Sunday, March 16, 2008

Using blogs for educational purposes

“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” ~ Herman Melville


While preparing a workshop on the educational uses of blogs -- online, Web-based journals in the form of frequent, chronological publications of thoughts and ideas, typically within a specific theme or area of interest -- for the Center for Faculty Development at UC Denver, I've been reflecting on my own use of blogs in my role as an educator. I started blogging for several reasons:

  • To be heard, have a voice on issues of my choosing (e.g., my thoughts on teaching), and disseminate ideas.

  • To engage with the subject area as a lifelong learner.

  • To connect with others who have similar interests, and build a network of colleagues and collaborators.

  • To share and test ideas and perspectives that might otherwise not see the light of day (via a formal presentation or journal article).

  • To collect and organize ideas to support my teaching and my scholarship (for example, I have an article under review now that started because of ideas I was sharing via my blog).

  • To engage with Web 2.0 technologies in a relevant and meaningful way that supports my practice (in other words, my blog has become my base camp/homestead on the Web).

  • To establish a reputation as a source of ideas for postsecondary and online teaching practices (and to establish a reputation, if I can do this well, for my online MA program and for the Center for Faculty Development).


In terms of using blogs with students, I have primarily had students use blogs for reflective journaling -- summarizing class discussions, reflecting on what they learned during a class activity or project, sharing ideas for applying what they have learned to their own practice, and so on. In addition, I have used blogs with students to accomplish the following objectives:

  • To encourage students to articulate their ideas and perspectives, make their thinking visible, and be brave and bold about their contributions to the greater discourse. (Note: This goes both ways. I create a course-specific blog where I share my thoughts about the course as we are in progress (see my IT 5130 Design Ideation Journal for a current example). This allows students to see how I am thinking about what works and doesn't work, what I want to do next time, ideas that occur to me because of our in-class discussions, and so on. I used to do this privately, in a course notebook for my eyes only. Now, with a course blog, students get to see my thinking, and I effectively -- hopefully -- model reflective practice in the process.)

  • To engage students in reflection on the subject, requiring them to critically analyze ideas. Because student blogs are linking together in our course community, there is a social context that supports a unique caliber of thoughtfulness, very different than the private reflective journals I've used in the past. [Update 10/29/08: Here is a good Blogging Rubric developed by Ryan Bretag that gets at things like critical reading and critical thinking.]

  • To encourage students to see themselves as participating and contributing members of a professional community of practice, using their blogs as (1) avenues for garnering feedback on ideas from course and community colleagues and (2) opportunities for collaboration with colleagues.

  • To help students express themselves and share their ideas and perspectives in an articulate way; to write, organize their writing, and develop a habit of writing.

  • To have students use Web 2.0 tools as vehicles for self-expression, inquiry, construction, and collaboration; and to learn to use these tools to support their lifelong learning endeavors. (And to take advantage, for educational purposes, the Web 2.0 tools they are using themselves in their personal -- and often professional -- lives.)

For me, those are the main positive reasons for using blogs and blogging for educational purposes. I also have some thoughts about the pitfalls:

  • Maintaining a blog is a time-consuming proposition. For it to be valuable, you need to be active -- reading others' blogs to continue to learn about the topic and connect with others, and contributing new posts to your own blog.

  • Unless your blog is set up to be private (so that only those invited have access), a blog is very public. When having students set up blogs, it is important to help them understand this, and act accordingly.

  • Blogging tends to reinforce a more casual, informal writing style. I actually like this because a more informal writing style can be more inviting to the community, allowing community members to feel more comfortable participating in the conversation. However, that sort of writing style is not appropriate for all activities or projects, so it is helpful to keep this in mind when you involve students with blogging.

  • Recently, I saw a photo of a gentleman wearing a t-shirt he received as a gift from his wife. Stenciled on the shirt was, "My blog has an audience of 2." It is certainly desirable to have more than an audience of two for your blog. To achieve this, you have to strive for a balance between the intrapersonal (personal reflective journal) and interpersonal (connecting with others in discussion) aspects of blogging. This means that it isn't enough just to post in your blog -- you have to read and connect with other blogs, linking your posts to others, and so on.


In terms of tips, besides the ones that are embedded throughout this post, I have a few obvious ones to share:

  • Select a very specific, unique focus for the blog.

  • Do not ask students to share anything publicly that may do them harm.

  • Establish a blogging schedule -- for example, Stephen Downes has a great blog called Half an Hour -- with the title referring to the amount of time he spends each day (or, at least tries to) sharing with the community via his blog.

  • Pursue opportunities to connect and collaborate with colleagues. When people connect with your via your blog, respond. When you go out searching others' blog, make a connection to your own.

The use of blogs for educational purposes makes me think of Dewey, and the idea that the "impulses" of the child -- the impulses of communication, construction, inquiry, and expression -- are the true resources of a school. The power of blogs, and other Web 2.0 tools, is that they can support students' communication, construction, inquiry, and expression activities. This is what turns me on about this genre of Web tools, and blogs in particular.


Note:
If you are interested in blogs for educators, check out --

Blogs in Education
2c Worth
Weblogg-ed
4RxT
Conversations About Teaching

1 comment:

Elizabeth Clark said...

I started a blog in January 2008 primarily to "keep a record of my reading and ideas relating to my teaching, mostly writing but also some math"--mostly my use of technology in my classes.

This semester I finally have a chance to do something I've wanted to since I read Will Richardson's Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms in the fall of 2006: Have my students use blogs as research journals. I'm teaching ENGL 112 online for Mesa State College. This is a fairly typical second-semester college composition class in which students learn how to do research and write research papers. (The Mesa State class also covers literature.)

It seems to be working reasonably well, though some of the students struggle with the Web 2.0 tools I'm having them use. I'm using a Bloglines account to keep track of their journals.