Blogging for News Follow-up Notes

I think I’ve spent enough time healing, procrastinating, and pondering what to say that I should just go ahead and tell you about the course Blogging for News I taught at the Special Libraries Association 2005 Annual Conference. I don’t mean for this to be a rant; and, I’m not trying to lay blame. I’m not angry at SLA or the News Division. I’m just reporting what happened with the hopes that if you’re ever a student in a class, you’ll understand a little bit about some of the behind-the-scenes aspects.

I thought the class went well, despite a late start. People were asking great questions and seemed to be attentive. When we got to the portion when we were actually blogging, I heard lots of giggling. People seemed to enjoy that part of the class. One student photographed a classmate with her camera phone and uploaded the photo to a blog. I was excited when it was over and felt like people walked out of the room satisfied with knowledge of something very useful.

I looked at the course evaluations right after the class because SLA does not share them with the presenters outside of the conference. If I want to improve as a presenter, I need to know what people don’t like about my presentations. I was amazed by the number of negative comments. I found many of them very frustrating. I thought class had gone very well, but apparently I was in a different room as many evaluations indicated that the students did not enjoy the class. I’m going to spend most of this space sorting through some of those negative comments and providing some explanations that I hope might help. I realize by talking about negative evaluations I risk losing some future speaking engagements, but if I want to grow and learn as a presenter, I need to think about these things. I also feel the need to follow through with some of the comments.

Here’s some background on the course:

First of all, I want to assure everyone I was not paid to teach the course. You don’t have to worry about your course registration fee going toward the some kind of honorarium or fee or payment I received. In exchange for me teaching the course, I didn’t have to pay the course registration fee. I paid for my conference costs out of pocket, just like any good conference attendee whose employer does not cover professional development expenses.

Jim Hunter, the former professional development chair of the News Division of the Special Libraries Association, and I talked about doing some kind of blogging workshop during the 2004 Annual Conference. This course was roughly one year in the making. We didn’t start working on the actual planning of it until the winter. I spent some time this spring deciding what blog platform to use in the the course. It wasn’t until a few weeks before the course that things fell together for us to use Blogware, popular and robust commercially available software, thanks to the generosity of Tucows.

We hoped to have only twenty-five students. We knew the course would be in high demand, but we wanted a small class to allow for lots of hands-on teaching. There was a problem with SLA not holding to the registration number, about which I won’t go into detail here. If there was enough demand, we offered to hold a second class. Some people’s registrations got canceled because of space limitations. For that, we apologize. Apparently there was some confusion because some people who thought their registrations had been canceled learned at the conference they could take the course. Also, SLA allowed students participating in a canceled course to come into the blogging course without our prior knowledge and without them receiving any of the advance materials I sent to the students whose names and contact information SLA gave us in May when registration for the course was supposed to have closed. Instead of 25 students in the class, we had 37. In a lecture situation, this would have been no big deal. We planned on having 25-30 and working in small groups of 5-6 using five laptops. Having the extra students was a little problematic because of the situation with laptops, but we adjusted the best we could.

We were unable to secure computers through SLA or to find a training room with computers we could use for the course. The fallback plan was to have people in the course bring laptops. This proved to be a bigger problem than we thought it would be because most of the people taking the course were not bringing computers. We really appreciate those students who did. We made the best of what we had.

I began the course feeling very frustrated because of a delay due to technical issues. The course was to begin at 8 in the morning. A few minutes before eight, a technician came in to tell me the Ethernet connection with still not up, but they were working on it. Then we had to connect everyone’s computers, which took another chunk of time. I decided starting the class on time, and then stopping it when the technicians arrived to hook up the equipment, would be confusing and disruptive, so I chose to wait instead of charging ahead. It took thirty minutes to get everything set up and running. I subsequently cut short my presentation and cut out part of the teaching section where students would get some hands on experience with Blogger and Frassle.

I began the class with a number of polls to get a feel for the student’s knowledge of blogging. The class seemed very knowledgeable about weblogs, feeds, and various related formats and tools, so I breezed through the introductory stuff in my talk, while encouraging students to ask questions as we went along. I took many questions along the way and people seemed engaged.

Liz Donovan reviewed what some journalists and news librarians are doing with weblogs. Perhaps one of the learning points from this is for me to make sure I know what the other person is going to talk about. Even though we were supposed to be addressing different topics, we ended up overlapping a lot. At least one person in the course was disappointed by that. Liz is really great at sharing resources. I learned about a lot of new weblogs through her presentation.

After Liz’ talk, we started the hands-on portion. I would have been happier teaching in a computer lab or some other setting where everyone who wanted to blog could have their own machine. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible with this course. I let participants know about the situation ahead of time. If someone really wanted to be in a course with his/her own computer s/he had time to get out of the course and let someone on the waiting list in.

After the course, I learned we were supposed to have taken a break at precisely 10 am because that’s when SLA was providing coffee and tea. I apologize to the students for missing the coffee and tea portion of the break.

The biggest complaint we received was about the course focusing too much on news libraries. Jim received similar complaints about the two courses the News Division offered last year, too, so he tried to clarify matters with the course title (Blogging for News) and the description (“Blogging for News presents the phenomenon of weblogs and newsfeeds in a practical and understandable way to librarians and news researchers who are unfamiliar with the potential of this powerful communications tool.”). Somehow this line didn’t make it into the online conference planner or the conference guide. While we don’t want to exclude non-news librarians or News Division members from taking News Division courses, we do want them to understand that our focus is going to be on relating the topic to the news world. I also highlighted that in my e-mail to the course participants so that they would understand we’re going to focus on blogging in news organizations. I did mention blogging efforts in other spheres during my talk, but I focused on news organizations because of the theme of the course. I hope people from all kinds of work environments learned something during the course, especially the hands-on section.

Another popular complaint was that students felt like I wasn’t doing a good job of answering questions. This comment particularly troubles me. If people had questions or were confused by things in the course, I really hoped they would have spoken up. When I answer someone’s questions, I often ask if my explanation is clear or if they have a follow up question. If they say they understand, I move on. If you’re in a class and you don’t understand something, I encourage you to ask questions or do something to try to understand the material, especially if the presenter keeps asking for questions or feedback. I alter my presentations based on audience interaction. If no one says anything, I usually can’t tell that people don’t understand the topic and tend to follow my own outline.

Christina Pikas, a librarian who knows a lot about knowledge management and with whom I was on a panel about blogging and knowledge management at the ASIST Annual Meeting, stopped by the classroom and graciously explained trackback while she was there. A few evaluations had positive things to say about her interaction with the class.

I forgot to put the links to the weblogs in the handout, as well as the information for logging into NewsliBlog–a test account I set up for the course. We didn’t get to that part of the class anyway. The course blogs are at http://bloggingfornews1.blogware.com/ through http://bloggingfornews10.blogware.com/.

Jim and I already talked about whether the News Division should offer another technology course together next year and, if so, what it might be. He’ll be in charge of conference programming. Dana Gordon will decide on the courses. If you have ideas for what the News Division should offer, talk to them.

A few days ago, it seemed like I had so much to say about the course. Now, all I can think about is the hot boiled peanuts on my stove. Maybe I’ll add more to this later.

Later: As an instructor, I felt very frustrated when I learned by reading the course evaluations that participants had questions about the material in the class that they chose not to ask. At least one student felt very confused by my presentation, but chose not to ask questions, the answers to which might have helped her enjoy the rest of the class. I can’t emphasize enough during my presentation that it’s okay to interrupt me to say “I don’t understand” or ask questions. I much prefer a dialog with participants than a straight-through-the-outline lecture. One of the things I love about my presentation in Wisconsin last fall is that it was very much a dialog with the audience that I think worked extremely well. Chances are very good that other people in the course have similar questions. Everyone’s too shy to ask questions.

Knowing people paid at least $199 to take the class was quite intimidating. Learning that some of my peers whom I admire were in the class made me stop to think for a second, “Wow. I get to teach them? But they know so much more than I do! Do I really want to do this?” But my philosophy is pretty basic: I am not afraid to stand in front of people and talk (Yet I’m horribly shy. Go figure.) and I have a habit of sharing what I know, especially when it’s something fairly complicated and techy. And I know Jim Hunter wouldn’t have asked me to do it had he not had faith that I could and had he thought I was a bad instructor. It was an honor to present at SLA in front of my peers. After reading this, someone told me she hoped this didn’t mean I wouldn’t work with SLA on something like this in the future. I assured her I would.

No one complained about my fuzzy blue slippers. I figured someone would say something about me not being dressed professionally. (Wait til they see what I’m wearing today!)

No one asked for my wonderful, kind, and good looking proctor’s phone number, without whose help I would have been lost. Sorry, man.

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