Wednesday, September 30, 2009

blogging as a pedagogical tool: some initial ideas and a request

I'm hoping to crowdsource some brainstorming about the pedagogical potential of blogging on learning. Lately, in my work with Dan Hickey's 21st Century Assessment Project, I've been thinking tons about how integrating blogging in the formal English / Language Arts classroom might build a rich new media environment for ELA students. I've started a provisional list below but am hoping that others (most importantly for me, people who have worked with blogs in their classrooms) can offer ideas for additions to this list.

First of all, it's worth noting that my approach to the value of blogging for teaching and learning in Language Arts is deeply informed by the work of a number of teacher-researchers from several fields. Most notable among these are Paul Allison, whose chapter "Be a Blogger: Social Networking in the Classroom" (in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran) offers a glimpse into the day-to-day workings of a blogging-focused ELA curriculum; and Sam Rose and Howard Rheingold, who have devised (and made publicly available) an enormous set of resources for teaching in and through new media platforms.

My approach is also informed by my personal experience as a blogger--really, to be fair, as someone who is willing to squeeze out nearly anything in order to make time for posting. By even my most generous estimate, I spend far too much of my time blogging--unless you account for the formative value of blogging for someone like me. I am convinced that the intellectual and identity work required for me to maintain this space has led directly to my growing prowess as a researcher, reader, and writer. You cannot convince me otherwise; so do not even bother trying.

My experiences and the reading I've done about the value of blogging for learning informs everything that comes next.

Characteristics of blogging that support new media literacy

Reaching a wide(r) reader base
It's important to note that blogs differ in purpose from many seemingly similar writing platforms. It's obvious to most that a blog is different from a personal journal, in that while many of us may hope to have our journals read by a larger public some day, blogs are actually intended to support wider readership. The majority of blogs are public (meaning anybody can view them) and taggable, and they come up as legitimate sites in web searches.

Blogs also differ from forums, chat rooms, instant message programs, and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Of all of these spaces, blogs are generally the most polished, the most text-based, and the most supportive of extended engagement with a single idea.

Shifting from intended audience to intended public

This idea is ripped from Howard Rheingold, who (tapping into some Habermas) writes that
[m]oving from a private to a public voice can help students turn their self-expression into a form of public participation. Public voice is learnable, a matter of consciously engaging with an active public rather than broadcasting to a passive audience.

The move here is away from the "please read what I wrote" approach to "please act on the ideas I've written down here." The regular practice required for building and maintaining a blog's readership helps to crystallize this shift and helps writers to see there is a broad, if constantly shifting, group of people whose interests align with the broad, if constantly shifting, ideas of a blog. Though the intended public is largely invisible (we have generally only met a fraction of our blog's readers), consistent practice in finding, drawing in, and engaging this target public makes them less transparent.

Blogs as (genuine) conversations
When I taught college composition lo these many years ago, I always tried to argue to my students that all writing is a conversation--that when we write, we take up ideas that were presented by other writers before us and try to present something new that might be of interest to people who care about the kinds of things we write about.

The argument always felt hollow to me. After all, college students are typically only eavesdroppers. Only a handful of people will ever read what they've written, and often the students don't really care all that much about the assigned writing topics anyway. Add to that the artificial motivator of the ever-elusive 'A' and you have a recipe for calamity.

But blogs--now blogs are authentic communication spaces. They really are. Anybody can get almost anybody to read a blogpost and, if the post is engaging enough, to comment on the post for all eternity to see. This very fact ups the ante some: Getting the spelling of someone's name suddenly matters an awful lot. Making a concise, well supported argument has real, potential consequences: A strong enough argument gets people to sit up and notice. A strong enough argument gets people to act.

A move toward increasingly public spheres of participation

An increasingly participatory culture calls for participation that's ethical, reasoned, and publicly accessible. After all, the widespread takeup of the spirit of participatory culture requires that we all act in ways that keep the barriers to participation low, the potential for contribution high, and the mentorship possibilities readily available to most or all participants. This can only happen to the extent that all or most of us are willing to operate, to express and circulate our ideas and creative works, in public online and offline spaces. Since so much discourse will increasingly happen in public spaces, it only makes sense that we use the ELA domain to prepare students for engagement in those public spaces.

Blogs as spaces for fostering both traditional and new media literacies

For language arts teachers, blogging presents a fairly obvious avenue for preparing learners for engagement in public spheres of communication, since blogs align nicely with the traditional purposes of the ELA classroom. As a group of readers engage in deep analysis of their own and others' blogs, they have to think about issues like tone, style, genre, punctuation, word choice, and organization.

The extra toy prize is that students also get to learn about the characteristics of online writing, including what danah boyd identifies as the four properties of online communication (persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability) and three dynamics (invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private). As my colleague Michelle Honeyford put it, "they hit all the standards and get to learn about online participation for free."

Confronting the ethics challenge
Nobody's arguing that we should sign every sixth grader up with a Blogger account. That would just be silly. Media scholar Henry Jenkins is fond of saying that the role of educators and parents is not to look over kids' shoulders but to watch their backs, and scaffolding learners toward participation in increasingly public spheres allows us to do just that. Lots of teachers (including the famously brilliant Becky Rupert at Bloomington's Aurora Alternative High School) start their students out by having them post to a private space (she uses Ning) but having them analyze writing from more public spaces. This way, they have a kind of new media sandbox to try out and engage with the norms of online communication before actually being held to the higher ethical standard, with deeper potential repercussions (both positive and negative).

That's all I have for now, though I would love to hear from you on the list above. What have I missed? What am I ignoring? What struggles are linked to bringing blogs into the classroom, and what challenges have you encountered if you've tried to do so?

I hope for this to be a multipart post that will include thoughts on the following categories:
  • Affordances of blogging as a new media writing technology
  • Challenges to integrating blogs into the ELA classroom
  • Resources (including lesson plans, other writing on this topic, etc.)
  • Assessment guidelines for working with blogs

If you have thoughts on any of the above, I'd love to hear from you. If you have any trouble posting comments (I don't know why, but some of you have) please email me at jennamcjenna(at)gmail(dot)com.


Dr. Delaney Kirk said...

Here’s what I’ve learned from using blogs in the classroom for the past 3+ years.

Blogging invites more students into the conversation: Students who were unwilling to speak up in class indicated they felt more comfortable writing their thoughts and responding to the thoughts of others in a blog/comment format. In addition, using a blog allowed students with different learning styles (for example, visual learners rather than auditory or those students who would rather reflect before answering) to interact with the class.

Blogging extends the conversation: Allowing students to participate in mini-conversations via blogs keeps the classroom conversation alive even when the students are not physically present. As universities create flexible class times and schedules such as night and weekend courses to meet the needs of the students, using blogs may be even more useful in preventing the fade-out effect.

Classroom blogging provides a “safe” mechanism for introducing students to social media:
Even with the proliferation of blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, there are some students who were only vaguely aware of social media and its possibilities. Once students see how blogs can be used, they begin to realize the business benefits of extending “conversations” to the online world.

Blogging makes the students into subject matter experts: This process of creating a blogpost or answering a well-crafted question requires students to search for, filter, and then share information found on the Internet. The process exposes students to vast amounts of information and in the process makes them become more knowledgeable on a topic.

Blogging helps students take ownership of their own learning: I have been pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of our students’ blog comments and posts. They tended to spend more time and effort than required by the assignments.

Hope this helps.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Wow--this is a great addition to my list. I'm especially interested in the first point, that blogs invite more students into the conversation. Do you have any thoughts on how blog participation changes how people interact in the physical classroom?

Daniel Hickey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg McVerry said...

I have used both blogs and threaded discussions in my classrooms and I think teachers need to be uniquely award of the pedagogical differences. I think blogs work better when you have either a small group of authors (or a single author) continuosly reflecting or extending thought.

If the goal is to extend coversations I feel threaded discussions are much better suited than blogs. Specifically becuase the comment features on blogs often make conversations difficult to follow. i find that when students hijack conversations on blog threads it gets harder for lurkers and casual users to follow. I think blogs are better suited for conversations between author and audience.

I must reiterate what Dan said. I found in 6th grade classrooms (and still do in the graduate classes I teach) that online spaces provide an outlet for participation for students who are often disenfranchised.

I also had some students in 6h grade who had limited internet access at home. Parents were happy to have them participate in a monitored environment.

Finally I found it to extend learning beyond school. Both my student bloga and discussion boards would light up as soon as the bus dropped off kids and they wouldn't fall silent until way after the students should have been asleep. As ateacher that was most see students engaged in their own learning.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Dan, I think your last point links to an ongoing struggle I have with the role of blogging in academia. In a recent post, I argued that blogs have an important and valuable place in academic discourse even though as of now they're generally not regarded as rigorous academic writing on par with publishing in peer reviewed journals. Because of this, too often blogging is what academics do when there's time and it's the first thing we drop when things get hectic. I propose a new approach that integrates blogging as part of ongoing academic discourse. What you wrote above could be a blogpost linking to my post, instead of a comment! And it would only take a tiny bit more time.

Greg, your point about the specific affordances of various types of online communication tools feels really important. After all, a blog doesn't work if it's treated like a discussion forum, and a forum doesn't work if it's treated like a blog. Both have their own sets of norms that learners need to negotiate, and it seems that educators are in a fantastic position to guide students in this respect.

Greg McVerry said...

Great point Jenna on the academic blogs. i know the main reason I do not update mine is the constant pressure of publication.

It is ironic as I believe that an online presence is becoming just as important as a vita presence. What search or tenure committee is not going to google you?

I think some tools are starting to emerge. Digital Literacy and Culture just launched and they allow audience feedback and discussion.

Second,I think we can use tools like Google sidewiki to respond to paper presentations and article abstracts to circumvent organizations and publishers who maintain a closed system. I imagine everyone responding and commenting (and linking back to blogs) to articles. Although as Gloria Jacobs pointed out on a recent tweet this will take a critical mass that may never develop.

I wonder if this same critical mass will develop that supports academic blogging as a form or inquiry. It would be nice if a prolific blogger like yourself was recognized for reaching an audience way beyond the usual journal subscriptions.

Daniel Hickey said...

Nice post and nice discussion. I moved my response over to re-mediating assessment:

Howard Rheingold said...

Jenna --

My ideas about public voice were derived from Phil Agre's somewhat ancient but still excellent article:

You approach indirectly something that I would urge you to unpack: Blogging can move writing from a performance for the teacher to a performance for (and discussion with) other students.

Sam Rose said...

FYI, I have a new pattern that I am working with at that combines blogging, micro-blogging, socialbookmarking, discussion, rss reading, and coming soon, algorithmic analysis of discussion. This is something that we'll likely eventually deploy in social media classroom, too. Our idea is to focus tagging-based collaborative research. This system can accept RSS, or direct posting. We'll also figure out a way to integrate API's into this system, too.

Once those API's are integrated, then mashups between open source software, and commercial services are possible in ways that allow for the extension of both

Jenna McWilliams said...

omgomgomg i wanna play
sam, what are the rules for joining this project? can anybody sign up?

Sam Rose said...

Jenna, you may feel free to register and post at and if you run into issues or have suggestions please let us know! We definitely hoped that people like yourself would join. We'll eventually develop tools that make it easier for you to participate (such as posting out to twitter, facebook from culturing, posting to and from delicious, etc)

Your ideas are welcome. We realize there are existing shortcomings in the culturing pattern, but we're experimenting and would love to have others join us!


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