(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

Blogging Universities

Wednesday, October 27, 2004
[NB: This is the written version of the brief talk I gave at Perth's BlogNite where I talked up Blogging at University]

My segment tonight is on blogging universities. I'm going to share a few insights gained from using blogging as a substantial part of the upper level unit Self.Net: Communicating Identity in the Digital Age which I taught this semester in English, Communication and Cultural Studies and the University of Western Australia.

I guess, though, I should quickly establish my own blogging credentials: I've been blogging using the free platform Blogger for just over 18 months now. A quick check of my stats reveal that I've actually written just over 110,000 words in that time, which stuck me as quite a lot. The PhD I've been working on for four years is, after all, going to clock in at less than 100,000! My own blog is centred on my fascination with digital culture and technology and covers everything from games, films and television to the politics of blogging and participatory culture. It has also turned out to be an excellent archive when I need material for lectures.

To situate my teaching a little, UWA, like Curtin University, has recently purchased a campus-wide license for the US developed courseware system WebCT or Web Course Tools. This system is large and designed to facilitate and enclose all facets of online learning; course content such as handouts and recordings of lectures are found in WebCT, as are potentially discussion boards, homepages spaces, chat rooms, quizzes and a number of other optional tools. WebCT uses security protocols to make sure that the only people who can access a particular course are those enrolled in that unit or granted special access by the course coordinator. Now, WebCT has many uses, but its fundamental architecture and design is inward-looking. The message it gives to students is that everything you need online is within WebCT. Even when students are asked to visit a website outside of WebCT they go and visit it via the web, but then return to their protected and insular little course space. For many courses, this is probably a good thing, but for a course like Self.Net which encourages critical thinking about online environments, WebCT is just too closed.

In order to combat the inward-looking nature of WebCT, I decided to have each tutorial group establish their own tutorial blog. I decided to use the Blogger platform since I was familiar with it and, since Blogger is aimed at the general public, its interface and posting tools are very straightforward. In the third week of the course, students participated in a Blogging Workshop in which they signed up to Blogger and joined their respective tutorial blogs. During the course there were a number of mandatory posts, including notes about tutorial representations before the tutorial, reflections on their presentations, their entire first assignment and notes on a couple of guided workshops. Students were encouraged to also post items of interest that fell outside of these mandatory posts. Most importantly, after students posted their first assignments, each student was required to make a comment on two other students' assignments. In doing so, student's had the opportunity to gain direct feedback about their work not just from their tutor, but from their peers. Indeed, one might consider the mechanisms of feedback and reflection that a blog facilitates to be a form of peer-to-peer learning. Getting students familiar with learning from each other and critiquing each other is, I think the greatest educational benefit of blogs, but there are three others I want to quickly mention.

Firstly, using a public blog as opposed to a password protected discussion space in WebCT forced students to start thinking about their own public voice online. There has been a lot written in the last year or two on the idea of 'participatory journalism' which argues that the democratic nature of blogging-insomuch as, anyone online can have a blog-means that there is a whole new wave of serious journalistic-style writing being done by amateur bloggers outside of the journalistic profession. While this notion has both pros and cons, for students wrestling with this idea while participating in a publicly visible online blog meant these considerations weren't just abstract; students thus investigated issues of authority, legitimacy, responsibility and immediacy in both theoretical terms and in the very real terms of their own blogging efforts. During a survey I conducted toward the end of the course, a number of students stated they had initially been a lot more nervous using blogs since their writing would be visible via the web and thus potentially anyone could read it. Although a little nerve-wracking, these students also said they were more careful with their writing due to the blogs being publicly readable. So, in effect, writing in a public online space makes more thoughtful writers.

A second strength of blogging as a teaching and learning tool is that students can blog whenever it suits their schedule. Initially I was surprised by how many students were writing blog posts late at night or even early in the morning. Then I realised that this is the time many have put aside to do their studies. Many are, after all, holding down part-time or even full-time work while completing their degrees. So, unlike a synchronous online interaction like chat, blog posts can be made whenever students have time. In my experience, if I scheduled a week for posts to be made on a particular topic, about a third would be made during the normal working day, another third late at night and the final third in the five minutes before the absolute last time the post would be accepted! So, tutorial blogs are very useful in accommodating the flexible schedules needed by students today.

Thirdly, since so many students are already using a blog of some kind, often in a personal journal form, learning to use blogs as critical thinking spaces is immediately applicable to their students own experiences. Indeed, learning to think critically about everyday practices is probably as important as learning new things, and blogs actually bridge this gap: students who are blogging already both reflect on their own blog style and learn new ideas about the role of blogging in digital culture. And it seems a number of students in my course who didn't use a blog before the course have now developed their own personal blog which suggests that what they're learning through blogging will stay with them long after the course ends.

Before I move on, let me answer two fairly obvious objections to public blogs as teaching tools:
[X] Firstly, won't students cheat more if they can cut'n'paste from blogs? Basically: no. I believe that students plagiarise for the most part because they don't understand why it's wrong. Blogs make students a lot more aware of linking and showing sources through links, so, if anything, they're learning why not to plagiarise. Also, in doing searches online, students often realise how easy it is to track down sources, so they're more likely to think twice about plagiarising an online source when they know how easily the original source could be found.
[X] Secondly, doesn't relying on a public platform like Blogger mean education becomes dependant on technology that the university doesn't control. This is actually more of an issue. Some educators who use blogs will set up a Moveable Type base and run their blogs via that software on their own servers. This, of course, has the downside of the course coordinator having to maintain the technicalities of the blog, which is certainly beyond my current know-how. In practice, Blogger seems very stable and given it's now a subsidiary of Google, that is likely to remain true. There is also the issue of ownership of content, but the recently refined public licensing systems such as 'Creative Commons' mean that students can, in effect, copyright their own work to whatever extend needed. Indeed, in using a Creative Commons License via a blog, many students have the first understanding of their own intellectual property rights.

Of course, the question remains: do students actually think blogs are worth using? In a survey of fifty students in my Self.Net course, the results certainly seem to confirm the utility, ease and enjoyment of using blogs for students. When asked if blogging was a useful part of the course, 90% of students agreed that is was. Even more importantly, when asked if they thought blogs should be used in other university courses, 74% said yes. So, from this survey, students seem to be almost as enthusiastic about blogging at universities as I am!

To conclude, et me quickly summarise, then, what I see as the key strengths of blogging at university:
[X] Blogs encourage peer-to-peer learning, allowing students to teach and learn from each other as well as the course tutors and lecturers.
[X] The publicly accessible nature of blogs forces students to consider the construction of their own public voice online, which often improves their writing.
[X] The always-available nature of blogs means posting to blogs can be done whenever it suits students' schedules, thus creating a more flexible learning space.
[X] Since so many students already blog in some form or another, using blogs as learning tools forces them to reflect on their own online practices thus linking their personal and learning spaces in potentially very useful ways.
While I suspect some courses aren't geared towards use of blogs, I do believe that in the arts and humanities, blogging could potentially become one of the most useful eLearning tools available.


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