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?

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.