 07:47 am

Just one data point re: security and whether WP is "enterprise grade": the University of Alabama website is done in Wordpress.

12. patrickmj - May 21, 2010 at 08:46 am

I think the concerns ericstyrer2 raises point to a larger issue, one that is sure to lurk behind many of the articles that appear on ProfHacker: a shift in policy-making in response to cheap, online hosting and open source web-publishing.

Here's what I mean. Once upon a time, it was SOOO cool that university IT would give me a space to put up an HTML page. Remember those URLs that looked like school.edu/people/~pg2283 ? (Ahh...those were the days!). Ask them about having PHP available for those web pages, and you might have gotten a response like "Whoah, nelly. These are university machines containing sensitive research and information. No WAY you get to do anything by straight HTML. And make sure you use IE 5.

That's fair enough--I see the CIO prioritizing the security of the university system.

But, cheap hosting opens up lots of freedoms and opportunities for departments and individuals. And I'm not sure IT policy-making has addressed that reality. It's fair, at this point, for people to say, "Maybe this app isn't as secure and stable as what IT would like me to use, but what IT would like me to use doesn't do the job, so I'm going to make security lower on the priority list than usability."

Here's an analogy. When I go to buy a car, I look at the safety rating of a car. But I also look at whether the car does what I need it to do, its style, how comfy it is, etc. And I balance those needs. I'd hate for the CIO (or, in the analogy, I guess that would be my Mom), to make me get the safest over the one that overall meets my needs. When my parents were buying me a first car, they could do that because they were buying. But now, I have the freedom and responsibility to make those choices myself.

Back to the issue, while the only way to put up a web page was via the CIO, the CIO could say the security is the priority. With cheap hosting people have the freedom and responsibility to make those choices.

Should folks consult with IT experts about security? Absolutely. But they should also prioritize that as they see fit. So if they should talk to the CIO, then I think that the Provost should also be at that meeting. Because I do see it as a mattter of academic freedom, too. And the meeting of CIO and Provost, I think, symbolizes the rethinking of policy-making in the IT/Academic world that needs to happen more.

Patrick Murray-John

13. shawnj55 - May 21, 2010 at 10:41 am

I feel like it might be worthwhile to add my $.02 here. We've been running a WordPress pilot at Duke for the the past two semesters (and by 'we' I mean me and a colleague, both instructional technologists, plus a team in Duke's central IT organization). http://blogs-dev.oit.duke.edu

I'm actually crunching some numbers assessing our WP pilot today - but I can say that I do see WordPress as having a place in the university setting, and one that's not mutually exclusive of formal IT units. Here at Duke, we have the main website running in Drupal, several department websites running in Apostrophe (a light CMS more or less developed for Duke), and some sites using Cascade. In addition to those, we've had a handful of custom sites for departments, centers and special projects developed either by hand (CSS+HTML) or in WordPress more recently.

Our use cases for the WordPress pilot mostly focus on faculty creating small sites for courses, and students creating small sites for their research, class projects, or portfolios. With that said, having WordPress available has also uncovered a growing contingent of people (faculty, staff, departments, centers) that have apparently always needed access to some form of quick web-publishing platform, but due to technical inability, lack of support staff, or lack of funding - couldn't make it happen, and basically gave up.

What we're starting to see now is a hybrid approach to web services and development for the University. New CMSs (Drupal, etc) still might be a bit too technical for the average user to be able to rework the design of - but they can surely learn how to update and post new content without breaking out a CSS or HTML book. So - central IT groups can still set up something secure and strong, assist with the design and info architecture, then provide content developers with an easy, clear way to update and add content (and let's be fair here - 80% of the people putting content on department websites are going to be administrative assistants who don't want to mess with web design, but just want to keep things up-to-date). For everyone else - every other use that might not have huge amounts of traffic or high security needs - there's WordPress.

One thing that makes WordPress unique is that it provides end users with a way to nearly instantly redesign a website. It also provides them with (depending on the setup) control over their site's plugins and widgets: customization. WordPress's customizability and flexibility, plus its speed make it quite desirable. A faculty member, without any previous web experience, can get a clean, working website up and running in 1-2 hours BY THEMSELVES vs. 3-4 months if they wait for the already overworked, understaffed university web designers to do it for them.

Now - we, the technology people, can say all they want about faculty, staff and students not really 'understanding technology' - and granted, there are many, many things about modern web services and technology that DO require professionals....but, I would argue that web publishing IS NOT one of those things. EVERYONE should be able to publish to the web - and the technology should be the last thing that gets in their way. My goals, as an instructional technologist, are to provide faculty and students with access to tools that allow them publish to the web and engage with the wider world in a sustained dialogue focused on their research areas. (For what it's worth - I also see WordPress as being much more university friendly than creating department Facebook pages - both provide social web connections - but one definitely gives you more control over your design and ahem...privacy and content).


14. derekbruff - May 21, 2010 at 10:09 pm

We started a WordPress blog for our center this spring in conjunction with a new monthly email newsletter. Some blog posts show up late as newsletter articles, and all newsletter articles make their way to the blog. We've set up blog-to-Facebook and blog-to-Twitter mechanisms similar to the ones described above so that everytime we have a new blog post, it shows up in on our Facebook page and in our Twitter feed shortly thereafter.

That gives folks four different ways to follow us--blog, email, Facebook, and Twitter. Since we have links to the blog from main website, too, I guess that's five mechanisms.

During the semester, we managed to post something to the blog five days a week most weeks. We have a lot of workshop we run, so publicizing those workshops and sharing resources from them afterward helped keep the content flowing. However, we've been slowing figuring out other kinds of posts, too.

One benefit of trying to maintain a steady stream of posting is that we've started thinking creatively about how we communicate our work and our mission to the campus. By asking ourselves, Can we blog about that?, about our various activities, it's helped us think about how our work can live on after it's "over."

One challenge of running the blog has been helping the whole staff understand its functions (not the technical aspects, but the more conceptual functions) and figure out how to make blogging part of their work. The newsletter has helped here, since we've set up a good process for generating contributions from the whole team each month for the newsletter. A wrinkle here is that the newsletter pieces tend to be highly polished, whereas blog posts can be a little quick-and-dirty. I've been blogging for a while now, so that less edited form of writing comes more easily for me than for some of my colleagues.

The five-day-a-week posting schedule wasn't possible once the semester ended and our workshops were over! We're hoping for a MWF schedule for the summer. Another change is that we're starting to recruit guest posts from faculty and grad students with whom we work. Such posts will help us in our mission to support the teaching community on our campus--and take the pressure off us to write posts so often!

15. roberthilllong - May 24, 2010 at 02:54 pm

At the University of Oregon, an interdisciplinary group of faculty, librarians and administrators has been using WP since July 2009:

http://uodigschol.wordpress.com

Our mission is simple: "information exchange for University of Oregon faculty and graduate researchers interested in scholarly applications of digital tools and media in the humanities and associated disciplines."

When in May 2009, we held a roundtable discussion on the place and future of "digital humanities" research at UO, we had to rethink that label on the spot--interested/active scholars showed up from UO's schools of journalism, music, and arts, as well as from computer sciences, IT, and several of the libraries. 'Digital humanities,' then, was just a stone tossed in the pond, but the ripples came back from all over the university.

At that point, WP's flexibility, portability and ease for multiple author/contributors looked like the best solution to build the interdisciplinary community--and it's serving us well almost a year later. I don't know whether we'll stick with it for the long haul--Drupal is being used more and more widely by UO departments and centers, and ultimately UO Digital Scholars may get more central-administrative support by migrating into a Drupal environment. But (shifting metaphors here), WP has been a great chrysalis for UODS--whether or its butterfly emerges to migrate to Drupal-land.

At a relatively small R1 university like UO, senior administrators like to deploy the euphemism "nimble" to encourage efforts to do a lot with a little. Okay, so Phil Knight is not (yet) funding an interdisciplinary research commons here, but while we're dreaming and conniving about that possibility, WP has allowed UO Digital Scholars to do a lot of interdisciplinary communication, community-building and outreach in a short time and on an investment so small it's as good as free.

16. niolonra - May 24, 2010 at 07:37 pm

I created a website for internal use for our Department a few years ago in the course management system we used then (Angel). It was a clunky to be sure, but it was the best I could do with the software we had... and I did this without any help from IT. When it crashed, impressively I might add, I recovered it manually and rebuilt a functional site for the short run... and I did this without any help from IT.

Shortly after this happened, we moved to new software (iModules) for the school website (thechicagoschool.edu), and I created a new site (http://ego.thechicagoschool.edu/s/843/index.aspx?sid=843&gid=41&pgid=61&cid=160)... and I did this without any help from IT.

We needed an online system to track student issues, and after creating a pretty slick customized wiki on our servers (based on that of tiddlywiki.com) that IT could not give reliable read-and-write access to for just three faculty, I created a page in BackPack (http://backpackit.com/) and gave faculty access to it. It allowed us to track student progress with checklists of requirements, with discussion boards for each requirement -automatically- created with a single click, with lists of your advisees' pages that had been updated since you last logged in -automatically- displayed, and with an email link to your advisee's page -automatically- created so you could forward updates to the page without having to log in. It was a thing of beauty to use, and really didn't require much in the way of skill in programming on my part... and I did this without any help from IT.

I hope you see the theme emerging....

I completely understand the points about security and "experts" who are not. I also understand the implied statement that there is no "set it and forget it" solution, and even these kinds of "easy" solutions still require a great deal of work from a number of people. I realize that adding a "less secure" solution to a "very secure" system does not average to "secure enough" but instead brings it all down to "less secure."

The problem, for many of us, is that we have demanding jobs to do and need technology tools to do them effectively. Our options are
1) Struggle to get help from IT that may not arrive at all despite promises to the contrary, may arrive but very very late, or may arrive on time but don't actually do what we need done... Or
2) Make something on our own, based on new tools available and our technology training from Hard Knocks University...

We juggle security, ease of use, effectiveness, and timeliness... and decide what to do. These kinds of new tools do offer some really amazing options we never had before. Often, our training from HKU is "good enough" to implement them in a timely and effective way. Given the workload we often face (faculty and lower level administration), the temptation to make our work lives easier often wins out over everything else, and I will be so bold as to say this is rightfully so in many cases.

Just my $2 (two cents adjusted for inflation)

17. george_h_williams - May 28, 2010 at 07:58 am

@shawnj55: Just to clarify... my department uses Facebook for the purposes I described above not because we've made a decision that doing so is superior to using a tool like WordPress; rather, we use Facebook because what we're given (by our IT department) the ability to do on our web site is rather limited.

If I had time and authority to help move us to something more dynamic than what we currently have, I would. Alas, that is not (yet) the case.

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