WordPress in education, meet the free software community. And vice versa.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

28 thoughts on “WordPress in education, meet the free software community. And vice versa.

  1. Martha

    Great post. I’m one of those people who works in WPedu, but who has a hard time talking about the work I do openly. Mostly because I recognize that I’m a complete hack. It’s easy for me to tell myself that what I’m doing is useful to me (because it’s the best I can do), but that no one else would ever be interested or find it useful. — Or maybe they’d find the *idea* of what I’m doing useful, but they could probably code it MUCH better than I could. 😉

    I’ve also felt for years that there’s this HUGE disconnect between those of us working in edu and the rest of the WP community. I think this is actually reflected in the way WP is architected. The very structure of the system embodies values that often are antithetical to the way we want to use it in higher education. They’re not *wrong* — they just value different kinds of use cases. As a result, sometimes I feel like we’re pushing against the core in order to make WP do what we need it to do in higher ed. This isn’t always the case, and as I’ve become more adroit at hacking, the problems have seemed more surmountable — but I do think there is a still a disconnect.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Martha. Were your ears burning while I wrote this post?

      Mostly because I recognize that I’m a complete hack.

      This is just what I’m talking about. The truth is that you’re not a complete hack. I’ve seen code you’ve written, and it’s less hacky than people working for major dev shops, charging hourly rates that would probably make you swallow wrong if you heard them. There’s a spectrum of hackiness; everyone’s on it; you’re nowhere near the end of it. I understand and empathize with your reflex to be self-deprecating, but you’ve got to move past it. You owe it to yourself and to the larger community. (“You” means both you Martha as well as you WPedu 🙂 )

      They’re not *wrong* — they just value different kinds of use cases.

      Exactly! WordPress feature development is driven by a couple of factors: What’s needed/wanted by Matt/Automattic/wordpress.com; what the longtime hobbyist contributors think is interesting/important to work on; what a contributor thinks is important enough to patch, and then hound the core devs about. To take a pointed example that’s relevant to WPedu: Multisite. wordpress.com runs Multisite, but it’s pretty customized, and their use cases are very specific (limited themes, no per-blog plugin activation, etc). Most commercial development gigs don’t use Multisite, and those that do generally don’t use it in the same sort of way that schools do (ie, for arbitrary provisioning of new sites, where the user has full Admin privileges). So the tickets that are successfully pushed through with respect to Multisite are for features/fixes that don’t really reflect the kinds of things that schools are generally doing with Multisite – and sometimes the tickets actually are problematic for those uses.

      Anyway: The community of contributors should reflect the diversity of the community of users. Edu is way, way underrepresented. (Take a look at this list, for example: http://make.wordpress.org/summit/participants/. I know most of these people, and I can count the edu-focused ones on one hand.) If that’s going to change, people have to step up.

      1. Jon

        Multisite integration is probably THE best thing to happen to WPedu. I remember the painful days of WPMU alpha back in 2005. I saw the potential as did Jim, D’Arcy and many more and we all stuck with it. Now we have this fantastic tool, but I now find myself in a situation where it is time to scale the instance by splitting the DB, load balancing the server, etc. Jim has written about this a bit, but I’m not sure there is a clear guide on the Codex.

        Like Martha I find it hard to think that others would want to use the little plugins I’ve created. I wonder if it would be easier if we could share such things within the WPedu community before releasing them to the wider community. I know it may seem silly but some people might find it easier to share with birds of a feather.

      2. Daniel Schulz-Jackson

        I agree with Jon, that Multisite is BOSS for edu/nonprofit, AND that making it scalable is intimitating, even sometimes with WPMUDEV people/plugins to help.

        I have to say I’m super surprised to learn that edu/nonprofit people don’t participate more. The very reasons you listed as to why they should participate — their flexibility, values/virtues, altruism, etc. — made me believe they already would be doing so…

      3. Jim groom


        Again with the self-deprecation, do you learn nothing from the bava?

        I couldn’t agree with you more about Martha’s abilities, she is awesome—and she is doing this on top of everything else she does. I still can’t believe how many people don’t realize that she has been running the development of ds106 and the vision of syndication at DTLT since ds106 got open and off the ground in 2010. Her day is nigh!

        As for the WP community, I see the WPMU.org and wpmudev is represented, I mean that whole rift and the way Farmer sold back other people’s plugins as his own and then barked about GNU was crazy. That whole stand off between Farmer and Mullenweg was weak because they both fall on the same side of the debate over open and the market around it, just in different spectrums of that approach. The commie wordpress developers are pretty much only represented by you and Ron and Andrea (who seem to walk that same brilliant line because they’re awesome and real people). But I was thrilled to see you on that list, that made me feel we were represented, and this post is testament to the fact we are. You are the wpedu delegate, and I couldn;t think of a better one. But I am voting you take Martha with you for good measure 😉 As for that Summit list, wasn;t that put together by the WP community? Wasn’t that invite only? If so, then I think that is a testament to this idea of a core group that Martha suggests is not, and has never really been, interested in what wpedu is doing. You changed that because you are a rad developer, and that means something to them, and quite frankly it is an important something for us too. Matt Gold was very, very smart.

      4. Jane Wells

        This comment might have been true a few years back, but it hasn’t so much been the case in recent years: “WordPress feature development is driven by a couple of factors: What’s needed/wanted by Matt/Automattic/wordpress.com”

        Automattic pays 3 developers (and me, though I’m taking a break for 3.5) to work solely on WP core. Automattic pays about 60-70 developers to work on WordPress.com/Automattic stuff. I think about 20 of them contributed a patch or two to WP 3.4 (though some were years old). As .com continues to expand its profile as a social blogging platform and the .org core team continues to focus more on being a CMS, most of the crossover is in things everyone wants: better media uploads, etc. Ryan spends a fair bit of time removing stuff when he merges updates from core to .com, because.com is so customized. So I don’t think the lack of edu-friendly infrastructure is because of .com/Automattic, it’s because people working in the edu space aren’t contributing to core and making those needs better-known.

        There are a couple, but let’s face it, the ideal way to structure multisite for one university isn’t the same as every other. Multisite also has fewer contributors — Mark Jaquith and Pete Mall (both volunteers, not being paid to work on core) are generally it with a few patches here and there from others. Multisite is largely ignored just because there aren’t warm bodies stepping up to work on it. If more edu folks started, it’s pretty likely that once they proved themselves with a release cycle of contribution, their input on direction would be taken with weight.

        Re summit: it was a combination of application and other people making nominations, after a post to the public-facing WordPress.org blog. Aside from Boone, Stas was invited due to his work with Courseware/BuddyPress in an academic setting. That more people using WP in an academic setting didn’t apply/weren’t nominated by their peers just reinforces the lack of crossover. By next year, if a higher percentage was representing academic use, that would be awesome.

      5. Boone Gorges Post author

        Jane – Thanks for stopping by. If there’s one person in the WP inner circle who I know cares about the EDU world, it’s you 🙂

        So I don’t think the lack of edu-friendly infrastructure is because of .com/Automattic, it’s because people working in the edu space aren’t contributing to core and making those needs better-known.

        Agree 100%. I wasn’t suggesting that wordpress.com was the cause of any of this. I was just saying (in the context of talking to Martha, a WPedu-er) that there are a couple of main ways in which WP core development is driven, and that .com is one of them, and that WPedu has to shoehorn itself into one of those categories to make its voice heard. If I listed .com first, it was because it was the first to come to mind, not necessarily because I think it’s the most important of the three factors I listed (fwiw, the second is pretty obviously the most important). Though, as an aside, the fact that Automattic puts 3-4 people full time on the project might not represent a large percentage of *Automattic* resources, it does represent a fairly significant percentage of resources devoted to the *WP project* (since most contributors are very part-time).

        As for Multisite – that was just the particular example I used. It happens to be a particularly important WP feature in the world of edu, which is not (in my experienced) as widely exploited by commercial developers. Totally agree that this is a place where edu devs could get involved and help to bring MS up to snuff with the various potential use cases.

    2. Jim groom

      Turns out it was an application process for the Summit, and then they cut names and all that to get the final list. So it wasn’t a situation where they reached out to people, my bad if that’s the case. I guess I am enough out of the WP community loop in that regard not to notice, which is shame on me. But the WordCamp event I went to in Richmond, as Tim notes below, was weird in that my approach to the application was anathema to most of the audience. I weirdly came off like a hippie—which was not my intention 😉

      1. Amy Hendrix

        Aww, Jim, you’re just misunderstood – to anyone who’s met you, it’s obvious you’re an anarchist, not a hippie!

  2. timmmmyboy

    I think you’re exactly right that there’s this weird disconnect where two entities that share the same values of openness don’t tend to cross-pollinate very well. In the absense of Edu stepping up and voicing its needs I think what we see more and more is that a third party at the table, WPCom (meant as all commercial entities built on top of WP, not just WordPress.com) has a significant voice in the project. It’s sometimes overwhelming at Wordcamps to see how entrepreneurship drives the conversations. More and more it seems the voice of reason that discourages commercial ventures taking too large a seat at the table is written off as crazy talk (I believe Nacin actually said “This guy is nuts” when Jim was railing against commercial enterprises and developers). I’m not saying they shouldn’t have a voice at all (which seems to be how that message was interpreted). Hell, we’re huge fans of premium plugins like Gravity Forms that allow non-developers like us to do amazing things. But there’s an imbalance in how that drives the project as a whole. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Jim groom

      I love you Boone, and I love you Tim. And Jon is very, very nice too. Daniel, I am happy to meet you. As for the WP.org community, I was part of it to some degree with Jon and others back in 2005/2006/2007 a lot, but up and until 2009 I never felt like the WP community was at all interested in what we are doing in education, and I tried to be vocal about that. I was also vocal that the app store mentality for themes and plugins was potentially dangerous, many at CUNY framed the argument similarly at the Wordcamp NYC in 2009. The UBC folks have developed unbelievable stuff like wiki embed to name just one (all freely available on the wp.org), and your work at CUNY speaks for itself. I guess the disconnect for me is along the lines Tim notes above, the core community is very much driven my the idea of open source as business platform to make money on open—which I don’t have a problem with it just doesn’t interest me at all. And I’m also guessing that is where the education part falls off, many of us—UMW admittedly—have been out of the developmental conversation because we don’t have the money to pay developers. Sad, but very, very true. Baruch, the GC, UBC, Yale, and other fine ed folk have been carrying the rest of us, and I can’t begin to tell you all how much we appreciate it.

      At the same time, the unlocking of the syndication/buddypress/feedwordpress hack was built by the brilliant Martha Burtis (who is the mother of all invention with UMW WordPress!) cracked the nut on the premium plugin Gravity Forms which means it isn’t free for everyone. It’s not necessarily expensive, but it ain’t free and the development is uncertain. We are thinking about a ds106-in-the-box based on the awesome Academics Commons-in-a-box idea which is the epitome of sharing, in my mind. What’s nice about the commons-in-a-box is that it will be free for anyone to use. We need that for ds106 in some ways, or at least the component parts, but right now paid plugins prevent that. I’m not bitching at the market driven folks, they’re driving part of our innovation, but premium models limit how we can share. It’s like we are using this awesome, open source platform but still consuming our innovation in strange ways—I want us to build it.

      NOw, if I wanted to do Active Directory authentication, on the other hand I would just turn to the Baruch plugin you designed with Luke Waltzer and I am set. That’s awesome, and I wish institutions would but their money towards some of this development like CUNY and UBC and Yale have to be a part of the open vision of innovation and education. I would love to be a part of an educational institution that paid top-notch developers top dollar and then open source the products of their awesome we fund. That’s a model for open architecture I want to support. Leep it free for the people who can’t afford it—open source socialism hard at work!

      1. Boone Gorges Post author

        many of us—UMW admittedly—have been out of the developmental conversation because we don’t have the money to pay developers.

        This is a huge piece of it. It’s not just about development itself. The stuff Martha and others are doing at UMW is evidence that cool development is happening in WPedu, even without necessarily shelling out additional money for it (where “additional” means “beyond normal staff”). Where the commercial aspect really becomes evident is in how development gives way to community engagement, because that stuff is not free. Turning something built for internal use into something for public use takes time – sometimes an extra 10%, sometimes an extra 100% or more. Blogging about this stuff takes time. Traveling to conferences to talk about your development takes time and money.

        Commercial developers can afford to do this stuff, because (1) they make enough money, and (2) they can justify it as a tax break/advertising/recruiting expense. In contrast, it borders on the impossible to get official university funding for anything that isn’t directly aimed at meeting some internal goal (like paying your staff to package your plugins for distribution, or paying for them to go to WordCamps). At CUNY we’ve been extraordinarily lucky, because people like George Otte and Matt Gold have found ways to get explicit funding for outward-facing work. But this is very rare.

        So that’s the shitty fact of the matter. I have another blog post in the works about how ed tech shops can start to buck this trend. But the fact remains that, in education, and especially *public* education, we have to fight a little harder to get our voices heard – blogging in the off-hours, committing to the upstream projects off the clock, etc.

        As for the more general “commie” attitude: I’m pretty squarely with Stallman on this. The GPL is designed to protect user freedoms (free-as-in-speech). There’s nothing wrong with people making money off of GPL software, as long as they don’t violate the user freedoms that the software is meant to protect. (Side note – it’s obviously true that there’s a connection between money and user freedoms, especially when you start talking about third-world countries and the like. But I digress.) If people want to make money off of the software, even by commoditizing it (app store), it’s within their rights to do so. But it’s important for WPedu to raise their voices, because *this is not the only financial model for free software*, regardless of what the commercial WP world says. Instead of railing against money in free software, we should demonstrate alternative models that are more in sync with our institutional and personal convictions, and then use the success of those models as an in into the WPorg community.

      2. Cathy Finn-Derecki

        UMW OUT OF THE DEVELOPER CONVERSATION????? i’m sorry, but Curtiss Grymala and moia, yes I am awesome, have done amazing stuff with WordPress at UMW. Curtiss has showcased his multi-network development in multiple venues, and the ideas I’ve cooked up about aggregation and cross-pollinating academics with marketing are not seen anywhere else the way we do them, and we will continue to innovate. Boone, you had your chance, and you didn’t want to work for us. Too bad for you.

  3. Tammie Lister

    I’ve actually been lucky enough to get an insight into the education sector the past few years through working with some clients involved in it. One of these is a University who are using WordPress quite extensively and creating a large collection of child themes for use in internal sites. Another is a school in China looking to come from another solution into WordPress. Quite different sides to coins and only touching the surface as to what people are doing. As an ‘outsider’ freelancer I see only the surface.

    It certainly has taught me a lot about the different process (sometimes time scale :)) education things can work on – it’s also taught me what a wealth of talent there is being not highlighted. Outside of client work though I certainly love discovering what people are doing and look forward to hearing far more about the great work going on in WPedu.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Tammie – It’s very cool to see people active in the WPorg community doing client work in WPedu. As you note, it shows you some of the unique challenges faced by people working in schools 🙂 But, more importantly, I hope that it gives you a sense of the profound amount of good that software like WP and BP has the potential to do in the education space. That’s something that everyone should care about, even people not directly involved in WPedu, and it’s something that WPorg can foster by reaching out more to the edu community (WordCamps, helping in forums, etc).

      1. Tammie Lister

        Yes it does give me a sense of the potential. I think the innovation is one thing that struck me – that and a very ‘bootstrap’ approach and much more experimental, which is a refreshing difference to what a lot of WPorg (particularly the ‘selling side’) is doing.

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  7. Andreas Karsten

    Thanks Boone – it’s not often that a blog post resonates so strongly! I migrated from using WordPress for blogging to using WordPress and BuddyPress in education, and when building the online learning environment for an MA in youth studies at http://dip.youthstudies.eu I was extremely grateful not only for being a WPorg/WPedu hybrid, but that CUNY existed, and was not ashamed of being proud of its work. Without your and your team’s work in bridging WPorg and WPedu, it wouldn’t have been possible for us at all to build such a cool learning environment. We used it for a three-month test-run in 2011, and it was praised by faculty, students and external evaluator alike. I am really looking forward to using it when the MA starts in full next autumn, and am having fun doing something entirely else at http://www.youthpolicy.org in the meantime 🙂 Too bad that the first BuddyPress meetup is as far away as Vancouver. If there is one in New York some time, I’ll come over and then we can run a special WP/BPedu strand.

  8. Josh Maxwell

    Great article and comments! First time visitor, now subscriber – I receive the wp-edu digest email from wp-edu[ at] lists.automattic.com and someone mentioned your post in it. Another great suggestion is to actually subscribe to this list. You can find a full list of digest email lists at lists.automattic.com or like I said, subscribe to the wp-edu digest emails – do an intro email and let’s start getting more involved!

    I work for a small public school district and the teachers were wanting a way to “blog the internet” (an actual quote… heh!) and looked into a few options, but when I found WPMU (ugh, I know) nothing compared to it.

    Personally, I don’t have much time to contribute to the core (let alone understanding of), but as someone who makes a living from WPorg & WPedu, I submit plugins that have been useful for me as I’ve worked on different features; and I’m active on the forums, I think that as WPedu folks, we should at least be active there! Every time I run into a problem with my WPMS teacher blog install or my WP as a CMS install, I’m on the forums asking and then posting solutions to my own questions if I find them (as well as trying to help others)

    1. Josh Maxwell

      // pressed ‘submit’ on accident…

      But I digress, as a cross-over between the two myself, I need to get more involved, too. Here’s an idea: how awesome would it be if there were eventually WordCamps created solely for WPedu users! Or a WPedu track at most WordCamps. That would be cool…

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