To Blog or Not to Blog? An Educational Technology Student’s Inquiry-Based Quest
Dana E. K. Bjornson (neé Allingham)
University of British Columbia
ETEC 511: Foundations of Educational Technology
December 3, 2015
Social media is not going away. Five million images are uploaded to Instagram per day. Over five million tweets are posted per day. Spending an average of two and a half hours a day on social media sites, North Americans have at least seven social media apps on their phones to facilitate social networking throughout the day. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr are what are known as microblogs, sites where users create and share small amounts of content, typically, although not strictly, in a social context. It must also be highlighted that virtually none of this content is being created as a result of users being required to post and share. Nor is this content being formally graded. If our students are willingly engaging in micro-blogging on their own time and at the expense of other activities, then surely there must be a way for educators to capitalize on this phenomenon to promote deeper, more meaningful learning. To that end, let my inquiry officially begin: Is student blogging the “Holy Grail” of actualizing 21st century learning? Or are educators wasting their time in experimenting with this cyber “fountain of youth”?
Keywords: adolescents, blogging, blogs, journaling, reflections
With seventeen years of teaching behind me, last year, I had an official mid-life, teaching crisis. Knowing that colleagues “in other lands” were engaging in Web 2.0 practices on a daily basis, I felt that I was not meeting the needs of my students in a way that would fully prepare them for being learners and citizens of the 21st century. After being accepted into the University of British Columbia’s Masters of Educational Technology, I believed that my crisis had subsided. Wanting to put some of my learning into practice, I launched a new website and started one of my physics classes into what I had initially thought was a “blogging” environment. Although my inaugural launch of student blogging has had significant issues this semester, I am confident that my second attempt will avoid some of the pitfalls to which an inexperienced and uneducated blogging practitioner may fall victim.
There is no denying that on-line technology use has evolved from Web 1.0 (passively reading on-line), to Web 2.0 (actively constructing content) over the last two decades. The insurgence of user-created content is perhaps best exemplified be the frequency of uploads on YouTube, from which users currently upload over 400 hours of content every minute, a number that is expected to increase to 500 hours within six months (Robertson, 2015).
Researchers agree that student blogging potentially facilitates a multitude of Web 2.0 affordances such as these:
- Promotion of reflective thinking;
- Collaboration and sharing of content;
- Interactions with wider audiences;
- Integration of multi-media such as video, images, links and audio;
- Differentiation of instruction;
- Providing a mechanism for “silent” students to be heard;
- Increased opportunities for student feedback;
- Increased quality of work resulting from perceived external accountability (Absalom & de Saint Léger, 2011; Brownstein & Klein, 2006; Luemann & Frink, 2009; MacBride & Luehmann, 2008; Morgan, 2014; Sawmiller, 2010).
I contend that blogging is not only an important activity for classrooms of today, but also an essential one that will only continue to grow as more educators become aware of its undeniable usefulness in the student learning process. Furthermore, although blogging in the classroom appears to be the magic bullet that integrates traditional journaling with Web 2.0 user- created practices, without proper set-up, facilitation and maintenance, such blogging runs the risk of becoming yet another failed pedagogical fad, littering the educational landscape (Deed & Edwards, 2011).
Although advocates of 21st century learning models would likely lay their bets on blogging to be the stronger adversary, journaling should not be discounted altogether. In 2009, Absalom and de Saint Léger conducted a study of involving two language classes in which one class wrote reflections in journals and the other class blogged. Journaling students valued the opportunity to have a direct link with their professor, and some reported that they felt that they were able to reflect emotionally, whereas blogging students tended to be more reluctant to share personal disclosure. Journaling students also appreciated being able to have more control on when they were able to do their reflections and were happy to not be required to respond to classmates’ reflections. In contrast, blogging students’ posts were always time-stamped, not allowing them to be late with their posts; moreover, they had to log on several times per week to not only make their required post but to also respond to their classmates’ posts.
In this same study, blogging students were the recipients of some clear benefits that their journaling counterparts did not enjoy. The time stamp of the blog generated a “positive form of coercion” to compel students to keep up with the tasks in a timely manner. At the end of the course, every blogging student reported that he or she found the process useful, possibly from engaging in regular practice of the subject matter, whereas 13% of the journaling students reported a negative experience for a variety of reasons. Both groups of students, however, responded negatively towards having an increased workload as a result of having to engage in the reflection process.
Although journaling is not without its strengths, its weaknesses cannot be ignored. Only through cyberspace can students embellish their reflections with hyperlinks, videos, sound and other forms of multi-media (Brownstein & Klein, 2006). Journals also fall short on the potential for collaboration, and the chance for students to receive immediate feedback from peers and members of the public. When a student is presenting his or her work on the cyber-stage, that student’s attention to grammar, spelling, and overall quality of work are subject to broad scrutiny (Domalewska, 2014; Sawmiller, 2010). Lastly, the popularity of blogs and students’ natural tendencies to micro-blog on social media platforms already make the interactive process of blogging pleasant compared to the tedious task of pen and pencil journaling (Efimova & De Moor, 2005, as cited in Domalewska, 2014).
When done well, the blogging process should fall directly under the umbrella of a constructivist framework. Liu and Chen (2010) describe Vygotsky’s constructivist classroom as one that sanctions “constructing, creating, inventing, and developing one’s own knowledge and meaning” (p. 65). These classrooms fly in the face of traditional, stand-and-deliver models of teaching. Moreover, constructivist students are not empty jars that eagerly await being filled with knowledge from their teachers; instead, the students are responsible for filling their own jars and the jars of their peers. Making blog posts that require personal reflection of the task at hand, responding to blog posts of classmates, and working collectively to prepare assignments and projects are but a few of the affordances that blogs can provide (Deed & Edwards, 2011; Morgan, 2014). In a 2009 study, Lundstrom and Baker discovered that learners who provided feedback surpassed their classmates in their writing skills, a finding that possibly indicates that their critical thinking skills flourished through their fully embracing the blogging tasks (as cited in Domalewska, 2014). Colombo and Colombo (2007) argue that educators should use blogging as a conduit to extend class time in order to reinforce the learning outcomes and to introduce new material. At first glance, student blogging seems to be the “golden” solution to a myriad of issues that educators may face. But are the benefits of student blogs too good to be true?
In my own experience, integrating technology into a classroom routine is never without its hiccups, and there is unquestionably a persistent need for the teacher to be patient and creative with troubleshooting. Access to computers and internet connectivity is paramount, so that teachers must provide alternatives for students who may not be able to rely on having access to these physical requirements. Blogging platforms such as Blogger, WordPress, and Weebly have app-versions that can enable students to create their posts via their cellular phones, thereby reducing access issues that some of them may face. According to eMarketer Research (2015), 59% of Canadian teenagers used cell phones in 2014, and these researchers predict that this number will increase to 81% by 2018. Access to technology, whether it is a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone, should no longer be the major impediment to starting a classroom blogging environment. So what are the more prevalent issues that prevent educators from starting or continuing with blogging?
Quality of posts. Although our students are digitally native to many aspects of online culture, blogging in an academic setting is not typically part of their repertoire. Casual tone, text-based language and acronyms, and micro-blogging void of critical thinking processes on social media sites can negatively impact students’ exchanging meaningful content on the school-based blog (Deed & Edwards, 2011; Miller & Williams, 2013).
Quantity of posts. Constructivist culture requires students to create their own learning, which in the digital age translates into making posts and commenting on the posts of others, in a blogging context. More effective blogs contain multiple postings from a variety of contributors that can optimally lead to higher-order thinking (Deed & Edwards, 2011). Other students negatively report that, although commenting on others’ posts is a good idea in theory, doing so often does not happen; strategic students may even opt to not participate, should there be little to no assessment attached to the response process (Absalom & de Saint Léger, 2011). Conversely, students also report what can be best described as “response fatigue” whereby they find the responsive nature of blogging to be repetitive and exhausting (Miller & Williams, 2013).
Establishing clear expectations and assessments. As previously mentioned, students are typically unfamiliar with blogging in academic settings. With inexperience, they will likely bring a lack of knowing what blogging expectations exist. Should educators not make clear what their expectations are, students will feel overwhelmed and frustrated, negative feelings which may translate into a lack of effective participation (Deed & Edwards, 2011). Grading rubrics (Figure 1) and exemplars of posts and comments can minimize the chance of students’ not engaging in the appropriate on-line behavior (Brownstein & Klein, 2006; Miller & Williams, 2013).
It is important to point out that there are many different blog types, each with different themes and subsequent modalities that meet bloggers’ needs (Brownstein & Klein, 2006). A “learning themed” blog would allow modalities such as constructing knowledge, commentary, and personal reflection. On the other hand, an “interacting themed” blog would facilitate modalities such as peer to peer interactions, community, and communication. It is critical for educators to have a clear vision of what modalities are important to them so that they will establish blogs that will adequately support their goals. As well, educational blogs can be authored by a variety of different groups: the instructor, the individual student, and/or the entire class. By determining which modalities are desired, the teacher can determine the purpose of the blog more effectively (Figure 2, Brownstein & Klein, 2006). Thoughtful and deliberate planning on the part of the educator is essential for the potential benefits of student blogging be realized (MacBride & Luehmann, 2008).
In 2008, Luehmann and Fink conducted a case study that examined nine existing science classroom blogs and compiled a common, three step, blog design process.
Step 1: Define the goals for the classroom blog. Not only does the educator need to determine these goals, but also to articulate these goals for the students in order to effect a shift in the mindset of the students so that they will assume greater responsibility for their own learning.
Step 2: Create specific activity structures within the classroom blog. How these goals are going to be actualized will be determined by the selection of the blog’s activity structures. The most prevalent activity structures include these:
- Scribe posts: where students interpret and summarize the daily lesson. Winnipeg teacher Darren Kuropatwa has refined and perfected his classroom blog by capitalizing on scribe posts, as outlined in detail in Luehmann and MacBride’s case study in 2008.
- Sharing Resources: where students post links and resources to help others construct meaning and understanding of the course material.
- Opinion Solicitation: where opinions are sought on a particular topic or issue; often solicited by the teacher, although possibly also by students.
- Required Responses: where teachers are asking for posts that respond to a particular question or problem.
- Other possible activities: project storytelling, research results, open posts, reflective posts, how-to’s/tutorials, and classroom management posts.
Step 3: Determine the “roll out” plan. In other words, how is the teacher going to establish and maintain a suitable blogging environment? Factors to consider are plentiful, as one may judge from the following, non-exhaustive list:
- Which platform will be used? (Blogger, WordPress, Weebly, Google Classroom, …)
- Will the blog be private or public?
- What district and parental permissions are necessary?
- How will digital citizenship be addressed and enforced?
- How will students be graded?
- How will the workload be kept manageable for both the educator and the students?
Perhaps a more appropriate title to this inquiry should be, “How to blog or how not to blog.” Educators who have engaged in blogging often report having been disappointed by the results, a phenomenon that indicates that successful implementation is not automatic, and that classroom blogging is filled with potential, pedagogical hazards (Luehmann & Fink, 2009). This finding begs the question as to why so many educators seem to be unable to harness the potential power of this constructivist activity. Are we, the educators, lacking in enough on-line experience to be able to “sell” the blogging experience to our students? Are we providing enough scaffolding to our students to provide them with the support and guidance they need throughout the blogging process? Are we clear with our expectations and grading policies to avoid unnecessary confusion amongst students? Are we committing enough time to the process in order to be able to allow this on-line, collaborative learning environment to thrive?
Without question, the promise of Vygotskian theory intertwined with Web 2.0 methodology is a carrot that most educational technologists would seize with excitement and vigor! But with student blogging’s many promises come as many perils. Nevertheless, with leaders in classroom blogging such as Darren Kuropatwa, educators now have mentors to follow that provide light in this ubiquitous, on-line environment.
Educator will inevitably make mistakes, but they will also learn lessons as they encourage student blogging. If we educators give this message to our students, then must we not follow this advice, as well? Let’s enact meaningful, challenging, engaging blogs!
Absalom, M., & De Saint Léger, D. (2011). Reflecting on reflection: Learner perceptions of diaries and blogs in tertiary language study. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 10(2), 189-211.
Brownstein, E., & Klein, R. (2006). Blogs. Journal of College Science Teaching, 35(6), 18-22.
Colombo, M. W., & Colombo, P. D. (2007). Blogging to improve instruction in differentiated science classrooms. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(1), 60-63.
Deed, C., & Edwards, A. (2011). Unrestricted student blogging: Implications for active learning in a virtual text-based environment. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(1), 11-21. doi:10.1177/1469787410387725
Go-Globe (2014, December 26). [Social media addiction: Statistics & trends] [Infographic]. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/FFWaEs
Liu, C. C., & Chen, I. J. (2010). Evolution of constructivism. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 3(4), 63. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/c6GZR6
Luehmann, A. L., & Frink, J. (2009). How can blogging help teachers realize the goals of reform-based science instruction? A study of nine classroom blogs. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(3), 275-290. doi:10.1007/s10956-009-9150-x
MacBride, R., & Lynn Luehmann, A. (2008). Capitalizing on emerging technologies: A case study of classroom blogging. School Science and Mathematics, 108(5), 173-183. doi:10.1111/j.1949-8594.2008.tb17826.x
Miller, W., & Williams, R. M. (2013). Preservice teachers and blogs: An invitation to extended reflection and conversation. Art Education, 66(3), 47-52.
Morgan, H. (2014). Taking advantage of web 2.0 technologies: Classroom blogging basics. Childhood Education, 90(5), 379-381.
Robertson, M. (2015, November 13). 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute [Forecast]. Retrieved from http://www.reelseo.com/hours-minute-uploaded-youtube/
Over half of Canada’s population use smartphones in 2014. (2015, January 6). Retrieved from http://www.emarketer.com/Article/Over-Half-of-Canadas-Population-Use-Smartphones-2015/1011759
|Objective response to prompt||Blog entry accurately answers the question with a high level of useful detail as well as objectivity.||Blog entry answers the question with some detail and objectivity.||Blog entry does not fully answer question, lacks detail and objectivity.|
|Personal response to prompt||Critical response within blog entry that includes personal feelings, thoughts, reactions, and connects personally to question.||Response works to connect personally to feelings, thoughts and reactions and has some personal connections.||Lacks critical thinking and personal feelings, thoughts reactions to the question.|
|Analytical response to prompt||Analyzes and reflects on the theories and research discussed in class. Connects these ideas and plans for future learning.||Works to show some connections between readings, theories and research discussed in class and attempts to show how it connects to future learning.||Does not connect to readings, theories, and research shared and discussed in class. Does not connect to future plans for learning.|
|Extended resources related to prompt: photos, links, or videos||Included (1 point)|
|Comment contains personal connections||Comments go beyond agreement with author and share personal connections and rational arguments.||Attempts to go beyond agreement and shares little personal connection.||Agrees with the author but does not show personal connections.|
|Comment contains additional insight||Addresses specific points made by the author and adds additional insight.||Addresses some specific points and adds a small amount of insight.||Does not add further insight or add any additional points.|
|Did you respond to two blogs this week?||Yes (2 points)|
Figure 1. Sample blog and comments rubric (Miller & Williams, 2013).
Figure 2. Finding the focus of the blog via modalities. (Brownstein & Klein, 2006)