Should We be Worried?

Should We be Worried?

As we race towards the release of our Penn State Blog pilot I am bumping my head into the same question over and over again — will our students care? This isn’t really something I am being asked by people in general, this is one of those nagging questions that one of the various voices in my head is repeating. We all know that students do live fairly digital lives and the fact of the matter is that they are doing it more and more — especially when it comes to participation in social sites. Not sure if you’ve heard of MySpace, Facebook, or YouTube but PSU students have. Here’s just a couple of data points for you from a November PSU PULSE Survey on social software usage at our University:

  • 83% of Penn State students use Facebook (with the number at 90% at the University Park campus)
  • 50% of Penn State students report having a MySpace account
  • 85% of Penn State students report watching video on YouTube

So if you look at those numbers you can see they are consumers and producers of the digital lifestyle. You might argue that simply watching a video isn’t really taking part, but if you consider that about 16% of our students have posted video you see that there is a solid percentage contributing (BTW, at 80,000+ students 16% is a nice number). The results of the survey are not really surprising, but they do paint a very interesting picture for us to build a case for new services and opporutnities at the University — or do they?

At second glance I have to return to my question of will they show up if we build it. I am fumbling over this specific question and I am obviously going to take a wait and see attitude. Will they come out of their existing spaces to participate? Probably not … but the better question is if we can come up with reasons to pull them out and participate in our environments. The funny thing is that when I say “our” environment I am actually talking about their space. We want to publish their blogs/media/stuff into their personal webspace so they can actually take it with them when they go. I wonder how Facebook feels when you say, “thanks for the free account, but I’d like to take my stuff with me.” I can’t imagine they make it all that easy.

Another strange thing going on with all this is the Facebook’s CEO recent comments about becoming a publishing giant … relying on new tools within the FB environment to encourage its users to create and contribute stories. I found it both very interesting and disturbing. I can say from experience that it is very hard to maintain identity at too many places … in other words, blogging in both the FB and at their other PSU sites may be a lot to ask. They spend a lot of time in the FB — consider that about 25% report spending five hours or more a week in there! I know from other results that is more than they report spending on homework and is close to half of the typical weekly class load!

So, the question is being asked again in my head — will our students care? I’d like to know what you all think and I am really interested in seeing what we do about making it important to them. Or should we?

11 thoughts on “Should We be Worried?

  1. This a very interesting question and I wish I knew the answer. I don’t but I do have insight on how it all started in the early 90’s. Let me elaborate.

    As was true just about every place, email at Penn State was mainframe based. For several years, Gary Augustson and I had wanted to provide each student with an email account. Students could get them but only when it was class related. They lost them when that particular class was finished. This was a source of quiet discontent by students, but not enough discontent to get funding for an account for every student.

    For about a decade, I had been interested in client/server technology and had worked on a distributed editor in the early 80’s when the connection between the mainframe and a terminal or microcomputer was at 300 bits per second. (Please don’t complain about the speed of your cable modem to me.) I had in fact written code for one on my H-89 microcomputer. I stayed at Cornell for a few extra months to complete the Mandarin proposal, which was a client/server application for student access to administrative information.

    This made it easier for me to make the paradigm shift between a focus on mainframe based email and client/server based email. In a conversation with Jeff Almoney, we decided that we had a “chicken and egg” problem and were unlikely to get the funds needed for mainframe based email very soon. We did think we could host client/server based email as a few other schools were doing then, but none the size of Penn State. Gary agreed and Jeff started the creation of the email system on the IBM cluster. It was a slightly risky move, but to not act was to perpetuate a disservice to Penn State.

    At the same time, Kevin Morooney and Jeff Almoney were working on our partnership with the National Supercomputer Centers. The IBM cluster provided important numerically intensive resource for Penn State’s researchers, but there was a need for the more powerful machines at these centers as well. One requirement was to provide Kerberos accounts.

    We quickly realized that there was a coupling between the email accounts and Kerberos so that the “Access Account”, which was simply a Kerberos ID, was born. It was named Access because it gave access to the Internet and its growing resources. The personal web space came shortly after and was also based upon the technology being developed by Kevin and crew for the high performance user base.

    So this effort to provide FB can be viewed as another step in a decade long effort to provide Penn State with resources that enable people to make effective use of technology in their lives. While the first efforts had no external competition, Facebook, You Tube, and the others now exist so it will be interesting to see, as Cole accurately points out, whether students migrate to a PSU hosted service or not. I am retired now and mostly a technology voyeur, but it is sure fun to watch how this evolves. No bets here.

  2. Cole, I’ve been thinking about this as well. weblogs.ucalgary.ca hasn’t exactly been an off-the-charts success, and students only seem to use it when commanded by their prof. Of those, most use it grudgingly (either not wanting to blog at all, or already having one of their own).

    The voice in the back of my head tells me that it’s still a useful service, but that I should be giving more energy to implementing the EduGlu academic-oriented aggregator concept, so students (and faculty and staff) can publish to whatever system they like, and it will pull relevant bits together for use as part of a class.

  3. I had one of the mainframe e-mail accounts when I started as a student at Penn State and I actually moved to an special computer-interest floor in one of the residence halls so I could have my account whether I was taking a computer science course or not. After reading Russ’s comment, it reminded me that it was the social components of having a computer account (e-mail, chat, connections with friends, news groups, etc…) that made me interested in moving to that floor — and we all used our accounts often because the people living in our immediate vicinity were also using them and sharing what they were doing.

    History lesson aside, I think the success of the blogging project (if we’re measuring by student adoption) will be dependent on how social we make our tools. Something like tags that work across all student blogs or a service like Digg, where people can vote for posts that they like, may provide connections between content and recognition so students don’t feel like they’re posting to a void. We should also seed content: create a student engagement initiative for podcasting shows, photo streams, and news reporting. Make it easy, fun, and connected. Then they’ll come.

  4. But, the major change between the old days (my first email account was on the U of C’s AIX mailserver back in 1987, after being approved by a prof) and now, is that students don’t need their infrastructure to be provided by the institution. They’re perfectly capable of setting up their own blog(s), photo stream(s), etc… without any intervention (or knowledge, or awareness) from The Institution. We need to be figuring out how to provide relevant services (whether that’s just guidance, best practices, support, etc…) to help students make the most of what they’re already doing, in the context of the institution.

    I’d be willing to bet that students would no longer be willing to move into a special floor in rez just to be able to access institution-provided internet services.

  5. Actually I doubt you will have the answers until you try, and even at that, the Monday morning quarterbacking may be questionable.

    I’d agree with D’Arcy and your stats that suggest significant numbers of your students have established personal footholds in external electronic places really forces the question- what is the advantage for students to take the time and effort to put their attention on a PSU space? I get the part about you offering a “permanent” archive (I think that is how I read it). On the other hand I doubt that students, or many of us, really feel at the moment that the online service we are pouring ourselves to is not permanent. It feels so at the time. And how will those advantages be communicated?

    So really the question is what is the value to the most important person in the universe (“me”)?

    How much personalization will students get on “their” spaces? Will they really trust that it is not going to be stomped on by Administration (not sure what the local student political climate is like). Are these blogs individual blogs, or or there social connections, groups, etc? Is it something that would appeal to active and vocal students groups, clubs, athletics, etc? Are they able to completely tap into the external spaces? Are there special features you can offer the Outsiders cannot (ties to your CMS, special student services,…)?

    If it were me, I’d be working hard behind the scenes to line up student groups, individuals, likely to use it strongly out of the gate. People will be looking to see what others are doing.

    So yes you should be “worried” which just means you are likely already pondering these questions. I’d be worried if you were not 😉

    Heck, just call it beta for 5 years.

  6. If I have learned anything after 40 years in the IT madness, it is that trying to predict how folks will use new technology is a useless quest. If it looks interesting and seems like the “right thing”, it is worth trying.

    Anyway, half the time folks have used technology we tried in ways that were totally unexpected. Techies are good at see what technologies are interesting, but they fail at how they will be used. That goes from the use of computers (e.g., only physical scientist and mathmaticians will use them) to inter-institutional networks (e.g., our system programmers will use them but nobody else will) to the Web (e.g., it is just a flash in the pan and folks will soon return to their mainframe apps.).

    The only folks worse than techiies at predicting this stuff have been everyone else especially non-techie university administrators like the one who told me that the IT stuff was a flash in the pan that would soon pass.

  7. I think the overwhelming theme so far for me is all about creating opportunities. I have gotten to the point where what I really care about is providing a platform (or a stage) for our audiences to stand on. I really don’t know if all of them will move over, but at the end of the day I think that what will emerge is the opportunity for some students to change the way the use the web for academic purposes.

    I know for a fact that I would love to have a searchable repository of my notes (and more importantly, my thoughts associated with them from the time) from my undergrad years at WVU. I lost all my notebooks in a flood in one of my apartment’s downstairs garage a year or so after I graduated. Even if I did still have them, could I find the stuff I was looking for without tags and search?

    I can’t agree with Russ more in that we’ll have to wait and see how the community uses the toolset. I can lay out all sorts of scenarios that are interesting to me, but until they start banging on the stuff we’ll just be guessing.

    What a business to be in though! Exploring and providing opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to invent new ways to think. Good stuff.

  8. Well, let me ask you this:

    What is the compelling story that you are using to “sell” the Penn State blogging opportunity to the students?

    What is the “Elevator pitch” that you would give to them that you think would be enough to at least have them say “hey, old man–I might be interested. Keep talking.”

    If you know what bigger objective you hope to achieve, and can articulate the THEM why they would want to spend time there, I think you would have to fight them off!

    (and perhaps, sharing it here would help–we can all help edit it! LOL)
    Steve

  9. I think the students will care, if..

    – you provide something service-wise that they cannot find on MySpace, FaceBook, etc.

    – or if communities are created where PSU students are able to express themselves in ways that are either not realized in the other services or that are more specifically related to their Penn State experience.

    As a former undergrad in the 80s, I was fortunate to get in an Interest House (Arts and Architecture) after living in East Halls for a semester. While not technically majoring in an A&A program, my interests and hobbies lay in that direction. Had I not know someone there, I probably would have been rejected on that basis. Being in A&A was perhaps the single biggest influence on my time at PSU because I was in a community where I was allowed to develop in ways I would not have had I been stuck in Packer Hall.

    Penn State is a very big place – which can be very isolating because of the anonymity of being one of 40 K students, but there is a vast diversity of people here, so finding a comfortable niche is possible. The question is finding the motivation to do so…

    So if the proper tools are provided and if the students can be suitably motivated, it may succeed.

    Eric Aitala

  10. Two things come to mind:
    Online IST. Based on what little data we have on usage/adoption, was it all worth it for our audience? Sounds like you might be reliving this question we asked ourselves several years ago.

    Second, I’ve been reading a lot about digital identify and marketing/publicizing yourself. Savy digital natives spend a LOT of time creating and crafting their digital identify. How will this service HELP in that regard? Why would a student want to change from http://www.myawesomeblog.com to blogs.psu.edu/myawesomeblog? Especially if s/he has been crafting a digital identify, which is already tied to a blog, which ties to twitter, and flickr, has all the plugin modules to their preferred web services, etc?

    Tough questions…

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