Our Ocotillo project’s use of blogs+wikis+boards, coined last summer as “Small Technologies Loosely Joined”. The premise of this was that each of our 4 working groups would maintain a regularly updated blog as its public “face”, use discussion boards for some asynchronous dialogues (and guest experts), and the wikis for brainstorming.

The suite of tools (MovableType for blogs, UseMod for wiki, and phpBB for the boards, plus an events database) were all threaded by RSS, meaning 4 groups with 4 channels each of feeds connected to one central “dashboard” view of our efforts.

Things have moved along since our launch September 2004, and much overdue is an update of how this is going. Before revealing the grades, a few general observations:

* The more familiar tools were more readliy accepted
* It takes some compulsive personalities to be at this regularly
* In a larger organization, time is needed to diffuse the approach through the system
* Spam attacks are a major dis-incentive to using the tools
* More time, patience, and perseverance is helpful for those behind the scenes.

Weblogs C+
Most of our blogging faculty were not as … ahem… regular as I would have hoped. A number of them fell into the rut of “I’ll blog it later” mode. More than once I emphasized the importance of “blogging in the moment” when the emotions and reflections of an activity are the brightest. One of them did get into a regular routine of blogging once a week, which is reasonable. We asked that they blog every time they engage in any work (research, development, meetings) that were related to the group activity.

A good majority did not understand how to edit with workable hyperlinks, so some just have text URLs or none at all. We did purchase a copy of ecto for those that were interested in a desktop blog editing tool (sadly the Windows version was harder to set up and use).

A spate of comment spam early on turned some off as well. No surprise, to be composing what is meant to be useful information, and to get an email notification that some casino pushing pill pooping porn star had something irrelevant to say. For a few months we just shut it off until we could step up the spam walls.

All of our folks understood the value and importance of creating this record of their work, and there has been marked improvement over the last two month. Will Richardson’s writings were a positive influence for a number of our folks, and one of them got bitten nicely by the RSS bug.

This is a helpful reminder that a majority of people do not have the compulsive nature to be regular bloggers and may need more motivation to blog than just the simple act of publishing. Sure, you can make it a graded requirement with students… Comment spam definitely works in the wrong direction.

Discussion Boards B+
Web discussion boards are the most comfortable of the technologies since most people have experience with them in their Course Management Tools or elsewhere. Our boards had some highwater successes, especially after a slower than hoped online kickoff in September.

The online activity for the Hybrid Courses group in mid November as a follow-up to a face to face event… and no one showed up. This was chalked up to a lack of early advertising and some missing clarity on the activity structure.

We have had two in particular that were encouraging- The late November eportfolio discussions with David Tosh and Ben Werdmuller (from elgg.net) had more than 50 posts and since then has racked up more than 1100 pageviews. What worked here was some stepped up local nagging and promoting. This one gave us hope.

And even better was an early March discussion board activity Wide World of Hybrid Teaching and Learning Online Activity with Virtual Guests from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where we logged more than 240 posted messages and well over 1000 views. What worked well here was some very clear structure, we had obtained professional growth credit, and much goes to the level of participation and preparation by the folks at UM-W.

For our faculty to earn their professional growth credit, they were required to log in before they started in a session, and once again when they were leaving, as to get a timestamp for the amount fo time spent within (more…).

We have at least two more of these set up for later this Spring (for learning objects).

Spam was an issue here but more of a nuisance that most participants never saw. We set up the phpBB boards so participants had to request an account (requiring admin approval). We were stumped for a while on a slate of requests for email addresses in Russia, and links having to do with bracelet sales, casino stuff, etc. The accounts were never created, but I can only guess this was aimed at inserting a link as phpBB creates a profile for each registered account.

This was all solved by an update to phpBB that inserts a captcha (a graphic random set of letters and numbers) on the account request page. My hunch is that the cruft we saw early was scripted insertion.

Wikis D
There was no measurable activity on our Ocotillo wikis. Just about all of them were turned off by the appearance of massive amounts of beastiality and other variant links in the wikis, all before they could even begin to dabbled. My solution was to close down the open wikis (a password is required for editing), but no one hbas waded more than toe deep in the wiki waters.

To promote some awareness, I have used the wikis for some different content uses, mostly workshops/presentations:

* Rip. Mix. Learn… The Digital Generation, Social Technologies, and Learning a presentation for the Training Expo – Partners Conference
September 23, 2004

* Finding (and Using!) Good Free Stuff a workshop for an ASU course on “Social and Ethical Issues in Educational Media” (September 2004)

* Maricopa’s Ocotillo Evolves Again: 18 Years of Faculty Led Instructional Technology Initiatives presented March 2005 for the League Innovations conference.

* Agenda planning for the Feb 2005 Dialogue Day with Helen Barrett had a small level of editing by faculty co-chairs and our speaker.

Overall I would put us at the C+ / B- grade range, again with some hopeful signs of recent improvement. I am not prepared to give any of the tools up, though I may look at other technology platforms for next year.

The post "Report Card for Ocotillo Small Pieces" was originally pulled charred and crispy from a smoky charred oven at CogDogBlog (http://cogdogblog.com/2005/03/report-card/) on March 14, 2005.

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