2,500 Start-ups Strong: Blogs@Baruch
2,500 Start-ups Strong: Blogs@Baruch
by Justyn Makarewcz
Zicklin Graduate Career Management Center
Walking the halls of the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute, you can't help feeling like you’ve entered a buzzing San Francisco start-up where everyone is grabbing ideas from thin air and turning them into something spectacular online. In a way, it’s completely appropriate that Blogs@Baruch started here just a few years ago, and mobilized in a short time to over 2,500 websites created by Baruch students, faculty and staff.
Blogs@Baruch is an online publishing platform available to all Baruch College students, faculty and staff. Built on WordPress and BuddyPress, the platform is used across campus in an impressive number of ways. The tool is maintained collaboratively by the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute and the Baruch Computing and Technology Center (BCTC).
Mikhail Gershovich, the Schwartz Institute’s director, came to Baruch as an adjunct in 1998. Luke Waltzer has been at Baruch since 2002, where he started on the campus as an adjunct and is now the Schwartz Institute’s assistant director for educational technology. In a conference room where a 3D printer busily hummed out a new product prototype created by a Baruch student, Justyn Makarewycz sat down with Mikhail and Luke to talk about how Blogs@Baruch have helped change the lives of Zicklin students and where things are headed.
Mikhail, Luke – Where did it all start for Blogs@Baruch?
Mikhail (MG): It started with our kids. Well, not really, but they’re a part of it. When you boil it down, it started like so many things do – with tinkering. A few of us were playing around with open-source blogging platforms. What better stuff to put on a blog than updates about your kids and all the new things they’re putting you through?
Luke (LW): It's true. I first found out about Mikhail from the pictures of his kids that he put up on his blog. In fact, I knew about his kids before I knew he actually worked just down the hall from me on campus.
MG: This was in 2006. Many of us were starting to look at open-source web tools that could be used to inspire opportunities for students to write at all levels and across all disciplines. This was very much the spirit of "writing across the curriculum," which is a movement that began in the mid-80s and championed the idea that it was everyone’s responsibility, and not just the English department's, to assign and teach writing to students.
So, was this just an off-the-shelf package that you got off the ground?
MG: No, and what Blogs@Baruch has become could never really be served by something readily available. When it began, everything was, to a certain degree, obscure and largely unknown campus-wide. Things were difficult to get going. We helped a few faculty members start up sites in one-off projects, and everything was housed on off-campus servers, so there was a separation between the campus and the early adopters. It all felt very underground at first. At the time, there were maybe 6 and 8 courses using our WordPress sites.
Where did the real change happen?
MG: By 2008, there were some key changes that led things to really take off. Blogs@Baruch moved to the multi-user software it’s currently on, and we incorporated ready-to-go templates. I then worked with Arthur Downing to house a server at Baruch Computing & Technology to bring Blogs@Baruch fully home on campus. We cut down the time it took to get a site up and allowing us to meet increasing demand, where a student or faculty member can have a site up in a matter of minutes today. By February 2009, we had our 1,000th user, and traffic started increasing between 70-80%. Just a year earlier, we never imagined reaching the thousand-user mark.
Witnessing that type of growth must have been completely exciting.
LW: Absolutely, and since then the rate of usage just continues to increase. Right now we have over 2,500 independent sites created through Blogs@Baruch, with over 13,500 users who have logged in. We’ve seen creative boundaries being pushed with how classrooms integrate the tool, to the point where today, around 50 classes per semester use Blogs@Baruch. It’s great to see so many faculty recognize the user-friendly flexibility the platform provides, and that it resonates well with their students.
What do you think is the cause of such warm adoption of the platform at Baruch?
MG: Fairly quickly, folks here realized that they could create all manner of sites on Blogs@Baruch and that the system and our willingness to help set up sites offered a viable (and essentially free) alternative to the standard ways in which program and department sites were built and launched on campus. Anyone could launch a site, have it look professional in a relatively short period of time, and add and edit content in a browser. Although the mission of Blogs@Baruch continues to be about students and writing, many of the sites on the system are not necessarily blogs in the traditional sense. I think this is extremely empowering for the campus and students to have an option for building and launching powerful and attractive sites without having to pay a web developer or designer. It’s a great point of pride for me personally.
For Zicklin specifically, this has included partnerships with a number of faculty and administrative offices because they understand that even within business courses, the need for students to effectively communicate is just as strong as the need for them to have excellent quantitative and decisions-making skills. Blogs@Baruch allows students to test their skills at writing as a future economist, accountant or manager.
LW: There are great student stories as well. For example, Baruch undergrads Michael Pinto-Fernandes (Zicklin) and Sarwat Joarder (Weissman) created a site called Lexington Universal Circuit (LUC). Michael and Sarwat developed LUC into a forum for students and academic professionals to discuss and respond to current economic and political realities through opinion-based research articles. Sarwat landed a job working for a UN ambassador, and one of the things that helped him was that LUC showed his employer how he could launch, grow and cultivate a project from start to finish.
This is what every employer wants to see; a potential team member who can think creatively, communicate well and execute.
Is Baruch leading the way here, or are many campuses nationwide doing this?
MG: We didn't plan on it but we quickly emerged as innovators - not only within CUNY, but also across the country. Blogs@Baruch was mentioned in the 2009 Horizon Report on emerging trends in educational technology. We received CUNY’s Michael Ribaudo Award for computing achievements, and we are working with other campuses such as Macaulay Honors College, City Tech and Queens College on implementing a CUNY-wide vision. We see our work as connected.
Blogs@Baruch is also one of the largest systems of its kind in the entire country. In terms of traffic and numbers of users, we're up there with Harvard and Penn State. Since 2009, Baruch has hosted the New York WordCamp, a community-driven global conference series that draws leading developers and users of WordPress. New York WordCamp is the organization’s second-largest event in the entire world.
This is absolutely impressive what you have helped the Baruch community build. Where do you see Blogs@Baruch in 2 to 5 years from now?
LW: It used to be that the use and management of web publishing was only in the hands of experts. Blogs@Baruch is one way where anyone – from a student to a faculty member – can become an expert. It’s very empowering, and ensuring that continues to grow is vital. This is the open-source spirit that started it all.
MG: Thinking of Zicklin in particular, we would love to increase Blogs@Baruch usage in Zicklin classes, as well as see more experimentation in combining curriculum with the tool and letting it run. We are already working on projects that are evolving Blogs@Baruch from strictly a publishing tool into another communications platform for Baruch students to connect and engage. That can’t be anything but groundbreaking.