Tuesday, September 29, 2009...3:07 pm

Back to skool

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This week sees the undergraduate journalism timetable crank back into gear – and this year I’m getting more involved.
As luck would have it, I get to be lead tutor on a second-year online journalism unit at UCA, and I’m also having quite a bit of input into the third-year unit.
The big change has been a move away from Dreamweaver as the software tool of choice for the unit. I have been badgering the college to get rid of Dreamweaver as its prime online teaching environment pretty since I first walked through its doors. (Luckily, students are pretty much four-square behind me on this one.)
Instead, I’ve got the students working with self-hosted WordPress software. Although it’s a fairly user-friendly environment, there’s plenty of scope for stretching them – including working with the CSS to change the look and feel of their site, adding plug-ins; even to the extent of encouraging them to understand how the code at the heart of WordPress generates the structured content.
The third-year project is, naturally enough, the most ambitious. The aim is to set up a group magazine web site with each student acting as a section editor. The key benefit of using WordPress is that it will help students understand web site design in terms of content management rather than simply what it looks like.
One of the key problems I found when marking student work at the start of the summer was that students on the online units spent far too much time playing around with front page web design, say, than actually being journalists – generating stories and writing copy, or making audio and video content.
Working with WordPress should help prevent that. And with the availability of magazine-type themes, we should be able to get the students thinking much more about their web project as a CMS rather than a pretty front page.
For anyone interested, we’ll be working with Hybrid News – a pretty sophisticated magazine-style theme by Justin Tadlock. I had thought about using Wynton Magazine, but although the theme looks good, the image handling is impossible to get a grip on and there’s no real documentation. In contrast, Hybrid News is easy enough to set up with a bit of research, and there’s extensive premium help available if you pay a $25 annual site membership.
I had thought of getting to grips with Drupal as a CMS, but realised quite quickly that this would be a bit ambitious. And it doesn’t really make sense to throw students in the deep end with a CMS they might be able to use, but which they would probably struggle to develop. Maybe next year…


  • When it comes to devising a production environment for online journalism students in the classroom, there are no easy answers.
    At UCA’s journalism department in Farnham, Simon and myself as course leader have debated this issue over the past several months.
    I have had my own doubts about Dreamweaver for some time. But, as in many universities, the media production software installed across the UCA network is Adobe Creative Suite and so Dreamweaver is readily to hand when one is looking for a web development platform. There are also all the usual corporate IT difficulties in setting up shared network disk space for student collaborative working or, even more difficult, trying to set up a CMS for classroom use.
    My own view is that there is a set of transferable skills for online journalists which are now emerging, and which we should be teaching, irrespective of the specifics of the classroom production environment. These include writing and organizing material with search engines firmly in mind; familiarity with the principles of content management environments, such as working with and writing to page templates, and using subject tagging intelligently; and an understanding of some of the ‘under the bonnet’ HTML and coding stuff that makes the web tick – not so as to turn out code monkeys – but so that the constraints of the web are appreciated.
    It will be very interesting to see how the experiment with WordPress as a classroom group production environment develops.

  • I should note that I was very pleased at how open the department has been towards switching over from Dreamweaver, once a technical approach could be sorted out.
    Also, this is by no means an issue solely for this university. I have encountered this elsewhere, and it’s due to the factors related by Steve in his comment. There’s an in-built tendency to use the tools that are easily available on the university’s systems – and for various reasons (some good, some not so) it is not easy to change these significantly.
    It’s also worth remembering that, as Martin Cloake has pointed out in a recent article, education is not training. We certainly shouldn’t get obsessed with following the latest industry software fads (Second Life, anyone?).
    Still – this move should be rewarding and interesting. I look forward to seeing how the students develop…

  • I’m so glad I left blogger to go self-hosted. WP self-hosting software does indeed enable you to get on with writing your own content and looks much more professional than free blogging software. I’ve considered using Drupal myself for another project – but I may stick with WP.

  • I think Joomla! just about beats WordPress for large sites, although its close. I argue the toss on my blog.
    In the units I run at Solent, we have 60 students contributing a load of content to a site each week and Joomla! has taken everything (so far) we have thrown at it.
    Mac User has done a great comparison this month of the various CMS – Joomla! wins.
    There are always improvements to be made and I would like to see much better handling of audio/video content.
    Drupal is appealing though, I know Kent Uni use it a lot.

  • Steve, hi. I chose WordPress because I know it quite well and can therefore help the students to work with it quite deeply. I want them to understand the back end of the tool as well as simply upload content. And WordPress is user-friendly enough to let them get quite involved I think. Someone already wants to integrate the planned site with Twitter, which is nice.
    But I’m keen to explore CMS more widely. Setting up something on Joomla might be a next step. Your posts on comparing different versions of CMS are very interesting – worth clicking through to for anyone reading who’d like to explore this further. I’m especially interested in how you got Branford Magazine to handle images – I find Der Prinz themes a nightmare…

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