UBC WordPress development out in the open

EDUPUNKING_WP_w_groom
Creative Commons License photo credit: bionicteaching

At OLT we have decided to make our steps to develop the WordPress Multi-user platform into a university content publishing platform more prominent, so as to encourage sharing and collaboration. Before this we were all writing about our development on different blogs dispursed around the internet, but now we will all be putting our thoughts, ideas and code in one place. OLT WordPress DevelopmentĀ  now lives on the UBC Blogs site at blogs.ubc.ca/development. It is sparse at the moment, but once all of the developers are contributing their work it should fill out quite quickly.

Now if only WordPress.com would get back to us on allowing us to put our plugins in the WordPress repository so they will all be on the main WordPress plugins page…

Examples of course blog possibilities and plans for the future

So here they are, examples of the three kinds of blogs that I outlined in this post, as well as explanations for how to create them within WordPress MU. Jon has kindly let me use his Spanish 312 class as and example, so some of my examples are actually fully populated and active courses. (click on the headings to see the actual blogs)

Ghost Course Blog

This blog uses BDPRSS to output the content of an aggregated feed of the class. I created a widget to add to the list in BDPRSS so students can auto-populate themselves into the course. The other feature that I developed for this blog is an auto-populating class list (with the heading our class). The class list is the reason that I took so long to get these examples up and running. I spent a good chunk of this week working on an “add to blogroll” widget so that students could add links to their blogs in the sidebar. I tried many methods, but just couldn’t get the plugin to work. Gardner Campbell was paying a visit to UBC and while he was showing me some of the successes and issues that he has been having with his course blog Rock soul Progressive I saw that he was using the BDP RSS widget to display comments. A light bulb went on and I realized that I could simply tweak the widget to show a list of blogs in the course. Here is what you have to do:

  1. Create and output format in BDP RSS that contains the same blogs as the one that is being used to display entries in the course.
  2. In the “output format types” section select the radio button that says “list by sites alphabetically”
  3. In “about the items” set “maximum items per site” to 1, check “print site names” and “only display item’s title”. Uncheck “print the item’s age”
  4. in the “XHTML formatting” section, add list tags around “title for each site” and comment tags around “each item’s title”. (see picture )


If you add the BDP RSS widget for the output to the sidebar then you create a class list.

Spam Course Blog

This blog uses a spamblogger (I’m using feedWordPress because it actually updates posts if they are changed in the original feed) combined with BDP RSS to quickly create the course. Basically what happens is a feed aggregated by BDP RSS is fed into the spamblogger and feedWordPress republishes it. I have three reasons why I run the feeds through BDP RSS before I feed them to the feedWordPress:

  1. I’ve already created my Add to BDPRSS widget to add feeds to BDPRSS. If I wanted students to add their own feeds to the spamblogger I would have to create another widget (and the widget would have to be specific to the spamblogger).
  2. BDP works really well with a large range of feeds as well as with a large number of feeds. It acts as a kind of normalizing process, ensuring that each entry is parsed in the same way.
  3. It allows for the auto-generation of a class list as described for the ghost course blog.

Communal Course Blog

This Blog is the simplest to set up and is probably closer to what most faculty members will imagine when they think of a course blog. I simply use the sidebar add user widget to add authors and the Wp-Authors widget to display the class list. Quick and simple. My example isn’t as good as the others simply because all of the content had to be written from scratch (or copy pasted from Wikipedia). K1, one of the work study students at OLT was kind enough to post a few items under different authors to show how this kind of course blog would look.


A fourth option is of course mashing the Spam Course Blog and the Communal Course blog together, thus giving students the option over whether or not they want to have their own course.

If there is anything that I am missing in my thinking here, please let me know.

Some notes on policy and where I’m going from here: As I have been making these ways for students to self-populate a course, the question keeps on coming up “what if people who don’t belong to the course add themselves”? At the moment the sidebar add to BDP widget gives three levels of permission, global (anyone), system (on the same MU system) and blog (subscribers to the blog). I will be working on changing the “add user” plugin to accept a list of people (I’m thinking student numbers or emails?) and check those against people who are trying to add themselves to a blog. This would mean that a professor could just paste a list in the control of the widget and not have to worry about people who are not in the class adding themselves. Then to close off the spam and ghost course blogs one would set the sidebar add to bdp widget permissions to “blog” and display the add user widget forcing students to add themselves as subscribers to the blog first so that they can be checked off against the class list before adding their feed.

Three flavors of course blogs, very yummy…

In a comment on my post “who owns a class blog Jim Groom said:

That is the rub, when you open up a system like this, there are a number of ways of going at it, and having the ability to meet as many of them easily makes your life simpler.

I agree whole-heartedly with Jim. My judgment has been clouded lately by the Wp-o-matic’s ability lack of to update posts on the fly and the lack of a “delete all” button on any of WordPress’ pages. Today though, I saw the light. I now have a clear vision of three simple, definable, student driven course blog structures.

  1. The ghost blog:

  2. This blog is for the professor who doesn’t want to be confused by hundreds of student posts knocking around his/her blog. The blog simply uses BDPRSS and my add-to-BDPRSS widget (source code coming soon I promise) to populate a WordPress page with aggregated student entries. When another year of students comes, the old posts will still be there (or not, or in another blog that that the new blog links to), but as newer posts come in, the old posts will fall off of the bottom of the feed and the blog will have just new fresh content. No having to delete anything!

  3. The Communal blog:

  4. This blog is for the professor who wants to get stuck into the blogging experience with the students. This also probably the easiest (although I used to think it was the hardest) to implement. Jim reminded me of the “Add Sidebar Users” widget, which I will tweak slightly to make setting up this kind of blog super easy. Our new blogging service will allow students to sign up as just subscribers if they want to and with Campus Wide Login they won’t even have to remember their username. Zero work for the professor!

  5. The spam blog:

  6. Jim did great things with WP-o-matic. I found a tool that works even better for what we want to do (in fact, it is the one thing that I can now do better than the current incarnation of eduglu). FeedWordPress by Charles Johnson is another spamblogger that updates entries if they change in the feed. The biggest problem that I had with other versions of spam blogging tools was that they took dynamic content, republished it and then made it static. This might work for blog posts (which don’t generally change very much after they have been written)… but for something like a course syllabus or wiki feed (I’ll save that discussion for a later day) the content in the repository has to be continually updated. Otherwise we just have old junk entries lying around. FeedWordPress fixes that. FeedWordPress also has a nice “delete all” button that will get rid of feed entries that are marked for deletion. Best of all, the author has provided an excellent API and a bunch of hooks so that I can massage this plugin into doing my complete bidding.

    I will be finalizing and testing these methods tomorrow and over the weekend and will hopefully have some concrete examples by early next week.

    One last thing. These structures do not have to be independent. the communal blog can be combined with the spam blog (giving students the option). A ghost page can then be created in a different tab, feeding in content from other sources as examples and even points of discussion for future posts by the students. A ghost blog can be archived by simply feeding it into a spam blog and so on.