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.


2 Responses

  1. 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

  2. Zoey,

    Thanks for your thoughtful, inspiring comments here and to my previous posting. I am delighted that you (and some of your peers) are reading my blog and joining the discussion. And I am really pleased that you say, “In an increasingly transnational world, what better way to link people together than through BLOGS!” and you’re meaning that you students can and should engage in this greater conversation. Yes, you can organize movements via blogs, deepen your understanding of the issues and your positions on them. And you can feel a part of a vibrant, committed community of practice.

    Options for students wanting blogs include setting one up on your own outside the college, or through the college’s MT blogs, and linking them to the Diversity blog. I’m hoping that we can create a strong blogging presence for students in and out of class.

    How about proposing a blog linked to The Campus?


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