ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

One Path to the Blog
An odyssey in tracking and sharing technology with the online higher education community

By Ray Shroeder / June 2003

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

More than a million Web logs (blogs) populate the Web with thousands of new blogs added every day. As a communication technologist, I have followed the development of blogging with keen interest. This new Web format has already had an important impact on online journalism as well as education. Each of us who blogs has traveled a different path, which ultimately brought us to the realization that blogging was the best solution to a communication challenge.

When I began teaching courses in communication technologies in 1978, little did I know what the coming decades held in store for us all! Back when analog ruled the world, covering the basics of such standards as radio, television, cable, satellite, and, of course, a mention of the fledgling computer-mediated communication field was the norm. One could track the modest technological developments in monthly and quarterly journals and trade magazines. I would make an update here and there each semester. We would experiment with the communication features of PLATO networks and dabble with writing BASIC on our "micro-computers." In our seminars we would ponder the potential of these new technologies and the forecasted "information age." And even as we began to experiment with BITNET and USENET in classes, the changes became increasingly more frequent through the 1980's. By 1990 the information technologies began to proliferate at a seemingly exponential rate; technologies such as "gopher" promised to revolutionize the way we communicated and conducted information research. How was an instructor to keep up with the flood of changes in this field and pass them along to students?

It was clear that the challenge to track and teach the rapidly emerging technologies to students was going to be a formidable one. In the early 1990s I created an informal emailing alias list to handle the increasing load of updates that were taking so much of my time in class. We followed the developments of the Internet and World Wide Web, and I would send out items to students on the list several days a week. A few colleagues who were enthusiasts of the developing technologies asked to be added to the list as well. Over time, with the advent of the Web, updates became even more frequent, and the mailing of announcements became a daily process. I then moved the mailings to a dedicated listserv.

The Classroom Continues Beyond Graduation

A couple of interesting developments occurred along the way. By the mid 1990's, graduates no longer left the technologies listserv upon graduation; they asked to remain on the list as they left to launch their own careers. Soon the list had subscribers spread around the country and beyond. Former students receiving daily listserv emailings from their former professor seemed to be something new. In essence, the class continued beyond the sixteen weeks of the semester, beyond graduation, and continued to serve students as their careers developed—and created a community of practice that extended far beyond the ivy covered walls of campus.

Over time, populating the lists with daily postings became a time-consuming task. But it was rewarding because at the end of each term I was able to promise my students that I would continue to update them with information about the latest developments in the field, and told them that each technology course came with a "lifetime service contract" (noting that "lifetime" referred to my professional lifetime, not theirs).

Colleagues Join the List

Another interesting development was the impact that the information technologies had on other disciplines taught on our campus. At faculty discussions around the lunch tables in the cafeteria, colleagues would share URL's scribbled onto napkins. And every week or two another colleague at the university would ask to sign onto the listserv I had created for the students in my seminar.

Eventually, colleagues—and even the Chancellor of the university—started signing up for my classes on research through the Internet, including a class entitled "Internet for Educators." All of these colleagues were automatically included on the listserv, and they in turn began to forward items from the listserv to other colleagues at other schools. Over time, emails would arrive in my inbox from distant institutions asking me if I would mind adding a name to the listserv.

Eventually, interest among those on the list seemed to split into two tracks: communication technologies and online learning. And so, toward the end of the 1990's, I created a second list dedicated to online learning.

Disseminating to the Larger Audience: from Listserv to Blog

Among the many technologies I followed and shared through postings to the list was that of Web logs, or blogs. This seemed to be a technology that might catch on. I even created a test blog to share with students early in 2000. We poked and probed the blog for a couple of terms. While it was simple in design—little more than a Web page with automated chronological posting functions—the very simplicity and character of this technology is what made it appealing.

Then finally last spring I realized that this was the ideal technology to share my daily findings with my students, campus colleagues, and a broader audience around the world. I bit the blog bullet and began putting my daily postings on the Web. Now, I maintain three blogs with daily postings of news and research items in online learning, technology for higher education, and technology for K-12. I scan dozens of online news and journal sources each morning beginning before 6:00 A.M. central time and are generally completed by 8:30 A.M. I select items that seem most relevant to current issues and trends in this developing field. In the spirit of fair use, and with the objective to serve the scholarly, academic community with links to relevant news and information, I post minimal information, quoting only a few lines of copy to identify the topic and relevance of each item, and provide an active hyperlink to the full report or article. The intent, after all, is not to replace the reading of news sources, but rather to encourage blog readers to visit the cited sources and engage in scholarly reflection and discourse on the topics, technologies, and trends.

International Reach of the Blog

The listservs, at their high point, directly reached a few hundred students, former students, and colleagues. The Online Learning Update blog, on the other hand, collects thousands of visits each month. The larger search engines-including Google, which apparently gives priority to blogs in its algorithm-quickly picked up the blogs. Perhaps this is because blogs are frequently updated and often respond to new developments in search engine's topical areas. So highly do the folks at Google hold blogs that they recently announced they acquired Pyra Labs, the company behind Blogger, a leader in this fledgling industry.

Using the free Site Meter Web site tracking service (, I have been able to collect some data regarding those who visit the Online Learning Update blog. Fully one third of the visitors come from Google and Yahoo! searches for information related to online learning. Many of those visitors view multiple pages as they drill for specific information on their selected topics. Perhaps most interesting is the number of visitors that access the blog from distant points around the globe. The time zone tracking feature of Site Meter—which uses a sampling of 100 visits—consistently shows that there are visitors coming from sixteen to twenty different time zones around the world. And one third of these are from time zones outside the Americas.

Searching the Blog Archives

One of the valuable features of the blog is the auto-archiving feature. With each posting, the archives increase in number. Now, just over a year after launching the Online Learning Update blog, there are nearly 2,000 summaries and links for news and research articles. Weekly reports of the searches made on the online learning blog show that visitors are seeking articles on such topics as online assessment, evaluation, gaming strategies, retention, and related issues in this field. The keyword search capability available to everyone is a significant advantage over the original listserv strategy, since it allows a greater number of people to access the blog, compared with the relatively small number of subscribers that were on the original listserv.

Categories of Visitors

By viewing the page from which the visitor arrives at the blog, it is easy to see that the majority of visitors fall into three general categories: those who have bookmarked the blog, those who are referred by a number of sites linking to the blog, and those who are referred by search engines.

Those visitors who bookmark the blog in their browsers generally make regular visits to get a regular update on online learning news. One can identify these as daily or weekly visits from the same IP address without any identifiable referring page. Many of these visitors were previously on the listserv and moved to the Web for some of the advantages the blog site provides.

The second type of visitor is referred by Web sites that carry links to the blog. Many of the originating sites for this category are meta sites of online learning resources for colleges or others interested in the topic. A useful, but under-utilized feature of some search engines is the "link" search that turns up a list of sites in their database that link to a given site. Such "link" searches are most valuable in determining what institutions and other entities find the site worthy of sharing with their clientele (e.g. online faculty members at another university).

A third category of visitor arrives by way of a search engine. Commonly, these people seek information about specific issues, techniques, institutions, or other aspects of online learning. They may also drill through the archives, seeking additional summaries and links to sources.

A Brief Survey of Readers

When the Online Learning Update blog turned one year old at the end of June 2002, I posted a tiny, three-question survey for readers. I asked for the location from which they accessed the sites, the relative usefulness of the site, and any comments they would like to share. Responses came from all over the world, including New York City; Champlost, France; Pretoria, South Africa; Winnipeg, Canada; Lubbock, TX, and many points in between. Most of the responses also came from regular readers who appreciated the mix of topics represented in the daily reports. In addition, some excellent suggestions for improvements—such as color-coding the type of postings and sorting by themes—were made as well.

Future of the Online Learning Update Blog

For me, it has been a most interesting journey to find effective ways to share information about the exciting field of educational technology, and most particularly, online learning. The encouragement of readers keeps me coming back each morning to share highlights from my daily readings in the field. I am hopeful that the archives will continue to grow and become ever more useful to readers.

I intend to continue my daily postings to the blog, at least until a newer, better technology inevitably comes along to afford an even more efficient way to reach a growing audience interested in online learning.

Ray Schroeder is a professor emeritus of communication at the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois. He has taught on/from the Urbana and Springfield campuses over the past 32 years (the past four years exclusively online). Schroeder received the 2002 Sloan-C Award for Most Outstanding Achievement in ALN by an Individual. He continues as the director of technology-enhanced learning in Springfield and as faculty associate in the University of Illinois Online office in Urbana.

Additional Information


  • There are no comments at this time.