Blogs for Education, Blogs for Yourself

tom_preskett2_80By Tom Preskett

Some things are obvious about blogging, some are not. Anyone familiar with blogs knows that it’s a way to publish content online. I used to think that the journal aspect was also a given. That is until I facilitated on a Web 2.0 distance learning module recently and found that many of the blogs the students created consisted of descriptions and links without much personal thoughts and opinion. This was surprising because I assumed that giving your perspective made a blog a blog. I should mention that many of them had a job which required them to share Web 2.0 resources with colleagues. But you can do this and still give your perspective, for example, Jane’s Pick of the Day.

A blog that presents information with little or no opinion is fine if that’s what you want to do. My point to the students was that if you just blog information then you might as well have a website instead where you can organise things better. This is especially pertinent as we were studying a course where the nature of blogging is the subject matter.

When I look at the use of blogging in courses, I often see that instructors don’t fully appreciate the social networking aspect of blogs. They are attracted by the reflective nature of blogs and ask students to record their learning at regular intervals. But the instructors treat the blogs as a private space between them and their students and often use blogs that are built into VLEs (virtual learning environments). I find this a great shame. Why? Well, the social nature and openness of blogs (and anything Web 2.0) is very important. It’s the essence, the lifeblood of what makes blogging so successful. It’s a shame to cut this off.

I don’t mind so much if the educators made an informed choice on this issue, but often it’s a natural instinct to keep thing private. “Of course, no one else will see it,” they say to the students. As if public exposure would be hiedweb20abhorrent to them. Why? What are they afraid of? This is partly a reflection of the insular, controlling nature of education and partly a reflection of their experiences and expectations of learning. Even if a student doesn’t want to blog public facing, it’s worth building in because creating and publishing online in a Web 2.0 setting is an important skill in the 21st Century. I don’t have a ready made study to prove this, but I’m going to say it anyway. At the least, instructors ought to create links between the student blogs to give them a ready made support network.

It may well be the case that blogging has diminished and will diminish due to social networks (at least for the teenagers), but blogging is still a valid and vibrant tool in the adult world. It’s not important for people to learn about blogging for blogging’s sake, but it’s important they learn about the ethos and the spirit of blogging, which is the essence of Web 2.0. It’s important they learn about collaboration, self-direction, independent learning, and networking. The new CLEX (Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience) document Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World characterises these as “soft skills” which are desirable in the new job market.

When it comes to using blogs for your own learning as part of your CPD (computer professional development), the plea I would make is don’t do it in isolation. Instead, immerse yourself in the blogosphere. In my context, this is true because reading others’ blogs is a really good way to keep up in my area of interest, learning technology. But this is true for any subject. Maybe not to the same extent, but it’s still true. It’s quick and easy and, most importantly for me, bitesize. With bitesize, I can knit things together much easier (tagging is very important here). The concepts can stick to my brain much easier, and I can make links better. I also approach it with less dread than I would an academic paper or book although my motivation might be different to yours. You can do all this without having your own blog, but this is where the knitting occurs. Well, some of it anyway. Also, one of the things that drew me to blogging was it’s conversational nature although this might be more my style than a rule.

To feel part of the blogosphere or a network of bloggers may be difficult if you don’t know anyone directly who blogs on your subject and if no one visits your blog. Just because you publish a blog doesn’t mean anyone is going to read it. You need to be okay with this, otherwise you’ll get disappointed very quickly.

My motivation for blogging is to capture my learning for myself. By making it public facing, I’m forced to be coherent, and it’s in that process where the learning happens. Quite often I end up in different places than I expected. So for me, if no one reads it, the blog is still valuable since it serves my purpose.

I’ve used Blogger for mine with the presentation Learning from Blogging: Creating Your Own and Learning from Others, by Tracy Hamilton, as the starting point. WordPress is the other main player but there are many more. The best way to start is to spend an hour browsing the blogosphere (not my favourite term) on Technorati or Icerocket. However, if you are reading this, you probably know all that.

3 Responses

  1. Tom,

    I was particularly struck by the thought in this quote from your article:

    “the social nature and openness of blogs (and anything Web 2.0) is very important. It’s the essence, the lifeblood of what makes blogging so successful. It’s a shame to cut this off. . . . often it’s a natural instinct [of teachers] to keep thing private. ‘Of course, no one else will see it,’ they say to the students. As if public exposure would be abhorrent to them [students]. Why? What are they afraid of? This is partly a reflection of the insular, controlling nature of education.”

    I think you’ve exposed a problem in our profession that rarely if ever sees the light of day — a “flaw” that becomes visible only as Web 2.0 creeps into our creaking domain. Many educators are instinctively wary of open discussions, afraid of losing control over a class activity.

    I think it’s because of the way we’ve been educated — having been rewarded for “correct” answers and punished for “wrong” ones. Thus, to share the stage with students means to open the door for possibly “wrong” answers, and that, as one of my colleagues once said, is a case of the blind leading the blind. (In case you’re wondering, the “blind” are the students.) This need to “always be correct” pervades the classroom, stifling any spontaneity or creative thinking. The students’ main concern is to figure out what the teacher considers the “correct” opinion.

    From this perspective, the openness of blog discussions is anathema simply because there’s little or no control over the opinions that are expressed. When blogs are confined to dialogues between the instructor and the student, the former feels comfortable “correcting” the latter without running the risk of embarrassing her/him publicly.

    For this attitude to change, I think educators need to see how “public facing” Web 2.0 media such as blogs can very efficiently and effectively enhance learning. If we’re willing to risk openness, we’ll discover that students will engage in a process of truth-seeking that will eventually lead to the concepts or ideas that we were aiming for. And the up side is that they’re “discovering” the truths rather than being spoon-fed. Ultimately, isn’t this what we mean by learning? That it’s a process that requires risk taking and is best cultivated in an atmosphere of open dialogue where incorrect answers are just as important as correct ones?

    Thank you for raising this and other issues.

    -Jim

  2. Hi Tom and Jim

    You both make very good points. Just a small point: when there are very few or no comments on a blog, it doesn’t always mean that it is not part of an interactive process. The interactivity about what is blogged may happen elsewhere: on a social network, or even on a good old mailing list where the bloggers announce their posts.

    Mailing lists are not not even Web 1.0, yet for instance civic / human rights activists who are very Web 2.0 literate, they often remain the main tool, especially in case of an emergency.

    Best

    Claude

  3. Thank you for these comments Jim and Claude,

    I agree that education is too much about guarding against risk as if the priority is the safeguarding of the educational institutions rather than the learning. This is where Web 2.0 hast the potential to do a lot of good because it can challenge this status quo. This is also the biggest barrier to the adoption of blogs and other Web 2.0 tools. When you challenge what are ingrained natural reactions to how education should occur. You cannot expect wholesale change straightaway.

    You are right about the the impact of blogging Claude. Much of how I use blogs involves reading and absorbing rather than active dialogue on the blog itself. For the ETC, I hope there will be some dialogue and hopefully not just amongst the contributors.

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