Archive for February 2010

Ragan webcast: My window into distance learning

February 28, 2010

So there I was, sitting at home with my laptop computer, watching Social Media guru Brian Solis live from the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta talking about the future of social media. And I wasn’t just watching and listening, I was engaging in conversation with dozens of people through Twitter, discussing his presentation as he delivered it – and making new connections. It was my first complete “distance learning” experience, and it was awesome.

The Ragan Communications 3rd Annual Social Media for Communicators Conference was held Tuesday and Wednesday of this week in Atlanta. It included three tracks, with nearly 30 speeches, discussions and workshops. For the cost of just the conference fee (no travel, no hotel, no meals), I was able to watch every Track 1 workshop live. And Ragan is going to send me a DVD of all three tracks within a couple weeks, so the learning continues. (I participated in the live conference from home rather than the office to avoid all the distractions – phones calls, walk-ins, “crises” – of office work.)

Yes, attending a conference in person has its advantages. You meet people face-to-face, you connect, interact and network in a very personal manner. But this is the age of social media, and I found a way to do that, to at least some extent, without being there. The conference employed the Twitter hashtag #ragancoke, which allowed all of us Twitter users to develop a live online community where we could communicate our thoughts and reactions to what we were seeing and hearing. Not only did I enjoy reading the Tweets from others who were in the audience and participating from home, like me, I “followed” everyone who Tweeted a comment that interested me. As a result, I now have developed more than 40 new ongoing Twitter connections – people interested in the same topics as me … people who have expertise in the area of social media and regularly share information with me, educate me and stimulate me to keep learning and adapting. As a result of these quality connections, I learn something new – or find a link to valuable information – every time I check in on my Twitter page.

Of course, distance learning is not new, but it is moving rapidly into the mainstream. Every school and institution of higher education is at least toying with the use of distance learning, and many have developed extensive distance learning programs.

Attending this conference online, I found great value in distance learning. Yet, I recognize that being a professional attending a conference through a webcast is very different than being a student attending a public school class.

Many of you have had extensive experience with distance learning, both as providers and consumers. What do you think? To what extent will schools be employing distance learning 10 years from now? What will our public schools look like? What are the advantages and opportunities, and what do we need to watch out for?

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Throwing out the AP Stylebook (style book?)

February 28, 2010

I have to confess. The AP Stylebook is longer my bible. Or should that be Bible? I don’t know because I didn’t bother to look it up in the AP Stylebook. I didn’t look it up because, frankly, I don’t care that much. And neither does anyone who is reading this. So it’s really not worth the time.

Up until today, I was afraid to admit that I have become an AP style slacker. I am a graduate of a major university journalism school. I have been a reporter and editor my whole life. I spent three years working on the copy desk of a major city newspaper for god’s sake. (Or is that God’s sake?) The intricacies of the AP stylebook were engrained (ingrained?) in me. When I worked for a daily newspaper, if I didn’t memorize every single entry, you can be darned sure that I looked up anything and everything I had a question about. (Yes, I just wrote “anything and everything” even though the Stylebook (stylebook?) (style book?) would probably tell me that is redundant. And I just put a couple sentences in parentheses with parentheses inside of parentheses.)

Oh, for the most part I probably do still use AP style most of the time just out of habit and because a lot of it makes perfect sense. And good grammar is still very important. I am not yet using text message abbreviations. Even tho U probably R.

But if I’m not sure of a sticky style issue, something that could easily work either way, I usually just wing it rather than blowing the dust off the stylebook or tracking down the Web site and checking it out. Sometimes I even intentionally spite the AP style just because I want to. I refer to my self as Bill Hurley, Editor and Social Media Strategist, with an upper case E, S, M and S even through the titles appear after – not before – my name. Gasp! And I usually now abbreviate my beloved state as WI instead of Wis., like everyone else, including the US Postal Service (or is U.S. Postal Service?). Does 25 minus 22 equal 3 or does it equal three? I still don’t know, and really who cares? As long as it is one or the other and not 2. Or two.

Should I put the period before or behind the quotation marks at the end of sentence? I don’t know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the sentence. And how I feel at the moment. And, yes, I know those were not complete sentences and that the last two sentences start with And. Not to mention that the last sentence ended with And and I probably should have put quotation marks around it. Or should I have? I really don’t know. But does it matter either way? You know what I’m saying either way, right?

Anyway, earlier today I “attended” a webinar (Webnar?) of a Ragan Communications Social Media Conference from Atlanta, when social media guru (Guru?) (expert?) (Expert?) Brian Solis said it right out loud in front of a whole lot of people – PR people nonetheless: “I threw away my AP Stylebook years ago because nobody speaks that way.” You literally could hear gasps from the audience. But he was right … the AP stylebook is becoming – or has become – somewhat of a dinosaur.

When you work for a newspaper (and fewer and fewer people do), I guess it still makes sense to use the AP style. It’s always been accepted that consistency is important. And for a newspaper it is, sort of. But as more and more people scan across the Internet (internet?) (web?) (Web?) and multitudes of social media (Social Media?) sites, there is no consistency. And there never will be. So why spend lots of time agonizing over consistent style minutia on your blog when everyone else is doing something else and it really doesn’t matter anyway whether AP wants me to finish this sentence with one of these: a colon, a dash or a hyphen.

Thank you, Brian Solis, for lessening my guilt. Because of you, I am now able to admit it too: I am and Editor and Social Media Strategist from Madison WI who is an AP style slacker.

The changing face of Web habits – and Web analytics

February 23, 2010

At weac.org, we are constantly checking our Web analytics to find out what it is our members like best and to get direction on which areas we should emphasize in our work. We know for example, that they really like our Member Benefits resources, the WEAC Savers’ Club, our continuously updated news headlines, and the Educator’s Bulletin Board. We also know how many people visit the Web site overall, and we monitor both micro and macro trends in these numbers.

But now, as Web sites such as weac.org reach out to share information in more ways and find innovative avenues for generating participation, it becomes an increasingly interesting exercise to measure success. It used to be we would just look at our Web analytics. More unique visitors, more page views, more “hits” on our Web site was interpreted as success in reaching our audiences.

While we definitely want to keep increasing those numbers, they simply don’t mean as much as they used to. Today, we don’t just attempt to drive people to our Web site; we seek to engage them in conversation and we try to meet them where you are in the online world. It is feasible in that environment that fewer unique visitors, fewer page views, and fewer “hits” on a Web site is not such a bad thing at all. Maybe it means we have just found new and better ways to reach and engage people – and that people have found better ways to stay informed and involved.

Right now, our numbers on weac.org are strong, and we would like to see them continue to grow. But, like other successful Web sites, we have moved outside the borders of our core Web site to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Groupsite and other external Web tools. We have added email alerts and RSS feeds, and still use our weekly e-newsletter – WEAC Direct – to extend the reach of our online resources. You might say we’re making it easy for people not to come weac.org.

People no longer have to type weac.org into their browser to get the information and services we offer or to participate in online conversations. We have to consider how many Facebook “fans” we have, and how many of those fans respond to and participate in conversations on our Facebook page. We also must examine the quality of those conversations. The same is true for all our other “external” Social Media tools. How many people are watching our YouTube videos or looking at our Flickr pictures? These are important measurements as well.

Today, people can stay in touch through our email alerts. They can subscribe to the WEAC News Feed, the Daily News Blog or any of eight other email alerts targeted to specific audiences. Once they sign up, we would like them to continue to come to weac.org for more information and services, but in a lot of cases they probably won’t. They’ll get what they can from the email alerts, and stay informed and in touch that way. They won’t show up on our Web stats that day, but we’re very happy that they are staying connected in other ways.

We also know that every year people have many more quality Web sites and Social Media tools to visit and use, from TheApple.com to teach-nology.com to teachers.net and literally hundreds of thousands of other options. So we know that for us to maintain and increase the number of visitors to our site takes more work: promotion, organizing of members, and – primarily – continued development of quality, useful content and targeted social networking opportunities that serve each of our niche membership categories.

More broadband for rural areas

February 19, 2010

It’s no secret that the Internet is less accessible in rural areas. Even as the use of Web sites and social media become an almost integral part of daily life for many of us, simple geography is throwing up barriers for many others. Some of my friends and colleagues in sparsely populated parts of northern Wisconsin tell me they pretty much have to access the Internet from their workplace, which severely limits their ability to use Web services and social media tools. In addition, students in schools where Internet access is limited are at a distinct disadvantage, as they prepare for the workplace or college and life beyond in a social media world.

Good news. Two stories that caught my eye this week tell us that help is on the way.

First, the governor’s office and the Department of Public Instruction announced that Wisconsin won a $22.9 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act competitive grant (“stimulus money”) to expand broadband technology, primarily in rural areas. The state is chipping in an additional $5.7 million.

State Superintendent Tony Evers said the money “will bring fiber optic connectivity to schools and libraries in rural areas that do not have this vital Internet service, which has almost unlimited capacity to carry Web-based services and other applications.” It will provide high-speed Internet access to 74 school districts; eight postsecondary institutions, including two tribal colleges; and 385 public libraries; connecting them to the BadgerNet Converged Network.

“Bringing fiber to these sites in predominantly rural areas also will create the opportunity for affordable broadband access to residential and business customers in the entire community,” he said.

Is your school or community included? Find out here.

If you are interested in more details, there are plenty of them on this DPI Web site.

The other related story comes from the New York Times, which tells us how school officials in sprawling Vail, Colorado, mounted a mobile Internet router to a school bus, enabling students to surf the Web on the way to and from school. “Wi-Fi access has transformed what was often a boisterous bus ride into a rolling study hall, and behavioral problems have virtually disappeared,” the story claims.

Mostly, the students use the Web to help them with homework, but not always. Vail’s superintendent, Calvin Baker, says he knew from the start that some students would play computer games. “That’s a whole lot better than having them bugging each other,” he said.

No mention of whether the district limits access to certain Internet sites. But I suspect they do. That’s a topic for another day.

Poetry in motion

February 19, 2010

I really ought to do this more often.

Recently, I spent a couple hours with Sarah Rose Thomas and her students at Coleman (Wisconsin) High School, about 40 miles north of Green Bay, and it was one of those afternoons that reminds me so much why I love working with educators and students.

Sarah’s classroom was filled with students who want to learn and a teacher uniquely skilled to teach them the subject matter that she so loves: poetry. At one point, preparing to read a poem to her students, she confessed that she cried the last time she read it. It’s personal, and it’s powerful.

The students, too, talked about how poems – those they read as well as those they write – sometime deeply affect them, including a student who turned to poetry after her grandfather passed away.

I was so glad I brought along my handheld digital video camera, as Sarah and her students were more than willing to talk about a subject that means so much to them: their love of poetry. And I am so glad that today we are able to readily tell these stories in online video that can be watched by people anywhere any time.

Videos such as this provide a visual glimpse into what happens thousands of times over in public school classrooms throughout our state, and does it in a way that people can see … and feel … and experience.

Incredible teachers like Sarah are connecting with students and making huge impacts on their lives. Students are giving back to the teacher and to each other, as these classrooms become communities of learning, sharing and growing. See for yourself:

Google’s Buzz: The future of social networking?

February 11, 2010

If you have a Gmail account, you undoubtedly now know about Buzz. Google snuck up on its Gmail users Wednesday and introduced its new Facebook-like application folded right into Gmail. Amazingly, there was little or no talk about Buzz before its launch (Google kept it under wraps), but social media is going crazy with talk about it today!

It will take a while to figure out whether this is the next greatest thing in social networking, but with Google behind it, that’s a good bet. Google is becoming synonymous with the Internet and social networking. Consider Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Blogger, iGoogle, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Blogger, Feedburner, Google Earth, Google Maps, Android and, of course, the massive Google Search engine and its hugely profitable AdWords.

What are we to think of Google? Has it become the all-powerful Big Brother – constantly spidering through our profiles, emails and Internet usage habits while robbing us of all our privacy for the sake of targeted advertising and the enormous profits it generates – or an incredibly efficient, inexpensive and effective way for us as consumers to organize and use the Internet?

The products Google offers are almost irresistable. Now with Buzz, we can create new social networks incorporated with our email, photo web albums (Picasa), calendar, blogs, videos and more.

We are going to keep a close eye on Buzz and will be exploring its value over the next several weeks. Don’t be surprised to see it appear sometime this year in some way as piece of WEAC’s growing arsenal of social networking tools. In the meantime, take a look at this video, and let me know what you think of Buzz.