Author Archives: Tom Woodward

Weekly Web Harvest for 2017-04-16

  • Meet FlexiSpy, The Company Getting Rich Selling ‘Stalkerware’ to Jealous Lovers – Motherboard

    Internal company data, stolen by a hacker and provided to Motherboard, provides new insight into FlexiSpy, its founder, and the sprawling, predatory consumer spyware market at large. The company grew from its customer base of vindictive spouses, and ended up connecting with firms which sold malware to some of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

  • Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance

    The correct way to play Pac Man, of course, is to consume as much as possible while running from the ghosts that relentlessly pursue you. This was a valuable early lesson in what it means to be an American.

    It also taught me that technology and ethics aren’t so easy to separate, and that if you want to know how a system works, it helps to follow the money.

  • Juicero CEO Begs You: Do NOT Squeeze Our Juice Bags [Updated]

    This week saw the latest chapter in the utterly wonderful saga of Juicero, the $400 juice machine maker that attracted $120 million in venture capital funding. On Wednesday, a bombshell Bloomberg report exposed the secret that threatened to ruin the company: You can get almost exactly the same juice without the company’s expensive press by squeezing their damn bags yourself with the hands God gave you.

    Today, Juicero CEO Jeff Dunn hit back with a Medium post designed to dispel this misinformation and argue that you should not, in fact, attempt to squeeze the bag yourself. Do not squeeze the bag. Do NOT squeeze it.

  • programming problem

    The Zalando Data Intelligence Team is searching for a new top analyst. We already know of an excellent candidate with top analytical and programming skills. Unfortunately, we don’t know her exact whereabouts but we only have some vague information where she might be. Can you tell us where to best send our recruiters and plot an easy to read map of your solution for them? This is what we could extract from independent sources:
    The candidate is likely to be close to the river Spree. The probability at any point is given by a Gaussian function of its shortest distance to the river. The function peaks at zero and has 95% of its total integral within +/-2730m
    A probability distribution centered around the Brandenburg Gate also informs us of the candidate’s location. The distribution’s radial profile is log-normal with a mean of 4700m and a mode of 3877m in every direction.
    A satellite offers further information: with 95% probability she is located within 2400 m distance of the satellite’s path (assuming a normal probability distribution)

  • AP + Journalism 360 Best Practices Poll for 360 Video Production

    “Does your organization clone out the tripod?”
    Brings up all sorts of interesting questions about depicting reality . . .

  • City of Chicago Developers

    City of Chicago has multiple technology tools that you can use to connect residents to the city. Robust open data can inform you of recent activity anywhere in the city, whether it is crime, licenses, or arriving buses. Some of our APIs also let you communicate to city officials, such as the Open311 API that lets you open service requests or the ClearPath API that lets users submit tips or see upcoming community meetings. This page connects you to the documentation to help developers create tools for their neighbors.

  • Analyze your videos in a few lines of code – Hacker Noon

Random Re-Connection via Twitter

That is me- back row, partially obscured (and not just by the camo). Pretty wild that John found me somehow and that we’re both involved in WordPress and web design stuff.

It led me to look up another guy from that photo and a few seconds later . . . presto. He was even using that same picture as his avatar (because, as it turns out, they had a bet on who could find me on the Internets).

Not world shaking but a fun connection to the past (30-ish years ago!) and one that inspired a bit of digital wandering.

I’m relatively sure this is my house back in 5th/6th grade but I’m not entirely sure. I mainly identified it by the creek visible in the map view. I probably spent more time there than in the house.


That’d definitely the pond where I used to fish and catch baby turtles (something of a family tradition now).

I went to E.L. Wright M.S. before we moved to the hell that was 7th grade in Huntsville, Alabama’s creatively-named Huntsville Middle School.

Random Re-Connection via Twitter

That is me- back row, partially obscured (and not just by the camo). Pretty wild that John found me somehow and that we’re both involved in WordPress and web design stuff.

It led me to look up another guy from that photo and a few seconds later . . . presto. He was even using that same picture as his avatar (because, as it turns out, they had a bet on who could find me on the Internets).

Not world shaking but a fun connection to the past (30-ish years ago!) and one that inspired a bit of digital wandering.

I’m relatively sure this is my house back in 5th/6th grade but I’m not entirely sure. I mainly identified it by the creek visible in the map view. I probably spent more time there than in the house.


That’d definitely the pond where I used to fish and catch baby turtles (something of a family tradition now).

I went to E.L. Wright M.S. before we moved to the hell that was 7th grade in Huntsville, Alabama’s creatively-named Huntsville Middle School.

Open Content Creation at VCU

Open Content Creation at VCU

I’m going to hit a few of the things I’ve done with people around open educational resource creation.1 In the discussion, I’m going to ignore some complexities around the term ‘open’ in order to avoiding dragging the whole post down. My personal definition of open is very liberal2 although I can see the value of Wiley’s R framework in a variety of conversations.

Once again, I’ll try to move from simpler to more complex options.

The Judah Will

The Judah Will is a will that was transcribed and annotated in the digital history class this semester. Ryan Smith is the history professor behind the idea and has been more than awesome to work with. Right now the work is all in Google Docs but we’re looking at paths/tools/display options that will better show the research and conversations that occurred.

The simple act of transcribing the will is one act of OER creation and active participation in the field of history. The additional research and investigation of the elements of the will constitutes another layer. The majority of students in the class really enjoyed the process and liked the idea that they were adding to the sum of information available to historians. This activity also enabled the professor to model historical research/thought while interacting with the students on a project with value outside the class.


Jackson Ward Then and Now

Simply a site that allows you to compare archival photos of Jackson Ward with modern photos of the same location. It was done a few years back and in a very short time frame as part of a THAT Camp.

This site was built with some javascript and the data pulled via Google Sheets but Knight Lab’s Juxtapose would do it very simply.

Once again, nothing monumental3 but an example of open content and blending technology, history, and the creation of new knowledge.


Bicycle Safety Data (Student-Submitted Data Focused on Richmond)

Another relatively simple pattern where students survey the city of Richmond to gather data around bike safety. GPS coordinates, an image, and standardized data are gathered via a form and then available in a variety of formats. We’ve used this pattern in any number of other classes for other purposes.

  • Race/Space – “Collect images using your mobile phone or tablet device that visually reflect the streets of Richmond. As you go into the field, examine neighborhoods and post photographic images of spaces and places – using the camera to witness everyday objects and encounters. Provide an analysis of your own photographs emphasizing at least one of the following categories: place, object, and surface.”
  • Field Botany – Works you through a visual dichotomous key and then adds your image with that data to a database of plants images. This one doesn’t loop in GIS data but doing so would be trivial.
  • Cemetery Data – Another place where we have students gathering data is in local cemeteries. This provides fodder for all kinds of other discussions/analyses. There’s some particular power/use in doing this in places like the East End Cemetery where it is unlikely the data on grave markers is recorded elsewhere and where the environment itself is at risk in various ways. I’d like to make this a deeper more intentional aspect of our work but have not been able to follow up sufficiently with faculty to make it happen.
  • VCU101 – a selfie-driven orientation site
  • 3D Artifacts – animated gifs, standardized metadata, and geographic (although not GIS) associations

. . . you get the idea. We can guide student data entry around any number of things and provide visually interesting displays of that information with varying degrees of sophistication and interaction which enable students, faculty, and the general public to use that work in real ways.


Interviews

As I started thinking through OER and our role in creating it, I ended up realizing that we have a number of faculty members and our ALT Lab video team producing some really valuable and unique material. I knew it was happening but I hadn’t really fit it into the OER concept previously.

RVArts

Molly and her team worked with John Freyer and Jill Ware to produce the RVArts Cultural Passport Speaker video series embedded above. It is a pretty amazing series of conversations between world-class artists that now exists as an ongoing resource for other classes. This was part of a larger student-driven RVArts course/site/calendar/event review site that constitutes another level of community engaged OER/resource creation. The calendar component is not in use at the moment because the course is not in progress but you can still see the event reviews and some of the other elements.

Listeners on Listening

Steve Ashby has really done amazing work interviewing musicians. He asks each musician the same four questions and uses the responses as part of his music appreciation class. It’s led to some really interesting content as well as interaction between Steve and the musicians — like this response from Marc Weidenbaum.

Steve Ashby, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently asked me four questions about listening. Ashby is posing these same four questions to a variety of people. The questions are all about listening, and the answers are intended to inform a music-appreciation course that he teaches at VCU. As I worked on my responses to his questions I asked him some questions — yeah, interview an interviewer and you inevitably get interviewed back —
Marc Weidenbaum

#ThoughtVectors

This course did many interesting things and actually ended up with two video resources being created. There were interviews with computer science luminaries like Ted Nelson (embedded above) but the course also resulted in video-captured conversations between the instructors (like this one) that provide some interesting insight into the interplay between instructors and their thoughts on the course (and content) as it developed. It’s interesting to see behind the curtain of multi-instructor course planning and reflection and these videos allow a view of course design which could be valuable to any number of different audiences (with or without interest in what the course was actually focused on).


More Traditional Textbook-like OER

Digital Histology

This is an example of a fairly heavily customized WordPress theme built to perform much like a custom program that the faculty members (John Bigbee and Alice Pakurar) had created in Macromedia Authorware 10 or 12 years ago. They already had all the content– images, text etc. but the program was super old and was giving them more and more issues.

I’m still working on getting a number of bumps smoothed out and we haven’t filled in all the content yet but it’s a pretty good example of the flexibility in WordPress as well as what digital content can look like in a fairly specific field where you don’t see a ton of OER. I’ll eventually write up a post describing how it was built or, at the very least, I’ll write that post in my head and wonder where it is a few months from now.

World Language OER – Tier 1 and 2

This is part of a pretty impressive move by the world language department to integrate engaging multimedia content into their courses and to do so across multiple languages.

The first level involves students finding and posting interesting target language media to a central site using WordPress’s ‘press this’ bookmarklet. This material is then evaluated by teachers and/or upper-level students and then used as the foundation for more sophisticated lesson creation.

The second level is a custom WordPress scenario that provides structure for a lesson (as they define it) and integrates interactive elements through H5P.

This is also still relatively early days for this project and I have many improvements to make but it’s a taste of what’s to come. This group and a number of others are part of a grant program oriented towards OER creation at VCU this semester so I should have more opportunities and more examples in the near future.


1 Looking back at the list, it’s clearly heavy on non-textbook models (which other people deal with better and more deeply than I) and heavier on student creation/participation. Many of these are tier-one data entry elements that would provide additional levels of sophistication as the data is aggregated.

2 In certain ways I feel fighting for the use of material under copyright is a must in order to reclaim/maintain rights and prevent things from becoming more restrictive. I can also see how people want to completely avoid any chance of drama or legal fees.

3 UnMonumental?

Courses in WordPress

Courses in WordPress

In the same vein as my last post,1 WordPress lets you set up courses just about any way you might want. There are some typical patterns people use but there are also a variety of other options that fit individual needs or just make people happy. I’ve done quite a few different scenarios over the last three years so I figured I’d highlight a few structures and some of the things that make them what they are. The sites in general may or may not also have face-to-face components but I’m choosing examples that are more involved that sydincation sites (aka mother blogs) or sites that focus on particular projects/assignments.

Hopefully these examples show the variation faculty have in terms of what they want and in terms of the flexibility that WordPress can provide.

In this case, I do believe I’ll be able to move from simplest to more complex/customized.

Simple End of the Spectrum

These examples mainly organize and display content and aren’t focused on interaction or student publishing. Usually sites like these predominantly use pages and may not use posts at all. They may also turn off comments to simplify management. The page construction fits neatly within more traditional models of web design.


Graphic Design History

The goal here was to put up a bunch of sequential videos in the quickest way possible. There was a desire for a minimalist theme and some control over fonts.

The content was in three main sections, those sections were set as parent pages. Each parent page had a number of child-pages with a single video on each. This enabled us to build the layout and navigation in about ten minutes or so. We used the page list plugin to automatically list the child pages on each parent page using the shortcode. This is a handy plugin for anyone2 who likes to do their organization via pages rather than through posts/categories/tags.


ICA Museum Course

Another very simple site in many ways. This is just a super-long page with all kinds of multimedia. The theme was adjusted a good bit to resemble the ICA museum page but all those adjustments were done via custom CSS on an existing theme. This was something we did within an hour or so based on a drop-in visit.

The screenshot looks super-odd because the page is so long but the course was an intercession course and was meant to be experience in a much more intense way with students spending numerous hours over a few days rather than a few hours spread over a longer semester.


Brand Center Demo

Here we have a custom theme that uses the same page-based-parent/child relationship for content but adds a bit of visual polish. I’m still working on it but it has a custom page template called ‘week’ that automatically adds the children (or siblings) to the bottom of the post and allows you to categorize them via a custom field so they’ll have an appropriate icon and time. Not super fancy but an elevated level of design.


Interactions and Increasing Complexities

These examples are a bit more involved in various ways and start to allow for student interaction in various forms. These sites will have elements of interaction and often use posts with tags/categories as a way to organize content. This is a step away from the more traditional page-based model.


Digital History

This was a super quick construction for a course I’m co-teaching with Ryan Smith from your history department. It has a pretty typical menu of pages at the top. There are little details which make it more interesting –

  • the syllabus is an embedded Google Docs so any changes end up published and replicated at the site without additional effort/action
  • The files are an embedded Google Drive folder so we’d be able to share some items that are under copyright and still manage them through Google for convenience
  • Each class has an associated post which has what I think of as an interesting visual and structured content
  • there is some decent commenting going on (keep in mind it’s a very small class)
  • the ‘press this’ bookmarklet is used to add content
  • the map background generates on each load to display random map coordinates3

Socially Engaged Media

This course was built with Bob Paris from VCU’s School of Art. I am never quite sure what the site will look like as he takes advantage of the ability to change background colors, headers, and background images to create some pretty unique combinations.

  • Language – Bob has given a lot of consideration to the language he uses in his class and the site reflects this. He doesn’t give assignments. He gives operations.
    You don’t log into the site, you ‘genuflect to the machine.’4 I believe choices like this matter. They add up to build an experience that is different, that is fully considered.
  • Students are authors on the site rather than syndicating and the site itself is built like an art gallery. We did a version that was syndicated but the issues in content display between the student theme and the destination led to issues. Since that matters quite a bit in this scenario, we opted to bring the students into one site and build there.
  • This site is customized but changes were accomplished through the custom CSS option and a plugin. The Post Grid plugin that Mark built displays the posts from designated categories in a masonry layout on their respective pages.

Music Appreciation

This site is pretty comprehensive and makes use of a number of elements. You can see from the menu structure that Steve Ashby has the content divided into weeks with multiple elements per week. The direct instruction content mixes video, text, and uses Spotify playlists.

Student work is syndicated in from their sites via Feed WordPress and categorized so all the content can be seen specific to the individual project. The professor is also using Gravity Forms to do some listening quizzes. Google Docs makes an appearance for some directions.

Finally, there’s a whole series of “Listeners on Listening” interviews and audio recordings that are created as ancillary content by the professor.

All in all, quite a lot going on and it continues to grow in interesting ways.


Sociological Theory

This is an older course and one I’ve talked about before but I still like the construction being oriented topically (the theorists themselves) rather than by time and the aggregation of student content between an undergraduate and graduate level course covering similar material. Student content is aggregated via FeedWordPress. Jennifer Jones also has some tag-cloud-ish action going on here and we made a number of efforts to better indicate where comments were occuring in the student sites. Basic syllabus information is included via PDFs. We managed enrollment at this time via a Gravity Form and then did some manual work. I’d use our motherblog plugin were I doing it now.



Artfulness – The Course

In addition to the big Artfulness site (which does a number of neat tricks- one of which is documented here) Molly is also teaching a course with students this semester.

We opted to keep students on the front end of the site and have them submit work via Gravity Forms. I managed to keep one form for submissions tied to different categories by using the field_values=”cat=14″ to auto-assign the category without creating an entirely new form. This is handy for when you really don’t care if students are thinking about categories and you just want the stuff to end up in the right place. This pattern works well for relatively simple content- single images, limited text formatting, etc.

For more sophisticated projects later on Gravity Forms didn’t really do what we needed. For these projects we moved to USP Pro which allowed for full editor capabilities on the front end of the site but which also allowed us to set specific categories without student interaction. The students ended up submitting some really interesting gifs and other material which became posts and are displayed categorically and in larger galleries as well.



1 I like to pretend people read these posts sequentially.

2 Possibly 90% of the world.

3 It amused me but I, on a larger scale, hope to use semi-random options like this to help inspire curiosity/create serendipity.

4 I admit that was me getting a bit flowery but Bob seemed to like it.

Gravity Forms – Regular URL for File Upload

add_filter( 'gform_secure_file_download_location', '__return_false' );

I do a fair amount of Gravity Forms to posts. Many times those posts have files, mainly images, associated with them that I’d like to have embedded in the post. Gravity Forms did some changes a while back to prevent people from guessing where files are (which is good) but the secure URL change also made my embed patterns break. Throwing the little line above in a plugin makes things work again (although at the risk of people guessing where other files may reside).

A WordPress Authoring Continuum

A WordPress Authoring Continuum


Image from page 60 of “Birds of La Plata” (1920) flickr photo by Internet Archive Book Images shared with no copyright restriction (Flickr Commons)

I often feel much of my life has been spent arguing against binary judgements related to technology.1 I’d like to have neater boundaries and simpler discussions but they always seem to get in the way of what I perceive as reality.

I’ve certainly tried to articulate options for content in creation in WordPress before. I tried really hard to have a nice list here that would move you from full-constrained incrementally towards the normal backend editor but the lines kept blurring on me so . . . you get what we have here today . . . which is a failure to delineate, crisply.2

The idea that WordPress authoring is super-easy or needlessly complex is one of those arguments I have repeatedly.

I believe, with varying degrees of effort/skills, WordPress authoring is simply what you want it to be.

It can be tightly constrained, without even the need for an account or even a visit to the backend of WordPress. It can also be fully open with all the options and complexities you could want. They’re both choices with a fair amount of room in the middle for variations. I’ve found a few plugins and/or design patterns that support these choices fairly well.

The Most Structure (fewest options)

Why pursue this?

  • you want very standardized template-driven content3
  • you want author technology support to be minimal/non-existent

I’ve got a few examples of when form-to-posts has worked for us. In this case, I can move from simpler to more complex.

  • BNFO 300 Documents – Biology Course – Simply allowing students to submit documents of various types as an embed so they can comment on them using WP’s comment feature. Really simple but effective enough to bring the faculty member back.
  • Student Sociology Article Submissions – Sociology Course – A very, very early model for this kind of thing.
  • Gestalt Theory – Art Course – a more visually focused model
  • Bicycle Safety Survey – Urban Planning Course – This was a phone focused form to allow for GPS plotted map entries regarding bike safety. It fills in some hidden form fields with GPS data as part of the process. The GPS data is held in a custom field.
  • Dichotomous Key – Biology Course – This is a visually driven form that fills in form fields via URL parameters. If you bounce through the leaf choices,
    you’ll end up at a page to submit your image. Look at that URL and you’ll see a bunch of stuff in the URL based on what you selected. This is, again, an early model but it does show that you can create some neat experiences for users that structure things but that also feel pleasant.
  • Text Sets – EDUC Course – the goal here was to allow students to create units with a very particular structure and then populate those units with particular books (again with a very particular structure). I made this in the early days when I was still fighting programing so it’s pure Gravity Forms and a bit awkward. It does show high levels of structure being possible although we left some holes and you can see that people found ways to do other things or not do things. There’s a mixture of custom fields, tags, and categories driving this.

Lately, I’ve also gone with some front-end editor options. These enable degrees of constraint (you can require elements, set default categories etc) but you can go a bit farther than with Gravity Forms and enable the full WordPress editor options on the front end. You can set these to require a user to be logged in or allow anyone to submit.

I’ve used USP Pro and the Buddypress User Blog. Both enable front-end editing and have options to restrict what people can do. The words used to describe plugins like this are kind of messy though which makes finding and comparing them somewhat difficult. In the scenarios I’ve used these plugins, we wanted to keep users on the front-end and add some minimal restrictions on the metadata/category side of things but give them full access to building multimedia posts (multiple images/videos, WYSIWYG editor etc.).

Gravity Forms

I’ve talked lots of times about using Gravity Forms4 to create posts. With post body content templates you can make this as structured as you want. Every option could be from a dropdown, checkbox, or radio button. Those elements can be woven together to create a single structured post or different elements broken out as categories, tags, or custom fields . . . or you could use the form to do all of that.

I tend to recommend the Gravity Forms route because it’s the easiest path I’ve seen for people who might not have technical skills or technical support and the plugin is handy for lots of things outside the form-to-post pattern. Gravity Forms also keeps things on the front end and you can enable WYSIWYG editing. I have not enabled a fully functional WP editor with file uploads5 in this scenario nor have I seen it done. I’m sure it’s possible but it’s not plug and play.

USP Pro

I’m becoming more of a fan of this option but it’s still a new plugin for me and one of the rare paid plugins I use.6 I can pretty much do anything I could do in the Gravity-Forms-to-post model (except conditional logic and some of the more form dependent elements) but it lets me offer the full editor/file upload interface.

Custom Post Types

Another fairly major option for changing how people create content in WP is creating custom post types and associated custom metadata.Which can then be tied to form-based submissions or used with front-end editors . . . see why I always end up with lines that are blurry? You can do just about anything here. WordPress comes with posts and pages as default structures. Posts have tags and categories by default and pages can be associated with other pages . . . but you can make a custom post type and then make as many associated metadata elements as you could want. I’ve dabbled in this a few times as creating this scenario tends to take more effort than the two options mentioned previously. I’ve done it from scratch and with Advanced Custom Fields (a plugin that helps you build this stuff faster).

This is just another path to guiding people when they’re creating content. It also opens up the door to display this content in entirely different ways.7

Some examples of this include . . .

  • Blackout Poetry – a custom post type (note the ‘poems’ element in the URL) that enables a certain kind of content creation and associates the subsequent products with the parents
  • World Languages OER – This a design pattern that is going to be part of a larger construction of OER materials across our world languages program. Each module/lesson has key elements that will be standard but will have flexibility within the particular component. You can see a portion of the backend layout here and a front end example here. I’ve got a ways to go on the visual elements but it’s pretty functional and provides the structure that the faculty wanted.

I do less of this type of construction because the overhead tends to be higher as I’ve also got to build a way to display that content or include it in the normal posts/pages displays. It is a nice option to have when you want to go to another level of workflow and display.

As with many of these things, a lot of these words are for the convenience of people and tend to be fairly invisible at the database level at least in practical terms. Alan mentioned something along those lines in a comment long ago.

In any case, hopefully I’m showing that WordPress has a huge array of options for content authoring that can accommodate just about any need or level of technology skill.

WordPress is clay. If you keep making bowls, when you want a plate . . . it’s not the fault of the clay.8 Now whether WP is the best path to making that particular item is an entirely different question . . .


1 Another large portion of my life is spent fixing random issues I find when I go to write big posts like this. Seriously. People. Let me know if something is weird/broken. This kills me.

2 And a failure to look up the Cool Hand Luke quote

3 Sometimes this is the very thing that makes the site work as a whole or guides the thinking that you want in a particular way.

4 There are other plugins that do this but Gravity Forms is the one I have many years of experience with.

5 You can upload a file or multiple files but the entwined option isn’t available.

6 Though the price for unlimited sites and no need for a yearly re-up made it well worth $180.

7 Not that you can’t do that based on page templates, categories, and/or tags . . . or any combination of those elements.

8 I’m speaking to developers or those claiming to be rather than random humans although you can get a fair amount of progress through Gravity Forms if you’re willing to think laterally and have the time to mess around for a bit..

A WordPress Authoring Continuum

A WordPress Authoring Continuum


Image from page 60 of “Birds of La Plata” (1920) flickr photo by Internet Archive Book Images shared with no copyright restriction (Flickr Commons)

I often feel much of my life has been spent arguing against binary judgements related to technology.1 I’d like to have neater boundaries and simpler discussions but they always seem to get in the way of what I perceive as reality.

I’ve certainly tried to articulate options for content in creation in WordPress before. I tried really hard to have a nice list here that would move you from full-constrained incrementally towards the normal backend editor but the lines kept blurring on me so . . . you get what we have here today . . . which is a failure to delineate, crisply.2

The idea that WordPress authoring is super-easy or needlessly complex is one of those arguments I have repeatedly.

I believe, with varying degrees of effort/skills, WordPress authoring is simply what you want it to be.

It can be tightly constrained, without even the need for an account or even a visit to the backend of WordPress. It can also be fully open with all the options and complexities you could want. They’re both choices with a fair amount of room in the middle for variations. I’ve found a few plugins and/or design patterns that support these choices fairly well.

The Most Structure (fewest options)

Why pursue this?

  • you want very standardized template-driven content3
  • you want author technology support to be minimal/non-existent

I’ve got a few examples of when form-to-posts has worked for us. In this case, I can move from simpler to more complex.

  • BNFO 300 Documents – Biology Course – Simply allowing students to submit documents of various types as an embed so they can comment on them using WP’s comment feature. Really simple but effective enough to bring the faculty member back.
  • Student Sociology Article Submissions – Sociology Course – A very, very early model for this kind of thing.
  • Gestalt Theory – Art Course – a more visually focused model
  • Bicycle Safety Survey – Urban Planning Course – This was a phone focused form to allow for GPS plotted map entries regarding bike safety. It fills in some hidden form fields with GPS data as part of the process. The GPS data is held in a custom field.
  • Dichotomous Key – Biology Course – This is a visually driven form that fills in form fields via URL parameters. If you bounce through the leaf choices,
    you’ll end up at a page to submit your image. Look at that URL and you’ll see a bunch of stuff in the URL based on what you selected. This is, again, an early model but it does show that you can create some neat experiences for users that structure things but that also feel pleasant.
  • Text Sets – EDUC Course – the goal here was to allow students to create units with a very particular structure and then populate those units with particular books (again with a very particular structure). I made this in the early days when I was still fighting programing so it’s pure Gravity Forms and a bit awkward. It does show high levels of structure being possible although we left some holes and you can see that people found ways to do other things or not do things. There’s a mixture of custom fields, tags, and categories driving this.

Lately, I’ve also gone with some front-end editor options. These enable degrees of constraint (you can require elements, set default categories etc) but you can go a bit farther than with Gravity Forms and enable the full WordPress editor options on the front end. You can set these to require a user to be logged in or allow anyone to submit.

I’ve used USP Pro and the Buddypress User Blog. Both enable front-end editing and have options to restrict what people can do. The words used to describe plugins like this are kind of messy though which makes finding and comparing them somewhat difficult. In the scenarios I’ve used these plugins, we wanted to keep users on the front-end and add some minimal restrictions on the metadata/category side of things but give them full access to building multimedia posts (multiple images/videos, WYSIWYG editor etc.).

Gravity Forms

I’ve talked lots of times about using Gravity Forms4 to create posts. With post body content templates you can make this as structured as you want. Every option could be from a dropdown, checkbox, or radio button. Those elements can be woven together to create a single structured post or different elements broken out as categories, tags, or custom fields . . . or you could use the form to do all of that.

I tend to recommend the Gravity Forms route because it’s the easiest path I’ve seen for people who might not have technical skills or technical support and the plugin is handy for lots of things outside the form-to-post pattern. Gravity Forms also keeps things on the front end and you can enable WYSIWYG editing. I have not enabled a fully functional WP editor with file uploads5 in this scenario nor have I seen it done. I’m sure it’s possible but it’s not plug and play.

USP Pro

I’m becoming more of a fan of this option but it’s still a new plugin for me and one of the rare paid plugins I use.6 I can pretty much do anything I could do in the Gravity-Forms-to-post model (except conditional logic and some of the more form dependent elements) but it lets me offer the full editor/file upload interface.

Custom Post Types

Another fairly major option for changing how people create content in WP is creating custom post types and associated custom metadata.Which can then be tied to form-based submissions or used with front-end editors . . . see why I always end up with lines that are blurry? You can do just about anything here. WordPress comes with posts and pages as default structures. Posts have tags and categories by default and pages can be associated with other pages . . . but you can make a custom post type and then make as many associated metadata elements as you could want. I’ve dabbled in this a few times as creating this scenario tends to take more effort than the two options mentioned previously. I’ve done it from scratch and with Advanced Custom Fields (a plugin that helps you build this stuff faster).

This is just another path to guiding people when they’re creating content. It also opens up the door to display this content in entirely different ways.7

Some examples of this include . . .

  • Blackout Poetry – a custom post type (note the ‘poems’ element in the URL) that enables a certain kind of content creation and associates the subsequent products with the parents
  • World Languages OER – This a design pattern that is going to be part of a larger construction of OER materials across our world languages program. Each module/lesson has key elements that will be standard but will have flexibility within the particular component. You can see a portion of the backend layout here and a front end example here. I’ve got a ways to go on the visual elements but it’s pretty functional and provides the structure that the faculty wanted.

I do less of this type of construction because the overhead tends to be higher as I’ve also got to build a way to display that content or include it in the normal posts/pages displays. It is a nice option to have when you want to go to another level of workflow and display.

As with many of these things, a lot of these words are for the convenience of people and tend to be fairly invisible at the database level at least in practical terms. Alan mentioned something along those lines in a comment long ago.

In any case, hopefully I’m showing that WordPress has a huge array of options for content authoring that can accommodate just about any need or level of technology skill.

WordPress is clay. If you keep making bowls, when you want a plate . . . it’s not the fault of the clay.8 Now whether WP is the best path to making that particular item is an entirely different question . . .


1 Another large portion of my life is spent fixing random issues I find when I go to write big posts like this. Seriously. People. Let me know if something is weird/broken. This kills me.

2 And a failure to look up the Cool Hand Luke quote

3 Sometimes this is the very thing that makes the site work as a whole or guides the thinking that you want in a particular way.

4 There are other plugins that do this but Gravity Forms is the one I have many years of experience with.

5 You can upload a file or multiple files but the entwined option isn’t available.

6 Though the price for unlimited sites and no need for a yearly re-up made it well worth $180.

7 Not that you can’t do that based on page templates, categories, and/or tags . . . or any combination of those elements.

8 I’m speaking to developers or those claiming to be rather than random humans although you can get a fair amount of progress through Gravity Forms if you’re willing to think laterally and have the time to mess around for a bit..

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Last updated: April 27, 2016

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