Blogs as a Student Content Management System



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Blogs as a Student Content Management System

Rick Musser and Staci Martin-Wolfe

Media Convergence: Cooperation, Collisions, and Change

October 13-15, 2005, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA

In the summer of 2004, as work crews began construction on what would become the The Stan and Madeline Stauffer Multimedia Newsroom, the University of Kansas School of Journalism faced some tough technological decisions. By fall, our new newsroom needed to have a plan for training students to produce web content. Our convergence-centered curriculum focused on educating students about all aspects of multimedia. We wanted our graduates to have the skills necessary to work in online media as well as print and broadcast.

Curriculum Challenge

Our cross-platform teaching strategy was, and is, an ambitious one. We strive to prepare every news student in the basic skills of text, video and online reporting before they move on to advanced media classes. The faculty believes that, at some point, our students will have to work with a variety of platforms, no matter what medium they choose as their primary emphasis. We also believe they need to be prepared to switch between media.

Frankly, we had no really good way of making that happen online.

Not that we hadn’t been trying. For at least two years, we had been teaching students to use Dreamweaver in Multimedia Reporting, our intermediate class that all news majors — regardless of media specialty — have to pass. In that class, we built on the newswriting and video skills learned in our introductory course. Online journalism was first introduced in the intermediate class. The success of our web approach was, to be generous, mixed. After two hours of software training, we turned students loose to do two online stories, first in teams and later alone. We set up templates for Dreamweaver and provided technical help in our labs. Some projects contained online journalism that would make any teacher proud: well-sourced text stories accompanied by well-edited video segments, rollover maps, graphics and links. Other projects, only a mother could love: garish red type on black backgrounds, gothic sites with rambling, pointless stories spiked with ugly video, bungled HTML code and links that led to 404 File Not Found error pages — all turned in on CDs that wouldn’t play.

Blaming the students for their online shortcomings would be unfair. Dreamweaver had proved too cumbersome for the average journalism student. We had developed student media web sites before, and students with previously-developed computer skills were doing fine, even enjoying the chance to work with Dreamweaver. Advanced courses in online journalism had produced web projects with only the usual teaching tussles. But if you assume, as KU does, that every news student ought to have a basic introduction to web-based writing and reporting, then far too many of our students experienced online journalism as a sweaty, late-night, bad dream of lost files. Even with increased training and improved templates, learning basic skills was too often an experience of waiting for an already-on-overtime lab worker to fix your mysterious problems. It also seemed as if some students spent more time picking their lime-green color scheme than gathering, writing and editing the stories.

Clearly, we needed another solution, and the most logical approach was to adopt a content management system (CMS).

Finding a CMS

Journalism schools aren’t alone in the quest for a better way to manage content. Many media organizations are struggling to catalog, maintain and archive the news. As creating multimedia content becomes easier and audience demands for multimedia content increase, journalism schools and media organizations face the daunting task of organizing all this new data and making it available to reporters, producers and audiences.

Before the summer of 2004, the news faculty at KU probably had never used the term “CMS.” Of course, we had been dealing with content management systems on student newspapers since the days of paper-tape-loaded programs on central processing units from Compugraphic. Our TV newsroom had just purchased a CMS called “Newsroom” for its newscasts. But what we needed was a system for managing class content, a system that could display text, video, links, digital photography, slide shows and graphics while allowing us to manage them at minimal expense with minimally-skilled content creators.

There is, of course, a whole industry out there willing to supply universities just that kind of setup — for a price.

We quickly developed a set of requirements for such a system:



  • A system that was well documented and provided an infrastructure that could survive administrator turnover.

  • A simple-to-maintain system with easy-to-update templates.

  • A system that was user-friendly.

  • A stand-alone system that could survive the corporate demise of the vendor.

  • A professional support team available to assist with design, implementation and other issues that might arise down the line (on-site support if possible).
  • Phone support (24-hour if possible).


  • Support for both Macs and PCs.

  • Ability to communicate with multiple database types.

  • Consulting services for incorporating the CMS into our existing workflow.

  • Open-standards architecture.

  • Cross-browser support.

  • Reasonable cost upfront, reasonable cost for maintenance and upgrades.

Then we started to price out the vendors. What we found was not pretty. The systems that could meet our needs would have chewed through a quarter of our newsroom budget. Ingeniux (ingeniux.com) was one of the final contenders.

Ingeniux


PROS

CONS

Use of content in raw form not limited to any specific media technology

Not complete turn-key…Still needs template programming

Load balancing architecture provides optimal speed

Requires Windows and IIS server, as well as a separate Web server

Company has many news and university clients and provides consultation for workflow




*Unlimited users and groups

Annual maintenance fee

Kansan, KUJH, School, and other users all can use same content in their own custom templates

Students work experience would be on a proprietary system.

Open standards architecture insures compatibility with any future publishing platform.

Perpetuates multiple, separate systems


*Full support for Mac OS




Ability to preview page design

Ability to preview pages in multiple output options (IE. Different Web browsers, cell phones, PDAs, etc





Cost Analysis


1st year – $49,980

This includes technical support, upgrades, the server software for both the development and deployment servers, unlimited users and a week’s worth of training from their team.

2nd year - $5,000-6,000

This includes technical support and upgrades.

Nth year - $5,000-?

This includes technical support and upgrades.




Blogging software

Then a lightbulb turned on. Weblogs used the same kind of small, web-based content management system that we needed. Granted, blogs usually consisted ting primarily of periodic articles that were more like journal entries than news stories. But there was no reason why blogging software couldn’t be used to post news stories online. Media use of blogs in 2004 proved us more right than we could have hoped.

The earliest blogs were manually updated and required a skilled webmaster to build and maintain them. But in 1999, applications like Pitas1 and Blogger2 were released. These tools allowed users to easily create and maintain blogs, meaning that anyone could instantly become a blogger. Using some sort of web-based software became a typical characteristic of blogging.

The more we thought about it, the more wWe also saw the potential offered by blog CMSs, technically speaking. Besides offering a more painless way to publish news stories,, with most blogging systems would allow students can to do as little — or as much — HTML and other such web programming wizardry as they liked — or could understand.

After all, most blogging systems provide a simple, web-based interface for quickly publishing content online. Today’s blogging software is more multimedia-oriented. Blog developers are also experimenting with cell phone and email publishing tools, as well as advanced ways to search and syndicate content. Because blogging is so popular, developers are constantly releasing new features to meet bloggers’ increasing demands.

After careful consideration, we choose Blogger, developed by a small company in San Francisco called Pyra and purchased by Google in 2002. It was the easy- to-setup, straightforward-to-teach, and simple-to-learn aspects of Blogger that convinced us that it cwould be the answer to our CMS prayers. That, and the fact that we didn’t have to pay a dime for it.

We already had resources, mostly in people, that we could draw on for our blog project. We had a full-time multimedia coordinator who set up our blogs, wrote documentation and trained our students to put their stories online. In terms of salary, it cost about $8,500 for the first six months and $1,500 for each following semester.

There were concerns among faculty that students would become “bloggers gone wild.” Visions of obscenity, libel or worse made some faculty hesitant to adopt the classroom blogging system. Part of the concern was salved by semantics. We never called the students’ personal web space a “blog” in class. We called them “personal web portfolios.” While have had to remove some content when we discovered plagiarism by a student, we have yet to experience a single incident of renegade bloggers crossing the line.

What we did find was that blogging software allowed students, faculty and technical staff to quickly and easily manage content online. By the end of a semester, virtually all students cancould post could post multimedia stories online with minimal training and lab time. Now all multimedia reporting assignments — from six-inch text stories to TV news packages — are posted to the class blog. The best part? Blogging software took much of the pain out of both training and learning online skills. We found that students, when they were ready, would actually ask how to code new features. In this sense, our use of blogs in the classroom setting more closely reflects the Wikipedia definition of a blog as, “a web-based publication consisting primarily of periodic articles” (Definition of blog, 2005). For those who were challenged by merely posting text and video, their work still looked like a web page and virtually every student could get to that skill level. We also found that the small rush of seeing their stories on the web could motivate students who may never have considered online journalism to do more.

By choosing a free, hosted blogging system called Blogger (developed by a small company in San Francisco called Pyra, purchased by Google in 2002), we did not have to spend any time on server installation or configuration. Students signed up, created individual blogs and learned how to post text during a one hour training session. The setup took hardly any time at all. The hardest part for the students seemed to be deciding which blog template design they wanted to use.

During another, separate training session, students learned how to upload and post still images and video. The beauty of this blogging system was its ability to strip out all the fancy, confusing code and allow us to get down to basics, like how to create a link. Blogs also afforded students the opportunity to solicit feedback from professors, other students, parents, friends and even sources.

It didn’t take long for us to outgrow Blogger. This summer, we moved from Blogger to an open-source CMS called WordPress. The move from Blogger to WordPress meant more control over the back-end of the CMS. Students no longer publish individual blogs. Instead there is one class blog for multimedia reporting. WordPress is flexible enough to allow us to grow and change as both the technology and our needs mature. According to WordPress Blog Counter, there are more than 42,000 WordPress blogs registered with Weblogs.com.

Getting started with blogging

An overview of adopting a blog CMS for classroom use would skim over many technical details, but still explains the steps and resources involved.

First, you will need to choose a blog system from a wide variety of those available. Asymptomatic.net’s Blog Software Breakdown3 has a detailed chart comparing 15 popular blog CMSs’ most important features.

Here are a few considerations for choosing a CMS:

1. Do you want to spend any money at all? There are several systems that charge for using them but are still far less expensive than a commercial content management system. For example, MovableType, charges a one-time educational license fee of a few hundred dollars. Blogger and WordPress are free, as are many others.

2. Do you have any technical personnel or have a pretty good skill set yourself? You might find the blogging skills you need within your own student body. Many students have been using these systems since high school.

3. Do you have the necessary hardware to host the site on your own server? If so, do you want to host the site and deal with upkeep and administration?

If you have no money, no technical skills, no technical help and no server, your can still use a simple CMS like Blogger, although your ability to post multimedia content will be limited. And while a blog CMS may the simplest web publishing system, there still is no turn-key, free web-site-in-a-box that we have found. But with Blogger, you can actually have your students posting content to the web by the end of the day.

If you don’t have cash but do have a server and some technical support, setting up blogs is a simple process.

1. Set up individual student accounts with FTP access to individual web folders for each student on the server. FTP is a protocol used to transfer files between computers and servers. We used a OS X server to create “Home” folders that have a “Sites” folder for hosting web pages. Blogger publishes blog posts to your server via FTP.

2. Activate the Apache web server (if it’s not already activated). Apache4 is an open-source web server with versions for Unix, Linux, Windows and OS X. A technical support person with decent computing skills may need to tweak the configuration to get Apache running.

3. Hold small-group orientation sessions for students and walk them through setting up their blogs and posting text. Students will need the following information to publish their blogs:


  • FTP Server name: for example, ftp.myserver.com

  • Blog URL: This is the web address for the blog. It is an absolute URL that points to the individual student web site. For example, http://www.myserver.com/~username

  • FTP path: This is the relative location of the individual student web site. For example, on OS X it would simply be Sites/

  • Blog filename: This is the default web page for the individual student web site. Most often it will be index.htm or index.html

  • FTP username and password

4. After the students have configured their blogs and successfully published their first text post, you may want to create an index page on the web server to link to all of the individual blogs. This is a reference point to manage and grade student assignments.

Because we believe that part of learning about online journalism includes learning a little HTML, we teach the students basic code for creating hyperlinks, adding images, embedding video and formatting text.

The best way to teach the students how to use blogs is requiring them to publish their assignments to the web and not grading an assignment until it is posted, starting with the very first assignment. We assign a step-by-step series of assignments requiring more sophisticated multimedia elements as the semester progressing. The final story must include text, images, audio and video. It’s overwhelming for the students to learn how to shoot, write scripts and post video all at once, but breaking the objectives into smaller chunks helps them learn one skill at a time.

We provide students with step-by-step documentation, complete with screenshots about how to perform each of the basic functions. This documentation5 is written, updated and maintained by the more technically-oriented students and staff.

Some students want more control over the design and layout of their blogs. We can teach our students a little about Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and HTML, giving them the opportunity to experiment without having to build an entire web site from scratch.

Using blogs has quickly proved valuable to our students. Several have gone on to take job in the field. One of our graduates, Meagan Kelleher, is now working as Internet Director for KPLC in Lake Charles, La. She set up several blogs for the news station. The weather blog6 and Meagan’s Internet Director blog7 served as important sources for news dissemination during Hurricane Rita.Why? And Ho

Assessing the options

The chart below outlines our experiences and the pros and cons of Dreamweaver, blogs, traditional CMS and home-brewed systems. Blogs are not necessarily a solution for every content management need. We have found them useful for basic education for large numbers of students and as an introduction to online journalism. However, we do use other CMS, including one that we designed and built for the KUJH-TV News web site8. The University Daily Kansan9 purchased the CMS developed by The Lawrence Journal-World10. These systems fulfilled functionality requirements that blogging software could not, and provided more robust content management for these student media web sites.

Comparing CMS options



Pros

No CMS (Dreamweaver)

Blog CMS

Traditional CMS

Home-brewed CMS

  • Not restricted by templates (more room to be creative with layout/design)

  • No server installation/maintenance required.

  • Potentially more private (projects don’t have to be published to the Web)

  • Widely-used, industry-standard software

  • Some built-in multimedia support

  • WYSIWYG interface

  • No programmers needed

  • Free or cheap

  • Learn in steps (text, images, video)
  • Built-in index and archives allow for easier grading and assignment management


  • Accessible from off-campus

  • Assignments are published for the world to see

  • Students can to receive feedback from sources, professors and other students through comments

  • Functionality can be added with third-party plugins

  • Open-source applications often have support forums and frequent upgrades

  • Many CMSs to choose from

  • Students can focus on content instead technical details




  • Support, upgrades

  • More like what’s out there in the “real world”

  • More sophisticated user levels and user control

  • Flexibility in design and layout of the site

  • Robust indexing and archiving

  • Build exactly what you want

  • Complete control over back- and front-end (programming language, layout, design, functionality)

  • Can change at will

  • Students can get involved as programmers

  • Train students at the top level what it means to be an online journalist

Cons

No CMS (Dreamweaver)

Blog CMS

Traditional CMS

Homebrewed CMS

  • Interface is cumbersome and offers more choices than students need or can handle

  • Steep learning curve, no baby steps

  • Indexes and archives must be build by hand

  • More lab support needed for students

  • Software licensing requires maintenance and upgrades
  • Work must be done in the labs or students must purchase the software


  • Students have to learn FTP and file structure basics

  • It’s not a basic program and is not meant for teaching students basic web skills

  • Little or no design customization

  • Software bugs can sometimes require technical monitoring and patching

  • More administration required for faculty and technical staff

  • Stigma of “Blogging” can cause faculty apprehension

  • No gatekeepers for student work. Stories can be published with typos and errors

  • Limited formal or consistent technical support

  • Limited multimedia support without reliance on third-party plugins

  • Faculty or staff is responsible for installation and upgrades

  • Big up-front and maintenance costs

  • Inflexible once the design is up and running

  • Cookie cutter look with little or no design customization for individual students or stories

  • Expensive commitment, once you pay for it you may be stuck using it long-term

  • Little or no video support or ability to upload a variety of multimedia formats

  • Expensive to hire and keep a full-time programmer

  • Need your own server, which you must maintain (takes time and money)

  • Programmers can be cranky

  • Takes time to develop and­­­ development is never complete

  • Probably buggy, limited support, possible security flaws

  • If programmers are students: high turnover, evaporating support, and less reliable

  • Lack of documentation

  • Over time, code becomes more disorganized and buggy




1 http://www.pitas.com

2 http://www.blogger.com


3 http://www.asymptomatic.net/blogbreakdown.htm

4 http://www.apache.org

5 http://ehub.journalism.ku.edu/input

6 http://www.kplctv.com/Global/link.asp?L=159592

7 http://kplcid.blogspot.com/

8 http://tv.ku.edu

9 http://www.kansan.com

10 http://www.ljworld.com






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