I took the plunge this Spring semester and started hosting my own installations of wordpress to run courses, using dreamhost. At the time I decided to do this, dreamhost was running a special in which a year’s hosting cost me all of $10.00! I mapped my main professional domain, chadblack.net, to dreamhost from using mobileme to serve it, and have on the whole been happy with the experience. Most importantly for my classes, I installed individual course sites on subdomains, three for the Spring semester: History 561, History 465, and History 307. My main motivation for migrating to my own installations after a few years using wordpress.com (for example, here and here) was to come up with a more elegant solution for aggregating my blogging assignment. Every student has to write a weekly post on their own blog that engages the readings and the lectures. Last fall, I used a Yahoo Pipe and aggregated everything on a netvibes portal page. It didn’t always work, and the portal was simply ugly to me.
First and foremost, a wordpress.org install gave me the feedwordpress plugin, which allows me to aggregate all of my student blogs onto the course site– and also provide a single RSS feed for me to monitor them in Devonthink. I also like the option to build static front page for each course. My limited hacking and scripting skills almost immediately presented a few limitations or problems with these sites. 1. It took me a while to figure out how to customize the navigation menu in the header. 2. The blog page of the course carried student blogs and my own posts/directions for class in a single stream where things could easily get lost for students who weren’t interested in using an RSS reader, despite my entreaties. As I understand it, it’s not all that hard to hack together a solution where student posts would be on one page of the site, and course posts on another. But, in wp 2.9, it’s still a hack. 3. I’m not great at writing or adapting plugins, and I want my students to be able to tag/categorize their posts and have only those posts relevant to class appear on the feedwordpress feed.
Which finally brings me to my excitement relative to WordPress 3.0 beta. As with Jim Groom, wp3.0 had me at custom menus. The new feature, which allows one to simply customize the navigation menu of the header, makes linking from that menu a breeze both to pages internal and external to the site. I’m excited about this in part because I’m going to start using a wiki assignment alongside the blog assignment in a few upcoming classes, and it’ll be nice to have a direct link in the top menu. In addition, using custom post types, another new feature in 3.0, it will be easier to separate the blog entries of the students and the instructor out from one another, with links to category pages in the top menu. Until I can figure out how to write the php, or find another example of it, filtering incoming feed posts by category/tag, I’m also going to use this feature to filter and only show posts relevant to class. Additionally, I’m planning on exploiting custom post types for posting lectures for my survey class in the fall. The plan is to do half my lectures live and half online for what is a large (200-seat) class, and see which work better for the students.
Playing with wp3.0 has been quite a bit of fun, including using the multisite network feature brought over to the core from wpmu and playing around with buddypress. I’ve been using MAMP on my Mac for local install. I had been simply following the traditional instructions for MAMP and WordPress, but recently came across a great tutorial by Boone Gorges on his blog Teleogistic on setting up a wordpress/buddypress development environment. Boone is one of the minds behind CUNY’s excellent buddypress network. What I particularly like about the tutorial is its explanation for how to use MAMP with a site’s folder in the root directory of my computer, rather than the htdocs file inside MAMP, and also the instruction for renaming one’s localhost address from either localhost or 127.0.0.1 to whatever.
Finally- have any professors out there used wpmu to set up their own blogging communities for their courses? I’m tinkering with the idea of making chadblack.net a single wordpress installation, and using the network for individual course sites as well as for student sites. Alternatively, I could give chadblack.net its own install, and then a multisite installation at something like courses.chadblack.net that would then use subfolders for both course sites and student blogs along with buddypress to make each of those courses their own groups. At UT, Knoxville we don’t have the wordpress gurus of, say, UMW or CUNY so I’d love to hear from anybody doing this sort of thing on their own!