Horizontal Contributions

Since I am thinking in a very Google Wave like mode I thought I’d share another thought related to the tectonic change that platform may inspire. In the days after watching the video of the Wave demo I’ve been finding myself thinking about how much of our online cnversations we are missing. In the Universe the Wave has led us to conversations happen in lots of places, but are instantly available in one central place — the Wave client. What I mean is that I can start a Wave, embed it in a page, and let people contribute from all over the place. The power in what I am understanding this whole thing to look like is that these contributions are not only available in the context of the submission (perhaps a comment on an embedded wave on a blog), but also in the original Wave. What I am pulling from this is that I can, via my Wave client, revisit my social contributions in context without revisiting all the sites. Just this idea has me really spinning.

So if I apply this to the notion of the traditional blogging platform I can see where this could be really important. Here at PSU we promote our Blogs at Penn State as a publishing platform … one that is powering new forms of ePortfolios. Last summer while working with Carla Zembal-Saul we explored and shared the idea that the portfolio is more than a single person’s thinking, but also a place to engage conversations. So if we look at the fact that someone commenting enhances my own artifact, then shouldn’t we think about the comments we leave elsewhere as part of our overall evidence as well?

If I think about it, lots of times I stumble across an old blog post someone created that I’ve commented on at one point and I’ve forgotten. Sometimes I read those comments and think that I should have a way to move that content back into my own space — even if it means I can only review it out of the context of the original post. With all that said, I’ve been thinking about what I’ll call horizontal contributions. In a vertical sense we contribute original posts in our own space and people comment on them. Then if I show up at your blog, I can contribute a comment in that same vertical sense. In a horizontal model I have some sort of tracking that allows me to see not only all my own posts, but also my comments across the entire web. This would give an opportunity to gather these as further evidence of my overall contributions online.

This isn’t Wave specific per se as there are third party commenting engines that do stuff like this — if everyone on the social web used them. I’m not promoting a tool like Disqus for general use, but in an environment like ours we could easily replace our MT commenting engine with a third party one. It would be integrated into the templates so it would be invisible to users. What would need to happen is shibboleth integration, but we’ve done that before. I think it is something we’ll explore … and if we do I’ll be sure to share what we find. What do you think about this thinking? Crazy talk or is there something to it?

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 wordpress.com 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?

Our eLearning Platform

I’ve been on vacation all week and haven’t really even checked my feeds to see what is going on in the World. I was sort of surprised to see that Apple released a new iPod Shuffle that talks given how hyper-connected I typically am. The thing that prompted me to post this morning has nothing to do with music players however. I came across a post at my new colleague Matt Meyer’s blog, Blog Platform: Authoring Tool, where he exposes some thinking about how he is planning to author and deliver the Biology Wet Lab course he is the lead designer on. I really like the thinking and thought I’d share some overall thoughts.

I’ve written about my struggles with eLearning and eLearning authoring in general lots of times, but after reading Matt’s post this morning I jumped into my way back machine (this blog) and found a post from a couple years ago where I asked for some help thinking about this topic.

What I struggle with is the idea of what is a really good eLearning environment these days? In my mind, a handful of pages of content that link and embed objects that drive student and faculty to engage in conversations (on or off line) seems to be the goal. With that said, why not design those content pages in a blog so students and faculty (and maybe people from the outside) can have conversations in context? Why are we still struggling with what the right eLearning tool set looks like when we are sitting in a world with dozens of content creation tools? The model we are trying to avoid consists of tons of static text pages that prompt students to leave the content and jump into a discussion forum to interact — I’ve never liked that, but now the technology supports what I am after … the opportunity for conversation at every level of a course experience.

I’ve built a couple of examples of blog powered eLearning spaces since then and I’m pretty sure having these examples were helpful in sharing my thoughts with Matt last week. I had written about it back in October as I did a survey of some of the emerging ways our blogging platform has been being used.

HCI in a Blog

HCI in a Blog

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.

When I built the examples I wanted to explore the potential of the platform as an easy to use design and development environment as well as experiment with personalization. I ended up with two versions of the content … one to be used as a “standard” version and one as a fully customized version. 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.

What is great to see from Matt’s post is that he gets the notion and he is thinking about how to use the built in communication tools as a way to gather feedback. I can see he and the team he is working with taking advantage of the commenting system to get an idea from students as they work screen by screen what they think of the environment. I am also excited that we are buying into the idea of embedding different kinds of content to make the experience a little more complete — we all know how easy it is to drop in media from YouTube, but imagine collecting data live via an embedded google spreadsheet form and you can imagine that is when things start to get really interesting.

All of this is important stuff and it puts a new look on some existing and (IMO) outdated and outmoded thinking in the eLearning design world. I am anxious to hear what others are thinking about this and the questions Matt is looking to explore.

The Revolution is in Full Swing

I got back from an interesting little unconference experience yesterday where Brad Kozlek and I attended the WordCamp ED at George Mason University in Virginia. It might seem strange that a couple of guys working a University wide blogging solution built on MovableType would have the nerve to go and spend the day with other faculty and staff doing the same, but with WordPress as the focus. I was convinced that the trip would be worth it and the discussion would center on the power of open publishing platforms for teaching and learning. I wasn’t disappointed. Nearly the entire day focused on the outcomes and practices being realized via a campus wide blogging platform. It was cool to see people giving up a Saturday to get together and talk.

One of the big reasons I wanted to go was to get to finally meet Jim Groom in person. Jim is a passionate educational technologist who runs the Blogs at University of Mary Washington service. His work has been an inspiration to lots of people trying to free learning content across campuses. If you read his blog you know he is really into shattering the status quo and destroying the walls that have captured our institutional content for the last 10 years. Let me just say that his presentation rocked and it pushed Brad and I to spend nearly the entire 4 hour drive back to State College talking about how we are also thinking these thoughts — and frankly how to push a little harder.

It was great finally meeting Jim Groom.

It was great finally meeting Jim Groom.

His talk was titled Permanent Revolution and told the story of how important it is that we promote the use of open publishing spaces to save the academy. He told it with the intensity and emotion of a man worthy of the nickname, The Reverend. He makes the claim that the “Notion of the Permanent Revolution” is at the core of what we are trying to do with education — we need ways to rethink the digital space we are living in and how to take advantage of the affordances inherent in instant publishing. He claims that WordPress is a platform for revolution, but was quick to point to us and say the tools don’t matter just the ways we allow them to be used. His assertion is that we must work to liberate student content — in the LMS/CMS model students must pour it in and then after the course it gets packaged up, archived, deleted, and ultimately becomes inaccessible to the creator. It isolates the contribution. In the blog world, it belongs to the individual and the individual decides how to share it with the community (or the class).

A great talk that I wish was given more time. What I really wanted to do was explore the underlying principles with his talk and walk away from any thoughts of “my platform is better than yours.” I think Jim and I were both very interested in talking about affordances of the concept, not of the individual tools. He and I are going to be joining forces with Brian Lamb, D’Arcy Norman, and Alan Levine at ELI in January to present a session on the use of personal publishing tools to drive educational practice … I can’t wait to have the conversation with he and the rest of that crew.

At the end of the day, it was a very worth while trip and one that has me thinking more critically about the notion of openness on our campus — and how much louder we need to be shouting for its creation.

Bringing it Together

I thought I’d share a few quick thoughts on the progress of our Blogs at Penn State project with everyone. We’ve been at this for quite some time and it is starting to really feel like it is catching on. Measuring a service’s success at a place like PSU is tough. Is it measured through the number of users? Is it measured through positive feedback? Perhaps through novel uses of the service? No one can really tell me one way or the other … so for the Blogs at Penn state, I am using my own metrics — and they are probably flawed, but that is why I am saying they are my metrics.

If we are measuring success with numbers alone, I am thrilled with the growth this semester! Since the first week of August there have been about 2,700 new blogs created by about 2,900 new users. That is exciting, but the fact that there are now nearly 24,00 entries with about 9,400 comments makes me think people are not only writing themselves, but engaging in the kind of social discourse a platform like this affords. If we’re measuring on unique uses, then I am floored — student and faculty portfolios are springing up, alumni pages are being developed, and departmental websites are coming to life. The uses are nearly unlimited and people are getting it.

For the start of the Spring semester we have a few new ideas to drive greater adoption of the platform. One of the things we’ve been working on is a new page that is created automatically when a user gets their webspace activated. Every faculty, staff, or student who activates their personal webspace gets 5 GB to do whatever they want with it. At PSU, only about half of the 93,000 students activate their space and only about 25% use it for academic purposes. We think by promoting the service as a web publishing platform suitable for blogs, portfolios, class notes, or really anything we’ll see those numbers jump. The new page is beautiful and shares a very simple message — “Create. Reflect. Connect.” It was designed by our webmaster, Audrey Romano, and really begins the effort to tie the service to its affordances.

Click to See Larger

Click to See Larger

If you’ve visited the Blogs at PSU site lately, you will see a striking resemblance. We are working to bring the ideas of web publsihing together under the use of the Movable Type environment. One of the coolest features of the new personal page shown above is a promotional video created by one of our multimedia developers, Zac Zidek. Zac took the text from an old screencast and set it in motion. As far as I am concerned, it is first rate.

So starting this Spring, when a student gets their webspace and visits it for the first time they’ll be encouraged to dive in with a single click to “Create. Reflect. Connect.” We’ll see, but I am vey proud of the team effort on the Blogs at PSU — from across lots of our organizations. What do you think?

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.

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.