The CUNY IT Conference: Notes Towards an Open (Source) University

Finally, and fittingly, the last session I attended featured Famed Friend of the Institute James Groom, who offered his “Notes Towards an Open (Source) University.” Prof. Groom’s views have been well-represented on this blog, and though I urged him to rename his talk “Waging War on the Proprietary-Software University,” his diplomatic disposition clung to the more affirmative appellation. Groom’s presentation asked, in a way, why pay lots of dough for something mediocre when you can get something fantabulous for free? He presented and discussed a few cutting edge open source course management systems, showed how certain packages can be modified for use in the classroom, and asked the very important questions: why aren’t more folks exploring this stuff at a place like CUNY, and why is open source so underrepresented at this conference? The answer, it seems, was hinted at by one of the items raffled off at the close of the conference… Blackboard provided tee-shirts for the raffle! Drupal, WordPress, and Sakai ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for (and with) them. Who knew the open source movement was so selfish?

(note: A few audience members were flabbergasted when the gentleman who followed James Groom, Florian Lengyel, Assistant Director for Research Computing at the CUNY Graduate Center, showed us that open source has recently become a more significant presence at the Graduate Center. See here.)

The Aesthetics of the Virtual Learning Space

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the aesthetics of the virtual space, and how it can impact the amounts and types of traffic to an online learning tool. What got me thinking about this was my attempt to answer the question of how weblogs used as instructional tools were different than “learning management systems” like Blackboard and WebCT. Blackboard, like the course blogs I advocate, can easily transfer a wide-array of file types, and allows for participant discussion (though in a significantly less flexible manner than blogs). If the primary benefit of the blog over Blackboard as an instructional tool lay in its malleability to the purpose of a teacher, then I would say that running a close second in terms of a separating difference is the aesthetic potential of a blog over a Blackboard site. And, obviously, those two points are related.

I’ve seen some good Blackboard sites in the past, and have used it myself effectively in the teaching of the American history survey. I’ve never, however, heard any faculty member or any student say “what a great Blackboard site! Wow!” Instructional blogs that I’ve seen in circulation, however, have “wowed” frequently. This is likely not a newsflash to anyone with experience using these technologies.

The “wow” factor, on the surface, seems to have little pedagogical value, and it’s vulnerable to accusations of the elevation of style over substance. But I don’t think it should be completely discounted as an element of our efforts to bring students to our material through online teaching tools. Creating an inviting virtual space, with a logic and an aesthetic that flow from the purpose and materials of the course, can help students see that space as an extension of the learning that is happening concurrently in the classroom. It can help them feel a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership, and can help them feel that they are participating in something unique. I can’t help but believe that this feeling translates to the way that students approach the material and the assignments on the site. I’ve seen it work well and not so well, and I look forward to exploring it more in my teaching. Blackboard’s aesthetic, with its heinous buttons and familiar logic, tends to generalize online learning. It’s much more likely to produce a “duh” than a “wow.”

I don’t want to open a war on Blackboard here, because I do think it can be effective as a teaching tool, and it’s certainly easier to master than a blog. I just want to drive home the point that we are dealing with spaces here, and virtual though they may be, how they look and act impacts the way we teach in them and the ways that students learn in them. When we’re in the classroom, there are different methods we can use to engage students: mastery of the material, ability to spin a tale, and asking probing and demanding questions are a few that come to mind. Those methods are still available to us in the virtual space, to be sure, but face-to-face contact is not. Just as the personality of the teacher is an important element of his or her ability to engage a class, so too is the personality of an online teaching space. This personality is developed through an attention to aesthetics.

The Seminar on Instructional Technology: Blogging Across the Curriculum

The Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute and BCTC present

The Seminar on Instructional Technology: Blogging Across the Curriculum

Wednesday, November 1, 2006
12:30 pm-2pm, VC 14-285

This roundtable discussion will explore the implications of new instructional media including weblogs and wikis for teaching and learning. Participants will consider ways in which these new media have been incorporated in undergraduate courses at Baruch and elsewhere as a means of encouraging active learning and facilitating write-to-learn activities.

Lunch will be served.

Please RSVP to

ABOUT THE SEMINAR: The Seminar on Instructional Technology is envisioned as the first in a series co-sponsored by the Schwartz Institute and BCTC. The goals of this first meeting are to cultivate interest in blogs, to build a community of faculty and staff interested in instructional technology, and to begin to construct a support structure that will maximize the pedagogical benefits of the college’s use of blogs. The seminar is organized by Mikhail Gershovich, Director, Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute; Luke Waltzer, CUNY Writing Fellow; Jim Russell, Director of Instructional Technology; and Patrick Ackerman-Hovis, College Website Administrator.

Technology and the Public/Private Divide

In the Metro section of the October 10, 2006 New York Times, an article appeared about a police investigation into the case of a Brooklyn man named Michael Sandy, who was hit by a car after two men pushed him onto the Belt Parkway near Sheepshead Bay. The article featured a screenshot of Mr. Sandy’s Friendster homepage, and summarized information about him gleaned from the site.

Sandy Friendster
Michael Sandy’s Friendster page as it appeared on page B6 of the New York Times on October 10, 2006.
(Sinister technology-related update to this case here, Times subscription required).

While I know from conversations with real live journalists that they often use resources like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook in their research and reporting, this was the first instance in which I’ve seen an actual reproduction of a page from such a site in a newspaper (though I admittedly haven’t been looking too hard for it). If users didn’t realize how “public” these public sites really are, the Old Gray Lady’s screen grab should make it perfectly clear. (for a related post, see Kate Moss’s “Excuse me sir, but your online persona is showing.”

The relationship between technology and the question of what’s public and private has come up recently in our conversations about how to stimulate blog usage within the Baruch community. When BCTC rolls out its Movable Type blogging package, all Baruch blogs will come equipped with a disclaimer that indemnifies the college against the worst efforts of community users. What’s not clear yet is whether these blogs will be open to the public, restricted to the Baruch community, or restricted to a group determined by the blog’s administrator.

I feel strongly that course blogs should be seen initially only as an extension of the classroom for the use of participants in the class, and that they should be closed off from the public unless the community they immediately serve wants them to be open. A learning community–faculty and students–should be able to take advantage of the ease of information transfer afforded by new technologies without worrying about who’s watching (tenure committees, parents, and intellectually property attorneys come to mind!). At the same time, we are trying to study how course blogs are being used across academia, and we are finding that our access to them is frustrated by the very philosophy we embrace.

The solution, it would seem, is some combination of public/private sections in a course blog, where only collectively approved content goes out over the airwaves. Ultimately at Baruch we hope to build a community of faculty who can share their blogging experiences with and learn from one another. Whatever happens, though, users—faculty and students—should be educated about the implications of their choices and should know who, potentially, has access to any work they put up on a server.

The BLSCI’s Blogging Series

Do universities lead, or do they follow? Well, clearly, the answer is “both.” When it comes to weblogs, universities have been gradually climbing on the bandwagon over the past few years. By now, blogging is no longer “hot,” in the way that things “here to stay” cool down as they become ingrained into a society. Blogging has clearly made its biggest splash in the realm of journalism, mostly via partisan news blogs and the attempts of the more staid media institutions to acclimate themselves to the new ways that readers have learned to read and to look. Of course, there are important implications for the Fourth Estate (hands wrung about it here).

What’s yet to be determined, though, is the range of directions blogging will go (Vlogging is one definite; integration with social networking sites is another). As is normally the case, colleges and universities will lead– it’s up to them to really think about and experiment around this question, and we may be reaching a “tipping point” in that process. More and more universities are making blogging services available to their communities of faculty, staff, and students. These blogs are being used in a variety of ways, from the instructional to the communal to the entreprenuerial to the personal. This process has not yet been studied or reported upon in any great detail, as far as I know (well, there’s this). Universities will be doing that, too.

Locally, Baruch College will be rolling out its own blogging service using Movable Type this Fall, and the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute is currently supporting faculty who are interested in learning a little or a lot about the medium.

The promise of blogging for teaching is, of course, in the ease and variety of communication the medium allows. Given the scalability of weblogs and their speed of information exchange, their implications for teaching are profound. In an era where students seem to be doing less and less writing in their classes, course weblogs are a potential curative. They offer faculty a way to extend their classrooms and diversify their interactions with students. If used well, blogs can aid the transfer of textual, visual, and technological literacy, and also provide students with regular outlets for expression. Such tools, if used with discipline, can only bolster liberal education.

Weblogging in higher education has already been discussed on CAC.OPHONY in great detail, thanks to efforts of Kate, Deborah, Jill, and Mikhail. Let’s bring it back up to the top, and see what type of conversation we can generate. What, then, are productive weblog projects for courses, beyond what have already been discussed? What can universities do to get the most out of the weblogs they support? The Institute will be thinking about and reporting on these questions over the coming academic year. We’d be interested in hearing from any visitors who have strong thoughts, examples to share, or probing questions on the matter.