By VALERIE LAPOINTE
Since its official launch in fall 2007, the use of UMW blogs has become an essential part of academic life here at the University of Mary Washington, so much so that many users fail to recognize the uniqueness of the platform and the idea behind it.
However, a recent article written by Sarah Cuanne on the Times Higher Education blog championed UMW blogs as being one of the rare scholarly publishing platforms to allow open publishing by anyone in the UMW community.
In her article, Cuanne asks the question, “How much does your University trust you?” While many professors and students have embraced the idea of blogging, UMW is a pioneer in this medium by having a blog site officially affiliated with the school where students are unfiltered and uninhibited as to the content they produce.
Cuanne quotes educational technology specialist Mark Smithers, who also champions the success of UMW blogs and claims that at many institutions, blogging is only promoted through a controlled channel.
He wrote, “We end up with a situation where organizations whose principal resource is their staff are effectively encouraging those staff to publish outside of the university.”
Smithers noted the success of UMW blogs in not restricting the content its users produce and went on to say that this is how blogging platforms in higher education should be conducted.
“At several universities, blogging via the university web site is effectively discouraged unless it is delivered through an ‘official’ (read controlled) blogging channel,” wrote Smithers. “Inevitably this leads to a sanitized series of posts by various authors that will spin the best light on all concerned, especially the institution.”
Instructional Technology Specialist Jim Groom, along with his colleagues in the division of teaching and learning technologies department, designed UMW blogs as a space where students could “reflect, collate and curate the work they are doing as college students with the idea that they will bring it with them and this will become part of an ongoing discourse and framing of who they are both as scholars and as people,” said Groom.
“UMW blogs is not the first blogging platform in higher-ed,” Groom said, “but it was the first one that basically put no limits on the students or the faculty, it said look we trust you, we believe that this is an experiment that as adults in higher education we can handle, so go crazy with it, show us whats possible, and the UMW community really engaged in it.”
“Having a blog website affiliated with the school really helps to create a sense of community”, said Leighanne Ellis, a senior who came to UMW as a transfer student from Elon University.
“My old school didn’t have anything like this.” Ellis said. “Conversations that go on in the classroom are able to continue outside the classroom, and people who you didn’t even know were reading your stuff can comment and get involved in your work. You never know who is paying attention.”
In addition to a lack of control from the university, Groom mentioned that the other great strength of UMW blogs was its ability to put content control in the hands of the students.
“The thing about Blackboard and [Learning Management Systems] in general is that work you do in them you either have to save it independently or by the end of the semester, it’s gone,” said Groom.
“With UMW blogs it’s the absolute opposite, you control how long it stays there, who sees it and how long it stays there after you leave. You are the admin of your education,” he added.
To date, UMW blogs currently hosts 5,788 student and faculty blogs dealing with courses, studying abroad, post-graduate work, and everyday-life here at UMW.
“I hold onto President Hurley’s idea that if we are going to be the best liberal arts college, that part of that has to be thinking creatively about what the digital space provides us,” said Groom.
“Here is an institution that encourages students to have their own opinion and share it without shutting it down. The more we can put the experience back in the hands in the students, the better we are as a community,” he added.