By Suzy Frisch
Long before blogs were ubiquitous and updating web site content was seamless, the University of Minnesota Libraries developed a means for the campus community to accomplish both—and more. By launching the UThink blog platform in 2004, it also fostered freewheeling discussions, promoted intellectual and academic freedom, and created connections inside and outside the University.
As UThink caught on with students, faculty, and staff, it quickly became the largest academic blogging site in North America. In the past decade, people created 18,167 blog sites on UThink, writing over 425,000 entries. Now slated to be retired at the end of June 2015 (see sidebar), the UThink platform has well served the University of Minnesota and has far exceeded the expectations of Shane Nackerud, who devised and developed the system that is driven by Movable Type.
“I’m proud of the impact it’s had,” says Nackerud, technology lead of Libraries initiatives. “UThink provided the entire campus with a really easy way to create a web site, and there was a huge need for that. You could create a site in 30 seconds and start writing about what you thought the world should see.”
UThink started as part of the Undergraduate Virtual Library but quickly grew
Nackerud conceived UThink as part of an initiative to develop a virtual undergraduate library, believing that the platform would draw students to the site and encourage them to utilize the Libraries. Its blogging capabilities also would open opportunities for students to share their thoughts on campus life, academics, controversies—anything on their minds.
In short order, others jumped on the UThink bandwagon. Professors turned to UThink to communicate with students, nurture discussions, and share research and class projects—before the existence of tools like Moodle. Colleges and departments relied on UThink to regularly update their sites—before the existence of enterprise content management systems like Drupal. Through the Libraries’ archives, UThink also preserves some of the University’s history and cultural memory, Nackerud says.
UThink was user-friendly tool for colleges
When Dan Kunitz worked in the College of Liberal Arts, the platform gave staff a user-friendly tool for keeping the college and departments’ web pages fresh, says Kunitz, now project manager and a business analyst in the College of Continuing Education. Additionally, it provided units with information-sharing resources, allowing the college to pull in posts from various departments and vice versa.
“People were amenable to making updates, but all of the sites required knowledge of HTML. UThink was a lot easier for people who were more communications-focused rather than programming-focused,” Kunitz says. “It was a really big savior for a lot of things that have come to be commonplace on the web, and it gave us an easy win for getting more timely content on the sites.”
UThink helped the U reach larger audience
Some of the most well read blogs created springboards—and careers—for their creators. One is Eric Ostermeier, Ph.D., a research associate in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, who has become a national voice in politics through his blog. A simple benefit of having Smart Politics on UThink, he says, is that its .lib address garners it top billing in Google searches, widening the audience for Ostermeier’s nonpartisan research.
UThink and the Libraries enabled Ostermeier to develop, use, and expand his blog as it attracted more readers, while giving him an outlet for his data-driven reports about politics in Minnesota and nationwide. UThink has hosted many of his server-crashing posts, such as one comparing the grade levels of national political convention speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama and Ann Romney, or another that highlighted the different language U.S. Senator Norm Coleman used when speaking on a conservative radio talk show versus a liberal one during the recount of 2009.
“It’s certainly gotten the Humphrey School out in the media and in front of the eyeballs of those who come to the site or indirectly,” Ostermeier says. “Tens of millions of people have seen it or referenced it in other media outlets. In the last five years, there’s been more than 3,500 media interviews, citations, and features in national and international media about Smart Politics.”
Bringing research to light, opening discussions on every topic under the sun, giving a voice to all—that’s been the legacy of UThink during its decade in operation.
Nackerud said that the number of users has declined steadily over the past few years, partly because more robust alternatives — such as Google Blogger, Google Sites, and Drupal — are now available to users.
In addition, he said, security has become an issue: The University has seen a dramatic increase in spam attacks, which requires significant resources to combat.
Existing UThink users are encouraged to start considering alternatives now in order to have sufficient time to migrate to another platform.