Scholar Blogging

As I type, members of the ETS staff are working with a group of students from the Penn State Schreyer’s Honors College to get them going on a very cool new project we are a part of. About a year ago, I was having lunch with Dean Chris Brady from SHC and we started talking about how important it is for students to think critically about the things they are learning both in and out of the classroom. The thing Dean Brady talks about is the importance of the things that go on outside of the classrooms in an honors education. We talked about how powerful blogs could be as ePortfolios and really looked at how categories could be easily used to link program goals and outcomes to student posts. We promised each other we’d find a way to make it happen.

A year later and I am thrilled to see we are launching a pilot with first year Honor Scholars who self selected in based on a great post by Dean Brady that will see them posting their learning and life experiences over the course of the semester, year, and perhaps their entire college career. One of the key ingredients here is the linkage between the SHC mission and the students’ reflections. Scholars will use the three main themes of the mission as categories … these themes are:

  • Achieving academic excellence
  • Building a global perspective
  • Creating opportunities for leadership and civic engagement

So as the Scholars move through their academic careers they will reflect on events in an ongoing fashion and critically select the categories that match the experience. The other piece that makes this very interesting is how Dean Brady envisions these Scholars’ advisors using the portfolios to assist in academic advising. The way it typically works is that as a student comes to visit an advisor for a meeting, the advisor pulls the transcripts and talks to the student about their curricular progress. With the added notion of the category driven portfolio, these same advisors can quickly use the categories to filter content and get a more complete look at how the student is progressing through their college career. I am very eager to see this take shape.

My colleague, Erin Long, is the lead instructional designer working on the project with the Scholars. She wrote a post that outlines some of the things we’ll be asking the Scholars to think about as they participate. I like situations where we end up with “wins” on multiple levels — students thinking critically about their intellectual development, faculty more actively participating in the advising expereicne, and us getting honest feedback in a real world use of the technology. We’ll be reporting back throughout the year … are there other things we should be considering along the way?

From Blogs to Publishing Platforms

D’Arcy wrote a post over the weekend questioning the need for an Institutionally run blogging environment … I always take notice when he asks questions like this for a number of reasons — he’s smart, he’s been in the field for a long time making smart decisions, and his posts tend to bring in smart comments. This is no exception. D’Arcy asks if, given the plethora of open/free blogging services on the Web, the University of Calgary should be running its own service. I see where he is coming from and it is something I wrestle with across the board. There is a real tension between what we can/should provide in comparison to just recommending a .com service. Blogs are the tip of the iceberg … think email, calendar, and other more mission critical things that are being outsourced by Institutions all over the country.

D’Arcy talks about how hosting your own may provide for increased integration, trust, and authority. I think these are solid reasons, but I might expand them a bit. I can honestly say the reason we adopted MovableType as our blogging platform had very little to do with blogging. We knew we were going to be able to (over time) shift it towards a very powerful publishing platform that can do all sorts of things online. When we went down the path, the immediate win was a robust, scalable, integrated, and universally available blogging tool that people could use to support teaching, learning, expression, or really anything else.

Going forward, the idea is that you arrive at your personal webspace and are encouraged to just click over to your MT dashboard and publish. It is a jump for a user to think of this outside of setting up a blog — on the surface, the environment is a blogging toolset after all. The big ah-ha moment comes when you actually watch how easy it is to extend this into the world of instant site creation, all with the affordances of a modern CMS and blogging platform — instant publishing, RSS, ping/trackbacks, categories, tags, search, and so much more.

The work of our faculty fellow, Dr. Carla Zembal-Saul, this summer illustrates just how powerful this is when the jump is made to publishing and not just blogging. And the most interesting work being done has to do with how the portfolio becomes a social environment — guess what our platform is really good at? IN the coming weeks, I am going to try and focus some energy on explaining Carla’s work and share some more tangible evidence of the new ePortfolio Platform (powered by MT) we will be promoting here at PSU. The idea that a blog can be used for any publishing task is important to grasp if we are going to move to the next level of academic utilization of the web as a platform — at least, if you agree with D’Arcy that the notion of doing it on the inside promotes integration, trust, and authority.

Collaboration in the Cloud

I am going to continue to explore the Blogs at Penn State as a note and workflow tool to support in and out of the classroom work … I am going to focus on something a little different than the individually focused approach I discussed last week. Collaboration within the context of coursework among our students seems to be growing on campus. This is encouraging because it seems to me that it points to new approaches in our classrooms and indicates that more faculty are encouraging students to work together to solve interesting challenges. I think cooperative problem solving is a 21st century skill, so helping students develop them while in college is critical. The FACAC survey indicates that both undergraduate at 40% and graduate students at 56% report sharing documents to complete coursework. What we didn’t dig into was how they are sharing documents to complete coursework, but from my experiences in the classroom it is probably to wrong way — emailing them back and forth still seems to be the norm.

Last week I was thinking out loud about students creating individual blogs to be used as notebooks across their classes. Today I’d like to ask how blogs could be used to create a team or group based set of collaborative opportunities to support coursework. I have a couple things in mind and would be more than happy to expand on any of them as a follow up post.

With the Fall release of the Blogs at PSU anyone can easily add additional authors to a blog so they can contribute, edit, create, or manage posts. I would love to see students skip using Word as a “collaborative” tool and find new ways to work together. Blogs aren’t ideal for collaborative authoring, but I can’t see how they are worse than passing Word documents back and forth. Collaboration can be easily achieved via multiple posts, comments, or even by managing drafts. This is an area we should be investigating more.

The best tool I’ve seen for true collaboration is the word processor in the Google Docs suite. With an email address it is easy to set up an account and even easier to add others to the document. More and more Universities are signing up with Google under the Apps for Education program … we’re thinking about what it would mean to be a part of that world and there are some very interesting opportunities there. The funny thing is as I walked into a meeting with some folks from Google I was thinking that the best part of the suite had nothing to do with email, but with the google docs tools. It was great to hear they feel the same way. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they think real collaboration happens during the document creation, not after.

If you’ve never used the word processing application in Google docs then you’re missing quite a bit. It has all the power of Word, but cloud based and the ability to actively collaborate. What that means is that people can be in the same document at the same time and see each other’s changes. Where things get really interesting is that a document can be instantly published into a blog. That means teams can work in the best collaborative tool on the web for group writing and then push it into a personal repository (Blogs at Penn State). The document can be edited repeatedly in Google Docs and instantly republished into the blog. This combination of group and personal editing is a big step forward for empowering collaboration and taking advantage of personal repositories.

Publishing from Google Docs to Blogs at PSU

Publishing from Google Docs to Blogs at PSU

I’d really like to hear more about ideas and scenarios where we could more actively explore these ideas. We are building quite a team within ETS to explore how blogs can impact teaching, learning, and scholarship in general. Help us form the right kinds of opportunities to continue exploring.

A Follow Up: Cooperative Notes

After my post on taking notes in the cloud last week I got a number of comments. One of them that seemed to really spark some needed thought was how to engage not just students in the notion of blogging their notes, but how to get faculty into the idea of posting lecture assets in places where the “embed” code lives. Kyle points out that it might make a ton of sense if we could find new ways to help faculty see the value in publishing their slide images, diagrams, or other rich assets to social sites as well to empower students to simply annotate existing assets in the cloud via the use of a simple embed code. I love the idea and I will be discussing it with my team.

Slide with Student Notes Below

Slide with Student Notes Below

Then as I was sitting around thinking more about it over the weekend I started to wonder why faculty would need to publish to the .com social web world when they could use their PSU blog spaces to upload, share, and manage their rich media assets. My friend and colleague, Brad Kozlek, manages a big portion of the Blogs at PSU project and he is very keen on the whole embed thing. As a matter of fact, he has worked out a simple little template addition to the MT code we use to enable simple YouTube-like embed capabilities. Most of this work is modeled after some amazing work by Alan Levine with his Feed2js work and Brian Lamb and his absolute insistence on remixing and reusing content.

Having faculty take advantage of our own blog platform to enable students to enrich their notes is a huge step forward in my eyes. I was talking about students taking pictures of slides and Kyle reminded us that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to have faculty share each slide as an embedable asset from any number of social sites. I love it, but why not right from their blog? Each of these slides could easily be pulled into a student’s post with little more than an embed code. Faculty, over time, could create their own slide repository that could be easily shared with their students as embedable content in their blogs, or even within their own courses in places like ANGEL and blog powered pages. Big potential here that we need to really explore.

I like the idea and I wonder how feasible it is to push towards a solution that asks faculty to allow students to take electronic notes in class, share digital representations of their slides/diagrams, and to think about how to best protect and share their own intellectual property in a teaching and learning context. Those are a lot of things to socialize, but I would guess given the time, energy, and ability to share success stories one could get a decent sized percentage working in that direction. In so many cases, we think publishing to the web gives up IP, but I would argue that taking this approach would empower the use of IP in a more open and responsible way. Not sure, but I sure would like to hear some thoughts on this.

Notes in the Cloud

To kick off the One Post a Day project I thought I’d share an idea stemming from a couple data points in the 2008 Faculty Advisory Committee on Academic Computing (FACAC) results. I have been giving the idea of student laptop use a lot of thought lately — especially in light of the recent advancements in the Blogs at Penn State platform, MoveableType. The report tells us that about 88% of Penn State students at all locations own a laptop computer. What I find terribly interesting is that only about 18% of undergraduate students carry them to campus — that is compared with a relatively high number of grad students at 42%. When you look at that coupled with a growing trend of faculty permitting/inviting students to use their laptops for note taking has risen to 36% you can see an opportunity emerge. The most disturbing piece to me is that of those that do own a laptop that only 4% actually use them for note taking. This is an opportunity.

As we’ve been aggressively pursing the Blogs at PSU as an ePortfolio platform for all students it is becoming obvious that the use of a publishing platform like the blogs could be an immensely powerful note taking tool as well. When I was in college I took notes in spiral bound notebooks that were organized like most people’s — chronological order with each course getting its own notebook. This left me with a huge stack of notebooks to carry around and it also meant that over time discoverability dropped to a very low number. My claim is that a laptop paired with the nearly ubiquitous wireless access on our campus connected to the blogging platform should provide an ideal note taking environment.

Notebooks by Jae Elle

Notebooks by Jae Elle

Imagine a single blog (public or private) that is organized by multiple categories — perhaps representing each semester, year, subject, and free-tagging of the content being written about — all together in an always-available, searchable, editable publishing environment. Finding anything would be a breeze, filtering subjects would be a no-brainer, and there is the potential for permanence that my paper-based notebooks did not enjoy. As a sidebar, I lost nearly all my college notebooks when the garage at an apartment I was living in was flooded. So much for going back and ever revisiting work. There also seems something right about storing this in the cloud — access to thinking from anywhere there is access would be killer.

My Digital Notebook: Blog Posts as Daily Note Entry

My Digital Notebook: Blog Posts as Daily Note Entry

Can you sketch in a blog? Not really. But the ability to snap quick digital pictures with a cell phone or a built in iSight can get that job done. Why waste time reproducing a diagram on a slide when a simple photo would do. If you get into it, recording lectures on your own, or obtaining them via iTunes U and connecting them to each note entry would raise the stakes as well. I can’t seem to understand why this hasn’t caught on yet. We haven’t even touched on the potential social components here … adding the ability to share thoughts on your and other notes could move the static notebook into the frame of the 21st century study group — actively engaging in reading other peoples’ notes and sharing thoughts via the comments could add a new layer to the learning opportunities. Not sure if you’ve heard of outfits like Nittany Notes, where they pay students to take notes and then sell them to the ones not showing up … sure would be nice to put people like that out of business. I think the social potential for creating deeper connections could be potentially game changing.

I am seeing a big opportunity emerging here and I am thinking about how we can use the extensible nature of our MoveableType implementation to create a more notebook friendly writing environment. Something that invites students in and helps bridge the metaphor gap … I think there is something real with the mindset of the physical notebook that a contextualized theme and style could help with. So, any thoughts for me related to this little observation? What is going on at your University, college, or department? If you are teaching, would students taking notes, recording lectures, snapping pictures of slides, and openly sharing make you nervous? I think it is worth exploring the creation of a seminar on note taking in a blogging environment.