Blogging Student Life

Want a better way to get students involved in the campus community? Start a college events blog.

ESTIMATES VARY WIDELY, but there’s no disputing that there are millions of Web logs, or blogs, out there—more than 100 million, according to The Blog Herald, a blog site about blogs. Most blogs are essentially public online diaries consisting of dated entries with personal opinion and commentary. The popularity of blogs soared leading up to the 2004 presidential election (when even presidential candidates like Howard Dean joined the blogging bandwagon) and they’re beginning to be considered a more mainstream communication medium.

Given that popularity, can blogs be an educational tool? Can they provide a way to reach detached students who spend much of their non-classroom time on campus plugged into an iPod or on a cell phone? Ask Mike Ho, who maintains a highly successful blog—10,000 hits a week at an 8,000- student community college—as program advisor for Paradise Valley Community College (AZ), one of 10 colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District in metropolitan Ph'enix.

IT Directions

PARADISE VALLEY’s student life blog has become
an indispensable resource for students.

The Paradise Valley blog, launched in July 2005 and maintained by Ho in about six hours a week, d'esn’t resemble the traditional text-based blog. And it’s not about politics or personal musings. Instead, it’s full of bright and colorful posterlike announcements for student events and entertainment.

Ho’s office, the Student Life Center, is tasked with providing (and informing students of) extracurricular activities like concerts and speakers. He maintains the site using a free blogging program called WordPress. It’s not difficult to use; Ho says he knew next to nothing about blogs when his boss suggested launching one to keep students apprised of campus activities. Ho was already receiving numerous e-mail announcements from various faculty, staff, and student groups daily in HTML format, so posting the content in the blog, right in that format, has proved to be simple.

Getting the word out about the Paradise Valley blog was a challenge, however. Ho says it’s critical that the college’s home page link to the blog, in order to make the blog easy for students to find, and to indicate administrative support. But word of mouth among students has also been useful in promoting Ho’s site, as have links from other campus blogs.

The site launched to a few hundred hits a day (site traffic numbers are tracked by the WordPress program) and quickly grew to several thousand a day. The blog now averages 10,000 visits a week. The tracking mechanism reveals that many students have the site bookmarked and come there directly, presumably to quickly check what’s happening on campus.

Free Blog Hosting

BLOGGING TOOLS aren’t something you need to pay for:
There are umpteen free blog-hosting sites, that allow varying levels of customization.

Among the options:

A simple Google search will turn up many more.

The WordPress software also includes the ability to post Webcasts, which have been part of the Paradise Valley blog experiment from the start. It’s a natural pairing: When a particular musician or comedian is appearing on campus, for example, Ho can include short audio or video clips of sample content in the blog. He’s also experimenting with other content, such as short faculty and staff interviews, and campus announcements. Having seen students all over campus sporting the ubiquitous iPod earbuds, “we’re trying out podcasting [announcements] as a way of getting students to listen in and pay attention to what’s happening on campus,” Ho says. Faculty and staff love that aspect: Rather than sort through endless e-mail, they can listen to campus announcements in the background, while they work.

Recording the announcements and interviews is simple: Ho uses microphones connected to his PC, and edits the recordings with free software called Audacity that allows him to add music tracks and edit the content. But several students are needed to help with the interviews, which can be time-consuming to edit.

The key to a good blog, Ho says, is freshness. He tries to post new items as often as three times a day; a steady stream of content is usually submitted by faculty members or others who want to publicize an event. To stay up to date on the design and content of other sites, Ho keeps an eye on higher ed blogs like the University of Illinois- Springfield’s student life blog.

What’s next? Ho would like to add software (also available from WordPress) that lets multiple people contribute to one blog. With that in place, he envisions students adding their voices to the blog—perhaps a daily “life as a first-year” diary from a real student. The athletic department is also asking for more sports-related podcasts—such as a Monday recap of the weekend in sports at Paradise Valley.

It’s all part of the blog’s original purpose: to find ways to get more students involved in campus life. Judging by the traffic growth, it’s working.

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