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.