The Personalized Micro-Web: How we used social software to transform our Web presence

Jude Higdon, Ed.M.

Our staff at the Center for Scholarly Technology rang in the new year by redesigning our Web presence. Our redesigned site makes extensive use of various emerging technologies, including blogs, podcasts, and RSS. Below I outline some of the new features and the ways in which we're leveraging social software to get more bang for our content buck and make a "personalized Web" available to our faculty and staff.

The first part of our redesign involves the use of blogs. Each member of our group has an area of specialty and several interest areas in emerging technologies. In aggregate, these specialties cover a large area of the technology in education landscape. We wanted a way to both make resources from each of these specialty areas available to our faculty, but also to combine them into a single resource for those interested in getting the big picture.

To this end, each of us developed a blog that we maintain relative to our specialty area. We now syndicate the content of these blogs into the appropriate areas of the Web site, which keeps content in those areas fresh. Then, using an RSS feed aggregator (we use a free online tool called feedshake), we brought all of the feeds from the individual blogs into a single feed, which we titled The Learning Edge. This feed, which contains regularly updated content from all of our individual blogs, is syndicated onto the home page of our Web site and can also be exposed to faculty interested in using their own feed aggregator on their personal machines. This aggregated feed replaced our monthly newsletter, which had been an enormous drain on our time and energy for years.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this effort is that it has become trivially easy for us to maintain multiple paths to content for our faculty. By syndicating feeds from our blogs to these various sources (individual content pages in our Web site, as individual feeds to which faculty can subscribe, in aggregate on our home page, as an aggregate feed for our monthly newsletter), each of us simply maintains a blog and our Web site is constantly updated with fresh content.

The CST hosts a number of meetings and programs each semester: Communities of Practice, software demonstrations from vendors, speaker series, and training sessions to name just a few. Podcasting has provided us with a good, efficient means of collecting, archiving, and disseminating the audio content from these sessions. While I've seen a number of demonstrations of podcasting that view the production process as a very formal affair involving high quality microphones and large amounts of editing of digital audio files, we found that, to capture meetings and simple voice presentations, a basic iPod and a simple Belkin microphone works just fine.

To circumvent any messy XML code, we installed a simple program called Loudblog on a server which lets us manage our podcasts in an online wysiwyg. Through the magic of freetagging, we can make feeds available in a number of ways: by type of session, by speaker or session leader, or by any number of content classifications. We exposed some of the feeds that we expected to be the most popular on our Web site, and we make the other feeds available to different groups who we think might find them useful. Future plans include developing enhanced podcasts that will synch slides to the audio track.

One of the features that we've longed to include on our Web site is a "related topics" list on each page that allows users to find other relevant content. Our content management system d'esn't have a feature that allows us to include such a list easily and have it update automatically when new relevant pages are added, unfortunately. However, by adding the pages of our site to the social software tool and freetagging all of the pages, we were able to syndicate relevant lists of links to individual pages of the site to achieve just this end.

By finding the freetagged RSS feed that was most relevant to each page in our site, we were able to translate the feed into HTML (we use a free online service called RSS-to-javascript) and include that feed on the page. Now, as we add content to our site, as long as we include it in our body of pages in and freetag all of the pages, these lists of relevant links will automatically update on every page for us.

This process may sound complicated, but by building it up piece by piece, we have developed a highly flexible information delivery mechanism that is better able to meet the needs of the individuals from our community. We will be continuing to look for ways to make our content available for personalized delivery to our constituents and collaborators in the future.

Jude Higdon, Ed.M., is the Project Manager for the Center for Scholarly Technology at the University of Southern California.

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