As the last day of class approaches for the world’s first WordPress College Course at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, and the next one begins in a couple weeks (filling fast), I’d like to share some lessons my students taught me about WordPress – and teaching.
They taught me humility and pride. I stand truly humbled in front of them, dazzled at their brilliance in word, design, and code. I’m proud because in spite of me as a novice Adjunct Professor, they succeeded. Dazzlingly so. I will miss each one and the way they creatively attacked WordPress and made it theirs. Luckily, I will continue working with them as they now serve as the new leaders in WordPress education to help get WordPress into the core curriculum in Washington State and around the country and further.
I also learned a lot about WordPress, and teaching and training WordPress. After 18 years teaching and training content strategies, user experience, web design and development, and 8 years of WordPress, I thought I had it all figured out. The students and general public attending the WordPress class at Clark College challenged me with new ways of thinking about WordPress and web publishing.
The students came from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. Some were on their last few months of school, ready to complete their two or three year degrees in web design, development, and programming. A few of these will make WordPress their design and development choice, counting upon WordPress for their future income. Some were business professionals eager to get more WordPress knowledge and experience and WordPress as a college course on their resume. Others were writers, authors, and editors eager to learn more about how to use WordPress in their jobs. Some had advanced technical code experience and some could barely use a web browser. It was all over the map and truly representative of WordPress users around the world.
In other words, a great ecosystem of WordPress users to teach me more about how WordPress works or should work.
If You Want WordPress Checked for Bugs, Unleash College Students Upon It
I’ve a long laundry list of WordPress, WordPress.com, and WordPress Theme bugs and issues to lay on the development team. The students pushed and pulled WordPress, especially WordPress.com, in every direction.
Some of students stumbled upon issues out of naivete. No one told them they couldn’t do X, Y, or Z, so they did. When it didn’t work, they kept trying to come up with new ways to make it work.
One student with extensive HTML and PHP training wanted to create a calendar on a Page for his final team project. The links within the calendar had to link to the posts announcing the events. He searched everywhere for an event calendar Widget on WordPress.com. All he found was the ability to embed a Google Calendar, which didn’t suite his purposes. So he created an HTML table calendar with inline styles to force WordPress.com to his will. Frustrated when WordPress.com’s stripping of mistakes in his inline CSS styles code, he asked me why WordPress would strip out his code when he saved the post.
“It is part of the responsibility of WordPress to protect you from yourself. If you have malformed code in the content, it will either fix it or strip it out for you.”
“Ah, so it’s trying to out think me! Well, I’ll fix that!” Off he went, nose to the computer screen and fingers flying on the keyboard.
It’s that quality that makes these students perfect bug chasers. They are determined to out think WordPress.
Too Few of Us Really Know How to Blog
A few of the students were business professionals, experienced with their own websites and blogs as well as social media. There was even an SEO marketing expert in the group. Yet, when it came to writing web content, it’s amazing how little they knew about how a blog post works and how to properly structure one. The first few weeks of the course were spent bringing everyone up to speed on all the things that can go into a post.
Many didn’t know how to write in HTML, which is fine, but simple things like writing in caps, mixing and matching bold and italic, not understanding how headings work for content structure and organization, how to make lists, and not knowing how to create a proper link – it was startling.
Few realized that images could be set to float to the left, right, or center in a post with the words wrapping around. They didn’t realize they could embed into a post all types of videos, not just YouTube, as well as calendars, maps, audio, contact forms, documents, etc. Once they learned they could do more than just dump content in and hope it was readable, it was a delight to watch their creativity explode.
It’s critical that people working on the web learn how to write for the web. There is a different technique for writing for Twitter than there is for Facebook or Google+ as well as for your website. Understanding post formats, standards, and structure became a big part of class as the students learned to express themselves clearly in the virtual world of WordPress.
What Can You Really Do with a WordPress.com Blog?
When I wrote What Can You Do With WordPress.com in 2005, it was an attempt to let long-time WordPress publishers know that WordPress.com was about content – all about publishing not tweaking code. It was actually refreshing blogging on WordPress.com as I didn’t have to worry about all the bits under the hood for a change and could concentrate on what I love best: writing. In 2007, WordPress.com was robust enough it was time to really push it around and I created the WordPress.com Blog Bling article series showing what you could do with creative design within the post content area. These Clark College students showed me even more could be done with WordPress.com.
For his class blog, Reuben Rova decided to see what he could do graphically with the Twenty-Eleven WordPress Theme, the same one I used for my teaching site, Learning from Lorelle. Using the customizable header and background image and choosing between the light or dark versions, it’s hard to tell we have the same Theme, proving once again the power in a flexible and adaptable Theme.
Here are some of the “did you know WordPress.com could do this” features we put to the test.
- Did you know you could create a powerful customized contact form on WordPress.com?
- Did you know you could manage and view contact form emails with the feedback management feature in WordPress.com?
- Did you know you could write on a blank slate with Distraction Free Writing on a WordPress post or Page?
- Did you know could get help with blog post ideas and creative thinking with Plinky: A Tool for Writer’s Block, a feature of WordPress.com?
- Did you know how easy it is to turn your WordPress.com blog into a book format using the static front page feature and the Archives Shortcode?
- Did you know that WordPress.com Writing Helpers include the Request Feedback feature which allows you to email a link to preview your unpublished post and get feedback and comments before you publish it?
- Did you know that WordPress.com helps you save a few keystrokes with the Copy A Post feature which allows you to create a post template for redundant content styles and information?
- Did you know you could write and publish a post Email or by Voice for up to an hour’s worth of babble?
- Did you know you could customize the Twenty-Eleven WordPress Theme on WordPress.com to showcase featured post custom headers, a slider, and a totally customized static front page?
- Did you know that when you publish a post, WordPress.com’s Publicize feature will automatically push a notification to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks for you?
Helping the students learn all the different things you could do in WordPress.com gave them a taste of all the different things you can do in the self-hosted version of WordPress. After all, the features on WordPress.com are WordPress Plugins, too.
Not All WordPress Themes are Designed Equally
When you register for a WordPress.com blog, a WordPress Theme is generated automatically and randomly for you. You can stick with it or change it. I made the mistake of letting the students stay with the one they had for the first few lessons, focusing on WordPress basics before letting them play with switching Themes. I won’t do that in future classes.
Not all WordPress Themes, even on WordPress.com, are designed equally. Some are just the way they are, nothing customizable. Some are highly customizable.
Some feature Post Formats, some don’t, and others only offer two post formats from among nine possibilities, which caused a lot of problems when it came to working on Post Formats in class. Students had to switch Themes before they could complete the assignment, leaving many confused and frustrated to give up the Theme they had become accustomed to just to get the homework done.
When it came time to test drive WordPress Themes, this caused even more problems. After playing around with a variety of WordPress Themes, most switched back to the randomly generated Theme they’d been handed. Why? It was familiar. They had learned to live with its features and limitations. They were comfortable with it. While this is nice, it is also dangerous as falling in love with a design means it takes longer for you to realize it isn’t working for you or your audience. It’s harder to break away and try something different or make changes.
While WordPress is improving the ability to switch Themes and maintain WordPress Widgets, some WordPress Themes on WordPress.com do not support Widgets – a painful discovery for the students. Widgets may change or disappear when you switch Themes, and if you go back, you may have to realign and setup all your sidebar Widgets again. This caused no end of frustration for many students and wasted valuable class time helping them fix things.
With the confusion over all the various features and abilities of the WordPress Themes, I will have all the students begin on the same Theme, a Theme with the features we need to cover in the first few weeks of class. They can learn to customize the Theme to make it different from other students’ sites while still learning the basics. When it comes time to test drive new WordPress Themes, they will have a better understanding of the features they want and need in a Theme. Even if they return to the first one, they’ve learned they have customization options.
I Learned What’s Missing in WordPress Documentation
A a long-time editor and contributor to the WordPress Codex, the online manual for WordPress Users, and creator of the WordPress Lessons section guiding new users through the very basics of WordPress and web publishing, I now have a list of over 50 articles that are needed to flesh out that section and others while not conflicting with the amazing work the Learn WordPress team is doing, much of which is based upon WordPress Lessons.
I’ve started working with some of my fellow WordPress Documentation Team members to tackle some of those how to articles that have somehow been ignored or dismissed but are necessary for the WordPress Codex. Understanding how to create links in WordPress, from within the post comments to Links Manager and beyond. Using Gravatars and how they work in WordPress for beginners to advanced users. How to structure a blog post in WordPress. How to change the post or Page slug. More information on all the buttons in the Visual Editor toolbar. How to create a feed subscription Page in WordPress featuring post, category, author, and tag feeds. The list is long and my head is swimming with all the things we’ve been missing.
The WordPress Codex is a living document for using WordPress. It’s critical that when users learn something that isn’t covered by the Codex, or find a gap in it, that they let the Documentation Team know or pitch in and help us flesh it out. Millions of people around the world rely upon the Codex and Learn WordPress to help them learn how it all works.
I’ll be talking to my local WordPress Meetup group about having a couple Codex events so our members can all work together as a team. If you are a member of a WordPress Meetup group, consider adding a Codex topic or event to your calendar so your members can contribute.
I know many are dimissive of the Codex for a variety of reasons, but it has stood the test of time and continues to help people dive deeper into WordPress. Teaching this class has reminded me not just of its value but of its power to educate from the most simplistic of WordPress tasks to the most complicated piece of code. The flexibility of the Codex to handle a wide variety of tips and techniques makes its life viable even as other resources become available. We can always put into the Codex the pieces of the WordPress puzzle that don’t fit elsewhere, helping people learn how to push WordPress beyond itself.
Give Them Real World Problems to Solve
The students were required to create a WordPress.com site for the duration of the class. They were to publish content weekly per homework assignments, but I also encouraged them to let their voice be heard. Share stories of their work, lives, interests, photographs, video, whatever. You would think that this would be enough, but it wasn’t. They didn’t know what to do with it.
Many came to the class with a self-agenda, learn how to manage a WordPress site, build an online business, create an online portfolio, fix what they already had – when faced with the blank post screen, they couldn’t figure out what to say or share. Without real-world challenges, some treated their personal class sites as homework holders, not pushing the platform further. Once they were given challenges found in the real-world of web design and development with WordPress, eyes lit up and so did creative spirits.
I knew this from my trainer experience, but I was surprised at how locked up the students became after the first couple weeks. Full-time students had the crush of other classes as those geared up, and life and work gets in the way for everyone. They needed motivation, so I turned boring assignments into specific directed assignments with real-world application.
The real magic happened when the final class projects were announced.
The class was divided into six randomly generated teams. Each team was given four weeks to create a WordPress.com test site for a different business. I created six hypothetical businesses with very different online needs and challenges, including a pet grooming business, local photography club, virtual assistant, and in-home computer trainer. I’ll go into the details of their projects later, however the lessons I learned from these projects were amazing and worth sharing.
The students were given a single sheet of instructions and guidelines for the projects, and a sheet summarizing the company and listing 5-10 things to do and calls to action. They had to create a Statement of Work describing the project and the tasks and how they were going to go about it. They had to research the industry and marketplace for that company and report on the demographics and marketing strategies that needed to be considered and integrated into the site. They needed to create site policies but also business legal policies that appear on such sites. They created the site, then presented the Statement of Work and their site in a 15 minute presentation during finals week. Their fellow students judged their presentation, lending their voice to the grading decisions I have to make.
In a word, “Wow!” The presentations were amazing. The problems they had to solve were solved beautifully. The look and feel of the sites reflected the needs of the business, and many of them went overboard.
The pet grooming company had to deal with more than dogs and cats but the top ten domesticated pets people have like reptiles, rabbits, and birds. The company offered in-store and in-home pet grooming and care along with a wide variety of services tied to all the different animals. This could have potentially been a cluttered and crazy website but they processed all the information and thought it through, creating an easy to understand and navigate experience.
The virtual assistant’s site focused upon her international clientele and travel agent experience, translating some of the content into the various languages she spoke to prove her translation abilities to potential clients.
An Asian tea supply shop featured a book by the author on tea and the art of tea making and weekly specials, news, and events within the store. The owner wasn’t ready to sell her teas online but the students decided that she needed to have a “tea menu” to help customers make their tea decisions before they even walked in the door. The also needed an event calendar tied to announcements about classes in tea and tea making.
A local non-profit photography club’s membership was growing old and they needed to get new members and promote their long-running annual events including photographing school children for their annual portraits to raise money for local food banks, and a weekend “Photograph Your Pet in the Park” fundraiser sponsored by the local pet grooming company. They made event promotions to promote the events and shared them with their fellow students and threw themselves into digital photography topics and articles to bring some modern tech into the photography club.
A cosmetologist specializing in skin care wanted to use a blog to write her book as well as promote her business. The students promoted her book and offered sample chapters and news about her book on the test site and fully researched a wide variety of top of the line skin care products and services to flesh out the site.
The in-home computer training instructor’s site needed to promote the instructor’s services and offer a map showing his coverage area. It also needed to offer tips and techniques on the various computer training programs he offered and his weekend training programs and refresher courses for small groups. The student team created a great list of tips and tricks and list of services along with a beautiful list of social media sites he broadcasts on, giving clients and students a chance to easily following him.
I learned that these real-life challenges were good for the students at every level. They could use all their design, content, and marketing strategies to meet the needs of the hypothetical client, no matter their level of expertise.
Not all of the groups worked well together. During the discussion after the last presentation, one group admitted they had personality problems, just as they would in reality, and they figured a way to work together to meet the deadline. Others had team members who were sick or had personal issues and couldn’t make all of their meetings, thus making other team members feel like they had to carry more of the load – again, just like reality. They argued, stood their ground, compromised, and gave in, all to meet the final deadline and make their sites the best they could for the class and their hypothetical clients.
What was amazing was how personally invested the students got in their projects. Without a client to provide them with more information and feedback, they had to do their own research and make decisions. The tea house team were stunned to learn that all non-herbal teas come from a single plant. It’s how you handle the leaves that makes the various teas. The virtual assistant team discovered that there are laws in other countries for the translation of legal documents, so they did their best to make their pretend VA prove worthy of certification as an interpreter as well as a Virtual Assistant.
They learned tons and I learned every more as I got out of their way. When a team came to me complaining of a fellow team member, I told them to figure it out for themselves. When they had a question that needed the client to answer, I answered but kept it vague hoping they would figure out the answer, and they did. I didn’t chase them down to meet with their team members. I didn’t interfere. I just let them go and they exceeded expectations.
What Did I Really Learn About WordPress?
I relearned something I already knew about WordPress. WordPress is a web publishing platform. That’s it. Honestly. It is no more than that. It’s a collection of code and graphics that generates web pages.
Is it that which brings together thousands of people across the planet to meet regionally for WordPress events? Is just simple web publishing that keeps hundreds of people attending monthly WordPress Meetups?
Of course not.
What makes people love talking WordPress? What makes people change their entire business model to base their business in and around WordPress? What makes people want to give back to WordPress? What is this thing called the WordPress economy or WordPress effect?
Teaching this class, I was reminded thoroughly how how WordPress changes lives.
WordPress is a vehicle. It makes it easy for people to have their say. So does Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, Quora, Blogger, Movable Type, TypePad, and the rest of the various publishing and social media platforms. So why WordPress? How does WordPress really change lives?
Watching the students shout for joy when they got it right, or watching their foreheads scrunch as they bent over code, a grin of determination and fascination peeking out, I saw something powerful and magical. WordPress brings together a unique balance of content, design, and code, but it also attracts intelligence.
The “I can do that” spirit lives in WordPress, and the web design industry shutters when I say that, but they all know it’s true. Anyone can add a WordPress Plugin. Anyone can quickly change or customize a WordPress Theme. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to edit a little bit of code or CSS to tweak WordPress to behave the way you want. You can do it. It takes a little learning, a few questions asked in the right places, but you can do it yourself. DIY web publishing with WordPress, fast and easy.
Is that what changes lives with WordPress? No. It’s only a small part of it.
People get the bigger picture of what WordPress is, a community committed to free, open source initiatives, innovative thinking, and support. You don’t see Drupla, Joomla, TypePad, Movable Type, or Blogger folks getting together online and off for beer and code on a regular basis. I’m not seeing many StumbleUpon fans gathering together to learn from each other. Twitter and Facebook creates events that have nothing to really do with either of them. You don’t see rock stars being created on the web from within their ranks, do you? I certainly don’t see thousands of people giving up time in their busy life to give back through support, articles, documentation, plugins, and web designs year after year. Do you?
I don’t think that even Matt Mullenweg could really put into words how WordPress “happened,” though he set the tone for the entire conversation in 2003 and has maintained it, a lot of it happened without him. WordPress generated a river of passionate people coming together over a simple tool that helps you have your say on the web.
In that classroom for ten weeks and forty hours, I witnessed the WordPress effect. On the last night of lecture, my last slide welcomed them all to the WordPress Community, easily entered by simply using WordPress. I told them they were all a part of something bigger than all of us now, a force of techno-nature where by participating, we make it all happen. The looks on their faces as they considered what had happened over the past few weeks, that’s the power of WordPress.
We’ve only a few seats left in the Spring Quarter Introduction to WordPress class at Clark College. I urge you to come learn for yourself more about the magic that is WordPress. Registration is open to Clark College students and the public and is filling up fast. Come join us.