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August 04, 2006

Happy 40,000th Entry!

As far as I can tell, the 40,000th published entry on UThink happened at 8:12 this morning and is an entry called "Friday Random Top 10 (NYC Version)" from a relatively new blog Lost Forest After Dark. There is no prize for being the 40,000th entry, unfortunately, except for the knowledge that you are forever a part of UThink history. Congratulations!

There have been a lot of great blogs to come and go through UThink in the 2.5 years the service has been active. Here is a list of just a few of the blogs that had an impact on the system:

  • Oil is for Sissies -- since September 2004 this blog has tried to convince all of us of the benefits of living a car free life. One of the more popular blogs, Oil is for Sissies has more comments than any other blog on the system.
  • Coffee Grounds -- a political blog with a New Zealand perspective. The blog's author is also a long distance runner with some obvious skills in that department.
  • Mr. Cheer or Die's Viking Underground -- a now defunct blog (come back Mr. COD!) this Viking blog was not only the most popular blog on UThink, it was also the most popular Viking blog in the country.
  • Schwitzer health news blog -- Written by Gary Schwitzer, a U of M Journalism professor, this blog provides important criticism of health related journalism in the media today.
  • DuVernois Blog -- a link blog written by a Physics and Astronomy professor, this blog has more entries than any other on the UThink system, as well as some fascinating links to read!
  • Live Alive -- Another biking related blog, Live Alive's author wrote in his blog everyday for over two years, almost without fail. An amazing accomplishment and some very thought provoking posts.
  • if I were ... -- if you want news on the Twin Cities music scene, this is a good blog to check out. This author is pretty "in tune." Get it? "In tune?" I slay myself sometimes!
  • Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast -- written by a PhD candidate in the Department of Family Social Science, this blog has probably my favorite name for a blog on the UThink system. Read the blog to find out where it comes from!
  • School of Public Health Lectures -- more and more blogs on UThink are beginning to podcast, and this blog is one of the blogs leading the way. Remember, with UThink you get unlimited space and 30 MB 65 MB per uploaded file.
  • U of M Moment -- the first podcast on the UThink system, the U of M Moment highlights radio spots about the U of M daily broadcast on MPR.
  • FamiLee Life -- written by Richard Lee, a professor in the Psychology Department, FamiLee Life as some great posts on adoption, academic life, and race and culture.
  • Generation Bob -- a humorous blog with a truly unique perspective on the world. Read it for a good laugh.
  • Rachel's Spot -- the queen of vlogging on the UThink system is Rachel's Spot. Rachel's Spot focuses on women in hip hop, and her videos are very, very cool. Rachel also recently wrote a great post on why she loves to blog. Check it out!

These are just some of the thousands of blogs on UThink that have helped the Libraries retain the history and cultural memory of the Unviersity of Minnesota. I literally could go on and on. Of course, compared to services like MySpace, LiveJournal, or Blogger, UThink is relatively small, but I hope that it is a worthwhile community for those of you that have decided to join and give it a try. We are constantly looking for ways to improve the service (and find the time to actually make those improvements a reality) and I am very interested in any suggestions you might have. Just drop me a line at uthink@umn.edu.

I will now leave you, again, with what is still my favorite post of all time on the UThink system:

Nibbled to death by small geese

I can't wait for the next 40,000 entries! Thanks everyone!

Posted by snackeru at 01:52 PM | Comments (2)

March 28, 2006

UThink featured in the Star Tribune

UThink was recently featured in the Star Tribune in an article entitled: "Online combination plate aims to build community." The article begins:

To keep up with rapid changes in Internet technology, the University of Minnesota is offering students, faculty and staff a combination of three popular online services: blogs (written material), podcasts (spoken audio) and amateur digital movies.

"I wanted to see whether we could build a university community out of blogging software," said Shane Nackerud, Web services coordinator for the University of Minnesota Libraries. He supervises the free "UThink" project. "I get calls about it from other universities, because it's a young technology that not many other schools are using."

Read more if you are interested!

http://www.startribune.com/535/story/329769.html

Posted by snackeru at 08:41 AM | Comments (1)

March 03, 2006

Concerning unmoderated comments

Hello everyone. I've been monitoring blog usage and I have some suggestions for new bloggers concerning comments. New blogs have comment moderation turned on by default. This means that when you create a new blog, it will allow for comments but it will only display those comments on your blog when you approve the comments. Some people might find this annoying, especially if you are using a blog to generate discussion in a classroom setting. To turn comment moderation off (which will allow comments to be published immediately), follow these instructions:

Login to UThink and enter your blog. Click on "Settings" in the left hand menu, and then click on the "Feedback" tab. From there change "Accept comments from:" to "Anyone" and change "Immediately publish comments from:" to "Anyone." Please also note that authenticated commenting does not work. I have a ticket into Six Apart (the makers of Movable Type), but I am not optimistic that they can fix our problem for various reasons. We will probably be taking these choices out of the menu shortly.

Also, if you start accepting unmoderated comments you may want to drop down into the Junk settings of the Feedback tab at the bottom of the screen. I would change your "Junk Score Threshold" to 4 or higher. This should assure that you are only getting true comments, and not spam.

As always, please let me know if you have any questions about this or any aspect of UThink!

Posted by snackeru at 01:43 PM | Comments (3)

February 17, 2006

Minnesota Daily article on UThink

• The Minnesota Daily has a great article about UThink in today's paper:

Not just personal use anymore: U courses tap into blogging

The article mentions the increases we've been seeing in the realm of class blogging through the UThink system. In December 2005 about 33% of the active blogs on the system were course related, and I only see this trend increasing this semester. Of course, you can use UThink blogs for any purpose you want, but class based blogging is definitely gaining steam.

Anyway, thanks to the Daily for the great article, and as always if anyone has any questions about the UThink system in general, please let me know at uthink@umn.edu.

• Secondly, I wanted to also mention that we put in a new feature to Movable Type that will allow you to see the authors you have attached to a particular blog. If you are the owner of a blog that has multiple authors, this new function will let you see all the authors you have attached to your blog, modify their permissions, or even delete them from the blog. Just log in to UThink, click on your blog, and look for this function in the lower right hand corner:

viewauthors.jpg


Posted by snackeru at 09:10 AM | Comments (6)

November 28, 2005

Upgrade update: almost there

Hello everyone! Well, we're about 3/4 of the way there. Some of the functionality, like the StyleCatcher and Future posting, has not yet been put into place due to unexpected difficulties, but general blogging should be possible.

Please note that for some reason Safari browsers for the Mac are having some difficulty with the new admin interface. I'm going to try to solve that one tonight. Firefox for the Mac seems to work fine. (Update: if you are having the same difficulty, clear your cache in Safari: Safari menu -> Empty Cache. That fixed it for me.)

You will also note that the system is going pretty slow right now due to the fact that it is attempting to rebuild every blog on the system one by one. It should be done sometime late tonight.

So, feel free to log in and give it a try, especially if you've got some assignments to take care of, but please be aware that we hope to finish the rest of the install tomorrow morning.

As always, let me know if you encounter any difficulties.

Posted by snackeru at 04:15 PM

November 07, 2005

Upgrade update and spam

Hello everyone! First of all I'd like to inform all of you that testing the new version of Movable Type has gone extremely well. It appears that the upgrade should be able to happen without disruption to existing blogs. Due to the success of the testing of MT 3.2 we are planning on upgrading UThink the week after Thanksgiving, most likely the Monday after Thanksgiving. We have chosen this day because 1) we need to take UThink down for most of the day to make the upgrade happen and 2) the Monday after Thanksgiving will probably be a slow day for blogging. So, please be aware that for most of the day of the upgrade you will not be able to access your blog(s).

Secondly, as you are probably already aware, blog spam is getting to be a little outrageous. For various reasons, over the last couple of years we have been somewhat protected on UThink, but it appears that more and more spammers are finding a way into our blogs. I know, it is extremely frustrating. This is another reason we are trying to make this upgrade to MT 3.2 happen, and hopefully happen quickly. MT 3.2 has new tools that help in the fight against blog spam and upgrading to MT 3.2 should drastically reduce the amount of blog spam on our system.

Finally, access to the test system for MT 3.2 may be intermittently inaccessible. This isn't because we are intentionally denying you access. It is because we are working towards upgrading the system. Thanks, as always, for your patience!

So, onward and upward. MT 3.2 is on the way.

Posted by snackeru at 10:20 AM

September 30, 2005

Of searching and upgrading...

Hi everyone. Let's get some technical news out of the way first. I've changed the main search tool on the UThink home page ("Search UThink Blogs") so that it now goes through Google rather than the out of the box Movable Type search tool. Anyone who has used the MT search capabilities has probably noticed that it is slooooow. Google actually does a really nice job of indexing UThink blogs as I've mentioned before. Hopefully you'll like the change, and as always let me know if there is any way I can improve it further.

Now for news of the upgrade, the mythical, elusive upgrade to MT 3.2 that I've written about so many times before. I feel like I'm crying wolf, but we are very close! I promise! By the end of today we should have the test instance of MT 3.2 functioning exactly like UThink functions now. That is good news. Upgrading to MT 3.2 has been more difficult than we thought it would be. We are also perfecting a tool whereby blog owners can add and manage multiple users (Internet IDs) at the same time. No more will you be limited to adding new blog authors one at a time.

In addition, on the test system we have also successfully loaded the MT SyleCatcher plugin (which will take the place of the Template Changer), and MT Blogroll (which will allow you to manage your home page links from the MT admin interface). We are also looking into installing MT Protect, which should allow blog owners to password protect both individual posts and whole blogs. That type of functionality is a very common UThink enhancement request so I am excited to see if this plugin will work.

These are just some of the things that will be possible with MT 3.2. In fact, MT 3.2 is quite a bit more advanced and will allow all sorts of new and unique configurations site wide and on a blog-by-blog basis. Be rest assured that I will be coming out with some instructional posts on how to do some of this new stuff after we upgrade.

I have stopped giving specific dates for when I think the upgrade will take place, but I am hoping it happens within the next two weeks. We are very, very close...

Posted by snackeru at 02:14 PM | Comments (5)

September 09, 2005

UThink upgrade update

It was our intention to have UThink upgraded to MT 3.17 by now. Obviously, that hasn't happened yet and I apologize. We have run into some snags that have caused us to delay the release. For now, I'm going to stop trying to guess at what date we will actually perform the upgrade, but it will be "soon." However, thanks to these delays and snags we have decided to go ahead and upgrade UThink fully to Movable Type 3.2. There are some nifty features and plug-ins in MT 3.2 that I hope will make the wait worthwhile:

  • StyleCatcher: a plugin that will take the place of the Template Changer and offer UThink users new styles and designs to try on their blogs.
  • Blogroll: MT 3.2 includes the capability of managing your Blogroll (roll of links on your blog) from the administrative interface.
  • Dynamic publishing: choose dynamic publishing to rebuild your blogs faster. Especially useful for larger blogs.
  • StatWatch: a plugin that makes tracking statistics for your blog easier.
  • Add multiple users at once: we have also built a new tool that will allow you to add multiple Internet IDs to your blogs at the same time. This will hopefully make the creation process for class blogs a little easier.

We also hope to begin looking at ways to incorporate Flikr accounts into your blogs, ways to post to both LiveJournal and UThink simultaneously, new and improved methods to incorporate RSS feeds into your blog(s), etc.

Until we upgrade please continue to take the time to test the new installation. We have fixed the dynamic publishing problems and we have installed all the current plugins, including a new plugin called MutliBlog. We are trying to see if this plugin will be worthwhile to have on UThink.

Again, I am very sorry it is taking us so long. Believe me, I am as frustrated as some of you probably are. However, I think you will be happy with the upgrade when it finally happens. So, be on the lookout for messages here concerning when this upgrade will happen. One morning UThink may be down for a short period of time. When that happens it probably means we are in the middle of the upgrade. Stay tuned!

UPDATE 9/9/05 2:00 PM: We are upgrading the test instance to MT 3.2 right now, so if you are fooling around with that you may encounter some difficulties.

Posted by snackeru at 01:35 PM | Comments (4)

June 23, 2005

UThink tidbits

Sorry for the lack of updates. I've been hoping for a while that my next post would be an announcement that we have finally finished upgrading to MT 3.*, but we are still not finished. This is not because we are having extreme difficulty, but because we have so many other competing projects. Believe me, I am putting the pressure on to get this finished. I would say we are 90% there.

Until then, I thought I would entertain you with a few tidbits about UThink that you may find interesting.


  • Did you know that Google absolutely loves UThink blogs? On average, Google gives a higher PageRank to UThink blogs than its own Blogger blogs. Of course, there are many factors to a PageRank, but there may be a couple of reasons for UThink's higher ranking. One is the fact that UThink blogs come from a university (the .edu in the domain name). Another is the fact that UThink blogs come from a library (the .lib in the domain name). Google's ranking algorithm probably gives a higher ranking to any page it thinks comes from a library web site.

  • Over the last year I've noticed a lot of people using the "Extended Entry" feature of UThink blogs. Unless you've got an extremely long post I would recommend against using this feature. I've done some statistical analysis and I've found that people very, very rarely click to read an "Extended Entry." In other words, if you want people to read your all of your entry, it is a better idea to write the whole post in the "Entry Body" section of the "New Entry" page. Just a bit of advice.

  • Speaking of statistics, many UThink users are beginning to use free statistical counters as a way of tracking how many people are visiting their blogs. If you would like to do the same I recommend that you look at some free hit counters like Extreme Tracking or Site Meter or ServuStats.com. These free counters are relatively easy to set up. Just follow the instructions.

  • Some recent blogs of note, the highly popular biking blog Oil is for Sissies has recently become the top blog in terms of number of comments on UThink. Mr. Cheer or Die's Viking Underground is by far the most popular blog on UThink in terms of total hits (and it is the most popular Viking blog in the country!). And the blog Rachel's Spot has started to do some interesting experiments with video blogging, or "vlogging." Check out the vlog for "women in battle." Very cool.

That's about it. Thanks to everyone for continuing to make UThink the largest (and best!) academic blogging site in America. Hopefully my next update will be an announcement that MT 3 is here!

Posted by snackeru at 02:25 PM | Comments (3)

May 24, 2005

Upgrade update

We are dilligently working on upgrading UThink to use Movable Type 3.16, the most recent version of the Movable Type software. So far so good. We have successfully configured MT 3.16 to use the U of M Central Authentication Hub (Internet IDs and Passwords), and we have brought the software to a level of functionality that users currently enjoy through MT 2.661. This includes the ability to easily create new blogs and the ability to add authors to a blog using Internet IDs. Right now, we are working on allowing users to add multiple authors to a blog at once, rather than adding authors one at a time. This should be a big time saver for people managing class blogs.

In testing MT 3.16 I've noticed some nice features of the software which should make our switch a welcome adjustment for all UThink users. First of all, the interface is much smoother and hopefully easier to understand. Secondly, the comments management functionality is wonderful. By default, comments must first be approved by the blog author before they are displayed. This default can, of course, be turned off enabling comments to display immediately. Also, as I've mentioned before, MT 3.16 includes categories and the ability to create sub-categories. Of course, there is more, but this is what has immediately struck me as especially useful. We will also be installing a few useful MT plugins, and I hope to alter the main UThink site to bring the Blog Directory information up to the home page making it easier for people to see new entries and/or entries that may have generated a lot of discussion. All in all, UThink users should be very happy with this upgrade.

As is the case with any software upgrade it is important to vigorously test the new installation. We have already caught numerous bugs with our configuration and I'm sure there are more. If you would like to help us test the new version of UThink, please drop me a line at uthink@umn.edu. I will let you know when we will be ready for other people to test. Let me know if you have any questions!

Posted by snackeru at 04:14 PM | Comments (2)

April 12, 2005

Happy birthday to UThink!

Today is UThink's first birthday! A year ago today I unleashed the beast that is UThink upon an unsuspecting public. With no advertising and only word of mouth to help it grow, UThink is now one of the largest, if not the largest, academic blogging site in America. I'd like to say thanks to everyone that has given UThink a try, especially those bloggers that have consistently fed their UThink blogs with content. It is because of you that UThink is as successful as it is today. I'd love to mention all of you by name, but (fortunately!) there are just too many good blogs and bloggers out in UThink land to list! Anyway, thanks from the bottom of my heart for helping to make UThink a success. You all know who you are.

As of today UThink has 1,231 individual blogs, 2,200 registered blog authors, 17,654 individual entries, and 12,486 comments to those entries. However, you might be wondering what all of these statistics actually mean. How many blogs are still active? Who is using UThink and why? How many blogs are created per day? How many posts are entered into the system per day? As you might imagine, there is a lot of fascinating data coming out of this project.

First of all, it would be silly to think that just because UThink has 1,231 blogs that they are all currently active. An active blog is defined as a blog that has been updated at least once in a two month period. Using this measure as a guideline, UThink has about 400 active blogs and a blog abadonment rate of about 65%. Some of you may be stunned by this data, but it shouldn't be that surprising given that about 66% of blogs are abandoned in the "blogosphere" at large. UThink, it seems, is no exception.

There are many reasons why people blog on UThink, but for the most part the blogs on UThink can all be categorized into one of four blog types. My own analysis suggests that 57% of the blogs on UThink are personal in nature meaning they discuss a blogger's life in general or opinions on various topics. 5% are research based meaning the blogs track a research topic or they are used to keep track of research citations. 23% of the blogs are class based meaning they are created for a particular course by an instructor or the students themselves as part of a class assignment. The blog abandonment rate can partially be explained by these class blogs, many of which are no longer updated after the course ends. And finally, 13% of the blogs are work related meaning they are created for a specific department or by a blogger to keep track of work related matters.

In terms of who is using UThink, the statistics are somewhat surprising. Although undergraduates make up the bulk of the 2,200 users (about 60% by my estimation) blogging on UThink by undergraduates is done mainly in a classroom setting. Most of the undergraduates on UThink are attached to class-based blogs, and many of them (maybe most of them!) have never created an entry on the UThink system. There are undergraduates who have personal-type blogs on UThink, but the majority of personal blogs on the system are authored by graduate students and University staff. Graduate students make up 22% of the users, and faculty and staff make up 16% of the users.

Blog creation has been fun to watch. Again, I unveiled the UThink system a year ago today, and on that first day about 30 blogs were created. By the end of April 2004, there were 100 blogs on the system. By June we had 280 blogs, and by August we had 450 blogs. During the fall semester we saw a big jump in the number of blogs with the number climbing to 725 by November, and by January 2005 we had over 900 blogs. And of course today there are about 1,231 blogs. This factors out to about 3 blogs created per day.

Analysis of blog entries on the system demonstrates that the content mirrors somewhat the types of blogs being created. In looking at 10 days worth of posts last November (about 600 entries) I found that 50% of the posts were personal in nature, 34% were class related, 5% were research related, and 11% were work related. Over the course of the entire project, UThink has received about 48 posts per day. However, as the project gets older this number is increasing. During the month of March 2005 UThink saw about 68 posts per day.

Overall I am thrilled with the success of the project so far, especially considering that we really haven't advertised its existence. It has been fun just watching UThink become what it is supposed to become. I must admit that I am surprised that graduate students are the dominant bloggers on the system given the sheer number of undergraduates at the University. It seems that undergraduates are sticking with tools like Xanga or Livejournal for their personal blogging needs probably because of issues like the lack of anonymity on UThink, or because they simply don't know about UThink. A side effect of graduate student dominance on the system though is that UThink is much more "academic" than I would have expected. Blogs on the system have more of an academic tone than I thought they would have. This, of course, is wonderful and it provides UThink a solid niche in the ever expanding blogging market.

Most of all, though, I have been the happiest just with the great content that undergrads, grad students, faculty and staff at the University have fed into UThink. It is already a great resource for what people at the University think about the issues in the world at large and closer to home. I encourage everyone to continue to share your opinion through UThink about community issues, and take part in the intellectual and academic freedom promised to University faculty, staff, and students by the Board of Regents. The more people that participate in UThink, the better this tool will become as a resource for intellectual freedom on campus.

Finally, as UThink continues to grow there will be some changes in the next year as we work to improve the system. For one thing, we'd like to either upgrade or change the software running UThink to give bloggers on the system the most up to date blogging software available. We will also be looking closer at issues like community building (organizing blogs by major, department, etc.), private posts and/or blogs, guest blogging from people outside the University, better integration between UThink and services like MyU or other library services, and expansion of UThink to all the coordinate campuses of the University of Minnesota.

Having said that, please take a moment to think about what kinds of things you'd like to see changed in UThink. Is there anything you wish UThink could do? Is there anything you are hoping the next version of UThink will be able to do in terms of class blogging or blogging for research? If you have any ideas or issues you'd like us to tackle in terms of the future of UThink please feel free to share them in the comments below. I'd love to hear from the users of UThink about what you think would make UThink a better blogging tool.

In closing, I'd just like to say, again, Happy Birthday to UThink! It has been a really fun first year of blogging, meeting new people, and watching the system grow. Stay tuned as we continue to work on UThink and make it better for everyone at the University. Thank you to everyone that has helped make UThink a success!

Posted by snackeru at 09:26 AM | Comments (11)

March 21, 2005

Odds and Ends

First of all, allow me to welcome the faculty, staff, and students from the University of Minnesota - Duluth to UThink! As of last week, anyone from UMD with an active Internet ID and Password can now create their own blogs through the UThink service. For more information, check out this article from the UMD ITSS newsletter.

Secondly, I'll be speaking about UThink this week at the Institute of New Media Studies. The INMS holds a bi-monthly breakfast meeting called the "New Media Research Breakfast." If you have ever wondered about UThink, how it got started, who is using it and why, and where the project going next please feel free to attend this breakfast from 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM this Thursday March 24. RSVP to Michael Opperman at opperman@umn.edu.

Posted by snackeru at 09:43 AM

February 09, 2005

UThink Update

There have been a couple of recent changes to UThink that you should know about. First of all, thanks to a suggestion from Laurene of Winter in the Cities, I've added a new template called "Snowy" to the Template Chager:
Snowy Template

To access this new template, login to your blog, choose "Templates" in the left hand menu, and click on the "Template Changer" button at the top of the page. Select a new template, rebuild your blog, and volia! Your blog will have a new look and feel. If anyone else has any other suggestions for a new blog template, please let me know.

Secondly, I added a new tool called "View Authors" to the administration intereface of all blogs. One thing we have made relatively easy is adding other authors to your blog(s) through their Internet IDs. However, if you've added a lot of users to a blog, there has been no way to see a list of all the authors you've added. That is until now. To see all the authors your attached to a blog you own or that you created, login to UThink, select the blog you'd like to see the authors for, and click on the "View Authors" button on the right hand side of the page. "View Authors" will allow you to easily change permissions for a particular author or remove authors from your blog. If you are not the creator or owner of the blog in questions (if you are one of the authors that the owner has granted permission to) the "View Authors" tool will give you the option of removing yourself from the blog. Please let me know if you have any questions about this new tool.

Of course, what we'd like to do next is to create a tool that allows for the easy addition of multiple Internet IDs to a single blog. We've got some ideas for how to accomplish that, so stay tuned.

Posted by snackeru at 11:10 AM

January 27, 2005

Odds and ends

I've made a couple of changes recently to UThink's installation of Movable Type that are worth a mention. First of all, we all know that spamming is a huge problem in the blogging world. You may be wondering why spammers write such ridiculous comments to your blog(s), especially considering none of your readers care about viagra, free cigarettes, or texas hold 'em. Spammers write these comments not because they want you or your readers to visit their site, that would just be an added bonus. They write these comments so their links get picked up by search engines, namely Google, and to improve the page rank for their sites. Obviously, when Google sees links in your comments it treats them as it would any normal link and alters the page rank for the site in question. If a comment spammer's site link can be found on a whole bunch of blogs it will improve that site's page rank in Google. That is, until last week.

Google and other search engines and blog software creators (including Movable Type) have come up with yet another way to combat comment spam. According to Google's own post on the topic:

From now on, when Google sees the attribute (rel="nofollow") on hyperlinks, those links won't get any credit when we rank websites in our search results. This isn't a negative vote for the site where the comment was posted; it's just a way to make sure that spammers get no benefit from abusing public areas like blog comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists.
In order to implement this, Movable Type has issued a plugin that will automatically alter any link in your comments to include the rel="nofollow" attribute. I have installed this plugin on UThink. So, in other words, you don't have to do a thing. Hopefully this will cut down on the amount of spam UThink blogs currently receive. I think we have already seen a difference.

Secondly, I've added a couple of new Templates to the template changer: "Minima Blue" (a popular Blogger template that I rewrote for MT) and "Flowery." Here are a couple of small screen shots:

Minima Blue TemplateFlowery Template

Feel free to check them out. To get to the Template Changer login to your blog and click "Templates" in the left hand menu. Then click the "Template Changer" button at the top of the screen. Remember, if you use the Template Changer it will completely rework your blog. So, if you've added any links to your Main Index it will delete these and start you from scratch. If you've added any links to your Main Index I recommend copying them before running the Template Changer so you can just paste them back into place.

And of course, if you'd like to design a template for the Template Changer please feel free to do so! I will be adding more in the near future.

Posted by snackeru at 09:31 AM | Comments (2)

October 27, 2004

Template Changer Beta

We've created a new tool that will help new users pick a new look for their blogs called the UThink Template Changer (beta). With this tool UThink users can easily change the look of their blogs using a wide variety of blog designs. To access the tool simply login to your UThink blog, click "Templates" in the left hand menu of the administration inteface, and then click the button at the top that says "Try the New UThink Template Changer Beta!"

Please note: it is not recommended that you use this tool if you have already made changes to any of your templates besides the Stylesheet Template. The Template Changer will erase any modifications you've made to your templates, including any links that you've added to the Main Index Template. Please use this tool with caution! For example, if you have added links to your Main Index Template and you'd still like to use the Template Changer, you could copy your links and then paste them into your new templates. The Template Changer will not erase posts or entries, categories, or anything besides the templates.

If you haven't made any changes to your templates, or if you are not interested in keeping the changes you've made to your templates, then give the Template Changer a try. There are about 15 designs to choose from and more on the way.

Lastly, if you have skill as a designer please consider creating some new templates for UThink and the Template Changer. Hopefully as time goes on we can have a whole bunch of templates for people to choose from.

Posted by snackeru at 02:52 PM

October 05, 2004

Changes to UThink

UThink has recently gone through some changes that you should be aware of. First of all, I have changed the default template to the "Clean" template (it looks like this) due to some problems with the old template. The "Clean" template is actually the "out of the box" default template that comes with any Movable Type 2.661 install. Of course, you may change the look of your blog using any of the Template Stylesheets provided on this site. In fact, I would encourage you to do so!

Secondly, we have installed MT-Blacklist on the UThink site. Comment and trackback spamming have become problematic on UThink, and MT-Blacklist is a plugin that does a great job of stopping this type of activity on your blog. MT-Blacklist includes a huge "blacklist" file that blocks known blog spammers. Unfortunately new spammers are created every day, so this is something we'll have to keep current. You'll notice now that whenever you get a comment you will have the choice of deleting it through the MT-Blacklist interface and adding the offending URL to the blacklist. While this anti-spamming method isn't perfect, it will definitely diminish the amount of spam on UThink blogs. If you have any questions, please let me know!

Posted by snackeru at 11:25 AM

September 23, 2004

UThink Update

Today is a special day in the history of UThink. We've been running UThink since April 12, and since that time 583 blogs have been created with over 1,000 users. The inspiration for UThink was undoubtedly Blogs at Harvard Law, a system created by blogging guru Dave Winer that has been running for about two years. Blogs at Harvard Law has 581 blogs. That means UThink has surpassed Harvard making this site the largest academic blogging site in America, if not the world. When I was selling this idea to my superiors I made the bold claim that one day we would host over 500 blogs and probably be the largest academic blogging site in America. This really wasn't that bold of a claim given that the U of M has about 65,000 potential bloggers. However, I had no idea that it would happen so fast.

So, some words of thanks are in order. Obviously there have been a lot of blogs created, but I have some special thanks for the early adopters, those people who created blogs without really knowing what UThink was all about. Without these people UThink wouldn't have taken off like it did:

  • Philosophy by Peter Shea. Peter's writing is chock full of little nuggets of wisdom. I enjoy reading it everyday.
  • Selling Sno-Cones on the Beach. One of the first blogs on the system and still going strong. We worried about the infamous B and his surgery and we laughed when your car was stolen and recovered. Keep it up!
  • A Heart with a Twist of Lemon. David, your quirky sense of humor is infectious. And I, too, loved it when you took on the bees.
  • Deception of the Thrush. Still my favorite post of all time on UThink: Nibbled to Death by Small Geese. If you haven't read it, you are missing out.
  • The Daily Spirit Human. Another one of the early adopters and also one of the few people that can say he posts every single day. Absolutely amazing and always something to ponder.
  • Random Thoughts - By Joe. Joe has given us a unique look into the life of a student and now a CA. Keep on fighting the good fight Joe!
  • Coffee Grounds. One of the best political commentary blogs in America (IMHO) and written by someone from New Zealand. Yes, a very unique perspective.
  • Broken Wing. Absolutely impossible to categorize and usually offensive to someone. In other words, the perfect blog! Also, an odd hatred of birds permeates the site.
  • Bio-Med Library - Public Health. The king blog with over 400 posts full of juicy medical goodness. Will anyone ever catch up?
  • Rhetoric 3562W. Although the blog looks a little plain now (look at the archives) it has the distinction of being the first class based blog on the system. I think it is safe to say it started a trend given how class blogs now dominate UThink. Thanks for everything Clancy!
  • Ramona Ramona's Blog. I'll admit Ramona scared me half to death with one of her posts (I won't link to it, it is too frightening). However, it is really nice to have another Twins fan on the system!
  • QWERTY. Another true early adopter and one of the first group blogs. It is a shame they don't have time to post more as usually the posts are thoughtful and well written. The best post on QWERTY? The Best of UThink of course!
  • Steve Mueske. Last but not least, what blog site would be complete without its own poetry blog?

There are so many more, and if I've forgotten anyone I apologize. I truly could go on and on. When they look at the history of UThink, though, scholars of the future will look at these blogs. Again, they have made UThink what it is today.

What about the future then? What do we have in store for users of UThink? First of all we are right now in the midst of planning for an upgrade to Movable Type 3.1. MT 3 has more blogging features, a better comment management feature, a better, faster interface, and a ton of other goodies. We are hoping to have this completed by March if not sooner. We are also going to look into how UThink can better help build community on campus. Tying the system to x.500 was a good start, but hopefully we can take community building to another level. If anyone has any ideas regarding this I am all ears. And given the dominance of class blogs we also hope to make it easier to create blogs specifically for classes. This includes easier ways to tie students to a single blog, as well as templates that make better sense in a classroom setting. And yes, this will probably include a way to make password protected posts. We also hope to make better use of all the MT Plugins available to users of Movable Type. MT is extremely powerful and you would be surprised at what it allows authors to do, especially through all the plugins developed by the MT community. For example, the plug-in MultiBlog "provides the user with the ability to include templated content from other blogs in their MovableType installation." In other words, an author could include blog content from all sorts of blogs in his or her own site. Obviously, this could be very handy for classes that want to use blogging as an assignment alternative and tie all the blogs together. There are a ton of plug-ins we could implement, especially after we upgrade, we just have to find the time!

Anyway, I've rambled on enough. Onward and upward with UThink.

Posted by snackeru at 10:02 AM

August 31, 2004

Educational Blogging

Stephen Downes, a Senior Researcher with the E-Learning Research Group, National Research Council Canada, Moncton, New Brunswick, has written a wonderful article called "Educational Blogging" for the September/October 2004 issue of EDUCAUSE Review. The article discusses blogging in general and it lists examples of how educators are making use of this new medium in the classroom. One of the highpoints of the article is a discussion of Henry Farrell's (of Crooked Timber) five major uses for blogs in education:

First, teachers use blogs to replace the standard class Web page. Instructors post class times and rules, assignment notifications, suggested readings, and exercises. Aside from the ordering of material by date, students would find nothing unusual in this use of the blog. The instructor, however, finds that the use of blogging software makes this previously odious chore much simpler.

Second, and often accompanying the first, instructors begin to link to Internet items that relate to their course. Mesa Community College’s Rick Effland, for example, maintains a blog to pass along links and comments about topics in archaeology. Though Mesa’s archaeology Web pages have been around since 1995, blogging allows Effland to write what are in essence short essays directed specifically toward his students. Effland’s entries are not mere annotations of interesting links. They effectively model his approach and interest in archaeology for his students.

Third, blogs are used to organize in-class discussions. At the State University of New York at Buffalo, for example, Alexander Halavais added a blog to his media law class of about 180 students. Course credit was awarded for online discussion, with topics ranging from the First Amendment to libel to Irish law reform. As the course wound down with a discussion of nude bikers, Halavais questioned whether he would continue the blog the following year because of the workload, but students were enthusiastic in their comments ...

Fourth, some instructors are using blogs to organize class seminars and to provide summaries of readings. Used in this way, the blogs become 'group blogs'—that is, individual blogs authored by a group of people. Farrell notes: 'It becomes much easier for the professor and students to access the readings for a particular week—and if you make sure that people are organized about how they do it, the summaries will effectively file themselves.'

Finally, fifth, students may be asked to write their own blogs as part of their course grade. Educational Technologist Lane Dunlop wrote about one class at Cornell College: 'Each day the students read a chunk of a book and post two paragraphs of their thoughts on the reading.' In another class, French 304, students were given a similar exercise. Using a French-language blogging service called Monblogue, Molly, a business student, posted a few paragraphs every day.

Check out the whole article if you are interested.

Posted by snackeru at 04:20 PM | Comments (3)

July 16, 2004

Plug-ins

One of the best things about Movable Type is the huge developer community built around it. New tools and plugins are constantly being created for Movable Type. What is a plugin? A plugin allows Movable Type to do something it wasn't orginally programmed to do. For example, two plugins have been added to UThink's version of Movable Type. One is Textile, which allows blog authors to use simple codes to format the text and links of their entries. For example, typing _emphasis_ with underscores will produce emphasis if the Textile option for formatting is chosen. If you are interested in using Textile check out this blog entry for more information.

The second plugin installed on UThink (so far) is IfEmpty. This plugin allows for some extra conditionals for you to try in your blog templates. Two new tags are available with this plugin: <MTIfEmpty> - tag used to test if a given Movable Type variable is empty/blank; and <MTIfNotEmpty> - tag used to test if a given Movable Type variable is not empty/blank. Why would you want to use this tag? The reason it was installed was to give blog authors the option of using their MT profile nickname rather than their Internet ID as the "posted by" name at the end of entries. This is useful for class blogs where the students have been attached to a particular blog but wish to remain somewhat anonymous. This feature is already being used on the class blog Rhetoric 3562W. If you would like to do the same thing, follow these relatively simple instructions.

If you have need of any other plugins, please let us know by emailing uthink@umn.edu.

Posted by snackeru at 09:52 AM

April 05, 2004

Release update

I just wanted to share some details about the release of UThink last Wednesday. Technically the release was a "quiet release" meaning we only shared the unveiling with a handful of people, about 35 if you'd like to know. Word of mouth has undoubtedly made that number increase, but we kept it quiet so that early adopters could give the system a try and report any bugs or difficulties they encounter. So far so good on that front. In the coming weeks we will start advertising the service more. We haven't even linked it on the libraries' home page.

That hasn't stopped people from checking the site out, though. One of the suggestions we received almost immediately is allowing blog owners to see statistics for their blog(s). I can assure you we will definitely look into this possibilty. For those of you that have already started blogs let me just say your sites are getting hit a fair amount. For example, the blog Nine Tenths of the Universe has been hit 228 times since Wednesday, while the photoblog Typically Late has been hit 341 times. Again, I realize statistics are important, to new bloggers especially, so I'll try to speed things along on that front.

Finally, given that this is a site about blogs, it is only natural that other blogs start blogging about it. So far, a bunch of different blogs have written about UThink including Rawbrick.net, LibraryStuff.net, Many 2 Many, Figoblog, eCornell Research blog, and a humorous post from a student that doesn't have the pleasure of attending the U of M. There are others, but you get the picture.

If you haven't given UThink a try, what are you waiting for? Give it a try! You've got nothing to lose!

Posted by snackeru at 10:06 AM

March 22, 2004

Update

I've gotten a fair number of emails recently concerning this project, so I think it might be time for an update. We hope to unveil our system at the end of March / beginning of April. Some of my colleagues think April Fools day would be appropriate, but if the system is ready before then I won't wait. We've moved all of our programming onto the production server and now we are working out some of the bugs. And believe it or not, there aren't many. The system works better than I could have hoped for, and everyone who has seen a demonstration have all been impressed. So, keep your fingers crossed! If all goes smoothly over the next couple of weeks we should be launching shortly!

Posted by snackeru at 03:48 PM

February 20, 2004

Templates

While the blog system provided by the libraries will allow users to change the look and feel of their blogs to suit their own needs, we would still like to give our users options and ideas in the form of downloadable templates. Right now we are trying to create a variety of U of M themed templates that users can choose from. Please take a look at what we have come up with so far and let us know what you think using the comments link below. And if you are artistic yourself, please feel free to submit your own template ideas!

Posted by snackeru at 03:56 PM

December 11, 2003

Presentation

I'm making a presentation right now on blogs and blogging. I will post the contents of the presentation later!

UPDATE: Here is the presentation for those of you interested (PPT).

Posted by snackeru at 09:46 AM

October 10, 2003

Update

Well, if any of you have been keeping track of our progress you will probably note that their has been a noticeable lack of entries made on this blog in the last month. That is because, unfortunatley, not much has been happening. It took me a while to convince my superiors that this was a worthwhile project and as a result we had to fit this project in with everything else we are trying to do (SFX, Aleph, other digital library projects, etc). Our goal is to have something ready to test by the end of November, and then hopefully something ready to unleash upon the masses by the beginning of Spring semester 2004. This may be too tight of a timeline. We'll see after we start working on it again.

One thing that has gotten me concerned about MT is the slowness of rebuilding once a blog has gotten to a certain size and above, say over 1000 entries. Check out this entry on the MT support web site.

I think we're going to have to be pretty smart about how we set up our installation to try to alleviate what could turn out to be a huge problem. Given that we could be hosting literally thousands of blogs on one installation, slowness could become an issue really quick. I'm hoping that by having separate directories for each blog and blog author will mean that a site will get slow only if that individual author has a lot of entries. What I'm afraid of is that the number of entries affects everyone including those authors that have a lot of entries or a those with just a little. If anyone can shed any light on this topic I would be very interested.

Posted by snackeru at 12:58 PM

September 19, 2003

Automating the blog creation process

Bill continues to work towards automating the blog creation process. I came across this link today which may help both ourselves and others interested in hosting multiple blogs on a single server:

APIs for creating blogs and users

Also, there is a fair number of universities waiting for the release of MT Pro, which was supposed to have been released this summer (Summer 2003). According to the press release MT Pro will have a bunch of new features, including better author management. I know Stanford is waiting for MT Pro to come out before they launch their campus wide service.

Posted by snackeru at 09:55 AM

September 12, 2003

MT License

I found this on the MT FAQ web site today:

Q: Do non-profits have to pay for Movable Type?
A: Registered non-profits are not considered a commercial use and are asked, like personal users, to donate what they feel the software is worth and to maintain the "Powered by Movable Type" link on the site. Non-profits may not offer hosted installations of Movable Type, either for free or for payment.

... That doesn't look so good. Then I found this a question and answer a little ways down:

Q: What is your policy on use by schools, colleges and universities?
A: Accredited K-12 schools, colleges and universities can offer Movable Type to currently-enrolled students or staff as part of school-provided web hosting as long as there is no charge to students or staff for use of the service. Educational institutions are not required to pay for Movable Type but are asked to donate what they feel the software is worth and to maintain the "Powered by Movable Type" link on the site.

... So for now I'm going to assume we are all right. However, the two statements do seem a little contradictory. It seems MT is making a distinction between a "non-profit" and a "university."

Posted by snackeru at 01:36 PM

September 10, 2003

Why We Chose Movable Type

Staff of the Digital Library Development Lab of the University Libraries inspected a wide variety of blogging software before settling on Movable Type. I would like to point out that while our first efforts will center around Movable Type, this does not mean that we are definitely going to go with this software package. We still need to make sure that we can modify it in order to suit our purposes. We need to make sure that the faculty, staff, and students will easily be able to set up, modify, use, etc. their own blogs using Movable Type. Please keep checking back for more posts regarding exactly what we are trying to accomplish.

We have inspected other blogging software applications, most notably Manila from Userland Software. This is the blogging software that Harvard is using for their project. While this software would work, and while it is relatively easy to set up and use, it is also highly proprietary. The software is written in a proprietary language, and it appears the underlying database is also difficult to manipulate. It is also relatively expensive compared to Movable Type (which is free). Given these drawbacks we decided to look for something open source, or a software package that we could modify to suit our needs.

Movable Type definitely fits the bill. It is open source; it is written in Perl and the underlying database is MySQL. It is also highly configurable both from a programming standpoint and a user standpoint. And speaking of users, it probably has the biggest user base of any blogging software. However, is it easy to use? Can we modify it enough to make it easy enough to use for the beginner, while at the same time powerful enough for the experienced blogger?

Our first order of business will be to attempt to wrap it around our campus x.500 authentication system. It is our goal to allow people to create and/or modify their own individual blog using the same Internet ID and Password they use to view email. The question is, can we reprogram Movable Type to easily allow for the creation of new blogs in this manner? According to their own documentation Movable Type can host more than one blog. Theoretically we should be able to reprogram it to allow for unmediated creation of new blogs on a single installation of the software. Of course, there are many issues associated with this effort from programming, to graphic design and usability, to policy issues.

So stay tuned. There is a lot to work on and decide.

Posted by snackeru at 04:17 PM