Wednesday, September 21, 2011...4:21 pm

Using a group WordPress magazine site in online journalism teaching

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Last semester on the Journalism BA course at UCA in Farnham saw an experiment in teaching first-year Online Journalism students. We created a group news site in WordPress that aims to replicate the processes and set-up of real-world online news publishing.

Needless to say, this has not gone as smoothly as it might.

The background

We recently had to rewrite the Online Journalism unit for the course, as it had got noticeably out of date. This is because it was all of four or five years old, which in internet time is aeons.

The old unit focused on blogging and creating static web sites using Dreamweaver. A lot of what it asked students to do was to repurpose content from print to web. When it was written, the syllabus assumed that “online journalism” meant archiving print content on to the web, with a bit of blogging thrown in as a specifically “online” thing to do.

Why Dreamweaver? The university had it installed on its computers, and it meant students could submit work on CD, saving all the hassle of sorting out web hosting, and running the risk of journalism students showing the university up by actually publishing content online for real – not to mention the (genuine) risk of defamation.

This is now, clearly, nonsense (except the defamation bit).

The solution
A group multimedia web site that aimed to mimic as closely as possible the kind of environment that students might encounter in a real online news publishing operation.

For this site, I decided to use a professionally developed WordPress theme framework rather than hack my own free theme into shape.

UCA bought the Canvas theme from WooThemes – mainly because it offers menu-based control over the positioning and number of the site’s sidebars, and also because it comes with less “design” than other themes (in theory it’s a blank canvas), so students can create something more or less from scratch.

There are downsides to working with professional themes (for some very interesting technical analysis, see this interesting post by Foliovision). Primarily, the coding that the developers add to make their themes user-friendly makes them very hard for amateurs to alter the structure.

Fancy adding a special category  box to the basic WordPress TwentyTen theme? It’s not that difficult – the WordPress Codex should give you enough information to try, and there are plenty of other tutorials on the web. Try this on a purchased theme framework, though, and you run into trouble.

It can even also be difficult to change the stylesheet – meaning you have to keep posting requests for help in the developer’s support forum to solve any problem you come up against (in fairness, WooThemes is quite good at responding). More about this in another post soon.

All the problems we had

Running a live group site using the university’s IT infrastructure had its issues.

Site access problems
The site was regularly inaccessible using the university’s IT on Monday mornings – just when we had our online journalism workshops. Why? No one knows – but everyone else in the world could visit UCA Journalism News – including other UCA campuses – except UCA journalism students in Farnham.

Solution: a panicky site rebuild on the domain and a different web host.

The result – a functioning site but with the wrong URL. And the devil’s own job of reinstating the proper URL over the summer.

Also, because the URL kept changing, I never got around to setting up Google Analytics properly, so we have no web stats for the entire semester – a key omission that I am rightly ashamed of.

This was a rushed, foolish solution that you should never attempt. Of course I could have done something clever with a new URL and redirects or ARecord changes – or something – that didn’t require hours of unnecessary reconstruction and didn’t mess up our relationship with Google. You live and learn.

Getting students to work together
Did I mention this was a group site?

Anyone who has ever tried to get undergraduates to work in any kind of group environment will know how hard it is. Uniform editorial house style? The importance of categorising and tagging consistently? Forget it – it’s like herding cats.

This is an important lesson for lecturers – if you want students to use a group site consistently, make sure it is easy to use consistently. This means:

  • A straightforward taxonomy without dozens of categories
  • Automatic formatting of elements like thumbnail images so they can’t screw it up, even if they want to

Multi-platform projects need engagement
Alongside the group site, I thought how cool it would be to have a multi-strand social media presence, including a UCA Journalism News Facebook page, Twitter stream and Tumblr-type site (for that behind-the-scenes, scrapbook-type content).

I thought – stupidly – that students would be eager to play with different platforms and produce lots of content. I mean, they’ve all got camera- and video-phones, right? And surely they’ll be flocking to take part in Facebook content.


Students like doing their own thing
If students are into Twitter, they’ll have their own account and will use that. Likewise with Facebook, and probably with Tumblr or anything else.

The most telling comment came from one student who bemoaned the fact that she was being asked to produce content “to make someone else’s site look good, rather than making her own site better”. Don’t forget – we’re dealing with teenagers here.

Students tend to be a bit lazy
Harsh, but fair. It was very, very hard getting students to produce sufficient content for the main news web site, let alone producing lots of lovely multimedia content for a load of social media sites they don’t even own. Yes – I know that’s my fault for being a rubbish and uninspiring teacher. Really I mean “unmotivated”, rather than “lazy”.

However, my real failure was in not marketing it enough; getting everyone to like the UCA Journalism News Facebook page and so engaging with it from their own accounts.

You can’t do it alone
Any project like this needs coherent communication and management among a whole range of different units, tutors and student groups. It’s not something one person can make succeed on their own.

Our YouTube channel did succeed, but only because we managed to get a consistent message out to TV students to upload their video content whenever they produced it.

How? Not only by making sure the relevant lecturers were pushing the same message, but also by having an advocate in the group – a crossover student doing both online and TV units who worked hard to make sure material was uploaded with at least a relevant headline and reminded students of the appropriate logins and passwords

Maintaining content quality
Needless to say, many students can’t spell, or write grammatically. Nor can they proofread – spotting mistakes in copy is as alien to them as analogue recording. But the level of chaos in published content was a bit shocking.

Unfinished posts
Most worryingly was the tendency to publish a post but leave it looking like a dog’s dinner – with elements missing, a clearly draft headline and messy formatting.

Nothing on God’s earth could stop some students from doing this – even when it was clear that the site was real, live and capable of reaching a potentially global audience. Why? Why?

Simple rules
One solution was to try to draw up simple rules for house style and minimal quality standards for uploaded content. Still, this failed to really stick. It’s a tremendous problem that I still haven’t figured out how to solve. Advice welcome.

A good learning tool
But the experience hasn’t all been negative. The learning environment has been transformed to resemble much more closely a real online news environment, as one student who went on a work placement mid-semester realised. It’s not perfect, but it beats individual Blogger sites.

The site’s frustrations have also been very valuable. Students were asked to critique the site at the end of the unit, and their combined insights and criticisms will help them think about the problems of web design more deeply when they build their own sites. 

Even the problems of content quality have made some students realise the importance of accuracy and editorial consistency. Who knows – some may even start to proofread their work before they publish.

More to come soon (with luck) on the merits of commercial WordPress theme frameworks…

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