Campus Communications & the Wisdom of Blogging
The advent of "blogging"—online journaling—has breathed new life into the Web. A contraction of the term "Web logging," blogging can best be described as a form of micropublishing. Featuring no or very low start-up costs, few basic infrastructure requirements, and ease-of-use, it has enabled users to publish their thoughts and ideas without barriers.
In a very short time, blogging has moved beyond a niche activity for the hyper-extroverted to becoming the backbone of a new Internet communications movement. Although often deeply individualized, Web logging has revitalized the idea of online communities: many blogs have moved from obscurity to having a large and devoted readership—many blogging sites enable people to link their blog to other blog clusters, based on topic and the interests of the authors.
Blogging has also transcended its first early use as a simple online diary. Enterprising alternative news outlets have expanded the concept by turning to Web logs to reach their audiences, easily bypassing mainstream corporate media. Family members use the software to keep in touch with each other. Musicians chronicle their tours for fans and press. Software developers document the development process of popular applications and solicit feedback from their user base.
Blogs in Academe
What, then, is the potential for blogs in higher education? Certainly, offering
students space for creating personal content and commentary is the primary application.
But the number of uses for blogs are limitless. As a tool for extending learning
and encouraging communication and community, blogs are expertly designed to
seamlessly integrate the endeavors of many students and faculty.
Consider the undergraduate year-abroad experience, traditionally undertaken during a student's junior year. What if students could have a place to chronicle their experiences in these different cultures and countries? A homepage for all active blogs by students abroad could be created, featuring the most recent entries and breakdowns by class, year, program, or country of study. Students could use the blogs to reflect upon their experiences, to directly address family and friends back home, or as part of an assignment. Media files in their blogs, such as images, audio or video culled from their experiences, could also be included.
Although those participating in a study abroad program become immersed in a range of different cultures, a blog site could create a sense of community among those away from home. Students might find reassurance and enjoyment in communicating with and reading chronicles of others going through the same type of experience. The nature of Web publishing means that the site would always be up-to-date, and that students would be unhindered by political borders when publishing their thoughts.
In other arenas, blogs could be used to continue particularly lively class discussions cut short by an in-class schedule. Students could further their arguments with links to other information and evidence to support their positions. The online discussion could also allow more timid members of the class or those more comfortable expressing themselves in writing another venue for joining in the discussion.
Researchers working across time zones and at different universities can use blogs to meet, update, brainstorm, and archive ideas and documents. Using a blog package's search engine, they can retrieve past postings, which might yield new analytic connections or relevance.
In the pedagogical realm, the uses of blogs are only limited by the imagination. For instance, campus writing centers could partner with academic departments and IT organizations to encourage and develop the writing skills of undergraduates. The site would likely be of interest to the greater campus community, as well, as blogs frequently produce entertaining or interesting writing from those who traditionally have not had such broad outlets for written expression.
In the classroom, a professor might document his or her personal research and
allow students to follow their progress via the project's blog. Students could
take an active role in following research developments, offering questions,
or sparking new ideas both in the classroom and on the site. Such interaction
could bridge the traditional divide between classroom instruction and research
interests of faculty. Seeing firsthand how the instructor uses classroom concepts
in the research could make the course material more relevant and actively engage
students in the research interests of their professors.
Avoid Bogging Down in Blogs
Blogs are by their nature fairly easy to set up, with minimal risk of getting hung up in installation or application integration.
The low overhead, low-tech nature of blogs means that most every campus can put a blog site into production quickly and easily. All that is needed to get started is commonplace technology. That might be an Apache-based Web server, standard software packages (e.g. Perl) installed, and support people with rudimentary HTML knowledge. Depending on the needs of the users, the choice of blogging package, and the time and personnel that can be devoted to set-up, blog-based sites can be feature-rich, professional in appearance and easy to maintain. The best packages feature a complete solution that can be installed locally with a range of customizable options, such as calendaring systems, notifications, support for multiple authors, and syndication of content via the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) XML-based protocol.
The true overhead comes in the set-up. Once up and running, the blog site is quite self-sufficient, freeing both support staff and authors from the type of technical work that so often interferes with content development.
When considering a blog-based site as a replacement for an existing
site or system, IT staff may want to introduce blogging alongside a
current system to allow users to acclimate to the system. The easy integration
of these systems should make the process painless, and chances are that
the simplicity, accessibility and immediacy of the blogging tool will
make it popular very quickly.
Toward a Blog-Powered Future
The rise of blogging suggests new ways to think about collaboration and communication
in the university setting. The business and high-tech sectors have already begun
to take note, with many companies already looking at how blogging might foster
innovation within their organizations.
The company behind Google, for example, the premier Web search engine, recently purchased one of the most ubiquitous blog code developers, Pyra Labs, and its product, Blogger. With the purchase, Google underscored its commitment to the new medium and the company's intention to develop new search methods around blogs, their distinct link structure, and rapidly changing content.
Although relatively new, blogging is already evolving, expanding and re-inventing itself. One new approach is the knowledge log, or k-log. It is based on the idea that the modus operandi of blogs—the spontaneous transmission of ideas, analysis, knowledge—could be a valuable mechanism for preserving information for the research community. K-logs could serve as a repository to collect, organize and, later, search information that might otherwise not have been captured at all. From this, new relationships, insights, and discoveries could be drawn from the preserved data.
Other new systems, such as Wiki and projects based on it, propose allowing users to build a Web site—content and more—on the fly. In this model, an entire Web site is built with an open or blog approach, with individual users free to create and edit Web page content using any Web browser.
As blogging and blog-like site development and content management takes off,
it will remain to be seen what its impact will be on institutional systems already
in place. With thoughtful planning, careful monitoring, and the support of strong
policies and guidelines, such systems can avoid being disruptive or threatening
to publication and collaborative technologies already in place. Demand and interest
in them will guide their usage, but those charged with the creation and maintenance
of such systems must continue to be mindful of the power of the medium, the
nature of the content, and the audience that may ultimately access it.