Democratizing Education With WordPress

This is a companion post to a talk I gave yesterday at WordCamp Europe 2019 – the largest conference of its kind for the web and WordPress community. What follows is somewhere between a transcript of the presentation and a blog post. 

You can see the video of this talk here.

Or see a copy of the slides here.

Let’s get started by taking a look at a few photographs…

An old black and white photograph of a large classroom crammed with students sitting neatly in rows in long desks facing the front of the room.
Photo Number 1.
A black and white photograph with students facing the front of the room in a classroom in the 1950s.
Photo Number 2. Credit: Kansas Historical Society.
A modern classroom with students sitting in desks in rows. One student has a laptop on her desk.
Photograph Number 3.

What do we all immediately notice? Besides the interesting clothes and the first two photos being in black and white, all three are very similar. In schools around the world, for as long as we can remember, kids sit at desks in rows and all face a teacher at the front of the room.

A little confession. I ripped off this idea to start this talk with photographs of classrooms over the years from a few different talks that I have seen before. But in those talks, the speakers used these photos as evidence that our education system is stagnant and therefore broken. We have similar views shared by the likes of Sal Kahn, Sir Ken Robinson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and many more thought leaders in recent years. They suggest that we need a technology revolution to solve all of our problems. Most believe in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a viable vehicle for instruction. And scariest of all, some are claiming that we don’t even need teachers anymore.

Slide: What They Say... Our education system is broken. Tech and online courses can fix it all. Do we even need teachers anymore?

Here’s the deal. Traditionally, education has been about how we best take a bunch of facts and download them into someone’s head. Then, we try and prove that those facts actually made it in ok – through assessments, exams, a certification, or a diploma. I call this the ‘Inputs + Outputs’ definition of education. Inputs are the curriculum, concepts, and learning objectives. Outputs are how we assess and show that the inputs were in fact ‘learned’. 

As discussed above, many great minds champion the promise of the web and technology to significantly improve education and learning. But in most cases, folks saying these things do so for the wrong reasons, and to be fair, most have never actually taught in a real classroom before. Sure, some of what they say is true. The web does make it easier and cheaper to make knowledge and information more widely available, and that can make it a great equalizer. 

Slide: Education = Inputs + Outputs, Like A Human REST API

The problem is, I don’t believe that education is about facts and knowledge. The ‘Inputs’ aren’t as important today because we can just pick up our phones and ask Google or ask Siri anything and everything we ever wanted to know. 

If you take just one thing away from me today, it should be that education is really about the personal and individual experiences, about project-based and service learning, and about the struggles, and the failures – which are all so much more important than any learning outcomes (or ‘outputs’).

In the post-information age, experiences are more important than knowledge.  

Slide: Experiences > Knowledge. Education does not equal Inputs + Outputs

A big problem with my ‘experiences’ philosophy (and this may have gotten me in trouble a bit when I was a teacher) is that it is hard to quantify. And our society likes verifiable results. We can’t easily assess experiences on an exam or on a quiz. It can be challenging to assign meaningful grades or marks.

We have investors and billionaires focusing all of this money on new and more efficient ways to make textbooks more interesting and videos more engaging. We have this idea that if we just collect enough data points on students, then Artificial Intelligence can deliver personalized learning wherever and whenever. Again, in this new world, do we really need teachers anymore?

What would happen if we were to focus more on technologies that empower students to do, to build, to collaborate, and to create? This would be more in line with an ‘experiences’ approach to education than one defined by ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’. 

Photo of people standing outside a cave in Israel.

This is a photo of me on a tour of schools and the education system in Israel a few years ago. We met with these Bedouin students – all girls – that were studying physics at the time. If you aren’t familiar, the Bedouin are Muslim majority communities in the Middle East known historically for being nomadic and though it is slowly changing, the majority live in poverty.

One of the more interesting stories that the students told was about how important the web, mostly accessible only on their phones, was to them in connecting them to the entire world. It wasn’t about better open content, learning games, or ‘flipped’ lectures on videos. These students were actually following famous scientists and chatting with and learning alongside other girls studying the sciences from many different countries. This was powerful stuff.

It wasn´t about how they were using tech for curriculum. Or how video games improved their learning. It was about authentic connections that they were making.

If only there was a web publishing platform that would help facilitate the syntheses of learning by students sharing their work and thoughts. Maybe it was foster collaborations like these students experienced but on properties that the students own and control.

Well, of course, there is! 

WordPress allows for doing – content creation and curation of thoughts, experiences, videos, images, and all sorts of media. This is why WordPress can and should play a central role in education at many levels. It is the glue that holds everything else together. I get even more excited thinking about this with what we know is coming in the next phases of Gutenberg and block editing.

When you compare WordPress to social media platforms or proprietary portfolio solutions, there’s no question that the authentic audience when publishing on the web, coupled with a digital space that they can design and make their own, increases engagement and the quality of work.

And we know that WordPress works because we see it used every single day.

Slide: 4,378,396 blogs hosted on Edublogs.

The platform launched nearly 15 years ago, actually just shortly before itself. Here, there are literally millions of WordPress sites and blogs from students the world over.

WordPress is used for blogging, for ePortfolios, for communication, and collaboration in schools and universities – from kids as young as 4 or 5 years old, through those in Ph.D. programs. All the while, the big money Silicon Valley keeps pushing their solutions, which are slightly flashier, with better marketing, and in line with the large textbook companies schools are used to working with.

WordPress is big, but it can be better and it can do more. To do this, there are three key areas that WordPress developers and those that work on WordPress really need to think about.

The first is data exportability – there are Learning Management (or LMS) plugins that don’t use custom post types and can’t be easily exported. Same with forms plugins, or honestly, page builders are the worst – build content in those, and it is often impossible to get that content out.

One of the reasons that I hear from schools about why they choose WordPress over a proprietary system is that students can take their work with them. And this includes 20-30 years from now, that it will be in a format that is still usable by whatever comes after WordPress if WordPress happens to not still be around. However, this doesn’t work if every plugin or theme being used isn’t following best practices or is not using the default Tools > Export/Import XML format. 

We’ve noticed a trend in recent years of page builders and plugins building their own stand-alone import/export tool. But that really isn’t good enough.

If you think laws like the GDPR for data privacy are confusing and daunting for the general public, it gets even more intense when it comes to laws around data and privacy in education and with kids.

Thanks to the hard work of the WordPress Privacy core team, there are now tools that allow plugin developers to list and make clear any needed data privacy concerns about their plugin. You can also easily make use of the new core functionality so that individual users can request a log of their data or for all of their data to be deleted. It is seriously cool, and also incredibly important for compliance with a growing number of laws and regulations. Sadly, many plugins that we all use every day don’t yet make use of these features.

Let’s change that, please. 

See the privacy section of the core handbook for more information.

And I save the most important for last. Accessibility. We can’t have a quick chat about education without talking about accessibility.

My very first paid job on the web was working for this man here, Dr. John Slatin, at The University of Texas. Dr. Slatin was blind, and he was also one of the leaders in the world around raising awareness of web accessibility. He was instrumental in developing the very web accessibility standards and guidelines that we still follow today. And he’s often credited with the phrase “good design is accessible design” which he signed at the bottom of all of his emails. It is still as true as ever, nearly 20 years later. And though Dr. Slatin has since passed away, this is a fight we are still fighting.  

I’m hopeful that we are all learning together through the Gutenberg development experience that you can’t tack on accessibility to the end of a project, or even start working on it in the middle. It should be considered and addressed from the first wireframe and the very first line of code.

It also keeps me up at night that if we aren’t careful, WordPress may develop a reputation for “not” being accessible – even though evidence suggests that it is among the most accessible platforms around. If this happens, we will quickly see a sharp decline in the use of WordPress in education, enterprise, governments, and more – who may choose something else, even though that platform may be worse for accessibility, just because of the reputation. We walk a difficult fine line as a community of advocating passionately for the much-needed improvements while still making sure we are evangelizing WordPress in a positive way to those that need it.

Here is my guide to WordPress accessibility.

If you are interested in education and WordPress, here are a few resources that I wanted to share:

WPCampus – with a fantastic and active Slack community, an in-person conference in Portland Oregon next month, and an online conference around the New Year.

PressEdConf – a full day twitter conference that has happened the past few years, organized by universities in the UK, I believe, and the #PressEdConf hashtag can be useful to connect with others.

Student Blogging Challenge – free and held twice a year for 10 weeks, connects students from around the world to work on the same projects and tasks. Open to anyone on any web publishing platform, but organized by us at Edublogs.

So, to wrap up. Please don’t get caught up in the hype about online courses and new fancy ways to replace textbooks or even to replace teachers. Instead, with WordPress, invest in what could and should be the future of education – which is learning experiences that puts the learner in charge of creating content and contributing to the body of knowledge we all share.

Thanks for reading (or watching the video). I look forward to continuing this conversation about how we can truly democratize education with WordPress. Get in touch with any comments, feedback, or ideas

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