Blogging: A technological aid to building effective learning communities
by Mr. Sheehy
My father-in-law once took issue with a billboard advertising a local cable company’s broadband internet service. It showed a father and his young daughter sprawled out on a hardwood floor playing with a laptop computer, both smiling, of course, and both obviously engaged in the activity on screen. In bold and clear lettering, the cable company boasted how they connected people. The objection my father-in-law voiced was over the direction of the connection. Yes, he pointed out, they are connected, but the connection for both of them is directed outward, away from each other and towards the screen. To show a father and daughter together happily and claim that somehow an internet connection had brought them together was inaccurate, at least in terms of the depiction on that billboard. It implied a different connection than the cable company provides.
While the cable company’s implication is a classic and manipulative advertising technique – make a viewer associate his desire for a close-knit family with their broadband internet service – curiosities arise from the objection regarding the communication. Can the internet be used to foster meaningful, real, interpersonal relationships? That has been established and proven (Downes, 1998 ). But more, can the internet be used to strengthen or capitalize upon relationships whose primary place of interaction is in-person, rather than on-line? Could the internet be used to strengthen the connection between that father and daughter in the billboard?
For an educator, the question is easily transferred onto a classroom, where students meet in an in-person environment 10 months of the year. While the most exciting ability for the internet in education has been its ability to connect students to the world, whether it be distant peers (Poling, 2005) or subject experts (Richardson, 2006), the internet can also be used to strengthen the learning communities being built in existing classrooms. Specifically helpful to this endeavor are blogs, which, if used carefully and wisely, can add both reflective and interactive elements to classroom learning communities.
Of course, blogs are only a support where educators are already striving to build supportive learning communities, which are a key element in the learning process. The concept of learning as a social process occurring in community is well attributed to John Dewey, who claimed that learning was experiencing and necessarily involved social processes and community: “The principle that development of experience comes about through interaction means that education is essentially a social process. This quality is realized in the degree to which individuals form a community group” (Ganley, 2006, June 8, ¶8 ). Garrison and Anderson push the importance of the community group boldly, declaring the social process as key for higher thinking: “a community of learners is an essential, core element of an educational experience when higher order learning is the desired learning outcome” (Farmer, 2004, ¶5). The idea moves beyond theory, of course, and Moore and Brooks (2004) cite how businesses have used learning communities to increase a company’s knowledge base: “Individuals and groups within a corporation organise their work in such a way as to share knowledge and skills . . .. The combination . . . becomes a contribution to the overall learning experience and the knowledge base of the business or industry” (p. 2).
While the need of a functioning learning community is easy to claim and defend, constructing one in a classroom is harder to consider. There, a teacher faces not a community of eager participants, but a hodgepodge of conscripted potential scholars. Forming a community is possible, however, and to do it, Barbara Ganley (2006, June 8 ) claims a teacher must keep in mind “how a learning community functions in a series of reciprocal apprenticeships (Pierre Levy), each of us an expert, each an apprentice” (¶11). That frame of mind helps a teacher strive to “make peer-to-peer learning effective while reducing our own prominence in the classroom” (¶11). Then, claims Ganley, “The learners take much responsibility for their own learning . . . making it real and relevant” (¶11). She points out that ultimately, “To make a learning community work, all need to feel a part of that community, with a role that matters” (¶11). Ganley’s description of the co-dependent learning community may seem ideal, but its existence as an in-person community (versus an on-line community, where the members are likely more motivated towards the learning goal, since the learning is what ties that community together [Downes, 1998]) is part of what makes the ideal so practical. Stephen Downes (1998 ) praises “peer to peer” environments for providing safety, because “a person does not feel cast adrift on the sea of the internet when working in a community of people facing similar needs and challenges” (¶11). Since, as Downes also points out, peer to peer environments will never disappear, it is good to strive toward the building of such effective learning communities, especially considering their importance in the process of building knowledge.
While the basic proposal of this paper is that blogs can aid the formation of an effective learning community, it is necessary to address what blogs are, how they are being used in broader culture, and how they are being used in education. Defining a blog is difficult, as users from various traditions of blogging define it according to their standards, but in essence, it is a type of web publishing whose “software imposes a one- to three-column format and the display of entries in reverse chronological order” (Herring, Scheidt, Bonus, & Wright, 2004, p. 7). While weblog “purists point out that a person writing in an online journal or diary is logging their life, not the Web” (“What are blogs” 2002) and should thus be considered a writer of an online journal, the overwhelmingly dominant popularity of blogs “of the personal journal type . . . in which authors report on their lives and inner thoughts and feelings” (Herring et al., 2004, p. 6) has overridden such objections. Thus, attempts to define blogs more narrowly, emphasizing characteristics like links to other websites, fail to capture the variety of popular uses of blogs. In fact, in their 2003 study, Herring, Scheidt, Bonus, & Wright (2004) discovered that, in the English-speaking world, blogs are used primarily to discuss personal lives, that they rarely contain links to outside sources, and that the comments features of the blogging software is rarely utilized. In education, blogs are often seen “as environments for knowledge sharing” (Herring et al., 2004, p. 1), and are beginning to come into popularity as awareness of them grows.
Blogs in the learning community
Popularity does not mean success in a classroom, however, but if blogs are used strategically, they can easily contribute to the already present learning community. One of the most obvious factors blogs provide to a learning community is an alternative setting for interaction. Moore and Brooks (2000) observe that “communities that have numerous formal and informal information sharing processes, and provide multiple opportunities for group participation . . . are more likely to benefit from the structuring of social capital” (p. 2). Blogging, if used strategically, can itself “provide multiple opportunities,” which in a classroom would simply add to the present “sharing processes.” Again, it is important to emphasize that the creation of a blogging community does not need to supplant the “dynamic bonds” of “an intellectual, physical-based community” (Ganley, 14 November 2006, ¶6), but instead can be a place where students “respond to the messages as well as to one another” (Poling, 2005, p. 13).
Of course, if blogs provided only variety, they could be dismissed as novelty. In practice, blogs engender a number of positive experiences, experiences essential for construction of learning through social processes. When on blogs, Catherine Poling (2005) observes, “Students begin to learn from each other as they make connections, ask questions, and draw conclusions” (p. 13). In fact, setting students loose on blogs often generates the kind of growth educators “hope that all children make . . . which is possible via the dialogue created through a tool such as a blog” (Poling, 2005, p. 13). An additional feature of on-line dialogue is that it provides “a non-threatening atmosphere in which writers feel less inhibited about expressing themselves, encouraging even timid students who usually refuse to speak in face-to-face discussions to actively participate in online chats” (Abdullah, 2003, ¶5). Further, Trupe explains, writing on tools like blogs provides opportunities for students to “reference each other’s texts, thus developing ‘threading and synthesizing skills’ as well as a heightened awareness of audience” (as cited in Abdullah, 2003, ¶6). Thus, beyond variety, blogs enhance a classroom’s community, encourage worthwhile dialogue from a wider array of students, and improve particular elements of students’ writing and thinking skills.
The Uniqueness of Blogs
Obviously, one could object that these experiences are not unique to bloggers, that educators have always devised successful strategies for accomplishing these goals. One might also be tempted to claim that the tasks teachers set up on blogs would accomplish the same objectives if the medium of communication were changed.
What is important to note, however, is that though teachers have and will continue to accomplish these objectives through other methods, blogging provides a unique communications dynamic that brings out that particular combination of results. James Farmer (2004) explains that
as with certain physical spaces and consequent social dynamics (for example, talking alone in a small office with someone or presenting to a large group in a lecture theatre), the spaces and arrangements of technology will, dependent on context and use, impact on the kind of communication that takes place (¶8).
Characteristics that provide blogs with its uniqueness in communication are commenting functions, which make “Web pages truly interactive” (Herring, 2004, p. 11); URLs specific to each entry, which enable “the facility to email the item to another person and . . . the ability to . . . trackback any other items on the web that have linked to that specific item” (Farmer, 2004, ¶24); archiving functions, which allow users to access easily their “own resources and data” (Downes, 21 July 2006, ¶1); and site ownership, which allows students to “publish, organise and develop knowledge in their own online space” (Farmer, 2004, ¶27). These basic structural components themselves provide unique opportunities for users to interact, but the greatest potential of blogs for creating unique communication environments is users’ abilities to adapt them to their own needs. Farmer (2004), using Squires’s term, explains that “one of the key attributes of weblogs is that they have within them ‘incorporated subversion,’ which allows learners to express themselves and explore their context in ways independent of the original designers intentions” (¶39). Herring, Scheidt, Bonus, & Wright (2004) also cite the “flexible, hybrid nature of the blog format” to be important in its ability to adapt “in accordance with the communicative needs of its users” (p. 11). Thus, the blog’s unique structural characteristics are what outfit it so appropriately for use in a learning community that relies on extended social interactions.
With the basic structural advantages, blogs stimulate a number of unique and positive results for learning in a community. For one, the blogs combine the written contemplation of journals with the interactive trial of discussion, leading to Poling’s (2005) endorsement of blogs over journals: “As students communicate in the blog, they question and challenge each other’s thinking, leading to deeper and more meaningful interaction than previously afforded during individual journaling” (p. 13). Not surprisingly, that effective dialogue creates motivation as it leads students to a deeper understanding (Poling, 2005). Such motivation may be the mark of a truly effective technology: it is not itself the source of motivation for students, but instead enables the learning experience to create motivation.
One would not want to overestimate that motivation, and in reality, as Ganley (2006, June 8 ) reminds educators, “not all students take to this medium with equal energy” (¶20), but as educators who use blogging will often find, even less enthusiastic students appreciate “that they can read one another’s blogs and receive feedback in writing to their posts” (¶20). An additional help in blogging is blogs’ ease of use, which makes it so even the most unmotivated learner can use them (Herring et al., 2004).
A side note worth mentioning is that blogs allow students to work on and store their writing in an electronic format, which is to a student’s advantage. Students accustomed to using computers at home and, increasingly, in the classroom are best able to express themselves through typing and would be at a disadvantage if using pen and paper (Bennet, 2002). Blogs allow them to reflect on their learning in what is becoming their most natural mode of writing.
Like any method or element of education, blogs can be used badly, and teachers must consider an array of factors before implementing the technology. Perhaps most important for blogs to enhance a learning community is teachers’ understanding of and vision for their particular classroom’s community. Ganley (2006, June 8 ) advises teachers to think first “about the nature of our learning community and our pedagogical framework, and how connecting students to themselves, one another, and the world makes sense in our classrooms” (¶3). Such reflection forces teachers to set goals for their community and for the blogging endeavor. Obviously, that kind of preparation and thought takes time, but it becomes worth it, because when “you have grounded your use of social software deeply into the learning goals of your classroom, it will be well worth the trouble” (Ganley, 2006, June 8, ¶31). Stated negatively, if teachers have not engaged in thoughtful reflection about their learning goals, blogs will add only clutter to students’ experience.
Strategically speaking, teachers can implement blogs fairly smoothly and effectively by keeping only a few principles in mind. The first principle is that of ownership. Downes (1998) stresses that to form a successful community on-line, students must be involved actively and be allowed to hold authority, because a community “is a shared and constructed environment, where the members along with the organizers play roughly equal roles in content creation” (¶8). One way to achieve a sense of ownership is by releasing some control of the “motherblog,” a central blog where students from a particular class look for information and connections regarding that class. Ganley (2006, June 8 ) suggests assigning rotations of students to manage the area: “they can point to interesting threads & posts within the class blogging, or links to the outside world; . . . summarize classtime for the group” (¶18) and more. Whatever the strategy used, the key is allowing members of the community to own the community. Of course, that ownership pertains to the community area, and the place students feel the greatest sense of ownership (and the place where they should be allowed maximum control) is over their individual blogs, which allow students “to project themselves as “real” people” (Farmer, 2004, ¶34) and provide students with their own space for individual reflection (Ganley, 2006, June 8).
All the while, teachers using blogs should understand clearly the characteristics of blogs stated earlier, since blogs force a particular style of communication. For example, an instructor expecting formalized language and article-quality writing will likely be disappointed with his students, since the genre overwhelmingly leans towards journal-style writing and a step down in formality from printed essays or articles (Herring, 2004; Farmer, 2004). That said, teachers should not hesitate to encourage students to use blogs in particular ways (for example, an increased use of comments and linking to one another’s blogs), because the most advantageous characteristic of blogs is their flexibility. Teachers who can envision what they want the blogs to accomplish are likely to find a way to accomplish those ends.
Used thoughtfully, blogs can add both reflective and interactive elements to classroom learning communities. An effective learning community creates the most helpful interactions for students’ learning, and blogging not only adds to the variety of experiences, but it adds a uniquely outfitted tool for social learning. It provides interaction and thoughtfulness – two nouns that are often found on opposing teams in the daily contest of learning. And so we return to the billboard and my father-in-law’s objection. If used well, blogs can make close to accurate that cable company’s boast about creating connections. Two people with their attention projected in the same direction – towards a screen – might actually be engaged in a process that brings them together. They can be connected in a real and meaningful way. But the ad is only close to accurate, because it is not the broadband internet service that connects the participants, but the right web tools. It seems unlikely that the creators of that billboard understood the power of blogging – after all, if the billboard had been a blog-article, it might have been littered with comments objecting to its manipulative twisting of the truth.
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