Easy Websites with WordPress


Managing a website may not ever truly be easy, but WordPress can certainly make it easier. For those unfamiliar with WordPress, it is a web content management system that allows you to use a web browser for creating and editing a website. It can be accessed with any modern web browser from almost any internet connected computer. No special software or skills are needed.

The Palomar College Academic Technology Resource Center offers workshops on using WordPress. In particular, I would like to point out a new series of workshops called “Website in a Month”. Here’s the workshop description:

Don’t have a website? Is your existing website in need of a renovation? Whatever your needs are, this series of workshops is meant to get your website project started and finished in just 4 weeks. Using WordPress, you will learn how easy it can be to setup and manage a website. Whether you’re on your own or you have a team of people to work with, you will have a site that you can be proud of. The first meeting will cover how to get your site started and explain how the 4 week program will work.

The goal of the workshop series is to give as much hands on assistance with either creating a new site in WordPress or converting an existing site. The workshop dates/times are:

  • Tuesday, September 25, 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, October 2, 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, October 9, 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, October 16, 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

If you don’t yet have a WordPress site and would like a staff/faculty site to begin working with, these simple instructions will get you started: How to Create a WordPress Site [pdf]

If you are interested in creating a WordPress site for a department, discipline, or program submit a request through the ATRC Help Desk.

Tech Toolbox: Educreations

Educreations icon

Occasionally when the techs here are speaking with faculty, particularly in the free-form discussions that come up at our Wednesday morning “Blackboard with Cream & Sugar” sessions, the techs will mention tools we use that faculty are unaware of. Sometimes those tools can be adapted to use in the classroom, so I’m highlighting some such tools on the blog under the “Tech Toolbox” name.

Today’s addition to the Tech Toolbox is an educational content creation and distribution tool: Educreations.

From the website:

“Teach what you know. Learn what you don’t. Create and share great video lessons with your iPad or browser.”

Image of the Educreations app on an iPadEducreations may be created using the free iPad app, or by using the Educreations.com website. Of course, creating via the website may be tricky if you do not have some good drawing surface. Of course you could run out and purchase a multi-thousand dollar Wacom display tablet, but it might just make more sense to borrow one of the Inspiron Duo touch-sensitive portable computers from Academic Technology.

But what, at its core, is Educreations? In a nutshell, an Educreation is a recording that will play back an audio recording of what is said, along with a video feed of the drawing you do either on a blank canvas or over the top of still images. It is NOT an actual screen recording, so you won’t be recording the activity of any interactive websites. However, it is certainly possible to do quick screenshots from a website, then pull them into Educreations and annotate the result.

As an example of that, I used one of the ATRC Duo computers to create this brief video on how to get help on Blackboard using our support helpdesk.

Now that recording was just using the built-in mic on the Duo; I’d have a much more robust sound quality if I’d bothered to hook up a good external microphone, such as the USB wireless mic available for checkout from the ATRC. I also used a stylus instead of my fingertip, which accounts for much of the shaky line fidelity. (Sometimes a stylus works really well; this was not one of those times.)

I’m not utterly pleased with the screen interface on the PCs at my disposal (although any touch screen makes recording simple compared to using a mouse – I have no idea how the Kahn Academy videos come out so well using a mouse as the drawing device), but I am quite happy with the interface on the iPad. This video was recorded using just the iPad’s built-in mic, while working through some 2nd-grade math homework with my son:

The iPad gives a much smoother interface, and on all the systems I have tried out Educreations on, it wins best of show. However, as touch interfaces become common on home computers (my own personal computer I purchased this spring has one) then the ability to just record marking up and drawing content will become that much more useful.

Regardless of which device you actually do a recording on, once the recording is complete you save it to the Educreations website, which actually has provisions for organizing your recordings into courses, and even contains some basic question and answer function. In theory you could run class discussions wholly from the Educreations website, although this is not something I would recommend. (After all, the true value of Palomar’s Blackboard system is that individual faculty do not need to bother about managing student account information and the minutia of other such administrative drivel. Trying to maintain your own course system elsewhere would dump all those tasks right back in your lap.) Once your recording is posted to the site, if you have made the video available to the public you can then grab the embed code off the page and drop that into a blog post (such as this one) or even into a Blackboard Item in a content area. (Since the embed code is HTML you will, of course, need to toggle over to HTML Mode before pasting the code in, then toggle back and Submit the Item.)

If you found my own recorded videos to be lackluster (I know I find them that way) then I’d encourage you to take a look at the numerous recordings made available on the Educreations website. Their gallery of offerings are far more complex and well done than my own, such as the following video on the nature of light:

Still have questions about Educreations? Chances are the company already has your question answered on the Educreations FAQ page.

Welcome Back

Welcome back faculty members (if, in fact, you took off the summer at all) to the fall 2011 semester. We have been quite busy and are starting to feel growing pains with our systems. It also seems as though no matter how much time we have to do things, we always need about two more weeks. I bet most of you are feeling the same way about the semester about to begin.

Dr. Lillian PaynYour new Academic Technology Coordinator is Dr. Lillian Payn. Please contact Lillian at ext. 3626 if you have needs or concerns related to Academic Technology.

We have upgraded the Blackboard system over the summer to version 9.1, Service Pack 6. New features include Interactive Rubrics, an enhancement to the Needs Grading tool, an intuitive Timed Assessments enhancement, and better SCORM integration. bug fixes include various IE8 issues with the grade center and item copy fixes. We do not anticipate having to upgrade again until after the end of the fall semester.

There will be a new training approach for Blackboard this semester. We are moving our Blackboard training online, so those who intend to teach Blackboard can experience it (and practice with it) during their training. The first of 4 6-hour workshops, “Teaching with Blackboard: Getting Ready for Day One,” begins August 18 at the pre-plenary event. The three subsequent workshops will be held as follows:

Part 2:
Teaching with Blackboard: Building Your Course
September 23 – October 7
Meets online. Six hours of self-arranged time between Sept. 23 and Oct. 7
Sign-up deadline with PD: Sept. 21

Part 3:
Teaching with Blackboard: Evaluating Learning
October 14 – 28
Meets online. Six hours of self-arranged time between Oct. 14 – 28
Sign-up deadline with PD: Oct. 13

Part 4:
Teaching with Blackboard: Communicating with Your Students
November 4– 18
Meets online. Six hours of self-arranged time between Nov. 4 – 18
Sign-up deadline with PD: Nov. 3

Our full training schedule can be found here.

wordpress-logoWe have implemented a new version of WordPress (this blog) on Palomar servers. It has run very smoothly all summer, until now. In the last week for reasons we are trying to discover it has slowed to a crawl. If that has been your experience in accessing this blog, sorry. We feel fairly confident that we can fix it, one way or another (it”s a really complicated story), but in the mean time please be patient. If you absolutely have to get a non-Blackboard blog up and running we suggest you use the free WordPress.com site, and then when our implementation is running smoothly export your .com site and import it here. As I say, it is a complicated story and we have a few fixes we need to work through, but it all takes time and this is crunch time for many more critical systems. (Where, o where, is that extra two weeks we need?)

The other system that we face challenges with—and this is a more serious matter—is our streaming media storage system. We have encoded and streamed many video and audio files for faculty members under the authority of the TEACH Act, fair use, and by permission of the copyright holder. So many, in fact, that the storage we originally had allocated is now full. Actually, we initially asked for more storage than we got, but that”s another matter. Until our friends in the IS department solve the storage issue, we will not be able to accept any more videos or audios for encoding. If you have brought in a video or audio that you no longer use, please let us know so that we can delete it from the file structure.

This is another problem we expect to be solved, but probably later than sooner. IS is working on a long term storage solution (i.e., 6-12 months out). Whether they can solve our short term need is an open question. We will be meeting with them soon to discuss the matter.

If you visit our web site you will notice we have upgraded our Help System. You now have the option to Live Chat with one of our techs (when the Live Chat button says “ONLINE”). This is the absolute quickest way to get help. The second fastest way to get help is to create a Help Request Ticket using the Help system. Before you submit your ticket, however, try searching our Knowledgbase. Your problem may have a simple solution that you can read about, rather than waiting for our techs to respond. You can also send us email or call us. If you have to leave us a message, your voice message will automatically create a job ticket. Same with emails. They go straight to the ticketing system. Please provide as much information as you can when asking for help. For instance, what kind of computer you are using, what operating system, what browser and what version of the browser.

SkyDrive PowerPoint Embeds in WordPress Blogs

The Office.com blog today had a nice feature on embedding PowerPoints stored at SkyDrive.live.com into wordpress blogs.  As you may know, WordPress comes in 2 flavors, the locally installable software you can obtain from WordPress.org and administer yourself, or the web-based WordPress.com service, that hosts—now that it has inherited all the old live.com blogs—gazillions of blogs, like this one.

When the embed PowerPoint from SkyDrive feature was first announced, it would not work in a WordPress.com blog because it uses iframe embed code.  In those days, WordPress would strip out iframe code because of its potential for malicious activity.  Now it IS possible to embed a PowerPoint in a WordPress.com blog, but with a couple of caveats.

First, here is that how-to video from the office.com blog explaining the steps to take to embed a PowerPoint in a WordPress blog.

(Note:  Be careful of those new YouTube addresses that begin “http://youtu.be.”  These will not properly embed from URL in WordPress.  You need to use the old YouTube.com address until the interface is updated).

OK.  The procedure is simple and it works, as demonstrated by my own embed below.

[office src=”http://r.office.microsoft.com/r/rlidPowerPointEmbed?p1=1&p2=1&p3=SDA763D3598E15C49F!358&p4=” width=”402″ height=”327″]

The embed code will be converted to WordPress shortcode and the embed will work, as you can see above.  [N.B.: If your shortcode contains some characters that look like the little boxy characters in the following:

Unicode Control Characters Unicode Basic Latin control codes,be sure to replace them with true ampersand characters (“&”—without the quotes,of course) for the code to work correctly, like this:

Unicode FixedIt’s an encoding thing.]

The embedded PowerPoint in WordPress can be played using the Forward/Backward controls and that’s about it.  Any animations or audio narrations you had originally associated with the presentation will not play.  Interestingly, the embedded version does not honor the transparency setting of the slide background.  All slides but the initial title slide were created with a semi-transparent background so that you can easily read the text on the slide in black type.  With a full-color background it is difficult to see the text (see the video embedded below for how it is supposed to look).  If you click the Full Screen control the PowerPoint web app will be invoked, and your original animations will play, and users will have access to your speaker’s notes, but not audio narrations.

It’s an improvement, but not the ideal.  It is my opinion that there is usually little point in placing a PowerPoint presentation on the web because, after all, PowerPoint is a speaker’s aid, and without the speaker, where does that leave you?  The ideal is to narrate your presentation, produce it as a video, and place that video on the web, a topic I have posted on before, as in this example:

This is much better because it preserves animations and narration.

One more warning about the iframe embed procedure for SkyDrive-saved PowerPoints:  do not use it in Blackboard 9.1.  Iframe embeds in Blackboard are likely to behave unpredicatbly, even corrupting content area controls and rendering content areas uneditable and un-deletable.  It may seem attractive to embed your PowerPoint from your SkyDrive in this fashion, and for an ordinary blog this is fine, but be careful about Blackboard.