Monday, June 12, 2006

Flogging Blogs

My first assignment in a class on Educational Consulting was to read Anne Davis' piece on "Blogging and Pedagogy" (in eSchool News On-line). After reading Anne's missive, I posted a comment on Rene Corbeil's "EdTech Blog". Now, having re-read both the article and my post, I feel a compelled to expound further.

Ms. Davis believes that her pedagogical "strategies, techniques, and approaches have improved due to the very nature of blogs". In fact, she goes on to name several ways that blogs have allowed for said improvement..."Audience and Comment", "Voice", "Conversation and Dialogue", "Ownership and Choice" and "Archives". While it may be true that blogging brings each of these individual elements with it, I'm still not sure that I am convinced that pedagogy has improved because of them.

Audience and Comment -

"Having a worldwide audience who can read what students write brings forth recognition for students that can be quite profound. Students are used to the teacher being the only audience for their work. The realization that others think that what they have to say is important is empowering."

While it is true that the potential size of the audience is greatly increased, it is not necessarily true that in the real world, others will think what you have to say is empowering. In fact, in many cases, we have already seen a negative result of one expressing their honest thoughts. The response to such honesty in some cases has been to ban blogs or blog services (i.e., China) or to take legal actions against the poster ( Miguel Guhlin gives some good advice on this subject). If we think in terms of global educational consulting, we have to think about all the participants of our blogging efforts, not just the student. By encouraging freedom of expression, I cannot help but wonder whether in all cases, we are promoting the well-being of the expresser - in Iran, in North Korea, in China, and perhaps even in the US. I suspect, I think best when I get up in the cool of the morning and go out and tinker in my garden. Yes, my thoughts are not recorded anywhere but in my head, but it's a first step toward deciding what I wish to reveal to others. Blogging, it seems to me, encourages one to write without revision. Get up, put those thoughts down no matter what they are, and then publish. More than once now, after a frustrating day with a particular teacher, a student has posted their thoughts without revision and wound up in all sorts of legal entanglements. With a hoe in my hand, I can chop the "itty, bitty heads" off my professors (represented in this case by weeds), and no one save me will be the wiser. But if I threaten to chop the heads off my professors in print, it maybe construed as a federal crime. Walk slowly and cautiously here.

Voice -

"Many students that would be hesitant to speak in a classroom will share their ideas on a blog."
Yea, and many students WILL express what’s on their minds in MySpace....and you may not like it. It would be a pristine world if all students thought like you and I do....but they don't, especially in the case of teenagers who are just starting to find themselves as individuals. No matter how much instruction we pass out about internet predators, teenagers are still prone to use social networking devices like blogs and as tools of sexual attraction and means to express their angst. Part of our problem is separating the educational blog from the personal blog. The educational blog (the one perpetrated in the classroom) has controls and checks and hopefully, balances. The private one...well, that seems to be where the issue it really private? I think it is, but increasingly, folks are trying to make it part of the school's responsibility. If a student uses a curse word in a blog at school, there should be swift and negative results. But what if the same student uses the same word in a blog, set up and written from home on their own personal computer? Until the issue is settled - Walk slowly and cautiously.

Conversation and Dialogue -

"Blogs put us on a learning path together with our students where we can shape new learning environments for the future. Blogs also offer incredible opportunities for dialogue and the social construction of meaning."

There is much truth in this observation. Blogs do offer great opportunities for dialogue and social construction of meaning. They also offer a workload that for many will be frustrating an unachievable. Consider for a moment, the potential amount of work that a student may be responsible for if asked for in the wrong manner. Let's assume a normal class size...say 25 students. If each of those students writes one entry per day, in a week's time that would mean that a total of 125 posts would be generated. So far, we are ok. Even the instructor will find that not too unbearable. But now, let’s tell the students that in order to create dialogue and meaning, each student is to read each other student's posts and to comment. Now we are up to at least 150 documents per week per student. That's a pretty large conversation. And if we are to assume that a dialogue is being established, not only should the student write their own comment, the comment on everyone else’s comments, now they need to read everyone else's now the student has read 375 post and has written at least 150 comments in a week, frankly, I am not sure how much dialogue has happened so far.

Ok, so maybe this is an exaggeration, but my point is that blogging can easily be carried to an extreme. Furthermore, if the subject of all this blogging is a subject in which a student has little interest, we will now have students going through the motions of critical thinking but in reality doing little more than posting a line or two that are somewhat meaningless. That doesn't sound too much like creating meaning. On the other hand, if the wise instructor were to allow greater flexibility in what a student is to read, then we may develop student who, on the whole, develop a healthy attitude toward exploration of subject matter that they really want to know more about.

Walk slowly and cautiously.

Ownership and Choice -

"Giving students a choice in making their own connections about their learning on blogs paves the way for blogs to be constructivist tools for learning. These attributes are compelling and powerful motivators that help us shape the pedagogy."

On this point, I am in complete agreement with Ms. Davis. I think blogs have tremendous constructivist potential. And further, with much potential, the door to powerful individual motivation is wide open. Blogs can cause tremendous shifts in personal potential. I am still concerned about whether this works for all students, but increasingly, I find that developers have found ways to create blog software to allow for the inclusion of as many different kinds of learning as is possible. Hyper textual writing allows the author to not only show what has influenced decision-making, but hopefully increases the desire to explore new knowledge and sources of knowledge to find fodder for decision making.

Search engine developers have not yet found a way to index all the materials available on the internet. In other words, the potential for construction has yet to exhaust the amount of supply. As students become better seekers, they will develop a real skill of piecing together the diverse elements of their searches. In Net 2.0 lingo, they start to develop "Mash-ups" (it will be interesting to see how many scholars will not get to read this blog because the search for "Mash-ups" in Wikipedia re-directs us to the entry for "Bastard Pop"). Mash ups, according to Wikipedia may be "the practice of assembling new songs from purloined elements of other tracks". In terms of critical writing, it might mean assembling new thoughts from the unrelated thoughts of many others. And just as Mash-ups have stirred the copyright pot in music, we are starting to see the same in the world of literature (Brown's "The DaVinci Code" dispute, Kaavya Viswanathan's "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life" or Jason ). Plagiarism has become a campus buzzword again, and much of it focused around, not just the use of verbiage "borrowed" from other authors, but also about concepts that many feel are copyrighted and "owned" by the author.

Archives -

"Having records of the learning that is ongoing facilitates learning and evaluation in a much easier and efficient matter."

Finally, I also agree that being able to access earlier personal works is a positive development. However, I am a bit hesitant to say that such archiving is long lasting. Modern technology already has the capability of life-caching (such as Nokia's Lifeblog or Microsoft's LifeBits Program) but let's not assume too hastily that recording and archiving everything in our lives has a positive end result. In fact, the same kind of hypertext archives that are going to facilitate learning and evaluation, are now rumored to be causes of information overload. Too much information can (according to Wikipedia) cause "technostress".

"Technostress induces a correlated perception that users are being controlled by information and communication(s) technology (ICT) rather than being empowered by it. Like any kind of stress, technostress results in reduced intellectual performance and poor judgment; this is well-known to cognitive psychologists. This stress causes, and is a result of, haphazard and random use of ICT, creating a snowball effect. Lack of an efficient means of dealing with information also acts as an aggravating factor."

So there is at least an outside potential that archiving may just do the opposite of what Ms. Davis suggests.


So, at least today, my thoughts about blogging are cautious. I am glad that the technology exists and already a dozen spin-offs are spiraling our knowledge base to new highs (which may or may not be good), and in terms of breathing life into technology in the classroom, they have had an awesome effect on the entire system. Whether they result in the magic pedagogical pill that Ms. Davis suggests, cannot yet be known. They warrant watching and using, but I advise those who watch and use, to keep a critical and cautious eye on them.

Your comments are well taken, especially since I just this morning read an article describing that HR administrators are reading the personal blogs and MySpaces of hiring-prospects, and a possible job discrimination action is occurring. I'm of two minds about that, because I can see that the potential for abuse is there, but if you don't want someone to read, don't post it.

You said "I think it is, but increasingly, folks are trying to make it part of the school's responsibility. If a student uses a curse word in a blog at school, there should be swift and negative results. But what if the same student uses the same word in a blog, set up and written from home on their own personal computer?

I absolutely agree. Two of my teen aged children have Xanga pages - I read them on a weekly basis, but I do not subscribe, comment, or take my children to task for what they say (as long as they're not posting personal information). That's their personal page, and if they want to use curse words, it's a reflection on them, not me. (and I'm working hard to hold onto that belief, realizing that after a certain age your children are responsible for their own behavior, regardless of how good their upbringing may be.)
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