Open Network Learning at Royal Roads University

Next week I begin teaching a course in the Royal Roads MA in Learning & Technology (MALAT) program. The opportunity to teach in the program came up via George Veletsianos and the MALAT program head Elizabeth Childs.

This is a course that George usually teaches in the MALAT program, but George (and Elizabeth) are currently busy developing a new MALAT program at RRU.

Last week, I had the chance to see the new program when I attended a 2 day session at RRU with other associate faculty from both the MALAT program and the wider School of Education.

The new MALAT program at RRU is intriguing. Really intriguing. Theoretical foundations for the program emphasize open pedagogy and network learning.

Over the past 5 years, there has been extensive consultations with various stakeholder groups. The results are a graduate level education program that feels innovative, contemporary, and grounded in the reality of what it takes to learn in a digital, networked enabled world.

It’s a bold vision. Students in the program will take an active and participatory role with the wider education community. They will openly blog (on a newly set up WordPress network at Royal Roads) and develop a social media presence, using both of these tools as pedagogical springboards to take a deep dive into the world of open, networked learning.

Not to dismiss my own experiences as a MALAT grad and the program at the time I was a student (yes, I have all kinds of tendrils intertwined with RRU and this particular program), but there is a small part of me that is slightly remorseful that the timing for a program like this wasn’t quite right 8 years ago when I enrolled as a student. Blogging, using social media, developing a professional network, and using social media tools as personal learning tools is how I operate.

Needless to say, I am smitten with the vision for the program.

What has jazzed me the most in the days since the retreat is that my thinking has been re-energized. I have been jolted back to some of the past work I did on network learning and informal learning, much of which went into my Masters thesis. Things I haven’t thought or written about in years. I realize that I miss having the time and space that a graduate program provides to really think about this stuff; about how the Internet has changed the nature of informal learning, and how important it is to prepare learners with the skills and knowledge to truly become life-long learners.

I see it everyday in my kids as they digitally manouver between formal and informal learning situations. They follow their own interests and passions via YouTube videos and online courses. Beside the regular social stuff that teens and pre-teens do with friends, they do video hangouts with their friends to complete homework assignments. They get daily mobile prompts on their phones to complete micro-French lessons, and stay playfully motivated to keep ahead of their uncle on the leaderboard. They collaborate on school projects with their peers using web-based tools, conducting research online.

These are the types of learning activities I see pedagogically reflected in the new MALAT program that excites me. And I feel lucky to be part of the ride.

Photo: Open Teaching – Thinning the Walls – Revision #2 by Alec Couros CC-BY-NC-SA


Fall projects

I’ve got a busy fall on the go with some new initiatives and projects keeping me busy.

EdTech Demos

This is a new educational technology initiative here at BCcampus, designed to help expose the system to some new ideas and educational technologies. These are free 30-60 minute virtual  demonstrations done about once a month.  So far I’ve done 3 of these demo sessions (Canvas, FieldPress, H5P) and I’ve been very happy at the response and attendance from the post-sec system.

One of the goals I have is to try to make some space for open source educational technologies as these are often interesting projects that don’t have the marketing or promotional budgets of a commercial edtech company. But there will be a mix of commercial and open source, big and small to try to get a nice flavour of what is happening in the edtech space. I have 2 more schedule for this fall, one with D2L Brightspace on Learning Analytics at the end of October, and another with in late November.

I’ve put together an email notification system that people can sign up for to get notified when these demos happen. I am shooting for about one per month.  I’m also looking for suggestions of edtech that you would like to see a demo of.

Guide on the Side Sandbox

I’m also coordinating a sandbox project with a group of academic librarians from aroun d the BC post-sec system for an open source application called Guide on the Side. Guide on the Side is an open source app developed by the University of Arizona to create guided tours of websites and web applications. We are just in the process of installing the software and forming our community. This sandbox project will run for the next 6 months as we test out the software. I am trying to put together some edtech evaluation frameworks (SAML, RAIT, etc) to use as a guide for evaluating the software. I imagine I’ll end up cobbling a few of these together to come up with a framework that works for what we want our sandbox projects to do.  We’ll be releasing our findings in the spring.


I’ll be heading to EDUCAUSE in Anaheim at the end of the month. The last time I was at EDUCAUSE was in 2007 where I first met Bryan Alexander and learned about this new thing called Twitter. I don’t know if this one will be as memorable (Twitter became kind of a big deal in my life), but I am looking forward to attending.

I am in a bit of session overload right now as I plan to attend and put together my schedule. I forgot just how massive this thing is. Holy session overload! One time slot I am looking at has 53 concurrent sessions. Even when I filter from 7 to 3 streams, I still have 25 options. This one looks most relevant for how I feel at this moment.


As I have written about before, I am intrigued by a few new technologies and ways of thinking about edtech that have been coming out of EDUCAUSE, specifically the idea of Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) and applications like CASA. These are the sessions I’ll be attending, along with some more on personalized and adaptive learning which I feel I have a good conceptual understanding of, but have yet to get a good grasp on some of the more practical applications of these technologies.

Privacy Impact Assessment & WordPress Projects

One of the other projects I have on my plate for this fall is some Privacy Impact Assessment work for the BC OpenEdTech Collaborative. We had a very productive meeting of our WordPress group where one of the barriers identified by the group was the lack of clarity about data sovereignty and privacy with the technical solutions we are looking at (EduCloud, Docker, and WordPress itself).

While we do have a FIPPA compliant hosting service in EduCloud, that is just one (albeit significant) piece of the FIPPA puzzle. But there may be other privacy considerations when it comes to using WordPress. For example, a plugin may potential disclose personal information to a server outside of Canada.

Since privacy and FIPPA (within the context of educational technology) is part of my wheelhouse, I’ve taken on coordinating a Privacy Impact Assessment for an EduCloud based WordPress project.  Since a privacy impact assessment is something that is done on an initiative and not just the technology used as part of the initiative, I’ll be taking a fairly in-depth look at one of our applications of WordPress and using it to construct a Privacy Impact Assessment report that can then (hopefully) be used as a template for other initiatives using similar, but slightly different technologies. I have an idea of how to do this in my head, but haven’t yet fully formed how to execute it yet.

Other stuff

There are a number of other projects I have on the go right now (including a big one with BCNET and UBC developing an onboarding process for institutions who wish to join the provincial Kaltura shared service), and participating on the SCETUG steering committee. But these are likely the ones I’ll be blogging about over the coming months.

Oh, and something unrelated to my work with BCcampus – I’ll be spending some time prepping to teach in the new year at Royal Roads University in the Learning & Technology program. The course (normally taught by George Veletsianos) is  LRNT505: Community Building Processes for Online Learning Environments, and I am thrilled to be able to get into a (virtual) classroom and work with students. Being that I have been out of an institution for the past 4 years, I am immensely grateful to have the opportunity to jump back into an institution as a faculty member & work directly with students.


Working with Sandstorm

I’ve been making an attempt to kick the tires more with Sandstorm in preparation of our upcoming workshop at the Festival of Learning.


Snapshot of my Sandstorm grain dashboard

Small pieces, loosely joined is what Sandstorm is all about. Sandstorm is the stitching that joins the small pieces, providing a common authentication and security framework to a patchwork quilt of open source applications.

So far I’ve tested out about half a dozen of the 50+ applications within the Sandstorm eco-system trying to use them in my day to day work. Etherpad (the collaborative document editor that is a scaled down version of Google Docs) and Frameadate (a handy meeting scheduler alternative to Doodle) have been the most useful. I’ve also played around with Ethercalc (spreadsheet), Quick Survey (survey tool), Hacker Slides (presentation tool that uses Markdown), OpenNode BB (forums), GitLab (Git repo), Rocket Chat (Slack alternative), and mucked around a bit with the WordPress port in Sandstorm.

My general observation is that the applications that work well within the Sandstorm environment are small, discrete and focused where you can create a single instance of the application (called a grain in the Sandstorm world). Things like a single document or meeting invitation. Tools like Etherpad, Ethercalc, Quick Polls, Hacker Slides and Frameadate are the type of applications that Sandstorm does well in that you create a document, share with others to collaborate and contribute to, and then move on.

I tend to think of these tools as being somewhat disposable. Once a discrete task is done, it’s done. The survey is finished, the meeting dates are picked, the document has been edited and completed. Get in, do your work, get out.

As you can see from my screenshot, I’ve got a lot of Etherpad instance on the go, working on collaborative documents with different users. There is no folder scheme in Sandstorm, or way to organize these multiple instances so I can imagine over time as you create more and more documents, the user interface could become quite cluttered. I’m just starting to get to the tipping point where I’d like to be able to put some structure around the different applications I have going. Maybe organizing by project I am working on and grouping all the related apps I am using with a single project in a single folder or some other visual organizational metaphor. But haven’t seen a way to do that yet.

More complicated applications seem to have more limitations. WordPress, for example, is not the full featured version of WordPress that you would get at or if you installed it yourself. Installing plugins and themes means uploading a zip file instead of connecting to the remote WordPress plugin repo. Publishing is static, meaning whenever you add new content you have to rebuild the site.

Rocket Chat (a nice open source Slack-like application) also has a limitation with the mobile app. Rocket Chat works quite well if you are logged into Sandstorm, but  the mobile application cannot connect through Sandstorm, which limits its usefulness.

These are not dealbreakers, but really just the things you learn while sandboxing and experimenting with new technology – seeing what the tool does well and where the limitations are.

Image: Blue Sky by leg0fenris CC-BY-NC-ND


Create embeddable HTML5 content with H5P

Been playing around this morning with a series of tools called H5P.  H5P is a plugin for Drupal, Moodle and WordPress that allows you to create a number of different interactive HTML5 media types. Things like interactive videos, quizzes, timelines and presentations.

I’ve only had a chance to play with the plugin for a few minutes this morning, but got it working and was able to create some basic interactive content, adding a branching overlay to a YouTube video that runs from the 2 to 12 second mark. Choose an option from the screen and jump to a different point in the YouTube video. I also created a simple interactive question.

While I created these using the H5P plugin I installed on another WordPress site, the H5P plugin gives others the ability to take some embed code and post the content that I created on their site, giving other people the chance to use the same content. So, here is that same interactive quiz question that I created on my testing site now embedded here using the H5P embed code.

With the interactive video example, I am actually embedding an embedded YouTube video with the overlays that I created using H5P. Meta-embed.

There is also an option to assign an open license to the interactions I create at the time I create them, and make it possible for people to download the source file.

One thing I can see off the bat is that there are a lot of content type options with this tool. There are about 30 different content types, each with numerous options so this 10 minute quick look hardly does justice to the possibilities or options. But I like where this is going and it certainly merits a deeper dive into the tool.

H5P is an open source project and community being lead by National Digital Learning Arena (NDLA) in Norway. NDLA is a publicly funded project which aims to offer a complete, free and open learning portal for all subjects in the Norwegian high school level.

More to come as I dig deeper into this tool and plugin.


A BC HigherEd WordPress Community

South of the border, I am watching the WP in Higher Ed community growing, and it strikes me that there may be an appetite for  something similar to happen in BC.

WordPress has deep roots in the BC post-sec system, and there is a lot of WordPress use currently happening.  There are UBC blogs and UNBC blogs, WordPress course development happening at JIBC, eportfolio work at Capilano (who invoked both The Bava and Novak Rogic in their site credits and at their recent presentation at the BCNET Conference). When I was at Camosun College, I set up a WordPress instance that is still being used by faculty. There is the fantastic PressBooks goodness Brad is whipping up here at BCcampus to support the open textbook project, and the work at TRU being done by Brian Lamb and Alan Levine.


I suspect this is the tip of the WordPress iceberg & there are many more pockets of use in higher ed in BC.

I’m hoping to start finding those pockets of WordPress use in the system in the hope of bringing together those who are using (and want to use) WordPress into some kind of community/network of practice.

I’ve set up a form to gather information from folks in the BC post-sec system who are using, or are interested in, connecting with others across the province using WordPress.

I have to stress that this is very preliminary groundwork on my part to gauge if there is enough interest in the province to bring together some kind of more formalized community and/or network. What this community/network will look like, what we work on, how we connect, where we find value is something that should be driven by the community, so if the shape/structure, feel of this community is a bit vague right now, that’s intentional.  But from my view, I can see areas where it makes sense to come together, collaborate, find shared commonalities and potential opportunities that could benefit all.

If you know someone in the BC post-sec world who is using WordPress, please let them know about this opportunity. I hope that we can get a good mix of people from both the technology and the pedagogy sides of the house to come together and participate.

Image: edupunkin by Tom Woodward CC-BY-NC


Are you analog or digital?

I left a fairly lengthy response on Tony Bates blog post about an issue he has been experiencing.

Tony used our instance of Pressbooks as the platform for his latest book, Teaching in a Digital Age. Tony noticed that the PDF version of the book had a problem with how the images were rendered. They were not in the correct flow of the text when the conversion from web to PDF happened in Pressbooks.

Pressbooks does the conversion from web to PDF better than most, but this is an issue we have been dealing with as part of our project. Images that are placed in the correct flow of a book in Pressbooks often get moved and pushed around in the PDF version of the book.

I understand the annoyance, but it illustrates beautifully the dichotomy of the borderlands we currently live in, straddling the digital and the analog worlds of publishing.

Here is my response.

Nate hits it on the head – these are the complexities involved in digital publishing as we straddle the world of print with the world of the web (and other digital formats). Digital publishing formats are fluid, and print formats are rigid. By choosing to use a publishing platform that values digital over print (and Pressbooks is designed to favour web over print), you are making a choice to value flexible over rigid.

However, as you have discovered, the two don’t play well. While Pressbooks and the PDF engine does an admirable job of creating an acceptable print ready document, you are still going to end up with having to compromise the layout of the rigid print for the flexible digital.

This is actually the biggest conceptual hurdle that most people moving from print based publishing to digital publishing have to contend with. It is often very disconcerting for those who have designed for the rigid formats of print to make the transition to the fluid world of digital. And they are often disappointed because they have to give up their pixel (or point in the print world) control and surrender to the fluid layouts of digital that put the user, not the publisher, in control of the appearance of the content.

The dilemma I have, as someone who is developing tools that attempt to straddle both worlds, is how can I satisfy the expectations of those who are accustomed and expecting rigid print, while still satisfy those who understand and expect the fluid digital. It is a heck of a challenge and someone is going to end up unhappy in the end, as you are seeing. Your book website looks great and works well. Your PDF (which I consider print, not digital as it enforces a rigid layout vs the digital flexible) is expecting rigid and cannot accommodate the digital flexible flow.

This is at the heart of why I find PDF so frustrating to work with. It appears to be digital, but is really analog hiding in a digital sheep’s clothing.

In the end, the decision is the author as to which compromise they are willing to make. Are they a digital publisher first making an analog version available out of convenience to those who still live in the analog world, in which case the PDF output would be acceptable. Or are they an analog publisher who wants to create rigid layouts (ie PDF and print) first with the web/ePub and digital publishing as the afterthought.


Making WordPress Accessible with FLOE

I’ve installed the FLOE WordPress plugin on this site.  FLOE (Flexible Learning for Open Education) is a project out of the  Inclusive Design Research Centre   at Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) in Toronto.

The plugin adds accessibility feature to any WordPress site, and is designed specifically to address the needs of those using WordPress to develop and deliver accessible Open Educational Resources (OER).

If you look at the top right of this site, you should see a box that looks like this:


Click on that and you will see a number of options appear that let you change the display of the site to address some common accessibility issues, such as text size, line spacing and contrast.


Amanda Coolidge (along with our partners at CAPER-BC and Camousn College) has been doing a lot of work on accessibility with the BC Open Textbook project. Recently, this culminated in the addition of some accessibility features to the Pressbooks plugin, developed by our co-op student Ashlee Zhang. The accessibility features developed by Ashlee match some of the work done by FLOE (like increasing font sizes and line spacing).

I first became aware of FLOE in February around the same time that Amanda, Tara and Sue were conducting our accessibility workshops with students. Unbeknownst to us, while we were doing this in BC, there was a similar sprint workshop on accessibility being held concurrently in Ontario. In retrospect, I wish we had been aware of the Ontario event as it would have been a great opportunity to combine forces and collaborate as we work towards the common goal of making OER the most universally accessible resources available to students.

That said,  Amanda has since made contact with the project. Considering that Pressbooks Textbook, our platform, shares the same DNA as WordPress (it is a WordPress plugin), it seems to me that there is a lot of benefit by connecting with the FLOE project and working together on making OER’s as accessible as possible.

As for the plugin itself, I’d appreciate your feedback on how it works. Play around with it and leave a comment. Click “Show Display Preferences” in the top right corner and get started.

If you want to add the plugin to your site, here’s the GitHub repo.



Pressbooks Textbook development

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything about Pressbooks development, and we have a couple of new development projects in the works that you might be interested in.

First, we are working with the excellent FunnyMonkey team to develop an open source PDF output engine. Right now, outputs of PDF in PB requires a commercial PDF output engine PrinceXML. Prince does a really fantastic job of creating PDF versions of the books created in PB, but the fact that it is a commercial license is a barrier for others who may want to adopt PB.

This project has been on our ToDo list for awhile, and I am really happy to see the work that Bill, Jeff and Brad have been doing to develop an open source PDF output engine based on mPDF.

The idea with the new PDF output plugin is not to replace Prince, but to provide an alternative for those who don’t wish to purchase a Prince license. PB will work with both.  mPDF won’t quite match the feature set of Prince, but it should still provide an adequate alternative for creating PDF’s without having to dish out money for a commercial Prince license.

Second, we are working with Hugh and the development team to develop an Open Document Type (ODT) output engine. This ODT output will also be suitable for use with MS Word (I can hear the sound of bemused puzzlement from some of you). Yeah, Word. I think that, if we are serious about making these books adaptable and editable, we need to make our content available in as many formats as possible, including formats that faculty are used to working with. And, for better or for worse, that is Word. I think that is what most faculty are used to working with, and if it means they will customize content and remix it and – ultimately – adopt it, then let’s make it available in a format that can be edited using Word.

The third bit of development revolves around the excellent work on accessibility that Amanda is doing with Tara Robertson at CAPER-BC and Sue Doner at Camosun College. We are going to be releasing an accessibility toolkit very soon that is targeted at faculty who are adapting and creation open textbooks to help them understand some of the basic design principles of accessibility. Based on some of the accessibility user testing Amanda, Tara and Sue have done, our new co-op student Ashlee from the SFU Computing Science program is working on baking some new accessibility features into PB to make the platform even more accessible for students.

Look for these to make their way into Pressbooks in the coming months.

* I updated this post after Brad informed me that these changes are not specific to Pressbooks Textbook, but will be submitted back to Pressbooks for inclusion with the core package.



How BCcampus PressBooks is different than

I met with Dr. Tony Bates a few weeks back to talk about open textbook publishing. Tony is looking to self-publish an open textbook and was looking for some advice on how to technically go about publishing.

I mentioned to him that we are using PressBooks as our primary publishing platform and began to explain to him a few of the differences between our version of PressBooks and the hosted version of as we have been customizing the WordPress plugin quite a bit to meet the specific needs of our project and of open textbook development.

First off, when thinking about PressBooks, you have 2 options, much like with it’s parent project WordPress. There is, which is the hosted version of the software. Sign up for an account and you can start writing your book in a few minutes with a minimum of technical fuss. While you can create books for free on, when you output the final PDF or ePub version, there is some branding and watermarking, as you can see here in this small book I created at

And then there is the open source PressBooks plugin. Use this plugin on a vanilla install of WordPress and you have an (almost) fully functioning version of I say almost because there is a dependency that costs money (if you are an academic institution – there is a free license for Prince that inserts a Prince logo into the output) . In order to output PDF versions of your book, you will (if you are an institution) need to purchase and install a tool called Prince XML to do the output rendering into PDF format. The developers of the PressBooks plugin felt that this was a better PDF output engine than some open source alternatives to output PDF documents. And it is certainly a robust product that does a great job of turning your PressBooks powered WordPress site into a PDF document suitable for print or digital distribution. But the institutional licensing cost might be a limitation for those interested in fully open source digital publishing, and a barrier for others who wish to use the open source plugin.

That said, there is no additional charge for the ePub rendering engine in PressBooks and really, when we talk about digital publishing, ePub is the format we are really interested in. Add in that you get a very nicely formatted website version of the book (really a tricked out WordPress theme that strips away a lot of the WordPress widgets and extras and puts the focus on readability) and you have a very functional “publishing” platform for most books.

However, our needs are a bit specific as we are publishing open textbooks and those have some special needs. So, along the way we (well, very little me, a lot BCcampus developer Brad Payne) have been making modifications and adding plugins to make PressBooks work for us for the BC Open Textbook project.

Recently, we have begun pulling all of these changes together and are working on developing a second plugin that is open textbook specific. This plugin is not a replacement of the PressBooks plugin, but would work with the PressBooks plugin and hopefully make it a bit easier for someone who wants to mimic our setup do so locally (and as an aside, my head is swimming these days of what that might mean & if we should work towards getting to a distro where we could distribute not only a BCcampus-like textbook PressBooks plugin, but also an entire collection of textbooks made in PressBooks, ready to be installed locally at an institution. A repository and editing tool completely seeded with 40 open textbooks ready to be customized and edited with PressBooks. But that is still in the early thinking stages.

So, what have we been doing to our local version of PressBooks that makes it different than Specifically, here are the changes we have made, and the plugins we are using.


  • The Creative Commons Configurator, which adds a CC license to the bottom of each webpage in the HTML version of the book and adds in CC metadata to each webpage so that it can be correctly indexed by search engines as CC content (it also enables tools like OpenAttribute to work). Brad has actually been working on customizing this plugin to allow us to input & display information when the content is a derivative and based on someone elses work.
  • Relevansi, a search engine plugin for the website version of the book, reducing the need to generate a traditional index.
  • LaTex for WordPress allows us to use this popular science & math markup language Actually, not what we are using anymore. We’re using a modified version of WP Latex, which has been committed to PressBooks core
  • MCE Table Buttons to add tables because, you know, textbooks have tables.
  • Brad also built another MCE plugin called MCE Textbook Buttons which adds 3 new buttons to the TinyMCE toolbar that create styled fields for Learning Outcomes, Key Terms, and Exercises. These buttons add some visual styling and create coloured boxes for al the different output types. There isn’t any special metadata associated with the boxes that the buttons create that might define them as Learning Outcomes, Key Terms, etc. It is simply a visual style difference.

Code Changes

  • We’ve altered the theme to flips the table of contents and description fields on the book homepage so that the ToC appears above the description. For most users of the book (students) the ToC will be more important than the description as they will have probably be sent directly to the site by their instructor.
  • Added in the Relevansi search box. (Brad noted that Relevansi is still not fully incorporated into the new plugin. The search box is there, but the Relevansi plugin integration is still being worked on).
  • We’ve disabled comments. This is a tough one, and one we had to make a decision about based on logistics. Ideally, these books would be used by students. Faculty using the book would send them to the book. But these books have no instructor “owner” per se. There is no subject matter expert ready to respond to potential questions a student may have about the content they are reading. In other words, there is no one watching the comment shop. So, you can imagine a scenario where a student comes to a page, has a question about the content, posts their question in the comment field and then…..gets no response because no one see their question. Discouraging and not very useful. So, we’ve disabled comments on the site. But this is one that we may fire up again in the future. I just don’t know if the potential benefit is worth the potential risk just yet. If there was a dedicated instructor monitoring the resource, then great. But I worry about the instructor who uses the book getting slammed by their student for not answering their question because they didn’t even know that the student asked the question.
  • Added a footer line to the PDF and ePub outputs that says “This book is available for free from” This is a tip I picked up from David Harris & the OpenStax project as a way to combat the selling of the textbook by third parties. Not that it is wrong to sell the books released with a full CC-BY license, but if someone does buy the book, they should know that there is and always will be a free version of that book available from the open site. It’s not perfect and discovery would happen after the fact, but maybe someone who buys the book might use the information to contact us and tell us that someone is selling copies of the book so at least we know.
  • In the admin area, we’ve also changed the Feedback link that floats to the right of the admin screen to send us at the project a message asking for help. In vanilla PB the Feedback remarks go to PB.

There are also a number of customizations that Brad has made that have been contributed back to the PB project, including Brad’s import engine, which imports Word, ODT and ePub files into PressBooks. This is our preferred method of changing the plugin – contribute back bits to PressBooks first and let the project decide if they want to merge the code into vanilla PressBooks. But there are some bits that might be of no interest to the PB developers that we would like to have, hence our own custom development.

Our goal is to have the infrastructure in place to begin recruiting other developers to participate in the development of more open textbook specific features by April. We have a couple of events happening, including the Open Textbook Summit and the annual BCNet conference where we want to talk in more detail about the project and our changes to PB. So, if you have some WP chops and are looking for an open source open ed project, consider yourself invited to come & contribute. Especially if you have some knowledge of ePub3 as getting ePub3 output is a big goal in the near future (see

Here are a few screenshots of the differences.

Example of the Key Takeaway & Exercises callout boxes


What our book homepage looks like. Slightly different than vanilla PB in that it flips the Book Description with the Table of Contents at the bottom of the page. It also removes the default PB branding.


Example of a book search results page from the Relevansi search engine. Notice the search box in the top right, which we have added to each book.


WordPress: let a thousand textbooks bloom (well, hopefully)

Update: So, after testing this out, turns out it isn’t as simple as I first thought. See the update note below. If you are the person from Ryerson who did this, I’d love it if you left a comment about what happened when you imported the book.

A couple hours ago I finished uploading a copy of a Media Studies open textbook to our open textbook collection. The book was originally created as a WordPress site by the University of Otago textbook hack project I’ve written about before. A few week ago, Erika Pearson sent me a WordPress backup file of the textbook they have created. I imported that file into our PressBooks collection and, earlier today sent out a tweet saying I had just finished adding the file to our collection.

Because PressBooks is WordPress based, importing the WordPress site created by Erica’s crew was dead easy. It imported into PressBooks with a minimum of fuss – just a bit of structural reformatting to fit the PressBooks book paradigm.

Now, along with our version of the textbook, I also try to make available as many remixable file formats as I can. In this case, I also released the WXR file, which is the WordPress backup file.

Well, here it is, not even 3 hours after I sent out that original tweet saying that we have made the book available when I started getting some pingback messages.

pingbackI was curious as to what was pinging the Media Studies book back, so I followed the links and discovered that someone at Ryerson in Ontario has downloaded a copy of the WordPress backup file and installed it locally on a WordPress instance at Ryerson.

Now this kind of blows my mind in a most  awesome way. First, with very little fuss or friction, a CC licensed book has made it’s way from New Zealand, to BC to Ontario because the original was built in WordPress. Making the backup file available made it possible for someone to take the file and with very little work, have a copy of the book working on their own site, ready to be modified.

Looking at the Ryerson site, it looks like the person who installed it is just testing (the server url begins with test), but it blows me away that a resource can proliferate that quickly and with that little effort. I credit WordPress.

And this is really one of the reasons why I love using a tool that, at the core, is WordPress for this project. As a publishing platform, WordPress is now so common that this kind of fast proliferation of openly licensed content can occur. Combined with the type of speed and reach you get with social media and you have something that is lightweight, fast and easy to use.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about lightweight means of sharing the content we are creating, and the more I think about it, the more I see WordPress – the platform – as such a key piece to the sustainability of these textbooks. Once you get the book completed in PressBooks/WordPress, it becomes fairly trivial to install the “textbook” on any WordPress platform. Don’t know if you have ever tried reusing SCORM content, or even LMS content, but I can tell you from experience that it is not a trivial task.

Update 4 hours later: I’m eating crow. Until this came up today, I had been working on the untested assumption that the PressBooks to WordPress backup/restore process would work. But I had never actually tried to restore a PressBooks backup into vanilla WordPress. Seeing this example today, I thought it might have confirmed my untested hunch and got excited and fired off the original blog post. But this evening when I went to actually test it for myself, I went back and tried to install the PressBooks backup into a clean vanilla WordPress install and…well…the long and short is that it’s not working. I’m getting all kinds of import errors. So, yeah. Needs some work to make this happen in the way I hope it would happen. But this next section still remains true…

Something that is easy to copy makes it more likely that it will be copied. And if it is copied, it has more chances of living beyond it’s original life. A thousand version of something seems to me to be the ultimate sustainability plan for any piece of content.


Learning from others: Textbook sprinting in New Zealand

I’m picking up steam on researching and planning a possible textbook sprint here in BC as part of the open textbook project. While I am still in the research stages of how this thing might work, I’m feeling more confident that with the right people involved we can pull off a textbook sprint.

Just before Christmas I had a chance to speak with Erika Pearson at Otago University in New Zealand. In November, Erika ran a textbook hack to create a first year Media Studies textbook and during the course of our chat I got a better understanding of some of the logistics involved in pulling it together. I am appreciative of her time and willingness to share, and look forward to the cookbook they are planning on releasing later this spring on how to organize a textbook sprint. Here are my notes from our convo.

  • Timeline for the entire project was about 3 months (project plan and a more detailed timeline are posted).
  • There were about 10 participants involved in the Otago sprint. Surprsing to me, most of them were distributed, so communication was virtual done through Google Hangouts.
  • Most of the authors were actually grad students which turned the activity into a powerful authentic learning experience (she’s talking my language here).
  • Authors had a dual role – writing & peer reviewing what other wrote.
  • Erika stressed the important role of designating an OER librarian to help source and attribute resources needed on the fly. A strong CC bg with knowledge of CC & educational repositories.
  • Prior to the sprint, the authors met virtually & came up with a rough outline of the book, including topics and chapters. This was based on course outlines shared by faculty. In retrospect, Erika said she wished that there would have been a bit more pre-work done ahead of time and that everyone came to the sprint with draft chapters that could then be honed and worked on over the actual sprint. Note to self: do as much work ahead of time. By the time we all get together face to face, a good bulk of work might already be done.
  • Write in sprints. Erika’s project broke their day into 90 minute writing chunks, followed by a period of peer review. Iterative development. Note to self: if we use PressBooks (which I want to do if this goes ahead) what kind of workflowing tools do we have/can we add to facilitate a review process?
  • There were a number of virtual lurkers in the hangout. Note to self: make external participation possible (video, chat, event hashtag)
  • Have a note taker to record what needs to be done as it comes up. They kept a spreadsheet of tasks that got added to as the sprint progressed.
  • A fact checker would be a good role to have. Someone to research as problems/disputes/questions of content arise so that authors don’t get bogged down in surfing for answers to questions.

Erika’s project was supported by Creative Commons.

I am also hoping to speak to Siyavula and Adam Hyde of Book Sprints to get some bg on how their events work. But right now I am thinking along these lines:

  • Sprint is a bit of a misnomer as I think most of the work will be done ahead of time in the weeks/months leading up to the actual sprint. Therefore, trying to find a time where faculty have at least a few weeks leading up to the actual event to work on the project will be important. Perhaps early June might be a good time?
  • We’ll need a few pre-event virtual sessions of participants, including some technical training on the platform, setting up the structure, and draft writing. Perhaps 3 seperate pre-event synchronous sessions?
  • The actual sprint itself. If we can get most of the authoring work done ahead of time, 2, maybe 3 days would be what we would need together. Anything longer than that might be a tough f2f commitment for some to make. And, if the actual days are as intense as I think they might be, any longer risks burnout.
  • Subject area. I have one in mind and I have contacted the head of the provincial articulation committee for that area to get his input & feedback. It is an area that currently has no existing open textbook available, but (I suspect) quite a few open resources available. And the subject area is perfect to create something very Canada-specific, which may not get created otherwise by some of the more U.S.-centric projects.
  • A synchronous PressBooks code sprint. This is something Brad Payne and I have been discussing. Alongside the book sprint it might be useful to have running parallel a PressBooks code sprint. There are a number of enhancements that could be made to PressBooks to make it a better tool for collaborative textbook authoring, and having the input of users at the time they are actually using the tool might be invaluable. And it could be a real catalyst to improving participation rates among developers for the project. If we can find some WordPress developers interested in working with us on improving PressBooks, this could be a very useful exercise as it would be great to see more developers participate from higher ed.

WordPress pilot docs

In 2009 I was working at Camousn College & was given the opportunity to do a WordPress pilot project at the college. We were looking for a solution for faculty who wanted to publish content to the web, but didn’t want the overhead of an LMS. We were using Microsoft FrontPage for many years, but our IT folks were rolling out Windows 7, which didn’t support FrontPage. So the time seemed right for a WordPress project.

A tweet from Tanis Morgan at the JI prompted me to post these resources as they might be a useful starting point for some who are looking to run a WordPress pilot at their institution. The WordPress pilot documentation does contain some links to further resources (although those links might now be dead as it has been 4 years since I created these documents).

Sorry these are in PDF – breaking my own rules of reuse here. Bad OER advocate, bad! But I seem to have lost the original Word docs.

WordPress Pilot Document

Executive summary

Distributed Education would like to run a 9 month pilot project to evaluate the use of the WordPress publishing platform as a possible tool for faculty to use to develop and maintain stand alone websites and/or a blogs.

DE has identified 2 goals for the pilot:

  1. The primary goal is to determine the feasibility of using the WordPress platform as a replacement for FrontPage and Contribute for stand alone faculty websites at Camosun.
  2. A second goal will be to examine the use of WordPress as a traditional blog platform for faculty who wish to explore blogging as part of their pedagogical practice.

The rationale for this pilot is threefold:

  1. The current standard website maintenance tool, FrontPage, has been deprecated by Microsoft and will soon become unsupported.
  2. There is still considerable demand from faculty for stand alone websites that live outside of Desire2Learn, yet are still supported by the College (see June 2009 ITS/DE Staff Survey).
  3. There has also been demand from faculty, departments and other organizations within the college for assistance from Distributed Education in setting up blogs. In the past 6 months, DE has supported the use of blogs for various projects in a number of schools including Health & Human Services (, Arts and Science (, and the English Creative Writing Program ( These blogs have been developed on platforms outside of Camosun.

Download WordPress Pilot Document (PDF 5 pages)

FrontPage Replacement Rationale

This report provides a rationale as to why WordPress was chosen to replace FrontPage for standalone faculty websites.

Download FrontPage Replacement Rationale (PDF 6 pages)



PressBooks, XAMPP and bad paths call for help.

(update Oct 2, 2013 at the bottom of the page. I haven’t found a solution, yet)

I’m looking for a bit of help from any XAMPP, WordPress or PressBooks folks.

I’ve been trying to get a development version of PressBooks running on my Windows laptop and have run into an annoying little problem. I am not sure if this is a PressBooks thing or a XAMPP thing (although I’ve brought it up with PB and they believe it is a XAMPP/Apache issue), but I can’t figure it out & am hoping that there might be someone out there who can help.

The problem has to do with the path to the PressBooks themes.

I’ve installed WordPress, setup a multi-site instance and activated the PressBooks plugin as per the install instructions. I’ve done this a few times on hosted servers & the install is fairly straightforward to get working.

Not so with XAMPP on my Windows laptop. When I activate the PressBooks plugin I see an unstyled PressBooks homepage that looks like this:


Instead of the default theme that should look like this:


When I use Firebug and take a look at the code, I can see right away that the paths are wonky to the theme stylesheet.


That path should begin with http://localhost/pressbooks and not with c:\xampp\htdocs etc etc.

What is confusing is that some of the paths are being rewritten correctly. It just appears to be the style and favicon link that isn’t correct.

It looks to me like there is an issue between Unix & Windows file paths getting mixed together. When I brought this up with PressBooks, they didn’t think it was a problem with their code, which has me heading down the XAMPP path.

Now, I’ve installed many software packages locally using XAMPP before, including numerous WordPress installs and haven’t had  a problem. But this has been frustrating me as I can’t quite figure out why the path is being rewritten to be incorrect.

Could it be an htaccess issue?

If you have an idea where I might start looking to solve this path issue, I’d appreciate it if you could pop a note into the comments.

Update October 2, 2013

Spent the morning looking into this.  Short story, it is still broken. Here’s what I’ve done so far and where I’ve looked (in case Google brings you here with the same problem).

The file that is generating the link to the stylesheet in the PressBooks default theme is called header.php and is located in the pressbooks\themes-root folder. I open the header.php file. These are the 2 suspect lines of code that seems to be returning the wrong code to both the stylesheet and favicon (lines 13 & 14)

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="<?php bloginfo('stylesheet_url'); echo '?' . filemtime( get_stylesheet_directory() . '/style.css'); ?>" media="screen" />

<link rel="shortcut icon" href="<?php bloginfo('stylesheet_directory'); ?>/favicon.ico" />

It’s the bloginfo function that looks like it is returning the wrong path. So I test out and in the body of the document I write:

<?php echo bloginfo('stylesheet_url'); ?>

and sure enough, it returns the incorrect path


This blog post suggests using a different WP function other than bloginfo to find paths, so I try to use the get_stylesheet_directory() to see if it returns a different path, but it returns the same C:\xampp… path

The WP codex suggests yet another function: get_stylesheet_uri()

Same result.

So I dig deeper.

Where is the code to the bloginfo function? WP codex says it is in the file wp-includes/general-template.php. So I open that file up in Aptana and start digging. Turns out, the function is actually called get_bloginfo(). The code snippet I am interested is on line 483:

case 'stylesheet_url':
 $output = get_stylesheet_uri();

Look, there is that get_stylesheet_uri() function again.

So, now I am seeing that a number of functions are returning the wrong path, but still not sure why or where to turn to next. My wafer thin coding skills are showing.. So, I have posted to the WordPress forums and hope I can find some help. Problem is, I don’t know if this is a WP problem, PressBooks problem, or a XAMPP problem.

In the meantime, I have hardcoded the path to the stylsheet into the header.php file and that is working. But what a hack. I am loath to do this without knowing the root of the problem because there could be other incorrect paths that could screw things up. But until I can find a willing soul who can help give me some leads as to why this is happening, I need to do this and get on with the tasks I have at hand.

Technology. Bah!


I really need to write some posts about PressBooks

This thought has run thru my head almost daily for the past few months, ever since I arrived at BCcampus and started playing with PressBooks as part of the open textbook project .  I need to take a page from CogDog’s book and get better at documenting process and practice, like he does with posts like this on building TRU’s rMOOC site.

So, here we go. The first of what I hope will be a few posts about PressBooks.

First off, PressBooks is a WordPress plugin designed for creating ebooks. The brainchild of Hugh McGuire, PressBooks was released as an open source project earlier this year (there is also a hosted version at

Interest in PressBooks as a platform for creating open textbooks began last year with my predecessor Scott Leslie. Last year, BCcampus supported the creation of a couple of small scale open textbook projects using the hosted PressBooks service (earlier this summer we migrated the books to our own self-hosted PressBooks server, which we are still configuring and customizing). You can see the books Database Design and Project Management, created by Adrienne Watt.

Over the summer, one of our developers, Brad Payne, has been active with the PressBooks development community, writing code to extend the plugin, concentrating on adding more input formats to PressBooks so we can import existing open textbooks and use the platform as a textbook remix tool. Brad’s excellent coding on Open Document Type and ePub importers were accepted into core PressBooks this summer, meaning that we can now import existing open textbooks that are in those formats into PressBooks. Brad is currently working on a Word importer. Last week I imported and ePub version of an existing Philosophy open textbook into PressBooks and was quite happy with the results here (a blog post about this process is coming).

So, why are we so interested in PressBooks?  As you would expect with this project, we had a number of requirements, both core and optional. And we looked at a number of authoring/remix platforms (and continue to do so, watching closely the development work that both Connexions and OERPub are doing in this space). But for now, we have decided to focus on PressBooks.

For one, the authoring platform is built on WordPress which has proven time and again to be both powerful and flexible as exemplified by solid edu projects like ds106, edublogs and UBC blogs. The PressBooks UI authoring experience for faculty should not be a big hurdle, especially if they have worked in WordPress before.

PressBooks allows us to create a well structured website for each book, as well as publish that same content to ePub, PDF and mobi (Amazon Kindle) formats. Create once, publish many times using transformations gives students and faculty maximum flexibility as to how they want their textbook content delivered. A caveat about PDF publishing. It does require additional software that is not open source – Prince XML – to produce the PDF outputs.

However, other than Prince, the project is open source. We felt this was particularly important considering that this is an open textbook project. Not only philosophically, but because it enables us to become part of a development community and contribute to the development of the plugin.

The web version produces a very nice, mobile and tablet friendly user experience. Not a lot of flash here, but very useable on a number of platforms.

It is web-based, meaning that there is no software download & install for authors.

Those are some of the reasons why we are working with PressBooks. But, as with all software, there are challenges. Perhaps the biggest is that it is a platform designed for ebooks and not etextbooks, and there is a difference. ebooks (particularly works of fiction) are written to be read in a linear fashion and a great deal of emphasis is placed on the written word. Textbooks, on the other hand, don’t always have the same linear narrative and often include additional pedagogically oriented content types like sidebars, indexes, q&a’s and other such material to hep students really understand the content.

There is also no search feature for the website versions of the book (you do get search capabilities if you use the ePub or PDF versions of the book as search is baked into both ePub and PDF reading software). But the website version of the book does not have a search engine, which we think is important for electronic resources that are often used as reference resources by students.

There are more pros and cons, which I will get into more detail in the future. But for now I wanted to get the “I’ve got to blog about PressBooks” monkey off my back and start the conversation as I know there is interest in BC about the platform.


Publishing my thesis with WordPress and – Part 2

I’m working on publishing my thesis on this site using WordPress and the plugin. This is part 2. You can read about how I configured WordPress to run a second blog on a sub-domain and set up in part 1.

From Word to WordPress

This is a big challenge. If I want to take advantage of all the features of (like the auto-created table of contents), and create a nicely formatted site, then I need to publish the 130+ page thesis into post size chunks.

The brute force way is to begin cutting and pasting, but I want to see if I can be a bit more elegant than that.

I remember experimenting a few years back with publishing from Word to WordPress using  XML-RPC, so thought I would test this option out. A few setting adjustments in both WordPress and Word to enable XML-RPC publishing and a successful test post has me thinking I am on the right track.

Splitting a 130 page Word document

Still, while this looks promising, I can’t just hit the publish button in Word and magically expect my 130+ page thesis to automagically be sliced up and posted into separate posts. In fact, publishing the thesis this way will end up creating a single blog post of 40,000 words. Not ideal. So, I need to figure out how to split my single long Word document into smaller documents, and then try to publish each of those smaller documents as individual posts.

Surely, there must be a way in Word to split a long document into smaller ones. And sure enough, there is via a Word feature known as sub-documents, which allows a user to split a large document into smaller pieces.

Using the headings and sub-headings of my thesis as the logical starting point for dividing up the content, I split the original Word document into 56 documents based on chapters, headings and sub-headings.

I did have a few formatted tables and images in my thesis and was worried about how they would publish to the site directly from Word. There was some formatting that I need to do to clean up the formatting, but, for the most part, they came over clean and intact, complete captions and legends.

I was also a bit worried about how the participant quotes would translate. Being that this was qualitative research, the analysis draws heavily on participant quotes to support the findings and these quotes needed to be correctly formatted using the correct blockquote tags.

In fact, the only real issue I had (and it was quite minor) was that the posts had extra paragraphs tags at the beginning and the end of the posts, so that needed a bit of editing.

Next steps

So, now that the content is in, I could just stop and call it a self-published thesis. But I want to be able to do a bit more with it. My next tasks will include:

  • See if there is a way I can structure the TOC a bit better to have headings and subheadings formatted different from chapter headings. Rught now it’s a pretty long list with no visual hierarchy.
  • Setting up a way for people to download the entire thesis as an ebook, probably using the Anthologize plugin.
  • Add in a plugin or two to generate metadata, specifically for adding content to a citation manager like Zotero or Mendeley. Perhaps the COinS plugin
  • Look at ways to generate hyperlinks within the document to my references and citations. Something like the KCite or Zotpress plugin.

I’d also like to take a crack at some of the CSS and clean up some of the CSS around how tables and data are displayed. But these are all projects for another day.


Image editing and embedding content in WPMU 2.9

I finally got around to upgrading our WPMU instance to to 2.9 (2.9.2 to be exact) and playing with some of the new features. So far the image editing has been a bit of a disappointment, but the oEmbed feature is, quite simply, awesome. Somehow, embedding content in now even easier than before.

The new image editor has some basic image editing functionality. You can crop, resize or rotate a photo. I couldn’t get the crop working after working with it for the better part of an afternoon. At first, how to crop wasn’t fully intuitive to me and it wasn’t until I read this blog post that the (admittedly dim) light bulb went off. Oh, I have to hit the crop button again. D’oh. Then when I went to insert the cropped image into the post, the aspect ratio of the image got skewed as the cropped image took up the entire dimensions of the original image. I also couldn’t save the cropped image back to my media library, but as others have pointed out, these issues may have more to do with folder permissions and settings in my PHP libraries than with the WP image editor, so I’ll be taking a closer look at those as I play more with image editing.

One other little thing about the image editor – it seems to be available only when you first insert an image into a post. If you try to go back and edit the image after it has been instered, the editor doesn’t appear as an option in the pop-up. You have to delete the image from the post and reinsert the image to enable the editor again.

Okay, that aside, the oEmbed support is a killer feature, especially for someone who finds themself supporting novice users. Embedding content from another site has never been so easy. If you want to embed content from another oEmbed enabled site (and a number of the big ones like YouTube, Flickr, Scribd and are oEmbed capable), all you pretty well have to do is copy and paste the url of the content you want into the body of your post (make sure it is on it’s own line and not hyperlinked) and you are good to go. Good stuff.


Adventures in backing up WPMu

I’ve bee working on setting up some backup systems in our instance of WPMu and have been struggling a bit. While I certainly appreciate that creating backups for WPMu can be fairly straightforward to setup when using tools like phpMyAdmin and gzip (as outlined nicely in a recent post at WPMU Tutorials), there really isn’t a simple way for individual site owners to do site backups from the WordPress interface.

What I would like to be able to do is allow the user to simply create a site specific backup file of all the necessary files for their site. Everything wrapped in one nice little package, with the bow on top being the ability for the user to schedule and forget their backups. Once a day/week/month it would just run, grab everything they would need to restore their site (at least their posts/pages AND uploaded files) and all is good. But I am realizing this may be a tall order without setting it up behind the scenes.

Now, each WP site does have an Export option, which is simple and straightforward, but was never intended as a backup utility, but rather a utility to move posts from one WordPress install to another. As such, it is not a comprehensive backup and doesn’t include files, images or multimedia you might have uploaded to your site.

This is a problem I have found with most community developed backup plugins as well – they all concentrate on backing up the database tables and not those extra files that will no doubt be uploaded by users looking to use the platform as a CMS. In order to backup both the database (where the posts and pages are stored), and the associated files, you need at least two separate  plugins.

The two I have been working with are WordPress Backup and WordPress Database Backup. So far I haven’t been able to get these two to do exactly what I want, and using them both makes things a tad confusing for end users.

backupFor one, there are now 2 backup options in their site navigation, located in different sub-menus. Natural instinct for a user to ask why is there 2 backups, and anytime a question is asked there is confusion. So a bit of support is needed to explain the differences between the two to the users. Not a huge deal, but a barrier.

What is very handy is that both backup plugins let you automatically schedule backups to happen at regular intervals. These files are zipped up and can automatically be moved to archive folders on the server or, if you want, emailed directly to the users, which some users might find comforting. The downside is that there are 4 separate zipped files that go along with each site – a database files (generated by the WP Database backup) and 3 backup files generated by the second backup plugin, one with your uploaded files, themes and plugins. One packaged folder would be nicer.

But the major problem I have with using the WordPress Database plugin with WPMu is that the interface does not limit the database tables to backup to just the site requesting the backup. It exposes ALL the tables to the entire WP instance, meaning that any site owner could backup and download any other site users content. Not cool.

I do like and appreciate the work that has gone into these plugins. I use them on this blog and they work great. But in a multi-user environment, I can’t really say this is the silver backup bullet I was hoping they would be. So, I am still searching for a backup system that users can initiate that is simple and straightforward for the end user that will allow them to control their own backups.


Piloting WordPress Multi-user at Camosun

A few weeks ago, we launched a WordPress Multi-User pilot project at Camosun.  Here are a few thoughts early on in the process.

Why are we doing this?

For the past 7 (or so) years, FrontPage has been the web authoring tool we have supported for faculty at Camosun. At the end of 2006, Microsoft discontinued FrontPage. Since then we have been experimenting with other platforms to replace FrontPage for faculty who wish to have stand alone (ie: outside our LMS Desire2Learn) websites and haven’t really been happy with the tools we have found, finding them either costly, overly complicated, or limiting. Ever since our Office 2007 rollout last year, faculty who are still using FrontPage have been reporting problems, so IT Services was also anxious to have us find another solution for faculty websites. So the main purpose for piloting WordPress for us is to see if we can use it primarily as a CMS to replace FrontPage.

Armed with some good feedback from Brian Lamb at UBC, Grant Potter at UNBC, and  Audrey Williams at Pellissippi State (who have all been involved with the UBCUNBC and Pellissippi State WPMu installs), I put together a pilot document for our IT Services, who agreed to support the project. At the beginning of November, the pilot began.

The journey so far…

We’ve done a lot in a few weeks. Installation was quick and smooth. The network admin I have been working with (who has also installed Drupal, Joomla, LifeRay and a few other CMS type systems) remarked that the LDAP integration with Active Directory was the easiest he has ever done. He literally had us integrated with our authentication system in 20 minutes.

For my part, I recruited a half dozen faculty for a pilot group and did some initial training. They are now set up with their own websites – and I use that term website intentionally. I’ve avoided using the word blog when I refer to these sites. I’ve found that the term blog carries with it preconceived notions, both good and bad. So, in order to avoid the whole “I don’t want a blog, I want a website” circular logic wheel that I have witnessed when people talk about WP as a CMS, I have been using the term website when talking about our pilot sites. I really want our users to focus on WP as a tool to manage a website, not a blog and try to proactively nip that semantic bud. These are just websites.

The faculty will be playing with their sites between now and January. In January when the new term starts, they will be using them as their primary website and posting whatever content it is they want their students to have access to.

Some early technical stuff

In keeping with that “website, not blog” philosophy, we launched with a minimum number of themes, trying to pick pretty simple ones that handle pages and nested pages well.

As for plugins, again, I’ve started with a small set of plugins and will be adding and testing functionality during the pilot (which runs until the end of June, 2010). Specifically, the plugins we have installed to begin with are:

  • Akismet spam filter and Akismet credit inserter to automatically insert a “Spam prevention powered by Akismet”
  • pageMash page management plugin which allows you to drag-and-drop the pages into the order you like.
  • COinS Metadata Exposer makes your blog readable by Zotero and other COinS interpreters. As a student who is actively using citation management tools like Zotero on a daily basis, I truly appreciate when this metadata is exposed to accurately capture citations from a webite.
  • Unfiltered MU to allow users to embed content from other sites.
  • Smart YouTube plugin to make embedding YouTube videos even easier. Yes, even easier.
  • Active Directory Integration for, uh, Active Directory integration
  • New Blog Defaults lets you customize certain default settings for new blogs.
  • WordPress Backup and WordPress Database Backup. I’ll have more to say about backing up WPMu sites in a separate post. Suffice to say, it is not an easy thing to do using the standard WordPress interface.
  • PDF and PPT Viewer looks like an interesting plugin that I have only started to test out. It could be very useful, considering that most faculty still post a lot of  PDF and PPT files on their sites. In a nutshell this plugin leverages Google Docs Viewer to create an embeddable view of a PPT or PDF document – no additional software or plugin required.

I’ll be elaborating about these plugins, and on administering WPMu, but I’ll save that for future posts. In the meantime, we now have a WPMu install up and running at Camosun and ticking along just fine.


4 Alternative Blogging Interfaces for WordPress

I’ve been a WordPress user since the b2 days, but only lately have I begun to explore different methods of posting content to a WordPress blog. In the past, I have used the standard web interface for creating posts, with the occasional foray into using the FireFox ScribeFire plugin (more on that in just a moment).

Why alternatives? Well, it’s not that I think the standard WordPress interface is bad or poorly designed – far from it. But I am looking at alternative, streamlined ways of getting content into a site that may be more familiar to non-WordPress users.

Over the past few days I’ve been playing with alternative ways to publish content to a WordPress site, and here are 4 that I have come up with.

Using Word 2007
I really like this method, not because it is the best tool in this list, but because it is the most familiar interface for the faculty I support. Everyone is comfortable using Word and, while it won’t give you all the functionality of the web interface, it gets the job done with some nice functions in an interface that users are familiar with.

Setup is easy and straightforward and you can insert text, links tables and images, including WordArt, Symbols, Shapes and SmartArt. Blog management and organizational options are pretty minimal, but include the ability to post as a draft, and choose an existing blog category for the post. You can also open previous posts from your blog to edit.

A lack of headings in the toolbar is a frustration I have with the interface, and the reason why the subheadings for this post are appearing as 14 POINT (???) headings and not h3 tags as I would prefer. Microsoft has instead decided to put bigger and smaller buttons on the interface. This is something Microsoft has done with other html editors I’ve come across (yeah SharePoint, I’m looking at you) and it is an annoyance I find maddening. Not only is this semantically incorrect (let me make a heading a heading and a paragraph a paragraph please), but it also overrides the set CSS in the WordPress themes. It would be far better if they just left the text options as standard html tags, which would be semantically correct and would also ensure consistency in design.

That said, in terms of something my faculty will find easy to use, the Word interface seems like an early winner. And anything that helps people move away from posting links to their Word documents and posting in html is a winner with me.

By Email

Another familiar interface for my users, you can post to a WordPress blog from any email client. While this does require a bit more technical work to initially set up, you again get a composing environment that is really user friendly and familiar, especially for the slightly technophobic faculty.

This is bare bones in terms of functionality. The subject line will be used as the title of the post with the body of the email as the content of the post. All html in the email will be stripped out, and it does not support uploading attachments or images. You also cannot choose what category you want your post to appear in with the post appearing in whatever the blog default category is. This does not have the functionality of Posterous, but in terms of getting content onto the web quick and painlessly, it’s a fine alternative.


ScribeFire is a FireFox plugin that lets you post to your blog from within FireFox. This is a full featured alternative to the native web interface that has tons of features. I’ve used this in the past and, while I like it, I have found that the formatting sometimes goes a bit wonky when the post is published and the post doesn’t always look like I would expect it to with the underlying html code getting rewritten. Still, you can pretty well do anything with this tool that you can with the WordPress interface. It’s handy when you come across something on the web that you want to blog about quickly, or if you have no eb access but still want to compose a post to publish when you reconnect.

Google Docs

Cole Camplese sent me scurrying down this path a few days ago when he tweeted a test post (which looks like it has since been deleted). So I gave it a shot and found out that you can post directly to WordPress from Google Docs. In the example from a few days ago, I included an image pulled from my Flickr account and a drawing done in Google Docs. Connecting was pretty straightforward, however there was no specific WordPress API hook. Instead, I used the Moveable Type API, which connected, but may explain why when I posted the post showed up on the blog sans title.

Have you used any of these tools? Are there any other ways to create content outside of the WordPress user interface? If so, I’d love it if you let me know.