When is a Blog not a Blog?

I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine last night about the PSU Blog project and we started to consider a strange concept — not branding it a blog service at all. I have recently been talking to people about the notion that more and more students are showing up on campus with personal blogs and are not making the jump out of that space and into University-provided environments. It got us thinking about what a blog really is under the surface … a personal content management system.

Fast forward to this morning and I had the opportunity to sit down with Glenn Johnson from the Dutton eEducation Institute to talk about ePortfolios with a group from Elmira College. Glenn is Penn State’s project manager for our ePortfolio project. You can see some of his work by visiting the Institute’s ePortfolio research site. Glenn showed us some of his data (1, 2) that showed how students are actually beginning to use the 1 GB of space the Univeristy allots us for academic work.

Why do I bring this up? In my mind the power behind common blogging tools can/should/will empower students to store and manage their portfolios. Should they have to care about html and web design? I guess if they want to, but in my mind once you get over the html stuff a personal content management system (like WordPress or MT) is the key to tracking and exposing their intellectual development. All of my notebooks from undergrad were lost in a flooded garage … all my work from grad school is locked in Zip disks labeled “stuff” … how do I take a look back? I have been blogging for several years now and have the unique ability to look back and see where I have been to help inform where I am going. I wish I had access to my thinking from 10-15 years ago.

So, when is a blog not a blog? When you brand it as a personal content management system. Think of the power then … you want to blog, publish, take notes, turn in papers, or do anything in an e-model? The personal content managent system can do it and it can do it so it is stored, managed, searchable, accessible, and easy. There is more to come in this space as I explore what it would mean to pitch this idea this way … anyone have thoughts?

26 Replies to “When is a Blog not a Blog?”

  1. hmmm, Personal Content Management System…very compelling argument that makes a lot of sense to me. Though, this now begs a question; If we proceed with this being a personal content management system, are we off to a bad start by using blogging software? What about Zope/Plone vis-a-vis WebLion or Sakai or something else?

  2. It may require us to think differently about the tools … blog tools provide for powerful content management approaches, but it may require us to look further down the road at a tool like SAKAI. I just think we could do a service that really encourages and promotes the use of digital tools for the orgnaization, storage, and management of our faculty, staff, and students’ lives. Since moving into the blogoshpere, I am hooked on the tools for tracking things … I think providing a compelling service would push our audiences further along that path. Is it a good thing? How wouldwe manage it? Geez … two steps forward, one step back.

    But, thinking more broadly may give us a powerful platform to build the future on.

  3. Hey Cole!
    I came across your post while browsing technorati. I definitely think that the whole e-portfolio/blog/personal content management system is going to be big. One of the guys in my 220 class uses an SVN to keep track of all of his schoolwork in a way that’s much more organized than your bags of zip disks/notebooks.

    Although, you have to take the initiative to organize any of these systems. If you name all of your files and posts “stuff”, having an online repository of it won’t help you, it’ll still be unorganized crap – just unorganized crap that’s online.

  4. Jason … thanks. Sometimes it is better to think more broadly about a solution. I am actually getting to the point where I don’t want to use the word “blog” with students as it carries its own set of baggage. Honestly it sort of came to me as I was looking at the new MacBook and iLife things for the Apple store where it doesn’t get specific about either the notebook or the software, it just ties together how it empowers you — the blogging, podcasting, web developing stuff … just jumped out at me. The right solution for higher education would be about giving students a platform or framework to whatever they need to do.

    Mike, that is the wonderful part about choosing a toolset like a PCMS … it has the flexibility to do whatever, but can gently force you into self organizing. Through built in tools like categories, time stamps, and meta data entry you create an organizational structure that is tied directly to our own schema. I can’t keep a notebook organized because it doesn’t work the way I think … a blog on the other hand gives me the ability to easily cross reference and link like minded posts together with little effort. I love the idea of someone using an SVN to keep track of it all. Love to meet this student … it could really help inform us.

  5. Setting aside the actual choice of technology that runs on the back end, I’d like to see something as easy to use as Facebook, MySpace, or iWeb. Not where people go online to “hook up”, but a central hub of your university life, where you start with a simple profile and can add a public or private blog, post papers or videos, use a resume wizard, link to friends, or whatever services we begin to built to support student activity. Let’s not build a portal silo and a blog silo and a podcasting silo. Let’s build a common space and give students the ability to pick and choose what types of content they want in their space.

    The hosting service that I use (DreamHost) has “one-click installations” of WordPress, MediaWiki, Gallery Image Album, WebCalendar, Joomla (content management), and others. I like this model because I get to choose what types of things I want to share and how I want to share them.

    I mention iWeb above because it seems to be a very elegant and scalable solution (at least for Mac users) because the engine doing the work arranging pictures, setting backgrounds, capturing blog posts, etc… is a user’s application, not the web server. The web server is just pushing out HTML pages. The down side of this model is that you would end up creating a blog where no one but the owner could comment (that’s not very social), but the new version of iWeb has addressed this for people who use the .Mac site.

    This whole idea is a mirror image of a typical portal — this is the portal through which I let the world see me and my work, not the portal through which I see the world.

  6. In reading the comments, a couple of questions pop into mind:

    I definitely see the benefits of developing a personal content management system for students. Based on the success of sites like myspace and facebook, students want to publish without the hassles of learning HTML. My question is, how will something like this be used by the faculty? Would they have RSS feeds to the students enrolled in their course? If they commented on a student’s work, would it be secure?

    ANGEL is another example of how offering something that is easy and efficient to use is welcomed by the University population. Both students and faculty have increased their use of this course management system and it has been successful. However, due to the heavy use, there are now issues with storage. Would we have a similar (if not greater) problem with storage with an individual content management system?

    Finally, you mention that you no longer have access to your notes and thoughts from your days as a student – what happens when a PSU student who uses this system graduates – how long will all this information be accessible to him/her? Can there be a way to download the information or transfer it to another site?

    Overall, I think this is a great idea, but if we build it and they come, what problems might we encouter? In other words, what happens if they really like it and use it a lot?

  7. I think Allan is right in that we shouldn’t create silos. I would suggest that we also do not want to try to find the “one CMS to rule them all”. Personal Content Management doesn’t have to happen in the context of a single application if we think of the solution in terms of small-pieces-loosely-joined. I think as long as we have single sign-on working throughout the continuum of services we’re offering to our students, and the applications are aware of each other (either via integration of databases or something more like a service-oriented architecture), then we can add value as the opportunities present themselves.

    I propose something more along the lines of a Personal Content Management Platform. In this scenario, we select applications that are excellent at what they do – WordPress for blogging, MediaWiki or DokuWiki for wikis, Scuttle for social bookmarking, ANGEL or Sakai for an LMS, etc. Then, as in Allan’s example of Dreamhost’s one-click installations, students and faculty add the services they want. These installations could be modified to be citizens in this platform. Information wouldn’t be silo’ed because at a meta-level it would all be part of one happy family.

    In my own search for a personal content management solution, I’ve never been able to find one app to adequately suit all my needs. Eventually the answer that emerged for me was a distributed, web-based solution (almost like what I’m describing above) which I am pretty happy with now.

  8. My Personal Content Management is spread across several different applications and services. My writing goes into my blog (Drupal – previously WordPress – on my hosted Dreamhost account), photos onto Flickr. Bookmarks into del.icio.us. Comments into CoComment.com. Mail into GMail and a couple of IMAP mail accounts. And there are probably a few other online locations (and certainly several offline ones) that I couldn’t think of at the moment.

    Point being, “Personal Content Management” isn’t an application. It isn’t a location or a destination. It’s an ecology or constellation of small pieces loosely joined. The individual pieces will vary from person to person, but the aggregation will perform the compound function of PCMS.

  9. Actually – it just hit me – the lineage of my blog software shows how the individual app itself really doesn’t matter.

    Started in Blosxom, then to MovableType, then back to Blosxom, then to WordPress, then to Drupal. Same content, with different features, filling the same (but expanding) role within my PCMS ecosystem. Now, my Drupal blog is closer to my hub for bringing the various smaller bits together. Not quite to the “personal learning environment”, but getting closer…

  10. The idea of personal content management as a concept is technology independent … but when you attempt to create a platform that not only students can use but rely on as a stable hub for what is happening in their lives you have to think about the basis. We aren’t any where near making a final selection, but I do like the idea of a set of small pieces more than loosely joined … whatever is in place has to be like a framework, platform, or as D’Arcy mentions, an eco-system. Granted we could easily just go with a blogging toolset to let them what they want with, but the more interesting project is to attempt to create a space that would serve as many purposes as they could imagine.

    I am excited to see the conversation around this topic as it has some very interesting potential outcomes wrapped up in it. I am not proposing a tool, I am proposing a shift in the thinking related to all of this. I want to see us empower students and faculty … I just think we’ll need a suite of opportunities to make that a realitiy. This could be a very exciting project.

  11. I like the “shift in the thinking” approach to this project, and I agree that the technology can come second. (If we hitch our wagons to a PSU blog, then what happens in three years when blogging has been overtaken by the next big technology?) So back to the shift in thinking, I would focus in more on defining specifically what we want out of this new platform/toolset/CMS. Many here at PSU have already had similar ideas (e.g. ANGEL, PSU portal, e-portfolios, LionShare, etc.) that might make up some of the small pieces that are to be loosely joined. What about this initiative would be different? Or would it be the tying together of these existing tools (perhaps with some new ones) that would be the “product?” Something perhpas along the lines of a Penn State Dashboard with a single sign in to a number of these social networking apps? And where would it start/stop (i.e. students, faculty/staff, alumni, FPS, etc.)? Lots to think about…

  12. I only briefly attended OUCC: http://oucc.ca but there was a lot of talk about ‘portals’ and ‘blog’ services for students. Is it me or is IT folks, not web folks (they are different thinkers), that are pushing these closed box services? Students have blogs and email addresses before they come to campus and they want them to live on after they leave campus. Why for four or less years of their life would they uproot all the work they did in high school to build their online identity? Uni’s should be looking at how they can work with and enhance students online presence. In the case of those that don’t have one we should help them build one outside of our services that expire once they graduate.

    Personal Content Management is a great way of putting it and in this age of API’s it should be relatively easy to set up a system students can take with them. Perhaps a basecamp type model is required where students can simply export their XML when they are done and move on?

    It just strikes me that if the mass majority of students aren’t using their uni email addresses, why would they use a blogging service or portal?

  13. Jesse … the fact that students are beginning (and I mean a handful) to show up with their own blogs is an interesting thing. The fact is, as you state, they do not like to switch out once they start. I am facing a similar issue within my own group here at PSU … I want to start an externally facing blog space for my staff to share their thoughts and ideas, but hate the idea of them having to decide where to post. Many of them have spaces (as do I) that they take pride in and asking them to divide their efforts seem odd to me.

    The same is holding true for students. What I envision is a platform that encourages them to get control of their digital lives. No one is saying they have to shut it off when they leave … as a matter of fact, a long term storage space could potentially increase alumni participation. Just a thought … that is post all on its own. At any rate, your comments are at the core of the thinking right now. Thank you!

  14. My apologies for not connecting with this conversation sooner… Here are a few of the ideas – related to some of the ideas expressed above – that might be of interest to some of the readers. Let me ramble a bit…

    Cole, in one way what you are talking about or looking for is something that will be, as Ali Jafari at IUPUI calls it – is something “sticky”. Sticky in the sense that students will use it – it will stick around – be useful, convenient and efficient. Let me talk a bit more about my ideas about what makes things sticky outside of the realm of usability … There is one area of educational research that is very clear having to do with motivation. What motivates people to learn more than anything else? Relevance. (Where have you heard that before…) Far and above any other reason.

    Here is where I see the cutting edge here – we have tools that collect. There are many supports for uploading all sorts of files. We have introduced tools that help us reflect – blogs. When has America’s youth ever been more prolific with their words?! Getting the narrative out there is the first step and I think there are ways that we can engineer blogs such that they support and nuture evidence-based reflection. But where are the tools that support selection??

    I too have CD’s and zip disks and the occaisional JAZ drive with old papers and project work on it. Even if they were all in a single directory we have to do a better job of helping users manage these files outside of alphabetical lists of filenames. Where is the management? Is it a big assumption that we make that given file directories and pages of blog narrative that people will manage and make connections between and among the ideas in these files?

    We need to solve the manage – we help people make connections then we get much closer to relevance – with good usability these tools become ‘sticky’. How can we nuture meaningful personal development if the tools we provide do not assist users finding within this data personal relevance?

    Sidebar – remember back when discussion groups first became popular. Discussion boards brought out the best and the worst – but most of all the became a chore to read. As an teacher in a classroom if I have four groups working I do not walk around the room and attempt to hear every spoken word. As a teacher I look for clues that will allow me to make judgements as to how to focus my time. I ‘read’ the room very efficiently in order to SELECT a what I do next, who I approach and for what reason.

    Don’t e-portfolios – at the root of it all – have the same challenge. I have all of this evidence about what I know, what I can do, what I value. What, why and how do I select what I will put forward to represent who I am? What am I basing this decision making on? Are there ‘sticky’ tools out there that will help us support this process?

  15. about the idea of blogs, etc created before students come to a university and life after the university:

    I think a person’s digital presence tends to be scattered across the net. They might have a facebook account, photos in flickr, links in del.icio.us, a personal blog, perhaps even a work related blog and/or a school related blog. Cole, you talk about people wanting to own this digital presence, not be locked into a university based system and not be splitting their efforts across multiple on-line spaces.

    I like the idea of a personal hub: A page that could collects the various content on-line related to a person. This is a page a person could own that could link to the various types of content I mentioned above, as well as aggregate the content via syndication mechanisms.

    The university system can provide a safe and reliable haven for learning and teaching , while other services can do what they do best, which is not necessarily related to academics. There can be a third type of service that acts the personal glue between the others. I don’t see this glue being a service provided by the educational institution.

    One service that already does something like this is claimID. Although it doesn’t do the aggregation of syndicated content.

    Here is an example of a claimID page: http://claimid.com/fred
    I don’t think the claimID page is designed to be very dynamic, which is one of its shortcoming, IMHO.

    This doesn’t answer the question of what happens to a student’s on-line work once they graduate. That’s a whole other can of worms.

  16. It’s hard to argue with the characterization of a CMS/person . I think it’s a great way to look at it.

    What I continue to wonder about it which of these really cool, potentially really important services need to be done in house (would be better done in house, etc. – however you want to word it really) and which can we leave to the world? I also continue to believe that there really is no way to keep up with the next cool tool phenomena – they are just exploding and some serve niches but are really valuable to that niche constituency.

    What I’d like to do is develop a discovery tool for mapping PSU Id to Cool-Web-Service Id to make tool sharing somewhat easier. We can’t predict who is going to use what tools but we can make it easier to find each other if groups or subsets of groups are already using a tool but may not even know it. I’ve tried to define the problem at http://www.personal.psu.edu/kxm/aa.pdf – still working on the storyboard for the sol’n.

  17. It’s hard to argue with the characterization of a CMS/person . I think it’s a great way to look at it.

    What I continue to wonder about it which of these really cool, potentially really important services need to be done in house (would be better done in house, etc. – however you want to word it really) and which can we leave to the world? I also continue to believe that there really is no way to keep up with the next cool tool phenomena – they are just exploding and some serve niches but are really valuable to that niche constituency.

    What I’d like to do is develop a discovery tool for mapping PSU Id to Cool-Web-Service Id to make tool sharing somewhat easier. We can’t predict who is going to use what tools but we can make it easier to find each other if groups or subsets of groups are already using a tool but may not even know it. I’ve tried to define the problem at http://www.personal.psu.edu/kxm/aa.pdf – still working on the storyboard for the sol’n.

  18. hi cole

    I’m a bit late picking up on this thread but I was so thrilled to find it. I’m pretty new to Web 2.0 but I love this angle of a blog being a student’s course file. My area is music and to be able to have live links (to iTunes for 30″ at least) is awesome for essay/reports – and no need for html – server blah -blah. In fact I’m going to try very hard to never write a ms word document again.

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