On Blogs and Publication

Our Campus Teaching and Learning with Technology Roundtable group has had an ongoing “On Blogs and Publication” thread on their mailing that has been of particular interest to me, as I have invested a fair amount of time in the last few years following the technical developments surrounding syndication formats (RSS, RDF, ATOM, et al.), the tools that produce them, and the various communities that have formed around the tools (and community sites) used to “blog”

It’s been an ongoing interest because I’m oriented to tracking a vast amount of information in the computing technology spaces, and most of the “blogging” activity has grown within the political and technology communities. I’m also rather biased towards publishing a lot of information and trying to capture all the little bits and pieces of information we produce in a knowledge-base like manner and have been seeking for years to find easier ways of doing that. The “blogging” tools have been hinting at for some time features and functionality that provide some convergence with the desire to produce information in the same/similar ways that we consume it.

A few years ago – about as long as I’ve been interested in the blogging/syndication developments. I began working on project to do that. Mostly has an on-again, off-again (mostly off) outside-of-work hobbyist activity to help teach myself PHP. and later SQL, in ways that were big enough that I could understand how folks were using and would use our web infrastructure in the College of Engineering (for close to 4 years we have been providing a web service that includes the ability to use PHP in every directory that our webservers access, with restrictions).

We use that tool to publish out information from:

The reason that I use my own tool is that by the time we got to publishing those sites, I had enough work done on it that finishing the work would take less time than adapting one of the “off-the-shelf” systems to work within our restrictions and to replace the authentication model the off-the-shelf systems use with WRAP (our campus-wide web authentication service). Also, as mentioned earlier, it helps maintain web application knowledge that we use for other tools and in support of our web users. Internally it’s as good as the open-source off-the-shelf packages. From a user’s point of view, not nearly quite as polished, there are aspects to it that only a computer geek would like.

Results are mixed. Most IT staffs don’t have or don’t make the time to document and write very much.

  • We haven’t had much participation at the Engineering System Administrator’s site, except to get a few pieces of documentation up.
  • At the VCL site, I had hoped to use the tool to facilitate documentation publication (a good result, both internal docs and help documentation) – and have a project journal, where project participants and project leaders could use the site to publish both “vision” and “maintenance” information useful for all comers (on the “vision” part that hasn’t worked as well – IT managers talk a fair amount more than they write). I’m still hoping that at some point the various project leadership (pot/kettle/black) will use it as a platform for publishing information about aspects of VCL in a very transparent kind of fashion, especially the vision parts that they often will speak at length about in other venues. As the VCL project grows, we could also have places for students and faculty using the service to publish and share information about how they use the service, or how to best use the software. I still have hope there.
  • Where I think we have succeeded with the VCL site, besides the help documentation, is the ongoing status reports. This is also the success of the ITECS/Systems site – where VCL and ITECS/Systems tech staff are publishing activity and status reports every week, raw and transparent, what we are doing week in and week out. I am really happy about that, and I think it’s a transparency that is rare to get out of IT groups (mostly because we spend a lot of time in fear of people second-guessing every move we make, which often does come with telling folks what you do). I know that when peer IT groups at other Universities and even within NCSU have provided glimpses in what they do, there’s been a lot less reinvention of the wheel on our part. I’m hoping the information base we are building there will end up helping our peers.
  • And finally I have more than a slight bias, but the two people.engr.ncsu.edu sites that are publishing information provide a glimpse into the personal-professional workings of what we do, in a very open and honest way.

Now whether any of this is useful for education – or other related activities. I don’t know yet. Faculty talking on our TLTR list have mentioned their take on the potential of blogs as a publishing and information sharing tool within the campus – and I don’t have a feel for the actual interest. I don’t know if that potential is only with the realm of those that are information junkies or that have a very strong bias to openly and often publishing and updating information.

I certainly feel that RSS is important as a technology and that our websites, “blogs” or not – should be publishing RSS feeds for recently updated pages. I’ve written at length about that.

So hopefully with help from those that are interested, we’ll be trying out a larger experiment with blogging, using ewe to do that and bringing up a community blogging/wiki site.