Tag Archives: blogging

Blog, come forth!

This blog has gone unloved as of late. I’ve been working too much, and not taking the time to sit back and think about the work I’m doing, and I think that’s a bad thing. Reading Alan Levine’s call-out the other day reinforced the feeling that I should devote more attention to reflecting in this space, if only for my own sanity.

So, as a starting place, I made a new theme – my first revamp since I started this blog in late 2008. I ripped off Mark Jaquith’s idea and used Twenty Twelve – the new default theme that will ship with WordPress 3.5 – as my parent theme. It’s much easier on the eyes than my old theme, and its responsive nature allowed me to uninstall WP Touch. (WP Touch, you served valiantly lo these many years. RIP.) If you’re interested, I’ve made my (very modest) child theme available on Github.

2009 by the numbers

What’d I do in 2009? Some of my numbers are paltry and lame, but here they are anyway.

I posted 51 posts to this blog, teleogistic.net (and a handful of posts in other places). Those posts brought 183 legit comments. 3,299 unique visitors stopped by from 84 countries and 49 US states (WTF South Dakota?). The most popular search terms that led people here were: 1) read it later kindle, which led people to this post, 2) os x migration “less than a minute remaining”, which led people to this post, and 3) boone gorges, which led people to my beautiful face. The most popular posts on this blog were 1) Help me alpha test BuddyPress Forum Attachments (which is listed as the help page for a BuddyPress plugin I released, and so probably gets a lot of confused eyeballs), 2) Displaying the BuddyPress Admin Bar in Other Applications, which got added to StumbleUpon and, appropriately enough, contains hacks that did not originate with my paltry brain, and 3) Hub-and-spoke Blogging with Lots Of Students, which was interlinked with a lot of other great posts on the issue of classroom blogging. Not terrible for the first year of a blog, considering that BLOGS ARE DEAD.

I learned a lot about coding during 2009. When 2009 started, I knew quite a bit about HTML and CSS, as well as a smattering of PHP. I opened my first WordPress code file in about March. Since then I have released seven WordPress/BuddyPress plugins, a MediaWiki extension, and a handful of smaller hacks through the GPL, comprising some 4300 lines of code (about half of which was modified from existing code, and half of which is more or less from scratch).

I tweeted around 3300 times this year.

I racked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 hours of time this year commuting to and from work. Less impressively, I ran a pathetic 675 miles.

As some of you know, I do lots of crossword puzzles. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, I did around 1,960 crosswords this year, a number that is made up mostly of the first 13 puzzles listed on this page. I made a pledge at the beginning of the year to do my crosswords with pencil and paper (rather than on the computer) to improve my lackluster performance at ACPT. I stuck to that pledge: I can remember doing about three crosswords on the computer this year, as the rest were done on paper. We’ll see how all the practice pans out in February.

Here’s to a better 2010!

Streamlining Group Blogs

Cross-posted at the CUNY Academic Commons Dev Blog

Rodney Blevins and Marius Ooms wrote a fantastic plugin for BuddyPress called Groupblog, which allows BP groups to easily create a blog associated with their group. The killer feature of the plugin is the ability to add all group members to the blog (as authors, editors, subscribers, whatever you’d like) in a more or less automatic fashion – a far, far easier task than adding users manually through Dashboard > Add User.

I found, though, that the process wasn’t quite as automatic as I’d like. They’d based the code for adding users on a plugin by Burt Adsit called Community Blogs. Community Blogs only triggered the user adding process on a one-by-one basis: members of a group weren’t added to the group’s blog until they visited the blog. This is problematic for a few reasons. First, it’s an added step that creates some confusion among group admins and members, who assume that community blog membership should be automatic. Second, we’ve enabled various levels of privacy for blogs at the CUNY Academic Commons, and group members who were not yet members of a private group blog couldn’t really visit the blog to kick start the process. (Strictly speaking, that’s not true: the add user process was hooked to a process that took place when the blog’s login screen popped up, which happens when you persistently try to visit a blog to which you don’t have access. But this is extremely confusing.)

I took a bit of time today to rework how Groupblog handles the add user process. With the new setup, every member of a group is added to the group blog at once. The process is put into motion when the blog’s administrator updates and saves the group’s Group Blog settings. Other members of the BP community who join the group after the initial blog setup are added automatically to the blog as well, in accordance with the settings that the admin has determined for member permissions.

All the changes I made to the plugin are found in the main plugin file, bp-groupblog.php. You can download the modified file here: bp-groupblog.php.txt (don’t forget to make sure that the file is named bp-groupblog.php to make the plugin work). Just replace the stock version of the file with this one to make the changes. I intentionally did not clean up the plugin – all the original code is deactivated but still present beside the new code – because I wanted users to be able to differentiate what I had written from what the original authors had written (at least for now).

On the communal v. the individual student voice

On Thursday afternoon of this year’s Open Ed conference, a challenging contrast began to emerge between the approaches to student writing being espoused by the various speakers. First was Gardner Campbell and Jim Groom, who delivered a talk titled No Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable About Open Educational Experiences. (This and other links go to Ustream recordings of the talks – they’re well worth your time, if you weren’t able to attend in person.) Gardner’s message echoed some of the familiar strains in Jim’s talk from the previous day, putting forth the idea that instead of herding students together into a single platform of our choosing, we should be giving them the tools and knowledge to be creators and curators of their own digital identity. (See this post at bavatuesdays for some of Jim’s thoughts on “a domain of one’s own”.) Gardner pushed this line of thinking a step further, suggesting that students literally become the sys admins of their own web space. Not only should students be able to move outside of the institutional platforms to develop their digital selves, the argument goes, but they should be free to choose and maintain whatever platform they’d like, without the different but perhaps equally cumbersome constraints of free/commercial platforms (like wordpress.com and others).

Now, before I start talking about where the tension arose, I should point out that while there’s something very right about this idea of Gardner’s, there’s something arbitrary about it as well. He suggests that we conceptualize something like cPanel as a meta-framework for the construction of identity. But why stop there? If cPanel > wordpress.com because of cPanel’s additional freedom to maneuver, doesn’t it follow that it’d be better to give each student a virtual machine with a bare OS on it? Or maybe for them to build their own kernel from assembly code, which would truly provide the most software freedom? The obvious reason is that at some point the tradeoff is no longer worth it: what you gain in freedom by dropping down a level of abstraction is not worth the extra effort you’d need to master the medium. And I’d argue that as time goes by, and software both advances to higher levels of abstraction from the raw code and at the same time becomes more useful, the calculus of determining the ideal level of abstraction is constantly in flux. To echo a discussion from this year’s THATCamp: while it might be the case that most students would benefit from learning some HTML and some basic programming today, it’s likely that there will come a point at which it’ll no longer worth the trouble; this, in much the same way that you don’t need to know assembly code to qualify as a computer geek (in most circles?!). A GUI like cPanel might be the right meta-framework for most students today, but we should constantly be reassessing this conclusion.

OK, so back to Thursday afternoon’s tension. The session following Gardner and Jim’s was led by John Maxwell and was titled Thinkubator: Wiki as CMS/LMS. (Actually, sandwiched between the two was a fricking awesome demo by Grant Potter of some work he’s doing with virtual worlds – but I’ll gloss over it for the purposes of this post.) John has been doing amazing things with the wiki, related to his research, to organizations he’s been involved with, and – most germane here – to his courses. He conceptualizes the wiki as a place where students – especially graduate students – learn to work in the way that scholars work. (John, I’m going to fill in some points you left unsaid here, so please tell me if I’m borking.) While it’s of course true that individual scholars maintain their own voices and perspectives, there is also a voice that emerges from a community of scholars who are writing about the same things, publishing in the same journals, editing and reviewing each other’s work, teaching in the same departments, etc. In one of the best one-liners of the conference, John pointed out that students get practice in developing this kind of communal space in kindergarten and in graduate seminars – but not in between. Multi-authored wikis are, by their very nature, communal spaces. Thus, when students do their work on a wiki, they are learning the sociology of group work and of their discipline at the same time that they’re learning the subject matter of the course.

So here’s the tension (which John himself articulates very clearly in his own reflection on the talk). The Campbell/Groom angle is that students are better served by stewarding their own spaces: emphasis on the individual voice. The Maxwell angle is that students learn about how scholarship functions by authoring together in a space like a wiki: emphasis on the communal voice.

There is a sense in which the tension might be fundamental, going to the heart of what we want our students gain from our classes. If the point of education is to shape students’ individual agency – to make them sys admins of their own souls (?) – then it makes perfect sense to make them sys admins of their online selves. If the point of education is to develop the next generation of scholars (or, if we want to take the point further, the next generation of society members), then the wiki approach might be more sensible. Insofar as there is a real conflict here, it might run even deeper than the purpose of education, but to the purpose of knowledge production itself: is it more important to foster and encourage each individual’s idiosyncratic “truth” scheme or our collective movement toward Truth?

From a practical point of view, the tension is probably not so stark. A student with a developed voice and identity is more likely to be able to step back and envision his or her place in communal spaces; and someone who is comfortable participating in shared knowledge development will be better equipped to develop his or her own particular point of view. But the contrast with respect to educational technology policy remains. A wiki setup like Maxwell’s is homogeneous and centralized, while the Campbell/Groom arrangement is various and distributed. I wonder how much of this is a technological accident, though, and to what extent the phenomenal qualities of Maxwell’s method can be superimposed on the Campbell/Groom architecture. What I mean, very roughly, is that we might envision a new generation of software whose underlying infrastructure is essentially distributed and customizable – respecting the agency of individual student-sysadmins – while communal spaces, rich with the versioning and community feature of wikis, can emerge at the higher levels of abstraction. I’m not smart enough to envision what this might look like in detail, but in theory it might preserve some of the educational advantages of each approach.

What do you think? Is there really a tension between the two approaches? Does the underlying technological model you choose for classroom work rule out certain rhetorical models, or does it just make some a little harder to attain?

Hub-and-spoke blogging with lots of students

Inspired by some of the blog posts that have recently come through my reader on the topic of classroom blogging, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring. In particular, I wanted to respond to some of the concerns raised in the comments to Mark Sample’s post regarding the “hub and spoke” method, where students maintain individual blogs that are linked through the teacher’s hub blog. Can this model work with a large number of students?


Not quite drowning | cc licensed flickr photo shared by Jaako

Over the course of several semesters using such a model in Intro to Philosophy and Intro to Ethics classes, I’ve hit on a couple of techniques that have made it easier to deal with somewhere between 60 and 70 students (from two sections of the same course) blogging roughly twice per week. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

  • Groups – On the right hand side of http://boonebgorges.wordpress.com, you’ll find a link to the blog of each student in the class. The links are organized into groups of five or six students each. The students’ first assignment at the beginning of the semester is to register for a wordpress.com blog and to email me its URL. As these URLs land in my inbox, I number them 1-7 (in sections of 35 or so students, seven seemed like the right number of groups). The blogroll is then split into groups, using Wordpress’s link categories.

    In practice, the groups serve several purposes. First, membership in a group give individual students a more focused and manageable reading load. That’s because the syllabus requires students to read only the blog entries of their group members. As the semester progresses and students get to know each other, their blog reading (as evidenced by, among other things, the scope of their commenting) increases dramatically, but this is self-motivated rather than required. Second, focused groups mean that each student has a guaranteed audience. If all students were assigned to read all blogs, then only the most popular blogs (or those appearing first in an alphabetical list!) would get regular readers and commenters. Groups make sure things are more spread out. Third, dividing the class into blog groups provides ready-made groups for in-class work as well. I’ve found that the camaraderie that forms in a blog group (see these comments for an example of what I mean) translates very nicely into in-class work, and vice versa.

  • “In the blogs” and classroom integration – When my students first started blogging a few years ago, I would make a habit of finding a few posts that caught my eye before most class sessions to discuss with the class. Bringing the blogs to the center of the classroom experience does a couple of things: it highlights good student work (I try to talk about everyone’s blog at least once per term), it creates the impression that the blogs really are a crucial part of the class, it’s a good way to revisit issues that went either unexplained or underexplained in the previous session, and it makes future blog posts better when blog authors believe that their work might be discussed in class.

    Since I was going through the process of picking out and making notes about interesting posts anyway, I figured I might as well make my notes available to students before class. So I started writing “In the blogs” posts, digests of what caught my eye that day, and a brief description of why. I’d generally try to post this at least twelve hours before the class session where the posts would be discussed. After a few weeks of doing this, I noticed that many students had actually read the posts that I blogged about (though I didn’t require it). Comment counts on those posts also tended to be a bit higher.

    Near the beginning of the term, I deliberately overdid it with In the blogs, in order to give students the sense that the blogs were really significant intellectual spaces and important to the class. See, for example, digests from the beginning, the middle, and the end of the semester.

  • RSS and grading – The purpose of the blogs in these classes is to give the students a space for reflection that they take seriously (publicness does this) but that is low-stakes enough to allow for risk-taking and experimentation. Thus my pass-fail grading: if the blog post is on time, and demonstrates even a modicum of thought, you get full credit. The happy byproduct of this arrangement is that a close reading of every blog entry and comment is not necessary. Early in the semester I try to read every post relatively carefully and comment on most of them – largely so that I can model the kind of thoughtful but not-too-formal commenting that I’d like the students to adopt – but as the term progresses the community generally takes care of itself pretty well. By the end of the semester, I hunt and peck my way through the blogs at my leisure, much like the students do.

    I used Google Reader to keep track of the students’ blogs, so that at the end of each blog grading period (every two or three weeks, I think), I could scan back through the feeds to see that they were on time. Comments work in a similar way: I subscribed to the comment feed of each blog, and at the end of every grading period would scroll through the comment feeds, keeping a tally of comment authors (this makes comment counting a bit more time-consuming than post counting).

Requiring such prolific blogging with so many students is not for the faint of heart (or, perhaps, for those with a 5-4 load), but I’ve found that some of these techniques – and especially the general rule that doing a lot of work early in the semester means that a self-sustaining community will develop – make the job much more manageable.

Necessary smarm

I just finished drafting an email to be sent to faculty, inviting them to use our Movable Type blogs in their classrooms during the Spring semester. Writing these sorts of general-audience appeals is tough. The language we’ve used in the past has felt kind of smarmy and usedcarsalesmanesque to me. Check out this Incredible program we’ve got going on! Imagine all the Amazing things you can get out of it! And boy, do we Provide Support! I tried scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch, but gave up and used a slightly modified version of the old pitch.

My discomfort with the whole thing comes from a couple sources. For one, I don’t particularly like the idea of selling the technology. The blogging initiative is housed within the Writing Across the Curriculum program, and with good reason – student blogs are only valuable insofar as they provide some benefit to the goals of the course, which usually ends up having something to do with writing. So there’s a sense in which I’d like the email to say “Do you want your students to accomplish academic goals x, y, and z? Here is a tool for you!” But this kind of pitch feels disingenuous, making the tech tool sound like a magic elixir that will simply, you know, “get the job done”.

At the same time, if I scale back the rhetoric and talk in more measured terms about the kind of benefits that students might get from blogging, I’ll probably limit my audience. Faculty members get a ton of requests to try new things, and if my request is riddled with conditionals and hedges, it’s not clear that it will shine through as something worth doing. The only people who will be persuaded by that kind of talk are people who are already warm to the ideas I’m pushing – the “low-hanging fruit”, as a colleague of mine once called these faculty members. And while there’s nothing wrong with this low-hanging fruit, I want to broaden the base of bloggers a bit each semester.

In the end, I rationalize the smarmy sales pitch to myself as follows. The point of the pitch is to get them in the door, thinking about what blogging is, and maybe giving it an earnest try in their classes. The benefit for their teaching, if there is one, will make itself apparent, regardless of whether this benefit is as Incredible and Amazing (or perhaps totally Different From) what was “promised” in the original pitch. I don’t think this makes me cynical, I think it makes me pragmatic. Or at least I hope so.