Preservation of Web Resources: a JISC-funded project [Archived Blog]

Auricle: The Case Of The Disappearing E-learning Blog

Posted by Brian Kelly on September 1st, 2008

The Auricle E-Learning Blog

The e-learning team at the University of Bath was one of the early adopters of blog technologies to provide a forum for reflecting on e-learning in a Web content.   The blog was set up by Derek Morrison when he was head of the e-learning unit. Derek had an interest in exploring the potential of new technologies, with one example of this being the series of podcast interviews he recording and made available on the blog back in 2005.  This included an interview with John Dale about the innovative blogging service developed at the University of Warwick (the first large scale student blogging service in the UK)  and, perhaps not as noteworthy, an interview with me on my reflections of the WWW 2005 conference.

The name of the e-learning team’s blog was Auricle, which has an advantage of being a very Google-friendly name, and a Google search for “Auricle Bath” finds links to the blog itself and various page which refer to the blog. Unfortunately it seems that the blog no longer exists – following a link to the blog’s home page gets a 404 error message:

The web address http://www.bath.ac.uk/dacs/cdntl/pMachine/morriblog.php was not found. It may have moved, or it may no longer be available.

How unfortunate – all that potentially valuable historical content giving views on the potential of the Web (including technologies such as blogs and podcasts) to enhance the quality of the student’s learning experiences now no longer available.  And how should the University of Bath feel about this loss of its intellectual endeavours and the role that the University had in being one of the early adopters of blogs by an e-learning team.

Why Did The Blog Disappear?

The URL for the Auricle blog provides an indication of some of the reasons for the disappearance of the blog: dacs refers to the Division of Access and Continuing Studies and cdntl to the Centre for the Development of New Technologies in Learning – but neither of these departments still exists.  Following staff departures and organisational changes, support for learning at the University of now provided by the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Office (LTEO)  with the e-Learning Team having responsibility for managing and supporting e-learning developments.

In addition to these organisational changes, the pMachine part of the blog’s domain name refers to the pMachine blog engine and morriblog clearly refers to  Derek Morrison, who left the University a number of years ago to support the HE Academy’s Pathfinder programme.

It is perhaps not surprising that following such changes and the influx of a large number of new staff in the e-Learning Team that the Auricle blog got lost somewhere along the way!

Can We Retrieve Any Of The Resources?

Is it possible to retrieve any of the blog posts and related resources? Is it possible to obtain any details about the blog, such as when it was launched, the number of posts published during its lifetime, how popular it was and, perhaps, the impact that the blog may have had?

Since the blog was public, as opposed to a blog which was restricted to members of the University of Bath, the contents of the blog have been indexed by Google. And using a combination of search terms, such as “Auricle Bath”, it is also possible to discover Web resources which cite the Auricle blog. This helped me to find a blog post on Stephen Downes’s blog on The Weblog as the Model for a New Type of Virtual Learning Environment? in which Stephen (a high profile Canadian e-learning guru)  clearly acknowledged the importance of Derek Morrison’s views on the potential of the blog as providing “the basis for a distributed, not centralised, information and learning object system“:

The author of Auricle nails it. “In the weblog, however, the announcements, articles, stories are the raison d’etre’ so much so that, not satisfied to present articles from one source, the weblog has the temerity, due to the adoption of the RSS standard, to receive syndicated stories from other sources and, in turn, offer it’s own portfolio of articles for use by others. For example, a blog supporting a programme or module could be the vehicle by which faculty post date and time-stamped short articles relevant to the course but which also link to related, but distributed, learning resources which are presented via RSS feeds. Such feeds can be static or dynamic so that updated RSS formatted information will be reflected in whatever application is displaying it, e.g. a la Auricle’s RSS Dispenser. Here then is the basis for a distributed, not centralised, information and learning object system.” (My emphasis) Derek Morrison, Auricle, February 27, 2004.

And the date of Stephen’s post (27 February 2004) indicates that the Auricle blog was available in early 2004.

With some further use of Google I discover that the Auricle podcast resources are still available on the University of Bath Web site – and I’m pleased that the MP3 file of my interview has not been lost. The RSS file also contains the publication dates, which show that the podcasts were published during 2005. We seem to have unearthed some further information about the Auricle blog.

Rediscovering The Blog!

It required a Google search for “Auricle Morrison” for me to discover that the Auricle blog is alive and well! It is now hosted at http://www.auricle.org/auriclewp/ (much better than the original URI!).  And as well as providing access to the original posts (although with a new look-and-feel, as the blog is now based on the WordPress blog software)  the blog is still active, with Derek using the blog to support his Pathfinder work at the HE Academy. As Chris Rusbridge pointed out on a post on “Digital Preservation” term considered harmful?” on the Digital Curation blog “phrases like “long term accessibility” or “usability over time” are better than the process-oriented phrase “digital preservation“. And here’s an example of how the Auricle blog has been preserved by continuing to still be used and accessible to its user community.

The Lessons

What are the implications of this case study for the wider community? And what lessons can be learnt?

We should be aware of the dangers of associating services with departmental names and specific technologies. This has been well documented, including Tim Berners-Lee’s article on “Cool URIs Don’t Change!” – although this is clearly easy to say, but more difficult to implement in practice.

I feel there is also a need for departments to audit their networked services and to document their policies regarding the sustainability of such services.  And such documented policies should be examined when departments change their names or there are significant changes in personnel.

And this case study provides an interesting example of a service which has been driven by an individual – Derek Morrison. As Derek clearly felt ownership to the Auricle blog, he was motivated to migrate the content of the blog to a new platform and, at a later date, to continue to contribute to the blog, although not as frequently as previously.  This probably saves the e-Learning Team at Bath from having to retrieve backup copies of the blog posts and provide an archived copy of the resource.  But who owns the blog?  And what would have happened if there had been an ownership dispute over the blog and the name of the blog?  These are questions which will be relevant to many academics and support who make use of blogs to support their professional activities – including myself and my UK Web Focus blog. But as the contents of my blog have a Creative Commons licence I would hope that there will minimise any legal barriers to the contents of my blog being migrated to a new environment should circumstances change.

5 Responses to “Auricle: The Case Of The Disappearing E-learning Blog”

  1. Derek Morrison Says:

    Brian Kelly’s posting makes some interesting points. While the original Auricle represented a major investment in personal time, reflection, research, and overall effort. I felt this was worthwhile because it provided a vehicle for reflecting on what are an increasing number of difficult issues relating to the use (and abuse) of technology in Higher Education. The University of Bath generously provided me with the technical platform from which I and a few of my colleagues could experiment with developing a blog that was intended to offer some value to the wider sector. But without one or more champions to sustain the momentum and assume ownership once the original team left the university Auricle was inevitably caught up in annual online account housekeeping. Nevertheless, because I was heavily influenced by the ethos of the LOCKSS Programme, i.e. Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe (http://www.lockss.org/lockss/) I rescued what I could before the virtual “Grim Reaper” arrived. So the main core of the content I authored at Bath still lives in its new home at auricle.org but I have further work to do to rejuventate apparently dead hyperlinks to resources that were originally hosted at the University of Bath.

    As Brian suggests there are a number of interesting issues relating to online educational artefacts like Auricle but for me at the core there is one issue that really matters, i.e. the value perceived by the different actors. I valued Auricle for its ability to help me organise and rehearse material and arguments for public consideration. Parts of the sector seem to have valued it as a resource, with Auricle sometimes making a small contribution to someone’s course or module. But, in common with all other HEIs, once personnel leave an institution such blogs, wikis etc associated with them are not analysed for the potential value of their content but treated more as an email account, i.e. something to be deleted. That’s sad. Why? Mainly because it represents a lost opportunity for ongoing collaboration, discourages future investment by blog, wiki authors etc in such institutionally-hosted resources, and forces a move to outside the institution (so reducing the chances of generating assets of future value to the institution). To be fair, however, it’s also necessary to recognise that supporting such resources do represent an ongoing cost for an institution (albeit a relatively tiny one in University financial terms). I now absorb such costs in sponsoring my own auricle.org domain. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to the University of Bath for allowing the original blog but, in the absence of an HE agency such as JISC offering a sustainable blog hosting service (free of editorial constraints), then the only alternative I can see is to do exactly what I have done, i.e. move into the ‘cloud’ and keep lots of copies so effort is not totally lost.

    Derek Morrison, Editor of Auricle

  2. Phil Wilson Says:

    “Why Did The Blog Disappear?” – the real reason is very mundane but related to what you say: there was no-one to hand off ownership to, and as time went on security holes were discovered in the software which no-one was updating. There were also a number of confusing URL issues that we didn’t feel comfortable leaving in place once Derek had gone (but were fine whilst he was ably looking after them).

    We’ve certainly maintained a number of other resources well past the owner’s leaving date if there’s value to the community (i.e. the internet) and it doesn’t leave IT Services with a maintenence job it didn’t sign up for.

    In Derek’s case, we were confident that he had backups of his data, so *whoosh*. In retrospect we could have done some more – for example to ensure redirection, but this I don’t really like this idea since it leaves us with an official resource potentially pointing at a sex site (if the domain name lapses).

    In the case of the central wiki service provided by the University of Bath we have a clear “no deletion” policy, plus the ability to export the pages as they stand (along with attachments and comments) in HTML, PDF and XML. This is also our preferred policy for our much newer blog service (although not yet set in stone).

  3. Phil Wilson Says:

    I should add – Derek, if there’s anything we *can* do to help you out (and I will see about getting a redirect in place to auricle.org) do get in touch. web-support@bath.ac.uk

  4. Derick Jones Says:

    Good thing that Derek Morrison could drop by and leave that comment. It does give a lot more insight as to what really happened. I used to follow “Auricle Bath”. Need to check out “Auricle Morrison” now. Excellent post.

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