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.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Web 2.0 day at Wesleyan! BarCampCONN?

Yesterday Bryan Alexander from NITLE came to Wesleyan University, and gave a full-day presentation on Web 2.0, I believe this is his SlideShare presentation, except for the title page of course:

About 40 instructional technologists and librarians from Connecticut College, Trinity College and Wesleyan University attended the full-day workshop. Bryan did a grea job presenting and linking together many concepts and processes in a rapidly-changing area. I don't know where he finds the energy for this, I'm usually out of gas after 90 minutes of teaching. The presentation was structured, but informal in that Bryan graciously allowed interruptions for comments or questions anytime. This worked better than a Q&A a the end, as we moved rapidly through many different Web 2.0 landscapes. Here is a link to the workshop wiki.

It was a day full of information, and probably started a lot of wheels spinning in the attendees' minds. My only regret was not asking Bryan, before the presentations, to explain the term "Long Tail" to the folks. It took me a while to figure out what it means, both socially and economically, and it might have helped others that don't know.

I spoke very briefly with Michael Roy, from Wesleyan, about a possible collaboration between our institutions to bring the first BarCamp to Connecticut next summer. This has been a fantasy of mine for a while, but I don't really have any ideas besides wouldn't it be neat! It obviously requires more than this, starting with it HAS to be successful, so "success" needs to be defined. What would be the goals of BarCampCONN (BarCampCT, or whatever), and why do it at all? After surfing through the post-analyses of a few BarCamps, I think it would be wiser to have a one-day the first time, as attendance often drops off the second day.

The first thing we would need, of course, is a cool logo, such as one of these:

Build an attractive logo and they will come? It reminds me of the early 70's when I was sailing on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. We'd sail from town to town with a bunch of musicians and environmentalists, have a festival, and make Stone Soup. We started with a big pot of boiling water on an open fire ashore, and put a clean stone in it. As people came by, they would throw different vegetables in the pot, with us keeping an eye on things. After a few hours we'd have a great soup for everyone to share, created communally. The soup would simmer and change throughout the day, as people came and went, added and ate different ingredients. Can an eye-catching logo be the cyber equivalent of the stone?

The Story of Stone Soup
Of course, we are not in a famine, we are all soldiers, and you can't buy a magic stone, you have to make one.

One reason to have a BarCampCONN would be that the "We is greater than the Me" (I'm borrowing this from someone else, but I forgot who!). There is something stimulating, reinvigorating and exciting about getting a bunch of people together to talk and do Web 2.0 stuff, and it seems safer than sky-diving. So, I'm going to try and go to one or two BarCamps this winter, and see what it's all about. Amsterdam or Paris would have been nice, but I missed them. Should I spend my team's entire remaining travel budget and put in a travel request to BarCamp Rome? Nah, it will be turned down, so I'll settle for something closer.

Thanks to Bryan and Wesleyan for a great day!