Collaborative Blogging and Blogging in the World

Along with colleagues from other Northeastern schools within our Mellon cluster, I am looking into opportunities for students (and faculty)to blog in the field, collaboratively as well as solo. This idea originated when several students heading off to study abroad adventures, bloggers from my classes, approached me about setting up a blog to chronicle their journeys for the folks back home.

Ah, I thought–here’s an opportunity to do more than use the blog as a public journal or a version of the World-o-Gramme, a mimeographed letter sent out to everyone back home by my husband during his two-year adventure around the world in the days when we sent aerogrammes (yes, it dates me…). Here’s a chance to build on the work of students in Middlebury’s Rural Medicine Preceptorships, like Char in Scotland, blogging her experience; or like Piya using the blog to chronicle, to analyze, to converse, to reflect on her journey through India. And now there’s Donovan blogging his way to Antarctica. What interests me in particular about what’s he’s doing is how the blog allows him to integrate his geology studies with his writing: he’s a scientist first and a writer second, but he feels as though the blogging will enhance the experience for him and will enable him to report back to the world and hopefully engage with other interested scientists and lay readers in discussion about his findings.

Next fall, we will hand several student bloggers their own blogs as they head out to study abroad, and add a Motherblog, a collaborative space for the students to create their own virtual community of practice, exchanging perspectives and advice, discussing the experience and extending the learning while bringing it to the people at home. This collaborative blog, I am thinking, will provide an essential ingredient to the blogging experience, something I’ve been mulling over these past weeks–

–And especially now in light of two recent comments on the blog about blogging collaboratively. First, in response to my Trouble in Blog Paradise postinga couple of posts ago, Chris Alfano writes in from Stanford:

I have a lot of empathy about your struggle with student bloggers — I use blogs in my writing courses as well and find myself continually revising my approach to my blogging assignments in an attempt to find that “right” mix of pedagogical purpose and creative experimentation. Surprisingly, I tend to have a mix of reactions to blogging no matter what I do: some students embrace it warmly and enthusiastically, while others look at it as “busy work.”

What I’m really curious about is your work with collaborative blogging. As we start up our new quarter in a week or so, I’m planning to implement (for the first time) a class blog. However, I’m still in the process of concretizing my expectations for it. I would love to learn more about your own experiences with the collaborative blogging format since it appears you’ve been employing it in conjunction with your courses for a while.

It’s heartening to see that Chris and others are also exploring the benefits of the collaborative blog in the classroom–getting the students to work with one another, to see learning as a social activity, and understanding that we can expand our students’ horizons with such simple steps as putting them in direct contact with one another in class through the kinds of discussions that occur on a blog on which they link all of their work as well as hold forth on topics relevant to the course. The benefits to a community both in and out of class are pretty remarkable. I have used collaborative Motherblogs as a portal for all the student blogs, the course information, relevant resource material from the outside world, and a range of discussions within the class group and with experts out in the field. Perhaps the most valuable, and the riskiest, use of the collaborative blog is the gaping, public homepage handed over to the students a few weeks into the semester(for the pitfalls of open-ended, student-directed blogging, see my Trouble in Blog Paradise post). The first couple of semesters I would find myself pulling up the blog several times a day to see if they had posted and what they had posted, worrying about whether students would “do themselves proud.” But after a couple of courses, I relaxed. Some postings were exquisite, others pretty bad, but they all represented threads of the course, a building of something far greater than the sum of our parts. But of course, sometimes, the blog just never takes off. If they don’t find things to share and talk about, relevant, meaningful things, then the blog stalls and falls limp, serving us as a repository of objects we’ve produced rather than a dynamic, evolving learning experience that becomes a presence, so much so in one class that a student experimented with “becoming the blog.”

On Sunday, I ran into one of my current creative writing students in the Chicago airport as we were both making our way back from the west coast after spring break. We ended up talking about the class, naturally, and he (unprompted) observed that he had never been in a class with such a strong community bond, and he was certain it was blog that made the difference. There’s something, he said,about being alone in your room late at night, and popping over to the blog to see what was stirring. You could read someone’s latest story or the new musing-at-large, comment on someone’s work, join a discussion underway, or start something new yourself. Some students automatically pull up the blog first thing every morning and then each time they return to their rooms. If I had just given each student a blog, this wouldn’t happen. And if I just used a discussion board (yes, I do get asked at conferences about the difference between the blog and the discussion forum or board) without giving each student their own blog, too, it wouldn’t happen,. There’s a magic that emerges with the mix of collaborative Motherblog and individual blog. And my students really feel it.

One student (a now blogless one at that) has been popping up on my blog lately, leaving me some wonderfully insightful,spirited comments, including this one from yesterday:

Hello Barbara, I am not sure whether or not you realize it, but your encouragement for students to blog and to link different communities across the web is so crucial in helping ignite new and successful forms of ‘social capital’ that this country desperately needs. Robert Putnam spoke today at Middlebury and for those that don’t know…he studies the rise, fall, and effects of civic engagement and ‘social capital’ in our country. He could not have stressed more that this country is at an all time low. The effects that this has on our society are numerous and bridging people together across and among communities is what needs to happen. New methods and means of participation must be established in order for ‘social capital’ to once again rise. Putnam said, “Boy scouts, the Lions Club, and Bridge just aren’t doing it anymore.” In an increasingly transnational world, what better way to link people together than through BLOGS! So when you ask yourself, what can students do after the class is over and they still want to blog? The answer is anything you can! It is a great sign that students are willing to participate and that they are looking for a community to engage in. I do not completely know your authority in setting up blogs for students, but if there is anything that I can do…let me know!- ZOEY

She’s not just speculating about the potential for convening on the blog, she has experience within a strong classroom blogging community and was emboldened and supported by it in her own creative and critical work. And to think that she, a sophomore in college, no longer even in one of my classes, is posting comments to my blog, engaging me in discussion, asking me questions, and even making suggestions. This is efficacy in action: her work clearly is meaningful to her environment–her commments make a difference to my blogging and my evolution as an educator– and thus she sees its worth, her worth.

And so, as I watch Donovan embark on his Antarctica adventure, I applaud and support his efforts, but I also know that if he had a whole cadre of blogging cohorts on their own adventures, his blogging experience would be enriched, grounded, and extended well beyond what he can possibly do on his own, checking in for comments and posting out there into the wind.

Social software and our students

Usually I think and write about how I see blogging working in my classes from my standpoint as teacher. I’m interested in the pedagogical ramifications of writing on the Web for the Web, of enhancing a strong student-centered learning collaborative through a virtual community of practice. Increasingly I find my thoughts are moving beyond the hows and why of technology integration within my classroom (for the mostpart that’s working pretty smoothly) to what’s going on for these students outside, beyond and after they leave my classroom community.

What impact does a classroom blogging practice have on students in an environment in which blogging is the exception. What happens to students who have blogged collaboratively as well as individually in my classes when they discover that outside a very few courses, there’s little opportunity for multi-media authoring, blogging or wiki-making? Will they start asking for blogs in their other classes?

How does the world experience these students? On the one hand, it’s interesting to see the press picking up on the social software phenomenon in colleges with articles out this month, for example,in the Christian Science Monitor on colleges using student blogs as recruitment tools, and the Washington Post, which has written intelligently about wikis in Mark Phillipson’s Bowdoin classroom:

Some course sites read like journals, some like debates and some shimmy in and out of topics with music, photos and video pulling readers along. One of Phillipson’s students drew a picture of a poem; another made a movie. Wikis can encourage creativity, remove the limits on class time, give professors a better sense of student understanding and interest and keep students writing, thinking and questioning.

Students in sophomore [Georgetown] Craig Kessler’s English class got hooked, and he said they became closer and more engaged than in any class he has taken. When the semester ended this winter, students asked the professor, David Lipscomb: Could they keep writing the blog?

Ah, yes, this is precisely what I’m wondering–what happens to students wanting to keep blogging after the course is done. What happens to their professors who hear about this virtual community of practice from their students (rather than from me)?

Even though I find that recent national coverage of political bloggers and even articles in our student-run newspaper and the fall issue of Middlebury Magazine on some of my students’ blogging has prompted more questions about blogging from colleagues, they aren’t moving to the blog or to Web-authoring with any speed. For one thing, they feel as though they don’t have the time to think it through–how to use social software within an already pressured syllabus and successful classroom. And so while many faculty use Middlebury’s homegrown CMT, Segue, few use straight-up blogs or wikis, and even fewer have students blog as part of their courses. And that’s fine of course. But where does that leave the student who gets a taste of blogging and finds it to have a positive impact on their learning? What happens when this student sees an opportunity just ripe for blogging or wiki-authoring? Will she speak up?

Mind you, most students will happily (or not so happily at first as I mentioned in my last post) blog away in my classes and then drop the blog at the end of the course. Some of them even get uneasy a year or two down the road about their early writing remaining on the Web long after they have grown beyond that level. (Are they reading the accounts of bloggers losing their jobs?–A topic I’d like to return to at some point–the uneasiness some students have about putting their work out there becuase of the permanence of the Web) But this past year I’ve also had a number of students upset about losing the blog at the end of the semester–first because making the switch from Manila to Movable Type wreaked havoc with old course blogs and momentum was lost (I’d like to give some thought one of these days to that question, too–what is the significance of momentum to the classroom blogging/wiki experience?), and so the blogging community from those classes lost its footing and its identity as bloggers; and second, because once one’s left a blogging community, blogging can get awfully lonely. Students do not, in my experience, wish to hang out there alone with no one reading and commenting and linking. And they really don’t know how to get their own blogs going–they don’t, perhaps, have the patience to build up a blogging community. They like the one I set up for them. It’s easy, and they’re already connected to an experienced, engaged community.

One former student I write about from time to time, the bloggerless blogger, jumps onto every blog he can, but he won’t start his own blog no matter how much I encourage him to do so. He craves the collaborative MOTHERBLOG and its emerging spontaneous conversations, the linking between blogs on the blogroll, not the monologue of a single blogger posting out into the wind day after day. Other students dream up discrete, finite blogging projects (in India and Antarctica, for example). But they feel alone, and craving the energy, the commitment and the connectivity of this kind of engagement with the life of the mind afforded by the sleepless blog.

And so, I am working on ways to extend the blogging past the semester, and how to create MOTHERBLOGS that might link majors or students out on study abroad programs–to think of ways to keep these marvelous classroom blogs alive as more than archives for the next group to learn from. It’s not enough to put the students in the center of the classroom; we have to help them see themselves as creators of communities of practice beyond our semester-long gatherings.

Progress, Part II

To add to the delight and surprise I expressed a couple of posts ago about my student, Piya Kashyap, winning Middlebury’s Fraker Prize for her A Journey Back blog project, today another small but significant milestone: a front page article about her remarkable achievement in our college newspaper, The Campus. Although the young staff writer doesn’t really get it about weblogs (saying something about Piya’s project consisting of “a series of weblogs”, I’m pleased that the students running the newspaper found it worth in-depth, front-page coverage. One of the faculty judges is quoted as saying,

“I was– impressed with the probing, energetically driven nature of her research; the vigorous grasping of complicated and difficult issues,” said Southern. “She courageously used the weblog medium to give the outside world access to her experiences and reactions as they unfolded, and simultaneously to invite the world (via responsive commenting) to shape her thinking and push it in unforeseen directions.”

Someday this will be the norm for all our students, yes? Form will follow function, the medium will not attract attention but will serve the writing. Blogs will be one more legitimate means of serious academic discourse. As Héctor said this morning,”The Headline–Weblog Wins Fraker Prize–got it all wrong–the blog didn’t win any prize, Piya did. The blog is the least of it.”

Trouble in Blog-Paradise

I’ve been one of the lucky ones whose students blogged away blissfully. No need in my classroom to require blogging, to cajole or to entice students, to evalute them on the number of posts. They got it because they could see how valuable to them blogging could be–and besides, it looked like fun.

Until now.

One class (Creative Writing) has taken to blogging, the other (The Writing Workshop) refuses to blog. And on the surface, it all makes sense that a bunch of creative writers would like blogging better than would Comp students, who can have major writing anxiety at a school like Middlebury (associated as it is with the reputation of Bread Loaf–school and writers’conference).
Many researchers and teachers using blogs write about how to get students to blog and how to evaluate them. Dennis Jerz, for one, gives his students a clear rubric for their online portfolios, and Bud Gibson from Univesity of Michigan discusses ways to get students blogging.

But several moments from this past week have me back here on the blog musing aloud that there’s something I’m still just getting a handle on about the role of blogs/wikis/podcasting in higher ed–where social software makes sense and where, perhaps, it does not. And I still find myself resisting what I’m feeling is a tendency to put blogs into boxes in our classrooms, when it is through their messy, sprawling, informal nature altogether that powerful learning takes place.

In a discussion between faculty and students about the role of “experiential learning” on campus now and in the future, I was struck by both how passionate the students were about their independent and/or service-learning work, and how passionate they were about its academic viability in the traditional sense: they espoused its rigor while they argued for flexibility. Students want more options for learning here, but they also like the old forms. In other words, they don’t want to change the system, they want to expand it. And these were among our most daring kids, the ones with enough drive and vision to actively pursue creative, independent options as part of their liberal arts education. These were the students who push past barriers. Interesting.

What they said rings true to my recent experience with student bloggers. If students see and accept the viability of blogs within the traditional curriculum, they seem to take to them with energy and enthusiasm. My creative writers, for instance, get it. Quickly. They see the value of having a space for talking as writers about writing. it’s our online coffeehouse, if you will. They like posting their work for feedback; they like hearing their voices reading online; they really are beginning to like collaborative blogging, or blogging-as-conversation rather than blogging-as-monologue. And so, here in the fifth week, they’ve gone and taken on the course blog, engaging with one another and course alums and class tutors in all kinds fo writing. Of course it’s pretty much an in-house blog in that they are not linking to the outside world, bringing in other blogs or resources. They are content to explore the full range of this little writing community of 21. The blog works for them, and they give to the blog. Comfortably. And it makes sense–these are the students who, for the mostpart, came to Middlebury to write; they are the ones who will move forward with their blogging past the course. They want to be writers. They like seeing their own words out there on the cyberscreens of the world. It gives them, as one of my blogging students put it, a whiff of what it will be like to publish their books.

This week, in my other class, the composition class, the blogging has just about come to a halt. Emphatically. The students do not like blogging. They do not want to blog. Nor do they altogether like the blog as a place to post their writing. They don’t want so much exposure–that’s why they take this class–to improve so that they will get good enough to feel ready for that kind of exposure. But not yet. It’s too public. And it makes them more anxious about performance than they already are. The podcasting, interestingly enough, comes more easily, as do the wiki discussions (though my students do not feel the kind of ownership of this space that Héctor’s do–and there are good reasons for that including my own absence on the wiki). But they don’t want to post alone.

And so that brings me round to how difficult it is for students at colleges like Middlebury to feel okay about “glorious failures.” One blogging class isn’t enough–they have to sense that blogging is viewed as a legitimate form of academic discourse in their other classes. What the students in the experiential learning meeting said about needing some measure of mastery of their discipline before embarking on independent work or in experiential learning surprised me. Where’s the fun? Where’s the mucking about in the messy landscapes of inquiry? Where’s the using writing to learn rather than to deliver the learning for evaluation? What have we done?

As I prepare my part of a collaborative proposal to the upcoming social software workshop at the Annenberg Center (the most interesting and significant part of the proposal coming from two of my blogging students with whom my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini and I are collaborating on a panel discussion proposal), I’m going to zero in on this conundrum–how do we really use social software to open the windows in the classroom and let some fresh air in. How do we do so without inadvertently reinforcing our students’ natural desire for a roadmap through our courses.

Perhaps I let my students flail about too much. Perhaps I should make it easier for them, on them. And so I have a choice here. I can require my students to blog, or I can abandon the blog, or I can keep working with them to see the value of informal discourse, of conversation, of thinking out loud, of writing for this medium as well as for the page. And of course, that’s what I’ll do– keep working on ways to put the responsibility in their hands, saying: you blog, you benefit. Simple? We’ll see.

Progress!

As I’ve said before, Middlebury College, while an open-minded kind of place, is not exactly a hotbed of blogging, RSS, podcasting or wikis in the classroom. In fact, with a couple of my Writing Program colleagues, I am considered way out there when it comes to integrating technology in the classroom and, in particular, using social software in my courses. Even so, I make it a priority to draw attention to my students’ very best Web-based work whenever I can, hoping that colleagues across the disciplines might think about considering multi-media essays acceptable alternatives to the traditional essay, or blogs instead of journals or weekly response papers. And once in a while, the undeniable excellence of the online work of my adventurous, fearless, and gifted students garners them praise from unexpected quarters.

This week Piya Kashyap, about whom I have blogged several times over the past few months, just won Middlebury College’s Alison B. Fraker Prize for the most outstanding undergraduate essay written on a topic pertaining to women and/or gender, for her India blog project. When I nominated the project for the award, I was asked for paper copy, which, of course, I could not provide, and so I worried that in the end the judges wouldn’t quite know what to do with her work, no matter how much it exemplified excellent writing and scholarship. Now mind you, the Women and Gender Studies program at Middlebury is the first place I expect to see an embrace of non-traditional forms and perspectives, so I knew she had a chance. However small.

And she did.

She won.

They loved it. (Though I was still asked for paper copy today for their publicity…)

Our blogging students are changing the academic landscape, little by little.

Wow.