Blogging pioneer blazes trail for WordPress at Clark College

Class attracts design, marketing, business, computer students; might lead to a degree

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What is WordPress?

o Open-source web publishing software.

o Co-developed by contributors from around the globe, no ownership.

o 70 million users worldwide.

o Powers blogs for eBay, CNN, Ford, CBS, New York Times, NFL, NASA and many others.

o Version 3.3, released in December, triggered 1 million downloads in two days, double the number of the previous version.

On the Web: Lorelle VanFossen's blog.

What is WordPress?

o Open-source web publishing software.

o Co-developed by contributors from around the globe, no ownership.

o 70 million users worldwide.

o Powers blogs for eBay, CNN, Ford, CBS, New York Times, NFL, NASA and many others.

o Version 3.3, released in December, triggered 1 million downloads in two days, double the number of the previous version.

On the Web: Lorelle VanFossen’s blog.

A colorful crowd sat in a room of Clark College’s computer technology wing Thursday night. About half of the 20 students were the usual suspects — aspiring programmers or web developers.

But the rest of the class included a fashion-design student, an addiction counselor-in-training, a school district employee and several others who don’t necessarily intend to write computer code for a living.

The mixed group was drawn in by software that’s running more and more of what people see online and by a woman who has been an apostle for that software since its early days.

Clark College rolled out its first “Introduction to WordPress” course this week. The course made for some online conversations in the blogging community, because it is very rare for a for-credit class to focus only on WordPress and because it is taught by blogging pioneer Lorelle VanFossen.

The course — CTEC 280 — is a temporary offering. It will be available again in the spring quarter, but would need to be vetted at the campus and state level before it could become a permanent entry in the college catalog.

If it gets positive feedback from students and buy-in from administrators, the course may not only become permanent but be the foundation of a whole new associate degree program down the road.

WordPress has become ubiquitous and knowing it can be a great benefit for many careers. And it’s fun, apparently.

‘I love this’

VanFossen, the instructor for the new class, talked herself into a near-frenzy this week on the topic of teaching computer code, design and publishing.

“I love this so much,” she practically shouted out. “Once people touch WordPress, they go bananas.”

Her enthusiasm in part is born of her own experience. VanFossen was hit by a truck as a little girl in the mid-1960s. She had to learn to walk again.

Almost worse for her, she had to learn to speak again. Luckily, she discovered an Olivetti typewriter. Hacking away at the keyboard, she could express herself again.

“Wanting to communicate has been the theme of my life ever since,” she said.

She ran her own graphic design and marketing business as a teenager in the ’70s, she said. And in 1993, she put up a personal website. She said it was one of the first in the world that wasn’t commercial, but instead featured her musings on photography and travel.

By the early 2000s, that site had grown to 2,000 pages of static code. She was looking to migrate her pages into a dynamic content management system, which would transfer any changes throughout her site at the push of a button.

Three months after WordPress’ initial release, she switched to the software and instantly got under the hood of the new tool. She soon became the “first official crash test dummy for WordPress,” Van Fossen said. If the hands-on blogger couldn’t crash the software, few people would.

She also became an adviser to the WordPress Codex, an online manual for the software, and was the keynote speaker at the first WordCamp Portland, a regional conference now in its fifth year.

“She was one of the first out there talking about blogging and WordPress,” said Aaron Hockley, one of the organizers of the local WordCamp. “She definitely has credibility.”

That’s what a few Clark College students thought at another conference.

A new program?

In May, Bob Hughes, the head of Clark College’s computer technology department, took some of his students to WebVisions, a professional conference in Portland. During a sabbatical the year before, he’d become interested in incorporating open-source communities such as WordPress into the college’s tech curriculum.

A few of his students heard VanFossen’s presentation and found her in the lobby afterward. They practically dragged her over to Hughes and told him that the prolific blogger should teach a class. After many phone conversations and emails — but no official job interview — Hughes asked VanFossen if she was free Tuesday and Thursday nights.

WordPress is the ideal complement to existing Clark College classes, Hughes said. Students can add the software to their design, marketing, business or programming skill sets.

Currently, the course is “a test balloon,” Hughes said. “We’ll see how we can sculpt it into an academic offering.”

There are a few steps left to go before the class could become permanent. If students and fellow instructors give CTEC 280 the thumbs-up, that may well become reality.

But Hughes has a bigger vision for WordPress training on campus.

“This could be the root of a program,” he said.

It is very far from being a done deal, but the hope is that Clark College could offer an associate degree something like “web practitioner and developer,” said Hughes.

It would go with the college’s mission to prepare students for the workplace.

Job prospects

WordPress is famously easy to use out of the box. VanFossen told a story about a 4-year-old blogging with the software.

But companies, no matter their size, don’t want to present themselves in prefab fashion online. They need designers, marketers or developers who can customize their websites exactly to the company’s image.

And just about every business has a website these days, which means many need WordPress-literate help, local experts said.

“You could do freelance consulting for small businesses or be a developer for bigger companies,” said Hockley, the WordCamp organizer.

“Publishing content on the web will only become more important,” said Andrew Spittle, a Portland-based employee of Automattic, which supports WordPress.com users worldwide.

And, being open-source, WordPress is unlikely to go away, he said. There’s no company that could be bought out or go bankrupt, making the technology obsolete.

The average salary listed on SimplyHired.com for a developer with WordPress skills is $45,000 per year, VanFossen said.

“And you don’t need to be a math genius or programmer to make it happen,” Hughes said. “If you have great ideas, you can have a ball and actually make money with it.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; http://www.twitter.com/col_schools; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com