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Dan Saffer: Why I Blog my Postgrad Course

First published February 25, 2004

Meet Dan Saffer. He's pursing a master's degree in interaction design at Carnegie Mellon. I've never met Dan in the flesh, nor are we virtual friends, but I know a lot about his course: not just about his curriculum, but about the classes he attends, the activities he does, the reading list he gets, the guest lecturers he meets, and the projects he designs. No, I don't practice telepathy: it's just that Dan blogs his course.

Now, I know that I'm learning at lot from Dan's blog, odannyboy, but what about Dan: How does blogging the course affect his learning? I interviewed him to find that out.

- Maish Nichani

What is your background?

Dan: My background isn't particularly interesting. I grew up in Baltimore and in San Francisco. I did my undergraduate education at UCLA, where I created my own major. After college, thinking I wanted to use my degree in dramatic literature, I went to work first as a copywriter for TV Guide, then as an editorial assistant at a book publisher in New York. I taught myself HTML and soon found myself working for dotcom startups and interactive agencies. My last job was as an interaction designer for Ameritrade, the online brokerage company.

What are you studying?

Dan: About two years ago, I decided that I needed to be better trained to do the work I was doing and for the jobs I eventually wanted to get. So I started looking for graduate programs that would do that. I only found one that I was really happy with and that's where I am now, finishing up my first year in the Master's of Design, Interaction Design program at Carnegie Mellon.

Why do you blog your course?

Dan: I got the idea from a second year IxD student, Chad Thornton. When I was looking for a program, I came upon his blog, brightlycoloredfood. On it, he sporadically posted small tidbits about the courses he was taking. Once I got into the program, I thought to myself, wow, wouldn't it be great to have my courses down in detail? Both for myself (since I have a terrible memory), and for others who might be interested in what you learn in such a program. So I started the blog, beginning with my preparations to go to school.

In a way, it's about justifying the personal and actual expense of leaving work and going back to school: something I could point to and say, see, that's why I'm doing this, this is what I learned. This is why it was worth it.

And like I said, I have a terrible memory. I knew that if I didn't capture my experiences and notes in some sort of format, I'd probably forget a lot of it. I use my own blog a lot, as a device to jog my memory.

How has blogging helped your learning? (Really, do you learn anything new? Does your perspective change? Can you recall any such learning episodes?)

Dan: Like almost every other student, I take notes, furious notes, during class time. I spend a lot of time with my laptop open in front of me, typing away. I don't get a lot of synthesis and analysis time. That's what the blog is for. I use it to rewrite my notes, and in doing so, I reconstruct what I've learned for myself.

It's a great tool for learning because I have to basically teach/explain what I've just learned to people that weren't there and who may or may not have any context for what it is I'm talking about.

When I first started the blog, I mistakenly thought that people would sort of follow my whole experience, from beginning to end. I have no idea why I had that totally ridiculous, narcissist fantasy. I do have many people that do read the blog like that, but I also have a large number of people who search for things like "Definition of Design" and "Moodboards" and end up randomly on my site, reading individual entries. Once I realized that, it changed my writing style.

Often, once I start an entry about a class, I realize that there is a better way to structure the information than how the teacher presented it. And so I restructure it for clarity. And by doing that, you learn the material better.

I should also mention that for my Design Studio class, my project team is using a blog as a virtual "project room" for a project we're doing with Microsoft this semester. It's much better than email for keeping information in a central place, viewable by all.

Has blogging helped you increase your learning network? (Who replies to your blog entries? How has it affected your relationship with your classmates? With your instructors?)

One thing that is interesting about blogging my classes is that other students and professors are aware of it and react in different ways. Some find it great, others, an intrusion on their privacy. The opinion has even been expressed that this information is ours, it belongs to the graduate students and faculty of CMU, and that I shouldn't be posting any of it. And there is some truth to that, although no blog entry is ever going to completely capture the experience of going to school and sitting in classes. There is so much that goes uncaptured. And, truthfully, there have been a few things I've learned that I have kept to myself, that I don't blog. I occasionally feel that something I learn is mine to hold onto and not share with my readers.

I am also very concerned that I don't pass off the content of my blog as my own thoughts. I occasionally worry that professors or guest speakers will ask me not to blog or that readers will think that, say, Dick Buchanan's ideas on ethics in design are my own. I try to give credit where credit is due, but I also don't want every paragraph to be burdened by the clunky, X professor thinks that...

Probably because a majority of my readers are using my RSS feeds, I don't get a lot of commentary on my blog. Either that, or else no one is interested :) Interestingly, a majority of my comments come from Rob Adams, a Master's student in HCI at CMU. Rob and I have taken several classes together, and our blogs often reflect similar content and we have discussions that get passed back and forth between our two sites, in comments and dueling entries.

I'd also note that a healthy percentage of my readers are people in other graduate programs (or who want to be).

If you were to stop blogging today, how would it affect you? ( How would it affect your learning ability?)

Dan: Well, for one thing, I would suddenly have a lot more time! I didn't realize how long it would take to do some of these entries--sometimes up to two or three hours for a long post about an involved class. But the time spent doing them is time well spent. I use my own blog as much as anyone. I know I'd retain less over the long run, and be less able to put the things I'm learning into a more complete context.

Lately, a lot of the things I'm learning in different classes have all started to come together; they all seem to be talking about similar things or things are starting to fit into patterns. Some of this is intentional, some probably not. But I doubt I would have been able to see those patterns as clearly without the blog. There's something about putting your entire coursework together in one place that allows you to more easily make that kind of analysis.

Do you find any limitations with current blogging software features and functions? (If you could change/add some features, what would they be?)

Dan: RSS readers, in general, take away from the interactivity of blogs. There's no easy way to incorporate comments into the xml feed, so that cuts down on the comments you get. I got more comments when I was on Blogger and didn't have an RSS feed like I do now with MovableType. There is a way to do this, but it isn't easy and the comments don't display with the feed itself.

The actual input mechanism for MovableType isn't the greatest, so I use Kung-Log (now Ecto). It lets me save drafts and has other features that help with extensive blogging, especially with multiple blogs.

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