Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Education, Blogging and Branding

As we look forward to implementing blogging for the purpose of student curriculum assignments, we are deliberating whether to use a hosted service, such as Blogger, Edublogs, or, or installing, configuring and supporting our own institutional blog server. For this post, I will define a "student blog" as one created to meet the academic requirements of a specific course. And I will use Blogger as the example of a hosted service, though other good ones exist.

The pace of innovation and development is rapid in the blog server area. By using a hosted service we can "ride on the coat tails" of the constant improvements and added features of the service we use, reaping benefits with little additional work. With us hosting our own solution, we have to concern ourselves with never-ending upgrade procedures, migrating old blogs to the new server, etc. This is on top of all the work involved in setting up a secure and full-featured blogging server to beging with, backing it up, and maintaining it. It seems that if you have a critical mass of users, or anticipate one, this work can be justified.

However, what is the "tipping point" of users that makes it more sensible to use a hosted service? Assuming we had only a few classes interested in student blogs next semester, I am tending towards using a hosted service. A major downside to this may appear to be the lack of "branding" of the blog to the institution.

If a student blog is to remain private, with only the student(s) and faculty in the class and support staff seeing it, branding should not be an issue. If a student blog is intended to be a public blog with a "PR" slant to it, we would pass it on to College Relations, which uses a locally installed version of Movable Type. However, in most cases the primary purpose of a student blog is not to make our institution look good. If it does, so much the better, but pedagogical issues should not be shaped by publicity issues. Do we want someone asking a student to change a blog to make it look better on our public web site?

I have tried our slightly older installation of Movable Type, and find that Blogger is much easier and more fun to use. The usability aspect is a major one, I want technology to be as transparent as possible. As Will Richardson recently said: "I’m more and more finding myself without patience for tools that aren’t extremely easy and intuitive, no matter what they claim to offer." I find that faculty and students want and need this transparency in technology, without it few will use whatever technical solutions are offered. Personally, I like to get "under the hood" and tinker, but most people here just want to get in the car and drive. Because of this, I'm currently leaning towards Blogger instead of a local Movable Type, but am concerned about the "branding" issue.

Not sure excactly what "branding" meant, but knowing its importance to some people, I Googled "define branding", and came up with this:

"The process by which a commodity in the marketplace is known primarily for the image it projects rather than any actual quality."

"The process by which the true character and purpose of the company or organization is communicated."

"Is a promise, a pledge of quality. It is the essence of a product, including why it is great, and how it is better than all competiting products. It is an image. It is a combination of words and letters, symbols, and colors"

"The process of building a favorable image for a product or company that differentiates it, in the minds of prospects and end users, from other competitors."

"Selecting and blending tangible and intangible attributes to differentiate the product, service or corporation in an attractive, meaningful and compelling way."

It has become more and more apparent to me over the years that branding and PR are big factors in how an educational institution communicates with the outside world, so how important is branding in academic student blogs?

While finishing this post I ran across a timely video, where Glenna Ryan, formerly of Rensselaer Polytechnic University, talks about their admissions student blogging efforts:

The above was pulled from Dan Karleen's recent blog entries on Admissions Blogging.

It's obvious from this that "admissions blogs" are NOT the same as student academic blogs, they are shaped by totally different forces, and have a different purpose. However, we now get into the gray area of student blogs that were private for the purpose of an assignment, but because they are worth sharing, everyone later agrees should be made public.

If they are hosted, there is no college "brand" associated with them. If a public student blog has a little orange "B", does it make any difference in branding the institution? Should we go to the effort of eliminating the top Blogger bar in student blogs by customizing the html template? And what influence and how much control should non-pedagogical forces and non-instructional staff have on the content and style of a student's academic blog?

We will soon be facing those challenges, and it does not hurt to prepare some sensible answers and formulate policies. There are many factors influencing the choice of a local vs. hosted version of a weblog server, not just branding, and unfortunately politics can trump technology. There is no same best way for everyone, and we'll only be deciding what's best for our spring 2007 semester. There are currently too many rapid developments in this area to formulate long-term strategy. Our goal is to stay one step ahead, and keep a close eye on the future.

Although College Relations has supported a few "PR" student blogs, our Instructional Technology Team is new at supporting student academic blogging. I am both impressed and humbled by how far others have gone, such as MIT's Katie Livingston Vale (800k PDF), and Drexel University's Jean-Claude Bradley. Thankfully, we have a variety of good role models to guide and inspire us.


Jean-Claude Bradley said...

Have you looked at the Google Apps solution for branding? I don't know if they extended it Blogger yet. I don't think that branding has been an issue for any of the applications that I have run. On Blogger you can put up a graphic of your choice on the title bar and that might be good enough. Even with all the limitations, I am very happy with the hosted solutions I use.

Frank Fulchiero said...

Thanks for the idea. I saw Google Apps for Education a few months ago, but then it fell under my radar.
A brief second look does not indicate any blogging functionality, and we already have email, customizable portals, Exchange calendar, and the librarians use AIM, MSN and Yahoo for messaging. But the suite is worth investigating for institutions looking for the above integrated services. I'll look at it in more detail.

I was thinking, before you mentioned Google Apps, how nice it would be to have more hosted web services with customizable institution-branded portals, to make them look like you "own" them. The motivation to offer these would be profit, I think many institutions would prefer paying a fraction of what it would cost them to implement the services at the local level. iTunes U is one example. Though it's still tightly and visibly tied into Apple branding, in this case, it does not seem to hurt.

I was also going to look into just customizing (or eliminating) the title bar in Blogger, and making a branded "home" page on our web server linking to all public student academic blogs, or possibly one page per class. I'll also experiment with a frameset: a narrow left frame listing and linking to all the relevant blogs which would be loaded into a wide frame on the right. Somewhere I read framesets are being replaced by iframes, so I'll have to get caught up.

We recently taught Blogger to a group of faculty to get them started with blogging, and one weakness we noticed was the lack of multiple administrators.
The Blogger beta is now the "New Blogger". I read there is now a NEW beta offered to a limited number of users which allows for multiple administrators, along with other features. I lost the link to the story, unfortunately. Anyone say "Perpetual Beta"?!
Thanks for your feedback.

Frank Fulchiero said...

Jean-Claude Bradley emailed me out how both the "old" and "new" versions of Blogger support multiple administrators, I'll post the directions soon for anyone that has not figured it out.

Frank Fulchiero said...

Ok, for those that need help figuring out how to create multiple administrators in Blogger (like me, but hey it was the end of the semester!) here is what Jean-Claude showed me:
1. Create your blog in the new Blogger, log in as admin.
2. Go to Settings>Permissions
3. Add a new author. They will get an email invitation.
4. When they respond, they will be added as an author. They can post, and delete and edit their own posts, but not anyone else's. The same comment privileges apply to them as to everyone else.
5. In Settings>Permissions>Blog Authors, they will be listed as "guest". However, when the admin clicks on that word, it changes to "admin". This can be toggled back and forth, and the guest/admin can also be completely deleted.
6. The new admin can now do everything the original admin can do, except change the original admin back to guest, or delete them.

Blogger has also created a new feature, custom domain names, for more customizable "branding", if deemed necessary.

Gary said...

Hi Frank,
I have tried as you suggested and made a great blog related to educational blogging.I also come to know how to create multiple administrators in Blogger.
Thanks for the idea.

Frank Fulchiero said...

Thanks Gary. This post was old, and your comments helped me eliminate 2 links that no longer worked. Isn't the Internet ephemeral!
We are happy with Blogger for most of our academic blogging, here is one for a
student trip to Russia.

There was a case recently where a student needed both web pages and a blog in the same "portal", and we went to for that.

Gary said...

Hey Frank, Yes, such situations arise a lot these days where a web page and blog are required under the same portal, however, wasn't the case back in 2006 then.

We were stuck in the similar scenario but eventually settled down with embedding typepad in a website.. Works pretty well for us!

Good to see old posts coming back to life yet again! Thank you Frank.. keep posting!