My Presentation on Blogging at Baruch College

I was part of a panel today at the annual Baruch College Teaching and Technology Conference. My fellow panelists and I were there to talk about the hugely successful [email protected] project:

Since 2008, over 17,000 members of the Baruch College community have used [email protected], the college’s WordPress platform. It’s used inside and outside of classes, and hosts a range of projects, program and group websites, and student journals and magazines. This panel represents a cross-section of current users of [email protected], and we’ll show our work on the system and discuss how it has enhanced our ability to communicate with our classmates, colleagues, and the outside world.

Before the conference, I wrote out my presentation, something I do when I know that I won’t be using slides. Here is the text I prepared:

I’m Stephen Francoeur, a user experience librarian here at Baruch. Before getting started with [email protected] when it launched, I’d already been blogging elsewhere since 2003, primarily at my personal blog, Digital Reference. Today I want to talk about two ways that I’ve been using [email protected]: one for internal communication with my colleagues in the library and one in the courses that I teach.

In 2004, Louise Klusek, another librarian I work with, and I came up with the idea to create a blog to notify reference librarians about news they’d want to know, things like new databases our library just started subscribing to, changes to services and policies in the library, questions that were stumping some of us at the reference desk, etc. All the librarians who worked at various reference service points will encouraged to write posts and make comments (and many did over the years). In 2009, we switched over from using Blogger to [email protected] so that we’d have greater control over the look and feel of the blog and so that we could control its future (what if Google sold off Blogger some day to a company we didn’t want to work with).

We encouraged our colleagues to sign up for email notification of blog posts and showed them how to subscribe to the feed of posts and comments in a feed reader (including the one that is built into Microsoft Outlook, a program on the desktop of every librarian’s computer). Over the years, we found lots of our colleagues posting really helpful content. In the past year, we’ve seen the number of new posts go down somewhat, and I’m not sure why (but would like to know).

Over the past 10 years, I think we can safely say that these have been the advantages of using a blog for certain kinds of internal communication:

  • the messages as blog posts can be far richer than if they were transmitted simply as email messages (embedded videos, links, etc.)
  • searching for old posts is much easier on a blog than searching for old emails in Outlook
  • a number of times students have found our posts on their own and used them to solve problems they were having in their own search efforts
  • librarians at other colleges who help our students on our cooperative chat reference service know they can go to our blog to get news on databases that may be down or other timely information that only local librarians might know off the top of their heads
  • other librarians around the country have subscribed to our blog so they too can learn when a database has a new search interface or how to find some arcane piece of accounting information

Now I’d like to switch over to talk about how I’ve been using blogs in the credit courses I teach. I’ve refined how I’ve used them over the years and would like to mention what seems to work for me. It’s worth noting that my classes tend to be small (max of 25 students) and that nearly every class session features hands on activities in groups or individually, usually on the computers in the room.

The main ways I use my course blog are to have students write posts and comments as homework (this counts for almost a third of their grade). They are expected to write 5 posts and to write 10 comments on the posts of their classmates. They are free to write on any topic that relates in some meaningful way to the subject of the class.

The other use of the blog is to have students write a post at the end of class that is part of some in-class activity. If they are working in groups, then one person in each group writes the post while the others in the group look over that person’s shoulder and direct them.

And the other main use of the blog is a way for me to send out class announcements and do so in a way that are re-findable.

The benefits I’ve seen so far include:

  • creating a place for conversation for those students who are unwilling to speak up in class, even if I’m requiring it as part of their grade
  • I can more accurately assess what they’ve learned from in-class activities if I read all their posts written at the end of class (and it’s more efficient, because it takes less class time for them to all write a post then it would take to have each group or person report back verbally)
  • students are getting lots of opportunities for low-stakes writing in a medium that allows for a fair amount of creativity (links, embedded videos, images, etc.)

I should mention that the class I’ve taught for the past year, Information and Society, focuses a lot on exploring how communication tools have dramatically changed in the past decade because of the web. For many students, this is their first time blogging; by using the same tools we are discussing in class, they get a deeper understanding of the changes we are learning about.

Here are some practical tips I’ve found that help make the blogs successful in my class:

  • Blogging is part of their grade, and there is a specific quota about how many posts and comments
  • On the 2nd day of class, I have them all sign in for the first time, learn how to modify their screen names, write a first post (they write on “when I think of the library, I think about…”), and write a comment on someone else’s post
  • I set up JetPack so they can take advantage of the “subscribe to email notifications” feature

Every semester, there are always a few students who end up enthusiastically embracing blogging and write more posts and comments than are required. While I would love to see that happen with a greater percentage of students, I think it’s safe to assume that the current split follows the usual 80/20 rule we see elsewhere on the web (20 percent of the users account for 80 percent of the content).

At the end of the course, I always ask the students to discuss whether or not we should take the blog down or make it password protected. It’s a great opportunity to discuss what it means to be on the web, to weigh public vs. private personas. To my delight, the students always vote in favor of keeping the blogs up in perpetuity.

Using GoToAssist for Mobile Screencapture in Usability Testing

This year, some colleagues and I are doing a somewhat involved research project involving usability tests that will compare searching in the mobile catalog interface to the traditional web interface. One of our great challenges is finding a good way to capture what happens on the screens of the mobile devices (Android and iOS) of our test participants. For the Android users, we’ll be providing them one of our own phones to use during the test. I’ve been looking at using the GoToAssist app as a way to capture what’s on the screen of our Android (actually, it’ll likely be my own Samsung Galaxy S3) phone.

I thought I’d share what’s involved by making a recording on my desktop (using SnagIt) of what the screensharing looks like when viewed on a PC. This setup may work for testing we have in mind, although the video transmission from phone to my PC seems to be delayed by about 10-15 seconds. Also, if I scroll really fast on the phone, the screencapture from GoToAssist doesn’t completely capture that; instead you get kind of a snapshot effect in the transmission and not a smooth video. But this may work well enough.


For the iPhone we’ll be also using for testing, we are hopeful that the Reflector app will do nicely.