opened, other, tools, what's up

One More on Generalists

A few days ago, I wrote about the problems with breaking coherent web platforms down to delivering only a specialized kind of content. The kind of attitude that knowledge shall be brought to you by Blackboard, while your marketing website is okay to run on Drupal or WordPress. When technologies are siloed, we not only isolate the teams who end up only managing a specific platform for its specific function (teaching and learning, marketing or research…), but we also exclude many potential audiences from finding out or learning more about the topic.

How little do we know! Here is a question for you: is (TCMP) a research, marketing, teaching and learning website or professional development tool? I would argue it is all of the above! It is written by medical practitioners, discusses various health issues in an open environment, and contributes to the general public’s knowledge and understanding of those issues. Four out of six UBC values are covered here: Advancing and Sharing Knowledge, Public Interest (open blog, written in popular format); Excellence, Integrity, (done by medical experts): check, check, check, check!

It all looks good, but there is a catch: it is very uncertain whether there would be such a buy-in from busy doctors if there were nothing in return. No free lunch, as usual: upon publishing in TCMP, contributors to the site get study credits from the College of Family Physicians of Canada – the body that regulates licenses of medical doctors in Canada.
In my mind, this creates a great symbiosis of sustainable approach to promoting and sharing knowledge with the doctors’ need to keep their professional license! This model (along with many possible variations) is something that should come naturally to the university; the multipurpose, integrated approach should be the standard and not the notable exception to common practices of creating sites that are designed to deliver to one audience only.

It is a great marketing website as well – it has thousands of subscribers, it created quite a buzz in the medical community, it shows up high in Google searches. By driving a lot of traffic to UBC, it promotes the University’s work, excellence, impact and value to the community… and attracts potential students!

The best possible marketing for the university is the work of its people – so let’s make more of that visible. By doing so, we are also helping faculty, staff, and students promote their work and build portfolios and future careers. We are contributing to the public domain and sharing knowledge that would otherwise stay locked behind the secure doors of a closed LMS and then erased at the term’s end.

So, the university’s key engagements – teaching, learning, research, creation, and also, its practical need for marketing and promotion – should all happily cohabitate to deliver on the university’s key values – to connect to the community, make an impact on the local and global scale, etc.

And this is where we go back to our generalist story – generalists are not paralysed by too narrow of job description; with their many different skills are able to draw subtle connections between marketing and research, learning and networking. They can design balanced interfaces, and continually deepen and enrich the interactions around knowledge that is created, nurtured and shared in open, and provide a fantastic opportunity for the university to (besides saving tons of money on waste) promote itself in a more meaningful and community-oriented way, reinvent itself and at least try to find its niche in the new rich online landscape that seems to be reshaping fast and getting ahead of us at an accelerated rate.

blogs, other, what's up, wikis

a glance back

Enej, Will and I have been presenting at the Vancouver WordCamp and then during UBC’s Open Access week and somehow in both presentations we were going back through the history of UBC’s Open Learning Platform (the pilot and non-approved name for UBC Blogs, Wiki, CMS and related apps).

I’ve realized that I don’t really have a documented overview on how we got here, and even worse – what is the current state of the platform and plans for the future.

So, I have quickly put together basic wiki page (see it embeded below) on some (definitely not all) milestones of historic development of our platform. Hopefully, we will work on this page and also add more granular pages on specific and important points and decisions.


  • MovableType based blogs, number of websites running on various technologies


  • WordPress based, Campus Wide Login (CWL) enabled launched, over 700 users/blogs migrated from MovableType
  • Common Look and Feel (CLF) introduced by UBC Public Affairs
  • MediaWiki gets CWL and CLF treatment and becomes UBC Wiki -


  • CWL enabled for hosting websites
  • Around 20 websites on the server by the end of 2009


  • UBC blogs gets new social homepage and social (buddypress) network
  • CTLT and PA partner and becomes UBC CMS and inherits PA’s
  • Minimal WordPress Hybrid theme becomes the parent theme for most of CMS websites
  • Wiki Embed Plug-In developing allowing for UBC Wiki (MediaWiki) content to be embeded into UBC Blogs, UBC CMS (WordPress)


  • over 10,000 blogs and over 500 active, domain-mapped websites. Over 15,000 users of which over 12,000 students.
  • Continual improvement of our platform - the main developments:
    • Solid back-end: partitioned mySQL to 256 databases; Both blogs and CMS have load balancer in front of 4 app servers and master/slave db servers.
    • Extending our UBC CLF theme - almost all sites run on this theme - see manual
    • Writing plugins to support UBC community, under CC license, over 200k downloads from only!
    • Established great user community through monthly larger clients' meetings, end users' support through open web clinics twice a week, community based UBC wiki documentation


  • MediaWiki upgraded to include Visual Editor
  • New WordPress Service -- UBC Course Spaces -- launched in beta.


blogs, tools, what's up

A Year Later

Actually, over a year since I last posted here. I guess I am not much of a blogger.
Anyways, just checking in, I am not sure why, perhaps to lubricate those few rows in one of the thousands of mySql tables that store much of UBC’s publishing content.

Aside from my dormant blog, things look great, we’ve never been busier and I mean healthy busy: working with great people, getting smart requests and supporting development of many new and existing websites.
I’ve never been happier with how our little team is performing and how much we deliver.

blogs, tools, what's up

about running large WP install

Just during last week, two well-known edublog spaces, Jim Groom’s UMW blogs and Alan Levine’s CodDogBlog (both WP-based) experienced serious hiccups and in case of UMW blogs serious downtime. There are many to blame, from mindless spammers to the mighty Google, but in the nutshell, problem seems to be the nature of how we use WP in general: our small pieces became one giant does-it-all piece with many loose holes that all the bad guys (viagra/casino/porn) and good guys (google and similar bots) so vigorously exploit.

this is why it is leaning
Can we hold it together?

In the next couple of posts, I will try to go through our experiences with running WordPress in larger institution; here is the preview:

  • scope (what we offer):
    Delete and forget about WP themes and base your offer on templates: blog, course, website, community portal, project management space, resource repository, rss aggregate, event calendar, research space, photo gallery…
  • signups and user management:
    Implement campus’ single-sign-on authentication, and write plugins to connect to campus student information system to download students to course blogs. One of the biggest time-consuming tasks with large user base systems is the user management and account creation and you want to automate this as much as possible.
  • development  framework and system maintenance:
    VMs, SVNs and Backups – your university IT department is your friend. Hang out with these guys and revisit your statements on cheap and dirty if you want to last. Development, Verification and Production server – you gotta have all three. In sync. Often looks like mission impossible but it is actually doable.
  • typical development tasks
    Based on our experience, these are the typical tasks in WP development that require framework mentioned in the previous bullet – you don’t want to try any of these on your production server:

    • Major Content/Architectural changes – your client will ask you to shift few hundred pages around. This is the case primarily with WP-based websites mostly
    • Look and Feel work – you have to change all your typography, headers and footers and rewrite all your CSS files because campus decided to update their look and feel.
    • Plug-ins development  – Make sure that your development environment is exactly the same as your production one or you are up for nasty surprises.
    • Back-end upgrades – Your LAMP, your WP core needs to stay upto date.
    • Migrations – We did migrate few hundred MovableType blogs to WP and survived.
  • buy-in, support and training
    Don’t count on your edupunk coolness. You are here to provide good service and support.
  • searching and reporting
    It is often pain in the butt and slows down the servers but it also gives a lot in return. Any WP coding that stores content in custom fields will not be indexed by WP itself so just use Google search instead. And after using Google analytics you can’t use any other tool. Also make sure to be able to report on number of blogs (and their types) and users at any time.
  • new requests
    Say no. They are typically unreasonable, otherwise plugins would be already written. If you hear it 1000 times than you might want to consider it. Clients are usually wrong.