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?

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!

Why Run a Service?

The debate over when to build, buy, or use is one that rages in higher education information technology units all the time. I am constantly asked why we’d run that service versus just relying on someone else to host it for us. I sit in meetings where the debate over taking something off the shelf for our use is weighed against our desire to build it. It never ends and I don’t expect to ever really have a solid answer.

Not too long ago, I was sitting and talking to Brad Kozlek about our choice to run our own blogging platform. I go through these massive swings about the topic — usually settling somewhere around, “why not just lean on and focus on training and adoption.” That argument works on lots of levels. On this particular day we came to another conclusion about why it is so important that we are running our own service — the potential for community.

Several weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend time talking and presenting with Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, Chief Scientist at Twitter … I wrote about it then, but have been thinking about it nearly nonstop. What became incredibly clear to me was that Twitter is sitting on an Ocean of data. Data that they are working really hard to turn into meaningful content. If you go to the Twitter Search page you’ll see that they are making sense out of this data and showing us how clearly the social web is plugged into what is happening. They have their “Trending topics” displayed right below their search field and it shows you what we are all talking about 140 characters at a time. I’m sure many of you have heard the story about how reports in Mumbai were first broadcast via Twitter and the first picture of the plane landing in the Hudson River came through the same channel — its obvious that what is wrong with big media is the same thing that is so very right with the social web — connections building community that is, in the case of Abdur and Twitter, predicting the future as it happens.

Trending Topics

Trending Topics

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.

A simple example is something I’m loosely calling, “PSU Voices.” Essentially we would hand out a tag each month (or perhaps week) related to topic we’d like to see the community explore. Imagine during April (when Earth Day is) asking the student body to write, or post pictures, videos about “ideas to make PSU a more green campus?” We’d ask that question, provide a tag, and watch as the aggregate posts of that month’s conversation came into focus. If we took a simple advertisement out in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, to get people to participate I wonder if they would? If they did I think the results would be amazing.

We’ve already started to pull out some trending data based on the popular tags and we are seeing some really interesting things. It was clear last week that lots of students were working on their portfolios. One of the next steps is to build an interface between the tag and content search to see what people are talking about in mass … I can’t even imagine how interesting that could look when we have 20,000 or 30,000 people writing regularly around PSU. I’m not ready to share the pages yet, but I am hoping that in the next couple of weeks we’ll start to see the unintended results of running our own service — the ability to not create community, but to coalesce it. Anyone have thoughts related to these ideas and others?

Publishing Across the Board

I am still struggling with what we really should be calling the Blogs at Penn State initiative. When we were making the case for investing in a platform I made the call for us think critically about how we should be thinking about this opportunity as so much more than a blogging service. I think some people got it right away, but we are still trying to figure out what the right language is to support our thinking.

Really in the last six months or so that original vision is coming to fruition — the Movable Type environment we selected is truly empowering publishing across lots of areas. I’d like to share a couple of them and ask that you help me think about what is the best way to market and communicate it. There are lots of people now saying the Blogs at Penn State name is limiting peoples’ imagination.

Two weeks ago we worked with the ITS Training Services group to completely redesign their public website. What is unique about it is that we used MT to do it. The resulting site doesn’t look much like a blog, but it is built using our blogging software. What we discovered while building this is that we can do anything we really want with the look, feel, and functionality without much effort. This site took far less time with MT than it would have with other tools — and management is drop dead simple. What we now have is a very easy to use, template based, web development environment that can produce personal or unit level websites in very little time. As a matter of fact, we recently rolled out the new home for Blogs at PSU and are in the process of moving the Podcasts at PSU site from Drupal to MT.

ITS Training Services via MT

ITS Training Services via MT

Over the Summer we hosted Dr. Carla Zembal-Saul as our ETS Faculty Fellow. Her work this Sumer was to better understand MT as a viable ePortfolio platform. We worked with her to design new template sets that allow students to quickly create ePortfolios that are easy, remove barriers, and can allow them to focus on reflection and not HTML. The work she did with our team was both ground breaking and inspiring. We’ve now made progress on the concept and the Blogs at PSU are being promoted as the ePortfolio platform of choice. Part of this work is a new tool, called the Pack it Up system. This simple little tool will allow a person to browse an entry on an ePortfolio and suck the entire entry down into a package that can be pushed into a University assessment system to be used as evidence for accreditation purposes. Again, a blogging tool that doesn’t look like blogging.

The last example I will cite is the notion of the Blogs at Penn State as an eLearning design and development environment. Recently I took an old topic from an Online IST course I helped design about seven years ago and republish it via the Blogs at PSU environment. It took only a handful of minutes and produces a portable package that can be customized by an entire team in a collaborative way. And since our platform allows for easy export and import, a faculty member who wants the content can easily download an export file and import it into a new blog space to customize the look, the feel, the content, the activities, or anything else for her own instruction. I built two versions of the topic … the first is what I called a Master Course. The Master Course provides a baseline version of the content in a central location — perhaps in an Open Courseware model. A faculty member could browse the content and download a simple file. This file contains the entire course and structure. This is ideal because it allows that faculty member to manage and customize the content as their own. This can then be used to create a personal version of the content.

eLearning Course via MT

eLearning Course via MT

Finally, it is obvious, but the ability to produce a standard blog also exists. So, my question is related to communicating this potential. People are catching on, but it is taking a lot of explaining … and I wonder if it has to do with us branding this Blogs at Penn State. What do you think?

Blogs at PSU Growth

My friend and colleague, Brad Kozlek has been updating some of the stats for the usage on Blogs at Penn State. He put together a little spreadsheet and shared it with me the other week. I was sort of stunned to see not the total numbers, but the jump from Spring 2008 to Fall 2008 use. I think it is fair to say it is growing considering last Spring we ended up with about 800 blogs. Interestingly we did a week over week view and saw an increase even in the middle of a semester. That to me is an indication that people are beginning to see the blogs as more than a blogging platform and are looking at them to manage websites, resumes, ePortfolios, and other things. You know, a real publishing platform.

Blogs at PSU Adoption

Blogs at PSU Adoption

What is amazing about this to me is not just the total number of blogs (which is cool to see at 3,932), but the number of posts. This is a good indicator to me that people aren’t just setting up their blog out of curiosity … they are actually writing in them. If you look at last week’s numbers (19,456 posts), we’re looking at right around 5 posts per blog. Add to that the 7,700 comments and we’re seeing the birth of some serious writing and conversations. One other thing I am noticing is how the total number of users is coming into line with the total number of blogs. Early on we were seeing a user create a number of blogs. It seems that we are perhaps doing a good job of talking to people why one blog utilizing a strong tag/category structure is more powerful in the long run. Perhaps … but interesting to see these numbers come closer together — right now there are only 239 more blogs than there are users, compared to August when there were 372 more blogs than users. Finally, I am quite literally stunned by the fact that users are uploading so many assets through the system. I am encouraged to see that maybe people are seeing the blog as a place to share and store pictures, documents, audio, video, and other objects. I would not have guessed that the Blogs at PSU would be managing 10,771 assets at this point.

These are by no means close to what our course management system, ANGEL sees in utilization — where there are currently 79,646 students with at least one course in ANGEL. ANGEL has been in play at PSU since 2001, so it would be interesting to go back and look at adoption a year into that initiative. Maybe I will if that is of interest. We’ll keep watching and reporting — I am really wondering what the numbers will look like at this time next semester … I am encouraged and energized by the possibilities.

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.