Teaching WordPress to Absolute Beginners Part 1: The Build

Teaching WordPress to Absolute Beginners Part 1: The Build

wordpress logoOne of the things that I love to do most with WordPress is to show absolute beginners how to use it. Recently I taught a group of writers how to get to grips with it. The aim was for them all to produce their own author’s portfolios. They ranged in age from around 25 – 60 so it was a pretty diverse group. Their technical ability ranged from someone who had been blogging for years to people who were horrified by the idea of having a blog. During a discussion of Twitter it was mentioned by a few that Twitter is only used by people who wanted to talk about what they had for breakfast. That should give you an idea of what I was up against!

The fact is that there are many people who are put off from using blogs and internet tools more generally for a number of reasons:

  1. confused iconThey don’t understand it
  2. They think there’s no future in it (my brother-in-law still thinks that everyone’s going to go back to playing with cup-and-ball instead of X-Boxes!)
  3. They think that it is far too difficult for them to understand.

The great thing about WordPress is that it is easy enough for anyone to use, regardless of skill level. It’s just a matter of finding a way in. As someone who teaches WordPress it’s my responsibility to ease any of these fears and show just how easy it can be. There are two main aspects to this:

  1. Building a WordPress website
  2. Populating a WordPress website with content

Today I’ll talk about how I teach beginners how to use WordPress. Beforehand I set up the WordPress installation myself. If someone is afraid of WordPress they’ll be even more afraid of the idea of installing it.

Here are some of the ways that I ease people through the WordPress learning curve.

Anyone Can Do It

Many people think that you need years of web training and experience in order to build a website. As anyone who uses WordPress will know, building a website can be incredibly easy. To build a professional looking website using WordPress you don’t need to know CSS, HTML, or even PHP. Obviously you can do some madd customizations with all of your PHP knowledge, but for the everyday user it’s just a matter of installing a theme, setting a static homepage and voila! You’ve built your first website.

Pretty much everyone uses a word processing program these days. Certainly in the class of writers I was teaching everyone used MS Word. It’s important to stress that using WordPress is no more difficult than using a word processing program. This tends to alleviate many of people’s fears. Of course, they may remain skeptical but once you show them just how easy it is you’ll see their enthusiasm grow.

Take it slowly

While you and I may think creating a page or a post is the easiest thing in the world to do, for a lot of absolute beginners it is incredibly difficult. It does feel weird doing it so slowly. But if someone has never used a CMS before it is very difficult. There will be plenty of questions, head scratching and confusion.

Cater to Different Learning Styles

Did you know that everyone learns differently? Some people learn better through listening, some through reading, some through practical exercises. It’s important to be aware of this when you are teaching a class. Catering to different styles ensures that no one is left behind. To ensure that everyone is covered I incorporate the following into a lesson:

  1. Exposition: talking about what it is that we’re going to do, explaining the terms, and giving short talks.
  2. Practical Tasks: this tends to form the bulk of a WordPress workshop. I’ll start by talking about what we’re going to do and then let everyone get their hands dirty.
  3. Further Reading: some learners will pick things up better through reading. I provide a list of further reading that will help them learn more about WordPress (I’ll include this at the end of the post!)

Account for Different Learning Curves

Some people will take ages to grasp basic concepts, others will fly through everything. This tends to depend on their level of confidence in using the internet. Not to be totally ageist but this often is affected by someone’s age. People under the age of thirty tend to have the internet completely integrated in their lives – people over the age of fifty are likely to use it much less. It’s not a matter of competence but more of familiarity – people who are internet-cyborg-people are going to grasp the concepts much more quickly. They may get bored when you’re explaining the more simple ideas. It’s a good idea to have tasks that those who are moving along more quickly can do while you’re helping others to catch up.

Tip: Use video. While I don’t necessarily use video during a day of teaching, they are a great resource for people to be able to utilize when they are back at home having forgotten everything that they have learned during the day. I am a big fan of Jing. I use it every day for doing screen captures but it also does video. The problem with it is that you can’t make the videos small enough to embed in a blog. Therefore I’ll use videos harvested from YouTube for the rest of this post. If you can bear to listen to my accent feel free to use some of the videos that I have created.

Tip: Ask your students to prepare some content and some images in advance. This means that by the end of the day they should have a pretty much complete website. Ask them to either email their content and images to you or to bring it on a USB stick. You could also prepare a handout that can be circulated beforehand. Ask your students to fill it in and bring it with them. This will get them thinking about what they want their website for before they even arrive. Here’s mine if you’d like to use it (.doc format) – it’s a pretty basic questionnaire to get them in the right frame of mind.

Now for how I structure a day workshop.

Overview

The first thing to do is to give them a walkthrough of the WordPress dashboard. Remember that most of this will go in one ear and out the other. There is a lot to take in and the initial introduction will probably lose them. But it’s important to get them introduced to the basic ideas. Talk about the dashboard, the different menu items and what they’re for. Talk about the main areas that you are going to concentrate on. I normally stick to pages, links, media, themes, a bit of plugins, and some very basic administration.

Tip: Use repetition. Repetition is a hugely important tool in teaching. Having just introduced the concepts we will return to them again and again. Your students may not remember them the first time, or even the second, but by the third or fourth or fifth time they will have started to do things for themselves. It’s all about reinforcement and building up confidence.

Posts and Pages

In general the classes that I teach are geared towards using WordPress to build a website. In these cases I tell my students not to worry about posts – that we will concentrate on pages. I outline the difference between the two and tell them that we will set up their website as a static website but will include a blog should they wish to blog in the future.

Then we start to get our hands dirty. I get them to create two pages:

  1. Home
  2. Blog

Home page

  1. lorem lipsum iconOn the home page I get them to add some content.  If you’ve got them to bring some content you can get them to copy and paste that into a page. Otherwise you could is a Lorem Lipsum generator.  I prefer to get them to bring content. You wouldn’t believe how many questions you can get about Lorem Lipsum and that’s not really the point of the class. I show them how to use Bold, Italic and other formatting options. There tends to be lots of comments about how this really is like using MS Word. They publish the post and look at their work.
  2. Then I get the students to use the “Edit” link at the bottom of the page to go back into editing the page. This time I get them to add a hyperlink. They click publish and view it again.
  3. screenshot of WordPress "edit" linkThe next step is to add an image. Again they click on “edit this post.” This time I get them to add an image. Inevitably around 75% of my students will bring images that they took from their digital camera which have massive file sizes. I explain why images for web should be no more than 72dpi. This is met with glazed expressions although a few diligent students will write that information down. But with enough to learn I let them upload their images, show them how to use WordPress to resize them, wrap the text, align and then publish.
  4. Then this: “Ahhh! The text is all squished up against the image.”Once again we click on “edit this page” and this time I show them how to add a margin around the image. They click publish and are happy once again.

In just setting up this one page we have done the following:

  1. Edit post – four times
  2. Publish – four times
  3. Edit text – two times
  4. Edit Image – two times

That’s some great reinforcement!

Students who are moving along more quickly can create more pages to build a more complete site. They can also play around with different formatting options and embedding content like videos from YouTube.

Turning a Blog into a Website

This section is for the type of stuff that you only do once but it gets the students more familiar with the idea that they can administrate WordPress themselves. As we’re building websites instead of blogs we do the following:

1. Set static homepage as “Home” – Posts page becomes “Blog”

2. Set pretty permalinks

How to Change the Permalinks in WordPress from Excelnet Media on Vimeo.

Not complex stuff but it adds to the overall sense of achievement. And it makes people who really don’t want to blog happy that they don’t have to!

For more advanced users I show them how to edit the code by removing the comments from their pages.

Themes

Introducing pupils to the world of themes is like bringing some kids into a sweetshop and saying they can have anything they want – for free! To get them introduced to the ideas I do the following:

  1. Introduce the concept of a theme and show them how to install one.
  2. Let them start looking for their own.


This can take quite a long time. If you’re very organized you could decide how long you’re going to let your students look through the theme directory. It’s easy to get carried away. Last time I found that quite a few ended up using Twenty Ten as it’s so easy to customize. To give them more flexibility another great theme to use is 2010 Weaver – it’s got everything that Twenty Ten has – and more!

Plugins

Plugins are a bit more complicated than themes. I’ll normally talk about how you can use plugins to extend your website – they’re what you can use to transform WordPress into something spectacular. It is a bit more advanced but it does give your students an idea of what WordPress is capable of. Use your imagination and you can get it to do pretty much anything. I get my students to install a plugin to help them to get to grips with the concepts.

  • Twitter for WordPress (or another Twitter widget plugin): This shows your students how easy it is to integrate social media with their WordPress website. These days, Social Media integration is an important part of any website. By this point, after having spent the day learning about the internet they should be far more receptive to the idea of using Twitter and Facebook. By installing a Twitter plugin this also lets me show the students how to use widgets in their website.

Offer Support

If you’re doing any teaching commercially you could offer some ongoing support to help to maintain your student’s confidence while they’re getting to grips with WordPress back at home. It’s up to you how much you charge, but here are some things you could offer:

  • Hosting & Hosting Support – by offering hosting support you can take care of the students’ hosting, and also take care of any WordPress upgrades. This will mean that the site’s basic security and any hosting issues will be in your hands. If your students are still not 100% comfortable with installing a plugin then they may get a tiny bit confused when it comes to upgrading WordPress properly.
  • Technical support – I tend to build three months technical support into any site I build. To facilitate this I use the technical support plugin so they can easily contact me right from their website.
  • screenshot of technical support pluginCustomizations – Inevitably there will be one or two people who will want their site to do something which is that bit more advanced. I usually charge for this on a case by case basis, depending on how complicated it is.

And finally……Be enthusiastic!

Enthusiasm is infectious! By being enthusiastic your students will get enthusiastic too. If you’re a jaded old WordPresser who is sick of the platform you’re going to find it very hard to get excited enough to encourage people to go home and try it out for themselves. Enthusiasm is a great tool for teaching, whatever your subject.

Next week I’ll look at how to teach people to write great web content, using WordPress to optimize it.

Further Resources for WordPress Beginners