The Motley Management System

Mike Caulfield’s post “Enterprise Learning Systems Considered Harmful to Learning” reminds me of some important questions that still remain unsettled with me. Why am I such a big advocate for a WordPress Mulit-User installation at UMW? I do believe that blogs can be an out-of-the-box e-portfolio solution. I also believe that WPMU builds in some interesting possibilities for aggregation, tagging, and cross-pollinating ideas for a particular community. Yet, despite these advantages, potential disadvantages such as becoming application specific and making a personal learning environment that is fostered by and hosted through the university are important for us to hear right now because we are currently working on taking WPMU to the next level (one step closer to enterprise) for our university.

The question Mike is posing here (and which Jerry and Martha ask often) of whether or not we should host enterprise solutions (blogging or otherwise) still needles me on occasion when I read a post like this. Almost as if I am convinced that everyone will, and should feel the same way about WordPress as I do. When I notice someone using a Moveable Type or blogger blog I find myself scoffing at them, and do far worse for anyone who has chosen the bloated blog system of Drupal to publish their thoughts. In general I pity their lack of vision. This might all be part of the psychology of fanboys, but regardless it is getting pretty bad -I barely recognize myself anymore.

So here is an important, if rare, interlude for reflection. Do we need to create this space for students? Do we need to provide their “spiral notebooks” for them? Why not simply let them sign-up for their own blog at, blogger, or some other service, and concentrate our efforts on hacking the space for aggregating these variegated resources and devising ways to use these tools in courses more effectively?

Well, in short, here’s your answer: I secretly want a community in training of homogeneous WordPressers who will go on after their four year indoctrination to use this tool to take over the world! (I bet you all thought I was ready to capitulate -NEVER!)

But in all seriousness, can you think of some major disadvantages to providing a Mutli-User blogging service through the auspices of a University -even if it is hosted for 6.95 a month?

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10 Responses to The Motley Management System

  1. Jeff says:

    I’m going to try not to notice your condescension as I blog about this later on my Blogger-based site.

    To answer your challenge, let me ask, as a devil’s advocate, does it make sense to provide this service to every student and faculty member? Just to the ones who want them? How long do we keep them beyond the 4 years of their time at UMW? What if students bring blogs with them? Who’s going to install and support 4,000 blogs?

    Don’t get me wrong. I agree that a modified blog setup is perfect for e-portfolios and what I’ve seen of WordPress offers a lot of flexibility for a . But in my experimentation, a fair percentage of the flexibility requires some modicum of messing with the code. Some of our students and faculty are capable of that, but lots are not (or more importantly perhaps, are not interested in doing so). So part of the challenge is finding a package that allows out-of-the box functionality that is able to be scaled for an enterprise system. [I may be out of my depths here, technically speaking; but then, I’ve already admitted to being one of those sad Blogger users for whom you feel sorry.]

  2. Hello, Mr. Groom,

    You ask the one really significant question in the opening paragraph of this post, and I will echo it here: why are you such a big advocate of WordPress Multi-User? Of the two issues that you raise, one has merit: there is a danger in becoming application-specific. As to having these tools hosted at a university, I see this is a great resource to students, provided, of course, that students can easily take their work with them as needed, when needed.

    And this is where I need to return to your question: why are you such a big advocate of WordPress Multi-User? What points of connection does it offer with other apps? What tools does it offer for collecting content over time? Aside from tags (which can get very cluttered after even a few months of writing), how does it allow users to organize their content?

    I’m also curious as to how you are defining an “enterprise solution” — do Spock and Kirk play a role? What modifications are being made to WPMU to support a user base of how many users? Do these modifications take you away from core code, or are they improvements in the hosting environment, or on the database structure?

    The advantage of a wordpress or WPMU based system is that you can have a loosely connected series of blogs firmly within a learners’ control, spread out over a range of inexpensive shared hosting providers. Throw an app like Gregarius in the middle of the whole affair to collect and organize content, and you could actually be on the way to loosely joining your small pieces.

    Really, it’s an interesting way to solve the problem — but from the perspective of a user who needed to track content coming from within such a system, it would be difficult to scale — If a professor has 70 students, are they manually adding 70 feeds to their aggregator, or is there a scripted solution in place for this? Will every student be savvy enough to tag every post correctly? When the shared host gets overloaded and the rss feed gets borked, or the db becomes inacessible, the distributed nature of the system will make this more difficult to maintain.

    And that’s where the beauty of a platform like Drupal (ah, sweet, sweet Drupal) can be more effective for larger rollouts, ie, enterprise level. Within a Drupal site, a user can subscribe to a course via an rss feed, subscribe to assignments via an rss feed, or log in to one site to see all this content neatly collected and displayed on one screen — there are multiple ways to display and access content, and these options play well with people who learn and research differently. While Drupal takes longer for an admin to set up, a well-designed Drupal site is incredibly easy to use for fairly neophyte users. And once you have mastered the dark art of setting up a Drupal site, it becomes fairly simple to extend the functionality over time as needed.

    But really, all this talk of WordPress or WPMU or Drupal is taking us away from the most important issue: the platform is less important than the portability of the content. A student shouldn’t need to care if their content is in Drupal or WPMU or lodged in some enterprise-level quackery — they should be able to take it with them whenever they want to.

    RE: “do far worse for anyone who has chosen the bloated blog system of Drupal to publish their thoughts” — man, TOTALLY! The main reason I comment on your blog is because I can’t figure out how to get any content live on *any* of my Drupal sites. This Intarweb stuff is hard.



  3. Hey, thanks for the site.

    By a weird coincidence, the eportfolio (hyphen? no hyphen? it’s so confusing) solution I’m pressing for over here is hosted WordPress MU.

    Now why would I do that when I think the standardization that enterprise solutions bring often kill innovation?

    Well, because the fact is we have a need for reporting, particularly in regards to NCATE. We have to indicate which standard requirements diffrent artifacts meet and run reports to that effect. We’re speccing this out now, but it seems rather involved. The reports were the reason that until recently the college was considering Blackboard’s eportfolio solution.

    Yeah, I know. Ugh.

    Blackboard is out of the picture, so we are faced with what I think of as three possible solutions:

    1. Specific Vendor Supplied Eportfolio Solution (open source or not)
    2. Modified Generic Application (e.g. WordPress MU hacks)
    3. Everybody chooses their own tool (or classes choose their own tool, as a perhaps less anarchic vision).

    My feeling is you always start from the bottom (which I think is the most student centered area, because a big part of learning is frankly knowing how to choose your tools). But requirements beyond your control (need for classroom management, security, SSO, roster integration, admin control, or cost mitigation for the student) may push you up the chain.

    I think though there is a vast difference between level 1 and level 2. WordPress MU has a number of things going for it:

    1. It is a flexible solution with broader application than eportfolios. Students walk away with a real world skill, and have some freedom to explore the tool in novel ways.

    2. It’s portable. A student can export their blog and import it into something at blogger or typepad later if they want. (Getting the files out is more laborious, but possible).

    3. It’s a platform, not an app. It’s constantly evolving. Unlike single-use eportfolio systems, it doesn’t lock you into a pedagogical model of reflection, for instance. Much of the model is stored in process, not the product, and the process is easily changeable by the porfessors and students.

    Anyway, my thoughts…

    Oh, and WordPress rocks. When I figure out my reporting piece, we should share notes.

  4. RE: “Well, because the fact is we have a need for reporting, particularly in regards to NCATE. We have to indicate which standard requirements diffrent artifacts meet and run reports to that effect.”

    We’re currently doing this in Drupal — depending on the complexity of your needs, you might even be able to get away without writing a line of code.

    You start by creating a content type for your standards (for our use case, we are mapping to specific performance indicators within a standard, and this did require custom code) — then, each artifact can be mapped to one or more standards.

    With this basic framework in place, it’s a matter of writing the queries to highlight the relationships you need between the data. For a more generic, flexible tool, you could craft a web-based query builder that would export csv values for import into just about any analysis tool.

    The thing that’s nice about this is that this mapping can be entirely invisible to the student so as not to interfere with their sense of ownership of their work — this way, learners have their space, nd the needs of the institution can be met as well.

    Or, if this meets both your pedagogical and institutional needs, students can be involved in the mapping process.



  5. jimgroom says:

    @Jeff -You know I forgive you for using blogger, right? I think your questions do a nice job of laying bare the issues here. UMW is not pushing for an enterprise solution (and no this will not include Spock and Kirk, Bill) as of yet, and we still have the benefit of experimenting with a more “centralized” space for providing students and faculty with blogs on a case-by-case basis. There is not blogging requirement as of yet, -that’s for next year;)- and I think that we ultimately need a solution that Bill refers to later on that does a nice job of aggregating and bringing together all this content -further pushing me to respond to the awesome Ronco conversation you and Martha have been engaged in as of late on the blogosphere. But there are several other models, Downes’s Edu_RSS, UBC’s AggRSSive, D’Arcy’s vision for BlogBridge, Patrick’s Fishtank and of course the holy grail of Ronco. It all comes back to RSS in the end, and Drupal does do a decent job with this, but by no means comprehensive for a quick solution when there are many blogs on many different platforms, services etc. The plot always thickens when it opens up (which may explain the push to limit options), but as Mike points out how much does that ultimately kill the experience for faculty and students alike -even if they are cretins who use Drupal, blogger, or what have you 😉

    @Bill You’re a maniac, and I love it.

    Ok, OK, OK!!! I hear you. Drupal is the bomb, and if you keep going on like this D’Arcy may very well switch back, for he is certainly my barometer of future trends with all this stuff -and yeah, I know he often excuses his switch to WP as a “personal solution,” (equivocating at its best) but isn’t that exactly what we are talking about here for a whole group of persons on a campus doing their personal knowledge management? Any wagers on how long ’til UCalgary is WPMu ready? All of this baneter finally brings me to the many salient points you raise in your comments. What is this enterprise I speak of? Well, I am not sure. We are a division that has been given a lot of room to play and experiment, but some of the greatest successes we have had have been in relationship to blogging. We have installed and been using a tremendous number of WordPress single installs for particular classes, professors, students, etc., and our alpha install of WPMU was extremely successful, very little overhead, an amazing professor showing us the way, and administratively a piece of cake. Moreover, we were able to perform a few simple hacks to aggregate a limited number of blogs (I fully recognize this gets trickier as number exponentially explode).

    WordPress has proven the drug of choice for us thus far because we have had some real successes with folks managing their own content and courses. That may be the very argument for a blog-based system rather than a CMS-based system playing a blog on TV. In other words, WPMU would finally save us a tremendous amount of time on one-off installations, while simultaneously giving us the opportunity to start creating some initial community cross-fertilization between class sites, and individual professor/student blogs. That is the key, I think. WPMU would allow them to manage their own space within the auspices of a university centered blog system that they can easily export, but the aggregator question you raise, which is on the money, would really be the piece that would have to shine (Stephen Downes, Brian Lamb, Alan Levine, D’Arcy Norman and tons of other folks I am shamefully neglecting) have been preaching this for a long time. So, I guess having myself invested in WordPress is a firm belief, as Mike notes, that it is flexible, easily exportable (which seemed to be your biggest requirement), and a constantly evolving platform. He nailed the value of it much better than I could have.

    I know Drupal shares many of these elements (thanks to your tireless posting here -sorry to hear about your bloated Drupal install -but I heard if you keep at it one can figure that new-fangled application out sooner or later :). One issue with a Drupal for a distributed learning network is the relative difficulty for provisioning different Drupal installs for faculty, students, classes and staff (do they all use just one?). D’Arcy has developed a Drupal module the “PROVISIONATOR” -I love the name- and I think this is a scripting solution for allowing different folks to have an out-of-the-box install of Drupal across an environment. Isn’t this a hacked attempt to do exactly what WPMU is already doing with far more functionality and far less administrative overhead than most department, professor, student, or staff member may need? Moreover, how do 1,000 individual students get their particular work out the database of a single, or even several, Drupal installs? Is this a one-click solution, or a scripting concern? For WPMu that is one of the key benefits, each blog user can simply click export from their admin screen and their stuff is an xml file they can take with them and import elsewhere. They even have the power to delete their entire install from the community and move on to the next thing. They control which plugins are installed (from a predefined pool), whether or not their content can be searched in the main search engines, etc.

    It could be argued that many folks may want all the goodies and possibilities that come with Drupal, yet the streamlined simplicity and usability of administrating a WordPress blog out-of-the-box is a compelling reason to remain there for a more system approach. The same might be said of Moveable Type, but is their source code for hosted a multi-user solutions freely available? (I say this knowing full well that Moveable Type made their opened up their code, but I’m not sure they did this for the enterprise solutions that they make most of their money on -though it may prove a natural out birth of it.)

    All this to say, these applications aoffer their unique stengths and weaknesses, but WP strengths are most relelvant to any kind of move towards to providing quick and easy personalized learning environments for a campus community. The issue that we really need to work, as you pointed me towards with Gregarius (thanks for that, Bill) as I remarked to Jeff above, is aggregating all of these spaces (whether internally hosted or not) in an imaginative, simple and effective way. That is really the issue, which has little or anything to do with Drupal or WP, for both have feeds and can be syndicated, but neither have an aggregation solution that makes it simple for folks to add their feed, categorize and tag it accordingly, and watch it cross-fertilize in constantly shifting spaces throughout the environment.

    Which brings me to my last point. The folks at Arizona State university have a blog/wiki solution that is most impressive. At ELI I spoke with them briefly and they said they were “wrapping” WPMU within Drupal. What I took this to mean was that they were having the students, faculty, course sites, etc register their feeds in Drupal then using Drupal to organize, re-present and highlight the content. Hmmm, may there be a way yet where us two fanboys can come together and work towards the common good at the same time?

    Thanks for all the amazing commenting you have been doing here, Bill. I can only begin to respond appropriately to all the amazing questions you are raising here -I appreciate it greatly.

    Whew -that was a monster comment….

    @Mike It is music to my ears that you are pushing for WPMu -and cacophonous drivel for Bill 🙂 I would very much like to share notes, for I think we have a very similar vision for WPMu and eportfolios using this application, and I would really like to discuss this while we are setting this up over the Summer. I will be blogging our process somewhat regularly, this is the first of what may very well be many, many posts on the topic, and this back and forth is extremely useful to keep my both focused and honest. So thanks for the post that started an unbelievably helpful conversation.

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  8. Jeff McNeill says:

    Mr. Groom, all this discussion of WPMU warms my heart and the idea of MediaWiki integration makes things even better. I am a former network engineer and current educator (higher ed) who simply wants to keep useful classroom tools running with as little effort as possible, but who also wants to keep improving these tools with a search-and-configure (not design-and-code) mentality. WPMU and MW have largely won the hearts and minds of people like me.

    The need to defend Drupal and say that “Drupal can do that” is a defensive mentality. Most software can be made to do most things, with enough effort. The question may come down to personal preference, however there are reasons behind the preference other than familiarity.

    What we have in WPMU and MW are extremely scalable, increasingly useful, and widely adopted platforms that are becoming de facto standards. I believe that usability has a lot to do with it. The dead-simple editing and versioning in MW, and the widgets and plugins of WP have really accelerated functionality and adoption. Clearly what is happening at Facebook is a testimony to the value created with widgets/plugins.

    In addition, WPMU and MW are known essentially as web applications, the real Internet. This is how we understand blogs and wikis, they look like WordPress and Wikipedia! I believe there is a level of authenticity here that is valuable inside the academy.

    For myself, I pay the $5/mo to site5, my private host, and manage my own installs. I cannot rely on the servers within academia, and when things break, I can fix the installations myself. I realize this is a luxury (or burden) that few may have available to them. WPMU MW4life!

  9. jimgroom says:

    Hi Jeff,

    You sound like a kindred soul 🙂 We also do all of our hosting for WordPress, MediaWiki, etc on a number of Bluehost accounts, and I couldn’t agree with you more on the questions of WPMU and MediaWiki usability. For me, this is what makes them so attractive in higher ed. Students and professors alike can manage their own space and create resources that are easily aggregated and re-purposed. It is an excellent model and I have been really excited by the promise that these web apps offer. I also really like you notion that MW and WPMu may be even more convincing because they are two of the most highly visible applications on the web with and wikipedia. Needless to say, we have a long and rich future of collaboration on making these two tools dance and sing together in a more fluid, yet syncopated rhythm.

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