Developing a Learning Environment in WordPress


In 2013 the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) team in Manchester Medical School (MMS) started a review of current learning technology systems. Our evaluation showed that both tutors and students disliked the experience they got from Blackboard. Students complained that content was difficult to find and not available offline, so using it for revision purposes was near impossible. Tutors couldn’t easily create attractive or interactive content and it did not allow them to reference content from previous years. It was clear it was time to identify a new, more effective learning environment that facilitated pedagogical best practice and delivered a better learning experience.

Screenshot of the Medical Programme on Blackboard
The Medical Programme on Blackboard

The Selection Process

The process started with a meta-analysis of the research to determine the key pedagogical concepts and how these are enabled or facilitated by online learning environments. For example, student-centred, constructivism and collaborative learning are key elements of the enquiry-based approach of the medical school and yet were not easily achieved in the existing environment.

The review identified six concepts that were key to teaching in MMS, namely:

  • Student Centred learning
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Personalised Flexible Learning,
  • Blending Learning (including flipped classrooms)
  • Multi-modal content
  • Gamification

From this analysis, a set of requirements was drawn up and combined with operational features. Each requirement was weighted according to its importance and desirability. A collection of different content authoring and delivery systems were then scored against the requirements to provide a detailed option analysis. From this, WordPress was chosen as the best solution. WordPress offered the School the flexibility and functionality required to deliver our complex programme, whilst employing good pedagogical practices.

WordPress as a Learning Environment

The new system was designed and developed in just over 12 months. Christened “1MedLearn”, the site consists of a series of Custom Post Types called  ‘Learning Objects’ that can grouped together to create a ‘case’, which in turn can be grouped into ‘Modules’. This allows multiple placement of a single object, creating connections and avoiding duplication.

Screenshot of 1MedLearn Home Page
1Med Learn Home Page

Content for Year 4 of the programme was initially migrated from Blackboard and launched as a pilot in the Autumn of 2014 for students and tutors. Both groups still had access to the content on Blackboard for comparison. The feedback was extremely positive. Students preferred the contemporary interface of 1MedLearn and the ability to search for content. They liked the fact that they were able to browse all five years of the programme and move through the content following their own line of enquiry, rather than being restricted by the linear delivery prescribed by Blackboard.

Running the implementation as a pilot for 10 months provided time to develop and add improvements before its full launch in August 2015. The team created a module within 1MedLearn on Best Practices in online learning specifically for staff. This allows us to support and guide staff towards a consistent standard of online content.

The last piece of the 1MedLearn system was introduced in September 2015 thanks to networking with colleagues at ALT-C where we presented the system as a case study ( Fellow  attendees informed us of a new quiz tool called H5P that provided a fuller range of interactive questions than our current tool and captured student responses. H5P allowed us to create rich, interactive content, ideal for medicine, such as:

  • Interactive videos allow us to test students on diagnostic principles.
  • Hotspot images provide an ideal way of using clinical images.
  • Timelines are a great way to display case histories

Example questions in 1Med Learn using H5P


We now have an environment that:

  • Supports student-centred, constructivist learning through the use of formative interactive questions with appropriate feedback.
  • Allows students to add their own notes and resources to existing content, allowing them to generate and contextualise content.
  • Enables us to link content to previous years to build on existing knowledge.
  • Allows the tagging of content to highlight connections between concepts that might have previously been hidden
  • Supports collaborative learning through the introduction of a shared questions and answers feature
  • Allows for a wide range of media to be used in context and alongside other media, supporting VAK learning styles and reinforcing learning though multi-modal delivery
  • Ensures consistency and quality of content by enforcing styling and structure through a template and also requiring content to go through a QA process.

1MedLearn was rolled out to years 3, 4 and 5 in August 2015. Already the data shows that student engagement has increased from 23,872 minutes spent in Blackboard by all students over a 12-month period (2013/14), to 921,752 minutes in 1MedLearn by the same year groups over 7 months (Sept 2015 – March 2016). This represents a 68 fold increase in usage. Yet the average time spent on the site has decreased from 22 minutes per session to 11 minutes indicating that students are able to find what they need far quicker. This is backed up by feedback from students e.g.

Just wanted to say that I find 1Med super user friendly, compared to [Blackboard] it is very user-friendly, it is easy to navigate and most important the content is useful, appropriate and specific to each case. I’m really impressed and this is only my first week using it!

The introduction of 1MedLearn has also fostered dynamic approaches to teaching and learning beyond the online environment. In particular 1MedLearn has enabled the delivery of a Flipped Classroom approach in year 3, which never would have been possible using the old systems. Now content is presented at the start of the week, scaffolding students to make diagnostic decisions through interactive questions and supporting resources, so that on the Friday they can apply this knowledge to a similar set of presented symptoms in the classroom. In this way the environment is supporting the development of clinical reasoning and analytical skills that was previously not possible.

Tim Cappelli, Senior Project and E-Learning Technology Manager (
Simon Hardaker, E-Learning Technologist
Rob Cutforth, E-Learning Technologist
Division of Medical Education, University of Manchester

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member


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