Harnessing the unpredictability of youth (or wishing you could) Part I

In the spirit of Beth’s recap of Amy’s strategy, here’s a go at combining work notes with blogging (and breaking it into pieces that are manageable)…

So it’s been a little over two weeks into our study abroad blogging pilot, and in my opinion, the experience so far has been a success, if not also a great learning opportunity. All students are finally on-board with blogging accounts, and almost everyone has written at least one post, with several writing more than that. I’m particularly encouraged about the potential of this technology, as several of the students physically signed up for blogging accounts when they already were situated in their host countries [testing the limitations of the local technology].

The posts are engaging and interesting, and definitely provide some great fodder showing future students what their experience might be like. It’s been a lot of fun re-living the study abroad experience through our students, while also learning more about the structure of our programs (since I am new to the organization). I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed that the Flickr component hasn’t really caught on yet, but I’m waiting for students to feel completely comfortable with Typepad before I send out another email reminding them that we have it, and encouraging its use.

We’re currently not outwardly publicizing the site yet, waiting for at least a month or so under our belt to re-assess the quality of content and whether it’s “safe” for public consumption (namely parent consumption), but in the meantime I’m putting together a working list of ongoing thoughts/lessons-learned. I hope you find these helpful:

Conveying a sense of true “voice” under the auspices of the organization -

I think this is the area around which we’ve had the most discussions internally (and probably the fewest answers). Our authors are college students, and with the inherent design of our blogging project (and the nature of blogging for that matter), we want students to be honest and open about their experiences overseas. That said, open and honest isn’t always positive for the organization, and in order to anticipate this, we did create a set of guidelines each blogger had to sign onto before they were given access to the blogging tools. We also suggested they be more “reporter-like” in their writing, and avoid petty rants about student interactions and group dynamics. But for the most part, we wanted them to help us walk into their lives as study abroad students, and well, be students! After all, a student “robot” isn’t going to be half as believable by or interesting to our audience as someone with a bit of texture and creativity.

As we’ve experienced already, some folks have different impressions of what is and isn’t appropriate for public consumption, and different blog stakeholders have different thresholds for what is and isn’t ok. My friends who work in Academia say that we should expect these students to act like students, but the high caliber of these programs has the study abroad staff expecting more. I don’t think that’s a problem as long as we’re clear about our expectations, and we’ve tried to be.

Regardless, I - as the big blog advocate here - find myself drawn to our site about a hundred times per day, checking on the posts and making small edits to them. For example, if a student forgets to include the country they are blogging from in their subject line, or if a paragraph seems to drag on for 15 lines. I have no problem cutting out the occasional swear word (and warning the student), but have greater question about how to handle cases where the student brags about skipping class or suggests that a program activity seems dangerous. And, the line between “true voice” and “censorship” is a fine line to walk in these cases. This is especially in the forefront of my mind as several of our study abroad programs address the idea of free speech.

Giving the students the power to blog about their experience on behalf of our organization is letting go of some of our messaging control, but at the same time it’s adding rich texture to our web presence. While I’m willing to give the students the benefit of the doubt, several of our staff have been burned before by renegade bloggers - hence the reason the blog remains unpublicized.

Since we’re only into week three of the pilot, I’m sure I’ll have several more months to mull this one over, and until then I feel proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, even if the process is slow-gogin. In the beginning I thought it might be a year before staff agreed to hosting a student blog in the first place!

More thoughts to come…

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