Thursday, November 01, 2007

web report 2007

CESL Website & weblog report
Aug. 2007

The CESL weblogs are underutilized, as evidenced by high-level writers’ general disfluency and lack of attention to detail like punctuation, spacing, etc. The strengths of weblogs really are that they can be used to make students used to writing, reading and communicating actively in online & written media, but students here are sometimes able to pass writing classes without doing this, and this is unfortunate, given the increasing importance of writing fluency in the modern world. Although the web has become increasingly important and even dominant as a source of information for people internationally, as a way for programs to represent themselves and advertise, and as a medium for people to communicate, CESL teachers have been extremely busy and perhaps hesitant or too time-pressed to integrate it successfully into their classes. The CESL Today newsletter, presumably taken from every level’s work, is frequently taken from only one or two levels’ work; this is most likely because teachers are too busy to scout out the process sufficiently to feel comfortable with actually imposing it upon students. Now, with a Writing Assistant (10 hrs./wk), this may become easier.

Nevertheless, the website and weblogs have had a busy year. CESL has about 50 weblogs, which have now been reorganized (New Blogger forced organization by e-mail address) into three kinds: active, inactive, and teachers’; one can find logon information for each one by clicking on the dog in the template, and the password is the same for all of them. Teachers can have their students contribute to a single class weblog, or go through the process of ensuring that each student has one, and put class material on the personal weblogs. I have found that the process does take some class time, but that students do read each others’ work; students do benefit greatly from using writing as a medium successfully, to communicate to each other and to the public; and students also benefit greatly from the attention to detail required to successfully master spacing, punctuation, spelling and general typing and computer skills that are necessary to use weblogs successfully. It is only by making these habits that we really teach them; this is impossible to do with a three or four essays/term.

From a management point of view, the process of updating weblog templates and template links, monitoring comments and posts, and using the weblogs to provide material for CESL Today is laborious, but again, students read these weblogs; they appreciate the skills they get from using them, and they enjoy being able to find their work, and their weblogs, sometimes years after they have left CESL, though they are free to delete them when they leave. The fact that they master online formatting of research papers, with properly formatted appearance, linked references, and linked abstracts in a separate central location is admired by other programs and makes CESL look professionally ahead of the curve. Although requiring students to master online presentation adds to our teaching load, so did communicative methods; both philosophies basically said that a language is of little value if it can’t be used successfully in the medium the student will most frequently need.

The static website has over 300 pages, some outdated or carrying broken links, but most carrying useful language learning resources and teaching resources; keeping it up-to-date is a constant and time-consuming task, and its reputation and usefulness means that I receive 5 to 10 messages/wk. requesting links, many of which I’m too busy to research and/or respond to. Thus I’ve been working on making the system more streamlined and simple. This problem was made more difficult a few years back when new pages were made for a dozen or so of the front pages, thus rendering scores of internal back-links invalid. The most severe of these problems, namely links to outdated schedules, etc., have been corrected, but there are still layers of duplicate pages that need to be simplified, pared down, and made internally clean, with no bad links. I appreciate being alerted to any pages that have dead links or are unusable (see below). A few years ago we were told to put new templates on all pages, no old logos permitted, and given burdensome restrictions on what appeared on SIU server space, but most of these have been lifted, with a minimum of requirements still holding for all pages and a much more sensible policy in place. Nevertheless there are still a few old pages that have neither been deleted nor brought up to requirement, and this process is almost complete.

In addition to providing a showcase for student work, a forum for student communication and community development, and a usable place for students to find sites to learn language and find authentic materials, the web also serves as one of CESL’s primary marketing tools, and is certainly the most important window to parents and friends who may never come here or relate to SIUC/CESL in any more direct way. The main CESL website gets up to 80 hits/day, from all over the world, but oddly enough, few of our own students go through it to find what they need; this is partly because few of our computers are set with the homepage as their opening page. Believe it or not, they generally start with Google, spell CESL correctly or incorrectly, and go from there. From a marketing perspective it’s also important that SIU CESL and its webpage are linked from scores of directories, many of them free, which must be updated and monitored regularly. But the main factor that makes CESL and its pages appear when people Google us, for internal reasons or to find a place to learn English, is good useful content that people enjoy reading and want to link to; to this end we always expand in areas that have drawn interest in the past, and we encourage students to link out to their other pages, as well as link back to their CESL weblogs from their other pages. A large and actively used web is its own best marketing tool, as “freshness” also has a high value in the search index ratings. Students generally have MySpace or their own country’s version of it, so it’s not a matter of teaching them how to set up a personal site; they undoubtedly have several already.

One of the recurring headaches of the web management business is picture storage, as we wait for the new “server,” which could be renamed “Godot.” CESL now stores pictures on two free servers (2 Flickr accounts and one MSN), one almost full, but we hesitate to put more pictures on our main SIUC server space as we were told a couple years ago that we were more than double over capacity already, and pictures have become very large. For marketing, large pictures are good, but fortunately the front office has taken on storing most of these. For web purposes it’s more relevant to discuss how to help CESL students store and find what they need to use, to put on their own weblogs, but they are generally better at this than we are. I appreciate the steady stream of pictures of CESL activities, many of which go in CESL Today or onto the weblogs as permanent documentation of good times here at CESL in summer of ’07; it’s easy to put them on the MSN site where everyone can share them, but pointing us to your own site is just as good in terms of making them available, since these free sites are share-sites. One exception to this is Flickr, which now says that to use their picture on an external page you must link to Flickr- but as owners, we can download these pictures anyway, and put them somewhere else; in addition, Flickr is useful for being able to store larger (clearer) photos. So in general we are beginning to use the Flickr accounts more heavily for those purposes. The LMC has offered its server to us (in reality, there does not really seem to be a shortage of “server space”) but we haven’t taken them up on it yet, always thinking that our own is around the next corner. This is still a possibility, though.

The increasing importance of the web in the presentation and marketing of any department makes it urgent that departments pay close attention to the time and energy they put into the web, and allot some professional resources toward upgrading their appearance. But though I often tell people in the Linguistics Department (whose website is as complex and unruly as ours- about a tenth the size, but ten times more political)- that I do their page in my free time, I actually have very little time for the above tasks either. For that reason I ask for help with the following:

1. Take ownership; learn to upgrade weblog templates yourself, and monitor class weblogs, so that if they are not always perfectly grammatical, they are at least in a constant state of being used, being made better, being appreciated, and being added onto. People do read them, so crude comments, which occasionally are made, should be eliminated by the first person who sees them. Although these days I’m about the only contributor to the CESL Teachers, CESL Students, CESL Alumni and Ling. Alumni pages, there’s no reason it has to stay that way. These are all intended as community weblogs.

2. Keep sending pictures my way, or better yet, upload them onto public space where everyone can use and appreciate them.

3. Remember that the class weblogs are for CESL, personal weblogs are for students. I find myself directing much of their work online- if they can’t use it to communicate- what good was it? There is much here that could be shared, enjoyed, and discussed- but isn’t. Why not?

4. In general, my biggest problem is that we live on Mac/Safari while most of the rest of the world is on PC/IE or some other computer/browser combination. Thus many things that we get used to enjoying and using, here at CESL, look hideous on other systems, and I often don’t know it, sometimes for months at a time. I need help being alerted to pages that look bad in other computer/browser combinations. If necessary I can run over to a PC and see what things look like there, but not if I don’t know it’s a problem.

5. Similarly, links go bad, or worse, get bought by porn warehouses and converted to nefarious or commercial uses. We avoid links to purely commercial interests in general and are getting more strict about this, rather than less. If you notice a slimy operator that is linked directly from our pages, let me know and we’ll get rid of it. A smaller web is easier to manage, and in general there’s no point duplicating sets of links, making links to listening resources, for example, when we can simply link to other ESL/EFL professionals, who are doing a much better and more consistent job at linking to listening resources.

6. You are basically responsible for your own representation on the web. I go through these paragraphs once a year (changing “for 15 years” to “for 16 years” or simply replacing it with “since 1991”, trying to simplify). But I can’t and won’t change the representation of your position, your research interests, or your title, etc., nor will I run out and take a better picture, or even find the first one. This generally is done now, in late August, so don’t feel bad if you’re a little behind; take your time and get what you want.

Here are some projects I hope to consider for the future:

Activity weblog: should be updated or possibly filled with pictures in the body, with the updated schedule always appearing in the template. I’m working with Kasandra on this.

CESL history: It would be nice to document this more carefully.

Special Group weblogs: I know they have pictures. It’s just a matter of collecting them, and putting them in the right place. For example, I Shou.

Homepage in different languages: a shelved but still useful project.

Flickr disaster

Flickr has declared our account "inactive" and cancelled out some photos. This is a disaster but we're working to repair it. We may have to rely on other photos for a while; sorry about the ones you're missing!