April 8, 2008

An update on my Computer Science & Engineering blog

Way back in September I posted about an experiment I was running with a new blog directed at Computer Science & Engineering students here at York.

I'll excerpt myself a little to remind everyone what I was hoping to accomplish:

I've created yet another blog, this one I'm aiming at Engineering & Computer Science students at my institution. I have two main ideas for this blog: first, as a place to locate my IL related links and other information. In the past I've used static web pages and was pretty happy with them. However, over time (and mostly over my sabbatical) I thought that I might want something a little easier, a little more flexible, a little more interactive and mashupable. And I saw an example of what could be accomplished at Heather Matheson's OLA presentation.

It took me a while, but I think I've got something I can live with. It uses WordPress instead of Joomla; but it also incorporates some rss feeds like my linkblog and the new book lists from my library. It has Meebo so students can touch base with me directly. Mostly I like that I've been able to move over the old IL instructional pages I did in FrontPage with relatively little fuss and bother. The classes I've used it for so far seem to like it and the reception from faculty too has been positive. It just looks cooler.

Second, as a place where I can highlight York science profs in the news and post some interesting links to engineering/CS stuff I think is neat, useful or interesting. I plan on using the WordPress pages feature to add digested versions of the full blown pathfinders we have. As well I want to create a list of all the different IL pages so anyone can find them without scrolling or searching.

So, how did it the experiment go?

Overall, I have to say that I'm very happy with the experience.

Some things that I thought went really well:

  • Easy to create & maintain. I really like the WordPress interface. It's very easy to create a blog and set up a bunch of cool widgets for RSS feeds or whatever. The array of themes is impressive (although since I am using a local implementation, I only have a few choices). The wysiwyg authoring tool is certainly good enough for what I need. For the most part, I was able to transfer the old FrontPage versions I created a few years ago into WordPress by just copying and pasting the HTML code and altering it to my current needs. I think that there's also something to be said for how cool and "with it" the blog looks compared to a simple web page.

  • The stats. Since September, the blog has received 3,087 visits and 6,851 page views. Both those numbers make me very happy. No need to go into detail, but the posts I expected to be popular were (ie. bigger classes generated more hits than smaller ones), the keywords I expected to lead people to the blog did and the ebb and flow more-or-less matched the assignment due dates for the courses I was doing sessions for. I'm still getting a handful of hits every day.

  • Meebo. I love Meebo! During busy periods, I was averaging two or three IM sessions per week, sometimes more (by session I mean either live chat or a message left by a student). I was even getting students using Meebo to ask about courses that I wasn't doing a session for. Whether they were students who had my session in one of their other classes or not, that I don't know. Either way, it's still pretty cool that they found me and I was able to help. I even ended up chatting with a couple of librarians about using Meebo.

  • Class management. And speaking of Meebo. You know how when you do a lecture-style IL session there's always a bunch of students at the back of the class using laptops, probably doing email or playing poker? You know how hard it is to involve them? As well, we all know that a class can start with good energy then peter out after a while. Well, Meebo helped with both those things, believe it or not. After a few sessions, I got into the habit of starting every IL class by firing up Meebo on the demo PC I was using and inviting the students on the laptops to surf to the blog. Well, of course a whole bunch of beeping and other weird noises resulted as Meebo notified me that people were coming to the blog and starting to chat! Windows opening, weird chat sessions exploding all over the place. Of course, this is all quite amusing to the students. It also gets their undivided attention right at the beginning of the session and also lets them see what the Meebo widget is all about. I'd have to say that this little opening stunt got me at least 20 minutes of really good attention and energy in the class. I usually asked the students if they wanted me to leave Meebo open so they could ask questions during my demo but they always declined because they thought it would be too distracting.

  • Findability. One cool thing -- if you Google the course number for the majority of the sessions I did, my blog posting comes within the first few results. For many of them, it's number one, even before the course web page. A little disconcerting for the profs, I think, but great for the students -- and the profile of the library. In the sessions I would just say, "Hey, don't worry about remembering the url or the page or anything, just Google your course number!" Even a day after first publishing the post it would appear at or near the top of the rankings.

  • Profs Liked it. It looks cool, has all the main resources, is in a format that students can relate to, what's not to like? Just today I had a Prof remark to me that based on my blog he's considering using WordPress for his own course management needs.

Some things I'm still figuring out:

  • Branding. Although the blog is branded for CSE, in the end most of the classes I used it for were Natural Science, STS or other courses. So, I think I need to re-brand the blog, starting with a new name. Initially, my idea was to create a separate blog for the non-CSE areas but that's probably needless duplication. I think I'll end up with a name something like "York University Science Library Blog: Featuring Engineering, Computer Science, Natural Science and STS." Yes, we have other science library blogs for other areas.

  • Clutter. The design is still a bit busy for my liking. I probably need to pare it down a bit, maybe take out a few of the widgets. Way back when, Jane suggested embedding slides in the posts rather than just recording my notes/links as part of the post itself. That idea probably has a lot of merit and I may give it a try next year.

  • Informational Posts. By these I mean newsy posts about York or various profs. I didn't do as many of these as I hoped and I'm still not sure how useful they are. On the other hand, it's been really handy for demonstrating how blogs can be used to institutional outreach. The jury is out on these posts. I'll probably do a few more during the spring and early summer but I'll re-evaluate in the fall.

  • Sidebar content. Not sure how used or useful it was. I like that it gives students a reason to come back to the blog after the course is over but on the other hand it may just add clutter and distraction.

  • Resource Pages. I never did get around to creating mini-pathfinders for the various subject areas on some of the WordPress pages. We'll see how my thinking on that evolves over the summer.

If any of you out there on the Internet have any suggestions, feel free to jump in. If you're a prof or student, especially if you were involved in one of my sessions, I'd also really like to hear what you have to say.


CogSciLibrarian said...

Thanks for the update, John. I like hearing about what worked & what didn't.

I know someone who teaches (online, not f2f) and he uses IM a lot while he's teaching. He told me once that it would be hard for him to go back to f2f teaching *without* passing notes to students while he's teaching.

I'm curious about the IM / Meebo thing during class ... may try it one of these days. Definitely sounds like a way to engage some folks -- but how to keep yourself engaged with them AND with the f2f students?

John Dupuis said...

Thanks for the comment, Stephanie.

For the meebo in class, I really only use it during the first few minutes. Even the most connected of the student realize how distracting it is to have these kinds of parallel conversations while trying to make some sort of coherent presentation. How to keep that initial attention you win with the meebo stunt? Not sure. There must be some kind of stunt I can do at the half-way to re-energize the class.

cheap computers said...

That idea probably has a lot of merit and I may give it a try next year but I'm still not sure how useful they are.