Well, I’m here to tell you it can definitely be done. I’m not the first to discover this, of course, but I really was surprised to see just how well, and how easily, it works. My favorite art historian wanted (with her colleague) to turn all the content they had developed (“lectures” from online courses, podcasts, YouTube videos, flickr images, great sites and web resources) into a kind of free, multimedia, online textbook for art history.

Their experience was that most of the art history textbooks for undergraduates were just, well, wrong. They were pitched to a level that didn’t match, they weren’t engaging in either style or content, and they managed to turn the exciting social history part of art history into just more dull-as-dishwater, decontextualized, blahblah.

(A perfect example of this–today I was in the Art department at my college, and I saw a copy of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages–one of the major textbooks in the discipline, being used extremely effectively, extremely practically….It was used as a booster to lift a computer monitor up to eye level. Probably would make an excellent doorstop or paperweight, too.)

Even the textbook publishers who did have websites connected to their texts seemed to just reproduce the text–nothing towards making them more engaging–and in any case, those sites were closed–available only to people who bought (for more than a few dollars) the print textbooks or some kind of access key.

So they wanted to do something different in style, something open, something making good use of multimedia, something searchable and visually attractive…and they didn’t want to have to learn a whole lot of html, flash, css, and everything else. And they wanted to be able to collaboratively add to and edit the site.

WordPress to the rescue! With a theme they liked, wordpress’ built-in pages and custom fields, and a few expedient plugins (and the help of their friendly neighborhood geek guy–me), over one long weekend they got a very good start, which can easily be continued and expanded, at creating exactly what they wanted…smARThistory.org!

I think the potential here is very exciting–student sites, course sites, more of these “web-books” (or whatever you want to call them), that can be used to publish and collaborate and produce. The idea of the CMS is perfect for this kind of project, and yes, there are many CMS’s out there. But for simplicity of installation, configuration, extension, design…I like the wordpress!