September 22, 2009

Effective Communication: WordPress to the Rescue

As the I.T. Rep at Vanier College, one of my main priorities is to communicate I.T.-related information to teachers in an effective manner. In a large college such as Vanier, this is not a simple task. Prior to last year, I would use a combination of newsletter announcements, mass e-mails, flyers and posters to diffuse I.T. Information to teachers. This was not effective; teachers did not know where to look for the information they needed. I also discovered that newsletter announcements and posters were often ignored. Flyers were read, but misplaced before information had been registered. E-mails were quickly deleted. I had to find a “one-stop” solution for disseminating information. A website devoted to the use of I.T. in teaching and learning seemed like the best option.

I turned to the Personal Space area on Profweb.

Given that I do not have easy access to web space on the college server, I turned to the Personal Space area on Profweb. However, I did not want a static website, nor did I want to deal with complex programming. Rather, I wanted a site that would act more like a blog with posts, comments, tags and categories, but which would also allow me the flexibility to establish an organizational structure based on the needs and priorities of my College and its teachers. I also wanted the ability to customize my site and add further functionalities as I needed them, such as a forum, chat room or even web conferencing.

Having identified all of my needs, I elected to use WordPress, a blogging / content management system, to develop my site, I.T. in Teaching and Learning at Vanier College. Before launching into full development mode, I tried to determine how I wanted my site to function. I decided on a two-phase project: Phase 1 would consist of developing an efficient mechanism for diffusing information, and Phase 2 would add a more social element to the site by creating a space for exchange amongst teachers.

One of the first things to do when getting started with WordPress is to find a theme (design) that meets the needs of your site.

I am currently still working within Phase 1. One of the first things to do when getting started with WordPress is to find a theme (design) that meets the needs of your site. I must admit that I have spent hours sifting through themes at WordPress. I have experimented with several different designs and layouts. The trick here was to try a layout and then analyze how readers navigated through the site. I did this using Google Analytics, a small but very powerful plugin that can be added to any WordPress installation.

Examples of WordPress Themes

I discovered that readers were far more likely to follow links located on the left hand side of the page. I used that information to redesign my site. I chose a 3-column theme and now use the left column to highlight pertinent information for teachers, such as articles dealing with classroom technologies. I reserve the right column for news from the various IT partners. To ensure that teachers do not miss any articles that might interest them, I also publish the last 10 posts in the middle column.

This year, my main goal with respect to the development of my site is to complete the sections related to the four IT skills, and associated sub-skills, that the College wants to promote amongst students. This will include many links to InukTIC! Beyond this, I also want to explore how I could add further functionality to the site through the use of widgets or plugins. Widgets are mini-applications that can be dropped into any WordPress installation and which can do almost anything that you can imagine. I am hoping to find some widgets that will help me to build a virtual home for some of the I.T.-related communities at the College, such as our group of clicker users. I already have one widget installed that transforms the general comment area into a threaded discussion area, much like in an online forum.

The greatest challenge in developing a site for teachers is to ensure that teachers visit it regularly. Since I launched the site over a year ago, readership has steadily increased, with definite peaks at different times throughout the semester. I am hoping that by establishing some I.T.-related communities on the site, more and more teachers will “drop by” to see what is going on in the world of I.T. at Vanier College! Share your observations with colleagues using the Reader Response Feature below!

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