One Tool to Rule them All: the BLOG!

I was listening to Darcy Norman on PSU’s ETS Talk 16 (props to Cole Camplese and company), and something he said really struck home with me. To very loosely paraphrase Darcy: ed tech folks need to concentrate on providing concrete examples of how the fundamental Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs and wikis, can forge compelling online communities for teaching and learning. That’s it, Darcy! -relatively simple and all too often overlooked. When working with faculty we need to consider how far we have come with what most would agree is the driving logic behind this new wave of teaching and learning technology: blogs. How compelling have our experiments been? Can we scale them? Are they easy? Do they really enhance teaching and learning?

ELS BlogsAfter listening to these sage words, I re-visited a project I have been working on for the past three weeks or so with Gardner Campbell. I am going to scoop him just a little (I’ve been know!), but all for the greater good of humanity. Gardner and I had tested Lyceum last Summer in an attempt to integrate Multi-user blogging into a couple of courses. We had some success, but he left for the University of Richmond and I started experimenting with wordpress.com. Upon his return, he mentioned that he was interested in playing with WordPress Multi-User for a class or two, and with no further adieu it was setup and the experiment was re-kindled. We installed WPMU 1.0 for the English Linguistics and Speech department and created the ELS Blogs Multi-User space for the department as a test run. His Film/Text/Culture class has been the first to adopt the blogs and boy have they gone ballistic. Including YouTube videos, screen shots, deep and reflective examinations of the texts, and a larger community of sharing and thinking -kinda like the compelling examples Darcy mentions. And while ELS Blogs has not been opened up to the entire ELS department, students started creating blogs for other classes in the space, in particular independent studies -imagining no better space to track their independent work on a topic over the course of a semester. Then it hit me, this is it -between Gardner’s unbelievable work with his own class and the unsolicited initiative of a few students, the compelling examples for a larger infrastructure of departmental (or even university-wide) multi-user blogging spaces.

The trick has always been how do we organize the students personal blogs around courses? -for with this model the student is the primary unit of focus and the course a unifying secondary layer, the complete opposite of BlackBoard and their ilk. Well, after being inspired by Darcy’s comments I revisited the ELS Blogs space and slapped in two plugins I had already talked about on this blog, BDP RSS and Optimal, in order to feed the students’ blogs into a separate course space. You can see an example of these two plugins working to create a class portal of sorts feeding from WPMU here. Wham, bam, thank you WordPress!

The question then arises, can each student have this one blog space for several classes each semester and feed to different course receptacles using category feeds? I think it is possible, and that will be my next experiment. In fact, Gardner had already suggested to me in conversation that each student should have one blog that they use each semester (almost like a five-ring binder), wherein they feed their respective comments, thoughts and ideas for each course using agreed upon tags, or category feeds, or what have you. Well, with WordPress Multi-User and/or Lyceum we are there. And what I love about it all, is that it remains focused on the one fundamental tool: the blog. More particularly, this tool, as it is packaged by WordPress, is a cinch to use and can integrate all the other tools like podcasting and vodcasting seamlessly. I think we are coming real close to those concrete. compelling examples that Darcy mentions and, better yet, they are becoming increasingly more scalable every day.

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12 Responses to One Tool to Rule them All: the BLOG!

  1. Mikhail says:

    Have you guys encountered any privacy issues w/ WP? Do any students, faculty or administrators take umbrage at the fact that everything posted to WPMU blogs is public?

    While I personally have absolutely no problem with this, privacy of student generated content is a HUGE concern among the IT people at Baruch. So much so that they are dissatisfied with MT for this reason and are starting to push faculty towards Learning Objects’ Journal LX, a Blackboard plugin and a ridiculously poor excuse for blogging software. If WP supported LDAP integration, they would be all over it to my great satisfaction. We still use WP within my department — the Schwartz Communication Institute — but the College won’t fully get behind it so it’s up to us to take care of our own tech support. It’s a good thing the folks who do our hosting provide excellent tech support but we are soon getting our own server so things are bound to change. We’ll see what happens.

  2. Cole says:

    Glad you enjoyed the podcast! The thought that we need to be thinking about adoption around basic building block tools like blogs is a good one. We’ve started to look at the University wide blogging service as the fertile soil we need to get a whole bunch of things growing in. It is really a platform that can empower students in new and engaging ways.

    I think its great you’re pushing things forward … I wish we could have used something like WPMU b/c of its flat-out simplicity. The problem we have is that we can’t rely on a dynamic publishing platform. That makes it a little tougher. I’d love to know what your plans would look like t scale big.

    Again, glad you enjoyed the podcast … BTW, you are welcome to call in 814-806-1855 or send us a comment/question at etstalk@psu.edu … I know shameless! Thanks again!

  3. jimgroom says:

    @Cole -What do you mean when you say that you are not able to rely on a “dynamic publishing platform”? Aren’t most blogging platforms more or less dynamic? Or are you referring specifically to WPMU and dynamic sub domains/DNS, etc.? Alternatively, might it have anything to do with the sheer number of students at PSU? (A silly guess to provide a segue way.) If so, check out ASU’s WPMU blogs beta (wrapped with Drupal no less) -it is quite amazing and they are 55,000 students plus. Thanks for the comment and keep the goodness coming, but stop using the comments as ad space:)

    @Mikhail: WPMU has a LDAP Authentication Plugin already. Privacy is a huge concern and thus far we are doing quite controlled experiments, only certain classes and students are participating. Nonetheless, one of the things I really like about WPMU is that it will allow each blogger to set theit individual blogs privacy setting. Which means the student can elect to prevent their blog from showing up on larger web directories, which will basically prevent their work from being “googled.” As for more granular security, I guess that gets sticky because part of what we are pushing for here, as I understand it, is a more open, cross-pollinated model of sharing information both in, outside of, and between the classroom(s) -and dare I say universities? I kind of hall/cafeteria/coffee shop/lounge/bar/road trip/classroom model. Does this make any sense? I guess your question, or should I say your mantra, is always hard for me to answer, so I try and suggest a band-aid in place of surgery -for I am not a surgeon!

  4. Matt says:

    I love the idea of a semester-long blog as a five-ring binder. Brilliant and beautiful!

  5. Mikhail says:

    Jim,

    Do you guys use the LDAP plugin? — We’ll play around with WPMU and see if the security feature passes muster with the IT mafia. Unfortunately, the mantra is not my own. Looking for a new one.

  6. jimgroom says:

    We haven’t played with the LDAP plugin yet, but there seems to be some folks who are using it, as far it as I can see. You should also consider contacting John Joseph Bachir. He helped develop Lyceum, and is a great guy who has recently moved up your way to NYC. He knows the ins and outs of developing a multi-user solution for WordPress as well as anyone and may very well be someone you might consult with about some of these issues. Additionally, he has already been talking about integrating Lyceum, MediaWiki and Vanilla -a step towards having a forum, wiki and blog play together nicely -the future of all these rantings. I have no doubt he’ll whip this together seamlessly, he’s an ace.

  7. Jeff says:

    This sounds great! What ELS is doing does indeed support the idea of the utility of targeted investments of time and resources to demonstrating the powerful teaching and learning tools available. Sounds like a project with a good UI$ (as Jerry would put it).

  8. Mikhail says:

    Thanks for the tip, Jim. I’ll contact John. I’ve tried to get in touch with the folks at Automattic on behalf of Baruch but no response as of yet. Sounds like I should have better luck this time around.

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  11. Dave F. says:

    Jim:

    I learned about your multi-user experiment through Alan Levine’s blog. I work in corporate/organizational settings, not education, but will be following with interest, to see (and reap) what you learn. For me, seeing technology applied in very different settings can help trigger a potential solution to a difficulty I’ve had in yet another setting.

    (You guys have tougher binders than I do; mine are all three-ring.)

    The privacy issue is a good point… I’m a complete outsider but was able to follow a link above to the 2/20/07 exchange on “Seeing is Believing,” where one person posted a (harmless) personal comment to the wrong blog. I mention this only because the student might not have intended her congratulations to a friend to be available to me, even by accident.

    — Dave

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