In my previous post, which you can read here, I talked a little bit about the dilemmas of high school student online publishing. According to the Common Core (and, let’s face it, common sense), students need to have some practice in creating and publishing documents online. They need to be able to use more than just text, including multimedia, and, even if they can’t code an entire page, they should probably have a rough understanding of what HTML is and how it works, because, even with the increasing emphasis on building entire sites without coding, there are times when it’s nice to be able to tinker. It’s also good if they can figure out how to adapt the environment in which they’re working to the needs of the particular project.
The issue is complicated by the fact that most students, at least in my experience, don’t have some or all of the basic skills they would need for anything more elaborate than classic word processing. They probably know how to post a status update on Facebook and perform other social media tasks, and they might well be able to handle a heavily templated environment, such as exists on Wix or Weebly, but take away the training wheels, and many of them would hit the ground with a resounding crash.
A Possible Solution: Self-Hosted WordPress
In the previous post, I’ve already discussed a few free ways to facilitate the process by giving students a work space and a place to “publish” without actually going public (and raising administrative concerns). It’s also possible your school has an LMS (Learning Management System) that provides an appropriate digital workspace for students. In this post I’d like to talk about what I’d suggest to a teacher who doesn’t have such an LMS but does have a little bit of a budget and an administration willing to support the idea: self-hosted WordPress.
Why WordPress? Because it’s a very popular content management system for everything from one-person blogs to corporate websites. If the students are going to learn a content management system, they may as well learn the one they are most likely to use later on. The statistics speak for themselves. For the week of August 1, 2016, for example, WordPress accounted for 51% of all CMS (Content Management System) usage, Joomla! for 7%, Blogger and Drupal for 2% each, all others at no more than 1% each. Looking at the United States alone (and for some odd reason only at sites using the .com extension), various WordPress versions accounted for 52%, various Wix versions for 13%, Joomla! and Squarespace for 3% each, and GoDaddy Website Builder for 2%. (You can find all the statistics here.)
Why self-hosted? Because the free sites on WordPress.com won’t give you and your students as much flexibility. In particular, you can’t install plugins on a WordPress.com site, and the suggestion I am going to make requires them. A self-hosted WordPress installation also allows you to show students more about how to configure and use such a site. This kind of information is not just for webmasters, web designers, or bloggers anymore. Though it is true that large businesses will probably have a dedicated division for running their website or use third-party website management, small businesses are very likely to handle their own web presence, increasing the number of people who need at least some knowledge of what’s going on under the hood.
Resources Needed for Implementation
You do need to have a little budget to make this idea work. I checked with the two web-hosting companies with which I am familiar, GoDaddy and Bluehost, and in both cases the least expensive plans, economy and basic, respectively, have an introductory price of $3.99 per month, reverting eventually to $7.99 per month. If you have some kind of supply or other budget, or a supportive PTA that provides some funding, and a receptive administration, that’s not an impossible price to meet. With ample storage (50 GB on BlueHost or 100 on GoDaddy), it’s possible for several teachers to share that space, making the cost per student relatively low. Having more than one teacher involved could also make funding easier, particularly in schools where each teacher has a supply budget or other allocation that could be pooled for purposes of the project. Of course, it is theoretically possible to overload the site, but even with several teachers involved, the number of students working on the site at any given time is likely to be manageable. Some teachers will only be interested in a short-term project, and even those whose students will be doing longer-term work will be meeting their classes at different times during the day. Students working on a site-related project after the end of the regular school day aren’t likely to all be working at the same time.
Assuming you have the budget, the approval, and at least a little digital access on campus to facilitate the system, which company should you go with? Having worked with both, I’d say Bluehost has better server performance. Neither one has significant downtime, but I did have some experience with GoDaddy becoming very slow at times. The least expensive plans are always going to involve shared hosting (multiple clients on the same server), which can mean that someone else being hosted on the server can conceivably cause demand for resources to spike and slow down your site. I did occasionally have that kind of issue with GoDaddy, but never with Bluehost.
Another advantage of Bluehost is that it has partnered with Cloudflare to enable you to manage a free Cloudflare account through Bluehost. You can get a Cloudflare plan regardless of hosting provider, but Bluehost’s handy integration enables you to get statistics and handle settings through Bluehost, making configuration easier. (You’ll want to at least try Cloudflare. Paid plans are available, but even the free plan provides considerable speed and security enhancements for your site.) Though you won’t need this enhancement for typical student projects, it’s a good concept to introduce to students, particularly those who want to be involved in international business. What Cloudflare and similar companies provide is a content delivery network (CDN), the benefit of which is to replicate your site on servers all over the world, so that viewers far distant from your hosting provider’s server will be able to load your website faster.
The trick with any system of this type is giving students the paradoxical ability to publish and still keep their material private, or at least publish only within your class. By trial and error, I worked out a way to use WordPress with precisely that effect.
Here are the plugins you’ll need to get the job done (all free). Please note that I have vetted all of these, and they worked well at the point I was using them myself. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that they will always work, particularly if the developers don’t update them, though you can probably always find another plugin that will do the job of an outdated one.
- Restrict Content. This plugin enables you to specify differing levels of access. Make sure you have user signup configured to default to subscriber (lowest level), and when you are reviewing the registrations, you can bump the students up to contributor. If you decide to have students post for the whole class, it’s easy to configure the areas where they post to be restricted to contributors.
- Agreeable. If your school and/or district has an acceptable use policy for students, your administrator will probably want you to enforce the same guidelines on the WordPress site, especially if district funds are paying for it. Agreeable requires anyone who signs up to agree to whatever terms you want to specify.
- Better WordPress ReCAPTCHA. Since you need to vet student registration anyway, you may not need this one, but it will save you time by preventing some kinds of spam bots from signing up. (A totally open WordPress or other site will accumulate fake registrations very rapidly.) [Edit: This one hasn’t been updated in a while. You might want to try Advanced NoCaptcha and Invisible Recaptcha. Several alternatives are available.]
- View Own Posts Media Only. Whether or not students will be sharing with each other, you or they may want raw materials and rough drafts to be private. This program prevents contributors from seeing the post titles and media uploads of others. (WordPress normally prevents contributors from seeing the actual posts of others before publication, but this plugin provides an additional layer of privacy.
- WPFront User Role Editor. This plugin enables you to edit the contributor role to give students whatever capabilities you want them to have. For instance, it may be more convenient to have students prepare their work as a page, rather than a post, but page creation is normally reserved for higher level user roles. I don’t recall the details, but I do believe that contributors also have some issues with media uploads. You don’t want to give students roles that enable them to manipulate the overall site too much. This way you can keep them in a lower role but tailor the privileges that role has as you wish.
The combination of those plugins will enable you to adapt WordPress to provide the levels of access and privacy you need without having to spend hours creating your own system. In particular, notice that you can make different arrangements within the same site. Students can publish just for you (by setting visibility to private), just for their own class (through your configuration of the Restrict Content plugin), or to the whole world if the project involves created an online literary magazine or similar publication. The methods I discussed in the previous post could work for the first and third situations, but the second would be much trickier to pull off that way.
You will probably need to spend some time in class introducing the various WordPress features. Students may not be used to the ability to switch between a visual editor and an HTML editor, and while they may be used to using graphics, tasks like embedding video, if needed, will require some explanation. If you’re using this kind of project in English, that’s probably as much time class time as you can devote to explanation, though I’d also recommend at least one session in which the students have Internet access, so that they can practice the basic skills under your guidance. A more specifically targeted class, such as one dedicated to web design, would naturally be able to spend more time on in-class instruction.
The kind of project you have the students do will naturally depend upon your course content. The Introducing Yourself project discussed in an earlier post is one possibility, but there many alternatives. The important thing is to use a project that forces students to use all of the important skills. Such a project would include text creation and layout (which they won’t have much trouble with), proper use of graphics (which they may have a little trouble with), proper use of embedded audio and/or video (which most of them initially won’t have a clue about).
Note that the basic setup I’ve outlined above can be adapted for much longer-term use. For instance, if journal writing is part of your class (as it might be in English, for example), some of that process can be done online to provide for additional skill practice and enhancement. If you are doing something even more ambitious, such as an online literary magazine, you can involve some or all of the students in making basic website decisions. Which free theme would work best for the magazine? Are there free plugins that would enhance the look or improve the user experience? (The latter is a good opportunity for getting future web designers to think about trade-offs, since elaborate themes and/or numerous plugins can indeed do wonderful things for function and visual appeal, but they can also slow down a site. Figuring out how to balance advanced functions and/or better appearance with performance is good decision-making practice. Students can use performance tests such as those offered by Gtmetrix to try out variations and get immediate feedback about how design changes affect loading speed and other variables. With Google and other search engines increasingly prioritizing site speed as a criterion for ranking sites in search results, any student who wants to design websites or run a business involving web presence could benefit from this kind of decision-making.
An Additional Suggestion for Longer-Term Projects
For those of you who are doing a longer project and have some money left in the budget, I’d suggest a premium theme to give the students a wider array of options with which to experiment. I’m a big fan of BeTheme, which this site uses. It costs $59, which is definitely pricey, but it does include three plugins (WPBakery Page Builder, LayerSlider, and Slider Revolution) that by themselves cost $46, $25, and $26, respectively, for a total of $97 if purchased separately. (The plugins can be updated only in conjunction with theme updates and can’t be used independently from the theme, but otherwise, they are full versions.)
Why that particular theme? Because it exponentially increases the options available, providing students with considerably more experiences in real-world decision-making. I don’t want to make this post into a BeTheme commercial, but I’ll briefly outline some of the features to give you an idea of what I mean.
As I mentioned above, BeTheme comes with two very powerful sliders (plugins that display content on a rotating basis, such as at the top of the home page and blog page on this site). Generally, the students wouldn’t need more than one for even a complicated project, but which one is better? Someone would have to experiment with them to determine which one best suited the project’s needs.
The theme also comes with two page production systems in addition to the normal WordPress editor: WPBakery Page Builder, a plugin mentioned above, and Muffin Builder, built into the theme itself. Both offer ways to quickly generate page content, but each one uses a different system and has somewhat different capabilities. WPBakery Page Builder works as an overly of the regular WordPress editor (classic, not Gutenberg), creating shortcodes that are inserted into the visual editor but function like HTML to create complicated layouts. While composing in WPBakery Page Builder, a user views the edits visually rather than as a mass of shortcodes. WPBP also has a way of editing pages and posts from the frontend. By contrast, Muffin Builder is essentially a WordPress editor substitute, though it is possible to use one block of material from the WordPress editor in Muffin Builder. These two tools can coexist on the site, but generally each page or post can only effectively use one, so again the question arises as to which one is better for a given task. Both provide features like multiple columns for text that would otherwise require some pretty major HTML. Both also provide a wide range of elaborate page content, though their options are not exactly the same.
The theme itself has so many customization features I can’t list them all. Each option would force students to make choices based on the type of material they are creating and the audience (real or hypothetical) to which they intend to deliver it. Some of these options are just easier ways of accomplishing customizations WordPress already handles; others are completely new elements added by the theme. A typical WordPress theme has one or two menu locations. BeTheme has five, so students need to think about what the most practical menu position is for their purpose. BeTheme lets users generate a theoretically infinite number of sidebars and allows them to decide by the page or globally whether they want a sidebar on the left, on the right, on both sides, or not at all. They can change the color of any element, change the font of any element (the theme comes with a wide selection of Google fonts), change the featured image size, change the background on an individual page basis, create a theoretically infinite number of page and post templates, and so on.
Even with a relatively plain theme, WordPress has a fair amount of customization, but with this theme the options increase to an almost unbelievable degree. This can be unsettling for students, but it’s good for them to be a little unsettled. For most of them, life is not always going to be about using someone else’s template to complete a process. They need to be able to function in environments that require them to take control.
Another BeTheme feature that teachers will like: the theme comes with templates for over 400 different kinds of websites, everything from churches to political blogs to health clubs. While you won’t want students just grabbing a template and running with it, you can use the templates as resources to illustrate some of the theme’s features and how to implement them.
You’ve probably also figured out that such a flexible theme allows for a great deal of differentiated instruction. Students can be given a relatively simple task, an extremely complex one, or anything in between. Difficulty level is easy to adjust to fit a particular group or student.
Summary of Educational Advantages
Here’s a quick summary of the ways in which students can benefit from projects using the self-hosted WordPress system I suggested above:
- They learn how to publish online (even if they don’t actually publish).
- They refine their ability to create, revise, and edit text.
- They learn how to combine a wide array of different elements, including multimedia, to communicate their ideas more effectively.
- They learn how to use the most popular content management system.
- They learn specific procedures, such as the use of shortcodes and embed codes for videos hosted offsite, that they may encounter later in life.
- They gain experience in real-world decision-making by considering the best techniques for content presentation, and (if your project allows) site configuration.
- They gain experience in adapting their material to specific audiences.
- In the case of group projects, such as online literary magazines, they improve their ability to work with a group to achieve a specific objective.
Every student should have the content creation skills involved. In addition, with most small businesses and an increasing number of individual professionals operating their own websites, the potential site management skills will be needed by an increasing number of students in the future.
Below is the download link for the handout I used to introduce students to the features of my classroom site (which was a resource for them prior to my retirement and its subsequent reincarnation as a resource site for everyone and then a subsection of this site). It is only going to be useful to you if you decide to use WordPress in your classroom. As with my other handouts, you will want to edit it to suit your particular purposes; some of the material is definitely specific to what I was doing and will not be relevant to your students. I offer it to you because the WordPress editor tutorial could be useful. There is also a brief introduction to Muffin Builder, which could be relevant if you are using BeTheme.
I’ve also included the PDF version in case you’d like to view the document online:Getting-the-Most-out-of-Billhiatt-education
(A form of this article was originally published on August 5, 2016.)