Category Archives: Education

Student blogs as uni promotion

Luke is a music major and is an official blogger at Ball State

Luke is a music major and is an official blogger at Ball State

A number of universities are using student blogs as a kind of “reality ad” for their courses and campus life. Here in Sydney UTS had an ill fated go at it that didn’t really take off but as I noted in another post last year Sydney Uni has a more vibrant project still going. Today I came across a really good example of it at Ball State, Indianna. These bloggers have remained committed over the course of the year and have produced an interesting take on campus life. The vodcasts by a com student adds an extra dimension as well.

What is even more impressive is all the other uses of blogging at Ball State. Everyone from Freshman advisors through to the alumni office are using blogs.

The communication and media students have a number of different blogging projects. Notes from the digital Frontier presents a range of comments from young people about technology, social networking and media – its opinionated and not very in-depth but it presents a really interesting way of getting students to begin to track their own interaction with the new digital environment. Ball Bearings is a neat multimedia site that the students produce with lots of good little info packages, games blogs and videos.

It’s a very impressive cross-campus cross-faculty commitment to blogging it would be interesting to see how blogging is being used at the subject level in different courses for assignments at a University like this – I will search around and see if I can find out more.

Student blogs

I have just finished marking 75 student blogs and 75 reflective essays from this semester’s features course.I had the students posting three times a week in three categories: observations from life, analysing features and feature ideas. This seemed to me like a perfect vehicle to explore observational writing, strong structure and interesting ideas – the three cornerstones of good feature writing. The advantage of the blog over individual assignments in these areas is that, as an ongoing series of weekly exercises, students gain both an experience of writing to deadline and a sense of a developing set of ideas emerging over time.The work was, of course, variable but there was a strong emerging consensus in the reflective essays that the blogging exercise was a surprising but important learning experience. The following quotes are typical:

Student 1: At first I was reluctant to do some of these things (especially the descriptive writing exercises), but once I started to write more regularly, I became quite fond of my blog and was committed to building it up and making it look like a complete piece of work.Student 2: Perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of this course was – completely unexpectedly – the blogging exercise. At first, this seemed to be a useless adventure into time wasting, however, over time this became the most important part of the course. Working to a deadline, constantly thinking of new ideas, and pressuring myself to better each post. The blog assignment proved so useful to me personally, that I landed a job working as a paid blogger for a website. Its amazing that at the beginning of the session, I said that I wouldn’t want to blog, even if I was paid to do it. Three months later I am getting paid for it, but I’d gladly do it for free.Student 3: Despite some initial skepticism, I really enjoyed doing the blog assignment. I never saw myself doing something like that and, although I often forgot to post or ran out of time, I liked seeing its progression online. It taught me to think about writing constantly, for example every time I saw something interesting I’d think “oh I should do an observation piece on that!”

Nearly all of the reflections about the blogging exercise express initial reluctance/scepticism about the idea but then go on to say how this was overcome as they “got into” the task. The different way that different students “get into” blogging is interesting:

  • For some the “ah hah” moment comes as they begin to see the blog as a “thing” that they can tinker with, change, develop and create. They move from doing an assignment to “making it a complete piece of work”
  • For others it is noticing the influence of the blog on other aspects of their work or thinking as one student said: “I realised I was beginning to think like a journalist” because the blog became a focus for what might have just been passing ideas.
  • For others it is getting over the “geek” factor – “they” do that it’s not for me.

This confirms an old post of James McGee that I often quote when talking about 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. (McGee 2002)

There are other elements that emerged from this semester’s work that I will post about over the next few days.

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Blogs at Sydney Uni take off

Found an interesting article from the Australian’s Higher Education supplement about Sydney University’s embrace of blogging. It’s bizarre that the most traditional of universities would be the first university in Australia to set up a campus wide blogging project. In May the university set up a system open to all university staff.

“I don’t know of any other Australian universities who have set up a staff blog system like this,” says Charlie Forsyth, manager of Sydney’s web services. He says the idea is to make it easy for staff to blog, to collaborate with one another, to reach out to industry and the wider public, to share knowledge and engage in debate.

“The blogs will not be centrally moderated,” Forsyth says. But the standard university policy on computers applies; this forbids uses that are “illegal, unethical or inappropriate” or anything that would cause “embarrassment or loss of reputation” to the university.

The marketing arm of the university is also embracing blogging with a site called Sydney Life. Here they have employed a series of students to post on their experiences of life at the university

Like most blogs it has regular, journal-like entries with a comment thread. But the home page banner carries the university shield and Cohen, Sydney’s marketing information manager, vets every post before it’s uploaded.

Can big institutions tame the free-spirited blog format?

“I think it’s working because I don’t domesticate it too much,” says Cohen, who was fascinated by blogs before she came up with this official use for them.

At Sydney Life she doesn’t see a lot of room for posts about dating or wild nights. She says subjects more suited to the readers include how to make friends in first year, insider tips for enrolment day, study and procrastination, as well as immersion in campus clubs and societies.

Spencer, president of the Sydney University Dramatic Society, doesn’t regard Cohen’s editorial control as heavy-handed; in fact, he’s reassured she’s there. “Obviously we’re writing for a fairly specific audience and it is under the university name,” he says.

He’s found it fun, a totally different way of writing, and an inspiration to look into blogging more closely.

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Student’s grow-up with blogs

Dennis Jerz‘ blogging project at Seton Hill is the subject of a good profile in the Pitsburg Post Gazette, which he gleefully pointed out to Kairos readers.

The anecdotal piece raises a number of key issues about blogging and higher education. The headline “Freedom of speech redefined by blogs: Words travel faster, stay around longer in the blogosphere” tells you that this isn’t going to be the standard media blog bust. The anecdotes in this article actually sum up some of the key points any introduction to blogging in higher education might like to make:

1. Student blogging can lead to dialogue with the wider academic sphere:

Jessica Prokop thought the textbook for her class at Seton Hill University was biased and that its author “seems like a bitter man.” In the annals of student rants, nothing extraordinary there.

Except she didn’t just blurt out those words in her journalism class. She blogged them. Soon, the author himself was responding all the way from England, pledging to re-examine an upcoming edition given her critique.

2. Students move from being users to being co-creators of the internet

Students find that their musings on topics from Plato to video games have been discovered by a parent back home who typed their name into a search engine such as Google. Or they’ll discover their homework was incorporated hundreds of miles away into a stranger’s Internet research.

“In another generation, these students would have simply been users of a computer,” Dr. Jerz said. “Now, they are co-creators of the Internet.”

That is both good and bad.

“I remind students that their blogs are public,” he said. “Someday, they’ll be in a job applicant pool, and a potential employer will run their name through Google, and the angry ranting Web log they wrote at age 17 will turn up.”

3. Problems can become “teachable moments” with real world grit, even though boundaries have to be found and enforced

The piece details a number of students who have been suspended at other universities for posting harmful or defamatory posts about staff, students or minority groups. But these instances can become “teachable moments”:

Those cases, and others like them, illustrate the importance of what some say is an emerging campus trend: Faculty are discussing with their students how the medium is transforming free speech.

“It’s a substantial change in how we engage in discourse, especially in this country,” said Alex Halavais, an official with the Association of Internet Researchers who teaches at the University at Buffalo, part of The State University of New York. “As such, I think universities have a duty in some ways to provide students with the tools they need to better participate in that discourse.”…

[Amy Eisman, director of writing programs with the school of communication at American University] said students were more likely to discover boundaries themselves, sometimes by a rough experience.

4. Students learn to be bloggers and this learning experience can help them position themselves as adults within the public sphere:

Jason Pugh, 20, a junior from West Mifflin, said he’d watched the level of discourse rise as freshmen come to campus and see how upperclassmen build reasoned arguments. “There’s a difference between just saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ and saying, ‘I disagree because of point one and point two,’ ” he said.

He views his own blogs as a far cry from the all-opinion rants of his freshman year. “I’ve learned to do better research, so I don’t sound like I’m someone angry at the world.”

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Gone Carnivalesque

I guess I’ve been buttoned down and not hanging in the blogsphere enough recently but I’ve just discovered the whole “carnival” thing (thanks Clancy here and here).

They are great peer produced collections of blog posts around a designated issue. There are some great postings in the recent Teaching Carnivals. Everything from New Kid on being the hearty professor to a great post by Scott Barnett on what he’s doing (or trying to do) when he asks students to blog:

When I finally decided to use blogs in a writing course, I did so from a position of advocate, of someone who sees great value in the act of writing as often as possible. Not to get too Dead Poets Society here, but I wanted my students to use blogging as a way to see the world differently, to walk around as I have in the past year with that strange and exhilarating Eye that not only finds in moments those ideal (and often unusual) blogging urgencies, but that takes pleasure as well in their all-around weirdness.

I too am getting my students to blog in a summer course I am taking and have been thinking about the many imperatives of blogging. It’s a media studies course for journalism students and the blog is meant to be a way of getting the students to become reflective media critics. But like Scott I am also very keen to simply get them to write. To my great delight some of them have taken to it like ducks to water and are slowly beginning to produce some wonderful stuff that has that great bloggy mix of personal tone, connectedness and insight.

I think it is in the mix of those three elements that blogging has a great role to play in education. It helps us move beyond rigid forms of academic writing which teach students to only value that which is complete and finished. I have been saying to my class that blogging is all about cumulative, linked meaning making not about conclusive arguments. It’s a form of research as well as a form of publication. It is writing as discovery.

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Blogs versus Discussion Boards

I’ve been thinking again about blogs versus discussion boards. I have always been very anti-discussion boards because personally I don’t like them as a reader or user. I find them aesthetically uninviting and their folded in structure always makes me want to give up. But last semester I had students who responded quite enthusiastically to an assigned online discussion group. The usual problems arose in many groups and much of the valuable content consisted of fairly isolated postings but in a couple of groups the dynamic really worked. I think this was helped by the fact that for part of the semester I used the same groups in tutorial discussions so the message board discussion became a continuation of the face to face work. A few students noted this in the evaluation session.

While thinking about this I stumbled across this posting by Lee Lefever (via Seblogging) which provides an interesting set of metaphoric differentiations that get passed some of the usual technical distinctions:

  • A blog post says "Here it is, dig it"
  • A message board post says "your turn"
  • Comment implies "if you want, not required"
  • Reply implies "I’m not done until you do."
  • A blog is my back yard
  • A message board is a park
  • A blog has readers
  • A message board has lurkers
  • A blog is all about ME
  • A message board is all about US
  • When things go quiet on a blog, the onus is on one person
  • When things go quite on a message board, the onus is on everyone

Sebastian Fielder goes on to make the comments:

Discussion forums and message boards require a consistent effort of a group to work. They fall apart if people sign off and go quiet or if somebody starts to get outright destructive.

Networks of Weblog authors are much more robust. If one goes quiet or produces rubbish nothing major happens to the collective or a single Weblog authoring project which can quite happily stand on its own and develop new connections… and cut off old ties that seem to have lost its value anymore.

None of this gets around the fact that in an educational setting facilitation and modelling is key to helping students get the most out of these types of projects. But I think that Fiedler and Lefever’s distinctions point to the fact that blogging is potentially more adapatable – although there is a definite me/us bias across the two technologies, blogging accomodates social networking more readily than message boards accommodate construction of individuated prescence.

This reminds me of the discussion at Blogtalk Downunder about comments: a number of people, but primarily Mark Bernstein, made the point that comments are not the real facilitator of dialogue, they can in fact be quite destructive and often are trivial. The real communicative element of the blogsphere – what Fiedler calls the "robust" nature of blog newtorks – lies in the linked communication that occurs between blogs.

Blog Talk: Sebastian Fieldler

Sebastian Fieldler in the final keynote contrasted two ideas: innovation/revolution and renaissance.

He noted Carl Bereiter’s work that innovations in education are often taken up with great enthusiasm but that most often they do not tgake root, they are not sustained because the resources and frameworks are not built or made available.

He contrasted this with Douglas Rushkoff’s notion of a renaissance as a “recontextualisation” Rushkoff writes:

I prefer to think of the proliferation of interactive media as an opportunity for renaissance: a moment when we have the opportunity to step out of the story, altogether. Renaissances are historical instances of widespread recontextualization. People in a variety of different arts, philosophies, and sciences have the ability to reframe their reality. Quite literally, renaissance means “rebirth.” It is the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. A renaissance is a dimensional leap, when our perspective shifts so dramatically that our understanding of the oldest, most fundamental elements of existence changes.

Blogs wikis web feeds are a “reconquista” of the web built over the static web. It is a reinvigoration of the early internet pioneers of the two way web. Now the prototypical tools are authoring or networking tools not just browsing tools.

But there are still problems in the educational domain:

  • We are focusing on introducing novices to blogs but not documenting onging long term usage
  • We are attempting to squeeze blogging into existing educational practices
  • Educational blogging rarely transcends temporal (semester) boundaries of educational institutions.

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BlogTalk Downudner: Conversation and reflection

Ian McColl from UQ gave a very interesting paper on blogging in their studio based IT design course.

Lots of interesting things about studio practice (the architecture model) that could have relevance to a journalism course.

The studio stream is the defining feature of the two degrees, and students complete a studio course each semester with similar characteristics to those outlined above for Kapor’s course. There are two temporal cycles that operate through our degrees: one within each year, and the other through the three years of the degrees. Generally speaking, first semester studios (Studios 1, 3 and 5) are more divergent, emphasising designing and conceptualising, while second semester studios (Studios 2, 4 and 6) tend to be more convergent, emphasising building and resolving. There is also a progression through the years of the degree: first-year studios tend to focus on single-machine, screen-based work, second-year studios focus on distributed non-screen-based work, and third-year studios focus on socially-based work with opportunities for student-generated and student-selected projects working with academic and/or industry advisors.

Good stuff on “converstaion” from Fiedler and Schon:

Fiedler is concerned with externalising the learner’s internal conversation, and formalising the learner’s external conversation with a learning coach. In the studio process, the conversations are between the participants in the process (Schön 1987), and also between individual and groups of participants and the materials of the design (Schön 1992).

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Blogtalk Downunder

For various reasons I haven’t posted here for a while but I have been busy preparing a paper for Blogtalk Downunder our first homegrown blogger confest. My abstract is below, readers of this blog will recognise some of the thoughts from previous postings!

Much of the published discussion and research on blogs and teaching and learning in higher education focuses on evaluation of blogging as a communicative technique. This type of discussion largely assumes that successful integration of blogging into course delivery should be judged against a pre-existing and unchallenged pedagogical model. This paper argues that to leverage its full educational potential blogging must be understood not just as an isolated phenomena, but as part of a broad palette of “cybercultural” practices which provide us with both new ways of doing and new ways of thinking. The paper looks at the ways broader theoretical models associated with the development of the blogsphere might challenge or enhance current theories of teaching and learning. Spatial metaphors inherent in network models of blogging will be contrasted with the surface/depth model of student learning. The paper will argue that blogs should not be seen merely as a technological tool for teaching and learning but as a situated practice that must be brought into appropriate alignment with particular pedagogical and disciplinary practices. A model of blogging as a networked approach to learning suggests that blogging might achieve best results across the curriculum not through isolated use in individual units.

I draw on lots of wonderful work by other people but I found Martin Jacobsen’s notion of “cyberdiscursivity very useful as a way of drawing out some of the new dimensions of blogging as a practice situated within a wider cyberculture. Here’s the key quote from Jacobsen:

Where oral rhetoric is embodied and literacy is disembodied, a cyberdiscursive rhetoric is virtual, characterized by remotely centred interactivity and instantaneousness…the concrete rhetoric of orality and abstract rhetoric of literacy become dynamic in cyberdiscursivity via the continuous, productive nature created by virtuality and user agency…oral rhetoric’s aggregative structure and literacy’s hierarchical structure give way to an emergent structure in CMC, pieced together by a user who does not recognize a structure until it develops before her through a random choice of fragments which seldom, if ever, remain cohesive, and which usually become impossible to trace…the communal nature of oral rhetoric and the individual nature of literacy move toward an idiosyncratic rhetoric in which reader/user agency transforms the textual experience into an epistemologically challenging game which shatters rules as basic to print texts as one word following another.

I was led to Jacobsen from Ulises A. Mejias’ excelent paper on online discourse

If you are interested in reading the whole paper download this pdf

Aggregation

James Farmer posts an interesting comment about Steve Krause’s When Blogging Goes Bad: A Cautionary Tale About Blogs, Emailing Lists, Discussion, and Interaction. Krause concludes that email lists were a more efficient and direct way of encouraging discussion in his class. This was largely the product of the directness of the “in-box” contact. Farmer makes the critical point:

Blogs can be like email too though (and much more effective in many ways) through aggregation and I think that had, for example, a combination of the public aggregator facility in Drupal been used alongside individual aggregators like Bloglines then things might have turned out very differently.

Of course, people might not have used them (aggregators are hardly ubiquitous) but had they been used, even in very small numbers, I think that the results of his experiment might have been quite different. Blogging without aggregation is pointless (and I might also say that aggregation without blogging is equally lost…)

I’ve been having some discussions about using blogs at UTS and the usual advice is use Blogger. But it seems to me this is using about 30% of the potential of blogs. Firstly Blogger doesn’t easily accommodate categories and so you loose part of the knowledge management function. Secondly they do not easily aggregate (you could use Bloglines but I think this is clumsy) so you loose the community of practice aspect of blogging.

As Lilia Efimova and Aldo de Moor have recently pointed out in a very interesting analysis of weblog conversations:

Unlike other tools that support conversations, weblogs provide their authors with a personal space simultaneously with a community space. As a result, at any given time a blogger is involved in two types of conversations: (1) conversations with self and (2) conversations with others.

In the simplest case, a weblog post is fully and only embedded into “a conversation with self”, a personal narrative used to articulate and to organise one’s own thinking. A single blogger could have several of such conversations simultaneously, returning to ideas over time. Next, each of the posts can trigger a conversation with others that can take several rounds of discussions as well.

While in an active blogging community this communal conversation flows backwards and forwards between individual blogs in a course context, particularly with students using blogs for the first time, a series of individual blogs which aggregate to a common front page would assist the development of both conversations.

This also points to the advantage that blogs have over Blackboard threaded discussion. It could be argued that this facilitates better communal conversation. However there is really no sense of a developing personal publication in a series of scattered discussion posts.

Academic blogging

Two very interesting posts, each with lots of comments, over at Crooked Timber (here and here) on academic blogging and its relationship to tenure processes, publications etc.

Eszter began the discussion with a post pointing to similarities with traditional academic journal publishing:

one extremely important component of the journal publishing process is very much present on blogs (or can be): the peer review process (this claim is in direct contrast with Brian Leiter’s assertion a while back). Blogs that allow comments make it possible for others to discuss the posted material. In many ways this is much more conducive to intellectual exchange and the advancement of knowledge than publishing articles in journals that no one will ever read. Not only is the original post available to all subsequent readers but so are the reactions of others.

John Quiggin and others prefer the analogy to op-ed pieces and small magazines:

Posts are like short versions of opinion pieces or contributions to magazines like The New Republic or, in Australia, Quadrant and Eureka Street. As was noted by some earlier commentators, blogs have pretty much captured the territory occupied by these magazines, to the extent that quite a few have responded by establishing their own blogs.

In the numerous comments in both posts (aside: in posts like these with lots of detailed comments it is not possible to hyperlink directly to comments as the comments don’t have permalinks, interesting point for future programers) a range of other analogies are evoked:

– personal blogs should be considered as a whole in the same way that new “courses” rather than individual “lectures” are counted as academic development.

– blogs should be counted as service to the academic and wider community

– blogs are more similar and often more related to teaching than to research

– blogs are similar to the discussions that have been happening for 20 years on email lists and usenet

– blogs are similar to conference panels or participation in academic seminars

– blogs are similar to the London coffee house phenomenon or American pamphleteering (interestingly no one directly invoked Habermas)

Both posts and all the comments are very interesting and worth a read. They point to the fact that we are currently at a critical transitional point in the emergence of academic blogging. Several commentators make the point that blogging will gain more academic credibility once more senior academics become involved in blogging or alternatively once more bloggers become senior academics.

David Tuft, a business academic (commenting in Eszter’s thread) makes a fascinating point on the idea of institutional “readiness” for the blogging revolution:

I know that my blog is academically useful. Microsoft (and others) have announced that they know that the blogs written inside their organizations are important. Universities need to figure this out. This will happen eventually, but probably not until there are more bloggers on tenure committees, and applicants with blogs.

Jonathan Dresner (in the Quiggin thread) also makes an interesting point about blogging as an indication of technological competence and engagement:

One more thought on why it matters now that blogging be listed on c.v.’s: the incessant calls for scholars and teachers to use “technology” as a teaching tool. The ability to write a post with hyperlinks is not a terribly significant one in itself, but it signifies an awareness and engagement with innovative (ok, fashionable) technology with educational implications.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, John Holbo, (in Eszter’s thread) begins a discussion of using blogs as a part of academic journal websites:

Having an academic journal with its own blog has obvious functional prospects, it seems to me. Especially if it is a journal that nobody notices right now. Also, you can sponsor discussions of all the articles in each issue as it comes out. And it would be easier to claim a kind of ‘service’ credit (I agree with Brian that we can use that label, if we must use one of the old ones). Being the blogger for a journal would be like being an editor for a journal. Worth something. And if you did long pieces, helped people find their way to the good stuff, you could plausibly claim to be more than an editor, and eventually everyone would get used to that.

Holbo also suggests that this kind of blog could assist in redefining academic discussion and even move the “reputational economy” in fields or sub-fields which are new or in some kind of crisis/transition.

He also rightly suggests that blogs are not just like papers/service/lectures etc they are something specific in their own right:

But the fact is: blogs are not really equivalent to anything but themselves. And we should avoid falling into the trap of looking like we are sureptitiously equating them what they are not when really we are saying: hey, they are good. So they should count.

Encouraging Discussion On Blogs

Another good practical tip from Charlie Lowe

Try blog discussion leaders. I do a lot of group work, so one approach has been to have each group responsible for posting to the class blog at a different time. Perhaps in response to an assigned reading, or a reading of their choosing. If class is on Wednesday, I would have each group member post a blog by noon on Tuesday. Then everyone, including those that posted originally, is repsonsible for posting so many comments by class time. This begins the conversation outside of class. As the teacher, I respond with just a few comments. Some directly to the original weblog. Some in response to a comment.

This is a similar model to what I have done with discussion boards, but I think blogs may facilitate this more because someone can scan the different posts, rather than just forum topics, and choose which to respond to.