building an international online student magazine

For several years I’ve been part of an online magazine project at SUNY Cortland (NeoVox).  NeoVox has a fairly long history for a web magazine. It began in the late nineties (before I came to Cortland) as the "Dragon Planet" (we’re the Cortland Dragons). From the start, it had an international component, and faculty member who initiated the project, Dev Kennedy, oversaw the International Studies program.  Following the award of a FIPSE grant, the magazine was changed to "UniPlanet." During that time, several international desks were established and there was money to pay those desks to contribute material. Long story short: Dev left; the grant ended; and there was no money for those desks.

There were several problems with the UniPlanet model. First, the relationships with the desks were personal rather than institutional; thus they were difficult to maintain when the people changed. Second, the material we were receiving was written in English by students learning English as a foreign language. The result is that the material was not particularly well-written.

Still, Cortland wants to internationalize its curriculum, as many colleges do. College admins still see NeoVox as a potential grant-winning program. So some means has to be devised to recreate the positive aspects of the early days of the project–building international relationships and getting grants. However, we also need to do so while not falling prey to the problems of the old days, particularly the poor quality of writing. In addition, the web is waaaaaay different from 2000. There are many opportunities for students around the globe to publish online, to create social networks, to share media, and so on.

So what are the issues?

I suppose I just have Second Life on the brain right now, but SL seems like potentially prime territory. In many ways SL is a frontier similar to what UniPlanet was dealing with in the web in the late 90s. Also, SL has become fairly popular with European users and European universities. Using SL as a way to market the program, collaborate with international partners, and distribute the magazine makes sense, at least as a possibility. Since Cortland now has an island, we have place to start.

In the past we were ostensibly paying international desks to provide them with the necessary technology to participate in the project (a couple grand per year). Now I’m thinking that probably won’t be necessary, though that would depend on the particular institution. One way we’d want to spend our money that we didn’t do in the past is on translation services. We can thus have students writing in their first language. I’m thinking it’s likely we’d contract a third-party to do that work.

The are a couple of selling points that make participating in NeoVox worthwhile:

  • International online collaboration with partner faculty and students.
  • Quality-control with an editorial staff. We won’t just publish anything.
  • A consistent university community. Every semester, your students publish next to your past students as well as with students from a diverse, global group of institutional partners.
  • Opportunity for student comment and participation.
  • Classroom experience with emerging technologies.

So I’m envisioning a dozen international partners, perhaps some national partners as well, contributing maybe 50 or 60 pieces a year (e.g., one class each semester, submitting one article from each student) from which maybe we would publish 2/3 or something like that. That would give us 10 articles or so a week to publish. Ideally, they would be a combination of video, image, and text. We could set up some collaborative projects. For example, we could have students at each of the institutions go out with a video camera and ask people on the street a particular question. Then we could take that footage and edit it into a single piece.

A lot of positive things might come out of this kind of collaboration, not the least of which would be strengthening institutional relations with those partners. NeoVox could be a foundation for study abroad and faculty exchanges. We could set up a summer institute or something similar where we might train faculty and/or advanced students at Cortland in media production. There would likely be research opportunities associated with the project, so we might develop some mechanism for publishing related to the work we are doing.

The challenge is getting faculty and students to share in this vision. For many faculty, the idea of anything online is frightening. Many students already have online lives and don’t need this kind of outlet. We need to communicate how this is different and how it will give them something that they aren’t getting on YouTube or MySpace or wherever.

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