My college has recently started rolling out WordPress MU to students in a small scale experiments. From what I hear, it seems like IT expects WordPress to gradually replace the existing static web pages that most college groups now have (most of which are never updated I might add). I think it’s an interesting idea and I’m all for it. I hope this will make it much easier for college groups and students to maintain a stable web presence.
But there is a particular little question that I’m currently trying to answer. The foreign languages center has a program for students to make ePortfolios: basically small websites where students can show off all the language experience they’ve gathered over their years here. It’s a good idea with a decent amount of support from the faculty, but the uptake has been rather slow. Till now we’ve been using a standard Dreamweaver template where students just fill in the blanks with their own text, images and video. However this approach doesn’t seem to have gelled well with the students. There are a number of different reasons. Despite how easy Dreamweaver makes a lot of things, there is still a considerable learning curve. People who aren’t naturally inclined to such things need a reason to learn and use them and I don’t think making an ePortfolio is a strong enough motivation. Also students actually need to have Dreamweaver in order to do something, which means they need to go use a library computer. I’ve made some templates for the portfolio but due to the slow update, we haven’t really been able to get students past the basic one. I’ll eventually put the templates up for download once I clean them up a bit.
At this point in our story enters a brash young outsider: WordPress. In a static scenario like the college ePortfolio, WordPress is a total game-changer. It makes things a lot easier for people who are not used to making their own sites. It’s a great tool for anyone who wants to quickly put their information out on the web. I run this site on WordPress with a custom template and widgets. However, if you want to set up a professional web site which will mostly stand as evidence of you work and not a rapidly changing blog, I’m not sure if WordPress is the way to go.
My college is rolling out the Multi-User version of WordPress to students, which makes perfect sense for a college setup. But for the end user, MU does have some serious constraints. Most importantly you can’t install your own plugins or themes and so if you want something that the native installation doesn’t provide, it may not be very easy to get it. This in turn leads to the problem of sameness. Because you have only a small number of themes and other options to choose from, your site is bound to look very similar to someone else’s. I personally think this is a big problem if you seriously want your site to be a reflection of yourself on the web. This was the main reason I decided to take the plunge and move to paid hosting.
For most students this doesn’t matter. Their blog is mostly something personal and so it doesn’t really matter much if it stands out visually. An ePortfolio is different however. By definition, it’s meant to be be professional and needs to stand out. It’s meant to be something that you can send to potential employers and will reflect favorably on you as a professional. I think is very hard to do with a stock WordPress MU blog. Even if you stick to a clear format with well thought-out pages (which is how we’re trying to proceed), you are still completely at the mercy of the original design which might not be anywhere near what you want. What’s worse is that you might start trying to bend your content to fit the design. This might work out for good designs, but if you do it too much you’ll completely loose your own style. Loosing your personal style when putting together something that you want a lot of people to see is self-defeating.
The current Dreamweaver is very reminiscent of old-school web design with lots of tables and fixed-width elements, both of which are falling out of favor with current generation of web design. WordPress has some very good modern themes, and anyone moving to WordPress needs to utilize this instead of trying to pull their old designs along with them. The definition of what is professionally acceptable changes every so often and at this point in time, fluidity and flexibility are definitely the way to go.
For myself, a considerable amount of effort went into selecting this theme that I’m using. From the start I wanted something clean and sharp which would encourage readers to look at the content and not get distracted. Hence the choice of a mostly monochrome template which places emphasis on the categories and the main post body, while the sidebar makes search and RSS prominent.
I’m still uncertain as to whether or not using WordPress for a professional ePortfolio is a good idea. If it was a standard WordPress install where students could change the look and feel of their Portfolio to suit their style, I’d be all for it. But with MU, I’m not quite so sure. I would really appreciate feedback from my users on this matter and any experiences they could share would be appreciated. I’m going to keep thinking about this matter and I think I’ll have a part to play in whatever direction we go. I think it is very important for everyone to have a strong web presence, students especially. Tools like WordPress make that much easier to accomplish, but sometimes you just have to take a step back to make things the way you want them.