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Freshman Seminar Develops Electronic Newspapers

By Eric Richard
Contributing Editor

Starting this week, students will be able to access the first phase of a Media Laboratory project to bring personalized electronic newspapers to MIT during Independent Activities Period next January.

The project began in the Newspapers of the Future freshman seminar last year. It is organized by Brad J. Bartley '96, Adam B. Cotner '96, and James S. Deverell '95 with help from Pascal R. Chesnais SM '88, research specialist at the Media Laboratory and co-adviser of the seminar. Each of the sophomores started working on the project last year.

During the first stage of the Freshman Personalized Newspaper Project, students will be able to provide feedback about the IAP '93 Guide and the IAP '94 Preview. From this feedback, the project sponsors will try to "glean information about what events an individual likes," in order to form a user profile, according to Bartley. The information will also be used to help the IAP coordinators improve upon this year's IAP Guide.

Later in the semester, new services will be added to the system, including a "Hometown News" section which will allow a user to get news wire stories from the geographic areas he is interested in, according to Chesnais.

Finally, participants will be able to create a personal newspaper which can be read via computer during IAP, Chesnais said. The newspaper will include hometown news, special news topics, and a calendar of events for on- and off-campus events.

The entire content of the paper will be driven by the readers' interests as determined by the feedback the user had given the system up to that point, according to Chesnais.

Initially, the system will only include text, but the organizers are "also exploring how to illustrate the paper," Chesnais said. "We will try to incorporate graphics where appropriate."

Project and experiment combined

The goals of the project are to "provide a personal news service in which the participants help determine the content and to provide this year's freshmen with an electronic guide to IAP in order to match their needs to IAP offerings," Chesnais said.

However, the whole project is also an experiment, as it is the first time a personalized newspaper has been attempted on this scale, according to Deverell.

Walter R. Bender SM '80, and the other co-adviser for the freshman seminar, explained the new knowledge about personalized newspapers which can come from the experiment.

"It would be nice to understand whether adding a level of personalization makes it easier for people to find out what they want to know," Bender said.

"People are very excited about seeing what happens. There haven't been many examples of doing personalization on a big scale, especially on a more general setting," Bender said.

Member companies of the News in the Future Consortium, including Knight-Ridder News, The Boston Globe, and the Tribune Corporation, as well was other news industry leaders have expressed interest in the project, according to Chesnais. In particular, Chesnais noted that Frank Hawkins, vice president of Knight-Ridder, has been a strong advocate, providing the project with news feeds from Knight-Ridder itself and the Associated Press.

If the project is successful, it may lead to larger experiments outside of MIT. "How well people react to this project will help fuel similar projects," Chesnais said.

"Some sponsors have expressed interest in taking aspects of this and trying to run with it," Bender added.

User feedback important

Students will get the information using an interface designed by the project's organizers and implemented on Xmosaic, a program used to look through related information online. In addition to accessing information, users will be able to provide feedback about what they have read.

By providing feedback early on, users will be helping themselves in the long run by providing more information about what they like, Bartley said.

While the project is geared towards getting freshmen involved in IAP, Deverell said, "We'd like to see as many people as possible get involved."

"I think we will find that people will gauge the value of this venture by its various components," Chesnais said. "There may be some people who really do not care for the hometown news aspect of the project, but to care for the IAP scheduling facets."

"If they feel that it is a better source of news than they have seen before, then it has been a colossal success," Bartley said. It would also be a success "if people got more news than they would otherwise and that they actually want," he added.

Deverell added that he would feel the program is a success if "people realize that this is a feasible way to present the IAP Guide, and if they successfully recognize their newspaper as being personalized."

Project grew out of seminar

The project initially stemmed from a proposal in last year's seminar to provide this year's incoming freshmen with personalized newspapers during Residence and Orientation Week. However, the original project was rejected by the Undergraduate Academic Affairs Office due to logistical problems in getting consent from each student involved, according to Chesnais.

"The real objective of the project is to allow a motivated group of freshmen to run with a big project from start to finish," Chesnais said. "The freshmen from our seminar ... designed, planned, and executed this project."

Travis R. Merritt, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs, characterized the project as "the most massive and sustained group initiative to grow out of a freshman advisor seminar."

"It is part of a broad-based drive to drive freshmen out of their standard mode where they just sort of endure the freshmen year," Merritt added. "We want them to see, as individuals and as teams, they can really put points on the scoreboard now."