The WHAT of blogging

I’ve been thinking about another of Tanja’s comments over the last few days. Commenting on one of my posts about a blog research study, she notes:

In the study it seemed that WHAT the students might be learning through the blogging experience was not clear.

Even you, Marcus (in your very first post) outlined WHAT you saw the purpose of this blog was: you set a particular agenda for using this blog in a particular way.

Does a blog have to have a WHAT?

I think the answer is probably yes and no.

I’ve already referred to Steven Krause’s article “When Blogging Goes Bad: A Cautionary Tale About Blogs, Email Lists, Discussion, and Interaction” which is a fascinating practice analysis of his course blogging experience. In noting some of the reasons why his use of collaborative blogging in a a writing class did not work as well as he intended, one of the reasons he offers is his own lack of clarity in setting up the task:

This assignment did not have any specific requirements in terms of the number of postings, the subject of the postings, or just about anything else. While we set up subject groups on the first day of class, this was a quick and somewhat haphazard exercise, and I tried to make it clear that students were more than welcome to drift away from this initial focus….

Certainly, much of the failure of this assignment can be traced to its open-ended nature. As I already said, I purposefully gave my students minimal directions with this project because I didn’t know what we would come up with (after all, I hadn’t attempted blogging in my teaching before), but also because they were grad students (i.e., “grown-ups”) and I thought in less need of the forced motivation by assignment than some of my undergraduate classes. I also thought that the blog technology very much called for this sort of open-ended and unformed writing assignment. My goal was to create an opportunity/space where my students would simply just want to write.

But what I found is my “open-ended” non-assignment translated into “vagueness.”

Krause also speculates that one way of giving the task some shape, without directing it too forcefully, may have been as simple as showing the students good examples of collaborative blogs such as Crooked Timber. While I think this would certainly have helped I think this would require an active analysis of the site in a class (or perhaps online) discussion rather than just pointing them to the site as an example to look at.

One of the things that really surprised me when I started teaching is that even post-grad students in the class I was taking still had difficulties in writing essays. This was because some were returning to study after long absences while others were coming to journalism from non-humanities backgrounds. It was also because in the course I was teaching we were after a particular kind of essay: an empirically based case study with a strong theoretical framework. It took me a while to realise that, even the “good” students who were used to traditional literature review based argumentative essays, were a little puzzled by this form.

So I certainly believe that we have to be clear about what blogging as a “form” means when we set students the task of blogging in a course. Part of the problem of course is that the form itself is evolving. But I think that we can provide both a sense of openness and a sense of direction

Some student’s really respond to an open-ended approach. I have already noted this comment from one of Adrian Mile’s students:

For example, the assessment was our blogs and a hypertext rather than the regulatory ‘intro-body-conclusion’, word-limited essay that restricted the amount of problems we could discuss.

Miles however does provide a quite specific framework for this project and talks about the “assessment matrix” that he has developed for the task. Significantly all the students get a chance to self assess against this matrix, so that they can determine, with the teacher’s input, if they are on track with their blogging project.

Dennis Jerz is very precise in his instructions to his American Lit class about his expectations and assessment criteria. His framework includes:

1. Coverage: substantial posts that cover the topics

2. Depth: that goes beyond just notes

3. Interaction: with other bloggers

4. Discussion: each blog should generate discussion

His final criteria is what he calls “Xenoblogging”:

Xenoblogging. “Xeno” means “foreign,” so xenoblogging (a term that I just coined) means the work that you do that helps other people’s weblogs. Your portfolio should include three entries (which may or may not overlap with the ones you have already selected for “Coverage”) that demonstrate your willingness to contribute selflessly and generously to the online classroom community. Examples of good xenoblogging:
* The Comment Primo: Be the first to comment on a peer’s blog entry; rather than simply say “Nice job!” or “I’m commenting on your blog,” launch an intellectual discussion; return to help sustain it.
* The Comment Grande: Write a long, thoughtful comment in a peer’s blog entry. Refer to and post the URLs of other discussions and other blog entries that are related.
* The Comment Informative: If your peer makes a general, passing reference to something that you know a lot about, post a comment that offers a detailed explanation. (For example, the in the third comment on a recent blog entry about the history and culture of print, Mike Arnzen mentions three books that offer far more information than my post did.)
* The Link Gracious: If you got an idea for a post by reading something somebody else wrote, give credit where credit is due. (Since a link is so easy to create, it’s not good blogging ethics to hide the source of your ideas.) If a good conversation is simmering on someone else’s blog — whether you are heavily involved or not — post a link to it and invite your own readers to join in.

In each of his categories he links to blog examples which model the criteria that he is describing.

Another interesting discussion on Kairosnews about ways to encourage “good” bloggging in students also emphasises the need for working hard at showing model blogs and model blog enteries. Setting up specific activities that encourage peer interaction and peer review also seem to be important:

We had assignments scattered throughout the semester where our students had to go read each other’s blogsites and post blogs to their own blogsites about what they read. Because they knew they had a relatively large audience of classmates (not to mention the WWW), they really didn’t post crap. This was especially true when they started to see their names/blogsites referenced on other people’s blogsites. They wanted other people to blog about them, so they didn’t just post something to get something up there. …lots of my students commented that knowing everyone in class was reading their blogsites at any given time made them want to write more engaging stuff.

Another comment emphasises that while assessment is important, so to is the perceived centrality of the blogging process to the course:

I think it’s working well… because the course is heavily invested in blogging as a way of sharing writing and the means to meaning making. It’s such a major part of the course that the course would not be the same at all without it. In other words, you may not be able to just “try” it … So assessment of blogging may be much less important than how and to what extent students use it in the course.

Over at Techsophist, Lanette Cadle notes that blogs work better in longer courses where students have a chance to actually develop their own take on the form. She notes that: “It takes time for the synergy between posts in a group blog to develop, and it looks like six weeks is not long enough.”

These problems: not knowing the form; lack of specific objective; perceived centrality of the process; vague assessment criteria and the length of time necessary to develop synergy, certainly express themselves in specific ways in course blogging but they are also issues that I have found in my attempts to get quality work happening in Blackboard threaded discussions.

So getting back to my original question about the WHAT of blogging, issues to do with direction, form and purpose do seem to be critical to developing successful models of blogging for online learning. However part of this modeling must also include helping students get over the anxiety they might experience at the seemingly open-ended nature of blogging. So questions for further reflection include:

How do we provide a WHAT framework that still allows students to discover the more open-ended nature of blogging?

What are the different WHATS of different forms of blogging: writing blogs; research blogs; k-blogs; project blogs; personal blogs? Do we encourage students to sample, mix and match?

What ( if anything) is the specific WHAT of blogging that does not occur in other forms of teaching and learning?

4 thoughts on “The WHAT of blogging

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