Packaging A Domain of One’s Own

I’m REALLY excited about an idea I had yesterday that, thanks to the previous work of my colleague Tim Owens and his assistance today, I think we may be able to realize as part of A Domain of One’s Own.

We’re working on a couple of projects now where we’ll be rolling A Domain of One’s Own out as part of a course’s curriculum. In each case, the professor has some pretty clear ideas of what he/she would like student to use the space for. We see this as a wonderful opportunity to plant seeds with students — as they learn how to use the space to build something meaningful for the course, hopefully it will spark their imagination in terms of what else they could do in this space.

But, one of the things that has been troubling me as we’ve begun to think about rolling out DoOO more broadly in this context is how we build entryways into the system that aren’t too overwhelming and daunting for students. As we’ve spoken about before (I know we talked about it in this episode of DTLT Today) the complexity  of owning your own domain and Web space is both a blessing and a curse. For some students, the “sky’s the limit” perspective is exhilarating and enticing. For others, it is overwhelming and off-putting.

To that end, in a conversation with one of the instructors I’m working with, art professor Rosemary Jesionowski, she mentioned that during the pilot last year some of her students had been a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities. When you tell students to “go find a theme” in the WordPress repository, they might feel like they then need to sift through the over 2,000 themes that are currently in there – and how do you even start to do that in a meaningful way?

From a support standpoint the complexity is challenging as well. When you’re supporting a class of 25+ students all trying to build an online portfolio with WordPress, and each of them picks a different theme, (some perhaps complex themes with a lot of built-in options or plugin dependencies), it’s difficult to spend limited classtime providing meaningful and useful support.

At the same time, we don’t want to entirely restrict them, either. We don’t want to tell every student to use Twenty Thirteen — and end up with a class in which their portfolios show little individual choice or distinctiveness.

I was struggling with how we could address this, and I remember that last spring Tim had figured out how to automate the installation of some plugins using customized installation packages in Installatron (I can’t find the post in which he speaks about this specifically, but perhaps he’ll share it in the comments).

For those not familiar: A Domain of One’s Own makes use of a script installer called Installatron. It allows our users to quickly and easily install dozens of open-source Web applications by clicking a button and filling out a form. It’s similar to Fantastico and Simple Scripts, if you’ve used those before.

One of the awesome things that Tim discovered was that you can actually customize the installation packages. So, for example, we install Cookies for Comments by default on all WordPress sites in A Domain of One’s Own — making it easier for us to help students fight spam.

I began wondering if it would be possible to create custom WordPress “packages” that students could select when running the installation. Imagine that students in Rosemary’s class choose “Art Porfolio” as their package and they automatically get a set of themes installed in WordPress that we’ve picked because we know they’ll work well for the goals of Rosemary’s assignment. We can also pick themes that are less likely to cause problems right out of the box because of highly-customized options and plugin dependencies.

And speaking of plugins, we can choose a set of plugins that also fit the goals of the assignment: a couple of image gallery choices, a plugin or two for integrating with Twitter, etc.

What does this get us?

First, it creates a somewhat more bounded experience for students encountering A Domain of One’s Own for the first time. Second, it allows us to focus the precious time we have with them in the class on showing them how to install and setup a set of known plugins/features.

My dearest wish is that this approach makes the threshold into the project seem a bit lower — but that it also frames their experience in terms of the possible.  The goal is not that students should feel wholly limited or restricted by the options we give them, but rather that we’ve provided a starting place for exploration that feels a bit less daunting.

And imagine the possibilities? Packages for specific courses, programs, or projects. We can curate sets of themes and plugins that serve as gateways for lots of different types of experiences in WordPress. And, presumably, we can extend this approach to other applications as well.

And the really lovely thing is that thanks to Tim’s help and the awesome support at Installatron, tonight I cracked this nut. I’ve set up my first package where a user, during the installation process, makes a choice that then triggers the installation of a specific set of themes/plugins.

When I’ve got the final code for creating the packages in place, I’ll share it here. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to brainstorming all the ways we could use this approach!

18 thoughts on “Packaging A Domain of One’s Own”

  1. I sometimes catch myself starting to sound like a shill for Installatron but it seriously has an impressive SDK and user interface to do some really impressive stuff. And in fact I don’t think I did ever write a post about automating the install of plugins on all WordPress sites for Domain of One’s Own. What’s sorely needed now is a much better way of finding good groups of plugins and themes for use cases. Discovery on the official repository is a mess (which I think contributes to the “paralyzed by the choices” mentality of students because search just sucks and there’s so much out there) but there aren’t many great alternatives (and in fact what there is a lot of is SEO-laden lists of premium junk behind the veil of a “helpful blog post”). I had an idea quite a few months back to do something along those lines and even bought the domain but didn’t get much further than a landing page and a bit of work on the backend. Maybe time to revive that project….

    1. This is awesome! Might be a good way to refresh some of the themes / plugins available via UMW Blogs, too. Perhaps we could use some of the same kinds of tools you put together for Andi’s HISP class, Martha, to begin building a crowdsourced (even if only “locally” by DTLT staff) database of categorized plugins and themes?

      Tim: wordprecipe{.com,.org,.net} is still available! Grab it while it’s hot 🙂

  2. Brilliant idea – I’d love to see solid reviewed bundles of themes/plugins geared to specific use. Every semester I spend a great deal of time gardening themes/plugins – seems like some sort of cruel crop rotation cycle …

    Shout outif you are looking for some crowd-help … happy lend a hand if needed.

  3. This is a beautiful balance between leaving the door open to try anything, but providing a reasonable starting point that has appropriate choices.

    It might be useful if there was a way to connect packages with example sites, and with students permission, be able to show it as an example. One of the things I loathe about theme shopping is that the examples are all fake content.

    The side of that is also that the screen shot or demo of a theme only is a narrow window into what they can do, especially modern ones. The complexity/flexibility of themes these days is bewildering– I can recall when a theme might be 10 files, bur I have used themes with 500 files.

    rock on DTLT, rock on

  4. I dont think I have been this excited about the possibilities of wordPress at UMW since 2007 when we rolled out UMW Blgos. Some of our work has been amazing with this platform with one offs, but this vision you are following with Tim here Martha brings the whole community here to a new level. It is amazing stuff, packages for various use vases as a curated choice, but by no means a limit given they control the spaces is brilliant. This is the first of many discoveries we are gonna make with what is possible when you do something like this with an entire community of students. DTLT really does rocks, each and every one.

  5. I LOVE watching you guys and derive much inspiration from what you do (keyword=’watching’). We are no where near where you are in my world. But…I must say that this idea makes infinitely more sense to me than tossing folks off into the deep end from the get-go. “…frames their experience in terms of the possible…” Indeed. Brilliant.

  6. What can I say that hasn’t already been said in the comments? This is so awesome! I’m excited for you guys.
    As I was reading the post I kept saying “yes, yes, yes!” this is exactly what that project needs.
    You guys rock it hardcore!

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