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 Blogs@Baruch project:

Since 2008, over 17,000 members of the Baruch College community have used Blogs@Baruch, 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 Blogs@Baruch, 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 Blogs@Baruch 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 Blogs@Baruch: 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 Blogs@Baruch 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.

Class Participation and Course Blogs

This fall marks the second time that I’ve taught my library’s three-credit course, LIB 1015: Information Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities (my course website). I’ve been struggling this semester with how to draw out the students who never raise their hands in class to participate in any class discussions or to ask a question. Classroom participation is a big part of each student’s grade (25 percent), as my class has daily hands-on activities that are intended to create discussion as well as practice in key abilities and strategies connected to ACRL’s information literacy standards and to the overall learning goals for the class.

I’ve had a course blog for the first time this semester and haven’t been quite sure how I want to use it. Now I’m beginning to think that maybe I can offer my students a blogging option for participation. I might tell them that if they are not ready to speak up in class, they can still get credit for participation by posting to the blog or commenting on someone else’s post. I suspect that some people who might have really great things to ask about or comment on in class might be shy; offering them an option to contribute on the blog might give them a space where they feel more comfortable expressing themselves. I should note that I was inspired to think of my course blog this way after reading Erica Kaufman’s post, “The Anxiety of Print This Out” on the cac.aphony blog which talks about times when student writing on blog posts is better than the papers that they turn in.

Screencast: Using Yahoo! Pipes to Combine Feeds

Our library offers two blogs to staff. I’ve had requests lately to find out how I could take the feed for new posts on one blog and combine with the feed for new comments. Using Yahoo! Pipes, I did just that for the Reference at Newman Library blog today. Since I had to do the same for the other staff blog, Newman Library Idea Lab, I figured I might as well record a screencast showing how to do it.

 

If you don’t feel like sitting through the video, here’s the short version of what I did:

  1. Set up a Yahoo! account so I could use the Yahoo! Pipes service to make things (account set up years ago)
  2. Copied the URL for the new posts feed
  3. In Yahoo! Pipes, dragged the “fetch feed” button to the right in the workspace area of the page
  4. Pasted in thee URL for new posts feed into the fetch feed box
  5. Repeated steps 2-4 for the new comments feed URL
  6. In Yahoo! Pipes, dragged the “union” button from the “Operators” set of options on the left into the workspace and connected the feed box for the new posts and the feed box for the new comments to the union box
  7. Dragged the “sort” button from “Operators” onto my workspace and connected the “union” box to the “sort” box.
  8. Selected “descending” in the “sort” box so posts and comments would appear in reverse chronological order.
  9. Selected “item:pubDate” in the “sort” box to tell Yahoo! Pipes what to sort in descending order.
  10. Connected the “sort” box to the “Pipes output” box.
  11. Saved the pipe.
  12. Clicked “run pipe” so the service would generate a new URL for the combined feed.

Here are the relevant URLs for the second staff blog that I did this work for:

What’s the Best Place to Link to for Book Records?

As I’ve been composing blog posts, tweets, Facebook status messages, etc., on my various online accounts (as opposed to those institutional accounts that I have read/write privileges on), and have wanted to link to a book record somewhere, I’ve used a variety of different services. Now I’m wondering what works best for me and what works best for others. Here are the places that I’ve linked to book records over the years:

Amazon.com

  • Pros: Offers my readers a nice synopsis of a book, reviews of the book, and jacket art. When a book isn’t published yet, this is one of the few places that you can find record.
  • Cons: Amazon doesn’t really need my help in making sales. I’d rather link to places that feature borrowing opportunities and deprecate buying ones.

A Publisher’s Website

  • Pros: Good for books that aren’t yet published. Often provides author bios, reviews, jacket art, and excerpts.
  • Cons: URLs may not be as long-lived as those on other services. As with Amazon, I’d prefer to send my readers to places where borrowing is featured.

LibraryThing

  • Pros: Book is embedded in a rich social network; jacket art, reviews, recommendations of similar or related titles; Common Knowledge section allows users to add/edit info about books, authors, etc.
  • Cons: ???

WorldCat

  • Pros: Links to specific editions; borrowing opportunities are prioritized; jacket art; stable URLs; author info in WorldCat Identities section.
  • Cons: I don’t want my readers to think that OCLC has an exclusive on making book records available on the web when there are other useful options where the record data can be more freely reused. (I realize that this concern is, at best, half-baked; what other concerns should I have?)

Open Library

  • Pros: I can create new records or edit existing ones (check out my amateurish dabbling); good source of jacket art; the site is an open catalog for the public, whereas WorldCat is really more for libraries and library staff; stable URLs; catalog records can be easily reused.
  • Cons: You may have to create the record yourself for a newly published book (as I did just today for The Yahoo! Style Guide); catalogers are going to have bones to pick with some of the records (such as the ones I added).
  • Special note: John Mediema’s OpenBook plugin for WordPress does a beautiful job of displaying book information (via Open Library).

I’m really curious to hear what other folks are using when they want to link to books. I’m hoping that I’ll get some comments here, as I’m genuinely interested in what works for others and why.

Getting Under the Hood with WordPress

With the advice of a colleague here at Baruch College, Luke Waltzer, I’ve been able to set up a second installation of WordPress that gives my main website at stephenfrancoeur.com a series of static pages themed to look like my main blog, Digital Reference (which is my first WordPress installation). It took a bit of fooling around to get this second WordPress install to have a blog address at my root site (stephenfrancoeur.com), but these instructions from the WordPress codex that I used worked with few problems.

I tried to set up pretty permalinks for the static pages, but that got all bollocksed up, so for now I’ve got some ugly URLs. I also need to do more work with the WordPress files to strip out the remaining blog-like elements from the static pages; what I want are pages that look like web pages, not jury-rigged blog posts.

 

That Feels Good

Posterous is helping me scratch an itch to publish online. It hits a sweet spot somewhere between microblogging and blogging. Maybe it’s just Tumblr on steroids. Oh, by the way, I am composing this post in my email client and just sending it via email. I’ve also got a Posterous bookmarklet that’s got a few cool tricks up its sleeve. If you highlight text on the web and then use the bookmarklet, Posterous will use feature that excerpted text in your post (as well as link back to the original page that it came from).