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Month: January 2005

More Search Strings

More Search Strings

From the ledgers of my web stats come more interesting search strings!

“nervous disorders eraser crumbling”
Internet as handbook of medical knowledge. I had no idea eraser crumbling was a symptom of anything. But then, I’m not sure how to go about crumbling an eraser to start with. Better than smoking, I suppose.

“mass email patron”
Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Everyone hates mass email!

“dance mix 92”
Someone else who understands, as I do, that this is the best album of all time.

“how to get superglue off reading glasses”
With this single search string I’m reassured to know that someone somewhere also needed to know how to do this.

“Spiderwick real or fake”
This one is interesting, since Spiderwick is a set of books for children written by my dear friend Holly Black. Of course it’s 100% real, folks. Holly would not lie.

Hentai sharks
I thought hentai had to involve tentacles, but what would I know.

According to me blogs
I hope this is a classification. I would like to be listed under the “according to me” blogs. According to me, this is a good category.

Shem erotic stories
If this is a search for erotic stories involving Shem, son of Noah, I’m very intrigued. It was a hot afternoon, and the ark had been at sea for sixty-nine days. Shem gripped the gopherwood rail and looked out across the unbroken water, trying not to think about the desire that burned in his manly loins just as the unforgiving sun burned his skin. In the enclosure behind him, the goats were mating again.

Katie smells of poo flowers
I’m heartened to see some botanical research at work here on the interwebs.

Harmful television
Someone seeking some parenting help, I presume. Or possibly someone seeking help on how to avoid a television falling out of a high rise. That would be a very harmful television indeed.

Knowledge vespa
I hope these come in pink. All librarians should tool around on knowledge vespas, I feel.

Free history on renaissance
What I like best about this search is the concept of “free history”. I know exactly what this person means. Free articles rather than those tied up in licensed databases. But still, I like this idea of free history. Bring on the revolution, let’s free history!

exotic goldfish
Boy, is this person looking in the wrong place.

the colour purple in blockbuster windsor Ontario
I like this search string because of how compounded and how clear it actually is. She wants to see The Color Purple, an American film, but the user is Canadian and thus unthinkingly spelled it properly, +u. We know that she is looking to find this film at the local blockbuster, and that she lives in Windsor Ontario. We could almost just show up practically, couldn’t we. Just knock on her door with a pizza in one hand and the movie in another and say, “Hi! Can we watch the The Color Purple with you?”

calgary mafia
Crime searches! I had no idea Calgary had a mafia. The things you learn from search strings.

pencil drawings of Jesus Christ
From someone sketching sometime on or before 33 A.D., really.

kids beatitudes song
Since I’m not a Catholic, I don’t actually know what a beatitudes song would sound like. But I’d sure like to hear one.

principle of entropy
If the public library was originally founded to help the drooling working classes to better themselves, the internet is clearly stepping up to fill that space. How better to improve oneself than to read up on metaphysics on the internet?

tit tort
Let’s not, shall we?

facial expressions
I like this one. What are we trying to discover? What facial expressions mean? Imagine if this is someone using the internet to help him understand body language.

live facial sex
I realize what this person is looking for. I know they want a live money shot. But let’s ignore the obvious for a moment and imagine what facial sex must be. It could just be kissing I suppose, but I can’t help but imagine this search is linked to the ‘facial expressions’ search. “I didn’t cheat on him! I just had facial sex with some guy at the bar.” This could be a whole new class of activity, I tell you.

My favourite search strings

My favourite search strings

You know, since I’m now officially a librarian, I feel I should take special interest in people’s information needs, and the ways in which people seek out that information. Actually, I’ve learned a good deal about this sort of research from a good friend of mine. She has her ear to the ground when it comes to LIS research, and she tells me that there are all kinds of interesting research projects in progress examining how people get information in certain circles. In honour of her, I have decided to take up a research project of my own.

I have decided a domain name is in itself a research tool. Here I am, basking in the world’s most perfect random information collection tool ever. For the sake of my profession, I must forge forward!

Let me explain: people do internet searches. Right? You’ve probably noticed that every time you do a search in, say, Google, the page you get, with your results on it, has your search query in the URL. That’s how the input works, it sends the information to the database as part of the URL. If you click on a link from that page, the person who’s page you go to will get a notice saying that someone came to you from that page, with the search queries in it. Thus, I’m able to see every search query that points someone to my website.

So for the sake of research, I’ve decided to add a new feature to my blog. I call it A few of my favourite search strings. Together we can glean what we may from these strings, and learn what we can about search strategies and information needs of completely random people on the internet. And together we will grow, and learn, and delve, and bond, and consider, and grow, and mock, and generally be good academics. Let’s tuck in, shall we?

“my favourite sex teacher”
I’m not entirely sure how Google is supposed to know how to parse the “my” variable, but maybe that will be their next innovation. With this search, we can see that the user is feeling nostalgic (among other things) and is using the internet to search for lost, er, friends.

“Capricorn and Aries together”
Here we see that people use the internet to find relationship advice. I’m fairly sure if you put a Capricorn and an Aries in the same room together, someone will spontaneously combust, but I’m not an expert in that field. Everyone should be with a leo, in my opinion.

“Mary Kay Latourneau”
Here we have an enterprising user using the internet for research purposes. I think she’s still in jail, isn’t she?

“How to clean a laptop”
The requisite technical question. Rather than rely on expensive computer services, this thrifty user is opting to get the internet to point the way. People on the internet have computers. People on the internet probably have dirtier computers than most, based on some of the other search strings I got but haven’t included. Surely someone somewhere knows how to clean a computer. This is a profoundly logical thought process. For an ibook, I suggest a white artist’s eraser. Works like a charm.

“punk rocker bedding”
Best. Search string. Ever.

“uncircumsized penis picture”
Biological question. Here we see a curious user with a question, but without the guts and complete lack of shame required to ask the health teacher. Fair enough. I’d really like to see a reference librarian cope with a question like this, to be honest. I mean really, I’d like to be present at the time.

“delicious librarian”
Why, yes I am!

“Dalton McGinty”
Politics! Users are running searches on the internet to get some more in-depth information about political figures. Strangely, I get a lot of hits out of this search string. In case anyone is in doubt, I’m not actually Dalton McGinty, but I do have a dog that looks just like his.

“stories bondage”
While the ebook has failed to entirely take off, clearly users employ the internet for a little light reading.

“today’s horoscop”
What’s wonderful about the internet is that correct spelling is optional; even if you don’t know how to spell what you’re looking for, you can still find it. Or at least, you can still try to search for it, I suppose. Where the daily newspaper used to provide this sort of information, now users are taking to the internet for it. From today’s search strings it appears that astrology is an important aspect of users’ information needs.

“evan soloman is an asshole”
Here we have a user employing the internet to test an opinion against a wider trend. I read once that is actually how we stay sane; we test our feelings and opinions against the scale of “normal” to see if we’re completely loony or not. This user is clearly seeking a community of the like-minded; is he the only one who thinks that Evan Soloman, cbc broadcaster, is an asshole? Can he perhaps become friends with other people who think the way he does? Can they bond together in their dislike of this public figure? Is there some sort of support network?

And here ends my first installment of My favourite search strings. Stay tuned for more!

My High School Binder: Privacy and the Cyber Librarian

My High School Binder: Privacy and the Cyber Librarian

Over a year ago I was sitting in class listening to a speaker talk to us about virtual reference. He was discussing the pros and cons of a very expensive v-ref package, something our university library system had experimented with but hadn’t chosen to use in the end. The cons included frequent crashing and blue screens, and the pros mostly highlighted a function the cheaper packages didn’t have.

“Co-browsing,” he said. “It means we can control a patron’s browser remotely, take them to web pages, type in logins, that sort of thing.”

I was shocked.

Another story: some years ago now I spent many an hour coding an extensive historical recreation in an interactive environment. Essentially, you could wander through this virtual world and meet and talk with historical figures in the midst of some important moment in their life. St. Francis preaching to the birds; Marie de l’Incarnation looking out the convent window as her son stands below, demanding the return of his mother; Martin Luther defending his position among the Roman Inquisitors. One of the first little programs I created was one where the user would contract plague. They would experience all the symptoms over about a 20 minutes period, and then be magically cured by the patron saint of plague-suffers. The entire cycle started only if the user opted to pet a rat that they found in one of the tavern rooms. In another spot, I wrote a program that would add early English phrases to everything a user said. For instance, a user typing “Hi there!” to another user in the room would instead have said “By God’s blood! Hi there!”

There was serious consternation among the administration about these programs as I was writing them. Was it ethical to have our environment act upon a user without their explicit consent, and without them having any ability to stop it? While users were entering a world of my creation, where should my programming tweaks stop and the user’s autonomy take precedence? At what point did my neat little tricks start to seriously edge in on the user’s sense of control and self of (online) self? Could that violation damage the learning experience?

One of the issues involved in internet life has long been called ‘netiquette’; what is polite and what is offensive in this environment of the internet? What are the rules? How shall we determine good behaviour? As it turns out, the rules are still very much contested and in flux.

As far as I’m concerned, the user’s own computer is an extension of his or her brain. Your desktop is your mental landscape, your workspace; in order to truly create you need to feel safe within those four borders that make up the edge of your screen. Isn’t there something inherently creepy about the idea that someone might have an eye in on what you’re doing on your own computer? While a public terminal or lab computer may be simply a tool in the public eye with no personal owner, a personal computer is, to me, sacrosanct. It is a person’s personal view on the wired world, an archive of everything you’ve done, a half-empty notebook waiting for more bad poetry and silent declarations of undying love. A personal computer is that old high school binder with all the traded notes and pictures still in it. The teacher may control what kind of mimeographed papers end up inside it, but the housing itself, the binder, the words scrawled on the pages: that’s mine.

This is how I feel about my own computer, and nothing quite riles me in quite the same way as someone peering over my shoulder to read my screen. To me this is a serious breach of privacy, the same as peering into my ears in the hopes of seeing what I’m thinking. This computer is mine; the organization of the desktop is my own; while the software may be “owned’ by some fancy corporation, this iteration of it is mine. Asking for help is not the same as turning over my brain. Asking for help is not an invitation into my high school binder.

I suspect a librarian at the reference desk would not grab a patron’s notebook and start writing directions and advice in it. I presume she would not write a phone number on a patron’s hand in a magic marker, useful as that may be. She would not, I gather, take a patron’s notes, reorder them, add new headings, and hand them back in a shiny plastic folder. Are we so certain that “co-browsing” is a good idea in the first place? To me, taking remote control over a browser of a patron is unethical and an invasion of privacy.

I understand the appeal. It’s always easier to take the keyboard away and “show them how to do it right”. But should that be our professional practice?

What business are we in? That’s what my friend Jennifer Robinson always asks. Are we in the business of doing a patron’s learning for them, stepping in and typing the keywords for them, or are we in the business of helping patrons to find what they need, providing some help and guidance in the ebbs and flows of the information world? Yes, it’s so much easier to do it for them. It’s easier to take over control of their hands browser and show them how its done. It’s harder to give clear, verbal or type-written help based on the needs and skill level of a patron. It’s harder to listen in over the phone as a patron does the typing with two fingers. It’s harder to start from scratch and explain where the search box is and what goes in it.

But isn’t that our job?

RSS, Collage, and the Art of Disappearing

RSS, Collage, and the Art of Disappearing

Everything I know about RSS feed readers I learned from my referrer logs.

I’m admittedly fairly new to reading blogs through an external reader. Fairly new, though I have had a livejournal for a few years now, and the friends page that livejournal provides is a de facto feed reader. But that only offers the content of other users inputting into livejournal’s database, and those other blogs who have been siphoned through livejournal’s database (like my own livejournal feed).

For the last couple of years I’ve been too busy and too complacent to shift over to reading new blogs through feeds, and to be honest a lot of my blogging friends from days of yore have dropped off my radar. Nostalgic about that as I am, I didn’t cultivate new blog friendships again until recently. I just kept checking the pages of my friends through the traditional method; type in URL in browser, hit enter.

What made me finally decide to have a look at feed readers was my referrer logs. In particular, the user agent strings. There was a time when you would get a unique hit for each person reading your content, but no more. Instead there are all these feed readers showing up in there.

A regular day in my referrer logs, using today as an example:

Something called Twisted PageGetter nips in for content. I have no idea what that is, but it’s pulling the .rdf file. I scan past someone’s Google search for “fitting men for bras” (why Google’s brilliant technology leads these people to me I’ll never entirely understand). Something called rss bot ( grabs the .rdf file. The everyfeed spider drops by for the .xml file. Then two different bloglines bots swoop through, one for the .rdf and one for the .xml. Then livejournal updates its feed, and like bloglines helpfully tells me in the agent string how many subscribers they’re getting that information for. Then there’s pubsub, an online reader popular among the librarian crowd. The unfortunately-named Terrar makes an appearance.

Then netnewswire arrives for the .rdf file. Pulpfiction, used in its (free) ‘lite’ edition by someone in the US. Drupal pops up as a user agent. I’m jealous of anyone using Drupal for their blogging software, since Drupal attempts to do for a regular blog what livejournal does with its friends page. Then I see Newsfire, my current RSS reader of choice. This is exactly how I discovered it; seeing it sitting in my referrer logs.

I read blogs through feeds, and I wouldn’t switch back to the regular way. This is much quicker and I can even glance over the posts if not read them in their entirety while offline. (An important consideration now that I’m back to skimpy dial up.) But it does make for strange referrer log reading. I tend to learn less and less about people who frequent my blog than I used to. What operating system, what version, what browser. I see all these other user agents instead, so in some ways I learn other things about the people reading my blog; I know that they are consistent readers rather than drop-bys, I know that they care enough about what I’ve got to say to actually add the feed to a reader. I know that they’re technologically savvy enough to understand and make use of RSS, and that they probably read many blogs. I know that my blog has become part of a larger collage for them, nestled between posts by others, probably on similar topics. I can’t get a look at what they see, but I know that’s the context I find myself in. It’s the TiVo of the blog world.

I’ve always seen web browsing as more of a conversation than a static, solitary activity; when you look at a webpage, you leave a note telling the content producer that you were there. This is my browser, this is my operating system, here’s what time I was here. Here’s what I looked at. Here’s what brought me here. But the feed readers, the online ones that seem to be so much more popular, are anonymizing. Even with livejournal and bloglines, who kindly tell you how many people are reading your blog through them, don’t tell you who or why or when. They leave a note but it’s a generic one; we’ve picked up your content for our users, but that’s all we’ll tell you. The online feed reader brings the world wide web a step closer to what people think it actually is; a private, secret, anonymous place where no one knows that you haven’t upgraded from Netscape 4.7.

I love my feed reader, but I’m sorry to lose a piece of that conversation. I love the idea of being part of someone else’s collage, but I wish I could have a look at what’s around me.

Adminblog: Other (academic) uses for blogs

Adminblog: Other (academic) uses for blogs

I went on at length here about the use blogs in education, a topic near and dear to my heart and one many of my friends (and others) have spent years contributing to. As a (very) newly-minted librarian, my short experience working in academic library administration has shown me how useful a blogging system could be in an library environment.

Blog This!
To date I’ve mostly seen administrative blogs used for public consumption; many large libraries are using blogs and their associated RSS feeds to keep their users informed of news and updates. A blog as a public face of an institution means that the information on the website is constantly changing. In my experience in web-based community building, a constantly updated website is critical to it reaching into the public consciousness. If there’s something new and interesting on a webpage every day or every few days, web traffic stays high and the word you want to get out is more likely to get there. What can your institution contribute to the information landscape of its community? How can you make your website a must-see destination for members of your community? A blog like this takes time and effort to maintain, but the software by its very nature supports this kind of endeavour.

A blog written by a person can give an institutional website a human face, and as Google Scholar comes in to take over the finding of things, we as librarians need to step up to be the human face of this new information world. Blogs are a quick and easy way for us to start.

Are the printers down again?
But a public blog is only one side of what a good administrative blogging system could accomplish. On the other side of the reference desk, a staff blog could help keep an entire staff team up-to-date. When a reference librarian comes to the desk to start his shift, he needs to know a whole rash or things at once; are there any instructional sessions scheduled for today? Will I need to direct anyone to a particular classroom? Is there an assignment coming due that is bringing students into the library in droves looking for a specific source? Are the computers acting strangely? Are the printers down again? The number of possible bits of information required for each librarian or reference staff member on a given day is impossible to quantify. A blog kept by a group, noting anything unusual that is happening in the community or anything that the staff should be aware of, could keep a team on the same page.

Most organizations already do something else in place of a group blog. They send mass emails. Hundreds of mass emails a week, which generally clutter up mailboxes or get deleted. Wouldn’t a blog be better? Rather than spotty archives in people’s email, everyone could have access to ONE keyword-searchable, date- and time- stamped archive. Rather than carry on a conversation on a listserv, forcing all staff to get our witty repartee via email, staff with questions could post comments and have them answered by the poster or anyone else with information. I suggested complex, threaded comments for educational blogs, and I would definitely suggest them in this context as well. With threaded comments, questions could be asked, answered, and archived in a forum open to all staff without clogging up inboxes.

Keeping in Touch
At the library where I worked this summer, there were two kinds of people; staff who were often on the reference desk and those who rarely were. Many of the subject librarians were often too busy for long reference shifts. In the profession, the reference desk is in many places dying a slow death; the “reference librarian” is becoming a thing of the past; no one can be just a reference librarian anymore. Anyone with an MLIS is busy behind the scenes building collections, managing staff, arguing over digital resources, teaching classes, and consulting with faculty. As one librarian noted, cutting subject librarians off from reference means that the people buying the books and making the decisions are getting more and more distant from frontline knowledge and needs. While the reference staff are well aware of which reference sources are being used, what sorts of questions are stumping students, and what kinds of books are in need, the librarians exist in a more hermetically sealed world where they speak to advanced graduate students, faculty, and undergraduates only in a classroom setting. When they do make it to the reference desk they feel rusty and out of touch. A well-used, often-updated blog chronicling not just problems but also interesting questions, trends, and suggestions for sources would help keep staff in touch with each other as well as their patrons.

A frequently-updated group blog can also help train new staff, introducing them not only to the personalities in the department but also to the issues they face daily at the reference desk. And it can bring staff up-to-date when they return from maternity leaves or holidays, and even connect everyone with events and problems that occur in the evenings or weekends.

Categories and RSS
In an educational capacity, I discussed how categories with individual RSS feeds are necessary to filter content to one class or another; good categorization with RSS organizes content for consumption by a particular audience. In an administrative capacity, categories fulfill the same function.

What kinds of categories are needed depend entirely on the library and its set up; part of the benefit of a blog system is how flexible it is and how many options it presents. Determining what categories are significant for a particular workplace is as simple as searching through ye olde email inbox to see what sorts of information staff are generally sending out. Announcements of events happening in and around the library; new developments in databases or online sources; technical problems with photocopiers, printers, microfilm readers, or other equipment; lost items; class information and specifics regarding assignments; new print sources added to reference, or other significant sets; meeting minutes, etc. If circumstances demanded, a reference blog could have categories for each subject area to note any significant problems or interesting questions that arise in specific disciplines. This would make it easy to find class-related information and for subject librarians to keep tabs on the needs of the students in their disciplines. The blog archive could act as a record of frequently-asked-questions for specific classes and thus a resource for reference staff.

When we introduced the idea of a reference blog to the head of reference this summer, she had an additional category idea; just general chatter. As head of the department, she wanted to know in general how things are going; was it really busy on the desk today? What interesting things are happening, good as well as bad? What general problems are people encountering? What’s the general student mood? Are they stressed out? Are reference desk staff feeling cut off? Do they feel not properly trained on a piece of equipment or particular source? Did someone go looking for something in an obvious place and not find it? She wanted a category for the general, so she could scan it regularly and get a sense of what’s going on and how everyone is doing.

So how does RSS fit in? With only one blog, there is hardly any need to syndicate. With a good archive (which most blogging software has) and good categories, staff can simply use the website itself rather than aggregating its content. Having no new clients to download to their own computers is a bonus; the blog would be one stop shopping for most mass communication needs. A good blog archive structure can take away the need to store this information in a feed reader. For front-line staff and subject librarians, bookmarking the blog and possibly one or two category indexes would probably be enough.

But there are other complications. Many academic libraries exist as part of a system; at Western Libraries where I did my co-op term, there are seven libraries and thus seven reference desks, and I know many other systems are larger than that. Administrators will not want to keep track of seven or more separate blogs recording everything that happens; they need categorical RSS feeds so they can choose the categories they want to follow from each library and read them in the comfort of a solid RSS reader. This gives administrators an “at-a-glance” sense of what’s going on in the libraries and gives them the opportunity to dig deeper into any particular issue.

Shout it out
In an educational context, we want a blog that represents the student’s thinking, and then a page that represents the thinking of all other participants in class, with opportunities to comment and engage in a discussion. But the administration context is a bit different. It’s all at once an archive, a newspaper, and an alerting system, but not a record of personal thoughts and opinions. The people who use it are busy and don’t want to look in more than one place for information and updates, either. How can we keep all information relevant to the staff in one place?

What if we have an option that adds a particular post to every library’s blog? This is arguably dangerous. To compare with LiveJournal, this is the equivalent to posting to a community, but instead having that post hit everyone’s personal blog rather than one communal blog. The key difference here is that each blog is not personal; it is already communal. A system-wide option would allow higher-level managers make announcements that appear in a local space; a notice that appears in every local paper, so to speak. It would also allow each library to communicate important information with the entire system with one post, without sending mass email.

My monitor just exploded!
My goals with an administrative blog are clearly bent on keeping all the important information in one place rather than scattering it to a feed reader or page buried somewhere behind a link. In the structure I’ve laid out, there are a variety of categories for a variety of things, much of which might not be useful to staff in departments. However, certain categories might be extremely important to someone in another department.

At the library where I worked in the summer, there was a very carefully-constructed alert system created to let the LITS (Library Information Technology Services) people know when there were computer problems. Staff filled in a help form, which was sent to a generic email address that LITS staff took turns monitoring. That email was cc’ed to the entire reference staff, keeping everyone in the know about things technical.

What if we had a blog category for computer related posts? This would have the effect of keeping the entire staff informed of problems. But blogs aren’t the quickest way of getting the word out. Sometimes those help emails were dire; “the computers in the reference hall are down!” When those computers went out, they went out all together, as one 400-seat unit. That’s are emergency situation in an academic library. LITS received the same kind of alert messages from all seven libraries in the system.

A good RSS reader at LITS could keep everyone on the ball; a reader could check the feeds every few minutes for problems or questions. I trust RSS to get the message out fast, but RSS alone doesn’t seem like enough. There are lots of different questions that get sent on to LITS, and not all of them are emergencies. LITS could subscribe to all computer-related categories at the seven libraries, which would keep them in touch with all technical problems, questions, and issues. That in itself would confront a whole host of problems related to communication issues within the system, including keeping an archive of a problem so that a history of it exists (What if, for instance, printing always goes down at 2pm every other Thursday?) as well as alerting the rest of the related staff to the problem. But what if the category itself included an emergency flag that sent out an email notification to an address tagged by the category? That way, if smoke started pouring out of a monitor, the blog itself could act as recorder, archive, and emergency help line all at once.

That functionality could work its way through the entire system, allowing an administrator or subject librarian to be notified if something dire is happening in an area under their supervision, or simply if their attention or comment is required. This way staff could still get in touch with someone in a hurry using email without actually having to use multiple systems for recording information.

Keeping up with the Joneses
Blogging software is not new, but it’s still barely breaking into the larger world. What librarians and administrators need to understand is that blogs aren’t just journals; they are complex content management systems that have a lot of offer to a variety of environments. Since information and information delivery is supposed to be our area of expertise, it seems to me that it behooves us to get in touch with some of this software. And on the flip side: working in a information-heavy, blog-free environment was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. Everywhere I looked I saw another task that a blog could take over.

Now we just have to get down to actually writing the software for it. Unless someone else gets around to it before we do.

Edublog Revisited

Edublog Revisited

Long ago a small group of educators got together and formed a group called Edublog. The point, as I recall, was to create blogs for educational use; to promote the use of blogging packages in an educational context. The end goal was, I think, to build an educational blogging system, designed specifically with the classroom in mind.

It never happened. The players got busy or got different jobs or for other reasons scattered to the winds, and not much ever happened on the edublog agenda. Of course lots of people have seen the potential for weblogs in the classroom, and lots of people have made good use of the resources that are there.

But now I think it’s time to revisit the original purpose of Edublog, and after lots of careful attention to different available weblog packages and the particular needs and pressures of the classrooms I have known, I think I know what direction we should have gone. And the direction we should go.

What’s prompting me on this is the recent purchase of livejournal by Six Apart, the creators of Movable Type. As I’ve said, I have both a livejournal (LJ) and a Movable Type (MT) blog. I’ve also had a Blogger blog, though I shifted it over to an MT blog long before Blogger was purchased by Google. Looking at them all as a longtime student and a recently-minted librarian, I am starting to see what a true edublog system should look like.

One Journal for Many Purposes
For the end user, the student, the world of blogging for class could be extremely overwhelming. Let’s say the blogging revolution really takes off and five out of five instructors are asking students to blog their comments on lectures, readings, and to participate in online classroom discussions via blogs. Would they be required to have five separate blogs?

In the universe of Blogger and Movable Type, the answer would be maybe. The student could have one blogging account and five separate blogs, each with a separate updating interface. Or, a student could have one blog and five categories, effectively separating content into different segments, and classmates and instructors could read the categories page rather than the main journal. This is cumbersome and doesn’t support the multiplicity of uses to which the blog is being put. Categories on MT are fantastic, but they are only a first step.

In the world of livejournal, the answer would also be maybe. For livejournal what you might have is a separate community blog for each class, so while the student has one blog, she would be posting class-related posts to five separate communities. In that case, the actual blog would be irrelevant. The markable content, the required content, would be on a community blog, eliminating the confusion of going and looking for categories. Or students could simply keep all their classroom thoughts on one LJ, and have the instructor worry about where that content is aggregated to. Say, all students from the class “friend” each other (as is done on livejournal), and the instructor “friends” all the students, and any posts relevant to the class would automatically end up on everyone’s plate.

But if you have mutiple classes? Concievably livejournal could still handle this scenario; the student could create a filter for each class, and then post specifically to a filter (locking out anyone not on that filter). But this is convoluted and complicated and puts the onus back on the student to create filters and sort content. While MT creates categories to organize your content, livejournal creates filters to organize your audience.

I have a suggestion for how this can work; one blog, multiple classes, filtered content by category and by audience or class. Livejournal aggregates its own content very well; what if you could merge the concept of categories on MT and the filter on LJ? What about a blog with categories and a separate RSS feed for each? In this scenario, the student writes a post, uses a dropdown menu to choose the category, and the content is then forwarded on via RSS to the right audience. For the student, their own work is presented to them by the date they created it, all their content together in one place. They could view their own content by category (which is what MT offers now), and they would also have the option of viewing all content by classmates and their instructor or TA as an aggregated “friends page” as on livejournal, one for every class. Aggregated categories.

This way, students have an easily-accessed connection point to all of their classmates posts about class, while not having to see their thoughts on other classes or personal musings unrelated to class. These RSS categories could be controlled by the instructors directly, so that students enrolling in a class will automatically have that class show up as one of their RSS categories. Students are not merely directing their comments and questions at the instructor; they are engaging with the entire class.

The next important piece of an edublog system is a sophisticated commenting structure. Currently MT comments are extremely simple; you leave a comment under a post and it records your name and the date you left the comment, that’s it. Comments are great, and this system encourages users to leave comments for the post itself, not to engage with others who are commenting. Livejournal has extremely sophisticated comments, and long debates and ensue within them. This is because livejournal does two things; it allows comments to be threaded, like a message board, so that you can reply directly to a specific comment, and also because livejournal allows users who comment to receive email notification of replies, not only the author of the post. I think a system of comments more like LJ’s would be extremely useful and effective for an edublog system whose goal is not only to allow students to note down comments in a public forum, but also for encouraging communication between students.

I have been considering the “locking” mechanisms of livejournal. I’m not a great locker of posts myself, so I am hard-pressed to encourage such a thing. For an educational blog, my gut on this is to say that you can filter your content by allowing posts to go this way and that, and that you can create content that is not aggregated anywhere. You can write a post that goes only on your own page and nowhere else. Why lock posts?

On livejournal, locked posts are often where users discuss things they would not want the general audience of their “friends lists” to know they are discussing. These might include party plans, personal details, or gossip and backstabbing. As far as I’m concerned, none of these things are particularly appropriate on an educationally-related blog. While I have no qualms with anyone making reference to their personal life and personal struggles in a public forum, students should be aware that any content placed on a university server (and this includes email) is the property of the university. Students wanting to say something private and possibly inflammatory about a person at the university without others knowing about it probably shouldn’t be saying it on university hardware. I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t say it. I would just not encourage the use of “locking”, which only provides a false sense of security.

The biggest and most obvious reason for locking posts, I would think, is the plagiarism problem. What if a student were to post (as I’m doing) a long rant that could work its way into someone else’s essay or thesis? What if one student’s intellectual labour becomes another student’s good grade?

Blogging is not like taking notes or writing an essay, though I think it can certainly fulfill those functions. Blogging is publishing, and opening up the floodgates and letting undergraduates publish their thoughts on what they’re learning is a good thing. In using online technologies as part of classroom instruction, professors need to be aware of the issues they raise, and while posting discussion questions is a good thing, they should never take the form of exam questions or essay questions. I’ve heard of English professors who specifically pair up strange books on exam questions so that students can’t go online and find easy answers; instructors using blogs need to be conscious that while they are giving students work that can be marked, they shouldn’t be using a blog as a makeshift exam or as a timestamp method for receiving essays. Students shouldn’t be asked to share that kind of work with a class as a whole, or a university community as a whole. While creating the technology is interesting and challenging, determining exactly how that technology can and should be used is an equally daunting task.

There has been debate about automated plagiarism checkers like Students are being asked to submit their work to a database without acknowledging that student work is the property of the student, not the professor or the university. Rather than determine who has intellectual property rights around content, I would suggest that an edublog system simply work with systems like to allow bots to crawl the content regularly. Students don’t need to part with the content; in publishing it, they allow others to read it, including bots who will parse it and remember that it exists. The system could disallow Google bots and msn bots and other major search engines, keeping other students from easily finding edublog content.

I feel conflicted about how to cope with so much online information and plagiarism; in the end I feel that it’s up to the instructor to make sure her testing methods are foolproof. There are still serious benefits to the in-class, pen and paper exam with questions carefully crafted around lectures, in-class speakers, specific points that arose from discussion, and comparison between specific readings set for the course.

Blogging and the Instructor
When I first started talking about blogging in the classroom back in 2001, some of the initial reactions went something like this: “Well, that’s a lot more marking to do.” I found this comment irritating; as an instructor, do you want more participation, or less marking? As a long-time student, I am frustrated that encouraging my participation simply means more work for an instructor. But I think the reaction is coming from linking all written work together. If students are writing stuff, each post should be marked, no? Each post should have a letter grade?

I think blogging should be compared not with written work but with spoken participation. Instructors should keep track of what’s going on in blog posts and conversation (Who’s doing lots of thoughtful commenting? Who’s never commenting?), but should save the grading of it for specific times, like at quarters or at midterm and the end of term. Each student should have a comment history for each category, so that instructors can easily assess frequency of comments. Posts are all archived by category, and a quick perusal a few times a term will give an instructor a sense of how much thought went into the blog for that term. In terms of strict grading, I think instructors should allocate a fairly small percentage of the overall grade to blogging participation (10-20%), and determine only if that participation is poor, good, or excellent.

But the benefit of blogging goes beyond the grading side. Use the blogs can help students with their work, or help with understanding. When a student posts an interesting idea, leave a comment telling them so, suggesting a paper on that topic or recommending further reading. Correct a student’s assumptions when they are wrong. Commiserate with student outrage at a historical wrongdoing or a hateful character in a book. If one student posts something particularly interesting or controversial, post yourself and link to it, asking other students what they think. As the instructor you are also part of this community, dwelling on issues that helping students learn about the world they live in and helping them to develop critical thinking skills. For students unlikely to have the confidence to pipe up in class, a blog post, which will appear among many others, may help students break out of their shells.

Spending serious time using different blogging systems, and keeping an ear to the ground for new modifications and advances in software, leads to an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve found that blogging long enough has let me see what’s possible and what would be useful. Now, all we need is the time and the money, and we can get to work writing some new software.

I have ideas about how this blogging system can be used from an institutional point of view as well (interoffice communication), but I’ll leave that for another post.