Student blogs as uni promotion

Luke is a music major and is an official blogger at Ball State

Luke is a music major and is an official blogger at Ball State

A number of universities are using student blogs as a kind of “reality ad” for their courses and campus life. Here in Sydney UTS had an ill fated go at it that didn’t really take off but as I noted in another post last year Sydney Uni has a more vibrant project still going. Today I came across a really good example of it at Ball State, Indianna. These bloggers have remained committed over the course of the year and have produced an interesting take on campus life. The vodcasts by a com student adds an extra dimension as well.

What is even more impressive is all the other uses of blogging at Ball State. Everyone from Freshman advisors through to the alumni office are using blogs.

The communication and media students have a number of different blogging projects. Notes from the digital Frontier presents a range of comments from young people about technology, social networking and media – its opinionated and not very in-depth but it presents a really interesting way of getting students to begin to track their own interaction with the new digital environment. Ball Bearings is a neat multimedia site that the students produce with lots of good little info packages, games blogs and videos.

It’s a very impressive cross-campus cross-faculty commitment to blogging it would be interesting to see how blogging is being used at the subject level in different courses for assignments at a University like this – I will search around and see if I can find out more.

Student blogs

I have just finished marking 75 student blogs and 75 reflective essays from this semester’s features course.I had the students posting three times a week in three categories: observations from life, analysing features and feature ideas. This seemed to me like a perfect vehicle to explore observational writing, strong structure and interesting ideas – the three cornerstones of good feature writing. The advantage of the blog over individual assignments in these areas is that, as an ongoing series of weekly exercises, students gain both an experience of writing to deadline and a sense of a developing set of ideas emerging over time.The work was, of course, variable but there was a strong emerging consensus in the reflective essays that the blogging exercise was a surprising but important learning experience. The following quotes are typical:

Student 1: At first I was reluctant to do some of these things (especially the descriptive writing exercises), but once I started to write more regularly, I became quite fond of my blog and was committed to building it up and making it look like a complete piece of work.Student 2: Perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of this course was – completely unexpectedly – the blogging exercise. At first, this seemed to be a useless adventure into time wasting, however, over time this became the most important part of the course. Working to a deadline, constantly thinking of new ideas, and pressuring myself to better each post. The blog assignment proved so useful to me personally, that I landed a job working as a paid blogger for a website. Its amazing that at the beginning of the session, I said that I wouldn’t want to blog, even if I was paid to do it. Three months later I am getting paid for it, but I’d gladly do it for free.Student 3: Despite some initial skepticism, I really enjoyed doing the blog assignment. I never saw myself doing something like that and, although I often forgot to post or ran out of time, I liked seeing its progression online. It taught me to think about writing constantly, for example every time I saw something interesting I’d think “oh I should do an observation piece on that!”

Nearly all of the reflections about the blogging exercise express initial reluctance/scepticism about the idea but then go on to say how this was overcome as they “got into” the task. The different way that different students “get into” blogging is interesting:

  • For some the “ah hah” moment comes as they begin to see the blog as a “thing” that they can tinker with, change, develop and create. They move from doing an assignment to “making it a complete piece of work”
  • For others it is noticing the influence of the blog on other aspects of their work or thinking as one student said: “I realised I was beginning to think like a journalist” because the blog became a focus for what might have just been passing ideas.
  • For others it is getting over the “geek” factor – “they” do that it’s not for me.

This confirms an old post of James McGee that I often quote when talking about blogging:

There are four hurdles to pass to move from willing volunteer to competent blogger: learning the technology environment, developing an initial view of blogging, plugging into the conversation, and developing a voice. These are not so much discrete phases as they are parallel tracks that can be managed. (McGee 2002)

There are other elements that emerged from this semester’s work that I will post about over the next few days.

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Blogs at Sydney Uni take off

Found an interesting article from the Australian’s Higher Education supplement about Sydney University’s embrace of blogging. It’s bizarre that the most traditional of universities would be the first university in Australia to set up a campus wide blogging project. In May the university set up a system open to all university staff.

“I don’t know of any other Australian universities who have set up a staff blog system like this,” says Charlie Forsyth, manager of Sydney’s web services. He says the idea is to make it easy for staff to blog, to collaborate with one another, to reach out to industry and the wider public, to share knowledge and engage in debate.

“The blogs will not be centrally moderated,” Forsyth says. But the standard university policy on computers applies; this forbids uses that are “illegal, unethical or inappropriate” or anything that would cause “embarrassment or loss of reputation” to the university.

The marketing arm of the university is also embracing blogging with a site called Sydney Life. Here they have employed a series of students to post on their experiences of life at the university

Like most blogs it has regular, journal-like entries with a comment thread. But the home page banner carries the university shield and Cohen, Sydney’s marketing information manager, vets every post before it’s uploaded.

Can big institutions tame the free-spirited blog format?

“I think it’s working because I don’t domesticate it too much,” says Cohen, who was fascinated by blogs before she came up with this official use for them.

At Sydney Life she doesn’t see a lot of room for posts about dating or wild nights. She says subjects more suited to the readers include how to make friends in first year, insider tips for enrolment day, study and procrastination, as well as immersion in campus clubs and societies.

Spencer, president of the Sydney University Dramatic Society, doesn’t regard Cohen’s editorial control as heavy-handed; in fact, he’s reassured she’s there. “Obviously we’re writing for a fairly specific audience and it is under the university name,” he says.

He’s found it fun, a totally different way of writing, and an inspiration to look into blogging more closely.

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Student’s grow-up with blogs

Dennis Jerz‘ blogging project at Seton Hill is the subject of a good profile in the Pitsburg Post Gazette, which he gleefully pointed out to Kairos readers.

The anecdotal piece raises a number of key issues about blogging and higher education. The headline “Freedom of speech redefined by blogs: Words travel faster, stay around longer in the blogosphere” tells you that this isn’t going to be the standard media blog bust. The anecdotes in this article actually sum up some of the key points any introduction to blogging in higher education might like to make:

1. Student blogging can lead to dialogue with the wider academic sphere:

Jessica Prokop thought the textbook for her class at Seton Hill University was biased and that its author “seems like a bitter man.” In the annals of student rants, nothing extraordinary there.

Except she didn’t just blurt out those words in her journalism class. She blogged them. Soon, the author himself was responding all the way from England, pledging to re-examine an upcoming edition given her critique.

2. Students move from being users to being co-creators of the internet

Students find that their musings on topics from Plato to video games have been discovered by a parent back home who typed their name into a search engine such as Google. Or they’ll discover their homework was incorporated hundreds of miles away into a stranger’s Internet research.

“In another generation, these students would have simply been users of a computer,” Dr. Jerz said. “Now, they are co-creators of the Internet.”

That is both good and bad.

“I remind students that their blogs are public,” he said. “Someday, they’ll be in a job applicant pool, and a potential employer will run their name through Google, and the angry ranting Web log they wrote at age 17 will turn up.”

3. Problems can become “teachable moments” with real world grit, even though boundaries have to be found and enforced

The piece details a number of students who have been suspended at other universities for posting harmful or defamatory posts about staff, students or minority groups. But these instances can become “teachable moments”:

Those cases, and others like them, illustrate the importance of what some say is an emerging campus trend: Faculty are discussing with their students how the medium is transforming free speech.

“It’s a substantial change in how we engage in discourse, especially in this country,” said Alex Halavais, an official with the Association of Internet Researchers who teaches at the University at Buffalo, part of The State University of New York. “As such, I think universities have a duty in some ways to provide students with the tools they need to better participate in that discourse.”…

[Amy Eisman, director of writing programs with the school of communication at American University] said students were more likely to discover boundaries themselves, sometimes by a rough experience.

4. Students learn to be bloggers and this learning experience can help them position themselves as adults within the public sphere:

Jason Pugh, 20, a junior from West Mifflin, said he’d watched the level of discourse rise as freshmen come to campus and see how upperclassmen build reasoned arguments. “There’s a difference between just saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ and saying, ‘I disagree because of point one and point two,’ ” he said.

He views his own blogs as a far cry from the all-opinion rants of his freshman year. “I’ve learned to do better research, so I don’t sound like I’m someone angry at the world.”

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Gone Carnivalesque

I guess I’ve been buttoned down and not hanging in the blogsphere enough recently but I’ve just discovered the whole “carnival” thing (thanks Clancy here and here).

They are great peer produced collections of blog posts around a designated issue. There are some great postings in the recent Teaching Carnivals. Everything from New Kid on being the hearty professor to a great post by Scott Barnett on what he’s doing (or trying to do) when he asks students to blog:

When I finally decided to use blogs in a writing course, I did so from a position of advocate, of someone who sees great value in the act of writing as often as possible. Not to get too Dead Poets Society here, but I wanted my students to use blogging as a way to see the world differently, to walk around as I have in the past year with that strange and exhilarating Eye that not only finds in moments those ideal (and often unusual) blogging urgencies, but that takes pleasure as well in their all-around weirdness.

I too am getting my students to blog in a summer course I am taking and have been thinking about the many imperatives of blogging. It’s a media studies course for journalism students and the blog is meant to be a way of getting the students to become reflective media critics. But like Scott I am also very keen to simply get them to write. To my great delight some of them have taken to it like ducks to water and are slowly beginning to produce some wonderful stuff that has that great bloggy mix of personal tone, connectedness and insight.

I think it is in the mix of those three elements that blogging has a great role to play in education. It helps us move beyond rigid forms of academic writing which teach students to only value that which is complete and finished. I have been saying to my class that blogging is all about cumulative, linked meaning making not about conclusive arguments. It’s a form of research as well as a form of publication. It is writing as discovery.

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Blogs versus Discussion Boards

I’ve been thinking again about blogs versus discussion boards. I have always been very anti-discussion boards because personally I don’t like them as a reader or user. I find them aesthetically uninviting and their folded in structure always makes me want to give up. But last semester I had students who responded quite enthusiastically to an assigned online discussion group. The usual problems arose in many groups and much of the valuable content consisted of fairly isolated postings but in a couple of groups the dynamic really worked. I think this was helped by the fact that for part of the semester I used the same groups in tutorial discussions so the message board discussion became a continuation of the face to face work. A few students noted this in the evaluation session.

While thinking about this I stumbled across this posting by Lee Lefever (via Seblogging) which provides an interesting set of metaphoric differentiations that get passed some of the usual technical distinctions:

  • A blog post says "Here it is, dig it"
  • A message board post says "your turn"
  • Comment implies "if you want, not required"
  • Reply implies "I’m not done until you do."
  • A blog is my back yard
  • A message board is a park
  • A blog has readers
  • A message board has lurkers
  • A blog is all about ME
  • A message board is all about US
  • When things go quiet on a blog, the onus is on one person
  • When things go quite on a message board, the onus is on everyone

Sebastian Fielder goes on to make the comments:

Discussion forums and message boards require a consistent effort of a group to work. They fall apart if people sign off and go quiet or if somebody starts to get outright destructive.

Networks of Weblog authors are much more robust. If one goes quiet or produces rubbish nothing major happens to the collective or a single Weblog authoring project which can quite happily stand on its own and develop new connections… and cut off old ties that seem to have lost its value anymore.

None of this gets around the fact that in an educational setting facilitation and modelling is key to helping students get the most out of these types of projects. But I think that Fiedler and Lefever’s distinctions point to the fact that blogging is potentially more adapatable – although there is a definite me/us bias across the two technologies, blogging accomodates social networking more readily than message boards accommodate construction of individuated prescence.

This reminds me of the discussion at Blogtalk Downunder about comments: a number of people, but primarily Mark Bernstein, made the point that comments are not the real facilitator of dialogue, they can in fact be quite destructive and often are trivial. The real communicative element of the blogsphere – what Fiedler calls the "robust" nature of blog newtorks – lies in the linked communication that occurs between blogs.

Blog Talk: Sebastian Fieldler

Sebastian Fieldler in the final keynote contrasted two ideas: innovation/revolution and renaissance.

He noted Carl Bereiter’s work that innovations in education are often taken up with great enthusiasm but that most often they do not tgake root, they are not sustained because the resources and frameworks are not built or made available.

He contrasted this with Douglas Rushkoff’s notion of a renaissance as a “recontextualisation” Rushkoff writes:

I prefer to think of the proliferation of interactive media as an opportunity for renaissance: a moment when we have the opportunity to step out of the story, altogether. Renaissances are historical instances of widespread recontextualization. People in a variety of different arts, philosophies, and sciences have the ability to reframe their reality. Quite literally, renaissance means “rebirth.” It is the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. A renaissance is a dimensional leap, when our perspective shifts so dramatically that our understanding of the oldest, most fundamental elements of existence changes.

Blogs wikis web feeds are a “reconquista” of the web built over the static web. It is a reinvigoration of the early internet pioneers of the two way web. Now the prototypical tools are authoring or networking tools not just browsing tools.

But there are still problems in the educational domain:

  • We are focusing on introducing novices to blogs but not documenting onging long term usage
  • We are attempting to squeeze blogging into existing educational practices
  • Educational blogging rarely transcends temporal (semester) boundaries of educational institutions.

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BlogTalk Downudner: Conversation and reflection

Ian McColl from UQ gave a very interesting paper on blogging in their studio based IT design course.

Lots of interesting things about studio practice (the architecture model) that could have relevance to a journalism course.

The studio stream is the defining feature of the two degrees, and students complete a studio course each semester with similar characteristics to those outlined above for Kapor’s course. There are two temporal cycles that operate through our degrees: one within each year, and the other through the three years of the degrees. Generally speaking, first semester studios (Studios 1, 3 and 5) are more divergent, emphasising designing and conceptualising, while second semester studios (Studios 2, 4 and 6) tend to be more convergent, emphasising building and resolving. There is also a progression through the years of the degree: first-year studios tend to focus on single-machine, screen-based work, second-year studios focus on distributed non-screen-based work, and third-year studios focus on socially-based work with opportunities for student-generated and student-selected projects working with academic and/or industry advisors.

Good stuff on “converstaion” from Fiedler and Schon:

Fiedler is concerned with externalising the learner’s internal conversation, and formalising the learner’s external conversation with a learning coach. In the studio process, the conversations are between the participants in the process (Schön 1987), and also between individual and groups of participants and the materials of the design (Schön 1992).

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Blogtalk Downunder

For various reasons I haven’t posted here for a while but I have been busy preparing a paper for Blogtalk Downunder our first homegrown blogger confest. My abstract is below, readers of this blog will recognise some of the thoughts from previous postings!

Much of the published discussion and research on blogs and teaching and learning in higher education focuses on evaluation of blogging as a communicative technique. This type of discussion largely assumes that successful integration of blogging into course delivery should be judged against a pre-existing and unchallenged pedagogical model. This paper argues that to leverage its full educational potential blogging must be understood not just as an isolated phenomena, but as part of a broad palette of “cybercultural” practices which provide us with both new ways of doing and new ways of thinking. The paper looks at the ways broader theoretical models associated with the development of the blogsphere might challenge or enhance current theories of teaching and learning. Spatial metaphors inherent in network models of blogging will be contrasted with the surface/depth model of student learning. The paper will argue that blogs should not be seen merely as a technological tool for teaching and learning but as a situated practice that must be brought into appropriate alignment with particular pedagogical and disciplinary practices. A model of blogging as a networked approach to learning suggests that blogging might achieve best results across the curriculum not through isolated use in individual units.

I draw on lots of wonderful work by other people but I found Martin Jacobsen’s notion of “cyberdiscursivity very useful as a way of drawing out some of the new dimensions of blogging as a practice situated within a wider cyberculture. Here’s the key quote from Jacobsen:

Where oral rhetoric is embodied and literacy is disembodied, a cyberdiscursive rhetoric is virtual, characterized by remotely centred interactivity and instantaneousness…the concrete rhetoric of orality and abstract rhetoric of literacy become dynamic in cyberdiscursivity via the continuous, productive nature created by virtuality and user agency…oral rhetoric’s aggregative structure and literacy’s hierarchical structure give way to an emergent structure in CMC, pieced together by a user who does not recognize a structure until it develops before her through a random choice of fragments which seldom, if ever, remain cohesive, and which usually become impossible to trace…the communal nature of oral rhetoric and the individual nature of literacy move toward an idiosyncratic rhetoric in which reader/user agency transforms the textual experience into an epistemologically challenging game which shatters rules as basic to print texts as one word following another.

I was led to Jacobsen from Ulises A. Mejias’ excelent paper on online discourse

If you are interested in reading the whole paper download this pdf

Aggregation

James Farmer posts an interesting comment about Steve Krause’s When Blogging Goes Bad: A Cautionary Tale About Blogs, Emailing Lists, Discussion, and Interaction. Krause concludes that email lists were a more efficient and direct way of encouraging discussion in his class. This was largely the product of the directness of the “in-box” contact. Farmer makes the critical point:

Blogs can be like email too though (and much more effective in many ways) through aggregation and I think that had, for example, a combination of the public aggregator facility in Drupal been used alongside individual aggregators like Bloglines then things might have turned out very differently.

Of course, people might not have used them (aggregators are hardly ubiquitous) but had they been used, even in very small numbers, I think that the results of his experiment might have been quite different. Blogging without aggregation is pointless (and I might also say that aggregation without blogging is equally lost…)

I’ve been having some discussions about using blogs at UTS and the usual advice is use Blogger. But it seems to me this is using about 30% of the potential of blogs. Firstly Blogger doesn’t easily accommodate categories and so you loose part of the knowledge management function. Secondly they do not easily aggregate (you could use Bloglines but I think this is clumsy) so you loose the community of practice aspect of blogging.

As Lilia Efimova and Aldo de Moor have recently pointed out in a very interesting analysis of weblog conversations:

Unlike other tools that support conversations, weblogs provide their authors with a personal space simultaneously with a community space. As a result, at any given time a blogger is involved in two types of conversations: (1) conversations with self and (2) conversations with others.

In the simplest case, a weblog post is fully and only embedded into “a conversation with self”, a personal narrative used to articulate and to organise one’s own thinking. A single blogger could have several of such conversations simultaneously, returning to ideas over time. Next, each of the posts can trigger a conversation with others that can take several rounds of discussions as well.

While in an active blogging community this communal conversation flows backwards and forwards between individual blogs in a course context, particularly with students using blogs for the first time, a series of individual blogs which aggregate to a common front page would assist the development of both conversations.

This also points to the advantage that blogs have over Blackboard threaded discussion. It could be argued that this facilitates better communal conversation. However there is really no sense of a developing personal publication in a series of scattered discussion posts.

Academic blogging

Two very interesting posts, each with lots of comments, over at Crooked Timber (here and here) on academic blogging and its relationship to tenure processes, publications etc.

Eszter began the discussion with a post pointing to similarities with traditional academic journal publishing:

one extremely important component of the journal publishing process is very much present on blogs (or can be): the peer review process (this claim is in direct contrast with Brian Leiter’s assertion a while back). Blogs that allow comments make it possible for others to discuss the posted material. In many ways this is much more conducive to intellectual exchange and the advancement of knowledge than publishing articles in journals that no one will ever read. Not only is the original post available to all subsequent readers but so are the reactions of others.

John Quiggin and others prefer the analogy to op-ed pieces and small magazines:

Posts are like short versions of opinion pieces or contributions to magazines like The New Republic or, in Australia, Quadrant and Eureka Street. As was noted by some earlier commentators, blogs have pretty much captured the territory occupied by these magazines, to the extent that quite a few have responded by establishing their own blogs.

In the numerous comments in both posts (aside: in posts like these with lots of detailed comments it is not possible to hyperlink directly to comments as the comments don’t have permalinks, interesting point for future programers) a range of other analogies are evoked:

- personal blogs should be considered as a whole in the same way that new “courses” rather than individual “lectures” are counted as academic development.

- blogs should be counted as service to the academic and wider community

- blogs are more similar and often more related to teaching than to research

- blogs are similar to the discussions that have been happening for 20 years on email lists and usenet

- blogs are similar to conference panels or participation in academic seminars

- blogs are similar to the London coffee house phenomenon or American pamphleteering (interestingly no one directly invoked Habermas)

Both posts and all the comments are very interesting and worth a read. They point to the fact that we are currently at a critical transitional point in the emergence of academic blogging. Several commentators make the point that blogging will gain more academic credibility once more senior academics become involved in blogging or alternatively once more bloggers become senior academics.

David Tuft, a business academic (commenting in Eszter’s thread) makes a fascinating point on the idea of institutional “readiness” for the blogging revolution:

I know that my blog is academically useful. Microsoft (and others) have announced that they know that the blogs written inside their organizations are important. Universities need to figure this out. This will happen eventually, but probably not until there are more bloggers on tenure committees, and applicants with blogs.

Jonathan Dresner (in the Quiggin thread) also makes an interesting point about blogging as an indication of technological competence and engagement:

One more thought on why it matters now that blogging be listed on c.v.’s: the incessant calls for scholars and teachers to use “technology” as a teaching tool. The ability to write a post with hyperlinks is not a terribly significant one in itself, but it signifies an awareness and engagement with innovative (ok, fashionable) technology with educational implications.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, John Holbo, (in Eszter’s thread) begins a discussion of using blogs as a part of academic journal websites:

Having an academic journal with its own blog has obvious functional prospects, it seems to me. Especially if it is a journal that nobody notices right now. Also, you can sponsor discussions of all the articles in each issue as it comes out. And it would be easier to claim a kind of ‘service’ credit (I agree with Brian that we can use that label, if we must use one of the old ones). Being the blogger for a journal would be like being an editor for a journal. Worth something. And if you did long pieces, helped people find their way to the good stuff, you could plausibly claim to be more than an editor, and eventually everyone would get used to that.

Holbo also suggests that this kind of blog could assist in redefining academic discussion and even move the “reputational economy” in fields or sub-fields which are new or in some kind of crisis/transition.

He also rightly suggests that blogs are not just like papers/service/lectures etc they are something specific in their own right:

But the fact is: blogs are not really equivalent to anything but themselves. And we should avoid falling into the trap of looking like we are sureptitiously equating them what they are not when really we are saying: hey, they are good. So they should count.

Encouraging Discussion On Blogs

Another good practical tip from Charlie Lowe

Try blog discussion leaders. I do a lot of group work, so one approach has been to have each group responsible for posting to the class blog at a different time. Perhaps in response to an assigned reading, or a reading of their choosing. If class is on Wednesday, I would have each group member post a blog by noon on Tuesday. Then everyone, including those that posted originally, is repsonsible for posting so many comments by class time. This begins the conversation outside of class. As the teacher, I respond with just a few comments. Some directly to the original weblog. Some in response to a comment.

This is a similar model to what I have done with discussion boards, but I think blogs may facilitate this more because someone can scan the different posts, rather than just forum topics, and choose which to respond to.

Grab-bag

An interesting grab bag of links and thoughts from a morning of blog surfing:Interesting quote about authorship as the “unfolding action of a discourse” posted by Clancy Ratliff in an abstract she’s submitting to a conference:

Lunsford (1999) takes up these critiques of authorship and calls for new ways of thinking “a view of agency as residing in what Susan West defines as the “unfolding action of a discourse; in the knowing and telling of the attentive rhetor/responder rather than in static original ideas” (as cited in Lunsford, 1999, p. 185-186). Lunsford argues for “owning up” rather than owning, agency in “answerability,” and a view of self as always in relation to others.This presenter will bring these ideas to bear on weblogging communities and practices.

Dana Boyd posts about a young Live Journal user being visited by the secret service after posting a satirical anti-Bush post. anniesj, the LJ user posts a very detailed a thoughtful description of the incident on her journal page.It appears that she was dobbed into the FBI by another Live Journal user. So much for the solidarity of the blogsphere.Boyd goes on to note the difficulties in notions such as sousveillance (surveillance from below):

People often ask me why i’m opposed to sousveillance. I believe that giving everyone the right to surveillance will not challenge those in power who have such ability. I believe that it will legitimize them. Furthermore, i believe that people will use the power of surveillance to maintain the status quo. Worse, i believe that it will be used to create more hate, distrust and fear. Sousveillance in the hands of the masses will not be used to challenge authority because most people believe in the legitimacy of that authority, whether it be corporations or the government.

Good post on the need for “conceptual clarification” in fields like education by Sebastian Fiedler at seblogging:

In my humble opinion fields that deal with human affairs like education, often benefit more from thorough conceptual analysis than empirical studies, especially if the latter are simply trying to simulate natural science methodology.

The push for empirical evaluation of teaching and learning seems to be matched by what Fiedler would call foggy concepts. The classic case is the deep versus surface learning model that is supposedly validated by years of study. Yet I think if you analyse a lot of the stuff based on this concept it translates to nothing more than foggy good versus foggy bad learning.If you look at the basic attributes of the model as presented in tables like this one you will see that it is a model which is neither conceptually cohesive or pedagogically useful. The attributes on both sides of the table move dramatically from strategic learning choices (memorisation of facts/looking for patterns) to underlying attitudes (see little relevance in course/becoming interested in course). It’s a psychological model that has no material basis and doesn’t stop to ask what else might be going on in student’s lives that cause them to see/look for relevance/interest in their courses (for example!)Stephen Downes points to this brilliant journalism education project. I-elect is an integrated web/print/broadcast election coverage project put together by the journalism students at University of Illinois. What makes it particularly interesting is that the election is covered from the point of view of college students and it includes a survey commissioned by the team.

I-ELECT is a multimedia political reporting project in conjunction with the University of Illinois College of Communications. The project was undertaken by students in a journalism class and has been overseen by Department of Journalism faculty.The group of students organized in a newsroom to produce print, online and broadcast products. The group also conducted a scientific survey to drive its reporting. The idea behind the project for students practicing journalism convergence, a skill that is becoming more necessary by the day. The Daily Illini, WPGU-FM 107.1, WILL-AM 580 and others have assisted with the project.

This seems to me to be a really interesting journalism education project because it involves- practical implementation of skills learned- it is student self directed- the reporting is to a specific audience- it is produced through multimedia- it uses a range of different journalism tools from poll data to human interest stories- it aims to have real-time impact through distribution in the university community- it could then become a model for reflective self evaluation and theory/practice discussions

Blogging as associative thinking

Clancy Ratliff makes a succinct response to some of the issues raised in the Kairosnews discussion I mentioned yesterday:

If your objective is to create a learning community, weblogs can help you achieve it by giving students a space to share their writing with other students in the class, who have the opportunity to leave comments under their classmates’ posts. Weblogs are also a powerful tool for teaching students about writing for an audience, as they are public, and they reach an audience of not only the teacher and the other students in the class, but also readers outside the class who leave comments.

If your objective is to help students synthesize information and make connections through writing, weblogs can help you meet this objective by allowing students to take advantage of the Web. Weblog software makes it easy for students to create content for the Web without knowing much HTML, find online articles related to topics discussed in class, and share them easily with other students. In my experience, blogging encourages associative thinking.

She also has a good list of resource papers and some questions for further discussion such as the relative advantages of having students keep individual blogs v. one community blog for the class, issues of privacy and issues of forced (assessed) versus optional blogging.

Blogs as process not solution

I’ve been following the interesting comments on a post over at kairosnews about “falling out of love with blogging“.

I have discovered that my honeymoon with blogs is over, mostly because there really is no room for spirited interaction between my students and myself in the blogs. Yes, I can require that they respond to another person’s blog, but one student said that, compared to a discussion forum, leaving responses to blogs felt more like leaving a note for someone who is out. The discussion forum, she said, felt more like an ongoing conversation which was more fun.

It generated quite a bit of discussion with people saying they were relieved to be able to suddenly discuss their doubts about blogging in education. The complaints from teachers seem to be:

– blogs are not good tools for facilitating discussion
– students find the technological hurdles an unhelpful barrier
– assigned blogging ends up being forced writing
– blogs focus on the personal and can be “an unwholesome celebration of one’s ego”

It seems to me that any of these complaints could probably be made against any other technology such as discussion boards. And there has been a similar discussion going on at Just Tenured about the difficulties of getting some student’s involved on discussion boards.

I think Charlie Lowe’s comment gets to the heart of the issue when he points out that there are at least three aspects to blogging that make it an interesting tool:

– the personal mode
– the knowledge management mode
– the community/social mode

The real challenge for edublogging, it seems to me, is to find ways that encourage students to make use of blogs in an integrated way which takes account of these different modes. It is at that point that blogging becomes a really interesting tool that has particular pedagogical impact because, used in this way, it begins to provide a technological scaffolding for an integrated method of practice.

In another post and series of comments metaspencer, myself and others have been discussing what he calls the visual rhetoric of blog “hotspots” or the indexical elements that indicate blog “validity” and/or “affiliation”. These indexical elements may be as simple as the date header, which immediately tells you something about the freshness of the blog. Others include:

* links
* comments and track-backs show reaction and connectedness
* number of visits
* the archive, which dates the blog and signals longevity or “experience”
* the blogroll: “who does this blogger hang with/aspire to connect with”
* the sidebar links functioning to contextualize “the writer and their position in the blogosphere”
* listed categories as scannable text that then maps linkable content
* and then there is the site’s name and tagline working to locate attitude
* RSS feed –
* author names – In a weblog billed as a community blog
* Foaf document
* url: does the blogger “own” the address? What’s the domain category, country code?

All these may seem like they are surface elements to a blog but they are actually critical elements in defining the feel, purpose and functionality of the blog. Blogging becomes a central part of the course philosophy not just a method fro completing an assignment, it becomes a way to talk about the way we learn, the way we write, the way we interact as a learning community and the way we develop a personal learning archive.

If teachers are finding it difficult to get students to become involved in blog basics it may seem like a tall order to get them to think about all these other elements. But maybe not. If we help students explore the full functionality of blogs maybe some of the problems disappear. Functioning RSS feeds to an aggregator might immediately help increase the communal aspect of class blogging by providing an easy form of access to each other’s blogs, functioning categories and effective sidebar link lists immediately open up aspects of the knowledge management mode.

Also if we foreground the different aspects of personal expression, group interaction and knowledge management, we are given an opportunity to foreground a pedagogical framework and assist students to become more self reflective learners.

In an old but still very relevant set of postings on blogging in the class room James McGee suggests that there are four aspects of blogging:

There are four hurdles to pass to move from willing volunteer to competent blogger: learning the technology environment, developing an initial view of blogging, plugging into the conversation, and developing a voice. These are not so much discrete phases as they are parallel tracks that can be managed.

I think that teachers often focus on the last two aspects without due attention to the first two.

It seems to me that it is an exciting time, we have passed the initial euphoria of blogs as a solution and we can now start focusing on them as part of a larger process.

Why academics blog.

Came across (via Pink Flamingo’s wonderful links page) a great set of reflections on Crooked Timber in response to a post asking why academics blog. The responses reflect the diverse satisfactions and uses of blogging.

Timothy Burke reflects on being a public intellectual through bogging and trying out experimental forms of scholarly publishing:

I try to do several things, not all of which are related to my scholarship. One, just be a “public intellectual”, e.g., someone interested in many things, willing to write about them in a communicative manner, and knowing that most of what I have to say is relatively ephemeral and unpublishable. Two, I do try to do some things that involve publishing scholarly material of various kinds; I’m about to try and start a new format of book commentaries, for example.

While Brian Weatherson reflects on a more mundane motivation:

In my case it was less because I was particularly motivated by some positive ideal, but more because I was in a writing rut and thought trying to write up 1000-1500 word notes on things I’d been reading might be a good way to get started writing again.

Matt Weiner and a number of others talk of using blogs as “pre-scholarship—I’d like to rework a lot of the ideas for publication sometime, and the blog posts are first drafts.”

One of the interesting things is that a number of the academics who responded write about a process of the blog starting out as one thing and becoming something else. Laura writes:

I had a lot of extra ideas kicking around and I needed to purge them. I never expected anybody to read it. It was mostly just to entertain a couple of close friends. Nine months later, I am still at it, because I have stumbled into a virtual community, and it’s good conversation. I’ve gotten good feedback. Actually, I’m a bit obsessed. I find myself writing my posts in my head during the day, and later running to the computer to dump the brain.

I think that one of the interesting things about blogging is that it is such a flexible form but it is a form. We can grow into the type of blog that suits us but there are other models to guide us through our contacts in the blogsphere, through the energy that happens in that contact. This is in a sense Ricouer’s notion of narrative identity as self actualised through relation with other selves, which is not about a dispersal of selfhood but the measure of its self constancy. Our story measured against the stories of others.

Cyber literacy

Another advantage of the ongoing course blog is that it really foregrounds both blog literacy and wider cyber-literacy as an important ongoing course objective.

One of the aims of using blogs in educational settings must actually be about the process itself, in some sense all education is about both content and process and all educational technologies (from face to face to computer mediated) are about learning to learn.

In the same way that one of the aims of encouraging good essay writing is about helping students to develop expressive skills that they will apply in a range of different ways in a professional or personal context, one of the aims of blogging ought to be to encourage cyber-literacy and an understanding of the ecology of the link in a networked society.

This is particularly important for journalism students. All forms of major media now have online presences and future journalists will need to be increasingly cyber-literate. Many traditional media forms are also specifically incorporating blogs, so skills in this form will advantage students in their future practice. (For an interesting and humorous take on blogs as the future of journalism check out John Hiler’s, Borg Journalism: We are the Blogs. Journalism will be Assimilated.)

Even if, as future journalists, they are never called upon to write “blog journalism”, the internet research skills and practice of assessing, organising and archiving internet information sources, essential to good blogging, are also now essential to good journalism.

But this is not just restricted to journalism students, blogs, wikkis and intranet sites are also fast becoming part of good business practice in a range of situations and students from all sorts of disciplines will need to know how to operate convincingly in these virtual work environments.

Course blogs or subject blogs?

Thinking about some of the issues I raised about the WHAT of blogs, and thinking about how blogs might be best used in journalism education, specifically how they might be used in our course at UTS, I am becoming increasingly convinced that blogs used across classes over the duration of a degree course may provide a very interesting way forward.

If students were encouraged to establish a blog at the beginning of their course and continued to use it to post research notes, stories and reflections throughout their three year degree this would become a unique and powerful teaching and learning tool. The blog would evolve together with (and record) the student’s learning and practice experience. Then both the WHAT and the HOW of blogs becomes easier to analyse.

* Students grow into blogging and gradually figure out WHAT it is best for them to blog and how;
* Connections in the course blogsphere develop organically over time;
* It becomes a metalearning tool that allows students to make connections across subjects;
* It has the potential to contribute to a department wide sense of learning community.

For journalism students this approach has particular advantages:

* It encourages the habit of writing;
* It provides a personal publication space over which they have journalistic control;
* It provides an immediate portfolio of work for future job hunting;
* It provides a single space which links the practice based elements of the course and the theory based units

One of the particular advantages of an ongoing course blog, as opposed to a time specific subject blog, is that it takes better advantage of the blog form – a form of research and publication that is episodic, cumulative and open-ended. But it can also provide a place to house certain projects and more “finished” pieces of work. Thus it offers unique opportunities that are not usually provided by traditional forms of essay writing and other assessed work.

If conceived in this way, as a personal course archive, then other differences with traditional CMS tools such as threaded discussions also come into focus. The discussion that occurs on a class discussion board has no permanent archival value, it is by nature ephemeral and is perhaps valued by students as such. However if they conceive of their posts as part of a permanent archive which interacts with the permanent archive of other students perhaps this will lead to their valuing the discussion in new and different ways. What the effect of this might be, of course, is unknown but it seems reasonable to hypothesise that this may well lead to a greater sense of ownership and involvement in the generation of ideas.

There are a whole range of interface issues that would need to be worked out – how permanent individual blogs might be linked in to aggregating class front pages for example – but I am sure there are nifty technical solutions.

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?

Blogs versus CMS

Fascinating post from John Kruper’s The electric lyceum blog about relative advantages of blogs and CMSs like Blackboard. He makes the point that blogging as a course management tool actually represents a major paradigm shift:

And so we see why educators are so excited by blogs. For the first time, they have an easy-to-use tool that provides them and their students an authentic voice in the online classroom previously dominated by syllabi and class notes. And equally important, this newfound voice isn’t a glued-on afterthought one finds by jumping out to the “class bulletin board,” but rather is an equal citizen to the professor’s powerpoint slide, word document, and other forms of traditional “course content.” What on one had sounds insanely trivial is in fact a paradigm shift in online learning environments: blogs empower students to be co-publishers of the course and to easily comment on, react to, and debate any (teacher or student) contributed element.

However the traditional systems like Blackboard are much better at easily managing courses and the co-ordination aspects on line learning processes, ie. providing course information, integrated email lists etc.

With the rising buzz about blogs in education they will probably be introduced as an add on to traditional CMS software at some time in the not too distant future. However for the moment dual occupancy seems the way to go: handling admin matters in Blackboard, which provides the course interface across all university courses, and blogs as the primary learning environment because of its flexibility and student focus.

More blog research

One study, by Jeremy Williams and Joanne Jacobs, which does provide an empirical evaluation of blogs as a learning experience comes from the MBA program at the Brisbane Graduate School of Management in Queensland. The results are general but quite encouraging. In the six week course students in the course were encouraged to participate in a class blog. Although it was optional five “meaningful” posts in the six week period earned five marks for the course. About half the students in the course participated in an online survey. About half of those who responded (24) indicated they had not taken part in the blog. The major reasons were “For the marks available, it wasn’t worth the effort.” (33%) and “I would have liked to participate, but I wasn’t sure I’d have anything valuable to contribute.”

Of those who did contribute (27) the response was very positive: “some two thirds of blog participants either agreeing or strongly agreeing that the MBA blog assisted their learning (only 12% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing).”

On interactivity: There was stronger endorsement for the view that the MBA Blog increased student interactivity, some 77% of students either agreeing or strongly agreeing that the MBA blog increased the level of meaningful intellectual exchange between students (only 3% or one person disagreeing with this statement).

Even more encouragingly 69% of the students said they would participate in a class blog again even if it had no marks attached. 57% said blogs should be used in all or most MBA units and a further 37% said they should be used in some.

I think some of the student comments are even more interesting than the numerical data:

‘Even though at first people were afraid to take the risk and blog, I found it a good way to discuss concepts and participate in further discussion. It also allowed the sharing of up-todate information that would not have been possible in lecture time.’

‘I spent time prior to each blog constructing an entry. To do that I did need to have a good understanding of what I wanted to blog about. I also spent time reading and considering the blogs of other students and found their comments and perspectives thought provoking.’

‘Students could put forth their ideas on topics after a little thought. The only other avenue available most of the time is in-class comments, for which you do not have much time to really think about them in detail. When new to a subject, the extra thought time that blogging provides can really help students sort through some of the issues in our own head, before providing them for all to see.’

These students are full-paying MBA students doing an intensive six week course so they are likely to be fairly highly motivated learners. But I think the comments are interesting in that they indicate that blogs can provide a new and different mode of reflective learning that is different to class discussion or private assignments.

Some of the dynamics of this “learning space” emerging from the student comments include,

- it provides up-to-date, real time commentary on a week to week basis

- participants need to take a “risk” to really become involved

- it encourages focused thinking in that participants feel they have to think about what they want to say before making their comments public

- reading and thinking about other contributions is as important as posting comments

- it encourages extra “thought-time”

Download paper here: Exploring the Use of Blogs as Learning Spaces in the Higher Education Sector

Blogging as research

From Jill Walker who togethr with Torill Mortensen has developed blogonblog as a research project since 2001:

Traditionally, research and publication have been kept separate. Research blogs are not a final product but an indexical sign of the research process itself.

A blog is published continuously, systematising information chronologically. Dissertations and other forms of research publication is ideally thematically organised, or based on causality. While the actual research is bound by the passage of time, thought processes cross from topic to topic. Blogs are a technique for revealing these process, while allowing greater searchability and openness than a conventional research diary.

Blogs are a new and as yet untheorised phenonomen. They question traditional boundaries between academia and the general public, allowing the researcher to be seen as an individual rather than as a distant authority. Blogs encourage linking and clusters of related blogs tend to evolve, often producing a cross-linked discussions including both academic and non-academic blogs. Unlike edited books and peer-reviewed articles, blogs are personal and reveal the searching and uncertainty of the research process.

download a conference paper on these issues by Mortensen-Walker.pdf

Information and more papers from the conference

Another discovery

I found another more recent teaching site for one of Adrian Miles’ classes in Network Media. This class seems to working very well with many students producing interesting weblogs.

This post is a very interesting example of Miles assessment notes with links to the student sites and how students in this course combines site construction and a related online academic essay.

He also links to Into the Blogsphere a collection of commissioned/reviewed academic essays on blogs which look fascinating. All set up as a blog with a comment function for each essay. Can’t wait to take a deeper look at some of these essays.

Reflective Practice/Theory

Tanja’s comments about “theorising” our educational blogging practice raise some interesting questions:

It seems that there are tips and techniques, and descriptions about blogging – I guess I’m interested in hearing about how this field of blogging and journalism education (and practice) is being theorised? Are there any empirical studies that have been done (perhaps where a particular development has been tested to see what happens) and then analysed? in the field of journalism, are theories just being applied or are they being tested to see if they hold up – am just interested in how theories in a particular field might also be generated as new technologies become available to do and think about things we may not have before

Let me unpack this a little as I see it:

tips and techniques, and descriptions: yes these abound and there are now many places to go for practical help. But because the field is still young sometimes it is in working out the technique that we begin to theorise.

theorising the field: I think this is beginning to be done. Certainly there is theorising about online learning and networked learning – Tanja’s own reference to the marvelous notion of “learning swarms” is a wonderful example of this. Certainly there is the beginning of theories about blogs in higher ed and about blogs in journalism. All this needs to be brought together more clearly in regard to blogs in journalism education.

empirical studies, testing and analysing how theory (practice?) holds up: in a traditional sense, as far as I can find, there is almost none of this. However I would make an argument for projects like this blog as a different kind of empirical research.

Blogging is linked, cumulative, open-ended research. It is grounded in our empirical experience of writing and reading, linking and surfing, thinking and responding. It is action research, grounded theory.

Sites like edublog are marvelous examples of a deeply reflective mix of open-ended theroising about online teaching practice.

Sometimes with a very practical bent:

We also talked about the strangeness of making assignments in a blogging course. I want people to leave the course more skillful and confident as researchers, having built a lively and substantial site that is of real service to others, and made up of well-crafted sentences and paragraphs reflecting a good command over the choices a writer faces line by line. So, what should be assigned for Monday, then? Write anything you want? Yes and no, I’d say. A week of wandering among possible topics and interesting sources might be just the thing for one student to be doing right now, as she starts to come to a focus for her inquiry, while another student might need to be attending to the particulars of a theory that animates a field, in order to build a vocabulary for the writing to come. It’s hard to say with confidence that everybody ought to be doing the same thing, so we’re trying an experiment: I’m asking everyone to make their own decisions about content and quantity of writing for the week, knowing that quality is the main short-term goal and that those things above are the long-term goals. We’ll talk over how that went on Wednesday.

Other times from a more explicitly theoretical perspective:

So maybe here’s my point: blogging is not democratic only because it gives each person a place to publish — it is also democratic because it is a body of practices that help each person invent something worth reading. It is as if freedom of speech is not valuable only or even mainly for its freedom, but rather it is valuable for the social practices that it helps a society cultivate, for the internal and social work it helps individuals do, and for the quality of the speech that results from those things. Not to mention the quality of listening.

Student weblog

Here is an excerpt from one Melbourne student’s blog that seems to indicate that blogging can challenge students to new ways of learning.

As part of my journalism course I did Hypertext Theory and Practice, which was the basis for om_blog. This subject was a turning point for me because it introduced the learning theories behind blogging – that the ongoing nature of a blog relates to the process, rather than the outcome or product. We had to maintain a blog community in our class and create a hypertext in Storyspace. I know that most of us found it a challenge because the learning methods were radical to what we had been use to. But the real appeal for me was the idea that we could use an exploratory model rather than a conclusive one. 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.

Although it worked for this student a quick look through some of the other blogs on the site would indicate that the take up wasn’t great and a number of the students seemed to be just going through the motions.

Adrian Miles the teacher for this course keeps a regular blog and reflects here about assessing student blogs

The idea of establishing an “assessment matrix” is a good one.

An assessment matrix is provided that indicates the sorts of qualities an entry ought to have for each grade level (a high distinction entry would have qualities that …) and a self assessment exercise is held where all students are able to evaluate a nominated entry against this matrix. This lets students concretise the grades in relation to their own work and demystifies what good, poor, and excellent work is

Empirical research and theory

Tanja raises the question of the interconnection and difference between theory, practice, empirical outcomes research and tips in the work on blogging and education. Four blog scholars recently began a discussion on some of these issues. But as the excerpt below indicates this discussion is still in its infancy.

OJR article: Scholars Discover Weblogs Pass Test as Mode of Communication

The blogologists admit that their research is only just beginning. OK, they’re not looking for a cure for cancer, but it would be nice to quantify just how much of an effect blogs are having. Trammell, whose doctoral thesis at the University of Florida was on blogs (yes, she’s a doctor of blogs), says that there haven’t been any breakthrough moments yet for researchers.

“At this point there has been so little published research in the academic journals,” she told me via e-mail. “Most of the research that is readily available (Perseus, Pew Internet) is important, but atheoretical. It gives a good pulse of the average blogger, but not much more. I think we are on the cusp of an exciting time where the theoretical research of blogs will begin to emerge. Now that we have explained blogs and understand them, we can start to make predictions and see how blogs fit into theories and compare to other ways of communicating.”

Blog Research and References

A great list of Blog Research and References compiled by Kaye Tramell who has a blog here and also teaches a course on blogging and online journalism at the University of Florida which has an interesting site and blog. Student’s create and maintain their own blog and contribute to a class blog. She emphasises that “students will not only report through the Web, but report on online society as well. ” This again points to the way blogging in journalism education can provide an integrated model of theory and practice.

Blogging and J-Ed

A recent project at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism shows the potential of blogging in journalism education. Their Presidential Reporting Project blog covers the current US presidential campaign. It includes recent posts by students blogging from the Republican convention in New York. They have produced a range of reports on the blog that would be recognised across the spectrum of news, features and commentary as well as using blogging’s linked based features. However they didn’t just stop there.

They established a second blog to help them reflect on what they were learning from the project. This second blog looks particularly at the lessons of integrating new mobile blogging technology, such as sending pictures from your phone direct to your blog. This blog is an interesting mix of process reflection and practical tips.

This integrated project shows two aspects of how blogs could be used in journalism courses:

Action learning – using blogs as a publication site to hone reporting and writing skills.

Research and reflection – using blogs to reflect on the processes and technology of journalism.

One of the things we are fond of saying as journalism educators is that we aim to integrate theory and practice. It seems to me that blogging provides an excellent form for this integrated practice. It is a form of published writing so it encourages students to hone their writing, communicative and research skills but the journal form also encourages a reflective openness.

Berkely has been experimenting with blogs for a while and received quite a bit of news coverage when they first began to “teach blogging”.

Weblogs and Discourse

Oliver Wrede provides a really excellent framework for thinking about weblogs in higher ed in this detailed conference paper.

He begins be emphasising that blogs create a particular form of authorship:

Weblogs are not special because of their technology but because of the practice and authorship they shape. And it is a practice that will require a weblog author to be connected to processes, discourses and communities.

He goes on to specifiy this:

Weblogs combine two oppositional principles: monologue and dialogue. A reaction to a statement is not only directed to the sender but also to unknown readers. Very often the weblogger gets feedback from unexpected source: new relations and contexts emerge. This (assumed) undirected communication developes to an open and involving activity.

Weblogs not only enable interaction with other webloggers, they offer a way to engage in a discoursive exchange with the author’s self (intrapersonal conversation). A weblog becomes an active partner in communication, because it demands consistent criteria for what will be posted to a weblog (and how). This »indirect monologic dialog« of weblogs allow to conduct communicative acts that otherwise would only be possible in very particular circumstances.

The whole paper is really worth a read and I will come back to it.

Web poaching: an approach to learning

My experience with this blog has led me back to some reflections on approaches to learning. The reigning deep versus surface paradigm worries me for several reasons.

Firstly I don’t like the essentialism inherent in the metaphors. It sounds too much like saying: good and bad learning or real and false learning. Similarly dividing approaches to learning up into two competing paradigms buys into the type of dichotomous thinking that leads to what these critics themselves would label “surface” learning. I know the research is pretty buoyant across studies but with the broad sweep of their terms I suspect it might be a case of seek and ye shall find. But thats another story…

I think a range of other terms used in tandem and in combination provide a richer way forward: connected learning, interactive learning, meaning-making approaches, focused learning, rote learning, memorisation, atomistic learning, assessment-focused learning etc.

In a simple sense blogging could be seen as encouraging a “surface” approach to learning, in that it entails fast skating across the surface of the web. And there is a sense in which it is still not regarded as a serious learning project by many for this very reason. However my recent experience would suggest that it can provide a very focused, meaning-mapping experience of learning.

1. It is continuous and cumulative – the blogger commits to post over a period of time.

2. It is transparent – it is not committing to get it right all at once.

3. It is reflective.

4. With linking as its heart and soul it creates networks of connected ideas – it is focused but interdisciplinary.

5. It creates a learning environment – the sidebars create a context for continuing expansion of the project

6 It is interactive and invites commentary from others.

7. It creates subjective and personalised maps of meaning but always measures these against the work of others.

If I had to choose some kind of metaphor for this approach to learning I might use Michel de Certeau’s notion of the reader as a nomadic “poacher” (Practices of Everyday Life: 174). gathering up meaning from the fields of others. Interestingly in this analogy de Certeau is contrasting “accumulative” writing with the more fluid process of reading.

Writing accumulates, stocks up, resists time by the establishment of a place and multiplies its production through the expansionism of reproduction. Reading takes no measures against the erosion of time (one forgets oneself and also forgets), it does not keep what it acquires, or it does so poorly, and each of the places through which it passes is a repetition of the lost paradise.

In a way blogging brings together these economies of reading and writing.

Staying up way too late as a research method

I got quite carried away with this project, chasing down leads on blogging and ended up leap frogging from one site to another into the early hours of the morning.

It’s an interesting but cautionary tale. We all know how easy it is to get lost in either our email or web-surfing, I suspect blogging can become an extreme version of that. But at another level it has left my head buzzing with a range of interesting ideas and practical leads.

In this post I’ll give an idea of the range of thought and practices that I came across. I will use some of this for more detailed reflection later.

I discovered that academic blogging is a very hot issue at the moment and that there are many very different approaches to academic blogging.

First there are the personal blogg journals of individual academics. There’s an interesting list of some of these here.

Here’s an excerpt from Professor Dyke who describes her blogg this way: “A Writer and Professor Talks Smack About Writing, Publishing, Teaching, Misadventures on the Tenure Track, and the Perils of Being the Only Single, Non-Student Dyke in Smalltown-Collegeville (a.k.a. Bumfuck-Egypt) U.S.A.” As you might imagine from that its a quirky take on everyday life. Here’s a recent taste:

Was one of those days where I came home thinking: I love my job! I love my students! I love teaching! I’m a good teacher! In fact, I’m an all-around good doobie , now that I think about it!! Of course, there’s always those days where things just seem off, your students appear to be bored shitless, you feel awkward and inarticulate and uninspiring, and you just want to go home and crawl under the Bad Professor Rock and never ever enter the classroom again because you suck, you suck, you SUCK !! But then there are days like yesterday which always remind me how much I like doing what I do.

. . . it was like butter !!! My undergraduate workshop was talkative and engaged, and the period flew by like nothing. And then, in my night graduate seminar, the discourse was lively, very intense, intelligent, and fun !!! “Thanks, I enjoyed it!” one student said on the way out of the classroom. “Great class!” said another student as she exited. “Class was absolutely great!” wrote yet another student in an e-mail.

And so today, I now feel thrilled and exhilarated, in an arms-spread, bow-of-the-ship, Leonardo DiCaprio-esque, King-of-the-World(!) kind of way!!

It’s simple reflection that, as academics, we can all relate to.

Interesting aside: I guess I was drawn to this blogg in the list I came across because it was detailing the experiences of a fellow gay academic. So bloggs can link academics with particular academic identities whether these are disciplinary identities or broader identities around, race, faith, sexuality or gender. Or academics at different stages of development. But the initial link is not enough, once I got there I also responded on a personal level to her quirky style. Lots of questions to unpack here.

Another fascinating set of bloggs are the well established blogg communities that play host to groups of academics who share a similar world view or who are interested in a set of disciplinary ideas. Two reall good ones are Crooked Timber and Kairosnews.

Both have lively discussions. Crooked Timber has an extensive list of academic blogs in a wide range of disciplines. Kairosnews is “A Weblog for Discussing Rhetoric, Technology & Pedagogy” and is particularly interested in how to use the web/blogs for the teaching of writing.

Kairosnews arose out of Kairos Journal which is a refereed online journal devoted to the same topics. The current issue has a fascinating article: “When Blogging Goes Bad: A Cautionary Tale About Blogs, Email Lists, Discussion, and Interaction

Steven Krause details a bad experience of trying to get writing students to blogg. He questions whether email lists are a better more direct way of encouraging collaborative discussion amongst course members. Here’s a taste of some of his ideas:

Blogs, on the other hand, do not foster this sort of dynamic discussion as well. The jury is still out, of course– blogs are still quite new, and as I hope I’ve made clear, my classes’ failure with blogs had as much to do with my poor structure of the assignment as it had to do with the technology itself.

Nonetheless, while blogs are interactive and dynamic texts in the sense that there is a dialog between bloggers and their texts, the dialog is not the literal sort that is fostered and promoted by email exchanges. Email posts to mailing lists are drafts or works in progress, they are conversational in their direction toward an audience, and more often than not, they demand a literal response. Blog posts are more finished, are more personal in that the audience is the writer as much as it is a potential reader, and while readers might “respond” in some sort of metaphoric way, they are not as likely to write a direct response to the writer. …Finally, to the extent that collaboration is fostered by the “interaction” and “discussion” characterized by the exchange of ideas and the give and take of a group of writers, I think that email offers a much better opportunity for collaborative writing. After all, blogs are in their most basic sense electronic journals; more often in not, they are spaces for publishing highly individualistic writing. …

If you have a piece of writing that you want to “deliver” or “publish” as a more or less finished text, put it on a blog. If you have something to say to a particular audience in order to enter into a discussion with them, put it on a mailing list.

This article generated a lot of discussion and some good ideas on the Kairosnews blog.

One of the interesting aspects of this discussion was that I stumbled across references to different technologies for building and managing blogs. A number of the contributors to the discussion about Krause’s article made the point that certain blogg formats are set up to encourage collaboration and community whereas most of the free online stuff like blogger.com do not do this very well.

One of the Kairos regulars has a site devoted to a blogging/content management system software called Durpal which he has preconfigured into a set of “skins” that can be downloaded and used for classes. He has designed them for writing courses. Like a lot of this stuff it is all freeware.

I even came across an interesting discussion about whether academic blogging should be counted as a publication for promotion purposes.

In response to a quip in a law professor’s blog, wondering whether his dean would give him credit for his blogging, a dean from another university posted a fascinating and detailed response that concluded:

Bottom line: While no replacement for writing articles and books, and no one is going to get tenured or promoted through blogging (at least not today); but what I’ve called a serious blogger would get a big plus on the positive side on the ledger from me when it gets to merit review time! Failing to reward it would be failing to recognize that blogging is not just another new communication medium; it is a new way to do scholarship.

Metablognition

A participant in a recent conference on blogging and education coined the term metablognition to describe a new educational paradigm for blogging:

I selected the term metablognition for this course because I like to think about weblogs as another layer of thinking for teachers and students. There are class discussions, private conferences and conversations, interactions with all types of texts, response journals, all sorts of formal and informal writing assignments that take place in the classroom. What if we were to consider the blog as another part of our classroom brain, another lobe where different elements of our learning and teaching are synthesized, questioned, rejected, combined, altered etc.? Think of it as a digital zone of proximal development. Bruning coined the term metacognition to describe the knowledge that people have about their own thought processes. If we value our students understanding of themselves as readers, writers, historians, scientists, mathematicians and citizens of the world, I think we have to find real, structured places and moments for them to step aside from the daily work of learning to get a larger perspective. And, even more importantly, we need a space where students and teachers can lable those perspectives with words and images. Since blogs are asynchronous, and easily accessible and transformable, they are the best avenue that I’ve seen for this sort of awareness to develop in classrooms. How many times do you drive, or walk home from school and for a brief fleeting moment you think you have it all figured out, something has happened in the classroom that was truly wonderful, and you sort of float for bit, reveling in the joy of doing something well. For me, unless I talked to a colleague, or wrote an email message, or jotted something in my journal, that moment was gone forever, swallowed by the other zillion concerns about grades, absences, floppy disks and the little blue squares in the lesson plan book. And, as I’m finding at this very moment, technology has brought us a fairly simple tool to hold on to those moments.

Blogging form and content

Stephen Downes and the many bloggers and educators he quotes in his excellent recent article Educational Blogging confirms and extends my thinking on blogging.

What I love about blogging as both a reader and writer is the linking process. It creates a rich depth of ideas that is almost endless. Meg Hourihan quoted in Downes’ piece helped me think about this in a slightly different way when she talks about this as “distributed conversation.” One of the weblog’s characteristics is both that this conversation is distributed across a community of readers in tag team but also it is distributed across posts in each blog. Blogging is a cumulative conversation that may begin with a link in one post and then be developed a couple of days later and then developed further after others have made comments.

Both Downes and Hourihan emphasise that the blogging provides a format and a process not just a type of content. Blogging is not just online writing.

As another one of Downes’ sources, Will Richardson, writes:

Blogging starts with reading. It’s easy (at least for me) to forget that sometimes. I know that I’ve articulated the blogging process in that way many times before, but it still does seem very writing centered to me. But as Ken accurately points out, “blogging, at base, is writing down what you think when you read others.” And maybe that explains the disconnect I’ve been feeling between the act and the tool of late. The tool requires writing. (There is no blog without writing.) The act requires reading. (There is no blogging without reading.) Without reading, you’re just writing, not blogging, and that’s a pretty heady distinction (at least in this head.) And that really does change the expectations we have of our students, I think. They can use a Weblog to write, but in a different way they can also use it to blog, and in doing so they can develop an important skill that is not as easily taught with pen and paper or even the Internet and a word processor.

Ken Smith who is part of both Richardson and Downes’ blog conversation grounds what this conception of blogging might mean for educators:

And maybe that means that links are vital for new bloggers for a completely non-constructive reason. Instead of assigning students to go write, we should assign them to go read and then link to what interests them and write about why it does and what it means, not in order to make a connection or build social capital but because it is through quality linking (not the flaccid A-list stuff I spoofed above) that one first comes in contact with the essential acts of blogging: close reading and interpretation. Blogging, at base, is writing down what you think when you read others. If you keep at it, others will eventually write down what they think when they read you, and you’ll enter a new realm of blogging, a new realm of human connection.