WordPress in the College Classroom: Five Sources

A Rothstein A Farmer LOC

Despite their membership in the digital tribe, few of my undergraduates have any experience with WordPress or any blogging platform. Using WordPress in my classroom gives students an opportunity to increase their digital literacy as they read and discuss works of literature.

Because to teach is to learn is one of my fundamental beliefs about teaching, I assign a small group of students to teach themselves how to use WordPress. They then teach their peers. Students also investigate the purpose and content of an academic blog, the pros and cons of student blogging, and then discuss their research with the class. My students use the blog to post short essays. They also use it to post abstracts of their final papers and links to online resources and projects they’ve created.

Here are five sources for using WordPress in the college classroom:

  1. WordPress for Teaching and Learning at Vassar College This slideshow was created for teachers by undergraduate seniors at Vassar. It contains examples of blogs in use at the college along with benefits and outcomes of using blogs in the college classroom. I especially like this piece of advice: “Emphasize WordPress as a discovery process.”
  2. Teaching WordPress: Building and Running Your Website on WordPress The pedagogical goal of this site, which is a resource for students at Portland Adult Education, is the same as the course’s title: “Create Your Own Web Site Using WordPress.” The site, created by a teacher named Frank, is well-organized and seems to have a little of everything you need to know to develop a site, from “Pages and Posts” to “CSS in 10 Minutes,” which can be helpful for tweaking themes.
  3. ScholarPress Courseware plugin should tempt anyone looking for a way to use WordPress as a learning management system. According to this Chronicle article by Ryan Cordell, the plugin can create assignments, schedules, and bibliographies inside of WordPress. ScholarPress recently received an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant.
  4. Psychology in the News Nicholas de Leeuw, Dept. of Psychology, Vassar College, maintains this WordPress site. On the right-hand side of the screen,  you’ll find some pages offering guidelines for attribution, a checklist for blog post content, a discussion of comments versus posts, and other insights. De Leeuw emphasizes the importance of making original posts and comments, and offers advice on to how to create useful and original content.
  5. Using WordPress in Your Class for Student Writing and Websites is for teachers who have a WordPress site. Hosted by the College of William and Mary and created by Evan Cordulack, the site is a straightforward resource covering everything from adding students to a WordPress site to offering links to other instructors who’ve written about their experience using WordPress.

Image Info:
Arthur Rothstein. “A farmer listing his fields under the wind erosion control program. He receives twenty cents an acre for the work. Liberal, Kansas.” 1936. Library of Congress. Rights Advisory: No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/071_fsab.html. Reproduction Number: LC-USF34-002493-E (b&w film nitrate neg.) Call Number: LC-USF34- 002493-E [P&P].Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.

 

 

 

 

What I Learned at School This Year

The Cloisters; The Metropolitan Museum
The Cloisters; The Metropolitan Museum

Though the term “digital native,” which refers to people born after 1980 who have been exposed to the digital world all their lives, has long been exposed as a myth, the myth still persists as fact, even for those who consider themselves to be digital natives. Here’s what happened to me this semester, when I forgot that the digital native is a mostly mythical being:

Just about any college student can probably teach him or herself how to use a new technology or digital tool faster than, as one student from this semester’s Composition class put it, “my grandmother.” Students are also eager to discover new digital tools. They dive in like the Cookie Monster attacking freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. These claims were recently demonstrated by four students in my American literature class. Though they had little or no programming experience, they made a bold effort to use the Python-based Paper Machines to visualize their Zotero collection of sources on Emily Dickinson.

The visualization itself did not really work out. Their Zotero library was not stocked with enough documents (1,000 minimum) and they encountered some bugs in the program. But the process they went through was very valuable. After a great deal of effort to get the program to run on their laptops, an effort which involved soliciting help from their friends who were computer science students, they got the tool to work a little bit and were introduced to the concept of data visualization. I consider that part of their experience most valuable because it forced them to encounter something new in terms of how they researched and what they did with that research.  They had to ask people outside their discipline for assistance. They discovered that two different tools can “communicate” with each other. And it was a genuinely challenging endeavor that involved technology. They were quite proud of themselves for seeing the project all the way through.

But there is crucial a piece missing in the story about my students, and it is this: In their presentation to the class, the students did not convey a strong understanding of the importance of data visualization to humanities scholarship, or what even their slim results might suggest about the existing connections within their Zotero collection on Dickinson.

I assumed that my students’ digital nativeness meant that they would, with a little effort, plug Paper Machines into their Zotero library and in the process of learning a new tool, strive to investigate on their own why data visualization is important to humanities scholarship. That did not happen, though my students know that self-directed research is an important part of the course. So what I learned is that I can’t assume my students, even the advanced ones, can easily figure out how to use a digital tool effectively. Equally importantly, they need sustained guidance about why they should use those tools and how to draw conclusions from their results. This is true not just for advanced tools, such as Paper Machines, but relatively easy ones, such as Wordle. Just because students can operate a digital tool does not mean they understand why they use it or what it can be used for.

To quote from another student in my Composition class, students need “guidance from our teachers about how to use technology consciously and safely. We need them to help us learn how to use it effectively for academic purposes.” That statement is not just an observation, but it’s a call for help. Teachers should not assume that just because students are digital natives they can therefore can easily teach themselves how to use technology along with best practices.

It also reinforces what I strongly believe, that even though students engage with technology on a regular, if not constant, basis, non-digital native teachers should not avoid learning how to integrate technology into the classroom.  All the non-digital, traditional training many teachers have had, combined with the students’ deep exposure to technology, is a potent combination for using technology in the classroom in productive, versatile ways.

Next semester, I will give my students more guidance about the ways and whys they can integrate technology with traditional approaches to reading and writing.

Technology and the Liberal Arts Student

Cedar Key Foods, 2013. Cedar Key, FL

Whenever an article appears about the importance of exposing college students to technology, I cringe on behalf of the university at which I teach. My school has many strengths, including a terrific service-based learning program, strong academics, and funding  for undergraduate and graduate research, as well as for faculty. However, we have no basic technology literacy requirement (see, for example, the requirements at Cal State), and no one expects most students to do much with technology, except for using BlackBoard. Some instructors at my school do use digital tools in the classroom in highly creative ways, often without support from either IT or the administration. But I’d wager that the majority of students–grad and undergrad–graduating this year don’t know how to give a presentation using anything other than PowerPoint. The reasons for these conditions are complex, and establishing a commitment to integrating technology into our research and teaching cannot happen over night.

To remedy this situation, I’ve voluntarily taken a leading role on campus to create learning opportunities for using technology to professionalize, research, and teach. These events are well attended by faculty, staff, and students, and are supported with funding and encouraging words from participants and the administration. People think I’m a “digital humanities” expert, but everything I know about that and engaging with technology in diverse ways has been my own doing. I’m almost entirely self-taught and am still learning. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by some amazing people at my school and the New York City area who use technology to do humanities-based work. I soak up a lot from them.

The inspiration for this post and what made me cringe with frustration was the Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Colleges Must Prepare for a Buyer’s Market.” In it, Jeffrey Selingo proffers questions colleges should be prepared to answer if they wish to attract top students. One of those questions is “How tech-savvy is your institution?” The answer, writes Selingo, is to

forget about whether your college gives out iPads to all incoming students or whether the wireless network covers every square inch of the campus. Students will want to know how you’re using technology to change the way courses are delivered. Be prepared to say how many professors mix technology with their lectures so they can be viewed outside of class, or whether students have an option to choose from a variety of course formats: face-to-face, hybrid, and online. A few potential applicants might even ask about “adaptive learning” software, which personalizes the learning experience so that students focus valuable class time on what they don’t know and breeze through what they have already mastered.

Selingo is right. My school offers few of the options he cites, aside from a small online program.  But as my comments above indicate, his emphasis on the way teachers use technology to deliver course content is only part of the answer. Students will (or should) want to know how they will be trained to be versatile users of technology. They will want to know if they will be taught how to build, evaluate, and use technology effectively, whether for a composition class or an advanced history course. Maybe that does mean handing out iPads to everyone. As many have argued, it’s not about just owning the tool, it’s what you do with it.

Obviously, there’s no iPad-For-All program at my school. But for my composition class this year, I requested a room with computers. My students have used them to collaborate on small projects in the classroom. They’ve written articles together for the class wiki and created Infographics to visualize competing arguments. Together they’ve explored Scrible, A.nnotate, and, of course, Zotero. The computers also offer an opportunity for me to work with them one on one, to help them learn how to search the library databases for their individual research topics. So far, I’ve enjoyed teaching this composition class more than any other.

My teaching methods are designed in part to pre-professionalize my students. William Pannapacker stressed in a recent New York Times article that college students’ professional careers and future stints as graduate students essentially depend on being savvy users of technology. In my composition and literature classes, I lead my students to a big pool of ideas (see also Bamboo DiRT) about using technology for reading, writing, research, and discussion, and basically force them to jump in. Most discover that the water is warmer and more fun than they expected. A former student from a literature class recently thanked me for introducing her to Prezi, WordPress, and other digital tools. She explained that they had been useful in her current classes and that she had helped her father design a presentation for his work, based on the skills she’d learned my class. It was nice to get the feedback, but it also illustrated to me how deeply behind the times my school is in terms of preparing its students for the future. My student shouldn’t have had to thank me for introducing these low-barrier, entry-level digital tools into the course. She should have expected me to expect her to know how to use them. And so I cringed today.