Why do students and teachers blog? Or to put it another way, what’s blogging got to do with learning?
I use my blog as an online log of what seem to me the most important readings, concepts and themes from the course; and as a reflective journal which helps me to bed down new knowledge, consolidate my thoughts about what I’ve read, process my thinking, and make connections between ideas – all things identified by educational psychologists as fundamental to learning.
Often in my posts I’m trying on new concepts for size, testing their fit with existing ideas, trying out a new terminology to see what it feels like in use, and more or less consciously acting out an academic persona – performing my own identity as a practitioner of the academic craft. I also read and learn from the blogs of people who know a lot more about eLearning than I do (Josie Fraser’s SocialTech, for example, or George Siemen’s ELEARNSPACE to name two of my favourites). Apart from the exposure it gives me to new knowledge and ideas, this is a process of enculturation into academic discourse: what Seely Brown would call a cognitive apprenticeship and Etienne Wenger a legitimate peripheral participation in a community of scholars.
A quick survey of the H800-2010 cohort shows around half of them maintain course blogs for similar and/or other purposes to mine. Many of them function as online memo pads where students store notes on their reading plus links, references, reviews, answers to questions raised in the course materials, rants about the course structure, thoughts about online learning, notes to self – almost anything that doesn’t seem to fit naturally into a tutor group conference post. Some of them attract regular comments from fellow students. Virtually all of them exhibit some kind of reflection on the author’s experience of online learning.
A recent study of academic blogging by Gill Kirkup of the Open University’s Institute for Educational Technology reports that
Recent educational literature has given a long list of educational reasons why blogging is useful for students. These include: as a reflective journal, as a notebook to record events and developing ideas, as an aggregator of resources, and as a tool for creating community and conversation with fellow students. (Kirkup, 2010)
This list is largely confirmed by Kerawalla et al’s 2008 study, also for the OU’s IET, which analysed the blogging behaviours of a small group of students on one of the OU’s Masters in Online and Distance Education courses (Kerawalla et al, 2008). After allowing for those who gave up blogging or only blogged sporadically because they thought it a course requirement, Kerawalla et al identified three distinct purposes in the students’ postings:
• sharing learning resources with a network of other students
• storing (rather than sharing) personal study resources
• building a student community providing both academic and emotional support
In discussing this paper, several H800 students pointed to an overlap between these purposes and the functions that in most online course designs are intended to be fulfilled by a course conference. However the way blogs were used on the course in Kerawalla’s study (H808) meant they were better placed than the tutor group forums to fulfill this community-support function. I was a student on this presentation, and as I mentioned in the Week 10 forum discussion, the blogs on H808 were complementary to the TG forums in three important ways: they were a place for less formal, more speculative, more conversational contributions than the forums; a place for the more social and affective side of community-building; and a kind of online common room for the whole course cohort where you’d meet students from other tutor groups.
Unlike a tutor group forum blogs are normally public, and for many professional academics this is part of their usefulness. A blog’s openness to the world wide web, combined with its discursive, post-and-comment, hyperlinked nature makes it ideally suited to the interchange of ideas and the making of new intellectual connections, enabling academics, as Rory Ewins of Edinburgh University puts it, “to be both author and audience, and to communicate readily with their peers as either or both” (Ewins, 2005). Melissa Greg of Queensland University notes that blogs are an antidote to overconcern with intellectual property: “In blogging.. knowledge loses any sense of being something to be guarded. Instead, it becomes something to be facilitated, discussed and improved” (Gregg, 2006). While the OU’s Martin Weller posted recently that his blog was now a key part of his academic identity – the part he was most comfortable with – and went on to say that
Developing an online identity is a crucial part of being an academic (or maybe just being a citizen) – there is an online identity for you out there somewhere, you just need to find it. And when you do, nothing will be the same again. (Weller, 2009)
Despite all these benefits, many students are reluctant to blog. Many H800 students blog intermittently or not at all, and in the tutor-group discussion on the Kerawalla paper several contributors suggested they would only blog if it was a course requirement, and then only nervously or unwillingly. Some could still not see the point, some felt it was just not for them, and for some it seemed to do with lack of confidence as learners.
Nevertheless I agree with those like Adam and Caroline who argued in the forum that, while course design can be optimised to encourage it, blogging should remain ultimately a matter of learner choice and personal preference and not an assessable course component. You can’t be compelled to reflect.
Last but not least, blogging is a training ground for good writing, a way of practising a more informal, less hide-bound style of academic discourse; what Gregg calls “conversational scholarship” (Gregg, 2006). Blogs are after all rhetorical artefacts, and even academic blogs address themselves to the world wide web as well as a scholarly community. Blogs need to be well written if they are to be well read, which means they need to be – unlike a great deal of traditional academic prose – clear, concise and engaging. The instant access and endless editability of the weblog makes it a perfect writer’s sandpit.
Kerawalla L, Minocha S, Kirkup G and Conole G, 2008. Characterising the different blogging behaviours of students on an online distance learning course. Learning Media and Technology, Vol 33 No1, 21-33
Kirkup G, 2010. Academic blogging: academic practice and academic identity. Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK
Ewins R, 2005. Who are You? Weblogs and Academic Identity. E–Learning, Volume 2, Number 4.
Gregg M, 2006. Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship. Continuum: Journal of Media & Culture Studies Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 147–160
Weller, M (2009). Happy Blogiversary to Me, posted to The Ed Techie 03/05/2009. Available online at http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2009/05/happy-blogiversary-to-me.html. Accessed 29/05/10