Online Learning and edX

In 2008, I served as project coordinator as the graduate school I worked for redesigned and relaunched its .edu website (see the website). But we didn’t stop there. We ended up launching three other new sites at the same time (Worldwide Classroom, Resources for Life, and Living Christ Today). It was a great experience that piqued my interest in web communications and provided opportunities to learn quite a bit about web analytics, information architecture, user experience and best practices for web content.

Working on the Worldwide Classroom site opened my eyes to the world of online learning. At the time, I knew that many higher education institutions offered distance learning, but there were really only a few institutions that were brave enough to try offering free online learning. Even MIT had only launched its OpenCourseWare site in 2002.

edX logoThis week, MIT and Harvard announced edX, a new online learning initiative. This partnership will support the development of a new online learning platform. edX will soon invite other institutions to participate by sharing free course content on the open-source platform.

This is significant news. These institutions made hefty investments in the initiative, and they can offer excellent content. Free and paid online learning will certainly continue to be hot topics for the next few years. And if these institutions can successfully deliver education online, then what’s to stop other industries from doing the same? For example, we could see health care groups (e.g., payors, providers) test out online health education programs.

However, some questions remain: Is edX truly an altruistic venture, or will it begin to generate revenue at some point (e.g., through advertising, selling lists, etc.)? Will the platform take off? If so, who will use it? Will users really learn via edX, and how will they know when they’ve mastered a subject?

Read more about edX and online learning:

Pinterest and Organizations

In 2009, a new social platform entered the scene: Pinterest, a visual pinboard and social bookmarking site. I had used the Notes feature in Google Reader to collect links of personal interest (read: recipes and knitting projects) for quite some time. So when Google Reader discontinued support for Notes in 2011, I joined Pinterest and began pinning. So far, Pinterest gets high scores for a clean, simple and attractive user interface, for rising adoption rates, and for the ease of sharing. The main dings at this point are the platform’s lack of integration with other social sites (although they did recently enable Facebook integration capabilities) and the lack of tools for businesses and organizations. Because the site is still relatively new, this also means that they haven’t begun to offer advertising yet.

In my professional capacity as a community manager, Pinterest hasn’t entered my radar yet, and isn’t likely to do so. My organization was a great candidate for Google+ because many of the early adopters were people in the tech sector, which is one of our key audiences. Pinterest, however, is dominated by women, and most pins relate to lifestyle topics. Thus, not on my radar.

If you’re considering using Pinterest in a university setting, think about whether it’s a good match for your target audiences. Two schools that have done this fairly well are Texas A&M and Miami University. Though not perfect, their boards are branded well and address topics that are visually engaging and appropriate for student, alumni and donor audiences. I was particularly impressed with Miami’s study abroad board. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to say that a school that focuses heavily on study abroad programs (Butler University, for example) could focus on using Pinterest to promote international study opportunities. You could do one board for each program location and pin general travel information as well as individual students’ blog posts.

Is Pinterest on your radar? Are you likely to use it?

Learn more:

Mobile Site, Then Apps

For the past several years, the mobile web has made the cut on many lists of predictions for the year to come (see #2 on 7 Predictions for 2010 for just one of many examples). In fact, I feel like this topic has been on my radar consistently for the last two or three years.

Tweet about 2010 being the year of mobile

I remember having several conversations in 2009 about whether to focus on mobile apps or mobile sites first. I still agree with what I said then: mobile first, then apps. Mobile sites (well, good mobile sites) are device agnostic. In many cases, they serve as a user’s first point of contact with your organization. So why would it be acceptable to ignore your mobile site in favor of a fancy app? The typical app will serve one segment of your audience well, not your entire base of mobile users. (See also the University Business article, “The State of the Mobile Web in Higher Ed.”)

I’m happy to say that it looks the lists of predictions for 2012 finally echo this sentiment:

“This isn’t the first time mobile has been mentioned in a year-end, forward-looking blog post, but 2012 is the year that if your institution fails to have a mobile website in place you will be severely behind the curve. You must be ready for this, but don’t make the process anymore complex than it needs to be.” (“Forget the Mayans: Social Thoughts for 2012” on Brandmanager’s Notebook)

What do you think? And what are your mobile-related predictions for 2012?

Teaching with Social Media

At our latest UWSocial meeting, we heard from two UW-Madison professors who use social tools within and outside of the classroom experience. Because they teach in journalism and life sciences communications, it would be easy to write them off as exceptions to the rule when it comes to creative learning approaches. However, some of the ideas and challenges they shared would benefit any professor or teacher who’s looking to innovate.


  • Explore social tools beyond just Facebook and Twitter.
    What works for one learning environment might not work well for another group. Rather than banking on one specific social platform, it’s appropriate to keep an eye out for the best new social tool for your class context. If Twitter isn’t cutting it for your group, maybe Ning or Tumblr will fit your specs.
  • Bringing social tools into the classroom can also look like using social tools outside the classroom.
    One of the professors heavily pioneered social media in the classroom — a Twitter backchannel, fake live tweeting assignments in which she talks to her class via Skype, polls that gauge comprehension during class, etc. The other deploys social tools outside of the classroom context — Google docs for team project collaboration, Twitter engagement for students who are quiet in class, Skype for virtual office hours, and Tumblr for sharing an up-to-date syllabus.
  • Bringing social media into the classroom can benefit students.
    It teaches them to communicate professionally across different platforms. It allows them to use the tools for good, rather than for evil (evil being random Facebook surfing during class).


  • Both professors acknowledged that they have personal “rules” for how they engage with students in the social realm.
    One doesn’t accept Facebook friend requests from current students. The other is a bit more flexible, but admits that she has this flexibility because all of her social accounts are intended for professional use rather than personal use.
  • How do you grade a successful tweet?
    Is participation enough, or should teachers grade qualitatively as well? If there’s any best practices for teaching with social media, I sure haven’t heard about them yet.

I’m sure I’m forgetting many of the interesting points from this conversation, but I was glad to hear actual professors engage in a discussion on this topic. I just wish more teachers were ready to eagerly dive into this conversation.

On Steve Jobs’ Death

Last night, as I scanned Twitter on our iPad, one tweet piqued my curiosity. It said “You will be missed, Steve Jobs.” At first, I thought someone was just lamenting his departure from Apple. But as I scanned the stream of tweets, I soon realized that the Apple co-founder had died. It’s not every day that you learn about someone’s death on a device he or she had invented.

I’m sure we’ll be seeing more and more multimedia content that pays tribute to Jobs over the next few days, but these two homepage tributes (from Apple and Wired) stood out to me as elegant approaches to announcing Jobs’ death.

What multimedia content or approaches have you seen that do justice to Jobs’ extraordinary life?