Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Interesting article on Academic Blogging from The Chronicle of Higher Education

This article appeared in the January 30, 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education.

Blog Overload
By Kara M. Dawson

I have a friend whose personal blog about her plight with breast cancer as a stay-at-home mother of two led to her job as an official blogger with the Cancer Blog. She majored in journalism. I have a colleague whose blog about the potential of social software in teaching and learning has attracted international recognition among edu-bloggers. He is a former English teacher.

Sure, blogs have changed the face of communication, and brought new opportunities, new relationships, new forms of recognition, and even new earning potential to many people. But not to everyone.

Certainly not to my two classes of graduate students who ended the fall semester blogged down and blogged out. In the past, when I had required students to write blog postings in my courses, the assignment was at least a novelty. But last semester, it just seemed a snore.
In some courses, I use a single blog on which all students are expected to post comments. In other classes, I require students to create individual blogs and to visit their fellow students' blogs through RSS feeds. Typically I expect students to write at least one posting a week and to comment on several others' blogs. Sometimes I require students to post on a particular topic, and sometimes I leave it open-ended. Whatever the approach, I found last semester that many students fell victim to blog overload.

I began to feel overloaded, too. Don't get me wrong. I love blogs. I have my RSS feeds set to a number of blogs that help me stay current on personal and professional interests. But the key difference is that I am not forced to read any of those blogs. None of them were created because of someone else's course requirement.

Frankly, the blog postings I required my students to write were just not very interesting. Those students are bright, insightful, frequently opinionated, and, as a whole, a pleasure to be around. Their blogs were not.

With few exceptions, the blogs would sit inactive until about 24 hours before our face-to-face class meetings (or 24 hours before the assignments are due in my online class) when a flurry of posts and comments would erupt. Then, I would spend an excessive amount of time reading and commenting in the hours before class. Some students did the same while others didn't bother to comment at all. Effective teaching and learning? I think not.

I have been using blogs for about seven semesters. On average, out of a class of 25 students, two to three post to their blogs once the course ends. Most of those who continue post personal vendettas, funny stories, or links to personally relevant resources. Their blogs have a known audience, such as family members or a group of interested colleagues. Few have readership outside the students' face-to-face network.

So I admit it. I got caught up in all the hype about blogs -- about their potential for communication, for creating global connections, for expressing oneself, for extending face-to-face discussions, and for building community in online environments. In most cases, my initial excitement has not borne fruit.

I don't fault my students. I am the instructor. And given my background in pedagogy and education, I should be a good leader. But when it comes to blogs, I have not been.
Still, I am not going to give up on blogs. What I am going to do is become a much more critical user. And so I offer some thoughts as I prepare to revamp the integration of blogs in my courses.

Keep a Blog Yourself
I have a blog. I just don't use it. I am too busy reading other people's blogs, responding to student postings, and writing for outlets that may one day secure me a full professorship. How can I expect my students to devote time to something that I don't find important enough to do myself? So if you're going to require students to create a blog, you should probably have an active one, too.

Recognize Individual Learning Styles and Preferences.
I find it funny that I would have to remind myself of that, given that I am expert in pedagogy. Before blogs came along, I offered my students multiple options for demonstrating their knowledge. Some created concept maps, others audio-recorded their thoughts (prior to podcasts), many kept individual journals, and others created movies or presentations. All students were responsible for demonstrating their interaction with class content from week to week and sharing the results. In retrospect, that is not such a bad plan. I can simply offer blogs as another possible option.

Encourage Bloggers to Produce More than Just Text
When I included a requirement that all students integrate at least three forms of multimedia in their blogs by the end of the semester, I envisioned creations like podcasts and Gliffy concept maps. What I got was links to YouTube videos and pre-existing podcasts and images. Clearly, the use of blogs has unintentionally decreased the way my students interact with course content. I need to recognize that. I need to be more explicit in my expectations for the use of blogs.

Recognize the Nature of the Beast
The most effective blogs provide important and cutting-edge information (e.g., Tech Crunch), communicate deeply personal experiences through narrative (e.g., the Cancer Blog), or write to a specific audience (e.g., chemistry teachers). Most people with successful blogs are deeply committed to posting, for personal reasons, such as a passion for their subject, the satisfaction of reaching a wide audience, or the ego boost associated with having others find their narratives important enough to read. Many people with successful blogs also have an innate slant toward the writing profession.

I need to recognize all of those facts, and redefine my expectations and purposes for using blogs in the classroom.

Don't Forget "Old" Technologies
Since the advent of blogs, I had moved away from online discussion forums. I viewed them as clunky, passé even. Now I realize they still have merit. It is very difficult to have an extended conversation within blogs. By their very nature, they position one person at the helm of all activity. The threaded format of discussion forums allow for multiple interactions among multiple individuals. It also allows subtopics to flow from a broad topic.

Don't Be Afraid to Punt.
I should have ceased -- or at least modified -- the way I used blogs last semester. I asked my students for their opinion on the topic but few responded. I am very open to student suggestions but know that is not true of all faculty members. My students may have feared retribution. They may have just not cared enough to comment. So from now on, blogs will be a socially negotiated addition to my coursework.

While some readers may take my comments as an attack on the merit of using blogs in teaching and learning, I still believe they have a definite role to play -- especially given what we know about the importance of metacognition and social interaction in the learning process. My hope in sharing these insights is merely to help others consider what that role might be in their own classrooms.

Kara M. Dawson is an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida.


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