Monday, November 7, 2011...9:00 am

Posterous as a student journalism blogging platform – a review

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This year at UCA Farnham, we are using Posterous as our first-year multiplatform journalism unit blogging tool. Halfway into the semester, how is it working out?

Not badly, actually. Here are the pros and cons. Cons first.

Cons

That Posterous redesign that happened in September. Oh, how that sucked. There’s a pretty good account here of what went wrong with the redesign – basically Posterous rolled it out before it was ready and didn’t tell any of its users about it.

The redesign certainly caught me on the hop. Having spent some time preparing to show students how Posterous worked, I went away and did other things for a few weeks and then only opened up the site on the morning they were all going to sign up. Big mistake.

Everything was different – including the name (Posterous Spaces? Say what?) and none of the features, or even the help and tutorial pages, were where they were supposed to be. In fact there are now two help areas on Posterous – the old one, which is the best, and the new one, which is missing key information and tools. See below.

Key lesson: check your online tool is working like you think it should the night before your first workshop with your students.

Site admin was a nightmare. Where was the link to change up your blog’s settings? No, not my user profile settings, the actual blog settings. Oh, I found it. No, I lost it again. Oh, I’m clicking through half a dozen screens and going round in circles. Jesus – what a terrible user experience.

It’s getting a bit better – and Posterous has put in some rollover text that tell you what the buttons do when your mouse is hovering over them. But it’s still too much of a palaver. Luckily most students seem to have got used to it.

Posting by email is a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, it’s a great thing, allowing spontaneous uploads using your phone, or whatever. You don’t have to be logged in to Posterous to do it, and the site handles everything for you, including formatting. But when it doesn’t it sucks – so you have to recreate or paste in the content of your email to your site. If you can be bothered.

Syndication is a bit shaky, too. It generally works, but not always – so some updates go through to Twitter and Facebook, while others don’t. To be honest, once we’ve got Tweetdeck installed on the department Macs, I’ll be focusing on that as a social media dashboard.

It doesn’t help that students haven’t really got to grips with the idea that their social media presence is important professionally. One student updated his Facebook profile with a warning to his friends that he would be posting journalism type stuff from his course blog “just in case they thought it was weird or boring”. So, not quite ready to think of himself as a journalist then.

Uploading video directly simply doesn’t work. “Students can all shoot video on their phones and email it to their site easily and quickly,” I thought. “They can all be instant, mobile, multimedia journalists.” Yeah, right.

Apart from the grinding slowness of uploading video via 3G mobile, Posterous has a limit on the size of video that you can upload. Even a three-minute iPhone video was too big to accept.

So – it was back to YouTube and embedding, just like most other blogging sites. On the plus side, video embedding is seamless and intuitive. So much so that some students couldn’t figure out how to do it, as there is nothing to actually do apart from pasting in the video URL.

One click reblogging – uh, where’s that Posterous bookmarklet again? During the redesign, Posterous moved its help pages to a new URL. But it didn’t move all the content. So that really useful bookmarklet that you can use to grab content from the web to reblog and comment on went missing. Luckily, the redesign is such a dog’s dinner that the bookmarklet is still available on the old help page. I had to use Google to find it though.

Pros

Having said all that, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at some of the new features of Posterous.

Social networking works surprisingly well. The move to the social Spaces idea sounds terrible, but is in fact really good for a group that knows each other through social media.

Posterous allows you to look for people you know on Facebook or Twitter and easily follow them on Posterous, with email updates only a click away. As all our first-years either know each other on Facebook, or are linked to our department Facebook profile, they quickly started following each other.

This has meant much more interaction online – with more commenting on each other’s updates than we ever saw on Blogger. It’s such an easy communications medium that I’ve been using the comments facility to email feedback to students.

Students have even been using Posterous to update their Facebook profiles with messages to their friends. Which, given their incoherence on Facebook, is a mixed blessing. But you can never have too much interaction in my book.

Audio embeds do work really well – and students have been impressing me by doing ad hoc interviews using their mobile phones and uploading the files to their site, without even being asked to.

True, the sound is a bit rubbish, but that’s because they are doing this before we’ve even covered audio recording in the unit. It’s a terrific feature, and one that seems to be encouraging experimentation.

One-click reblogging also works really well. Once you’ve actually found the browser tool to do it. Quite a few students are using it quite often to clip relevant stories from the web to their site. And anything that encourages posting frequency has to be applauded.

Lack of design features has been generally a good thing. Some students have customised their site nicely, but they generally haven’t spent too much time on it.

This is just as I had hoped – if there aren’t endless opportunities to fiddle about with a site’s look and feel, motivated students will focus on uploading stories and content. Unmotivated students will do nothing, of course – but it was ever thus, and there’s only so much I can do about that.

Tutor oversight is also much easier. Remember how easy it is to follow other people’s Posterous Spaces by looking up your Facebook friends? That makes it really easy to keep track of how much work your students are doing, and what sort of quality it is.

Try keeping track of nearly 60 Blogger blogs and you’d quickly see the difference. The controversial move by Posterous into the social space is actually a godsend for this kind of educational use.

Verdict

Four out of five, probably. The fact that some features don’t work as well as advertised or expected is outweighed by the unexpected benefits. And more planning will probably make even better use of Posterous as a teaching tool.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Posterous will have changed beyond recognition by next year, or even have disappeared altogether, in the way that cloud computing services tend to.

Sadly – unlike, say, teaching history of art – teaching online journalism requires almost real-time updating of your syllabus and teaching tools. Stay tuned for inevitable updates…

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