Still using WordPress for our Classroom Website

We’re just creating our new classroom website for the 2009-2010 year. We had it up and running in about 15 minutes by setting up WordPress 2.8.4 (3 minutes to create the site; 12 minutes to cut and paste the content from our Meet the Teacher newsletter.)

How to Make a Class Website

We had several options to consider when building our class website:

  1. Building a website from scratch using HTML code. Impressive, but only to people who can appreciate the geeky side of life. There are lots of  free and easy software solutions out there to make a professional looking website.
  2. Using a free blogging platform (i.e. Blogger, WordPress.com, Edublogs.org, etc.) These are all great places to start (and we’ve used them all), but we wanted to have the flexibility to customize our class blog without any limitations. (WordPress.com and Edublogs.org offer watered-down versions of WordPress.)
  3. Using a wiki. Wikispaces.com offers free wikis for educators, but we’ve found the wikispaces software to be a little limiting. (1. We’re not a fan of their internal mail / chat system, 2. it’s hard to really customize the look and feel of the wiki site, and 3. the simultaneous editing of a text by multiple users seemed prone to frustrating errors. Students found Google Docs was better at merging simultaneous edits from different students.)
  4. Use Google Sites to power our website. Our official school website is powered by Google Apps. It’s a quick and easy way to throw documents onto the net. We particularly like the Google Calendar feature – parents can import the calendar into their own Google accounts or calendar software to keep track of what’s going on at school.
  5. Running a self-hosted WordPress blog. In the end we decided to use WordPress again and pay for another year of webhosting with BlueHost.

Should I use Google Sites or WordPress for our Classroom Website / Blog?

We seriously considered making the move from a WordPress powered site to a Google Apps powered classroom website this year. In fact, we still might make the  switch. Here’s why we’re interested in Google Sites

  1. Our school is making the switch to Google Apps/Docs. It’s very easy to publish content onto a Google Site. Students will eventually become familiar with Google Docs and the Google suite of online applications.
  2. Google Calendar is a great way to keep parents informed about what is going on in the classroom / what homework has been assigned. You can also attach documents so that students can print out their own handouts.
  3. It’s easy to use. Several staff members have already thrown together websites using Google Sites. You can share websites with the world or keep them internal to your school.

Here’s why we’re resisting:

  1. We’re not sure what kind of flexibility we can get with the look-and-feel of a Google Apps powered classroom website. With WordPress, we know there are thousands of themes that we can use and customize. Google sites all seem to look the same. Great for 90% of teachers out there, but we’re looking for more flexibility.
  2. WordPress is blogging software which means it comes with a RSS feed. (We couldn’t find a RSS feed option in Google Docs.) You can use Feedburner (incidently now owned by Google) to send out email newsletters everytime you post homework on your class website. (In fact, there’s a RSS feed for each category on your website, so if you have several classes sharing the same school website, as long as you categorize your posts, you can have different RSS feeds for each class.)
  3. WordPress allows you to use widgets in your sidebar. There doesn’t seem to be as much flexibility and freedom inserting 3rd party code into a Google Sites powered classroom website. (They don’t allow javascript for security reasons. PHP is a paid premium feature.) We like using widgets like clustrmaps or feedjit to show our students where their traffic is coming from.
  4. We can set up our WordPress blog so that it can only be accessed from school computers (by only allowing certain IP addresses to get access to the administration side of the class blog.) In the past, we’ve tried to have students complete all of their writing assignments at school so we can see exactly what they’re capable of. Locking down the back-end of the class website helped. (Students can still visit the class website from home, they just couldn’t log in and edit their work.) This level of control is only possible if you’re hosting your own website.
  5. You have more control over comments in WordPress. There doesn’t seem to be a good way that visitors can leave comments on a Google Site powered classroom blog. Mind you, Google sites wasn’t designed to be blogs; they have Blogger for that. In WordPress, you can open or close individual pages to comments and you can select who can leave comments: anyone, logged in visitors, etc. Teaches can moderate comments on a school blog powered by WordPress.
  6. WordPress is infinetly expandable. It’s an open-source project which means there are hundreds of people around the world contributing to it. There are plugins for everything that allow you to add extra functionality to your class website.

Why we use BlueHost to run our WordPress powered Classroom Blog

UPDATE: Why we’re thinking about leaving BlueHost

We could have used the free versions of WordPress (WordPress.com or Edublogs.org), but we wanted to have the freedom of installing our own themes and plugins. This meant we needed to install WordPress software ourselves and find a web host.

Although we could have used our school’s webhost, we decided to run WordPress off of our personal BlueHost account.

  • Quicker: we didn’t have to wait to get FTP passwords from the IT department to create our site. (After all, the start of the school year is a busy time.)
  • Prettier Links: In geek speak, our school website runs off of  IIS.  BlueHost runs using Linux. In terms of WordPress, you get prettier permalinks with Linux (classroomwebsite.com/homework-page) than you do with IIS (classroomwebsite.com/?p=123)
  • Easier: You can create a WordPress account by clicking a single button once you’re logged into your BlueHost account. (We would have needed to install WordPress from scratch which is more difficult and more time consuming; you have to FTP your files to your server.)
  • Free (kind of): “WordPress is a state-of-the-art publishing platform with a focus on aesthetics, web standards, and usability. WordPress is both free and priceless at the same time.” Having said that, you do need your own web host to run the software. Even though running our classroom blog from our school webserver would have been free (to us, at least), we’ve invested in a webhosting plan with BlueHost to make life simpler for us. (You can run as many different websites and domain names off of a single account. For example, this teacher blog is run off of the same BlueHost account as our class blogs and class websites.)

Thinking about setting up WordPress for your classroom website?

Why we still like WordPress for our Class Website / Student Blogs

Here’s what we like about WordPress. (Some of these features have been around for a while, but we still like them.)

  • When you’re editing the sidebar of your class blog, you don’t have to click save. Just drag and drop the widgets and it saves automatically. (You do have to click save if you’re editing the content of the widgets, but now, if you remove a widget, WordPress can remember the contents of your text boxes.)
  • You can edit several posts at the same time – add categories, tag hundreds of posts all at once. You can also change the display status of multiple posts at once (i.e. published, private, draft), which means it’s easier to moderate your students’ work.
  • Once you’ve installed the latest version of WordPress, you’ll never have to upload the software again. (Mind you, with BlueHost, they provide a one-click button to install WordPress). WordPress now allows you to upgrade to the newest version of WordPress from within the administrator side of your class blog. Very useful for non-techie peeps.
  • There’s a plugin for everything: translating your webpage into different languages, inserting Google Calendars on to your class blog, etc.
  • You can compare different drafts and revisions similar to what you can do in a wiki or Google Doc, however, at this point in time, WordPress is only able to compare the HTML code. (A lot of brackets and slashes.)
  • You can assign different powers and levels of roles to different accounts. In Google Apps, you are either an administrator that has complete control over everything or a regular user. In WordPress, you can control who can comment, who can create posts, who can publish posts, who can modify the appearance of the sites, etc. There are even plugins that allow you to give specific powers to specific users.

One big problem with WordPress 2.8

We’ve gotten more PHP memory errors with WordPress 2.8 that other versions of WordPress. Here’s a solution that Nnyan posted in the WordPress forums that worked for us:

Following the link posted by andrewtrench I added this line to my wp-includes/cache.php file (right after the

ini_set(‘memory_limit’,’64M’); // set memory to prevent fatal errors

Why 64MB? Well if you look at your error you will get a memory size in bytes. The 33554432 in the error told me 32MB was not enough so I bumped it up to 64 and my errors in the dashboard went away. I did not have to do the other two steps.

Gestroud also posted the following solution so you don’t have to constantly do the previous solution whenever you upgrade:

You could also add this line to your wp-config.php

define('WP_MEMORY_LIMIT', '64M');

This way you won’t have to constantly make the fix again whenever you upgrade WordPress.

One Big Problem with using a self-hosted WordPress account for your Classroom Website

WordPress is great and getting a webhosting plan to run the WordPress software provides you with complete control over the content and appearance of your classroom website.

The problem we’ve consistently found over the past three years that we’ve been using a self-hosted WordPress account is that if you have the entire class in the computer lab writing comments on each other’s blog posts, the server can get overloaded and not process all of the comment requests at the same time.

It doesn’t seem to matter if students are leaving comments on different posts on your class blog. If several students  submit a comment at the same time, often times, only one will go through and the other students will get an error message.

There is a work-around. Usually if you’re patient and refresh the webpage (F5), eventually, the comment will go through. It’s still a frustrating experience for students.

We assume this problem doesn’t happen if you run your classroom website using a free WordPress.com or Edublogs.org account because they’ve got massive resources and technical people on the back end.  It’s probably because we use a shared web host where many websites reside on the same server.

It’s something we’re still looking into.

Bottom Line

Right now we’re using WordPress to power our classroom website, but who knows how our needs will evolve this year.

  • We’ve got our eye on Google Sites, especially given that our students are being encouraged to use Google Docs at our school.
  • A colleague is using bulletin-board software as a collaborative tool for students to do literature circles. We may convert.
  • There are other software solutions including BuddyPress, bbPress and more.

What do you use for your classroom website?

10 thoughts on “Still using WordPress for our Classroom Website”

  1. Hey John, thanks for the tip. We’re actually already using WP Super Cache on this site, and we can’t figure out why it loads slowly. Maybe because we’re using a shared webhosting plan?

    When we have a class of 30 students trying to post or comment on our classroom blogs, we find the students complain of the internet running “slowly”, when it’s really just our classroom website. WP Super Cache wouldn’t speed that up because the students are logged in and that plugin only caches non-logged in pages, so maybe it’s time for us to go shopping for a new webhost.

  2. Interesting, I didn’t even know Google offered such a service. I use WordPress all the time and love it, that’s strange about the memory problem, I’ve never run into that before..

  3. Hi Lovezk, are you running a self-hosted wordpress site? Your tattoo site loads pretty quickly for me. Who hosts your site?

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