Killing edublogging

James Farmer suggests two ways in which educational blogging as a widespread activity may be effectively killed: 1. University-created blogging systems and 2. Courseware-integrated systems.

I’m less concerned about the first. We started a school-level blogging server about two years ago now (what has evolved into, using first Moveable Type and then WordPress. I think that’s the most likely way for enlightened universities to go.

But I’ve been ringing the bell on number 2 there for a while, and no one seems to be interested. Last year at the Social Software in the Academy Workshop I mentioned it a couple of times, and it just wasn’t sexy enough for blog-boosters to take notice. But really, it is important.

There is a finite amount of time (and it is nearly over) in which we can define what blogging is and what it is about before one of the major coursware companies adopt a blogging product. When it happens, it will almost certainly be closed to the outside community (or at least hard to find), and will — because it is integrated with the university systems — lose some significant degree of its “bloginess.”

(As a side note, perhaps I am overly cynical, but I find this “gee-wiz” posting from Blackboard highly suspect. More than a year ago, I was approached by someone on our campus who was helping put together a blogging advisory panel for Blackboard so that they could integrate a blogging tool into their software. I was happy to help, if only to avoid what was suggested as the most expedient route, shifting one of their existing, rarely-used features, to make it more like a “blog.” I haven’t heard again about this panel, but I suspect that the blog entry is more of a pre-marketing push than anything else. )

Even if it isn’t “mandated” (and I don’t think that’s the norm for most universities), it will be “expected.” When all the students are using a UB blog, they are not going to understand why you want them to use something else, and you aren’t going to be able to unteach them the bad habits brought by the centralized system. You will just be “that weird guy that makes us use weird software.”

This is more than a mild concern, it is virtually an inevitability. I only wish more of those out there boosting the role of blogs in education would see the threat and try to derail it.

There are three ways to derail it. The first is to make blogging software incredibly easy to install and use (no, it’s only easy now because you are a geek), and provide patterns of use by average faculty who hate technology. The second is to get everyone to use Blogger. I would have never suggested this a year ago, but I increasingly think that may be a good way to go.

Finally, recognize that these courseware systems are here for the long run and do everything possible to make their offerings suck minimally. That means making sure that they are by default open to the world, and that they provide RSS. Ideally, they should also be hackable, if only via highly extensive APIs. But this idea is antithetical to most courseware systems, and to most university IT departments.

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  1. James Farmer
    Posted 4/14/2005 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff Alex,

    “(no, it’s only easy now because you are a geek)” :D

    More seriously though this is spot on… but the only way to escape it, I reckon, is to look at the whole philosophy that underpins the rise of the 1-size CMS…

    Ways and means…

    Cheers, James

  2. Richard Smith
    Posted 4/15/2005 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    I’ve got everyone using blogger and it works. 110 kids were asked to create a blog on blogger – 3 needed to ask a question of clarification, all did it.

    But two weeks brings blosjom integrated in Apple’s “Tiger” OS (server version). I’ll try that and see how it works. The trick is a) making it open, which is easy, AND b) making account creation and setup easy, which could be automated but will still likely be a pain if it isn’t “through the web” like blogger.

    The bigger story is keeping track of all those blogs – that’s where a *really good* RSS reader makes it possible to keep up with 110 blogs. NetNewsWire did that for me…

  3. Posted 4/15/2005 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Richard: actually, that may be one of the advantages of our system over Blogger. We can ask students to indicate what classes they are in, and create class-integrated feeds. Doing that right now (mixed platform) is a bit of a nightmare.

    Actually, it might be possible to do that fairly easily if there was a simple form that allowed you to add yourself to a feed. That may be the way to go.

  4. Posted 4/15/2005 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    there is a fourth way… SAKAI. SAKAI is a course management system that is being built from the ground up by a number of major universities through a neat collaborative resources model. Each University donates a developer or two to work on one part of the project that their institution feels is critical (for Berkeley, this is an on-line highly-customizable gradebook that allows direct uploading of grades to our Registrar).

    I would urge any institution with a site license (or contemplating one) for one of the major CMS tools (Blackboard, WebCT) to consider the wisdom of contributing to SAKAI now to make it a production-level reality as opposed to paying licensing fees for many years to come for a CMS that they have no control! (what’s a highly extensive API when you can get down and dirty with the code… or hire someone to do it!?)

  5. Posted 4/16/2005 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Lots of focus on the tools, when to me it is really the craft we ought to be talking about. Tools do no make for good blogging, people and ideas do.

    I think we over-estimate the intensity and drive it takes to be a regular writer/reflector. Those I find who stay with it over the long haul have a mild variant of OCD that creates a “need” / “desire” to blog… will that drive exist for a larger general population? I’ve set up a fair number of blogs for folks in our system that start with a little spark, and slowly fizzle to a dull silence. Is blogging for everyone… or is everyone for blogging?

  6. Posted 4/16/2005 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Alan, I agree, at least in part. But I don’t think there is a bright line between tools and patterns. I think we need to provide patterns of use that make it easy to introduce blogging to the classroom without abbrogating their radical potential. That has something to do with the tools (and I think, right now, it does because the tools need to be easier to use) but it also has to do with making the utility of blogs clearer to the wider faculty.

    Unless we have the critical mass of a fairly large number of teachers wiling to work with blogging, I don’t think we will see as significant a return. The idea of an entire department integrating blogs into their course designs, and students using their blogs to personally integrate across courses and semesters, is a very exciting one for me.

  7. Posted 4/18/2005 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Alex, the “gee wiz” factor came from our PR person who is new to Blackboard and new to blogging. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Blackboard was unaware of blogging until last week’s conference. Certainly I’m not, because, as others can tell you, I blogged for many years myself.

    Blackboard has floated the idea of a blog feature on multiple occasions, both inside the company and to clients. And, honestly, it has never gotten a lot of interest from clients. Mostly the response from clients has been “What’s a blog?”

    So you can put your suspicions aside; the entry is not part of a pre-marketing push. Blogs are one of many feature additions we’re considering for future releases, but no decision has been made or timeline set. The entry simply was yours truly trying to solicit feedback on the idea from the readers of our corporate blog.

  8. Posted 4/18/2005 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    LJ rulz. Though not perfect. Have been using it for teaching for a long time. So, do you want to join the consortium to create a good edublog?

    Courseware is anti-blogging because it locks the user into a system does not extend beyond the boundaries of the course or institution, right? Well, WordPress locks the user in too, but that’s a different question. Not to mention Drupal :) Courseware is course admin. Blogs are personal learning and communication environments. And never the twain shall meet… me thinketh.

  9. Posted 4/18/2005 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Greg: Thank you for the clarification. I fall naturally toward conspiracy theories :).

    Jason: I’m not, to be honest, a huge LJ fan, although I’m not against it. The major reason has little to do with the formal design of the system, and a lot to do with the social expectations built up around it.

    LJ, like Xanga, as many users will claim is “not for blogging.” I find this claim to be very silly, but it indicates, I think, something important. LJ users do not think of their blogs as public voices but as ways of communicating with their friends.

    I suspect we differ on this, but I want to foster among my students the idea of *public* blogging, and many who are already LJ bloggers can’t make that shift. Moreover, I think both kinds of blogging are valuable; I am sympathetic to those who don’t want to mix the kind of public blogging I’m interested in with the kind of private blogging they (meaning, especially, undergrad-aged folks) they are now increasingly familiar with.

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