Simple ways to build educational web sites with WordPress

Writer(s): 
Richard Hawking, J. F. Oberlin University, Machida

 

Many teachers want to publish online, perhaps to reach out to students, showcase students’ work, or build a course site. Those with access to a learning management system, such as Moodle, may find it suits their needs, but it may not offer enough control.

Educational sites often use WordPress because it is powerful, flexible, and relatively easy to use. This column will introduce two WordPress sites, Courses and on Japan, and offer guidance on how to build similar sites.

WordPress can be installed on a server, though a one-click install process provided by most web hosting companies. Each site needs its own WordPress installation, but there is no limit to the number of installations running on a single server.

Some terminology

  • WordPress: An open source web publishing platform. Either hosted by WordPress themselves <wordpress.com>, or installed on your own server <wordpress.org>. The WordPress.com hosting is geared towards blogging, and is not as flexible as the version you install on your own server. 
  • Theme: A set of files that control the design of a site: <wordpress.org/extend/themes>
  • Sidebar: The narrow column to the left or right of the content area, which usually contains the navigation menu, important information, and widgets.
  • Category: Categories are groups of posts with related content. For example: <elpweb.com/onjapan/category/eyes>
  • Tags: Keywords that relate to a post. Tags allow visitors to locate relevant content easily. For example: <elpweb.com/onjapan/tags>
  • Plugin: Easy to install preprogrammed php functions, that extend the functionality of WordPress: <wordpress.org/extend/plugins/>
  • Widget: Blocks of content (like calendars, slideshows, latest post excerpts, or blocks of text) which can be added without any technical skills: <codex.wordpress.org/Plugins/WordPress_Widgets>

Themes may be customized for sites to make them as visually appealing as possible. However, simply choosing a theme with the look you are after will allow you to build an attractive site. It is possible to build sites that meet your needs without being a php or HTML expert, and a good theme will often have its own support site, with a discussion forum.

Courses, a directory of elective courses

Though our students can already access course syllabi online, using the university’s e-Campus system, the way information is organized and presented is quite restrictive. Students do not find the information engaging, and often choose a course without reading the syllabus. Teachers must use a rigid template to submit their syllabi, so there is little they can do to improve the situation.

The Courses site, developed with WordPress, delivers information about courses in a student-centric format, and provides multiple ways to search for a suitable course. Students are better able to find a course that suits their needs, and teachers are empowered by being able to promote their courses, targeting students with specific needs or interests. Teachers are free to present informative course descriptions in any format they deem appropriate, including graphics, images, and even audio or video. Print2flash software <print2flash.com> converts a wide variety of documents (Word, PDF, Excel, PowerPoint) into Flash SWF format, which then can easily be embedded into a WordPress post with many benefits:

  • Teachers generate course descriptions containing images and graphics using their favorite computer software. No web skills are required.
  • Scans of sample materials and examples of students’ work can be used.
  • Converting and uploading documents is simple. Content can easily be updated.
  • SWF files can be viewed online, without downloading them.

To build a similar site

Choose a theme with a wide content area. Write a post for each course. Embed course descriptions and examples of work (in Flash SWF format), and multimedia files. Add relevant tags: course name, type of course, level, skills covered, teacher’s name, semester, day, and period taught. Use links to these tags to make multiple navigation menus.

The site is password protected, but a screencast video of the site can be seen here: <randomhawk.com/projects/TLT/courses>.

on Japana showcase of student work<elpweb.com/onjapan>

A course focusing on creating online content about Japan in English needed a professional looking, magazine-style site to showcase students’ work. Though WordPress is predominantly used for blogging, with an appropriate theme, and a careful choice of plugins and widgets, it was possible to build the desired site. Theme selection is very important, as it needs to be flexible, powerful, and attractive. The Structure theme met all of these criteria <themehybrid.com/themes/structure>. Visitors can browse the archive of work in a variety of ways, encouraging deep exploration of the site. Extra categories, or navigational options, can be added at any time, and it will be relatively easy to expand or transform the site, perhaps to incorporate content created in other languages.

To build a similar site

Choose a magazine-style theme with a wide content area. Install necessary plugins (e.g., archive, tag cloud, contact form, video player and random post). Install necessary widgets (e.g., Create Index, About, Category, Archive, and Contact pages). Write a post for each item of student work, and upload any media files. Categorize the post and add relevant tags.

Getting help

Although no real technical knowledge is required to set up a WordPress site, you will inevitably encounter some frustrations, and will need answers to technical and how-to questions. The WordPress support forums <wordpress.org/support> and documentation <codex.wordpress.org/Main_Page> are good places to start. Google can be a good way to find answers to your questions, but ultimately the best support will come from friends and colleagues already using WordPress. The WordPress in education mailing list <lists.automattic.com/mailman/listinfo/wp-edu> has the advantage that the other members of the group are also educators.

Richard Hawkingis an assistant professor in the English Language Program at J. F. Oberlin University. 

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