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September 3, 2009, 11:00 AM ET

Thinking about WordPress Plugins?

There are more than 6400 WordPress plugins!

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:

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.

Comments

1. Joanna - September 03, 2009 at 12:50 pm

I'm filing this one away for future reading (with Zotero!) because I just set up a WordPress blog for archiving links and resources to share with colleagues, and I'm still getting used to the dashboard after using Blogger for a few years! I love the possibilities, but if there is one thing I've learned, it's to play with it before I try to use it in the classroom.

2. Julie Meloni - September 03, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Yay Zotero! I would also have mentioned the Zotero COinS-related plugin but I thought that was a bit much for this wee post....

I hear you on moving from Blogger. I was a hardcore Blogger user for years (even wrote a book about it) so you know if I'm all about the WP now, it's something special.

3. Derek - September 04, 2009 at 08:58 am

I've just started using a plugin called Semi-Private Comments for my course blog. I wanted a way to have my students respond to questions about the reading before class, but I didn't want the students to see each other's comments. (I'm teaching a math course, so if one student provides the right answer to a question, that takes away most of the fun for the other students.)

The plugin requires my students to create accounts on my course blog, but once they do, I can mark certain posts "semi-private." When I do, each student will only be able to see his or her own comment, not those made by other students. As an admin for the blog, I can see all the comments. Here's an example.

This plugin has worked well for me. It's simple, but effective. And I meant that I didn't need to embed my pre-class reading quizzes in my local course management system--I could keep them on the course blog with everything else for the course.

4. Nels - September 04, 2009 at 10:54 am

Joanna, I'm glad to hear you say that the Dashboard takes a little getting used to. When I first opened it up, I literally gave a quick scream, "Ack!" There was so much going on compared to basic Blogger with it's cute little box. Yes, I, too, need to play before I commit to it as my blogging platform.

5. William Patrick Wend - September 05, 2009 at 01:51 pm

I created a quick weblog for both of my courses (although one isn't up yet because I had some trouble getting the confirmation email from WordPress.com...) to store PDFs of both the class schedule and our syllabus. I also leave the schedule in a blog post, which I strike through as we go through the semester. My main reason for putting up a weblog, for now, is to have somewhere students can easily access our schedule and syllabus. Also, this removes the "I lost our syllabus" excuse.

6. Brian Croxall - September 07, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Thanks for these tips, Julie. I got started with my own WordPress installs for the first time this summer, and I'm appreciating everyone's advice on using the tool.

7. Nels - September 08, 2009 at 11:44 am

Julie, a question just hit me. One of my tweeps has said that updating plug-ins after Wordpress does an upgrade is a full-time job. Is it true that pulg-ins become obsolete or may stop working after an upgrade? Are they not upgraded automatically? I don't do much fancy stuff with my blogs, but if I have to take time to upgrade the plug-ins one by one, that does not sound like fun. What's your take on that?

8. Julie Meloni - September 08, 2009 at 12:09 pm

First, about automatic updates or not -- no, plugin updates are not fully automated because the administrator still needs the ability to say "wait! let me check first" before something is automatically updated. If you have installed a plugin that's in the Plugin Directory, and that plugin has been updated by its maintainers, then when you login to your administrative interface there will be a notification that tells you a plugin is ready for update and that you can check it out, auto-install, or go get it and install it yourself. "Auto install" just means that you're pressing a button that tells the system to go grab the file, download it, and put it in the plugins directory. But you still have to press the button and should do so after reading the release notes to see if anything has changed that will cause it to break something in your WP installation. You would (should) do the same thing if you don't auto-install, and instead go grab the file, unzip it, upload the files via FTP.

I think it's very important to understand the plugin you've chosen before you install it, period. It's kind of like evaluating a source before using it in an essay, if you think about it. By that I mean that if you pick up a book and scan it for some keywords that look like it will support your argument (or provide a good naysayer), and you drop it in your essay without having a clear picture of the context of that quote, it's quite likely that someone who knows the source better than you will read your essay and think "uh, that's not exactly the point of that quote, nice specious argument, buddy" and your essay will break down.

When you pick a plugin without really knowing how it works, or how often it's updated, or how responsive its authors are to bugfixes or changes in WP structures, or when you install a plugin without understanding how it may or may not work with other plugins that are installed, then I could see where one might have issues. Plugin maintainers who are good plugin maintainers -- those whose plugins you would evaluate as better than others -- will be proactive in preparing their plugin for any major changes in WP architecture. When WP does upgrades, they're not out of the blue; if you're part of the development environment then you know what's up, and you have a responsibility to make sure you have a plugin ready to push out when the new version comes out IF something about your plugin has to change.

Since I'm this far into my comment you can tell it's an answer that is full of dependencies. I know that I personally run a tight ship with regards to plugins used for my site and client sites for my company. Sites are constantly updated when WP patches comes out -- takes about 20 minutes to do that across all the sites because I can do them all simultaneously, and then another 15 or 20 minutes to swing through and test that things aren't broken. Same thing with plugin updates -- when I see the notification, I first check that it's not a critical security update. Since it's typically not, I set aside half an hour at some point to update that plugin across all sites (such as an Akismet update or something that all my sites will use). I've never had a plugin break a site, or a WP update break a site (that wasn't my own fault, like a really old template tag sitting in a custom template that I never caught), and I don't really spend a lot of time at it although everything's always updated. But that's just me.

9. Nels - September 08, 2009 at 01:28 pm

Thanks, Julie! I didn't expect you to take all the time for this, but I do appreciate it.

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