Did You Read the News Today?

People like to be informed, to know what’s going on around them. It’s a key to survival and well-being. And staying up-to-date with current events is easy nowadays. We take in a lot of information every day, in the form of live feeds, minute updates, tweets, and blogs. But the news we get could be of different kind:  Obama’s visit to Asia, austerity riots in EU countries, our best friend’s new favorite song of the day, or our distant cousin’s new vacation pictures. It’s all news, all very current but different on magnitude, significance, and ultimately on degree of relevance to us personally. Some news we read concern the whole population of the world, some only people living in our country, some only us as individuals, and some, I’m afraid, no one else but the person who “reported” it. Usually, news presented in the mainstream media is the most significant kind because it concerns a lot of people. That’s not the case with news we get on our Tweeter or Facebook accounts, news like friends’ minute-to-minute activities, “likes”, or tags. And yet we get a lot of these, and much more directly too.

Nowadays, one of educators’ main concerns is that young people (e.g., Generation Z) don’t read the news and are not informed, not knowledgeable about important facts and events. Researchers say it’s because young people are only interested in what happens in their closest circle; they don’t care what the world is doing but only what their friends are doing. So their “news hubs” are Facebook and Twitter, and the rest of the non-social media is given no attention or acknowledgement. Although young generations might be more prone to this phenomenon, I dare to call it being updated on “micro news”, I suspect older generations are too, possibly without realizing it. In fact, I would think anybody who has Internet access and a social network account might be very likely to learn much more about their closest circle than about the world in general.

The abundance of social media provides us with the unique opportunity to be updated on what a lot of people in our circles are doing, every minute, anywhere. We can even go back in each of our connections’ “timelines” to see what they were doing yesterday, last week, last year, 20 years ago. Now, we can learn so much about so many people that we know; without even talking to some of them or seeing them for a long time (e.g., a high-school friend who lives on another continent), we can get all the updates about their lives in a matter of minutes. This could be wonderful and very valuable in most cases; keeps people connected, involved in each others’ lives. We are very social creatures, so it’s only natural that we care about people around us; we want to know what and how they’re doing. But do we learn and know a little too much sometimes? Do we need all of the minute updates on our social networks? Do we need to know where J is having dinner right this minute, or that R is in a bad traffic jam, or that B adores pictures of little kittens so much that she has to post 10 of them every day?

We can easily become overwhelmed with the micro news overflowing from our social media accounts where really important news about our friends (e.g., that someone got married, had a child, broke a record) sometimes get lost among tons of not-so-important news (e.g., someone had a two-hour commute home). Unlike mainstream media outlets that have editors who decide what’s worth reporting and what’s not, social media doesn’t pose any restrictions, and it doesn’t allow you to filter your friends’ updates by relevance or significance; at least not yet. The FB team should think about this option – might boost people’s “likes” of FB. Because right now, you can’t set your FB or Tweeter updates to give you only the “important” feeds. At present, everything is important as you either get it all or you get nothing at all. So we might spend a lot of time FB-ing or reading tweets without learning much, at least not much that’s meaningful. Could this micro news be taking time and energy we can instead devote to the real news; the news that can broaden the breadth of our knowledge? Are we learning less about the world because we are learning more about our friends and acquaintances? And if so what are the pros and cons of this new phenomenon? I can’t wait to find out.

Occupation Communication

The Occupy Wall Street protests (which my colleagues have written about here and here) started to gain traction as a national news story this past week. Coverage of the protests increased as more sensational stories surfaced of police beating protesters with night sticks, protesters rushing barricades, and the old-left stalwart labor unions joining in by holding a rally that filled Foley Square to over capacity. While the protesters began their occupation complaining about the lack of “mainstream media” coverage, they now have an abundance of coverage, but are having trouble controlling the narrative. Perhaps this is because the protests do not fit into a nice, clean-cut, two-party view of politics.



How do these self-avowed leaderless protesters communicate to the world and to each other? To answer that, we must start by looking at the founding of the protests. Three groups with very different approaches to spreading their messages of social change sounded the initial call: Adbusters, Anonymous, and the NYC General Assembly.

Adbusters is an anti-consumerism group probably most well-known for its annual protest Buy Nothing Day (held on Black Friday). Its modes of mass media include many forms of culture jamming: an advertising-less magazine, “open source” shoes, and anti-advertising commercials. Art, message, content, and form blend together to create striking works of protest, whose purpose is to disrupt the viewer’s experience in order to begin a longer, more complex discussion about the effects of advertising on culture.

One of Adbusters's "classic" culture jamming anti-ad


Anonymous is most famous—infamous?—for two ongoing protests related to uninhibited free speech: one against the Church of Scientology and the other in support of WikiLeaks. Both of these protests included web videos declaring their stance, coordinated hacking and denial of service attacks, and protests in Guy Fawkes masks. While the masked protests have become the photographs associated with the group, they mostly organize online in “leaderless” internet forums.

Members of Anonymous at an in-person protest

Creative Commons License photo credit: Anonymous9000


Blending the cooperative leaderless mentality of Anonymous with the organized critique of mass media of Adbusters, the third group, the NYC General Assembly, has become the core of the protests. More of a process than an actual group, NYC General Assemblies use both high- and low-tech solutions in order to reach consensus among the various (and there are many) fractions of the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Certainly no one will deny the impact of Facebook and Twitter to organize the disparate individuals currently residing in Zuccotti Liberty Square—after all, the protesters like to compare their occupation to the “Arab Spring/Facebook Revolution” in Tahrir Square. There are other network technologies at play in the Wall Street protests: websites (of the pre-”Web 2.0” variety), Kickstarter campaigns (to fund specific projects of the occupation), Livestream (to broadcast live video from cellphones, laptops, and other internet-connected cameras), WePay (to accept micro-donations to buy food, although the fund was later moved to the Aliance for global Justice for 501c3 status), and even GitHub (a social media technology that allows to access to the technology that the protesters are using).


Some low-tech social networking?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Brennan Cavanaugh


The means by which the protesters communicate, however, are not solely highly technological. As Sara Ruth Jacobs mentioned last week when discussing Navid Hassanpour’s paper on the Egyptian Revolution, the loss of online social media can increase active participation and connections between individuals in a shared location. And even though the protesters set up generator-powered charging stations in the privately-owned (but by law publicly-accessible 24-hours a day) park, computer technology doesn’t solve every communication issue. This is where low-tech social media help to keep the Occupy Wall Street protesters connected. While marches, chants, and hand-painted signs are the means of communication most often shown in news coverage, there are other less visible communication tools employed by the protesters.

General Assemblies and working groups use consensus building to determine the actions of the participants. Without consensus (defined by the NYC General Assembly in the organizing leaflet for the occupation as “no outright opposition”), no group action will take place and proposals must be revised for the next assembly. The means of achieving consensus with such a large group relies on two low-tech social media technologies: hand signals and a “mic check.”


Hand signals:

A manual version of the clickers familiar to those of us who have taught or taken classes in large lecture halls in recent years, hand signals quickly allow the group poll on a particular proposal. Four major hand signals mean yes or agree, no or disagree, point of process (similar to a “point of order,” meaning someone is not following the process), and block the proposal from passing in its present form (used only in extreme circumstances when you can’t remain a part of the group if the current proposal passes).

Hand signals from NYC General Assembly manual

While these are useful in measuring interest and passing proposals, the basic four hand signals are only a form of selection and not intended to engage the group in open-ended dialogue. This hole in the process of group communication has been partially addressed as protesters develop new hand signals specific to the situation. The yes/agree signal evolved into a related, “enthusiastic yes/agree” with the addition of “jazz hands” (or one of the American Sign Language signs for “applause”). One of these new signals, “I can’t hear,” would be a welcome addition to any event—how many times do I have to hear that annoying shout at a conference when a presenter isn’t speaking directly into the microphone? Another collaboratively developed signal, “loud noise coming down the block,” is useful in lower Manhattan’s labyrinth of twisting streets where cavernous skyscrapers play fun acoustic tricks with traffic sounds.


Mic Check:

A “mic check” is a method to allow anyone to address the crowd, as well as a means of disseminating information to the crowd. The effect sounds like a call-and-response chant that protesters use to get their message across to audiences standing on the sidelines during a march. However, the purpose of this call-and-response is internal, rather than external, communication. When an individual wishes to make a proposal to the group, that person shouts “mic check.” The crowd around the person replies “mic check.” This is repeated until the speaker is certain that everyone understands what a mic check has started ( once or twice is usually sufficient). The original speaker then starts the message he or she wished to communicate to the group. Broken up into short phrases of a few words each, this message is relayed through the same call-and-response chant that started the mic check. This serves as a way to not only amplify and transmit the message to listeners far away from the speaker, but it also reinforces the message in the listener-repeater’s mind. If someone hears the person next to them repeating a different phrase than she or he did, a mini-discussion can help clarify what was actually said.

Even famous philosophers can use the mic check to amplify their lectures (although more complex sentences can be difficult to transmit).


As the Occupy Wall Street protests solidify into a movement—with affiliated protests in DC, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Tampa, Boise, and many more towns coming soon—the ability to achieve consensus will become more difficult. Hopefully these protests will not become merely the liberal version of the Tea Party protests—that is to say, a hierarchically controlled sub-set of one existing political party or the other. This narrative is already attempting to be applied to the Occupy Wall Street movement. To avoid falling into this trap, it will be necessary to continue the radical multi-tiered approaches to communication and social media in order to ensure that a plethora of voices can be heard.

Two Social Media Paradoxes

Paradox Number One:  Social media foments revolution, but a sudden removal of social media can increase mobilization and create even more unrest.

We can all stand witness to the ways in which social and news media can spread a movement within and across nations.  I know an Egyptian who claimed that her family and friends knew that the revolution was going to occur in the weeks and days before it actually happened.  How?  Just by the messages on social media and between individuals.  In a similar fashion, social media proposed and flamed the fires of the occupy wall street movement in the weeks before it emerged, grew, and took hold as a real story in mainstream media outlets.

The protest was set to start on the 17th.  At first, there was a kind of silence.  People questioned whether it was happening at all.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera was one of the media outlets which first recognized the plan for a protest.  Other small news organizations online followed the story from September 17th on.  The New York Times City Room blog picked up the story on September 19th, while nothing was put into print until September 25th, when a version of a September 23rd online article titled “Protesters Are Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim”  and beginning with the sentence “By late morning on Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street, a noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka,” was published.

Since then the General Assembly of the occupation has released a declaration and the movement has its own subreddit.  However, the lack of specific demands, particularly from the outset, has been seen as a weakness and has led some people to propose their own.

Clearly, social media has played a key role in this movement.  Yet, ultimately, social media doesn’t stray very far from a standard news cycle.  Here are Google searches and news stories for occupy wall street:

(courtesy of Google Trends)

And here are the tweets containing occupywallstreet:

(taken from Trendistic)

The tweets, Google searches, and news reference frequency all have peaks on the first day of the protest, on Sept. 25 when images of pepper spray being used by the NYPD spread and a high number of arrests occured, and on Oct. 1 when 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Eventually, though, whether the movement has succeeded or not, it will fall out of the news cycle and off of people’s radar.  Even though as I type this Egyptians are protesting military rule in Tahrir Square, not many Americans do searches related to Egypt these days:

It’s unfortunate, but it appears that social media news runs alongside the news cycle.  Facebook posts can catch our attention, but only for so long, and what seems to be fueling tweets about the protest are acts of violence rather than its actual rationale.  Also, isn’t there a risk that we are beginning to confuse posting items on Facebook with really exercising our civic duty?  Last week five or more of my friends posted about the execution of Troy Davis, but how many actually took action in contacting local representatives or representatives in Georgia?

In fact, a Yale student recently claimed to have proven that, based on what occurred in Egypt, a “sudden interruption of mass communication accelerates revolutionary mobilization and proliferates decentralized contention.”  A journalist quickly used the study to point out how mass media, even as it spreads consciousness, can create a passive public.

Paradox Number Two:  Social media brings networks of people with like interests together, but in doing so it can create information bubbles.

In May of this year Eli Pariser presented a TED Talk in which he warned about how Google, Facebook, and other online companies use algorithms that customize what information is presented to people based on their individual tastes:

Thus, just by virtue of being ourselves, our internet is filtered.  We go further to filter our own experience when we read websites that cater to our cultural background or to our political interests.  Despite a study which seems to indicate that this personal filtering is not an issue, Bill Davidow and Ethan Zuckerman have argued that online media can give too much attention to extreme groups and views, and that “positive feedback” loops might push us to take more extreme views ourselves.  Eric E. Schmidt, the chief of Google, takes a middle ground view on the issue, acknowledging that for those who don’t know how to curate their own information, the internet can be a breeding ground of ignorance.

In the classroom, discussing and giving assignments that reflect on how media is curated, either invisibly or explicitly, in different contexts (on Wikipedia, in academic journals, on Facebook, in Google Scholar) can give students a wake-up call regarding how they navigate the web (and increasingly, how the web navigates them).


Talons: A Case Study in DIY Educational Technology

On June 9, 2011, students in the music program at Gleneagle Secondary School, a high school in Vancouver suburb Coquitam, BC, played its spring concert to a packed house in a 450 seat auditorium. A first in Gleneagle history, the performance was broadcast live over Internet radio to listeners all over the world. And while  that might sound like a huge undertaking requiring serious AV and IT infrastructure, it was not. Not at all. In a brilliant feat of do-it-yourself EdTech (or what some folks might have once called edupunk), the concert was streamed live by Bryan Jackson, a Music and English teacher in the school’s TALONS program, and graduating senior Olga Belikov, with a Macbook, some free software and a USB microphone. That’s it. That’s all it took to broadcast the spring concert to anyone anywhere who wanted to hear it. And it sounded great.

Gleneagle’s Principal was aware of what was going on but wasn’t entirely clear on the details. During one point in the concert, he  walked backstage where Bryan explained all the moving parts: the unremarkable laptop and microphone, the free software, the web radio station (DS106Radio — read about it in my last post and herehere, here, herehereherehere, and here), how he and Olga used Twitter to build a live audience of listeners from from all over the US and Canada, and  that the broadcast was being recorded and would be posted for posterity to Soundcloud, a free audio sharing site, so that anyone in the Gleneagle community or anyone else anywhere could listen to and respond to any part of the performance. Bryan also explained how he had been using various other social media tools at Gleneagle including YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, blogs, and web radio to enhance lessons, to share performances, and to communicate with students and colleagues. His Principal was duly impressed. The administration had been aware of and supported Bryan’s and other teachers’ use of social media but had never up to this point fully engaged their potential to increase engagement, promote programs, and share and interact with parents, teachers, students, and district administrators or anyone else. While they had an inkling of what teachers were doing with free web tools, this broadcast, its recording, and the new interest at the school in webcasting were, according to Bryan, probably the first tangible outcomes of Gleneagle teachers’ experiments with creating and sharing on the web. Here is a one minute audio clip of Bryan describing the Principal’s visit backstage:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I love the irony here: Bryan tells us that he was able to experiment with various social media and web publishing tools and explore how their use might benefit his program and school only because one of the school’s IT people gave him his computer’s administrative password, which he really wasn’t supposed to have. It’s fairly common practice for IT departments in companies and educational institutions to withhold admin access to computers from end users for fear that they will go messing where they shouldn’t and damage the computer, contract a virus, install unauthorized software, or do things on their machines of which the IT department or the institution does not approve. This also ensures that end users have to rely upon IT personnel to perform simple maintenance tasks, modify configurations, and to update or install software. This is the traditional model where IT is in control of who has access and who does not while the end users are disempowered and must rely upon IT to make any changes to their machines. Here’s a wonderful example of a teacher who was trusted with full access to his computer and was able to use it to break new ground without hinderances imposed from above. When creative teachers have the latitude to experiment with the technology that’s readily available to them, wonderful things can happen. If there was ever an argument in favor of rethinking the model of how and to whom administrative access is granted at educational institutions, this is it.

I don’t know much about the general feeling at Gleneagle toward the privacy and security implications of web publishing and social media in instruction and for promotional purposes so I can’t speak to that. But it seems to me that, generally, there’s still quite a bit of trepidation about such things among educators. That trepidation, I’ll argue, tends to grow out of 20th Century notions of public exposure and our relationship with mass media and their roles in our lives. Privacy and security are certainly real concerns (FERPA exists for a reason), but it does appear that the discourse around them is often animated by outdated ideas about the production and consumption of media. It used to be that if you appeared on TV or radio, or in print, you had done or were involved in something a small group of editors and producers felt it was their imperative to broadcast. It had to be fairly remarkable, for good or for ill, to make the papers. Having your image or story broadcast to the world via a mass medium like radio or television, was special — something fairly unusual in the “look, Mom, I’m on TV!” sort of a way, unless you were among the relatively few who made a living in front of a camera or microphone.

Now, when anyone can shoot a video on a mobile phone and upload it immediately to YouTube, where it can potentially be seen by thousands, if not millions of people within just a few days, there’s a real banality to this sort of exposure. Most of our students share their lives on the internet in some way  every day. More and more of them live their lives in both physical and virtual space — this is something that those of us in their 30s and 40s who teach and administer programs are just now getting our heads around. Whats more, the means of media production, it has been said again and again by new media thinkers like Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky and a host of others, are now in the hands of everyday people, no longer just media professionals. With relatively little effort and technical expertise, anyone can publish to the web. Anyone can broadcast audio or video to the internet on a mobile phone and an application that costs almost nothing. Heck, a bunch of us edtechhers built an open community radio station out of nothing more than a $25/mo server and a desire to play radio DJ.

Bryan Jackson and his colleagues at Gleneagle understand this well and are making amazing use of it. Thanks to a leadership that seems to appreciate the possibility the new media order offers educators, they have been empowered to use a combination of social media to do on their own what once was the province of AV professionals and marketing departments and required substantial infrastructure. While we’re by now used to seeing inklings of this sort of thing on the post-secondary level, it is encouraging and inspiring to see in happen in K-12. Bravo, Gleneagle Music! Bravo!

[This post is cross posted at my personal blog, thisevilempire.com]

How Should the University Evolve?: Debate at Baruch, 11/18/2010

Last Thursday, we at the Schwartz Institute hosted a debate between authors Anya Kamenetz and Siva Vaidyanathan, two of the most relevant and engaging thinkers about the current and future state of higher education. The discussion (billed by some as a “smackdown”) was moderated by Dean David S. Birdsell of Baruch’s School of Public Affairs. The video of the event is below in two parts: first the structured debate, and then the lively and at times confrontational Q&A:

How Should the University Evolve?, part 1 of 2 from BLSCI on Vimeo.

How Should the University Evolve?, part 2 of 2 from BLSCI on Vimeo.

The idea for this conversation emerged organically, from Anya and Siva themselves with a little help from the Twitterverse. (I tell the story of how the event came to be at the beginning of the first video, but it’s worth a quick mention here as a testament to the way public discussion on the Internet, this case in Twitter, can easily move to meat space and lead to something remarkable that will resonate in many ways for some time to come.)

In his keynote at the Digital University conference at the CUNY Grad Center in April of this year, Siva critiqued Jeff Jarvis’ and Anya’s arguments about what higher ed ought to look like. (The video of the entire keynote is here.) Several of us tweeting at the conference noted Siva’s critique. Anya, who saw that her twitterstream was now chock full of people talking about Siva’s dressing down of her argument, remarked that she wanted to know more and was up for a debate. I suggested having the debate at CUNY and both agreed (SIva publicly and Anya in a DM later).

Given everyone’s ridiculously busy schedules, it took a while to happen, but it finally did. We hope you find Anya and Siva’s conversation as stimulating and provocative as we did. Enjoy. Please feel free to comment.

Intern feedback

Five months ago, I was recruited by the Schwartz Communication Institute as a “Presidential Intern,” through a program originated by President Stan Altman. The Presidential Leadership Program was designed to provide students with hands-on experience contributing to substantive projects for the College.

My work was to begin rebuilding the Institute’s website. The new website was going to run on WordPress, and I would need to write a plugin as well. Sounded like a lot of fun, but for someone who barely knew WordPress, it also sounded like a challenge.

My name is Florian Chauvin. I am an exchange student from France (Lyon), enrolled in the MBA program in Finance, at Baruch. Five years ago, when I first went to College, in France, I decided to learn how to build websites in order to make a little money. I liked the idea of learning something that was probably going to help me in the future instead of going to work for McDonald’s as many French students do. Looks that I was right. The Schwartz Communication Institute sounded more interested in a web designer/programmer than in a Big Mac expert.

Therefore, even though I am a self-learner, I would consider my knowledge of php at the time I started to work for the Institute as fairly advanced. This background helped me quickly learn how to use WordPress and how to develop a plugin.

WordPress is pretty easy to work with. I was once told that if code could be thought as poetry, then parts of the WordPress code were lousy poetry. I have to say that I didn’t really have the opportunity to evaluate the accuracy of this statement since you can write a plugin pretty much without having anything to do with the core code of WordPress itself. This turned out to be a great point.

The major critique that I could address to WordPress’ plugin system is the small amount of documentation available out there. It is sometimes hard to find information about functions that are not among the most popular. As soon as you want to do something a bit more complicated than just using a predefined hook, you can end up spending hours on Google, forums and the codex before coming up with an answer. For example, it took me quite a while to figure out how to implement AJAX functionality on the front-end while keeping it reasonably clean. It is usually just a matter of time before getting things to work and a few trial and errors do the trick just fine, even though the process can be somewhat frustrating.

The first part of this Internship has been to write a room reservation calendar plugin that would allow the Institute to effectively manage the rooms used by Fellows to meet with students. The challenge was to be able to represent the different rooms in the same calendar so that it could be seen at a glance, which ones were booked at what time, by whom. We would therefore need to have a representation of the time, the day and the room in a 2 dimensional area. Squaring the circle basically. We thus compromised and decided that seeing a lot of days at the same time was less important than seeing all the rooms.

blsci mCal

Despite all the great calendar plugins out there, we couldn’t find one that could be customized enough to do what we wanted, so I wrote a new plugin. I probably spent about 200 hours on this plugin and tried to make the code as flexible as possible, even though I am sure it would still look amateurish to a professional.

I spent the rest of my time rebuilding the website, not only to make it look more appealing and modern but also to implement some social networking features that would contribute to making it a hub around which the Institute’s online life would revolve. For that matter, the WordPress plugin Buddypress is the ideal solution. It allows members to interact, create groups, forums, personalize their profiles and so on.

My main job here was to create a visual theme for the Institute. The easiest way was to adapt the Buddypress default theme to our needs. Nothing more than a little CSS, HTML and a few other plugins were necessary to complete the project.

blsci front page
Here is a list of the plugins used:

On a more personal note, this Internship has been a great opportunity to meet a lot of people and explore new horizons. Being a Finance major willing to work in the Corporate Finance department of a major entertainment company, acquiring an extensive knowledge of WordPress (used by a growing number of businesses) will undoubtedly make my profile more valuable and attractive. I believe that in many aspects, this internship was one of the most rewarding educational experiences that I’ve had.

Also, I would like to thank everybody at the Institute who helped me, inspired me and believed in me. I just wish I had had more time to improve the website and develop new features that would have made it even better. Maybe a job for a future intern.

Social Media and Young Adults

The Pew Institute recently released a report on young adults and social media use. Here’s the summary page.Pew Internet and American Life Project

It breaks down the various age groups starting with young teens – 12-17, the college years – 18-29, and the 30 and above – adults. There is some interesting data about which age groups use what and how certain social media falls out of grace with different age groups. It seems that  ¾ of young teens have cell phones and 31% get information about health and intimacy online. Young teens and college age young adults are blogging less than adults but sending and receiving text messages more than any other online activity. Texting is the major social communication online for both young teens and young adults. Twitter is big with the adult crowd but not hip with pre-teens or college age youth.

I was especially interested to see that young teens (12-17) create content or remix content more than any other demographic. It makes me think that their sense of creativity and play is still at the heart of their interest in the internet. At least I hope so…

Baruch College to Host WordCampNYC 2009

After a remarkable confluence of events and serendipitous circumstances over the last two weeks, I am happy to announce that WordCampNYC 2009, the flagship WordPress event on the East Coast, will be held here at Baruch College on November 14th and 15th. The Schwartz Institute has been asked to facilitate this event on behalf of the College and we are working hard to make sure all the various pieces come together as they should.

WordPress, for those of you who don’t know, is the open-source online publishing platform on which this blog is built. Blogs@Baruch and runs on WordPress MU (multi-user), a version of WP that allows any number of blogs to be generated from a single install. WordPress, in its various incarnations, is widely regarded to be the best-of-breed blogging software and is getting quite a bit of use throughout CUNY (the Journalism School, Macaulay Honors College, and the CUNY Academic Commons also rely on it to great effect.)

This is really exciting news for Baruch and CUNY, more generally, as we have always been big supporters of open source projects like WordPress and are thrilled to be involved in WordCampNYC. Because of the interest in open source instructional technologies throughout CUNY (as evidenced at last May’s CUNY WordCampEd which brought together about 100 people from across most, if not all, CUNY campuses), we expect quite a bit of interest in the education track at the conference which promises to be rich and varied. For example, we’re currently organizing an open roundtable discussion between Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress, and a number of prominent educators and instructional technologists to consider on the future of WordPress and other open-source tools in education. You can expect lots of conversation about the various WordPress projects at CUNY and at other institutiions, local and otherwise. We’re especially looking forward to catching up with the folks from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University who have been working on a ScholarPress, a set of plugins that add all sorts of course management functionality to WordPress.

Once the schedule is set, we’ll link to it here. In the meantime, some details about the event are available here.


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.


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.


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.

The Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool and the Question of Openness

It recently occurred to me that in the almost 4 years of this blog’s existence very little has been said about the Schwartz Communication Institute’s most ambitious and potentially most promising project, our Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool, or VOCAT. I have presented on VOCAT a number of times over the years (most recently at the 2009 Computers and Writing conference in June), but have not yet written about it here. So it’s high time to remedy that.

VOCAT is a teaching and assessment web application. It is the fruit of a collaboration between the Schwartz Institute and mad genius code-poets at Cast Iron Coding, Zach Davis and Lucas Thurston. It is still very much in development (perpetually so) but is already in use in introductory speech communication and theater courses as well as a number of assessment projects. Our career center used it effectively a few semesters ago as well. To date, approximately 3200 Baruch students have used the tool.

VOCAT was developed in recognition of the principle that careful, guided review of video recordings of their oral presentations (or of any performance, for that matter) can be remarkably effective for aiding students in becoming confident, purposeful and effective speakers. It serves as a means for instructors to easily provide feedback on student presentations. It enables students to access videos of their performances as well as instructor feedback and to respond to both. It likewise aggregates recorded presentations and instructor feedback for each user and offers an informative snapshot of a student’s work and progress over the course of a given term or even an entire academic career. Presentations can be scored live, as students perform, or asynchronously once the videos have been uploaded. (Our turnaround time at this stage is between one and seven days depending on how many sections are using the tool at once — once some of the key steps happen server-side, turnaround time will not be as much of a concern.) Built on the open source TYPO3 content management system, it is a flexible, extensible and scalable web application that can be used at once as a teaching tool and as a means of data collection for research or other assessment purposes. (Screenshots are available here. I am also happy to share demo login info with anyone who would like to take a look — please email me at mikhail [dot] gershovich [at] baruch [dot] cuny [dot] edu.)

While VOCAT is quite feature-rich at this early stage, especially when it comes to reporting, data export, and rubric creation, we are always thinking about ways in which the tool can be made more robust and flexible. Currently, we are playing around with adding a group manager feature for group presentations, tagging for non-numeric assessment, moving from QT to Flash video, video annotation, as well as server-side video processing and in-line video and audio recording. We are also considering allowing users to choose to enable social functionality to take advantage of web 2.0 tools for sharing and commenting on one another’s work. And since, at its core, VOCAT is a tool for aggregating and responding to anything that can be uploaded, we’re thinking about other uses to which it could be put. It could easily, for example, be adapted for writing assessment. And someone once suggested that it could be useful for teaching bedside manner for medical students. Adapting VOCAT for these purposes is hardly a big deal.

The platform on which VOCAT is built is open source but the tool itself is not yet open. Right now, it is Baruch’s alone. Whether it should stay that way is a question much discussed around here. Here at the Institute we face several critical issues around open education, not the least of which is conflicting views on student access of Blogs@Baruch. In regards to VOCAT, however, the one thing constantly on my mind is the tension between an internal drive to share the tool as an open-source web application and build a community around it (there are no shortage of interested parties) and the pressures (or maybe a pernicious institutional common sense) that seem to compel us to keep VOCAT proprietary and use it to generate as much revenue as possible. I have heard arguments that VOCAT should be Baruch’s alone — that we should charge for its use and seek private funding for its deployment and development. This is a business school, after all, and I’m sure promoting and marketing VOCAT could be an interesting project for an upper division Marketing course.

Yet, I am inclined to believe that VOCAT should be shared freely and widely with other institutions and that other developers should be encouraged to develop for it. A great many more students would benefit and development would certainly be accelerated as more and more schools add features they need that could then be adopted for use here. Were VOCAT open, in other words, it would evolve quickly and probably in ways we haven’t even imagined. And that is very exiting.

In the coming months, I hope to continue to present on VOCAT and to gain insights into the roles it can play in communication intensive courses or in a communication-focused curriculum of any sort. More importantly, I would like to move towards opening it up and will work with our developers on the features and functionality that facilitate sharing. I hope also to draw upon the tremendous expertise of my friends and colleagues involved in the open education movement and learn from those who have worked with and developed various open source tools for teaching and learning. Listening to others’ ideas for VOCAT has been invaluable to thinking through what this web app could ostensibly do with the right sort of development. could be and how to best realize its full potential as a teaching tool — both in terms of deployment, training, and development.