BuddyPress, Libraries and Higher Education: An Interview with Kenley Neufeld and Michael Stephens

By Kyle Jones |

The following interview was conducted by Kyle Jones, with Michael Stephens and Kenley Neufeld. The interview discusses the use of BuddyPress as a Content Management System in higher Education. Michael Stephens, a longtime ALA TechSource blogger, is a professor  in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University and writes and speaks extensively on the future of Libraries. Kenley Neufeld is the Library Director at Santa Barbara City College, and also writes and speaks regularly on library technology issues. Both have extensive experience working with WordPress in a library context.

Kyle Jones is the author of the new issue of Library Technology Reports, along with co-author Polly-Alida Farrington. “Using WordPress as a Library Content Management System” offers an in-depth guide to using this tool for librarians. You can view a free chapter of this issue at our MetaPress site and purchase a print or e-book copy at the ALA Store.

Online learning has become ubiquitous across most educational organizations in the United States. To support this learning environment, institutions have typically chosen to implement one or two learning management systems on campus. These large software implementations bring standardization, support, and integration into existing campus systems. For some, these standard systems don’t always meet the needs of students and faculty. Both Michael Stephens and Kenley Neufeld have been experimenting with alternative tools. In this discussion we explore how these two professors have implemented a WordPress/BuddyPress learning system for their students. 

Kyle Jones: Do you find that creating a virtual learning community much more feasible now, with today's technical tools like WordPress, than it was several years ago? 

Kenley Neufeld: We've reached a point of critical mass. The tools and software available are pretty ubiquitous. If you think about WordPress, anybody can get a WordPress site up and running even if they are not fully aware that's what they are doing. It's moved outside just the fringe and more into the mainstream. This makes it easier for people to step into it. If I use the word "WordPress" in public, some might actually know what that is or if I just mention “blog” then they most likely will understand. Whereas a decade ago if I had said a MOO, I'd have to spend 10-minutes explaining it and even then they might not get it. Part of this has to do with the change in the Internet landscape. A decade ago it wasn't small, but the Internet has become pretty much present in everybody's lives today. Everyone seems to be engaged with it on some level. That alone is going to shift the tool mechanisms to facilitate learning environments. Blackboard was really the only player on the market a decade ago. 

Michael Stephens: I'm reminded of the years I spent doing tech training at the public library and then taking over the training and development department. Between 1996-2003, we really struggled to design an intranet which now all you need is a blog behind a firewall and you suddenly have an intranet. It amazes me how easy this stuff is now. Because the technology got easier and more popular, everyday folks now understand "we're running this on WordPress or Drupal or Blogger" - that's been one of the most exciting things about this. And this is why we should be doing these things in library school, and in the university, these are the tools of the moment. In three or four years we might be talking about something else. But the ideas and motivations remain the same. 

KJ: You both work at institutions where you have some kind of formal learning management system. Why did you make the decision to not use the resources you had? You could have made your lives extremely easier going with the norm and instead you chose to roll your own. You put a lot of struggles on yourself to do so. 

MS: I can't have my students spend so much time creating and writing inside a tool that they'll probably never touch once they graduate, unless maybe they work in academic libraries. They should be using a tool or a handful of tools they will be using in their jobs. I want them to come out of the program and say they have used WordPress and took advanced web design and experienced Drupal and used Twitter. That's much more important than these systems. The feeling that I'm serving the students better by using these systems is good. 

KN: For me, it's been more about trying to build tools that will meet the needs of the types of things I want incorporated. The system we had originally, WebCT, I used for only one semester and was very disappointed. As a result, I started using Moodle the following term and then the college went to Moodle as well (thankfully). I do use Moodle, and it works well for the most part, but I found it a little bit clunky here and there for some things I'm trying to accomplish. 

The main reason I'm using WordPress/BuddyPress is because the class I'm teaching has to do with social media. Since the class focus is social media and social networking, it seemed like the obvious solution would be to actually use the tools that I’m teaching about. It was a non-decision. This is what we're going to use and I've been very happy. Now, as I look ahead, and if I were to teach other classes without the heavy social media focus, then I would still be inclined toward using the WordPress/BuddyPress solution. I am comfortable with it and happy with it. But I also need to think about the overall student experience and recognize that the school does support one system, which is Moodle, and rather than have students learn a new system, it may be smarter to stick with Moodle. It would really depend on the class. In the current situation, WordPress is the obvious solution. 

Fortunately, learning management systems are trying to incorporate more of the social media tools where you can easily incorporate the video and the audio; the interactivity and visual representations that people seek. I haven't looked at Blackboard in a couple years, so I'm not that familiar with it, but with Moodle you can incorporate just about anything. There are methods to do it, but you are still building within a framework though it is customizable. It will depend on the support you have locally because most instructors are not going to go the extra step unless they have an easy mechanism in order to do so. On our campus we are working in that direction -- to support instructors to add other types of media content, interactively, to allow for a richer learning environment. It is possible. 

MS: I taught 25-students last summer using WordPress/BuddyPress doing Internet Fundamentals. What Kenley said about media is incredibly important and this summer I would be out on the hiking trail with the dog and my iPhone. I'd be thinking about what I'd like to tell the students, so I recorded a video that isn't just a talking head. They see a tree going by, or the lake, or the dog, and they hear my voice saying they are doing really great and here are some things to think about while doing this next exercise. And the feedback I got from the students for a 3-minute video was that they loved it. It helped them feel connected and it helped me feel more connected with them. It became part of what we were doing. 

KN: Goes back to philosophy. The human touch. 

KJ: What about the WordPress/BuddyPress combination promotes the human touch? 

MS: I request that everyone uses some type of profile photo - it doesn't have to be their face - but I want to see something. The red car. The teapot. That helps me associate that image with that person, their writing, and their interaction on the site. It's amazing how far associating a little photo with someone's writing beyond what could be so text based in an online class. The Twitter like feature, what used to be called "The Wire" - it's very fluid and pleasant. 

KN: Definitely agree that the avatar piece that builds a connections between students and between instructor and the students. We can identify easily with who this person is in the class. My class is 100% online so this is the only mechanism I have to know students. The other element that is important is that students are working with their own blog within WordPress and can therefore create something that is uniquely themselves. They can create multiple blogs. They could create one just for the coursework or add a second one for a hobby they are working on to utilize the environment and to play. That is the type of advantage we have with this type of software. 

I do like the new shift away from the BuddyPress "wire" to the “status update” model – it makes more sense. The whole aspect of the profile page in BuddyPress is something that I find very useful. When I setup the system, I have the default landing page for each person as their own profile page. They see themselves and their own activity. They see the friends they have made in the class. It builds on that concept of a community versus coming to a home page - there are elements of that on the home page but it is more structured toward the class material rather than some of the community aspects. It's not as significant on the home page. 

KJ: What about WordPress/BuddyPress that doesn't work for your classroom or for your students? 

KN: There is the initial need to understand the framework. That will occur in just about any online learning environment. When you walk into a physical classroom, you know what to do. It's something that we're used to and we've done it for 20-25 years before we get to college. We still have this problem in the online environment where there is a period in which you're trying to familiarize yourself and get acclimatized to the online environment. That is probably the biggest challenge for students - the technological aspect of where things are and what the expectations are. 

The second challenge for my students is being able to take on the same level of transparency that I'm demonstrating; to get them to let go of some of their privacy. I don't require my students to make their blogs public though it is strongly encouraged [Side note: there is a technical limitation in WordPress/BuddyPress when students mark their blogs as private then they don't show up in the regular blog feed for other students. I do have a couple students have blogs marked private because they don't want Google crawling their site. Obviously, this limits the interaction their sites will have from their classmates but I can still go and look at the blog and interact.] That is a big limitation - working with privacy/transparency aspects. In regards to the avatars, it doesn't matter to me if it's not a picture of the person but it is important that it's something. That image represents the student in the class. 

MS: I agree with both of Kenley's identified challenges. There are some nitty, gritty things too. I think it goes back to understanding the site. When the blog posts roll off the front page, then how do we find them? 

One thing that really impressed me was a last year there was an update mid-semester and Kyle Jonesand I were going back and forth on whether we should update. Should we wait? We decided to put it out to the students. Do you think we should do it? I gave them a little push and they voted. It was a landslide vote to do the site update and see what happens. It went very well. Kyle and I were pretty nervous. 

KJ: I was extremely worried about that, but I'm not in charge of your class. In terms of upgrading to a major version of anything new there is always that risk that bugs are uncovered. That could really blow up whatever you are working on. I think your students would have recognized this, but it would have been a learning experience too. If they are in their library and they are updating a piece of software, then what are the problems that could occur? Who is it going to affect? What trouble could I possibly be in? 

We are in a bug culture - we use mainstream tools like Facebook and Twitter. Just this week Facebook went down for several hours and Twitter had a javascript issue. It's a buggy culture and we have to learn to get through it and find the resolution to make it better next time. 

KN: I couldn't have done that with my class. Every time I go to the dashboard and I see the plugin updates, I don't even want to know about that stuff. It always makes me nervous. 

KJ: That's one of the levels that students don't really see - what's going on in terms of plugins and what could happen to their class. They shouldn't have to worry about that - that's a system admin thing. But in Michael Stephens' situation, here you have him presenting them with potential opportunities and improvements to their possible learning experience. 

KN: We don't do bugs on our campus. It has to be planned and vetted. Even then we might spend six months or more discussing it. There's a shell-shocked nature on our campus because of some bad experiences in the past. A significant hesitance is present where something might potentially negatively (or improve) the learning environment. 

KJ: Have either of you talked to your peers about using WordPress/BuddyPress more extensively throughout different classes? 

MS: I have done a couple presentations as part of our Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. I also have a couple colleagues who have adapted similar systems. 

KN: I've spoken with some colleagues and spoken with our faculty support department. There are faculty using WordPress in other classroom environments. However, they are not using the BuddyPress combination. That would be a different step, requiring additional support and training. There is some interest across campus. Even though I'm just one person, we are a small campus and I communicate things that I read or experience with the Dean responsible for online technologies by keeping him apprised of what I'm doing and maybe that is something people would be interested in trying out. 

KJ: Since you've talked to your peers, maybe the word has gotten out to your systems department. Have they reached out to you to say we'd like to help you in this venture. 

KN: No. It's actually the opposite. They say to me, "there is somebody interested in using WordPress, can you help them?" I'm one of the people they send interested parties to. If I came to the campus support and said I'd like to host WordPress/BuddyPress on site, they probably would consider it but it is just simpler to keep it off site. The other faculty using WordPress do use an on-campus installation run through our Faculty Resource Center. On the IT side of the house, as opposed to faculty resource support, they probably don't have the mechanisms or the staff to implement this on a broader scale. 

KJ: What about you Michael? 

MS: Very similar. There are pockets of people all over campus using WordPress to varying degrees. Some people are experimenting with Moodle. We're all sort of finding our way. The next step is it might become more strategic - more planned. We'll get more support as we go forward. I host off site because it is easier. 

KN: Currently, I am running on a virtual private server ($50/month) because of problems with memory resource usage of BuddyPress. The hosting provider moved me to a VPS because of high memory use. As a result, I've had to reboot the server several times to resolve memory spikes. 

KJ: This is a limitation that has been discussed in the BuddyPress forums. It is very frustrating because we expect a WordPress plugin to just work and not affect your resources in that way. That is the general experience with WordPress. There is a lot of complexity built into BuddyPress because of the new features it is offering and the queries it is pulling from the database. 

KN: In the last day or two, the memory usage has been around 200-300mb of memory use. But, it spikes up to over 800mb a few times a day. In a shared hosting environment this will not work.  

KJ: This could be improved in the future, but the complexity might increase at the same time.   What are you planning to do differently with your course sites in the future? What is on your wish list of features? Are you going to migrate away from WordPress? Any specific things you'd like to include? 

KN: I would like to include a solid grade book tool. I haven't done the research to find one, so I currently post my grades in Moodle since all classes have a shell on our campus. The second thing would be some type of LDAP authentication to bounce against our campus system. Again, I haven't spent the time to research this option and it would require some institutional support and sign-off. I know both are possible. 

MS: I see continuing to use WordPress for a while; it is working very well. I would like to see better integration with some of the other social tools. Everyone got on Twitter in the emerging technologies class so I wish there was a way to mash that up a little bit better. 

KN: In my grading process I like to look at each student blog. I was originally using the WordPress Dashboard to navigate through all the blogs, but have since discovered the front-end "activity feed" meets this need well. From a teacher perspective, the mechanism for working my way through the content for grading purposes, knowing who is being engaged, etc. is very important. The first semester I used WordPress/BuddyPress it seemed very time consuming. It's much better now. 

MS: I really like the activity feed. I subscribe to all of the feeds from all of the sites. I had a class with 25-people, 25-blogs, 10 blog posts a semester and that's 250 blog posts. That's a lot. I don't expect the students to read everyone's post but I do read everything. Finding ways where smaller groups might participate with each other instead of 25 people trying to find a blog post to comment on.

KJ: Thank you both for your insights and for sharing your innovative spirit with the readers of this technology guide.  Furthermore, thank you for rethinking the online learning experience - I imagine your students are appreciative for your hard work and development on your course sites.

Next month, Kenley Neufeld will faciliate the ALA TechSource Workshop Using Technology in Library Management: Skills for More Efficient Administration and Communication. To learn more about this workshop and to register, please visit the ALA Store.