Time to Rewind and Move Forward

I am really looking forward to 2013 and what we can end up doing with WordPress as the engine to the new sites.psu service that is set to really take off. Honestly we’ve had it running in very quiet production mode for months now, but there is a whole new look and feel, complete with personal profiles and an all PSU activity stream, on the horizon as well as new themes that will amaze people for both websites and simple things like blogs and ePortfolios. All in all I am thrilled with our choice to return to our original vision from well before we adopted Moveable Type. What we wanted was a system that worked for each and every person for as many uses as they could dream — and we now have to add to that the ability to publish and manage from any platform and device they want. I am pleased with the progress towards that vision and it has me really excited about the possibilities. So when I saw Jon Armstrong say the following about how docce.com was being overhauled to be powered by wp it inspired me to reflect and share.

Still, for dooce.com, WordPress is the ideal choice.

via Drupal to WordPress Migration: Prologue | BLURBOMAT.

Do Dashboards Make Any Sense?

Over the Summer we had a student intern working with us in ETS. She was a very talented artist working to build her digital skills. In addition to all of the Adobe tools she was working with, we asked her to help us build some new styles for the Blogs at Penn State. We wanted her to make some things that would better appeal to students in some very specific contexts and disciplines. A couple of examples included something that would be more generally representative of a digital portfolio and a note taking blog. She could easily do the design work, but a larger, perhaps more important conversation emerged from her work with us. Blogs are too hard.

For quite some time Brad Kozlek and I have had an ongoing conversation about how to reduce the friction in using any old school blogging platform. For this post, I am calling any platform that generally separates the content creation from the content presentation as old school. I know it is hard for those of us used to blogging that the notion of the Blog Dashboard is confusing as hell, but it is. When you add to it that the URLs are sometimes so wildly different between where you go to write and where you go to read and things get even crazier. Our platform requires me to not only remember that to create content you need to go to http://blogs.psu.edu, log in, navigate a content management system, find the right menu that allows you to create a new post, create the post, and publish it but also to view that content I then have to point my browser at http://personal.psu.edu/cwc5/blogs to view it! When you step back it is bordering on crazy town. I then have to go back through that process to edit a post. I think that is out-moded and may be keeping people from getting it.


It honestly reminds me of the gripes I have had with tools like ANGEL and Blackboard for so long. Why force people into interfaces to accomplish tasks that should be so much more fluid and straightforward?

Clearly it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine a platform that still gives power users the ability to manage from the Dashboard, but one that also eliminates the need to ever see or travel to the Dashboard. In the World of the One Button Web it is easy to never really have to see the Dashboard to publish once a bookmarklet is setup … but again, that is a concept that is lost on most. Furthermore, the emergence of Twitter and Facebook as a place that allows users to both create and consume their own content at once has created a pattern of interaction that is 100% different than that of the Dashboard to Blog paradigm. New bloggers aren’t raised on Dashboards, they are raised on simple boxes within the flow of the content that allow them to publish.

To that end, we are embarking on a project that could eliminate the need to use or see the dashboard. A personal publishing space that allows its owner(s) to instantly create from the context of the site without ever moving away from the content itself. I’m sure people think this is crazy, but what we are moving towards is something that we feel could get us over the hump of people really embracing the blog as a real platform for personal content management. What we are thinking about is below.


Simple, but really different. All you do is remember where your website is and once you have logged in most of what the Dashboard is used for (composing, editing, and deleting) is available from a Quick Compose right on your blog. If it is a class blog, any member of the class can instantly publish to the space without the overhead of the Dashboard. Simple but very different.

Long term the vision is to offer this as really a one button solution. Students would arrive at their personal space for the first time and with a single click they have a blog space sitting there that they can instantly start publishing to. After they get comfortable with the notion, they may decide to dive into the Dashboard to mess with styles, templates, and all the power that a content management system like MoveableType has to offer. But then again, they may just enjoy the ability to type, read, and share instantly. Anyone have any thoughts?

The One Button Web

This post is really a guide for a conversation Brad Kozlek and I are having with colleagues in our Consulting and Support Services group. The point of the meeting is to open new conversations related to the role of the centrally supported and managed personal webspace. Lots of what is here is being thrown out as conversation starters and not as an intended direction. It does represent a lot of the thinking I’ve been doing related to not the real time web we are coming to expect via new definitions, but more in the context of providing instant publishing options that are one button simple.

The One Button Web

While Anil Dash has a very interesting case for the Push Button Web, I am thinking about our ability to generate a One Button Web (OBW) here at PSU and encouraging thinking like this in education in general. I am going to define the OBW in our environment as the ability to publish content to the PSU webspace with little more than an access account, an active personal space, a blog, and the press of a button. With the bookmarklet approach built into the Blogs at Penn State we are so close. I think it is of critical importance that we empower personal publishing in as simple a way as possible.

The One Button Web

The One Button Web

When people want to share content across the web they do so with single clicks into social networks. The ubiqitous “share on facebook” links we see are changing behavior at an amazing rate. If you spend time in facebook or connected to twitter you have surely seen the incredible amounts of links, stories, movies, etc being shared within (and outside) the network. The people doing this aren’t copy and pasting content, they are pressing buttons.

This behavior is important to understand. I’m not sure if this metaphor works, but we no longer tune our televisions to specific stations — we press a button to get the desired results. In a lot of ways I think the ability to post new/original content as well as reposting content needs to follow that path. The personal higher education web has to get simpler and we should be thinking about how we empower that movement. The Blogs at Penn State sit on top of a powerful infrastructure that is centrally managed. Accepting the realities of the OBW is a critical next step in moving the potential of personal content management and portfolios in our spaces forward.

Our audiences should be using their own spaces to share into the social networks — and I believe they will if we help them understand it. Nearly all of my content originates in one of my blogs and it sends it to Twitter and Twitter sends it to Facebook. That is critical because those other guys don’t like to give my content back. If we make our spaces as easy as those other guys we have a huge advantage … we like to give ownership and empowerment to our users — we give their stuff back.

Network Amplification

Network Amplification

Everything is Miscellaneous

This leads me to another thought … our audiences (by and large) no longer browse directory structures. They simply publish content into giant stores that they find again via structured or unstructured searches, through profiles, or in other similar user interface driven approaches that completely ignore where an asset is living. As an example, when a student uploads a picture to facebook they do it via a simple one button approach and they really don’t care where it lives. They don’t care because they don’t need to. They are working to share that asset and it is tied to a greater representation of who they are, not based on a directory structure. They don’t browse the directories to get the asset back — at most they drag it out of the browser to the desktop, at the least they just leave it there. Why should we encourage them to care?

I think the answer within our environment is to let MoveableType be the gateway to our own implementation of the OBW. They log in via WebAccess to their dashboards to do all the same things — share writing, upload files, and the like. Let the environment manage it. They don’t care about directories and I think that is fine. I’m not saying we take away directory level access … I am saying we no longer focus on it. Just a thought.

The rest of this post is really just a bunch of links as jumping off points for our discussion this afternoon … most of it makes little sense outside the context of the face to face meeting. I am eager to hear reactions to the stuff above though!

Website Examples

Mashup Blogs

Things to Discuss

Simple Repositories

Say the word repository and watch any ed tech geek roll their eyes. Why? We’ve been there … and not just once, but over and over again. Structured places to put things by a large community is tricky and very complicated business … at least that’s what everyone tells me. I’ve honestly not seen a repository that really seems to work. I guess there are lots of reasons for that and if you asked one of us who has been involved in a repository project we’d rattle of a dozen or more reasons for you — people don’t want to share, meta data is hard, the environments are overkill, blah, blah, blah. I’m not saying they aren’t useful when you have very clearly defined goals and data. They get messy so quickly when you start to think about them in a general sense. With that in mind, I have an ultra simplistic thought that I want to throw out into the wild to see if I get a “you are crazy” style response.

For the past week or so a few of us in ETS have been taking part in a little experiment in multi-author activity blogging within the Blogs at Penn State to see if we could replicate the joy in sharing things quickly across the web into our own space. The idea is to do simple push button publishing, but instead of dumping it directly into Twitter or Facebook, we’d drop it into a common and simple blog right here in our own environment. We have been calling it, “Stuff” for no real reason. All it is a blog with a nice little push button bookmarklet that Brad Kozlek threw together for us. As you hit a site you highlight the text you want and press your “Stuff It” bookmarklet to post it. No different than the things lots of people do everyday with fb, tumblr, twitter, etc.


There are limitations, but they are easy to overcome. The first is that you have to ask to join and one of us needs to add you. We’ve already talked about how to overcome that … and it is easy. Comments are a little limiting in that there isn’t any layered social opportunity with them — no rating and threading is a problem we’ll also address.

These things aside, I see lots of potential. Here is the crazy idea — why not just launch a blog that has features like this as a repository? Have something to share, use the bookmarklet to post it quickly. There is plenty of meta data for the built in search to pull from — post title, body, tags, and categories would provide a great context for searches. In this scenario I am thinking it is 100% open with a CC attribution license on it so all content that goes in is sharable. If you wanted to provide something, just go and log in with your account once to add yourself as a member to the environment and you are good to go.

It gets even more interesting for another reason … not only could you contribute content to this blog/repository space directly, but using tag aggregation within Blogs at PSU you could contribute to the repository by posting at your own PSU blog using a shared tag. That way one could make decisions about how content flows into the space. The past week or so working with the Stuff space I am seeing an even more powerful role for our publishing platform — a platform that can actually host applications on top of it. Adding a simple self registration options provides us with a whole new piece of software that isn’t really a whole new environment to manage. So that’s it … call me crazy, but would an environment like this give us something important?

Rolling Your Own

This past week I watched as older versions of WordPress were compromised. I was instantly concerned about my own installation as a few years ago my blog got hacked and someone embedded a whole bunch of pop ups to porn sites — not exactly the kind of thing one likes to have attached to his name. In the most recent instance I was safe as I’ve learned to always upgrade my personal version of WordPress that I run here, but it got me seriously thinking again about why I feel the need to pretend to be a sys admin when all I really want to be is an author. That thought always leads me down a second path related to why would I want to press people at my Institution to do the same when we should be spending our time on teaching and learning.

These are different, yet related issues. I’ve convinced myself over the years that it is better to have total control of my online space than to hand most of it over to a company that would do it for me. I’ve blogged on my own domain since 2004 and its always just felt right, but it has not been without major headaches at times. I do it so I can manage my own plugins and use (and hack) my own themes. Now with that said, I am growing tired of dealing with any of it and the realization that this stuff is just not that secure is catching up with me.

I bang around with all sorts of tools and I end up liking a lot of them a heck of a lot better than I do my self-hosted WordPress install. I’m thinking of Tumblr, WordPress.com, and most recently TypePad as examples of places I think I would much rather be leaning on. The problem is that I can’t help but worry about the overall staying power of these spaces. I want a space attached to my online identity that I control, so getting content out is just as important as elegantly getting it in. The big question is can I control my online identity (perhaps at my own domain) while leaning on someone else’s infrastructure completely. Right now I don’t run the servers that this site is hosted on and I don’t write the software, but I do for some odd reason feel compelled to manage it all. If I were starting all over again today I wouldn’t. I might pay for my domain and map a TypePad blog to it, but that’s about it.

So if I follow this down the path towards the second part of my thoughts I need to ask if PSU should be playing in this game as well. The answer to that may be different than my own personal conclusions — at the University we actually have system administrators who know what they are doing, we do run our own infrastructure, and we do have lots of smart people whose job it is to keep things secure. But still I must ask why not outsource it all and focus on the teaching and learning? We use MoveableType here at Penn State for lots of reasons, but one is the static publishing model into our personal webspace infrastructure. Could we envision a scenario where our students write at TypePad and publish their static files here? Other than the realities of authentication, infrastructure, and Institutional identity I can’t see why not — and I bet all of that is solvable. At the end of the day we want our students to have same goal I do — to be authors.

With all that said, let’s be honest — rolling our own is always more fun. I’m just not sure I need to be having my fun in that way anymore. Confusing to say the least … If I can get peace of mind at TypePad or WordPress.com then I may be on my way. If I can’t you can forget it. I wonder what would happen if we asked our students and faculty the same question? I wonder how they would respond …

Community Assistance

student_helpQuick post this morning to point to something my colleague Erin Long posted about yesterday related to the English 202C project she is leading. Erin is one of our stellar instructional designers and in this project she is working with faculty to embed blogging into a multi-section English course. As is the case when you introduce technology to groups of students, they have questions. There are always a few who need help with the basics — and that is fine because we have some great documentation to support a self-service model. The other thing that happens is that when students use our tools for a sustained period of time they end up wanting to do stuff we’ve not thought of or tried … and that we certainly do not have documentation for. Enter the community.

In one of the sections of 202C (which is a technical writing course) the students decided their project would be to create screencasts describing how to do some of these advanced things. They even created a new blog and embedded all of the screencasts into it! The killer part is not only did they all take it upon themselves to do the screencasts, but that they all decided to share them back to us! Erin says it in her post …

Best part of this project? The students are giving all material to the Blogs@Penn State for us to add to our collection of help documentation! We’ll be making everything into a guide as well as adding all screencasts to a tutorial page.

This is the emerging community assistance we’ve been hoping would come to play with us in this space. Exciting to see it happen!

More on Horizontal Contributions as Conversations

I should know better than to post more about this concept given the lack of interest (perhaps my lack of clarity) in my previous piece on it, but I am really interested in generating conversations about it. My friend and colleague, Brad Kozlek, has been working with Intense Debate on his blog showing what it looks like from an end user perspective … Brad does an excellent job of discussing the affordances of this specific tool offers. I think the idea that it is a service unto itself allows it to do so much more than simply handle standard text comments … to me that is exciting in light of at least two of our faculty fellows this summer. If you are interested in what a third party commenting engine can provide jump over and take a look at it in action at my PSU blog.

One of our Fellows, Chris Long, is exploring the notion of “digital dialogues” to start to understand if the platforms of the web 2.0 world can support ongoing dialogue with deeper meaning. From Chris’ post at the TLT Faculty Fellow site describing his investigations …

In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, Socrates claims to be one of the only Athenians to practice the true art of politics. As is well known, Socrates haunted the public places in Athens looking for young people with whom he could converse. During these discussions, Socrates was intent on turning the attention of those he encountered toward the question of the good and the just. It is difficult to understate the lasting political power these dialogues have had over the course of time. Yet the emergence of social Web 2.0 technologies opens new possibilities for this ancient practice of politics, which Socrates fittingly called in the Gorgias, a “techne,” or art.

When we started exploring the notion of using an external commenting engine to support some of the work Carla Zembaul-Saul wanted to think about this summer, we instantly saw these new affordances giving Chris new ways to explore his thinking — commenting inline via video is a huge step forward in our minds to relate to his work.

While this interesting itself, the thing I was really interested in was not what you saw when you arrived at a given blog, it was what it looked like from a personal administrative side … I was interested in being able to think about how what my (or students’) contributions look like across the social web. We post and comment traditionally in a vertical fashion, while what we need is an easy way to track those contributions once we leave the vertical. So if lots of people, perhaps across the PSU blog service, could use a a service that keeps track of our horizontal conversations something really exciting could emerge. Something that would let us look at all of these horizontal contributions with ties to the original context. Since it is a service on its own, it has a set of dashboard tools that pulls it all together — people you are following, certain keywords emerge, your own comments, links to the original posts, and more. This is the side of it that makes me really hopeful.

Horizontal Memory

Horizontal Memory

If we can make this happen the way we are thinking about it we can empower some new uses for our platform. Chris gets his ability to engage people where they are in multiple mediums and Carla gets a way to use comments as measurable artifacts. I gain the ability to introduce this to my friend, Keith Bailey, in the College of Arts and Architecture as a viable platform to teach art appreciation — in that world, the idea of the critique is as important as the original contribution. So having an easy way for a faculty member to track contributions across many posts as a way to review and reflect on a given student’s growth in the critique space is now very easy. If we can work to understand how to capture and pack up a single person’s comments across lots of posts I think we are moving towards giving them more to reflect on and faculty a better set of evidence to base assessment on. At least I think so … any thoughts?

Voices Carry

I was feeling really restless early last week about our ability to run and manage new and emerging services in a World where change happens at a pace that is nearly out of control. I thought my post, Why Run a Service would be a signal that I’ve come to a conclusion that there are real reasons to try and keep up. I didn’t honestly expect it to strike the chord it did, but when you ask people interesting questions you sometimes get more interesting questions in return that demand to be explored. Lots of killer conversation going on in the comments of that post … one particular thread emerged about how encouraging open writing and blogging can generate greater depth of connections within our community. That last word is the really important piece to us — how we work to engage our community to embrace these emergent trends is what we think will ultimately make what we do more interesting and important. The more they participate, the more we can contribute opportunities to change teaching and learning.

So back to the Blogs at Penn State … as Brad and I sat there we realized we are sitting on a river of data that is built entirely on people right here at PSU. Now that we are reaching the 10,000 user milestone with the service we are seeing an explosion in the understanding and use of tags for filtering content. Courses are using them to aggregate student posts together, students are using them to mark portfolio entries, departments are using them to pull information/knowledge about initiatives into focus, and so on. Once we realized that we started to realize that we could begin to act a little bit like Twitter and use our data to see trends and ultimately predict the future as it unfolds. With this in mind we’re working on a few new and interesting ways to not only tap into the community but also ways to let them move the state of the University around a bit.

So, as Brad Kozlek wrote yesterday about the birth of PSU Voices and our friend The Reverend, Jim Groom linked to today is now in the wild. Is it done? No, but it has huge potential to draw in community engagement and connect academic use to real world context. The Voices project is really just taking advantage of a mashup of our own tag aggregation for blog posts and collections of related items from across the social web. So, if I use Brad’s example, one were to do a tag search for democracy they’d see all the posts from across the public side of the Blogs at PSU mashed up with items tagged with democracy from YouTube, Flickr, and Delicious … they’d also see a running Twitter stream that uses that same term. What it means to me is if I am a Political Science student in a class using a shared tag, in this case democracy, I get to not only instantly see everything my classmates are writing about, but I get to be exposed to an explosion of opportunities from across the social web. I might see an amazing photo that challenges my notions of the concepts associated with democracy, or a grassroots documentary that makes me want to grab a Flip HD and create a response, or it may open my eyes to a whole series of sites that people from all over the World have tagged. To me, it is the opportunity to be engaged beyond the walls of the classroom that is the primary thing here. Exposure to open resources and the thinking of my peers is a powerful mixture that has me really excited.

So the vlaue in running a service like the Blogs at PSU means we can leverage our investment in the platform and reinvent opportunities within the framework of our local environment. It means that our primary audiences can trust the identity of the local content and be exposed to the massive contributions from across the Internet. It means we can invent … and that rocks.

PSU Voices

PSU Voices