Tag Archives: WordPress

Reflections on a little bit of open education (TL;DR: it works).

We are setting up a new honours degree programme which will involve use of online resources for work based blended learning. I was asked to demonstrate some the resources and approaches that might be useful. This is one of the quick examples that I was able to knock up(*) and some reflections on how Open Education helped me. By the way, I especially like the last bit about “open educational practice”. So if the rest bores you, just skip to the end.

(*Disclaimer: this really is a quickly-made example, it’s in no way representative of the depth of content we will aim for in the resources we use.)

Making the resource

I had decided that I wanted to show some resources that would be useful for our first year, first semester Praxis course. This course aims to introduce students to some of the skills they will need to study computer science, ranging from appreciating the range of topics they will study to being able to use our Linux systems, from applying study skills to understanding some requirements of academic writing. I was thinking that much of this would be fairly generic and must be covered by a hundred and one existing resources when  I saw this tweet:

That seemed to be in roughly the right area, so I took a look at the University of Nottingham’s HELM Open site and found an Introduction to Referencing. Bingo. The content seemed appropriate, but I wasn’t keen on a couple of things. First, breaking up the video in 20sec chunks I fear would mean the student spend more time ‘interacting’ with the Next-> button than thinking about the content. Second, it seems a little bit too delivery oriented, I would like the student to be a little more actively engaged.

I noticed there is a little download arrow on each page which let me download the video. So I downloaded them all and used OpenShot to string them together into one file. I exported this and used the h5p WordPress plugin to show how it could be combined with some interactive elements and hosted on a WordPress site with the hypothes.is annotation plugin, to get this:

The remixed resource: on the top left is the video, below that some questions to prompt the students to pay attention to the most significant points, and on the right the hypothes.is pop-out for discussion.

How openness helps

So that was easy enough, a demo of the type of resource we might produce, created in less than an afternoon. How did “openness” help make it easy.

Open licensing and the 5Rs

David Wiley’s famous 5Rs define open licences as those that let you  Reuse, Revise, Remix, Retain and Redistribute learning resources. The original resource was licensed as CC:BY-NC and so permitted all of these actions. How did they help?

Reuse: I couldn’t have produced the video from scratch without learning some new skills or having sizeable budget, and having much more time.

Revise: I wasn’t happy with the short video / many page turns approach, but was  able to revise the video to make it play all the way through in one go.

Remix: The video was then added to some formative exercises, and discussion facility added.

Retain: in order for us to rely on these resources when teaching we need to be sure that the resource remains available. That means taking responsibility keeping it available. Hence we’ll be hosting it on a site we control.

Redistribute: we will make our version available to other. This isn’t just about “paying forward”, it’s about the benefits that working in an open network being, see the discussion about nebulous open education below.

One point to make here: the licence has a Non-Commercial restriction. I understand why some people favour this, but imagine if I were an independent consultant brought in to do this work, and charged for it. Would I then be able to use the HELM material? The recent case about a commercial company charging to duplicate CC-licensed material for schools, which a US judge ruled within the terms of the licence might apply, but photocopying seems different to remixing. To my mind, the NC clause just complicates things too much.

Open standards, and open source

I hadn’t heard much about David Wiley’s ALMS framework for technical choices to facilitate openness (same page as before, just scroll a bit further) but it deals directly with issues I am very familiar with. Anyone who thinks about it will realise that a copy-protected PDF is not open no matter what the licence on it says. The ALMS framework breaks the reasoning for this down to four aspects: Access to editing tools, Level of expertise required, Meaningfully editable, Self sources. Hmmm. Maybe sometimes it’s clearer not to force category names into acronyms? Anyway, here’s how these helped.

Self-sourced, meaning the distribution format is the source code. This is especially relevant as the reason HELM sent the tweet that alerted me to their materials was that they are re-authoring material from Flash to HTML5. Aside from modern browser support, one big advantage of them doing this is that instead of having an impenetrable SWF package I had access to the assets that made the resource, notably the video clips.

Meaningfully editable: that access to the assets meant that I could edit the content, stringing the videos together, copying and pasting text from the transcript to use as questions.

Level of expertise required: I have found all the tools and services used (OpenShot, H5P, hypothes.is, WordPress) relatively easy to use, however some experience is required, for example to be familiar with various plugins available for WordPress and how to install them. Video editing in particular takes some expertise. It’s probably something that most people don’t do very often (I don’t).  Maybe the general level of digital literacy level we should now aim for is one where people are familiar with photo and video editing tools as well as text oriented word processing and presentation tools. However, I’m inclined to think that the details of using the H264 video codec and AAC audio codec, packaged in a MPEG-4 Part 14 container (compare and contrast with VP9 and ogg vorbis packaged in a profile of Matroska) should remain hidden from most people. Fortunately, standardisation means that the number of options is less than it would otherwise be, and it was possible to find many pages on the web with guidance on the browser compatibility of these options (MP4 and WebM respectively).

Access to editing tools, where access starts with low cost. All the tools used were free, most were open source, and all ran on Ubuntu (most can also run on other platforms).

It’s notable that all these ultimately involve open source software and open standards, and work especially well when then “open” for open standards includes free to implement. That complicated bit around MP4 & WebM video formats, that comes about because royalty requirements for those implementing MP4.

Open educational practice: nebulous but important.

Open education includes but is more than open education resources, open content, open licensing and open standards. It also means talking about what we do. It means that I found out about HELM because they were openly tweeting about their resources. I think that is how I learnt about nearly all the tools discussed here ina similar manner. Yes, “pimping your stuff” is importantly open. Open education also means asking questions and writing how-to articles that let non-experts like me deal with complexities like video encoding.

There’s a deeper open education at play here as well. See that resource from HELM that I started with? It started life in the RLO CETL, i.e. in a publicly funded initiative, now long gone. And the reason I and others in the UKHE know about Creative Commons and David Wiley’s analysis of open content, that largely comes down to #UKOER, again a publicly  funded initiative. UKOER and the stuff about open standards and open source was supported by Jisc, publicly funded. Alumni from these initiatives are to be found all over UKHE, through which these initiatives continue to be crucially important in building our capability and capacity to support learners in new and innovative settings.


Shared WordPress archive for different post types

In a WordPress plugin I have custom post types for different types of publication: books, chapters, papers, presentations, reports. I want one single archive of all of these publications.

I know that the theme template hierarchy allows templates with the pattern archive-$posttype.php, so  I tried setting the slug for all the custom post types to ‘presentations’. WordPress doesn’t like that.  So what I did was set the slug for one of the publication custom post types to ‘presentations’, that gives me a /presentations/ archive for that custom post type(1). I then edited the archive.php file to use a different  template parts for custom post types(2):

<?php $cpargs = array('_builtin' => False,
				  'exclude_from_search' => False);
	$custom_post_types = get_post_types( $cpargs, 'names', 'and' );
	if ( is_post_type_archive( $custom_post_types ) ) {
		get_template_part( 'archive-publication' );
	} else {
		get_template_part( 'archive-default' );

See anything wrong with this approach? Any comments on how better to do this would be welcome.

  1. 1 could edit the .htaccess file to redirect the /books/, /chapters/ …etc archives to /publications/, which would be neater in some ways but would make setting up the theme a bit of a faff.
  2. Yes, the code gives all the custom post types with an archive the same archive. That’s fixable if you make the array of post types for which you want a shared archive manually.

Three resources for custom metadata in WordPress

When developing WordPress for use as a CMS one approach I have used is to create a custom post type for each type of resource and custom metadata boxes for relevant properties of those types.  I’ve used that approach when exploring the possibility of using WordPress as a semantic web platform to edit schema.org metadata, when building course information pages for students and am doing so again in updating some work I did on WordPress as a lightweight repository.  Registering a custom post type is pretty straightforward, follow the example in the codex page, I found handling custom metadata boxes a little more difficult. Here are three resources that helped.

Doing it long hand

It’s a few years old, but I found Justin Tadlock’s Smashing Magazine article How To Create Custom Post Meta Boxes In WordPress really useful as a clear and informative tutorial. It was invaluable in understanding how metaboxes work. If I had only wanted one or two simple text custom metadata fields then coding them myself would be an option, but I found a couple of problems. Firstly, I was repeating the same code too many times. Secondly when I thought about wanting to store dates or urls or links to other posts, with suitable user interface elements and data validation, I could see the amount of code needed was only going to increase. So I looked to see whether any better programmers than I had created anything I could use.

Using a helper plugin

I found two plugins that promised to provide a framework to simplify the creation of metaboxes. These are not plugins that provide anything that the end user can see directly, rather they provide functions that can be used in theme an plugin development. They both reduce the work of creating a metabox down to creating an array with the properties you want the metabox to have. They both introduce a dependency on code I cannot maintain, which is something I am always cautious about in using third-party plugins, but it’s much more viable than the alternative of creating such code from scratch and maintaining it myself.

CMB2 is “a metabox, custom fields, and forms library for WordPress that will blow your mind.” It is free and open source, with development hosted on GitHub.  It seems quite mature (version 1.0 was in Nov 2013), with a large installation base and decent amount of current activity on github.

Meta Box is “a powerful, professional developer toolkit to create custom meta boxes and custom fields for WordPress.” It too is free and released under GPL2 licence, but there are paid-for extensions (also GPL2 licensed) and I don’t see any open source development (I may not have looked in the right place).  Meta box has been around for a couple of years, is regularly updated and has a very large user base. The paid-for extensions give me some hope that the developers have a sustainable business model, but a worry that maybe ‘free’ doesn’t include the one function that at sometime I will really need. Well, developers cannot live on magic beans so I wouldn’t mind paying.

In the end both plugins worked well, but Meta Box allows the creation of custom fields for a link from one post to another, which I didn’t see in CMB2. That’s what I need for a metadata field to say that the author of the book described in one post is a person described in another.

Cloning WordPress sites for development

I do just enough theme and plugin development on WordPress to need an alternative to using a live WordPress site for development and testing, but at the same time I want to be testing on site as similar to the live site as possible. So I set up clones of WordPress sites either on my local machine or a server for development and testing. (Normally I have clones on the localhost server of couple of machines I use for development and another clone on a web accessible testing or staging server for other people to look at.) I don’t do this very often, but each time I do it I spend as much time trying to remember what it is I need to do as it actually takes to do it. So here, as much as an aide-memoire for myself as anything, else I’ve gathered it all in one place. What I do is largely based on the Moving WordPress information in the codex, but there are a couple of things that doesn’t cover and a couple of things I find it easier to do differently.

Assuming that the pre-requisites for WordPress are in place (i.e. MySQL, webserver, PHP), there are three stages to creating a clone. A. copy the WordPress files to the development site; B. clone the database; C. fix the links between WordPress and the database for the new site. A and B are basically creating backup copies of your site, but you will want to make sure that whatever routine backups you use are up to date and ready to restore in case something goes wrong. Also, this assumes that you are notwant to clone just one site on a WordPress Multisite installation.

Copying the WordPress files

Simply copy all the files from the folder you have WordPress installed in, and all the sub-folders to where you want the new site to be. This will mean that all the themes, plugins and uploaded media will be the same on both sites. Depending on whether the development site is on the same server as the main site I do this either with file manager or by making a compressed archive and ftp. Make sure the web server can read the files on the dev site (and write to the relevant folders if that is how you upload media, plugins and themes).

Cloning the database

First I create a new, blank database on for the new site, either from the command line or using something like MySQL Database Wizard which my hosting provider has on CPanel. I create a new user with full access to that data base–the username and password for this user will be needed to configure WordPress with access to this database. If you have complete control of over the database name and user name then use the same name username and password as is in the wp-config.php file of the site you are cloning. Otherwise you can change these later.

Second, I use PHP MyAdmin to export the data base from the original site and import it to the one on which you are making a clone.

phpMyAdmin Export screen

Fix all the bits that break

All that remains is to reconnect the PHP files to the database and fix a few other things that break. This is where it get fiddly. Also, from now on be really careful about which site you are working on: they look the same and you really don’t want to set up your public site as a development server. Make all these changes on the new development site.

In wp-config.html (it’s in the top of the WordPress folder hierarchy) find the following lines and change the values to be those for your new development server and database.

define( 'WP_CONTENT_URL', 'http://example.org/blog' );
define( 'WP_CONTENT_DIR', 'path/to/wp-content' );

define('DB_NAME', 'databaseName');

/** MySQL database username */
define('DB_USER', 'databaseUserName');

/** MySQL database password */
define('DB_PASSWORD', 'password');

You might also need to change the value for DB_HOST

Then you need to change the options that WordPress stores in the database. Normally you do this through the WordPress admin interface, but this is not yet available on your new site. There are various ways you can do this, I change the url directly in the data base with PHPMyAdmin, either by direct editing as described in the codex page or from the command line as described here.

mysql -u root -p

USE databaseName
SELECT * FROM wp_options WHERE option_name = 'home';
UPDATE wp_options SET option_value="http://example.org/blog" WHERE option_name = "home";
SELECT * FROM wp_options WHERE option_name = 'siteurl';
UPDATE wp_options SET option_value="http://example.org/blog" WHERE option_name = "siteurl";

You should now have access to the new cloned site, though some things will still be misbehaving.

You will probably have the old site’s URL in various posts and GUIDs. I use the better search replace plugin to fix these.

iesiesIf you do any fancy redirects with .htaccess, make sure that these are written in such a way that works for the new URL.

If you are using Jetpack you will need to use it in safe mode if the development server is connected to the web or development mode if running on localhost. (This is a bit of a pain if you want to test Jetpack settings.)

On a development site you’ll probably want to add this to wp-config.php:

define('WP_DEBUG', true);

If you are running a development or testing server on a web accessible site you probably want to restrict who has access to it. I use the My private site plugin so that only site admins have access.

Keeping in sync

While it’s not entirely necessary that a development or testing site be kept completely in sync with the main one, it is worth keeping them close so that you don’t get unexpected issues on the main site. You can manually update the plugins and themes, and use the wordpress export / import plugins to transfer new content from the live site to the clone. Every now and again you might want to re-clone the site afresh. Something I find useful for development and testing of new plugins and themes is to have the plugin or theme directory that I am developing in set up as a git repository linked to github and keep files in sync with git push and git pull.

Anything else?

I think that is it. If I have forgotten anything or if you have tips on making any of this easier please leave a comment.

WordPress as a semantic web platform?

For the work we’ve been doing on semantic description of courses we needed a platform for creating and editing instance data flexibly and easily. We looked at callimachus and Semantic MediaWiki; in the end we went with the latter because of JAVA version incompatibility problems with the other, but it has been a bit of a struggle. I’ve used WordPress for publishing information about resources on a couple of projects, for Cetis publications and for learning resources, and have been very happy with it. WordPress handles the general task of publishing stuff on the web really well, it is easily extensible through plugins and themes, I have nearly always found plugins that allow me to do what I want and themes that with a little customization allow me to present the information how I want. As a piece of open source software it is used on a massive scale (about a quarter of all web domains use it) and has the development effort and user support to match. For the previous projects my approach was to have a post for each resource I wanted to describe and to set the title, publication date and author to be those for the resource, I used the main body of the post for a description and used tags and categories for classification, e.g. by topic or resource type; other metadata could be added using WordPress’s Custom Fields, more or less as free text name-value pairs. While I had modified themes so that  the semantics of some of this information was marked up with microdata or RDFa embedded in the HTML, I was aware that WordPress allowed for more than I was doing.

The possibility of using WordPress for creating and publishing semantic data hinges on two capabilities that I hadn’t used before: firstly the ability to create custom post types so that for each resource type there can be a corresponding post type; secondly the ability to create custom metadata fields that go beyond free text. I used these in conjunction with a theme which is a child theme of the current default, TwentyFifteen, which sets up the required custom types and displays them. Because I am familiar with it and it is quite general purpose, I chose the schema.org ontology to implement, but I think the ideas in this post would be applicable to any RDF vocabulary. When creating examples I had in mind a dataset describing the books that I own and the authors I am interested in.

I started by using a plugin, Custom Post Type UI, to create the post types I wanted but eventually was doing enough in php as a theme extensions (see below) that it made sense just to add a function to create the the post types. This drops the dependency on the plugin (though it’s a good one) and means the theme works from the outset without requiring custom types to be set up manually.

add_action( 'init', 'create_creativework_type' );
function create_creativework_type() {
  register_post_type( 'creativework',
      'labels' => array(
        'name' => __( 'Creative Works' ),
        'singular_name' => __( 'Creative Work' )
      'public' => true,
      'has_archive' => true,
      'rewrite' => array('slug' => 'creativework'),
      'supports' => array('title', 'thumbnail', 'revisions' )

The key call here is to the WP function register_post_type() which is used to create a post type with the same name as the schema.org resource type / class; so I have one of these for each of the schema.org types I use (so far Thing, CreativeWork, Book and Person). This is hooked into the WordPress init process so it is done by the time you need those post types.

I do use a plugin to help create the custom metadata fields for every property except the name property (for which I use the title of the post). Meta Box extends the WordPress API with some functions that make creating metadata fields in php much easier. These metadata fields can be tailored for particular data types, e.g. text, dates, numbers, urls and, crucially, links to other posts. That last one gives you what you need for to create relationships between the resources you describe in WordPress, which can expressed as triples. Several of these custom fields can be grouped together into a “meta box” and attached as a group to specific post types so that they are displayed when editing posts of those types. Here’s what declaring a custom metadata field for the author relationship between a CreativeWork and a Person looks like with MetaBox (for simplicity I’ve omitted the code I have for declaring the other properties of a Creative Work and some of the optional parameters). I’m using the author property as an example because a repeatable link to another resource is about as complicated a property as you get.

function semwp_register_creativework_meta_boxes( $meta_boxes )
    $prefix = 'semwp_creativework_';

    // 1st meta box
    $meta_boxes[] = array(
        'id'         => 'main_creativework_info',
        'title'      => __( 'Main properties of a schema.org Creative Work', 'semwp_creativework_' ),
        // attach this box to the following post types
        'post_types' => array('creativework', 'book' ),

	// List of meta fields
	'fields'     => array(
            // Author
            // Link to posts of type Person.
                'name'        => __( 'Author (person)', 'semwp_creativework_' ),
                'id'          => "{$prefix}authors",
                'type'        => 'post',
                'post_type'   => 'person',
                'placeholder' => __( 'Select an Item', 'semwp_creativework_' ),
            // set clone to true for repeatable fields
            'clone' => true
    return $meta_boxes;

What this gives when editing a post of type book is this:


WordPress uses a series of nested templates to display content, which are defined in the theme and can either be specific to a post type or generic, the generic ones being used as a fall back if a more specific one does not exist. As I mentioned I use a child theme of TwentyFifteen which means that I only have to include those files that I change from the parent. To display the main content of posts of type book I need a file called content-book.php (the rest of the page is common to all types of post), which looks like this

<article resource="?<?php the_ID() ; ?>#id" id="?<?php the_ID(); ?>" <?php post_class(); ?> vocab="http://schema.org/" typeof="Book">

<header class="entry-header">
        if ( is_single() ) :
            the_title( '<h1 class="entry-title" property="name">', '</h1>' );
        else :
            the_title( sprintf( '<h2 class="entry-title"><;a href="%s" rel="bookmark">', esc_url( get_permalink() ) ), '</a></h2>;' );
<div class="entry-content">
    <?php semwp_print_creativework_author(); ?>
    <?php semwp_print_book_bookEdition(); ?>
    <?php semwp_print_book_numberOfPages(); ?>
    <?php semwp_print_book_isbn(); ?>
    <?php semwp_print_book_illustrator(); ?>
    <?php semwp_print_creativework_datePublished(); ?>
    <?php semwp_print_book_bookFormat(); ?>
    <?php semwp_print_creativework_sameAs(); ?></div>
<footer class="entry-footer">
    <?php twentyfifteen_entry_meta(); ?>
    <?php edit_post_link( __( 'Edit', 'twentyfifteen' ), '<span class="edit-link">', '</span>' ); ?>
    <?php semwp_print_extract_rdf_links(); ?>


Note the RDFa in some of the html tags, for example the <article> tag includes

resource= [url]#id vocab="http://schema.org/" typeof="Book"

and the title is output in an <h1> tag with the


attribute. Exposing semantic data as RDFa is one (good) thing, but what about other formats? A useful web service called RDF Translator helps here. It has an API which allowed me to put a link at the foot of each resource page to the semantic data from that page in formats such as RDF/XML, N3 and JSON-LD; it’s quite not what you would want for fully fledged semantic data publishing but it does show the different views of the data that can be extracted from what is published.

Also note that most of the content is printed through calls to php functions that I defined for each property, semwp_print_creativework_author() looks like this (again a repeatable link to another resource is about as complex as it gets:

function semwp_print_alink($id) {
     if (get_the_title($id))       //it's a object with a title
         echo sprintf('<a property="url" href="%s"><span property="name">%s</span></a>', esc_url(get_permalink($id)), get_the_title($id) );
     else                          //treat it as a url
         echo sprintf('<a href="%s">%s</a>', esc_url($id), $id );
function semwp_print_creativework_author()
    if ( rwmb_meta( 'semwp_creativework_authors' ) )
	echo '

By: ';
	$authors = rwmb_meta( 'semwp_creativework_authors' );
        foreach ( $authors as $author )
               echo '<span property="author" typeof="Person">';
               echo '</span>';
        echo '


So in summary, for each resource type I have two files of php/html code: one which sets up a custom post type, custom metadata fields for the properties of that type (and any other types which inherit them) and includes some functions that facilitate the output of instance data as HTML with RDFa; and another file which is the WordPress template for presenting that data. Apart from a few generally useful functions related to output as HTML and modifications to other theme files (mostly to remove embedded data which I found distracting) that’s all that is required.

The result looks like this:

Note, this image is linked to the page on wordpress that is shows, click on it if you want to explore the little data that there is there, but please do be aware that it is a development site which won't always be working properly.
Note, this image is linked to the page on my WordPress install that it shows, click on it if you want to explore the little data that there is there, but please do be aware that it is a development site which won’t always be working properly.

And here’s the N3 rendering of the data in that page as converted by RDF Translator:

@prefix rdf: <http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#> .
@prefix rdfa: <http://www.w3.org/ns/rdfa#> .
@prefix rdfs: <http://www.w3.org/2000/01/rdf-schema#> .
@prefix schema: <http://schema.org/> .
@prefix xml: <http://www.w3.org/XML/1998/namespace> .
@prefix xsd: <http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema#> .

<http://www.pjjk.net/semanticwp/book/the-day-of-the-triffids> rdfa:usesVocabulary schema: .

<http://www.pjjk.net/semanticwp/book/the-day-of-the-triffids?36#id> a schema:Book ;
    schema:author [ a schema:Person ;
            schema:name "John Wyndham"@en-gb ;
            schema:url <http://www.pjjk.net/semanticwp/person/john-wyndham> ] ;
    schema:bookEdition "Popular penguins (2011)"@en-gb ;
    schema:bookFormat ""@en-gb ;
    schema:datePublished "2011-09-01"^^xsd:date ;
    schema:illustrator [ a schema:Person ;
            schema:name "John Griffiths"@en-gb ;
            schema:url <http://www.pjjk.net/semanticwp/person/john-griffiths> ] ;
    schema:isbn "0143566539"@en-gb ;
    schema:name "The day of the triffids"@en-gb ;
    schema:numberOfPages 256 ;
    schema:sameAs "http://www.amazon.co.uk/Day-Triffids-Popular-Penguins/dp/0143566539/"@en-gb,
        "https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=zlqAZwEACAAJ"@en-gb .

Further work: Ideas and a Problem

There’s a ton of other stuff that I can think of that could be done with this, from the simple, e.g. extend the range of types supported, to the challenging, e.g. exploring ways of importing data or facilitating / automating the creation of new post types from known ontologies, output in other formats, providing a SPARQL end point &c &c… Also, I suspect that much of what I have implemented in a theme would be better done as a plugin.

There is one big problem that I only vaguely see a way around, and that is illustrated above in the screenshot of the editing interface for the ‘about’ property. The schema.org/about property has an expected type of schema.org/Thing; schema.org types are hierarchical, which means the value for about can be a Thing or any subtype of Thing (which is to say of any type). This sort of thing isn’t unique to schema.org. However, the MetaBox plugin I use will only allow links to be made to posts of one specific type, and I suspect that reflects something about how WordPress organises posts of different custom types. I don’t think there is any way of asking it to show posts from a range of different types and I don’t think there is any way of saying that posts of type person are also of type thing and so on.  In practice this means that at the moment I can only enter data that shows books as being about unspecific Things; I cannot, for example, say that a biography is a book about a Person. I can only see clunky ways around this.
Update: I noticed that you can pass an array of post types so that selection can be made from any one of them.

[Aside: the big consumers of schema data (Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex) will also permit text values for most properties and try to make what sense of it they can, so you could say that for any property either a string literal or a link to another resource should be permitted. This, I think, is a peculiarity of schema.org. The screenshot above of the data input form shows that the about field is repeated to provide the option of a text-only value, an approach hinting at one of the clunky unscalable solutions to the general problem described above.]

What next? I might set a student project around addressing some of these extensions. If you know a way around the selecting different type problem please do drop me a line. Other than that I can see myself extending this work slowly if it proves useful for other stuff, like creating examples of pages with schema.org or LRMI data in them. If anyone is really interested in the source code I could put it on github.

Update 02 Sep 2015:

I refactored the code so that most of the new php for creating new custom post types and setting up the forms to edit their properties is in plugin, and all the theme does is display the data entered with embedded RDFa.

The code is now on GitHub.

I did set a student project around extending it, waiting to see if any student opts for it.

WordPress LTS?

A question: does WordPress have anything like the Long Term Stability branches of Ubuntu?

The Cetis website is based on WordPress, we use it as a blogging platform for our blogs, as a content management system for our publications and as a bit of both for our main site.  It’s important to us that our installation (that is the WordPress core plus a variety of plugins, widgets and themes) is stable and secure. To ensure security we should keep all the components updated, which not normally a problem, but occasionally an update of WordPress or one of the plugins causes a problem due an incompatibility or bug. So there is a fair amount of testing involved whenever I do an update on the publications site, and for that reason I tend to do updates periodically rather than as soon as a new version of each component is released.

Last month was fairly typical, I updated to the latest version of WordPress and updated several plugins. Many of the updates were adding new functionality which we don’t really need, but there were also security patches that we do need–you can’t have one without the other. One of the plugins had a new dependency that broke the site, David helped me fix that.  Two days later I login and half the plugins want updating again, mostly with fixes to bugs in the new functionality that I didn’t really need.

I understand that there will always be updates required to fix bugs and security issues, but the plethora of updates could be mitigated in the same way that it is for Ubuntu. Every couple of years Ubuntu is released as a Long Term Stability version. For the next few years, no new features are added to this, it lags in functionality behind current version, but important bug fixes and security patches for existing features are back-ported from the current version.

So, my question: is there anything like the concept of LTS in the WordPress ecosystem?

CETIS publications, now on WordPress

We have recently changed how we present our publications to the world. Where once we put a file on the web somewhere, anywhere, and entered the details into a home-spun publication database, now we use WordPress. We’re quite pleased with how that has worked out, so we’re sharing the information that might help others use WordPress as a means of presenting publications to the world (a repository, if you like).

Why WordPress?
First, what were we trying to achieve? The overall aims were to make sure that our publications had good exposure online, to have a more coherent approach to managing them (for example to collect all the files into one place in case we ever need to migrate them), and to move away from the bespoke system we were using to a system that someone else maintains. There were a few other requirements, we wanted something that was easy for us to adapt to fit the look and feel of the rest of our website, that was easy to maintain (familiarity is an important factor in how easy something is–it’s easy to use something if you know how to use it), and we wanted something that would present our publications in HTML and RSS sliced and diced by topic, author, and publication type: a URL for each publication and for each type of publication and feeds for everything. We’re not talking about a huge number of publications, maybe 100 or so, so we didn’t want a huge amount of up-front effort.

We thought about Open Journal Systems, but there seemed to be a whole load of workflow stuff that was relevant to Journals but not our publications. Likewise we thought about ePrints and Dspace, but they didn’t quite look like we wanted, and we are far more familiar with WordPress. As a wildly successful open source project, WordPress also fits the requirement of being maintained by other people, not just the core programme, but all those lovely plugins and themes. So the basic plan was to represent each publication in a WordPress post and to use a suitable theme and plugins to present them as we wanted.

The choice of theme
Having settled on WordPress the first decision was which theme to use. In order to get the look and feel to be similar to the rest of the CETIS website (and, to be honest, to make sure our publications pages didn’t look like a blog) we needed a very flexible theme. The most flexible theme I know of is Atahualpa, with over 200 options, including custom CSS snippets, parameters and HTML snippets it’s close to being a template for producing you own custom themes. So, for example, the theme options I have set include a byline of By %meta('By')%. %date('F Y')% which automatically inserts the additional metadata field ‘By’ and the date in the format of my choice, all of which can be styled any way I want. I’ll come back to the “byline” metadata later.

One observation here: there is clearly a trade-off between this level of customisation and ease of maintenance. On the one hand these are options set within the Atahualpa theme that can be saved between theme upgrades, which is better than would have been the case had we decided to fork the theme or add a few lines of custom code to the theme’s PHP files. On the other hand, it is not always immediately obvious which setting in the several pages of Atahualpa theme options has been used to change some aspect of the site’s appearance.

A post for each publication
As I mentioned above we can represent each publication by creating a WordPress post, but what information do we want to provide about each publication and how does it fit into a WordPress post? Starting with the simple stuff:

  • Title of the publication -> title of WordPress post.
  • Abstract / summary -> body of post.
  • Publication file -> uploaded as attached media.
  • Type of publication -> category.
  • Topic of publication -> tag.

Slightly less simple:

  • The date of the publication is represented as the date of the post. This is possible because WordPress lets you choose when to publish post. The default is for posts to be published immediately when you press the Publish button, however you can edit this to have them published in the past 🙂
    WordPress publication date option
    WordPress publication date option
  • The author of the publication becomes the author of the post, but there are some complications. It’s simple enough when the publication has a single author who works for CETIS, I just added everyone as an “author” user of WordPress and a WordPress admin user can attribute any given post to the author of the publication it represents. Where there are two or more authors a nifty little plugin called Co-Authors Plus allows them all to be assigned to the post. But we have some publications that we have commissioned from external authors, so I created an user called “Other” for these “external to CETIS” authors. This saves having a great long list of authors to maintain and present, but creates a problem of how to attribute these external authors, a problem that was solved using WordPress’s “additional metadata” feature to enter a “by-line” for all posts. This also provides a nicely formatted by-line for multi-author papers with out worrying about how to add PHP to put in commas and “and”s.
  • The only other additional metadata added was an identifier for each publication, e.g. the latest QTI briefing paper is No. 2011:B02.

Presenting it all
As well as customisation for the look and feel, the Atahualpa theme allows for menus and widgets to added to the user interface. Atahualpa has an option to insert a menu into the page header which we used for the links to the other parts of the CETIS website. On the left hand side bar we’ve used the custom menu widget to list the tags and categories to provide access to the publications divided by topic and publication type as HTML and as a feed (just add /feed to the end of the URL). Also on the left, the List Authors plugin gives us links to publications by author.

In order to provide a preview of the publication in the post I used the TGN embed everything plugin. The only problem is that the “preview” is too good: it’s readable but not the highest quality, so it might lead some people to think that we’re disseminating low quality versions of the papers, whereas we do include links to high quality downloadable files.

The built-in WordPress search is rubbish. For example, it doesn’t include the author field in the search (not that the first thing we tested was vanity searching), and the results returned are sorted by date not relevance. Happily the relevanssi plugin provides all the search we need.

Finally a few tweaks. We chose URL patterns that avoid unnecessary cruft, and closed comments to avoid spam. We installed the Google analytics plugin, so we know what you’re doing on our site, and the login lock plugin for a bit of security. The only customisation that we want that couldn’t be done with a theme option or plugin was providing some context to the multi-post pages. These are pages like the list of all the publications, or all the briefing papers, and we wanted a heading and some text to explain what that particular cut of our collection was. Some themes do this by default, based on information entered about the tag/catergory/author on which the cut is made, but not Atahualpa. I put a few lines of PHP into the theme’s index.php template to deal with publication types, but we’ve yet to do it properly for all possible multipost pages.

And in the end…
As I said at the top, we’re happy with this approach; if you have any comment on it, do please leave them below.

One last thing. Using a popular platform like WordPress means that there is a lot of support, and I don’t just mean a well supported code base and directory of plugins and themes. One of the most useful sources of support has been the WordPress community, especially the local group of WPUK, at whose meet-ups I get burritos and advice on themes, plugins, security and all things wordpressy.

WordPress for hosting and describing learning resources

On 5 August I gave a presentation about Delores Selections with the above title to the CETIS Advances in Open Systems for Learning Resources workshop at the Edinburgh Repository Fringe meeting. Below is the powerpoint presentation I used and the (lightly editted) notes taken by Nicola Osborne’s in her live blog of the event.

Slide 1
Delores is: Delivering Open Educational Resources for Engineering Design.

Slide 2
We have static and dynamic collections of university level OERs and other openly available resources relevant to Engineering Design. A static collection may include dynamic resources but the collection itself is static, once set up it stays as it is. Dynamic collections can have new materials added or taken away or developed.

ICBL, School of mathematical and computer sciences, Heriot-Watt University and the University of Bath worked together on this project, funded by HEA and JISC under OER Phase 2.

Slide 3
We used WordPress to gather resources selected by experts in design engineering as being of high quality and usefulness for the collection. We aimed for about 100 objects in that collection of materials. The dynamic collection is everything underneath that. We use a tool called Sux0r which does Bayesian filtering of content – this is how Spam filtering works. We are using that idea the other way around – filtering to detect likely design engineering materials. Then we put material through a tool designed by Bath called Waypoint which enables faceted searching by automatic classification. Because Sux0r pulls RSS feeds from collections we know of, those feeds are continually updated and the collection presented by Waypoint continues to grow. I am going to focus on WordPress but I mention this context to point out that the technically difficult stuff, the effort, the hard thinking wasn’t really in the bit I am talking about.

Slide 4
So, starting off: what do we think we need in order to have this static collection? What are the needs for describing these OERs? First up you may not want to hold an actual copy of the resources. We decided we didn’t want to hold a copy of the resource, these are pre-existing resources hosted elsewhere. What metadata do we need? Title, description, authors, origin, date, subject, classification of some sort, licence, and probably something about the resource type. Users want to see that information, not necessarily locked up in an xml file. We want to embed a preview. We may or may not want to allow comments – but we don’t want to have to manage and spam filter those for the long term. We want something with a good web presence (and findable by Google) and something that has good participation (links in many direction, embedded material, widgets etc. We want it to take part in the web). We want RSS feeds – great for pushing metadata around, we want embedded metadata (thinking RDFa, microformats etc), we want flexibility, want something easy to use and maintain (perhaps familiar), and possibly the option to export metadata?

Slide 5
The idea that we had was to use WordPress. One blog post per resource – if required you can attach resources that are single files to the post. This gives you a basic description and good web presences. WP handles author, date, tite, and you have tags and topics for classification. Also extensions for metadata and additional functionality (a big developer community there).

Slide 6
We weren’t the first people with this idea…

Slide 7 & 8
Oxford’s Triton Project are running the Politics InSpires blog. They are creating OERs within WordPress – describe and comment on current affairs and other items. They have focused on add ons around that blog.

Slide 9 & 10
Edinburgh University have an initiative called OpenMed

Slide 11 & 12
CETIS has been exploring the use of WordPress to disseminate our publications. We see a sneak preview and should note that resources are attached to posts and it looks nothing like a blog

Slide 13
Scriblio (formally WPopac) – WordPress theme to create an OPAC using WordPress

slide 14 & 15
How were our goals met? Well most of what we wanted was possible.
All those question marks are where WordPress gives you information about the post not the resource resource described in the post, which matters for us because we are describing third party resources produced and hosted elsewhere. That is you get the date, author etc of the wordpress post you wrote to describe the resource, which isn’t really what you wanted. You get RSS feeds which link to and are about the descriptions in WordPress, not the resources.

But you do get a good website that is easy to use and maintain and familiar – though the more flexibility you use, the harder it is to maintain.

An Aside
One thing I like about WordPress is Trackbacks – you can see when you’ve been blogged or linked to – people can write about you and you can then aggregate those comments on your post.

Slide 16
So some customisation…

We used WordPress’s custom fields and we adapted a theme so that these are displayed. And we will have either a Plugin or theme extension written so that the right metadata goes into the RSS feed.

slide 17 and demo of Selections site
So lets have a look in the system for bridges

We can find a description and preview of the resource, links to it etc. Looking at the admin screen you can see we are using custom fields to include metadata about the object and we have set up categories that fit the curriculum. Lesa in the audience here wrote all of the resource description – she is a trained librarian and that has really been helpful here.


WordPress development needed

The static collection, Delores Selections is hosted on a WordPress installation. The rationale for this was that we could write a description of each resource as a WordPress post and WP plus existing plugins would give us lots of goodness such as a good web presence, category views, RSS feeds, simple search of the whole collection, widgets bring in stuff from other sources, and (if we want them) some DC metadata, OAI-PMH data provision and RDFa. Well nearly.

The problem is that most of the metadata that is exposed through those channels refers to the blog post not the resource, which is not what we want. Want we want is for, e.g., the RSS feed to convey information about the resource: the author, publication date, URL, etc of the resource; what we get is author, pubdate, URL of the wordpress post.

We’re half way to a solution. We’re using the WordPress custom fields to record the author, pub date, CC-licence URI, other rights, source and URI of the resource, and Santy has adapted a the carrington theme so that this information is displayed in the posts. But we don’t have it in the RSS or other ways of exposing the metadata.

So what we are proposing is to work on/comission plugins that will do this. RSS has to be first. The RSS custom fields plugin seems to be a good starting point–hopefully it wouldn’t be too difficult to adapt this to display our feeds in a more standard way than it does at the moment. And then on to PMH, Dublin Core and RDFa…

Now, I am convinced that what we are doing is not just of interest to the Delores project. I think that there is scope for using WordPress for building catalogues of all sorts of materials. For example, with colleagues at CETIS I’m considering whether we could use it to present the publications that come out of CETIS: upload the publication, describe and classify it in a WordPress blog post include a preview and there you have it, a lightweight WordPress publication repository. We’ve also been in touch with the TRITON project to see if there is any commonality between our plugin requirements than theirs.

One problem with extending this to other uses outside Delores is that they might not want to use our theme, they might have one of their own that they like better. So, we should explore whether it is possible to develop a plug-in or widget that would display the custom fields in the relevant blog post instead of using a theme for this. Also, the specific custom fields required may be vary from case to case, so we would have to make sure the plugins had some flexibility to cope with this: possibly no big deal, certainly we would be up for this if it meant that the plugins were more sustainable beyond the end of this project.

George Orwell is blogging

George Orwell is blogging, so is Samuel Pepys. And quite aside from the content (I’m an Orwell fan, the merits of this content was discussed when the blog was launched here, and here), I think this is brilliant way of putting diaries online as open content[1]. Delivery, at least, relies on software anyone can use for free[2]; you and I can get the text in a machine readable format, HTML and RSS; each entry gets a URI; the entries can be tagged and commented on; locations can be mapped on Google (Orwell, Pepys), other concepts mentioned linked to encyclopaedia entries; the blog owners could, at least in principle, export the whole lot in XML and stick it in a database to process, and anyone can process entries with text mining software or by setting up a Google custom search engine or . . . .

The two examples above are slightly short of perfect. I like to see the dates for the blog entries matching the dates for the diary entries (the Pepys diaries do this, Orwell managed it at first, but then slipped). And I think it would make more sense if the monthly archives were arranged to be read top-to-bottom in chronological order. Also I wonder if hosting on wordpress.com is the best idea. It has its attractions, but the tags in the Orwell blog link to posts from other blogs which are well out of scope while the Pepys diary has some very interesting customizations; also if the Orwell blog owners do ever find a way to go back to posting against the diary entry date I imagine they would have problems setting up redirects so that links to the current posts still work.

1. I guess I should be clear: I’m not saying that these diaries are open content. The Pepys text is from Project Gutenberg, I don’t know the licensing arrangements for other aspects of the blog; Orwell’s text is still copyright in many countries (including the UK and the US), I don’t the licensing arrangements for the blog.
2. The Orwell diary is on WordPress.com; Pepys uses a customized installation of Moveable Type.