I’m happy to announce (if you haven’t already seen the press release or received the email announcement, that is), that my team, the Blackboard Beyond Initiative, rolled out a batch of new features for Scholar. These features focus on around enhanced profiles, user search, and social networking capabilities.

You know, when we first launched Scholar we talked about it as a social bookmarking application. And that’s not inaccurate — Scholar is a social bookmarking application. However, after we launched, I realized that "social bookmarking" isn’t a term that’s meaningful to most Blackboard users. Some informal, non-scientific surveys conducted by a few of our client institutions even indicated that only a few percent of their student users on campus were familiar with social bookmarking as a concept or with social bookmarking applications.

However, when we started talking about Scholar as a tool for academic resource sharing,
people immediately grasped that concept . . . because it’s something
they already do all the time! Folks will send a link to that great
journal article to their colleagues or they point their dorm neighbor
to a good online explanation of a difficult concept or they work
together building a bibliography of online resources for a group
project, etc. What Scholar allows you to do is push those activities
into the digital world, sharing academic resources with and discovering
resources from faculty and students around the world, not just on
campus or in the dorm.

As you might gather from those examples, a big part of academic
resource sharing is the people with whom you’re doing the sharing;
that’s the "social" part of social bookmarking. So in this second major
release of Scholar, we’ve added features that let you

  • provide more information about yourself through your Scholar
    profile, but still have control over how public you want that
    information to be
  • discover other people by their location, discipline, or interests that they share through their profile
  • build relationships with those people
  • follow, via Scholar streams and through RSS feeds, the resources added by people in your network

Sound like "social networking"? Well, yeah, of course, it is
social networking, just like Scholar is also a social bookmarking
service. Still, I’m as dissatisfied with the term "social networking"
as I am with the term "social bookmarking." Maybe it’s just because
those terms have been loaded with expectations from Facebook or
MySpace, but they don’t get at the academic uses I see for Scholar.

There are certainly no expectations that we’ll displace the Facebooks
or the MySpaces of the world, nor is that even remotely our goal. On
the other hand, what we’re trying to do it is build a service that
takes those principles of social bookmarking and social networking and
makes them more relevant for academic users than existing commercial
services. I think we’re well on the way to doing that on the resource
sharing front — if you compare what’s popular on Scholar with what’s popular on Del.icio.us,
you can see the more academic bent of the resources people are sharing
through Scholar. These new features focused on building relationships
within the academic community of Blackboard users start us down the
path of doing the same on the networking front.

In fact, as the product director for Scholar, I still only consider
what you see in Scholar today to be the tip of the iceberg. My own
vision for Scholar includes

  • tools for sharing more — and different kinds — of academically-relevant resources
  • building networks through Scholar around specific topics or projects
  • supporting research activities for all users, from undergrads to
    the professional academic (and maybe in the process even tearing down
    some of those gaps between the undergrad and the professional

We’d love to hear your ideas, feature suggestions, successes, and, yes,
even your complaints. You can email that information to us at scholar-feedback@blackboard.com
or use the "Contact Us" feature in Scholar itself. They’ll all come to
me and my colleagues on the Beyond Initiative team. We might not be
able to respond to everyone individually, but we are listening.

And don’t forget to add me as your Friend on Scholar. 😉

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