I was helping a faculty member set up a WordPress website for his course and we were having a little conceptual trouble converting what he wanted to be able to do into an actual working site. He wanted a specific look and feel to his site, but he also wanted certain functionality that just wasn’t available using the very bare bones theme he had used for sites in the past and which he wanted to use again.
For those who don’t know anything about WordPress, WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS) that is used for building websites and blogging. It got a bad rap early on by being classified as “blogging” software, and it has since developed into a full-fledged Web development tool. Users create content in pages and posts, and then they can swap out various themes to change the external appearance and functionality of their site.
Anyway, back to my story: I explained that we wouldn’t be able to add custom menus or custom columns to the site if we used the theme he wanted, so he agreed to let me try out some newer, more flexible themes that would allow him to do some of the things he wanted to do; things like use custom menus based on categories; change the layout of each page to have either one sidebar, two sidebars, or no sidebars; etc. But after trying out different options with more flexible themes, he just wasn’t happy with how his site looked, so we decided to go back to the original theme and either figure out workarounds for that theme’s lack of functionality or do without the bells and whistles.
How Is Tumblr Different from WordPress?
Once we got everything kind of working, the faculty member I was working with asked if it would be possible instead to use Tumblr for building his course blog. After all, they’re both blogging software. Now I have to admit my own ignorance here. When he first mentioned it, I knew very little about Tumblr except that my 15 year old daughter wastes a whole lot of time browsing her Tumblr account, so I wasn’t even sure Tumblr was actual blogging software. I’d thought it was more like MySpace, which I couldn’t imagine being used very effectively for academic purposes, no matter how much fun it is for teenage girls. So I decided that I’d go ahead and check out Tumblr to see if you actually could use it effectively for a class website.
Tumblr has some key differences from WordPress. The big advantage for Tumblr is that it’s tremendously easy to use. Of course, that ease of use comes with a real lack of flexibility. It does what it does, but you really can’t make it do what it doesn’t want to do. Oh, maybe that’s another reason my daughter likes Tumblr. It’s kind of like her. WordPress, on the other hand, is built to be flexible. Granted, it isn’t as easy out of the box as Tumblr, but when I ask WordPress, “Can you do X?” WordPress says, “Probably. Let’s try.” When I ask Tumblr, Tumblr says, “What? I didn’t catch that last question. Want to reblog a cat video?” With WordPress, I can use the same exact architecture to build an image-sharing site for a course on photography, a departmental newsletter, a full-featured study abroad research website, or a course repository for sharing student research papers, among many other things. None of these sites work, feel, or look like your average blog except when they need to. They are able to have a consistent narrative and really act more like websites.
Using Tumblr as a WordPress Alternative, or not
Tumblr is, for lack of a better term, a microblog. The best way I can explain it is that it’s the blogging world’s equivalent to a Twitter feed, where you can post your own very simple blog entries, but customization of your site is not really of primary importance, because the main idea of the site is that you are following other people’s microblogs, and their blog entries appear in your feed much like the feeds in a Twitter account or a Facebook account. I guess the upshot of all this is that if you want a website that can also be used as a blogging tool (this is almost always what my faculty members want), Tumblr probably isn’t the best choice. It’s cool and students like using it, but that doesn’t mean it’s useful in an academic environment.
I also completely understand the desire to appropriate the technology that our students are already using in their personal lives and adapt them to academic purposes, and I guess sometimes that can work, but I think more often, at best, it’s kind of like when your grandma friends you on Facebook (I admit I love using “friend” as a verb). Kids once used Facebook to get away from their parents and teachers, but now that grandma is there “liking” your status updates, the cool factor is kinda gone. Anyway, long story short, I’d love to talk about innovative ways that people are using Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook as learning tools in higher ed, but for now, I’m sticking with WordPress.
If you want to see some examples of cool ways people around campus are using WordPress to build all kinds of websites for courses, personal sites, college-wide initiatives, and more, here are a few sites to check out:
- W&M Student Research Abroad
- Modern Languages Newsletter
- Fred Corney’s Russia’s Periphery Course Website
- This very website, Academic Technology at the College of William & Mary
After seeing all the cool above websites made with WordPress, if you’re a W&M community member, create your own!