Privacy in Blogdom

March 24th, 2011

Privacy is a big topic on campus these days. I think the biggest issue is that we don’t know what we don’t know… and maybe we didn’t know to ask.

Currently having a brainsplotion around the “reality” of privacy on this very blog system. I realize that I don’t know everything I need to know, to fully understand how our information is protected (or isn’t).

I thought we were covering our bases with the privacy settings plugin applied to the blog site.  The users could choose from a number of options, of which these three are most widely used: making the blog visible to everyone (including search engines); block search engines, but allow normal visitors; and registered subscribers. There are pros and cons to all of the settings, but it felt like we had offered the public everything they may need to protect themselves.

Is this, in fact, true?

Exhibit A – a user who had set their blog to not allow search engines wonders why their blog comes up when Googling.

Some thought was given to the way the blog was set up. In addition to the student blogs, the instructor has an ‘aggregator’ blog that pulls in the posts from all of the students’ blogs. That means the students’ posts not only post to their own blogs, but they post to the ‘aggregator’ blog as well. It was realized that the instructor’s aggregator didn’t have the same search engine blocking setting.

Once the instructor made this change, the problem was solved, right? Not exactly.

For some reason, we could still find this student’s ‘Author archive’ page on the aggregator blog just by Googling. What’s going on here?

Exhibit B – a randomly chosen group of other student blogs from the same course, that we used to try and replicate the Google results.

At a glance, we didn’t see any search results that led to the student blogs, or to their posts/author page on the aggregator blog.

A few thoughts, after comparing A and B:

  • I don’t totally understand how search engines work, so I’m not sure how you can block one from finding a public site in the first place
  • I don’t know how long search results are cached – are we seeing an ‘old’ search result, from before the privacy settings were changed on the blog? (I’ve experienced things that make me think that this IS the case – I often find search results that are outdated)

Add a few more things to the list of things I need to learn in order to better understand this world I administer.

Exhibit C – one last student blog from the same course, whose Google results did not include a link directly to the blog or the aggregate blog but DID include a link to a page that would lead directly back to the student blog.

Part of the blogging assignment was to write about a professional blog, and link to it. Many blogs – including the one that this student linked to – use trackbacks or pingbacks to alert the blog owner (and often its readers) that a post was referred to from another blog. Often the trackbacks and pingbacks are included on the post that was linked to, with a link back to the blog that made the referal,  This can be useful in growing communities and discussions, and is a really important part of the blogging experience. What you may not consider, however, is that a link to a non-searchable blog has now been posted on a searchable one. Whether your blog is set to not allow search engines is now irrelevant, because your blog can be found by Googling anyway.

What can we do? We all want to be able to protect the students’ privacy, but you can’t learn to blog effectively from inside a bubble.

If you’re just looking to give the students a basic weekly writing assignment, maybe the blog tool in Blackboard would be a better (read: “more private”) option. If your goal is to offer the students a “real-world” blogging experience, the students will need to understand the public nature of blogging. To me, it seems like a good learning opportunity for them… but I do realize that there are other layers to the privacy issue that I may not be taking into account.

Nevermind the students, it looks like this is a learning opportunity for me. Stay tuned.

Sharing Experiences with Educational Technology

February 15th, 2011

It’s hard to sum up an experience in under 200 words.

This is all I can think about right now, as my mind tries to wrap around the idea of writing an abstract for a conference. I need to encompass the experiences we’ve had so far with our WordPress system – why did we bring it in? who was involved? what was it supposed to do? how has it evolved? where are we moving with it?

The point-form topic is almost more than 200 words!

It’s funny to think back on the beginnings of a system, to see what the challenges were in comparison to now. It’s also nice to be able to say that along with whatever road blocks we’ve come across, we’ve been able to get over them and have some really rewarding experiences.

After such a rich experience, it’s hard to narrow down the topics to a few talking points. It’s hard to know which areas to drop from the topic – they all seem so important now!

Just a quick brainstorming of possible topics, trying to ignore the technology itself,  for my own reference:

  • Why did we bring in x? What needs were we trying to fulfill?
  • Why did we choose this particular product, as opposed to one of its top competitors?
  • What were the initial challenges faced, and how were they resolved?
  • How has the service/system evolved since implementation?
  • What are some of the greatest rewards?
  • How do we see the system/service evolving over the next year?

Tell Me a (Digital) Story

October 7th, 2010

This year, I’ve heard more about ‘Digital Storytelling’ than ever before.

I had faculty members ask me about it (can we do it? how? is anyone else doing it?). I’ve seen presentations on it.

Is it weird that I didn’t know it wasn’t just a concept, but an actual structured *thing* until now? I always just thought that ‘digital storytelling’ was simply the use of certain media to convey a story. I thought it could be bent and crafted to suit the needs of a project. Unfortunately, it seems I was wrong. Someone owns the term, and has come up with a methodology. This is great for folks that like the structure, but it isn’t for me. I think Wikipedia might even be confused about this, as their description sounds more like what I thought it was. (Not to be negative about official “Digital Storytelling” – I simply want to describe my exploration of the topic)

So I guess I am not actually doing “Digital Storytelling”.

Not sure what to call what it is that I am working on with faculty who want their students to convey a story and make a connection using various media. Multimedia storytelling? eStories? Heh. Maybe it doesn’t need a name, we just have to actually do it.

So what exactly are we doing here?

1. Set a Goal

The Instructor really needs to define a purpose for this project (not just using technology for technology’s sake). Usually, it is to have the student convey a piece of their experience using various media (audio, video, photographs, text, animation). The message is really the most important part, and has to be developed before the technology comes into play. Consider whether the final project will be viewed by the Instructor, by the class and/or by the public – plan to discuss with the students how the chosen audience should influence how they develop their presentation.

Also keep in mind that students may be resistant to: a) being creative and/or b) using technology. Some students have got the paper writing down and are a little bit afraid of having to open up to a new idea. Some people are naturally more creative than others, or more comfortable with technology than others. All of this will have to be taken into account so that there is a level playing field for all students. This is why I’m focusing on the message – the technical and creative abilities should not overshadow the student’s ability to get the story across. A glossier video production should not automatically equal a better grade.

2. Develop the Stages of the Project

Work with the Instructor to outline the various stages of the project. In most cases, you will have: a topic submission stage, storyboard, final project. There may be other stages, such as a list of media to be used (photos, videos, sound that has already been collected, but not yet assembled). The following are some of the common stages of a project like this.

  • Topic Submission – have the students think about the topic and come up with the ‘story’ they are going to tell. This stage ensures the instructor can keep the students on point with the topic, before getting involved with the technology.
  • Storyboard – the students should start to map out what will actually happen in the sequence. This stage helps the student to prepare for what visuals, audio and text they will need to generate for the project. At this point, the student should have a good idea of what combination of audio, video, photography and text they will be using. They don’t need to actually HAVE it all at this point.
  • Media Collection – an optional stage that is really more of a check point for the student. Has the student been able to collect all of the media they need to complete the project? If not, what changes need to be made to the scope of the project? (i.e. if the student had a hard time getting particular video content, maybe they need to plan to use still photograhy instead.
  • Final Project – assembly of the media, possibly including transitions and motion to add some interest (or not), delivery of a final file in a specified manner (i.e. post to blog, post to Youtube, hand in on USB flash drive).
  • Class Presentation – Present in-person, in front of the class, describing the goal of the project and how it was achieved. Another alternative is to have a virtual presentation where the student posts the final “video” to a blog, and adds a couple of paragraphs of description. Comments from the class could be encouraged.

3. What are the rules?

I like to keep things as free as possible, as you might have guessed. The rules should be based mostly around the message portion, deadlines for creating certain phases (topic, storyboard, final project). I don’t think the rules should force students to use certain technologies/media, or restrict them – provided they are “getting the job done”. It may just be that the end format has to be web-ready, and must be in a format that can be posted to whatever delivery system the class is using (a blog, a Youtube channel, etc.). Generally speaking, text-only is not an option, as it doesn’t follow the spirit of the exercise.

4. What media/technology?

I think that the students should be able to choose from the technologies, based on what they have access to and their comfort with the technology. Some students will do amazing work with simple stills and text, while others may get hung up on adding too much “technology” and miss the point altogether.

Some students will have no trouble with this part – many have access to basic equipment (cell phones / computers that can record audio to WAV and video, etc, comfort with the software – maybe they’ve even posted to Youtube before). Other students will be uncomfortable with the technology and need some extra help finding equipment (recording equipment, scanners) and the software to assemble the final presentation (iMovie, Adobe Premiere, Windows Movie Maker).

We’re currently trying to assemble a list of what resources Ryerson students have, from borrowing equipment to editing in the computer labs. (*Note: Students should be aware that they will likely need an external USB hard drive to save their work-in-progress if working in a lab – they won’t be able to store their files there!)

5. What delivery method?

I think that posting the final “video” to a class blog would be a great option, because it can accommodate the various authors, media types, allow for some commenting, etc. We’re lucky enough to have a blog system at Ryerson that can house blogs that are public or private, so we don’t have to worry about sites hosted on servers in other countries. Another option is to have the videos posted on a public site like Youtube – there are pros and cons to a publicly hosted site, but other schools are doing it. A great thing about the blog option is that students could choose to post their video on Youtube and simply embed it into a blog post on our server.

So… at the end of my long post… this is the framework I’m working with right now. I’m sure this will evolve with more ideas and more input from different people. Whatever it’s called, I think it could be an interesting exercise for all of us!

More on this topic later.

Welcome, Thelonius!

July 16th, 2010

We just upgraded our WordPress MU installation to the latest version, 3.0 “Thelonious”.

I was a little bit worried when this version first came out, after seeing posts about things breaking for sites that use certain plugins. Almost luckily for me, I was too busy with the Blackboard upgrade to even think about thinking about testing WordPress 3. Now that I’ve finally found some time to devote to my other main project, I’m extremely relieved to see that these issues have been resolved by the tireless WordPress community.

Now we’re ready to roll! Check out the video below for a taste of what’s new with Thelonious!

Ryerson’s Own Digital Media Zone

March 18th, 2010

One of Ryerson’s latest innovations is a centre for innovations – the Digital Media Zone. Located in the AMC, it is the new home for a slew of edgy student projects.

From the DMZ’s own website:

The Ryerson Digital Media Zone (DMZ) is an energy-charged concept space designed to enable student innovation and collaboration. Students will be able to test out and develop their digitally inspired ideas that come from any program area and solve any problem.

Take a look at Ryerson Student Life’s tour of the DMZ:


Can’t see the embedded video? Click here!

Edit:

Here’s an article from the Globe & Mail about the DMZ

“Connect”ing via iPhone App

February 3rd, 2010

Thought I’d get in a quick blog while my computer updates (sigh).

Today, I was sent a video demonstrating the iPhone app for Adobe Conenct!! If any of us here were wondering how the new Apple & Adobe frenemy-ship was going to affect us, here we have it!!

For anyone that hasn’t used Adobe Connect Pro at Ryerson yet – it is a real-time collaboration environment that enables text chat, audio/video chat, screen sharing, and much more! It’s a chat environment on steroids!!

Until recently, Apple wouldn’t allow Flash-based applications on the iPhone/iPod touch, instead requiring users to download apps from the iTunes store. Late last year, it was announced that the two companies were taking a step in the right direction — allowing the development of iPhone applications in Flash. Not quite what many of us were looking for, but a start.

Sometime in the future, we can expect to be able to participate in online Connect sessions via our iPhone or iPod touch! This is a very cool development, and surprisingly one that Ryerson users may be able to take advantage of… whenever the pieces all fall into place.

(Note: the part about Adobe Acrobat Connect starts a couple of minutes into the video – they start by quickly showing apps for Boost Your Brain and Digg)

Can’t play the Adobe video in my blog post? Click here to view it on their website.

iPadiversity?

January 29th, 2010

iPad

Watching the updates as they came in, I wondered exactly how the world would take on the new Apple iPad. I have my doubts that it will ‘replace the laptop’, as some suggested (althought it should be noted that Apple never claimed that it would replace a gadget, but create its own niche in the market). I also question whether those interested in reading devices, such as the Kindle, will flock to this instead – sure, it has some additional features, but Apple chose not to apply a more ‘eye-friendly’ viewing surface, instead opting to continue the sharp, glossy look.

I immediately thought of its use in the school environment, especially considering the $499 USD price point for the base model. If textbook publishers jump on this technology, we could see students purchasing their textbooks in digital format, and carrying around one simple device to view all of them. The same device can be used for note taking, presentation development, etc. This could be an amazing tool for students, who may not need the bulk or functionality of a full laptop in the classroom, and who can’t conceive of taking all notes and reading textbooks on an iPhone.

Unlike technologies that require many users using it in ‘real life situations’ before its value can be assessed (like Google Wave), this is a personal device whose value can really best be assessed by the individual. I’m sure many such individuals will be rushing out to purchase this ‘nice-to-have’ device… I just wonder how many will discover that it is, in fact, a ‘need-to-have’ item in the end. I think students might be the ones to tip the scales here.

Just something to ponder.

I’m not the only one thinking about this:

WordPress v 2.9 Available

December 21st, 2009

They’ve just released version 2.9 for the standalone WordPress system. This update brings a few useful additions, as well as the usual host of bug fixes and things.

Some of the updates that interest me:

  • easy and quick embedding of video from various online sites (Youtube, Vimeo, etc.) – still want to see if this code will translate in Feed Readers or other sites that people may push their WordPress blog posts to (WordPress proprietary tags will not work in these other environments, so need to wach out!)
  • easier updating and compatibility check for plugins
  • image editing capabilities

I’m currently taking a peek at it on our test server, and hopefully the update for WordPress MU (which blog.ryerson.ca runs on) will follow in the next couple of months.

In the meantime, here’s a little video from WordPress to outline some of the changes:

Reading Materials: Teaching With Twitter: Not for the Faint of Heart

November 23rd, 2009

Trying something new here… I haven’t found the perfect way to post articles on my blog. I’ve tried holding them until I make a post of my own on the topic (which doesn’t always happen in a timely fashion), and I’ve tried adding them to my blogroll (which people won’t see if they subscribe, and won’t come up in a search, and isn’t part of my tags/categories).

In any case, I read an interesting article about using Twitter for teaching, the pros and cons to giving students an open (and anonymous) forum during class. A very interesting read, and another look at using a social tool for educational purposes.

The Chronicle of Higher Education – Teaching With Twitter: Not for the Faint of Heart

Enjoy!

1 Month of Wave: Post the first

November 4th, 2009

I now have a Google Wave account.

I got it a few weeks ago, but haven’t really had the opportunity to try it out in a meaningful way. There’s no point in playing alone… Wave’s potential lies in the ability to collaborate with others. “Potential” is really the key word here. My first experiences with the features and user interface have left me hoping that it will evolve in the right way, but it does fall short in some ways.

What is a wave? It’s hard to describe… it’s like an enhanced wiki tool that you could use in place of email, plus gadgets.

Actually, it’s much more complex than that, especially once you start taking into account the ability to make public waves (so now you have a public forum? a public blog?) and embed waves into other sites (like your existing blog).

This video explains the concept behind Wave pretty well (and it’s pretty funny, too). Also be sure to check the Google Wave Intro at the bottom of this post… it shows some cool features that will be possible in the actual release of Wave.

Can’t see the embedded video? Click here!

One thing to keep in mind is that it is in preview — not even in Beta! There are no guarantees that features will work (and, in fact, I’ve had some work one day and not the next), so you can’t really use it professionally yet. Many of us are just trying it out, to see what we think we can do with it, and provide some feedback on things that just aren’t working for us.

Things I like:

  • Wiki-style group collaboration on documents (asynchronous… and kinda synchronous)
  • The ability to embed tools like polls, map tools, conferencing, etc. (although I haven’t been able to try them all yet)
  • The ability to make your Wave public, and search public Waves on different topics. Very cool!
  • The ability to add things like Twitter into a Wave. Not sure I know what to do with it, but it’s neat that I can.
  • The group of folks attending Educause that decided to try using Wave for sharing conference notes and info… I’m TOTALLY spying on you all!

Things I’d like to see improved:

  • The total destruction of the darn “Done” button you have to click when you’ve made an update to a Wave. Doesn’t seem like a big deal when you’re testing Wave on your own and have a 2-line wave. When you are participating in a BIIIG wave that scrolls forever, and has various long replies, etc. the “Done” button is tricky to find.
  • Long complicated waves can be complicated to navigate. Not sure how to improve this, but I am finding it challenging.
  • Difficulty in locating changes to a Wave. I know there’s a green bar on the side. Doesn’t help if I have to scroll for 10 minutes to find it. Give me a ‘history’ page with a list of changes, like you’d see in a regular wiki. The playback feature seems like a cool idea, but has been useless for me so far.

There are other points, but I’ll save some for my next post. Overall, I do see its potential, and I hope that Google takes the feedback that they are given.

One weird thing that’s come out of this is trolling for account invites. I’ve actually had strangers ask me for a Wave account invite when they saw me post on Twitter that I had an account myself. Weird, no? Unless I know you personally or professionally, please don’t ask me. I want to use my invites to gather a group of people that I can test and collaborate with.

Can’t see the embedded video? Click here!

Some other first impressions:

This series is a (roughly) 1-month attempt to figure out what the heck to do with Wave, with some commentary along the way.