There’s a huge, amorphous community of people using WordPress in education. Let’s call it WPedu. There’s another huge community of people involved in the WordPress free software community. Let’s call it WPorg.
WPedu, meet WPorg. WPorg, meet WPedu.
WPorg should know that WPedu is killing it right now
I’d like WPorg to know that WPedu is kicking some serious ass. Take DS106 as an example. DS106 is a distributed course on the topic of Digital Storytelling (that’s the “DS”), where students all over the world – some of whom are enrolled in credit-bearing DS courses at their colleges, some of whom are just tagging along for the ride – use their blogs to complete assignments of various sorts. WordPress, FeedWordPress, BuddyPress, and a bunch of custom hacks are used to aggregate content from hundreds of participants into a single stream. The whole thing is built around the idea of openness: existing, open standards like RSS are being used to federate standalone instances of WordPress (alongside any other system that outputs RSS).
People working on free software – like you, WPorg! – should be flipping out over how awesome that is.
Similarly impressive innovations can be found all over the WPedu world. The innovation is motivated by the love of the work, and by principles: education should be open, individuals should control their data and their online identities, software should be free as in speech. These are the very same principles that are close to the hearts of free software enthusiasts.
People involved in the WPorg community should be spending more effort reaching out to WPedu people. The software developers, instructional technologists, faculty members, and other people working in WPedu are a huge, largely untapped resource for the free software project. People working in K-12 and universities, especially those working in public institutions, often have an incentive (even an imperative) to be sharing their work out to the larger community. (Contrast this with the fact that for-profit WP devs actually have a disincentive to contribute, an issue I wrote about recently.) People in WPedu are experts at piecing systems together, at writing documentation, at community moderation, and so on. They often enjoy flexible job descriptions and fairly loose oversight, and they’re less beholden to financial issues than people working in the private sector. Thus, for many WPedu people, it’d be quite concievable to shoehorn some free software work into their workweek. Most of all, WPedu people are totally awesome people – you have to be pretty awesome to put up with the lackluster pay and ridiculous bureaucracies that education folk have to deal with. Start talking to these awesome people. They have incredible ideas about where WP should go, and they have the resources to help get there.
WPedu should start tooting its own horn
On the flip side: WPedu, you are doing some cool shit, and deep in your heart, you know it. So don’t be afraid to talk about it. It’s true, ome of you are blogging, and that’s great. These blogs are usually addressed (understandably enough) to fellow WPedu people – “here’s a cool new way to use WordPress in a university”, etc. But you should stop qualifying yourselves: Lots of the stuff you’re doing is legitimately a cool new way to use WordPress, period, and you should be proud of that. Own your excellence and innovation.
I come from WPedu, so I say this from experience: there’s too much modesty, bordering on mousyness, among WPedu innovators. Many – most? – of you were never formally trained in software development (or design, or support, or documentation, or whatever). I know I never was. And being embedded in institutions founded on the very notion of Expertise – you can’t spell University without PhD – makes you too unsure of your own skills to reach out and get involved. Here’s a secret: Most of the people in the WPorg community came from non-technical backgrounds, too. (IMO, that’s one of the things that has made WordPress successful, but that’s a topic for another post.) You deserve to be involved, just as much as any of the current community contributors. Three-quarters of expertise is having the confidence to get involved.
If that’s not enough persuasion, here are some practical considerations.
- When you build systems using a piece of software – like, let’s say, a student blogging system using WordPress – you become dependent on the future development of that software. By getting involved in the community – submitting patches, doing beta testing, participating in support forums, writing plugins and themes, blogging, etc – you can earn a seat at the table where decisions about WP’s future are made. When your voice isn’t heard, someone else’s voice will be heard in your place. And, as someone who straddles WPedu and WPorg, I can say with confidence that edu and non-profit voices are way underrepresented in the WP project.
- Very Important People, such as your boss, your promotion committee, public and private grant committees, and so forth, will be Very Impressed by a list of contributions to free software projects. If you can tell funders that your software has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times (as we are unashamed to do with the CUNY Academic Commons project), and if you can tie this into a broader narrative about engaging meaningfully with a broader public, it can help to guarantee your financial continuance, if you know what I mean.
- It’s the right thing to do. The work that you’re doing at your institutions is helping your students in a huge way. If, by putting in just a bit of extra work, you can increase the potential beneficiaries of your work by ten- or one-hundred- or one-thousand-fold, why wouldn’t you do so?
I shouldn’t make it sound like there’s no overlap between WPedu and WPorg. There is. But it’s much smaller than it should be, given the direct parallels between the ideological goals of the free software project and the ideological goals of the educational enterprise
I’m working on a couple ideas that I think will help to bridge some of the gaps between WPedu and WPorg. I’ll share more about them when they become more well-formed. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to move these mutually beneficial connections from the realm of the practical to the actual.