4. Website Technical Considerations

Website Technical Considerations
Simply making the video definitions is not enough, as there needs to be a container in which the videos can be stored and accessed. I have chosen a website to be the main container, rather than a standard DVD, DVD-Rom, CD-Rom, or some other display method. (A DVD-Rom and a CD-Rom are the same thing, but a DVD holds more data, while a standard DVD is formatted to be played in a DVD player and watchable on a regular TV.) There are various problematic aspects of a DVD, such as limited functionality, lack of interactivity, easily damaged surface of media, storage limitations, limited audience, and low video resolution. There are a lot of advantages to a website. The videos can be searched. Videos can easily be added or replaced. Videos can be higher quality. Other data-organization mechanisms can be created such as categories or tags, by which more than one item can be accessed by different means. The wonderful thing about information architecture on the Internet is that things can seemingly be in more than one place. In the case of a library, a book cannot be shelved in different sections. On the Internet, however, an entry can be created, and this entry can be accessed from different sections of the site. A video definition could be created for a word such as ‘gloves.’ It could then be accessed from either the ‘Clothing’ or ‘Winter’ category. The Internet makes it possible to create a network of ever-evolving, interlinked components.
In the long run, the most time-consuming part of developing Vidtionary will be creating the video definitions themselves. In the beginning, however, creating the website has been the biggest challenge and the most time-consuming part of process. This is partly because I have not had any formal training in website design and have had to learn much as I go. Fortunately, there are resources at my disposal, which are highly amenable to the task. The most important web resources have been the software created by WordPress and MediaWiki. These software provide the complex information architecture that Vidtionary needs. Each of these software are open-source and the current versions are the result of years of collaborative development (Mediawiki since 2002, and WordPress since 2003). MediaWiki, famous as the software behind Wikipedia, is collaborative wiki editing software, while WordPress is a blogging tool with an extra-special set of features. I will explain what each does for Vidtionary in more detail later in this section. It should be noted that MediaWiki and WordPress are not related to each other in any way, and both work independently. For Vidtionary’s website, I am using both software, but for different reasons and in different parts of the Vidtionary website.
In this paragraph, I’ll first outline the general steps for setting up any website, and then explain how Vidtionary handled each of these steps. Whatever the website is, there are three important aspects to getting it online: acquiring the domain name, finding a website host, and then finding the means to get data from one’s own computer to the host. I purchased the domain name, www.vidtionary.com, from the domain registrar Go Daddy in April 2007, a few months before beginning the M.Ed. program at TRU. I need to pay about $12 annually to maintain my rights to this website name. For now, I am using a company called Dreamhost to host the website. Their services are relatively cheap (about $10 per month) and sufficiently reliable. If Vidtionary gets a bigger budget in the future, I can pay extra to get a private server (also available from Dreamhost for an additional monthly fee) rather than a shared server (which can get overloaded at times by too many users). My monthly plan with Dreamhost allows me to host as many websites as I need to, without paying additional fees. Since I have other unrelated websites that I also need to host, the expense to have Dreamhost host Vidtionary is not a concern. I then need FTP (file transfer protocol) software to send files from my own computer to the web host (Dreamhost). This FTP software is relatively cheap or even free depending on which software is used. I generally use a product called Fetch, who kindly granted me a free educational license upon my request.
Both MediaWiki and WordPress are web-based software, meaning that when your computer is offline, the software no longer functions. Vidtionary’s video player is also web-based. The videos are hosted separately from the rest of the website as I will explain in the next sub-section. In order to set up either of these software on a website, it is necessary to download a folder of files from MediaWiki’s or WordPress’ respective websites and then copy this file of folders over to your own website. The instructions then direct you to a certain web address, where you click a few things, type in a few things, and then the software is successfully installed on your website. Running behind the scenes is a database, which is part of the group of files located at your host server. Every time a change is made to the website or new content is added, the database is updated. While I only partially understand this process, one thing that is important is that I know how to backup the necessary files and databases, since the host company (Dreamhost) is not necessarily liable for any file corruption or loss that takes place, even if the accident is a result of their own error. I am pleased and relieved that I have been able to get the site up and running on my own. By the time the site needs major adjustments, it will hopefully be successful enough that I can justify paying a web programmer to do the work.
There are some particular reasons why I am using web-based software, specifically MediaWiki and WordPress, to produce the site, rather than making a simpler site that could be viewed offline. One reason is scalability, which means that a website will be able to expand without any limitation. As the software that powers Wikipedia, MediaWiki is designed to allow its database to get bigger and bigger, while remaining easy to organize. If I did a simple site on my computer, without a database, it would quickly become a mess, as more and more pages are added to the site. The second benefit of using MediaWiki or WordPress versus a simple html site made on one’s own personal computer is accessibility. I need the website to be editable from any Internet-connected computer. With MediaWiki or WordPress, the website administrator can log in from any computer and begin making changes to the site. Connected to this, Vidtionary could become a collaborative venture in the future, so it is necessary to make the site editable by multiple, authorized users. In the case of a simple html website with project files residing in a personal computer, the original files would always have to be accessed, and then re-transferred via FTP to the Internet. Another problem with making a simple website, not using web-based software, is lack of interactivity. MediaWiki and WordPress software, with their hidden, online databases, make it possible to register for a site, leave comments, rate videos, and make their own user profile pages. These interactive features may be slight compared to more sophisticated websites with greater resources. As Vidtionary gets more resources, it will hopefully have more interactive features.
When I first began to actively construct Vidtionary, I was primarily using MediaWiki, rather than WordPress. MediaWiki was developed to be the content management system for Wikipedia. Its software makes it easy to create new entries (information spaces) for various subjects, and then interlink them. Each entry can be assigned a category or other attributes, which helps to keep things organized. A key feature of the software is that it is collaborative. Different people can have access to the entries, and perform edits. Revisions of each edit are saved, so a moderator or administrator can revert back to an earlier version of the entry in case a mistake has been made. While there are other companies that produce wiki software, Mediawiki has quite extensive help resources and a community of people who have built various add-on extensions for the software. But when I showed early versions of the Vidtionary website to different people, including my supervisors, the people I observed using the site seemed confused by the resemblance to Wikipedia. The design was also not conducive to showcasing the videos. It was suggested the Vidtionary site needed its own look, its own visual style, one that would not be confused with Wikipedia. Besides the look of the MediaWiki-powered site, there were various other aspects of Mediawiki that I did not know how to alter or customize. Furthermore, MediaWiki does not make it easy to embed html or javascript into its entries, which is necessary for embedding the video player. This has to be done through add-on mechanisms called extensions, which are not always easy to get working right. I began to think that many of Wikipedia’s strengths and functions would not be well utilized, since they were mostly geared towards text, while the needs I had for a video-based site would be under-served by MediaWiki.
While I was experimenting with Mediawiki for Vidtionary, I was also experimenting with the WordPress software for other sites I was creating. WordPress is known as software for blogging. A blog is generally thought of as online journal. Posts (entries) on a blog are usually reverse-chronological order, meaning that the most recent post comes first. It would seem that blog software would not be the best format for the creation of a dictionary. WordPress has evolved, however, to the point that it has capabilities far beyond typical blogging software. WordPress might be better thought of as a simple CMS (content management system) software than as a blogging software. Arguably, WordPress is even better than many more advanced CMS software packages, because it has such a large community of developers who create themes and plugins, which are generally available for free. A theme is basically the outer appearance of the WordPress site. There are more than a thousand themes that have been created. On the WordPress site (wordpress.org), each theme gets rated, so if a theme has a high rating, you can infer that it will be stable and well-designed. The themes are not simply a different color scheme or font, but rather they have a variety of different design attributes. A theme might be 2-column or 3-columns, fixed-width or variable-width, plain but easily customizable, or rather extravagant but difficult to customize. Some themes are particularly well-suited for displaying photos, while others for reading large chunks of text. A plugin is something that can be inserted into the WordPress software to add special functionality to a site. An example plugin would be a poll that can be inserted into the sidebar or a random quote generator. There are thousands of plugins available. In many cases, plugins add mechanisms which are useful to the site’s developer, but unnoticeable to the site’s visitors. I will touch on a few of the plugins that Vidtionary uses later in this section. Until you actually learn to use WordPress, it would be pretty much impossible to know which elements in a WordPress-powered site are generated by a plugin, or simply a part of the default installation. In short, WordPress is highly customizable, and there is a great community of support.
After a trial period with both MediaWiki and WordPress, I am satisfied with my decision to use WordPress as the CMS for Vidtionary’s main site at www.vidtionary.com. Nevertheless, there are functions that I also like very much about MediaWiki, so I have also installed MediaWiki at http://wiki.vidtionary.com. My intention for the main site is for it to be simple and clean, and thus easily used by language learners without distracting details or advanced functionality. The main site should be very visual and short on text. The words should be searchable or browsed. A search field is in the top right. The words should also be browsable by letter and category. Letters are in both the right sidebar and in the top navigation. The videos for the different words are embedded into WordPress posts (also called entries). Posts are arranged chronologically by default, but I have modified the code to make posts appear alphabetically. Each word is also assigned to different categories. In the top right, there is a dropdown menu where different categories can be selected. There is another categorical element called tags, which I use but have chosen to keep hidden. Having a common tag is what generates the posts that appear in the Related Words section which you can find under the video player. In the left column, there is a link for users to register or log in. I have added a plugin on the registration page, where a captcha (challenge-response test) has to be completed to prevent automatic registrations from spambots. In a credits page of the Vidtionary site, all plugins will be listed, as I want to give credit to the hard work done by the various developers. Along with a credits page, there will be standard pages such as ‘About’, ‘Contact’ and other instructional pages where users might learn how to submit a video, request a video, or some other aspect. There are various advanced functions and alternate functionality I would like to offer in the wiki version of Vidtionary (found at wiki.vidtionary.com). The wiki will also be a good place to keep tutorials and special pages for teachers to use. When I did my first trial period with MediaWiki, I had a difficult time inserting video and customizing other certain aspects (such as creating clean permanent links), but I am now able to insert video from Vimeo, Blip.tv, and YouTube, and have made progress in learning to customize other certain aspects of MediaWiki. Also, I think the wiki is a good spot to provide additional information related to the project without making the main site cluttered or overburdened with information. The wiki software also makes it very easy to create a lot of pages very quickly. The wiki will be a good spot to host the wordless versions of the Vidtionary video definitions. The wordless version is a version of the video where the word neither appears nor is spoken. For instance, a wordless version of the ‘museum’ video appears at http://wiki.vidtionary.com/2683596. Wordless versions are primarily created for game or discussion use. The language teacher can play the wordless version and then students can try to guess the answer. The wordless version is linked to from the actual ‘museum’ entry in the wiki at http://wiki.vidtionary.com/Museum. I am creating game sets of video definitions in the wiki – see an example at http://wiki.vidtionary.com/Game_Set_1. This will be a good tool for a language teacher to use, and the wiki easily accommodates the quick creation of interlinking pages. The other thing I want to do at the wiki is create pages with additional information and resources for the words featured at the main site. For instance, the entry for ‘crow’ at the main site (www.vidtionary.com/words/crow) features only the ‘crow’ video definition, while the wiki entry for ‘crow’ (http://wiki.vidtionary.com/Crow) also makes available downloadable photo stills, a link to the wordless version, additional credits, and links to additional ‘crow’ resources. Obviously, it is time consuming for me to find all this additional information about each word in the Vidtionary, which brings me to the other advantage of the wiki software – it is built with collaboration in mind. In the future, it is possible that anyone will be able to register and be permitted to start formatting and creating pages in the wiki.
At this point, my main goals in terms of the website are achieved. The functions I felt were important are in place. There is little left on my things-to-do list for the website. It will be some time in the future before I open up Vidtionary to collaborative editing, since the site will need regular monitoring and moderation when that time comes. When (if) the site begins to receive high amounts of traffic, I intend to work with someone who can help support and maintain the website. Any web developer has access to MediaWiki and WordPress and would not be greatly challenged to duplicate the site that I have created. What will make Vidtionary special is the videos themselves.