WordCamp as Professional Development When Your Job Doesn’t Use WordPress

As a WordPress user for my personal site and some side work, I’ve wanted to attend a WordCamp for some time. A conference focusing on a content management system used by millions of websites and the largest self-hosted blogging tool in the world? Yep. That was on my bucket list.

Unfortunately, WordCamp venues near my home are few and far between, and I kept watching for one close enough to attend. Then, when I realized that an educational conference with opportunities to present was within a couple of hours of a WordCamp this year, I was elated. What if I could present at Appalachian State University’s Free-Learning Conference 2015 and then move on to WordCamp Asheville 2015 the following two days? I had to try to get there.

WordCamp Asheville 2015Before requesting this possibility from my manager, of course, I had to consider this question: could I honestly say that WordCamp applies to the work I do as an instructional designer for online courses? If the conference provided only sessions on WordPress’s technical aspects, plugins, and themes, I could not ask to attend the conference as part of my professional development since we do not use WordPress in our course sites or university website. However, if the conference included sessions that would truly benefit my work, such a request would be completely valid. Fortunately and thankfully, in reviewing past years’ and this year’s conference schedules, it was obvious that WordCamp Asheville does offer many sessions that apply to design and development.

Here are descriptions of five sessions I attended at WordCamp Asheville 2015 that blended well with my instructional design and e-learning work. I listened, learned, and now feel prepared to work with my “customers”—students and faculty—more effectively than ever before.

Website Design with UX in Mind; Presenter Melissa Eggleston

Ms. Eggleston made clear how user experience (UX) is a prime factor in the success of a website. Some of my most significant session notes that I can easily connect to developing a course site are as follow:

  • Users want a sense of “place” when they enter and use a website. They want to feel comfortable and as though they belong. Isn’t this as true for an online course site as for a regular website? Certainly this is true, as students need to feel they can locate what they need quickly, communicate and collaborate efficiently, and find support easily.
  • Users of a website act “as if something’s on fire”: they are “satisficing.” From what I have seen in the courses I’ve monitored, students are similar in an online course: they scan text, seeking the important information. This makes me want to rethink tremendous amounts of text on sites and, instead, possibly place that text in downloadable documents. If students treat course sites similarly to regular websites, they are likely not reading that “wall of words” we sometimes place on the site.
  • Users prefer to use minimal brainpower. We don’t want to waste cognitive power on navigation, so we need to ensure that our navigation elements in online course sites are as simple and interpretable as they can be.
  • Users want information-rich visuals, so we need to be mindful about the images that we include. We should include images only when they matter, but we need to realize the need for images when they support the information we are providing.

The Business of Blogging: Does Your Business Need a Blog? Presenter Alicia Lewis Murray

Ms. Murray began her presentation with a story of her experience working for Full Sail University, which helped me realize that her presentation on blogging for businesses might be just as applicable for blogging in a university setting, and I was correct. Some of my most significant session notes that I can easily connect to developing a course site are as follow:

  • First, the presenter claimed that yes, the business (and, thus, potentially my department) needs a blog. Why? A business needs a way to be proactive, be known as an expert, stay connected to customers, and share its stories. This is, in my opinion, just as true for my instructional design department, as we need to share our expertise and stories and connect with our faculty as effectively as possible.
  • Major considerations are that the blog must be updated regularly, be something readers can rely on, and be something readers actually want to visit. Basically, it should be “valuable, relevant, and consistent.” Clearly, my department must ensure that these considerations are met.
  • Issues in blogging that can be detrimental include a lack of resources, not posting regularly, no strategy, and no champion (need something who is proactive to “get the story”). The presenter noted that the blog needs someone who owns it 100%. Mistakes in blogging include giving up, not analyzing, lack of promotion, and not leveraging the voice of executives. Clearly, my department absolutely must face these issues and potential mistakes proactively if we aim to provide a successful blog.
  • A key ingredient of a good blog is to be unique. The presenter quoted Lou DuBois from an Inc.com blog: “Don’t just say what everyone else is saying. Often, disruption can breed success.”
  • The leader of the business (and, in my case, the department) must believe in the blog. In my own department, should we make the move to an established blog, I’d like to see both our directors and the executive director (and possibly even our university president) contribute posts periodically to validate that commitment.

A Design Survival Kit for Non-Designers; Presenter Matt Pusateri

Mr. Pusateri demonstrated quite successfully what good design is and how non-designers can achieve it. Some of my most significant session notes that I can easily connect to developing a course site are as follow:

  • Good design does not equal “pretty.” It includes such factors as “innovative,” “useful,” “aesthetic,” “long-lasting,” “detail-focused,” and “as little design as possible.” Instructional designers like me should seek all to include all of these factors in designing online course sites.
  • Good web design makes websites easier to use and understand. This connects so well with what Ms. Eggleston said in the earlier session: you don’t want to waste cognitive power on navigation.
  • “Attractive things work better.” Although this may not always be completely true, people do tend to be more willing to stick with things that are attractive, so aesthetics must be an integral part of designing any site. This supports my belief in developing course sites that are pleasing to the eye and ear for students.
  • Also well in line with Ms. Eggleston’s presentation was the statement that images must have purpose: they need to either help explain something or add an emotional element to have relevance.
  • The presenter highly recommended Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book, which I own and can attest to for relevance and content. If visual design is not your forte but you need to design sites for any purpose, this book is a great one to refer to.

Demystifying Accessible WordPress Websites, Presenter Nancy Thanki

Ms. Thanki, who works with Automattic’s Jetpack for WordPress (a WordCamp Asheville 2015 “Outstanding Sponsor”), provided a good session on accessibility for websites. This clearly is of interest in an online course setting. Some of my most significant session notes that I can easily connect to developing a course site are as follow:

  • The presenter started the session with a look at how sites can appear to those who are colorblind. With demonstrations of what various webpages look like to the colorblind when colors are not chosen wisely, she made it obvious that color matters greatly in developing sites.
  • The point of the Internet is to make information accessible to anyone. We like to believe that online learning does much the same, so, in my opinion, accessibility and online learning should go hand in hand.
  • When designing websites that are accessible, we must consider such factors as descriptive links (rather than “Click Here”); descriptive, succinct page titles; multiple ways of finding content; human-readable and logical URLs; and definitions of acronyms and abbreviations. I often see instructors (and others) ignore the needs of those with disabilities when developing course sites, when making simple adjustments, such as describing course links or expanding on an acronym, can often make the site significantly more accessible. Accessibility and universal design for learning must be considered to “make information accessible to everyone,” as the above bullet states.

Training Day: Preparing Clients for Their WordPress Experience; Presenter Cameron Campbell

Mr. Campbell geared this presentation toward WordPress designers/developers who need to assist clients in controlling their sites after development. One element of his presentation struck me as a possible solution to an issue that my department faces: training for our faculty in Blackboard and other technical use. The presenter spoke about providing a series of screencast videos for his clients as support. Personally, I feel that this might be an extremely wise move for our department. We typically attempt to train instructors on Blackboard and other technical issues in a one-on-one environment, which is time consuming and sometimes awkward when we are in a rush to prepare a course site. Offering a full series of screencast training videos would likely be a great solution to our issue.

I am a fan of venues for learning that are a bit off the given path of the best-known education conferences, as I feel that we can often learn the most by stepping outside the box. Attending WordCamp Asheville 2015 has benefited me greatly in my work in instructional design and e-learning, and I’m eager to attend another WordCamp soon!

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