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The curious chemistry of the blogosphere

By Steven Schwartz - posted Thursday, 27 August 2009


Recently I discovered that there are hundreds of spelling mistakes and typos on Macquarie University’s web pages. As Vice-Chancellor I was alarmed, and not a little embarrassed, when it was pointed out to me that we frequently misspell our own name and that we also manage to do strange things to words such as student, university, learning, research, technology, as well as old spelling demons such as accommodation and harassment.

The university has about 200,000 web pages to maintain so it is inevitable that errors will creep through. We are only human. But a university consistently spelling “university” incorrectly? It’s not a good look for an institution of higher learning that aspires to be among the world’s best.

To be fair, Macquarie is not the only university to make such errors. The spellr.us annual online content survey found that the websites of many of the world’s high-ranking universities are riddled with spelling mistakes.

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It was after reading about this survey that I decided to challenge the readers of my blog to see how many spelling errors they could find on the Macquarie website.

And so it was that the curious chemistry of the weblog worked its magic once again.

Yes, they found mistakes and delighted in pointing them out; there were grizzles and complaints about our standards; and some respondents offered helpful advice on how we might keep the errors at bay.

Then, just a couple of days after I posted the blog, in it came - the solution.

A diligent and innovative staff member spent an entire weekend writing the code for an online spellchecker tailored specifically for Macquarie.

Thanks to his work, we can now put in a page address, and run a spellcheck. As well as checking individual pages, it can be set to check all our domain-name websites.

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I’ve been blogging now for almost two years, in which time I’ve written close on 150 posts. This year alone I’ve posted 49 articles comprising around 23,000 words. It’s not a lot compared with what some of the full-time bloggers and online journalists generate, but in the context of my working life - I’m the head of a university with more than 30,000 students and 2,000 staff - it is nevertheless a considerable output.

Topics range from an analysis of the global financial crisis, the cultural impact of Woodstock, the meaning of heroism, the Bradley Review, the meaning and value of higher education, the worth of the humanities, the teaching of history in schools, capitalism and its faults, innovation, what skills students will need in the future, whether students should be compelled to buy their lecturers’ textbooks, and whether researchers should be required to take an oath of ethical behaviour.

The still-unfolding technological revolution is creating new opportunities for communication. At the same time, Web 2 - the world of digital interactivity - is posing enormous challenges for traditional media such as newspapers and free-to-air television. Circulations and audiences are declining, and while I’m a big fan of newspapers - once upon a time I was a journalist myself - today they are not the only game in town.

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About the Author

Steven Schwartz is a former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University.

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