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Educational blogging on an online postgraduate course

August 29, 2011

Madras Cafe

Blogging, although neither mandatory nor assessed, was an important part of the student experience on the Open University postgraduate course H800: Technology Enhanced Learning – Practices and Debates.  Around 70 students – more than half the enrollment, and probably nearer two thirds of those students still actively engaged with the course after seven months – maintained weblogs during the course’s 2010 presentation.  Numbers of posts ranged from three to 103, one student writing a remarkable 50,000 words during H800, most posting several times a month and receiving regular comments from fellow students (see my previous post). An unpublished end-of-course survey by H800 student Catherine Coltman suggested that six in 10 students had enjoyed blogging, seven in 10 found it helped them with assignments, and eight in 10 felt it had supported their learning.

Clearly, while a substantial minority of H800 students blogged reluctantly or not at all, many others found blogging sufficiently rewarding to devote considerable time and energy to its practice.

So why do students blog? Here are some voices from the H800 blogosphere:

Student A: I have found I’m using it in 2 ways … as an online place to store notes.. and to talk aloud/share my thoughts .. Not expecting anyone to comment … but happy if they do!

Student B: Writing helps me sort out my ideas and encourages me to think more deeply…  I am experimenting with a mixture of personal and academic stuff. This feels ‘right’ to me as I feel the need for a perceived audience (even if no one reads it)…I think this helps me feel part of the community.

Student C: Somebody in my tutor group posed the question over how public reflection adds to learning?..  Disclosure – about things that are authentic and matter to you –  is a tool for building trust with others.

Student D: In the adult basic education field, we cannot avoid using what Moon refers to as “collaborative methods of deepening reflection”… I see blogging as [a] useful way of getting critical friends to deepen one’s reflection while learning.

Student E: [There are] two types of writing. Thinking writing – what you do for yourself as you’re learning, taking your own notes, helping you to think –  [and] Presentation writing – writing for an audience, communicating. Blogging combines both types of writing and also introduces the activity of conversation. 

Each of these comments resonates with my own experience of academic blogging. My MAODE weblog is an online notebook of stand-out readings and themes, a live connection with a community of student bloggers, and a reflective journal helping me to consolidate thoughts, process concepts and connect ideas. It is an instance of the representation by the learner of their own learning, which Moon (2001) identifies as a prerequisite of deep learning.

My blogging has another function too. When I interact with other academic blogs I’m not just acquiring new knowledge, I’m also learning the skills of scholarly discourse: practising academic writing, trying out a new rhetoric or discourse, performing my own identity as a practitioner – a role-playing process I blogged about here.

Students use their blogs, then, as:

  • reflective journals
  • online scrapbooks/notebook
  • platforms for self-publication and peer review
  • for knowledge sharing, social support and community building
  • for discourse practice and cognitive apprenticeship

All these uses are well supported in the academic literature. According to Downes (2009) “blogs give students ownership over their own learning and an authentic voice, allowing them to articulate their needs and inform their own learning.” Oravec (2003) has characterised the use of blog reading and writing to explore expert knowledge communities as a type of cognitive apprenticeship. Sharma and Fiedler (2007) describe the educational weblog as a learning log which “captures the history of a learning project in action and records the personally meaningful material that can foster and facilitate reflective practices.” Ferdig and Trammell (2004) point to the way blogs enable students to revisit and revise their learning artefacts for reflection and analysis while supporting learning-as-conversation; while Nardi, citing Vygotsky, notes that

Thinking by writing’ embeds cognition in a social matrix in which the blog is a bridge to others for getting explicit feedback, but also a means by which to regulate one’s own behavior (writing) through connecting with an audience. (Nardi, 2004).

The theoretical foundations of educational blogging lie in two of the most influential ideas in 20th century pedagogical thought. The first is the notion of reflective practice, introduced in the mid 1980s by Schon (1983), but most lucidly embodied in Kolb’s learning cycle which understands learning as the processing of experience, via review, reflection, conceptualisation, and experimentation (Kolb, 1984).

This is precisely what H800 student bloggers were engaged in: a conscious, reflective processing of experience in order to improve understanding and future practice. “Reflection seems pointless if it is only for reflection’s sake,” wrote one student in her blog. “If it helps us to apply what we have learnt to our practice, then it really becomes worthwhile”.

Reflective practice also has an emotional dimension, something first noted by Boud (1985) and discussed in depth by Nardi et al (2004). Several H800 students used their blogs to vent feelings of demoralisation or alienation, and invariably found support and encouragement from fellow students. For example a post entitled “Week 24 and really struggling” quickly received eight comradely comments; the writer’s next post reported that “All this has helped me to realise that I’m not on my own, and that lots of others are struggling along with me.”

The second conceptual foundation of educational blogging is the notion of communities of practice developed in the 1990s by Brown, Wenger and others. This tradition sees learning as a process of socialisation of new group members into domain-specific knowledge, skills and discourse, moving from the periphery to the centre as they become more expert in the domain. In the social and networked dimension of H800 student blogging, in which students mix personal with academic reflection, share knowledge, commentate on each others’ posts and encourage each other through hard times, we can see the community of learners in operation. And in the opportunity blogs give learners to interact with expert practitioners, to be enculturated into the language and practice of a domain, and to adopt an academic persona, they instantiate what Brown would call cognitive apprenticeship and Wenger legitimate peripheral participation in a community of scholars (Brown, 1989; Wenger, 1998).

Even when the writing is personal and inward-looking, the public nature of the blogging platform makes the practice a social and conversational one: a kind of dialogue with oneself.  This inner dialogue is well exemplified by the animated diablog format created by H800 student Julie Carle, in which students Bob (nerdy) and Sue (sporty) chew over the current week’s theme in a pastiche Platonic dialogue. Their slightly flirtatious chats articulated their author’s internal debates so absorbingly that they became minor internet celebs, with hundreds of plays on YouTube. Here they are discussing collaborative working:

Bob: I think there is more talk than actual collaboration in this course. Just interacting isn’t collaborating.

Sue: How d’you mean Bob?

Bob: Well, we don’t create joint products really – something that everyone has equal input [into]. Usually we do individual stuff, and someone summarises it and posts it to the forum. I don’t call that collaboration, Sue..

Sue: I wonder why we HAVE to collaborate on courses, when we could be much more efficient if we just got on and did things ourselves?

Despite all these reasons to blog, however, a substantial minority of students on this course did not engage with academic blogging. Why?

All new technologies are disruptive of existing practices and therefore encounter resistance.  Rogers identifies the main resistance factors as a perceived lack of relative advantage or of compatibility with existing practice; plus high complexity and low observability (Rogers, 2003). Both disruption and resistance may be contraindications for educators thinking of deploying new technologies, even if they are outweighed in the final analysis by potential benefits.

Educational blogging has a high degree of compatibility with existing practice, since most students are used to writing and familiar with notions of journal-keeping, reflection and peer-review. For regular web users, complexity is low, since blog publishing is as easy as updating a social network page, and observability high because blogs are so numerous – 146 million according to BlogPulse (2010). The main barrier for potential student bloggers is therefore a perceived lack of relative advantage: a failure to discern sufficient benefits as to justify the extra investment in time and/or energy. On H800 this barrier was heightened by the fact that engagement with blogging, unlike tutor-group forum contributions, played no part in assessment. Unclear about the different purposes of forum participation and blog-posting, many students opted out of the latter, as noted by H800 student Sylvia Mossinger in an unpublished survey of her tutor group: “most stated they saw blog and forum as competing tools; they did not want to write things twice and with the great workload they decided to stay focused on the forum to achieve good marks there”.

Here are some more H800 student voices:

Student V: I was not sure why I was required to use a blog when the forum seemed.. more than adequate for my response.

Student W: It was clear that most of the other H800 students were electing to make their comments in the forums and not on the blogs.

Student X: While I am engaged in excessive study I just don’t have the time to make meaningful and well thought-through posts.

Student Y: I didn’t get the feedback on my postings which I thought I’d get.

Student Z: There was little encouragement or incentive to visit and comment on other student blogs.

These comments underline the need to convince students about the purpose of blogging, its benefits to them, and the centrality of blogging in the overall course design, a point reinforced by studies of deployment of social web applications in online courses, for example Minocha and Thomas (2007) and Kerawalla et al (2009). To succeed in this, educators need to do a number of things.

1. Course designers need to incorporate activities demonstrating the value of blogs as spaces for reflective learning and “writing as thinking”, as online notebooks, as self-publication and peer-review platforms, tools for networking and knowledge sharing, and settings for cognitive apprenticeship.

Examples and testimonies by current and/or former student bloggers will help to reinforce these points.

2. Course designers and tutors need to make very clear the distinction between participating in an online course forum and maintaining a  blog. The former is course-specific, task-oriented, tutor-mediated, and focused inward onto group discussions; while the latter is generalising, reflective, community-mediated, and focused outward onto the world wide web.

Ideally, student bloggers should use public blogging platforms, which not only allow them to control their blog’s format, design and access settings, but also to reap the pedagogical benefits of open publication to the web.

3. Course designs need to incentivise the practice of blogging by aligning it with assessment. This should preferably be in an indirect way so that blogging is seen as conferring an assessment advantage rather than being itself compulsory or assessed.

This is difficult territory, as external summative assessment of student outputs feels antithetical to the practice of self-directed reflective practice by learners. However I now think that leaving blogging entirely unassessed runs the risk of students feeling that synopsis and reflection are optional extras instead at the heart of learning.

4. Tutors need to support the practice of blogging by engaging in and modeling the practice themselves – eg by pointing to interesting examples, maintaining a reflective blog themselves, or regularly commenting on student posts.

It’s important to establish that there’s no single ‘proper way’ of blogging. Students should feel free to adopt or invent the blogging style which works for them.

5. Course designers and tutors need to support the networked dimension of academic blogging by putting bloggers in touch with each other across internal course boundaries and introducing them  to the practice of commenting on posts.

Once established, a community of student bloggers will generate its own gravitational field as students seek out the academic, practical, social and emotional support its members provide to each other.

Citations:

BlogPulse (2010). Index page/BlogPulse Stats [online] http://www.blogpulse.com/  (Accessed 18/09/10)

Boud, D et al, eds (1985). Reflection. Turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page

Brown, J S, Collins, A and Duguid, P (1989) Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, vol.18, no.1, pp.32–42.

Davies, C & Lowe, T (2005). Kolb Learning Cycle. Staff and Departmental Development Unit, University of Leeds [online]http://www.leeds.ac.uk/sddu/online/kolb.html (Accessed 01/08/10)

Downes, S (2009) Blogs in Education. Post to Half an Hour blog, 13/04/09) [online] http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2009/04/blogs-in-education.html (Accessed 09/09/10)

Ferdig, RE & Trammell, KD, 2004. Content Delivery in the ‘Blogosphere’. THE Journal, 01/02/04 [online]http://thejournal.com/Articles/2004/02/01/Content-Delivery-in-the-Blogosphere.aspx?Page=1 (Accessed 09/09/10)

Kerawalla, L, Minocha, S, Kirkup, G & Conole, G (2009). An empirically grounded framework to guide blogging in higher education. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25, pp 31-42

Kolb, D (1984) Experiential Learning: Turning Experience into Learning, New Jersey, Prentice Hall Inc.

Minocha, S. and Thomas, P.S. (2007) Collaborative learning in a wiki environment: experiences from a software engineering course, New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, vol.13, no.2, pp.187–209. Available online at http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/ login?url=http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1080/ 13614560701712667 (accessed 01/09/10)

Moon, J, 2001, Reflection in Higher Education Learning, LTSN Generic Centre PDP Working Paper 4, available online at http://www.york.ac.uk/admin/hr/training/gtu/students/resources/pgwt/reflectivepractice.pdf. (Accessed 17/09/10)

Nardi, B, Schiano, D, and Gumbrecht, M (2004). Blogging as Social Activity, or, Would You Let 900 Million People Read Your Diary.  Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, pp 222–228. New York: ACM Press

Oravec, J A (2003). Blending by blogging: weblogs in blended learning initiatives. Journal of Educational Media, 28(2-3), p229

Rogers, E M (2003). Diffusion of Innovations, 5th edition, Ch 6. New York: Free Press

Schon D A (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith

Sharma, P and Fiedler, S (2007). Supporting Self-Organized Learning with Personal WebPublishing Technologies and Practices. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 18(2) pp3-24

Wenger, E (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This post is adapted from part of my H800 End of Course Assignment.

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6 Comments
  1. Mel B permalink

    Hi John,
    Great to see a new post on your blog (admit I haven’t read it all yet) – I’m just at the beginning of my next H* module , H808 ‘The elearning professional’ and will be getting a new blog up and running so I’m interested to read your reflections from H800.
    Mel

  2. johnmill permalink

    thanks mel. I hope you’re enjoying H808 as much as I did – I think it was my favourite! Do let me know when you’ve got your blog going: I’ll swing by. J

  3. It’s up and running (although I’m already getting behind!) at http://www.learningwithe.wordpress.com
    Mel

  4. In my formal (APA) research writing class this past term (postsecondary 3rd and 4th year students) , I had the students blog once a week as part of their class participation; they needed to blog and comment on their classmates blogs. I asked them for each entry to write a few sentences to a few paragraphs – my goal was to get them, esp. early in the term, used to spontaneous writing which I find it often needed for earlier drafts of a paper. I also wanted them to have an outlet for informal writing and a place for them to vent or present personal opinion related to their research topic (something they would need to avoid in their formal papers).

    I made a few blog posts of my own as an example of what I was expecting and I commented from time to time on the student blogs as a peer. I also created an online discussion forum where they could ask for help or assistance from their peers or myself. I found this forum barely used; what I did find is a lot of the help and interaction took place within the context of the blog; with students sharing ideas, links, research notes and related comments.

  5. Hello John – I’m a student of H800 this year (2015) and came across your blog in an attempt to try and get to grips with some stuff ! Anyhow I just thought I would say thanks for sharing and that I have really enjoyed reading what I have seen so far ! Bye for now Debbie

    • johnmill permalink

      Hi Debbaff – many thanks for your comment, & hope you enjoy H800 as much as I did! Best, John

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