Freshbloggers

This semester, we’re managing our largest lift on Blogs@Baruch yet. In addition to an increasing variety of projects that I’ll blog about in the coming weeks, every Freshman Seminar at Baruch currently is blogging. That’s roughly 60 sections, populated by over 1200 students.

Baruch Freshmen at Convocation, September 2009. Click to see photo in its original location.

Yowser.

Each Seminar is directed by a Peer Mentor, a talented upper level Baruch student responsible for helping newcomers adjust to life at Baruch. The seminars meet every other week, and Freshpersons are required to attend lectures, panels, exhibits, seminars, and trainings, distributed across six “enrichment” areas over the course of the term. Then they’re supposed to blog about their experiences, and discuss them when they meet with their classmates.

Launching the project was a bit of bear, as we had to create the blogs, get the users registered, tie the whole deal together, and give some training to the Peer Mentors, who are crucial to the project. Ultimately, I created a custom theme (built on Carrington Blog), with certain core components to which each section would have access– a List of Seminars and Peer Mentors, a Guide to Blogging for Freshmen (produced by the Office of Student Affairs, who directs FRO), a description of the six enrichment areas, and a Google Calendar that displays upcoming events. I then created a Mother Blog, which syndicates posts from across the sixty sections of FRO, using the FeedWordPress plugin. The Mother Blog collects and stores all of the posts in one place, allowing faculty and administrators to look in on the writing that’s happening in FRO. Students are thus contributing to small discussions in their seminars, and also to a broader discussion among all Freshmen.

fro

Thus far, they’ve been writing quite willingly. In the fewer than three weeks since this thing was launched, we’ve aggregated about 900 posts; at the pace we’re going, we should reach well more than 4000 unique posts by the end of the semester. That doesn’t even begin to address the commenting, which has varied in intensity across the individual blogs. Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to mirror comments between the original location of the post and the space where it is republished… if we did, and we hope to be able to do that soon, the level of dynamism would increase.

Needless to say, we’re looking at an awful lot of writing, and we’re trying to make sense of it in a few ways. We’ve created categories on the Mother Blog for each of the six enrichment areas so that posts directly pertaining to them can be easily sorted. This will allow the two administrators who oversee FRO– Mark Spergel, the Director of Student Orientation and Freshman Year Incentive, and Shadia Sachedina, the Associate Director of Student Life– to get student perspectives on the wide range of extra-curricular programs the school offers. Further, simple searches will allow certain segments of the Baruch community to see what students are saying about them. For instance, many of the early posts offered student perspective on tours of the library. Our librarians have already begun searching for “library” and “library tour” on the FRO blog to read student responses. Several blog posts have engaged Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, the Freshman text.

Other searches hold the potential to help identify students with like interests: “photography,” “history,” and “football” all offer returns. Such a use of the FRO Mother Blog suggests another function that this project can play, perhaps more effectively in future iterations: social networking. As a commuter campus, we constantly struggle to help our students see themselves as part of a community, and FRO attempts to address that tension. Integrating Blogs@Baruch into FRO makes that attempt much stronger, as students can more easily find, connect, and engage with their classmates through our platform. Next year, I’d love to get BuddyPress working in this project to foreground the social networking component… but, one step at a time.

At the end of the term, we’ll have, easily collected and archived, multiple writing samples from the majority of incoming students. With some more thinking and organization, this holds great potential for assessment, integration into writing instruction, early intervention, and assistance for ESL students. Ultimately, this project allows us the opportunity to further the core missions of Blogs@Baruch: increasing the amount and variety of writing that our students do, and nurturing critical thinking about the use of digital tools throughout the Baruch College community. Given the hectic nature of our launch this year, we weren’t able to spend enough time thinking collectively about the general education opportunities embedded in this project. I had argued that we should do a pilot with 20% of the sections so that we could be sure to more closely support our users and think more intensively about the implications of what we’re doing, but for various reasons, a small-scale pilot wasn’t feasible. But when we do this again, we know that the canvas works, what the challenges are in the mechanics of the thing, and how to improve our planning. We’ll be able to make a more significant investment in helping the Peer Mentors better understand the possibilities and implications of doing college work on the open web, crucial knowledge that they can then pass on to all Freshpersons.