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 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.


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.