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.





“Teaching Digital Writing” Conference and Workshop at Bard IWT

At the 2013 Institute for Writing and Thinking Conference and Workshop, held at Bard College, I believe I was the lone tweeter. Given that the conference title was “New Kinds Attention: Teaching with Writing in the Digital Age,” I was a tad surprised. But only at first. Many of the conference participants, made up of K-12 teachers and college professors, were new to digital writing. Others were using technology in their courses, but often with resistance and even resentment. I arrived to the conference expecting to discuss with others strategies for digital writing and planned to leave with new techniques and ideas, but that did not happen. Instead, I learned a great deal of first-hand information (much of which should be familiar to anyone who reads about education) about how teachers are contending with technology, from everything they like about it (SMART Boards) to what they dislike (unauthorized use of devices in the classroom; the tools change too quickly to be mastered). The experience gave me insight as to how to better work with people, whether a student or a teacher, who are skeptical or hesitant to try new technologies for writing projects. I plan to expand on those ideas in a future post. Below is a collection of tweets I made, mostly during Cynthia Selfe’s talk, “New Kinds of Attention: Teaching with Writing in the Digital Age.”

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.

Student-Led Discussions

(c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz
(c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz

“21st c classroom needs to be about thinking, collaborating, and creating #pk20”
(Tanya Sasser)

In the “Tales of Gotham: NYC in Literature” course I taught this semester, I challenged my students to lead all the class discussions. The responsibility for leading rotated among small groups of 3 or 4 students who were encouraged to master Prezi to present their questions.

This ongoing assignment had several pedagogical goals:

  • To make my classroom student-centered
  • To use technology with purpose
  • To help students learn to ask great questions so they might discover excellent answers.

The idea of the student-centered classroom challenged many of my students. Initially, some resisted the idea of working in groups. Most students were unskilled at creating decent presentations. They are accustomed listening to a lecture and answering the instructor’s questions, and so they had trouble asking good questions. By “asking,” I mean both senses of the word: They could neither construct a good question nor did they know how to ask it well.

Overcoming Resistance to Group Work
Perhaps the most important factor in helping students overcome their resistance to group work was technology. Specifically, the presentation software they used allowed them to easily collaborate online. They did not have to find a time when they could all meet in the library, for example, to plan the discussion. This was a boon especially to commuter students and for students who work off campus. One student usually took charge of starting the Prezi (or GooglePresentation), and everyone added some questions to it. The end result was that students really enjoyed working in their groups: the technology connected them and the finished project was a group effort that they shared with the class. Learning how to use Prezi together also prepared them to use it in their individual projects, or to tackle other software that was new to them, such as TimeGlider and Vuvox.

Using Technology with a Purpose
As we all know, most students use technology with a purpose every day, all day long. In general, from Facebook to Microsoft Word, they use these familiar tools always for the same purposes. In their other classes, my students are not often asked to explore other digital tools for academic purposes. Out of 80 students in my three classes, only one or two had even heard of Prezi. Most of them loved the way it allowed them to insert background images and add multimedia for their discussions and other projects they did for the class.  It helped teach students how to create an argument through design.

One common problem in these presentations was that students placed too much text in a frame. When shown a frame with a few carefully chosen words and one that was loaded with wordy bullet points or long paragraphs of historical context, students could easily see which frame was the stronger one. By the end of the semester, most students demonstrated the ability to use only essential words in a frame. Needless to say, this exercise develops their critical thinking skills because they must decide which words best articulate their claims and which ones to leave out.

More challenging was the problem with the images they chose for illustrating their frames. The solution led students to become familiar with online image archives. For example, in a discussion on Joseph Mitchell’s 1930s essay “Drunks,” the group illustrated a question with a clip art image of a beer mug, circa 2012. We compared it to an image of a fancy hotel menu from the New York Public Library’s online collection that had been used to illustrate another group’s discussion on Edith Wharton’s short story, “After Holbein.” Though it seems rather obvious why the latter image was much better than the former, many students expressed puzzlement and/or indifference. Through class discussion, they came to understand why a cartoon beer mug sheds little light on New York’s early twentieth-century saloon culture. As a result, they became acquainted with the many fabulous digital archives of images, from the New York Public Library to the Library Congress, and their use of them helped make the course readings far more alive and vital to them than if they’d stuck to the first image to pop up on a Google image search.

Asking questions
Asking a good question was by far the most challenging part of the assignment. This, in fact, surprised me. But it quickly became to clear to me that my students are rarely asked to ask a question in class. They’re much better at answering them, particularly if they’re asked to give factual answers. Thus, many of the questions they asked were about facts: “Who is Peter Lick [a protagonist Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale]?” “What is the weather like in Winter’s Tale?” When these questions were posed, I sensed the rest of the class’s boredom setting in–though few students understood why these questions failed to stimulate them.

After the first discussion, we critiqued the questions themselves. Comparing the more successful questions with others that fell flat, students learned the difference between a simple question and a critical one. They discovered that making a critical question can be as simple as changing the wording. Instead of asking “what is the weather like,” ask “why is the winter important in Winter’s Tale?” or “what role does snow play in Winter’s Tale?” Questions that begin with “how” or “why,” questions that engage wider issues and themes, questions that hone in on the significance of a single word or image that reappears throughout the book, questions that engage context–such as comparing the state of New York City in the 1970s, when Helprin wrote his novel, with the New York portrayed in the book–helped us dig out textual meaning and create lively discussion.

Delivery of the question posed yet another challenge: Often, students would ask the question and then, without taking a breath, proceed to answer it. The best method I’ve found for addressing this is to interrupt the student in a friendly way and ask them to hold off giving their answer. Some students drowned the class with a lot of context before asking their question. Best method: interrupt in a friendly way and ask student to just ask the question and supply the context later, if necessary.


As a result of this assignment, my students brought to their final research projects strong skills at asking probing questions about their chosen subject, and I think this led them to finding better, deeper answers. Standing in front of the class within the safety of their group as they led a discussion, as well as other group presentations, gave them experience in public speaking and prepared them for individual presentations of their final projects at the end of the semester. They were confident, practiced, and provided some terrific answers to good questions they’d posed to themselves.