Friday, May 13, 2005

Blogging: The Market, The College, or the Campus

Obviously, I think blogs are a good idea. You don't put in this much effort into something you don't believe in. When I set up this blog, I made a point of it being on a server with "uiuc.edu" in the url. Blogger.com has its own free hosting service, Blogspot, and that certainly functions well enough. I want to ask whether it matters where the hosting occurs and if so why?

Let me begin by pointing out the following. Although my blog appears at guava.cites.uiuc.edu, I compose the posts on the blogger.com site and there is an archive of those posts at blogger.com (which is necessary, functionally, if I want to edit any of the posts after they are published). So blogger.com has access to my content and since blogger.com is part of Google...... I'm not really sure what the right inference is to draw from this. Am I at risk of my content being used to exploit some weakness or invade my privacy? Obviously, I must not feel that risk is too great; after all, I'm incurring it. But is that ignorance or a calculated risk? Truthfully, I haven't thought hard about it for a while but I did make some post about this a while back which said, in effect, that as long as Google's economic fortunes are ok, the risk is minimal. (And in editing posts, I can delete them. )

Why did it matter to me to have a CITES server host this blog? Let me ask a different question first. Is the blog something I do as part of my job or is it outside that? Gary Becker (Nobel prize winner in Economics) and Richard Posner (Justice and Law Professor at Chicago) have their blog on a commercial site. I learned recently that Becker stopped writing his Business Week column to do this blog. I was initially surprised that the blog wasn't on a University of Chicago site. However, I do understand that the purpose of the blog is pure outreach to, I'm guessing, former Business Week readers and a host of others. It is interesting to note that the content is distributed under a Creative Commons license --- re-use is fine as long as there is attribution. So their blog is not a money making effort. Similarly, Paul Krugman has his column in the New York Times. Krugman moved from MIT to Princeton not too long ago. Neither institution is mentioned in any way in his Op-Ed pieces. I would interpret both instances as the "20" part of the 80-20 rule. For the time being I think of my blog as within the "80" part. If it proves out that there is little or no internal audience for it but there is an external audience, I'll change my tune on that (and then have it hosted on Blogspot or elsewhere).

What about using blogs for teaching and learning. Here's a piece from the Duke daily about professors starting to use blogs for teaching. The use is fine. The question is, who should be the provider? Some of my colleagues would undoubtedly argue, "We're a great university. So we should provide any tool that has value in instruction." I'm sure that is the expectation. But from where I sit, we don't have the budgets to support even what we're already doing. If the market provides a reasonable free service, why not encourage that? For student blogs, especially those that are not course related, I'm quite comfortable with that as an answer. Indeed, I believe that experiments with commercial providers while the students are enrolled will help make them smarter consumers of these type of services after they have graduated. So, for example, I interpret the proliferation of student Gmail accounts as a good thing.

I am harder pressed when thinking about this issue as it pertains to instruction or research. Some of the issues may seem mundane, but I think all them are important. An instructor can set up a discussion area for each student inside the course management system and require the students to make diary like posts. But the effort in creating those sites and the control is borne by the instructor. If the students made their own spaces and provided a link (to the site or to the xml) that would be less effort for the instructor and more power for the students. Should the blogs be accessible only after a log in, not available to anyone on the Internet but only to the campus? And what about the issue of user management? If an instructor wants the students to be contributors to the blogs (contributors can make posts, anyone can make comments to posts) how does the instructor manage the class list to enable the students as contributors? That is work.

There is a different issue. This campus is large and decentralized. At best, we at the campus level try to communicate and coordinate with what the colleges and departments are doing. We are not in a position to dictate. The idea is to avoid wasteful duplication of service, where possible, via the communication and coordination. But because any service we offer has to be done at scale (these are plain vanilla services that much of the campus will use) we're reluctant to enter into a new service quickly. We need to be sure the demand is there and that it is efficient for the campus to be the provider. There is less of this reluctance at the department or college level. So some of them are likely to take up the baton first. Maybe that is for the good in that a need is met. Yet there are coordination issues here as well and it is quite possible to imagine that a college or two doing something blocks the campus for doing that same thing, when the latter would be better for the campus overall. So should the campus try to move faster to provide the service when it senses that risk?

Some universities (Minnesota is an example) offer blog hosting through their Library. The Library is as much a part of this campus as CITES is. There are several joint projects between the two organizations. Perhaps blogs should be another. That has been mentioned. Yet upon reflection I would be against that, at the moment. This is partly because of the market alternative, particularly for student blogs. And it is partly because we as the provider of such virtual spaces will get tied up in free speech and decency issues. The campus has an obligation to promote free speech and deal with decency concerns. But we as providers don't have to go looking for that sort of thing, especially when the community is not yet pounding down our doors asking us to do so.

One last point. If blogs were the only game in town the answer to these questions could be determined by analysis. But blogs are the tip of the iceberg. Wikis and ePortfolios are other applications that are on my radar. And then there is content hosting, images and video in particular. For all of these, if we don't go to the market, there is the related issue of user support. I can say with complete confidence that we can't do it all. I am much less clear on how we choose our spots.

5 comments:

Burks Oakley said...

Lanny - Hi! Note that our colleague Ray Schroeder at the University of Illinois at Springfield has his "Online Learning Update" blog on a UIS server. See:

http://people.uis.edu/rschr1/onlinelearning/blogger.html

I think that blogs that have an academic focus do indeed belong on institutional servers - if nothing else, to bring attention and recognition to the institution.

Note that Ray's blog also includes links to his various affiliations (OTEL, UIS, U of I Online, Sloan-C), to promote these organizations as well.

-- Burks

Lanny Arvan said...

Burks -

Ray has a wonderful blog and the setup is very well done. Certainly imitating his approach has merit.

Let me ask a reframing question, however. OTEL has an xml feed of Ray's blog, so in effect the linking is in both directions. What if somebody on Ray's staff did a blog that also had an academic focus. Should such a blog also link to OTEL? and should OTEL feature an xml feed of that blog? Who should decide this question?

Lanny

Burks Oakley said...

Lanny - Hi! A number of online organizations take the XML feed of Ray's Online Learning Update blog and display the text dynamically on their websites -- including U of I Online and Sloan-C. Having new content on the home page every day really helps the rankings in Google!

The answer to your first question is YES - if someone on the OTEL staff had a blog with an academic focus, it would be a good idea for this blog to link to the parent organization, in this case, OTEL. I'm a big proponent of using links in this manner to get some free PR.

As for your second question about OTEL using the XML feed on its website - well, the director of OTEL (Ray Schroeder) would have to make this decision.

-- Burks

Lanny Arvan said...

Burks -

Thanks for the response. I'm still scratching my head on this one. If I can use a Newspaper analogy, Ray's blog is news and does belong on the front page of the paper. Mine is opinion and belongs in the Op-Ed section.

The main campus Web page, the CITES Web page, the CIO Web page, and the EdTech Web page all have news areas. So a blog with news items fits in these environments.

At the moment, we don't have Op-Ed content on any of these sites.

Also CITES relies on email lists to distribute certain types of news and I know within the EdTech unit we've talked a lot about not overdoing and inadvertently spamming people. Blogs can be by subscription and so the spam issue goes away, which is a plus, but then shouldn't be used for news which our users must have to function.

seema said...

I agree with you that "blogs are a good idea for market , college or campus.Because with the help of blogs we can share every thoughts, I visited your blogs that's very nice.