Following on Ethan Watrall’s recent post, Finding the Best WordPress Themes for your Academic Needs, my intention was to write a short post about finding the best WordPress plugins for your academic needs. But that’s difficult to do when “academic needs” is a really broad topic, and your level of access to installing plugins may be limited.
For instance, are you working with a blog just for yourself? If so, do you host it on your own domain or at WordPress.com? Or, have you created a blog for your class, and given all your students access to it? Or, are you (and your class) part of a campus-wide blog initiative à la our friends at University of Mary Washington, or are you hooked up with the folks at Edublogs? And then there’s the question of your own comfort with adding files to your server and modifying template files (if you have that access), or even just working with your WordPress administration interface.
Obviously, there is a lot to consider before you even get to the point of searching through the 6440+ plugins in the WordPress Plugins Directory.
A WordPress plugin is a third-party application that extends the core functionality of WordPress. One very important plugin actually comes along with WordPress when you install it yourself—Akismet, a comment and trackback spam catcher. Think of WordPress plugins like Firefox extensions: bits of code you can add to something already really good to make it even better.
But again, even beginning to think about plugins depends on how you’re using WordPress:
- If you have a blog on WordPress.com, you cannot install plugins. That is one of the trade-offs of having a hosted and managed (and free) solution—it’s limited. As they say in the “read me first” post in the WordPress.com forum, “What you can do on WordPress.com is blog for free,” but you don’t control the software.
- If you installed WordPress on your own domain and can access the files via FTP, you’re in luck. You can do whatever you want with plugins.
- If you blog as an individual on a WordPress MU site, you are limited by what the site administrators allow you to do. For instance, using UMW Blogs as an example yet again, the administrators of that custom blogging platform have made available a set of plugins that their users can activate. Check the individual user documentation for your site to determine which plugins are available to you or how to work with plugins at all within your organization’s custom offering.
If you have installed WordPress and can access its files via FTP, you can think about extending your blog with plugins because you have control over the files. Your first stop should be the WordPress Plugins Directory, where you can see popular plugins or search by keyword for plugins of interest.
- When you find something you like, read the plugin documentation as well as any user comments before you begin the download and upload/installation process.
- Depending on the plugin, you may or may not need to modify additional WordPress or template files. If you are unfamiliar with these files or get anxious modifying HTML, CSS, or PHP, you might want to limit your search to plugins that are fully customizable through the WordPress administrative interface—this is where reading all the plugin documentation comes in handy.
- Note that there are plugins that aren’t in the WordPress plugins directory for whatever reason. For instance, I’ve not yet put my own Academic Citations (for posts) plugin into the plugins directory, and it’s been around for three years. This leads to the next point…
- Look around for the add-on features of blogs you like, and ask those bloggers what they use. You might also find that people roll their own plugins, which you can also do if you have the programming knowledge. Or, conversations in comment threads will lead to other people creating or modifying an existing plugin to meet a specific need.
But what can plugins specifically do for you, to make your online experience more productive? Depends on the plugin. Here are just a few examples:
- For integrating your social networking, either to pull content in or push content out, look at plugins like del.icio.us for WordPress, Twitter for WordPress, Wordbook (posting to Facebook), ShareThis, Bookmarkify, and the RSS category for external feed integration.
- Want to change the default comment display or add information to the standard comment form? Look through the comments category in the plugin directory.
- Want to link to related posts, change the blogroll layout or add photos? There are plenty of page-related plugins.
If you want to think about even greater ways to integrate your WordPress blog with your academic life, visit ScholarPress, where you can find plugins like Courseware (“a course management tool to publish your class schedule, assignments, and bibliography”) and WPBook (“which can embed your WordPress blog into Facebook and create an application that students can add”). If you want to get all crazy and use WordPress as a content manager for documents you want to see annotated (either by students or colleagues), jump into the world of the digress.it plugin/platform (formerly the CommentPress theme). A popular recent addition to the digress.it community is W1N5T0N, an annotated version of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Set “pedagogical implications” on “high” for this one.
You can begin to see my problem—the “must-have” plugins for academic blogs are as diverse as the uses of those blogs. More important is understanding what access you have, embracing your own comfort level with modifying code, determining just what it is you want to do, and then evaluating the different plugins that will help you achieve your goal. If you have any questions about the process or are looking for specific opinions on plugins, I am happy to answer those questions either in the comments or privately via e-mail or Twitter DM.