What has WordPress Ever Done for Us?

Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

PFJ Member: Brought peace?

Reg: Oh, peace? SHUT UP!

While WordPress hasn’t brought peace just yet, it certainly has helped power huge swaths of the web—25% of all sites according to recent counts. And when Andrea Rennick reached out asking how WordPress has changed their life I thought almost immediately about the above scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian when Reg (John Cleese) starts off asking, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, only to get a laundry list of positive things in response. Similarly, when preparing to answer Andrea’s simple question with my critical glasses on, I quickly came up with a long list of things WordPress has done that has changed my personal and professional life for the better. So, let me begin…

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When I first heard of WordPress in 2004 I was teaching high school in Brooklyn. I had been making old gold HTML pages for my classes, and my friend Zach Davis told me about this open source application I could install on my web hosting account that would make posting a lot easier. It was around the time when blogging was start to get popular, and I was fairly skeptical of the whole thing. That said, my oldest son had just been born, and we were looking for a way to share pictures and videos with our family in Italy. WordPress quickly became a solution to this, and it sent me down the rabbit hole of figuring out how a PHP/MySQL driven site works. That was all magic to me prior to 2004 and WordPress was the gateway drug. Out of this experimentation Planet Miles was born in 2005.

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At the same time I had left my job as a high school teacher in Brooklyn and started working as an Instructional Technology Fellow at CUNY’s Honors College. Between finishing my dissertation, teaching high school full time, and becoming a new dad something had to give, and the first to go was teaching high school. The dissertation wasn’t far behind though 🙂 That CUNY fellowship, which was initially a means to the end of finishing my dissertation, quickly became a portal to a whole new world of instructional technology. I remember Zack Davis pulled up Stephen Downes’s blog/newsletter the OL Daily at one of our first meetings talking about this crazy educational technologist from Canada who provided a great orientation point for someone new to the field like myself. Little did I know how important that crazy Canadian’s work and thinking would be to my own over the next ten years. What’s more, I later found out Downes had been down a similar path to mine in terms of his career in edtech.
e4796e02ec29a60d9d20a6ab11cdbb60It was about that time (January/February of 2005) when I began my long, illustrious career peddling WordPress in higher ed. I had been playing with WordPress for a few months by then fine-tuning Planet Miles, and I figured it was time to try see if we couldn’t use something similar for classes that would provide a much simpler, customizable experience than BlackBoard (the LMS of choice at CUNY). I was struck by the idea that you could customize both the header image and sidebar of a WordPress blog with fairly little HTML and PHP hacking knowledge (this was the early days of the Kubrick theme, long before widgets and upload-able/resize-able header images). I learned a ton about how the “new web” worked. I learned how PHP makes calls to a database for specific information that can then be dynamically rendered in HTML. I learned how CSS was used to cascade styles across potentially thousands of dynamically created HTML pages that effectively separate function and form. These were two of the earlier revolutionary concepts that I was exposed to as an instructional technologist that helped me conceptualization how the web was changing in the early 2000s.

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I had my first blogging workshop in March of 2005 wherein I got students and faculty on Blogger. I was never a huge fan of that system given I started from a position of being able to hack my own self-hosted blog, but it was hard not to be amazed that you could create a website so quickly and easily with Blogger. It was a sign that posting online no longer had to be a chore; it could actually be easy and elegant. And that was the start of the long love affair with WordPress because unlike Blogger, WordPress was something you controlled (this was just before the creation of WordPress.com). I could edit the header.php file on my web server to include a picture of a Smurf in the Planet Miles’s header. I could integrate albums from this new fangled photo site Flickr into a WordPress page using a plugin (remember Joe Tan’s TanTan Flickr anyone?). It was an infrastructure that provided a pseudo, wanna-be tech person like myself a real platform to start from and build on. It struck me that if it could help someone like me gain a deeper understanding of how the web works, then why couldn’t it do the same for faculty and students—a fairly simple vision that still drives the work I do today.

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And that might be a good place to transition because during the Fall of 2015 I had convinced a couple of professors to use WordPress for their course sites instead of BlackBoard. The students were posting their work to a blog page. (We figured out how to make the default homepage a static page thanks to a hack we got from the forums.*)  It was an open, accessible learning management system, and it had the benefit of being a real web-based resource and having its own style/personality.

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At the same time, all that I had learned over the previous 6 months turned into a way for my family and I to leave NYC and actually move somewhere affordable with a steady income, benefits, etc. The idea was that Antonella and I could get some breathing room and actually finish our dissertations. Turns out University of Mary Washington (UMW) was looking for an instructional technologist with some LAMP server chops (which thanks to playing with WordPress I had) to experiment with open source applications like, you guessed it, WordPress, MediaWiki, Drupal, etc. It was a very forward-looking positon at the time, and I kinda stumbled on to it. But, in retrospect, it would eventually define the next decade of my life, and WordPress was very much at its core.

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Our work with WordPress at UMW has a long, rich history. I have chronicled much of it already on this blog (proudly powered by WordPress), which, by the way, I started on my first day of work. Bavatuesdays will turn ten years old in less than two weeks, and this space has seen some mileage with almost 3000 posts, 13,000 comments, and a coupla million page views over that time period. Modest stats in the big picture, but truly amazing when you think about the fact this blog started out—and has pretty much remained—a small outpost on the web where I openly share what I think and learn about edtech, movies, GIFs, books, etc. This blog has also been ground zero for my professional transformation, and once I got started in December of 2015, I never really stopped. It became a much needed alternative to academic writing I had learned to hate over the previous 8 years, and I was actually excited about writing again. But it was a very different kind of writing. In many ways much simpler. I was just narrating what I had learned about my work.

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From 2006 through 2010 I predominantly wrote about the work I was doing with WordPress. This included building one-off WordPress sites for faculty that were loosely integrated with MediaWiki (often for creating editable syllabi and for collaborative work) in 2006; building a multi-user platform for UMW in 2007 (UMW Blogs); framing WordPress as a more humane, web-friendly alternative to the LMS á la EDUPUNK in 2008; and for much of 2009 and 2010 I went on the the road sharing the work we did at UMW using WordPress to build an alternative infrastructure for teaching and learning. All the while we were playing with syndication that enabled students and faculty to control their own work in their own space, but aggregated for the purposes of a course, etc. WordPress was the foundational open source technology we choose to build just about everything on top of at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies and, in retrospect, we were smart and right. It was an excellent choice, and in 2011 it would drive our entire university’s website. The great Cathy Derecki was one of the first to push WordPress beyond the ubiquitous dismissal used by enterprise IT folks that WordPress was “not a real CMS, it’s only a blog.” All the while the entire web was becoming more and more like a blog, and university websites were becoming more and more cumbersome and outdated.

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From 2011 until 2013 were the ds106 days. We went rogue at UMW and built an entire open, online course on top of WordPress that was unique in that we were building the platform as we went along. We started with a pretty standard aggregation hub, but then added an assignment bank, daily createinspire, remix machine, etc. And the thing is we didn’t necessarily build everything—parts of the infrastructure were created by the students—making the shift in usability and accessibility that WordPress made possible all the more apparent. But perhaps the biggest shift in 2010 is when were able to take the elegance and ease-of-use that has made WordPress so popular to the next level for our community by requiring students in ds106 to get their own domain and web hosting and install their own WordPress sites for the course. A crash course in how the web works that I had personally undergone five years earlier. The evolution of WordPress into an easy-to-use, powerful, and elegant publishing platform over that period of time is astounding. The idea of empowering faculty and students to manage and build their own online spaces was more than rhetoric, it was a fairly quotidian reality.

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A reality that was then rolled out at UMW campus-wide when Tim Owens effectively built a web hosting service for UMW that was built around WordPress. We ran it using CPanel and WHMCS, but integrated the whole environment on top of WordPress—making it effectively the portal to the Domain of One’s Own project we officially rolled out at UMW in 2015. This gave every interested student, staff, and faculty member their own domain and web hosting for the duration of their time at UMW. What’s more, the vast majority of the applications installed (over 80%) were WordPress, reinforcing just how synonymous this technology had become with building web sites. So UMW had become one of the main hubs for pushing WordPress as a viable alternative for just about everything: “sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, etc. “But what the hell had WordPress ever done for us?

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Well, it helped change the direction of my life yet again just a couple of years ago. In July 2013 Tim Owens and I started our own web hosting company called Reclaim Hosting with the idea of supporting other universities that might want to explore the Domain of One’s Own concept on their campus. We built our hosting around WordPress (it is effectively the integration point for WHMCS and CPanel), and two years later we have seen an outpouring of interest in this work. More and more universities and colleges see shared web hosting as one way of enabling faculty and students to manage their own work, create a personal space, and learn more about how the web works. What’s more, WordPress continues to drive a vast amount of that work—more than 80% on Reclaim’s servers—which is almost at 10,000 accounts.

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So, I can thank WordPress for giving me a job, allowing me to define my professional identity, helping me experiment with new ways of teaching, supporting me empower faculty and students to take control of their digital identity, providing me a great business opportunity, and even enabling me to quit my day job and move my family to Italy. One might say “WordPress MADE ME!” But you could also say I was one of the many who helped make WordPress, which is the single greatest thing about this open source software as well as the community that drives it. You truly get out of it what you put into it. What has WordPress done for me? Well, as much as I have done for WordPress. This application embodies the virtuous circle of open software in my mind, and deciding to fall down the WordPress rabbit hole back in 2004 was, in hindsight, one of the smartest things I ever did personally and professionally. Thanks WordPress, I remain you’re #1 Fan!

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  • I also remember we had to hack the header.php file of the theme to re-arrange the order of the pages in the menu—another feature now baked in.
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