What’s in a Number?

Sometime week before last I posted a little screen capture from the Blogs at Penn State admin dashboard showing some basic system stats. I published the screen capture without comment — I wasn’t really sure what the numbers really represented — what is an “Active Author” for example? Take a look at today’s stats below …


Last week I was lucky enough to give a guest lecture in my good friend, Bart Pursel’s, IST 110 class. I used to teach IST 110 nearly every semester while I was at the College of IST. As a matter of fact, I had a big hand in the design of the course — my team built the first hybrid offering of the course that took full advantage of the web, a problem-based learning approach, and new ways of thinking about how faculty and students should interact. Let’s just say I feel very attached to the course and the kinds of students it attracts. This class was no different — 50 or so very smart students all wanting to talk, engage, and discuss nearly every point I tried to make. Bart is doing a great job with the students … introducing them to all sorts of technology — from blogs and wikis to podcasts and virtual worlds. He is taking a week by week approach to ask them to work and interact with different technologies throughout the semester. Each time I said, “do you know about X” they would all say yes. It was nice talking to students who seem to be in the know.

When I got to blogs I was trying to make my point that these tools are really personal content management tools and not just there for random thoughts. I showed a slide that has little thought bubbles that list all sorts of opportunities for using a PSU Blog … things like ePortfolio, note taking, team work spaces, and more are represented on the slide.


Bart stopped me and asked the class if any of the students had posted since the lessons on activating and using the blogs — not a single person raised their hands. Not one. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. Either was Bart … he wrote about it late last weekend and I left a comment there. It has me thinking more about the whole situation and I am wondering how others feel about a couple of fundamental questions.

The first question that hit me over the head is related to something I started to think about recently — can we honestly expect them to “come over to our stuff” just because we build it? This isn’t the same old issue with them showing up with accounts at Blogger, FaceBook, MySpace, and others … this to me is about giving them a real reason to use our tools. I am continuing to attempt to rebrand the blog and when I have a chance to really talk the concept through with people they do get it. I am just not sure how to make the message clear without having to deliver it … that one is confusing me. In my opinion the thing that needs to happen is that students must be asked to integrate the technology into their classes in a meaningful way. I saw a great site created with the Blogs at Penn State the other day from a woman who runs the PSU Alumni Magazine … she used the Blogs as a tool to track her journey through Alaska. It is a wonderful example of how a blog tool allowed someone to create an experience — in this case it had nothing to do with anything other than the content … and that published content was born out of the need to share.

The second question I have is related to getting people engaged in this idea of how we drive adoption in the “blogs for ePortfolio” space … my post last week about it seemed to capture a little mindshare among more than a handful of people and it served as a great basis for a discussion (and the emergence of an opportunity) today during a lunch meeting. The idea that we could get faculty and students really working together to create a plan that helps track intellectual and personal development was little more than a pipe dream for me last week. After today’s lunch meeting I think we have at least two opportunities to make this real. The first came from a colleague in the College of Education who has been committed to ePortfolio for much longer than I have been thinking about. She will find a way to make it all go because it all makes sense to her … I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get others to consider this form of portfolio space. Today’s opportunity will be a step towards the larger goal of getting new people interested in how we do this. It won’t be a huge project, but both opportunities could prove to be tipping points.

Can we do it with big numbers? I have no idea, but that question brings me back to where all this started … what’s in a number? Does counting … count? If turning 1000 students out of 45,000 into people who care enough about their development that they are willing to use our stuff to store, manage, and reflect on their stuff are we being successful? And if I look back at my slide pasted up there would 1,000 using it for portfolio, another 1,000 using it for note taking, another 1,000 for sharing videos they’ve made, another 1,000 using it to manage teamwork, and so on really matter? When that adds up we have something to report. Until then, can it be classified as a bad decision to pursue this opportunity? Not in my book — by any measure progress is what I am after. And looking at my little system screen capture tells me we have made progress already. If you’ve read this far, you might as well leave a comment with some thoughts.

10 thoughts on “What’s in a Number?

  1. Cole, a couple thoughts.

    First, I am not sure you meant this exactly as written, but you wrote “If turning 1000 students out of 45,000 into people who care enough about their development that they are willing to use our stuff to store, manage, and reflect on their stuff are we being successful?”

    This seems to imply that those remaining 44,000 don’t “care enough about their development.” Is that really the message?

    Second, you also wrote “both opportunities could prove to be tipping points.” This has me wondering what the final outcome is you want. Is it all 45,000 (or a really large number of them) to be using the ePortfolio/Blog environment? If so, to what end?

    If we talk about “tipping points” I am left looking for a clear vision of what we seek after the tip, and I use Gladwell to help frame this. As I am sure you recall, he talks about three things necessary for an idea to “tip.” These are people, the stickiness of the message, and the context.

    I am assuming there are a few faculty members, and your staff, that you believe fulfill the roles of the three types of people required for something to “tip.” What is the message you are trying to convey, and how are you making that message “sticky?” And finally, what is the overarching context? (Again, what do you see the PSU World looking like when things have tipped?)

    Just a few thoughts, that hopefully will allow you in your reply to share with us, your readers, your strategic vision in this area.


  2. Steve … thanks for the comment. I was not trying to imply at any level that 44,000 don’t care. That was me wondering out loud if I would be satisfied if I could only “count” 1,000 … Really the point of the post has more to do with me not caring at the moment about adoption numbers. Many times we are faced with this need to measure success by doing simple head counts of people engaging with our solutions — in this case I’m not sure I can find satisfaction in that alone. The context I have really exploring the blog tools fitting into is the portfolio space. Sure, there may be lots of students (faculty and staff as well) who will use the environment as it was designed — to blog, but what would really get me excited would to see a change in the way faculty and students view and value the notion of serious personal reflection.

    It is a lot like the podcasting project … what we wanted to do was give people a platform to build new and interesting ways to teach their classes. I wasn’t ever really all that interested in simply saying there are over 2500 course podcasts this semester (although I do admit I do at times reference the numbers) … what has me interested is that faculty have found really cool ways to engage their students. To me, that discovery is the real story.

    Ultimately my goal is to find ways to educate the PSU community about structured management of their content. I know that sounds crazy, but I would like to see a vast majority of students’ academic web publishing to happen in a tool like our MovableType implementation … and I would really like it if it were done in such a way that they could easily return to it to reflect on their learning in ways that notebooks don’t allow. Will students take advantage of it all? It goes to your point of creating stickiness of he idea — I am still working to identify the right way to do that … my gut tells me it may be to create powerful links to the environment from within a FaceBook App, within ANGEL, and potentially other places where students spend their time online. Some of it will come from faculty who push students into the space for class purposes. What I am after is a long-term culture change where using the environment becomes part of the picture. Does that make any sense?

  3. Hmmm… perhaps the new google move with “OpenSocial” would be a way to connect the various active social networks with the PSU social networks? That at least gets to the connecting, if not the stickiness.

  4. The problem with Open Social at the moment is that our students spend almost all of their social networking mindshare with FB. The numbers are overwhelming. The Open Social concept is perfect, but the issue with it right now has to do where one of our primary audiences eyeballs are.

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  6. What I like about(and take away from) the vision for portfolio-blogs you’ve been writing about Cole, is a place where learning is tracked more meaningfully than on a university transcript. I’ve recently looked over my academic transcripts (going back to 1987) and found myself wondering what on earth someone is supposed to do with that info!?!! Are all these courses I’ve taken supposedly representative of what I’ve learned?–If I were tested on most of it today…well, no need to go there! [see Dr. Guido Sarducci 5 minute university http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO8x8eoU3L4%5D

    What the portfolio idea suggests is a way to capture what we’ve learned along the way, a place to make sense (meaning) of it, and a place to highlight your better work. I think it would have been cool to sit down with an adviser and plan that out early on and review it now and then. I’ve done some of this on a personal website, but a blog-type environment would have maybe been better–it certainly would have been more than a document repository, and could have facilitated more thought around the documents.

    It’s a big change in the way we do things, and requires that people come to value that kind of effort for themselves–a sense of learning for the sake of learning vs. just doing what I need to do to pass the class. I’ve only now come to value my blog writing for myself (even though I have zero readership–sob, sob), but it has taken me 35 years and a lot of schooling to get to this point.

    Today I came across a website [http://www.teach12.com/] which has great lectures to listen to–no grades, no classes, no assignment, no tuition. It’s a site geared toward adults that just wanna learn for learning’s sake (…and may not be aware of other FREE sources for such material) My first knee-jerk reaction was who would ever pay for this when there’s NO degree offered? After snooping around a bit, I thought “I would. This looks like interesting stuff.” After all these years, I’ve come to enjoy learning just for learning’s sake.

    My point with all of this is that those students who gain an appreciation for digital expression and come to value it, will use and benefit from such services. Helping students (and their instructors) get to that point will need work. As much as has been done toward this, I don’t think we’ve made our case yet as the IST100 class experience shows. But I don’t think there’s much question that if a “large” portion of PSU students were using the PSUblogs or personal publishing to plan and track their growth and learning in college, that a great deal more learning would be occurring–it would be transformative and lead to a tipping point of its own, but Steve, I’m not clear myself, on what it looks like once tipped–but I’m willing to bet on more positive than negative consequences.
    -Joel G.

  7. Joel … thanks for the thoughtful comments and for pulling my meaning out when I struggled to do it for Steve this morning. The environment I long for is one where this type of activity has become the norm, not the exception … the activities I am talking about are figuring out it is important to create content about as many learning opportunities as one can, then finding a way to organize it according to some sort of master plan, then reflecting on these artifacts and choosing the best to open to the world in a responsible way.

    I too regret not having access to my College career — my notebooks were lost in a flood in an underground garage. All of it gone. Even if I still had them it would be hard to place them into the context of my academic goals so many years ago. I am like you in that I see the value now, but I’m not sure I would back then. But, I say that recalling my advisor at WVU … he would have found a way to help me connect the dots.

    Looking at my blog now I get a chance to jump back four years into the things I was thinking about — I’ve chosen to do almost all of it in the open, but that is just my choice. If I decided it was important I could easily go back and make critical decisions about what posts were worth pulling out and reflecting on … sort of a META blog that contains my personal “greatest hits” or something.

    Joel, you are correct … what I am after is a change that sees faculty and students engaged in more meaningful dialogue related to long term learning. I obviously believe giving them the right tools, education, training, and opportunities will make the difference. But, only time will tell!

  8. I think it will come down to this: how many students are interested in producing meaningful content and reflecting on their education? Most students, from what I see on the internet, use their blogs to share their personal lives and interact with others. The PSU Blogs project does not meet those needs, sry2say (as the kids these days put it). Since the blog is linked to their user ID, they lose anonymity and the ability to create a whole new persona. The PSU Blogs also lack the ability to easily “friend” other users a la Facebook, LiveJournal, or MySpace. That’s a HUGE part of the way that today’s college student interacts with others in social networks—which I think is how they really view blogs. It’s a small minority that use them for any deeper purpose.

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