WordPress.com

At the beginning of the semester I wrote a little about the technical issues of aggregating content for the nearly-400 person class I’m teaching. I finally solved the problem (mostly) by using a copy of Gregarious. (That aggregator is set up here.) I’ll write shortly about how I think that the big blogging course worked out pedagogically, but first a quick technical note.

WordPress.com is the best of blog hosts, and it is the worst of blog hosts. On the best side, it gives you a lot to play with, neat bells and whistles, and a great deal of control over your look. It does this all for free: really free, not ad supported free. However, putting it to a stress test, requiring that students each set up a blog on the host, revealed a few cracks. (In practice, I only required that people have a blog set up on an RSS/Atom capable blog host–but those are fewer than you might first imagine!)

Set up & Login

First, setup was far from intuitive. I’ve had students play with Blogger before, and their set-up is still much easier to understand for many students, I think. I have a feeling the same is true of Livejournal (“liverjournal,” as one of my collaborators manages to malaprop consistently). Obviously, “Site Admin” is not that hard to understand, but it takes some getting used to. Most students end up bookmarking the “wp-admin” url so that they can find it. This is especially true when they are used to the idea of the aggregator being the end publication of their blog. Most didn’t even think about their non-aggregated version.

Reliability

More troubling is that WordPress.com seems to have had some crashes and periodic slowdowns. Of course, it is hard to blame them for this; in some ways it is probably natural growing pains. But the emphasis there is on the “pain.” Receiving fifty emails from students because they are down just before a deadline is not fun. I decided to go with wordpress.com rather than my own host to increase responsiveness and reliability, and while it saved me time, I’m not sure it really led to more reliable service.

What now?

Well, now that I’ve decided not to continue to support my own blogging server (except for the legacies), I guess I’ll have to stick with WordPress.com and try to build a set of materials to help students make better use of it. Alternatively, I might give Edublogs a run, though I’m not sure James is ready for a few hundred bloggers concurrently hitting the site. I may be back to Blogger. I’ll probably also be pushing for more team blogging, especially in smaller classes, with four people on the same site.

I do want to pick one and go with it, because whatever the platform, it needs more documentation, at the most basic level. As I will discuss in a later posting, when students succeeded with blogging it was very, very good, but when they did not it was horrid.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted 5/2/2006 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We’re working on a few things now to make the service much faster and more reliable.

    What do you think we could do to make the signup easier?

  2. Posted 5/2/2006 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment. The fact is, I think it is pretty straightforward as it stands, and so had trouble with why people had trouble. I’m going to ask Matt, Brenda, & Jessica to come in on this as well, since they kind of held hands in person with some of the students who were having difficulties.

    I don’t know that they are “signup” issues so much as “getting started” issues. Going to the home page and filling out the form is not a problem, but they seem to get tripped up from that point. “Now what?” Remember, for a lot of these folks, this is their first experience with a blogging system

    Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sure that the startup issues are unique to wordpress.com, but hopefully the class assistants, or class members, can give you a better idea.

  3. Posted 5/2/2006 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    You’re more than welcome over at edublogs.org… although I think http://uniblogs.org might be a better solution.

    Having said that the only real technical diff is that Automattic know what they’re doing :)

  4. Sarah
    Posted 5/2/2006 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    I had a very small class do weblogs Fall ’05 (12 students) and many of them seemed to find it very difficult to use blogger. I thought it’d be easier than wordpress, but they made me think twice. After they created the blog they didn’t get that they sign in, click on the name of their blog and then create posts. instead they kept creating new blogs for each posting assignment. It took forever to get them to seperate “post” and “blog”.

    I want to try again with my own classes next year, should I try word press?

    Also, are you going to ITC conference at Fredonia? I want to go for at least the one day that they talk about blogging in the classroom. I’m trying to convince mom that the conference is a worthwhile graduation present :)

  5. Posted 5/2/2006 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    I wrote this in a fit of grading when weblogs.com was taking too long to respond. Though in retrospect it may have throttled me for using wget earlier to grab some of the blogs :).

    I don’t know. I have a quick screencast showing how to set up on weblogs.com, but the kind of mistake you are suggesting seems to be pretty easy to have students make. (I had the same problem with people signing up for the aggregator every time they posted at first. Argh!)

    My guess is that while there are some things that could be improved with most of the UIs in these systems, and features (spell check!!!), what is most needed is better documentation. And that’s something we as a community should really be able to help with.

    As for ITC: were I still in WNY, I def. would have gone. But as it is, I’m looking forward to *not* flying cross-state for a while.

  6. Posted 5/2/2006 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Of course liverjournal has been out all day as well.

  7. Posted 5/3/2006 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    This semester, I teach a small group of students (5) doing an introductory STS course. We have blogging integrated in the course work – students post progress reports on their projects/papers weekly, do social bookmarking and comment each others blog posts. It works quite good, and I find blogging a good complement to seminars and lectures.

    The technical platform we chose was a collective blog – they all write in the same blog. It runs on WordPress that we host ourselves on an old iMac in my office (450 MHz – wouldn’t work for a 400 students class …). Students set up del.icio.us-accounts that are linked from the course blog.

  8. Posted 5/4/2006 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    You know me. I’ve been lazy for the past couple of years and have only been using LJ. I did do an install of it on a server at UofT, but the admin backend really didn’t exist. Rochelle did one too, but had more support.

    What needs to be done, and we’re starting, is pulling together a group, up here in kanukistan, to develop a pedagogically appropriate blogging tool; one that has hooks into institutional authentication and large CMS. That said, what it needs is to be designed by educator(s!) and have all the affordances that help blogs be to education what blogs were to getting stuff online… so easy you can’t be bothered NOT to do it.

  9. Posted 5/12/2006 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Try Lyceum, a relatively new platform made by Ibiblio. It is basically WordPress for multiusers (which means hundreds of users)

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