Blogs@Baruch Semester in Review: Part Four, Extra-Curricular Blogging

The Baruch College community has begun to see Blogs@Baruch not just as a blogging platform or substitute course management system, but also as powerful tool for meeting a wide range of self-publishing needs.

Screen shot 2009-12-17 at 12.30.35 PMA variety of constituencies at the College have begun using the system for a range of internal and external communication. We have some fantastic librarians at the Newman Library, and they’re using Blogs@Baruch for a Reference Blog, an Idea Lab, and a Graduate Research Blog. They’ve also begun using CommentPress to discuss a Library Planning document. The Institute shares many interests and goals with the College’s librarians, and we have so much to learn from them. I’m particularly interested in collaborating with them to explore the role of technology and self-publishing in cultivating digital literacies among our students. This semester’s conversations were a great start.

Screen shot 2009-12-17 at 12.29.08 PMThe Baruch College Honors Program has begun using Blogs@Baruch this semester for a number of projects. They’re now hosting their homepage on the site, taking advantage of WordPress’ elegant content management features, and offering the staff an easy way to stay in contact with students (current and prospective). Also, first year Baruch Scholars have been given their own blogs to cultivate over their careers here, and their posts aggregate here. This is envisioned as a kind-of low stakes eportfolio project: give the students the space, and encourage (but don’t require) them to explore it. Another interesting Honors publishing initiative is the Change For Kids blog, where students working as reading tutors in a number of New York City elementary schools are blogging about their experiences, taking advantage of the opportunity to collaboratively reflect on and work through the challenges of working with children. Kudos to the Baruch Honors Program!

Frank Fletcher, the Executive Director of the Graduate Programs at the Zicklin School of Business, has been spearheading the business school’s move towards self-publishing. Frank has been encouraging his colleagues in Zicklin to explore a variety of initiatives on Blogs@Baruch over the past six months, and is now publishing to Lexington 24:25, where he’ll highlights developments in the MBA program and “identify emerging needs and trends in management education.” We look forward to supporting Zicklin, particularly in their efforts to connect Baruch students with potential employers and alumni.

Screen shot 2009-12-17 at 12.27.53 PMThree journals are now hosted on Blogs@Baruch. Lexington Universal Circuit: A Journal of Economics and Politics is edited and authored by Baruch undergrads, launched last month (see details here), and we look forward to seeing that project continue to evolve. Dollars & Sense, which used to publish the selected journalism of Baruch students once a year as a beautiful (but costly to produce) magazine, now publishes on a rolling basis, for free, using Blogs@Baruch. While I myself miss the bound hard copy version, and see this transition as a microcosm of the larger troubles facing journalism, I’m happy that the faculty members who oversee the project– Josh Mills and Andrea Gabor– see the opportunities that are made available by self-publishing. For instance, student work produced in the fall doesn’t need to wait until the spring for publication; a wider range of work can be featured; and it’s now easier to share the work of our students with a much broader audience. Finally, iMagazine, the journal of student writing overseen by the Baruch College Writing Center, is in the process of migrating to Blogs@Baruch; stay tuned for a launch early next calendar year at this url.

There are other ongoing initiatives: the journalism department is using Blogs@Baruch to plan a new The East 20s, a food news site being created by the Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch, and to serve the multimedia reporting of its students. The Baruch College Teaching Blog remains active. And, well, we can even include as a Blogs@Baruch initiative; our fellows have simply been killing it this semester.

These are just a few of the most exciting non course-based uses of Blogs@Baruch; there are others in the planning stages that promise to take advantage of the power of this publishing platform to create unique opportunities for members of the Baruch community to interact with each other and audiences beyond the campus. One is our plan to support selected student bloggers who’ll be tasked with chronicling their lives at the College for a broader audience. I’ve often said that we have the most interesting students in the world, but few of them know just how interesting they are. Blogs@Baruch, by providing multiple paths into the work our students and faculty are doing, makes the case more powerfully than I ever could.

Blogs@Baruch Semester in Review: Part Three, Course Blogging

Blogs@Baruch was used in approximately two dozen courses this semester, in disciplines that included Fine and Performing Arts, English, Sociology/Anthropology, Journalism, Library Information Systems, Communication, History, and Management.

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WPMu continues to provide a flexible platform for our faculty members to structure and explore online communication and composition in their courses. Course blogs this semester have been used to aggregate individual student portfolios in a Do-It-Yourself Publishing course, for students to share and comment upon Shakespeare Scene Studies, to blog about journalism internships (password protected), to write about food and sustainable agriculture, and to show off their multi-media reporting. Students have debated current events on a blog devoted to reading and discussing the New York Times (password protected), blogged about blogging as journalists, and added stories to Writing New York. Some faculty members have been using Blogs@Baruch as their course management system, while others have used it to try to create public writing opportunities for their students.

For a full listing of course blogs, see our “projects” page.

One project in particular embodied the excitement some faculty members and students bring to their work on Blogs@Baruch. Professor Shelly Eversley, in the English Department, had her American Literature students produce pod and vodcasts that analyzed texts they had encountered over the course of the semester. Buoyed by Cogdog’s “The Fifty Tools”, I did an hour in class on free digital story telling tools (including Voice Thread, Yodio, Gabcast, and Podcast People), and also gave some advice on how to construct a story that balanced narrative, analysis, and style. The students produced amazing work, which they collected here in advance of their voting for the initial American Literature Podcast Awards (the ALPs). They ended the semester with an awards ceremony, and have continued to post their thoughts about the class to the blog in the week since.

Here’s two of my favorite videos from the class:

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YouTube Preview Image

Prof. Eversley’s project exemplifies the useful energy that multimedia tools can help students invest in their coursework. These projects are not substitutes for the critical engagement with a text or a canon that some might argue can only be attained through writing an essay; rather, they are additional paths towards that engagement. These students were excited about showing off their work, used the city as a laboratory and an archive, helped each other master the technology, and showed deep engagement with their chosen texts. This is good teaching and learning, and we’re happy to support any faculty member who challenges herself and her students to use a variety of tools and literacies in their effort to produce knowledge.

Kudos to all of our intrepid faculty and their students for providing us with yet more examples of innovative pedagogy on Blogs@Baruch. We look forward to Spring 2010, and in particular two film courses that will be taught on the system. Blogfessors, come on down!

Blogs@Baruch Semester in Review: Part Two, FRO Blogging

Approximately 1200 incoming first year students at Baruch participated in the first phase of our experimental integration of Blogs@Baruch into the Freshman Orientation Seminar. They wrote to blogs in approximately sixty individual sections, and their posts were syndicated on the FRO Motherblog.


As I noted a couple of months ago, we had severe constraints in launching this project, so we focused primarily on the technological implications of getting it off the ground. We didn’t have sufficient time to either develop a well thought-out curriculum or to work with the Peer Mentors who oversaw the sections to help them pedagogically manage the work of their students. We might have had we gone with a pilot project, but for various reasons that suggestion was scuttled, and we proceeded full-bore.

These caveats aside, I think the project was a resounding success. It’s generated a staggering amount of data and also some important questions for us to address, and also helped us see what’s possible with more thoughtful design and oversight.

More than 6200 posts have been authored by first year students and aggregated into a single space. The vast majority of these posts are student reactions to a variety of “Enrichment Workshops” that they were required to attend. As you might imagine, many of the posts are more descriptive than analytical, and some come across as check boxes to be completed on the way to a requirement. The best posts, however, evidence deep and enthusiastic engagement with the workshops or with other elements of transitioning to life at Baruch.

We’ve already begun to discuss with our colleagues Mark Spergel and Shadia Sachedina how we can encourage posts that students are excited to write and also to read and comment upon. We plan to come up with a range of models and prompts that students can choose from that intersect with some of our broader goals for the project: cultivating digital literacy in our students (I plan to talk and think more with Boone Gorges about this), easing their social and intellectual transition to college, and helping them more nimbly and thoughtfully integrate social media into academic work. I envision a series of assignments that build towards these curricular goals, while also generating the kind of shared reflection that our colleagues in Student Life want to see. I also think we have the great opportunity to show off what interesting lives our students lead. This is a unique institution, and blogging in Freshman Seminar can show the world just what Baruch College and CUNY are about.

The Peer Mentors are key to this improved design.  We’ll expand the training that they get so they’re better prepared to guide their charges. Next semester, four sections of Freshman Seminar are running, so we finally get to run that pilot project we originally envisioned, though with the implications of scaling the thing up already known.  In the summer we’ll likely do some outreach directly to incoming students before school starts so that they are aware of this component of Freshman Seminar, and can hit the ground blogging.

As we plan a new design, we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to make sense of all of the data we’ve collected. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to design an assessment of data that’s been collected without assessment forefront in mind. Ryan Androsiglio, a psychologist in the Baruch Counseling Center, is helping us look at the project to see what questions can reasonably be asked of it.

We were able to perform a much less formal assessment of the program by soliciting feedback from Peer Mentors and First Year Students themselves. Both groups were between lukewarm and mildly-positive in their feedback, and each desired more leeway in what was blogged about and how.  The Peer Mentors I spoke with were quite clear that the strongest component of the project was the social cohesion it encouraged among the students in their seminars.

For a commuter campus like Baruch, FRO blogging has become a powerful tool simply because it creates more opportunities to interact. To encourage this, we’re seriously considering integrating BuddyPress into FRO 2010.

The social benefits of FRO blogging are already crystal clear; we now need to work on defining reasonable curricular goals, and a plan to implement them.

Blogs@Baruch Semester in Review: Part One, Triumph and Tribulation

We’re winding down another eventful semester on Blogs@Baruch, and over the next few days I’d like to offer some reflections about where we’ve been and where we’re going. Our usership has tripled, and we’ve also expanded to serve a much broader range of constituencies at the college. This broadening and deepening has taught me much about the opportunities and challenges of supporting Baruch’s use of this powerful open source publishing platform.

Mikhail Gershovich accepts the Mike Ribaudo Award at the 8th Annual CUNY IT Conference

Mikhail Gershovich accepts the Mike Ribaudo Award at the 8th Annual CUNY IT Conference

Two events over the last ten days drew into sharp focus what we have accomplished and also some of the challenges we face. At the 8th Annual CUNY IT Conference, the Schwartz Institute was awarded the Michael Ribaudo Award for Innovation in Technology. Mikhail, Suzanne, Tom, and I were recognized along with administrative teams from John Jay and the CUNY First project, as well as our good friend Matt Gold, Project Director for the CUNY Academic Commons. The Commons is like a sister project to Blogs@Baruch, since we’re using the same software, and we share ideas, labor, and a philosophy about what support for technology at the university level should entail.

It was an honor to be recognized for our innovations and, especially, to share the honor with Matt, since it signaled to the broader CUNY community that the work we’re undertaking is not only viable, but forward-looking and vital to the work of the University. At the risk of sounding like an ingrate, though, I noted that the certificates we received read that this was an “Information Technology” award. I’ve made the point before, and will make it again: instructional technology is not information technology. This is actually acknowledged in how the Ribaudo is awarded, as it’s split between the two areas (even if the split is not represented on the certificate). This is more than a semantic argument: we need to encourage our communities to understand the differences and to constantly reexamine how the University’s information technology architecture relates to and interacts with the deployment of technology in the service of teaching, learning, and scholarship.

It’s always nice to get an award, and last week brought hearty congratulations from inside and outside the Baruch community. In the midst of these pats on the back, however, I learned a little bit more about the difference between information technology and instructional technology. At approximately 7pm on Wednesday evening I happened to look at one of our blogs, and saw the dreaded:

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(What follows is a bit technical: click here to jump to the rub).

The error appeared on all subdirectory blogs, while the main blog was completely white. I logged into the command line, verified that MYSQL was running, and saw that the load on our server was fine. The documentation I was able to find suggested either a MYSQL problem or a plugin conflict; I deleted all plugins, with no improvement. Now, instead of the “Error Establishing a Database Connection” I was getting what geeks refer to as the “White Screen of Death” across the entire installation. Having exhausted pretty much the extent of my command line knowledge, I sent out emails to our contacts at BCTC, and waited for a response.

A couple hours later, I was contacted by a sysadmin at BCTC; he had gamely returned to work on his way home from the gym to take a look at our server. He immediately noticed that the directory that holds Blogs@Baruch was about 98% full. We knew that we were approaching space limits, but I had (mis)calculated that we could make it to the end of the semester (when we’ll be moving the entire installation over to a new server). I was puzzled, however, because we had this issue once before and it didn’t cause an outage– it just caused an error in our database backups that resolved as soon as we opened up space. I hoped opening space would clear up our problem, but it did not.

We both thought that the database needed to be repaired, but neither of us were comfortable issuing the repair commands. The admin at BCTC contacted MYSQL, and got assistance repairing and then restarting MYSQL. 1 am, no improvement. We’d have to wait until morning.

At 6 am I took another look at the server to see if I had missed anything, and began to respond to users who were emailing about the site. I posted a query to our premium support forum with Automattic describing the problem, and got a quick response from Donncha, the lead developer of WPMu. Unfortunately, my question included a distracting error that I found in the log that was caused by a bad Phpinfo file I had put on our server (in my haste I wrote the file in Text Edit at home, which put additional characters into the file that I wasn’t able to see). Donncha thought we might have been hacked, and asked me to check our .htaccess files, which looked ok. I caught my mistake, and explained it (along with a note apologizing for not being a system administrator). Apparently I wasn’t clear, because Donncha kept pursuing the PHP error… we weren’t communicating well. He suggested I use error_log() to track down where the PHP problem was.

In the meantime, emails and phone calls from users were flowing in, and I did my best to explain to as many as possible that we were investigating the problem and should be live again soon. Internally, though, I wasn’t so sure; we had exhausted our knowledge and the knowledge in the free forums, and the premium forum to which I was posting wasn’t yielding results. Jim Groom suggested we contact Ron and Andrea Rennick, who I refer to as the “WPMu Wonder Couple,” to see if they might be able to help us out.

Within 3 hrs of Jim’s suggestion, BCTC had vetted Ron and granted him temporary access to our server; he located and fixed the problem in about 20 minutes. In the meantime, Barry Abrahamson, who runs the servers for and also posts to the premium support forum, had offered to do the same.

Turns out the problem was one that I had caused while trying to fix the space issue. When I deleted the plugins in mu-plugins, I failed to delete the Supercache file that sits outside of the plugins folder, inside of wp-content. I also deleted the existing cached pages. Ron concluded that:

Once you ran out of disk space, pages expiring in supercache were being refreshed as empty files. Eventually nearly all of your pages were cached as empty files. I disabled supercache by renaming advanced-cache.php in wp-content. MU checks for the file and includes it in the processing if it exists.

He later added:

I did some testing locally and reproduced the white screen by deleting the contents of the cached version of the index.

Here’s the rub: we got through it. Ultimately this was two small problems masquerading as a big one. We ran out of space, then I failed to properly disable a powerful plugin running on our system, which disabled the entire install. We were down less than 20hrs, and that was only because I wasn’t systematic enough to pick up on the way Supercache works. To a certain extent, something like this was inevitable. All sites go down, even the Big G. It’s the risk you run when you work online, and reasonable end users can accept it– it helps if those running the site aspire towards transparency.

The outage confirmed my belief in open source applications, and particularly the communal ethos that (often) animates them. Three friends: Boone Gorges, Jim, and Zach Davis, offered assistance as soon as they learned of the problem, and moral support because they’ve each been in similar situations. The offers of hands-on help were reassuring, but I didn’t really need them because I was already in contact with the three most knowledgeable WPMu people in the world.

The outage also reminded me that being able to type stuff at the command line and get stuff in return does not make one a system administrator. I’m a humble educational technologist, and I depend on information technology to get my work done. When the lines are blurred– and I blurred them here more out of necessity than conceit– trouble may ensue. Had I been able to look holistically at the problem and troubleshoot it methodically, I probably could have caught the error. But inexperience and the pressure of supporting 3k+ users clouded my vision and convinced me the solution to the problem was out of my reach. These are valuable lessons to carry forward on this project.

Within an hour of Blogs@Baruch going backup, Baruch College’s enews arrived in my mailbox, containing a congratulations to the Institute on the Ribaudo Award. I clicked on a link and landed happily at our pretty little homepage, which was humming nicely along. When I closed my laptop, I still managed to feel pretty good about the week.

PS: I’ve learned that the following cultural artifact can help one oversee an enterprise publishing platform: