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.

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2 Responses

  1. Hello bloggers! Yes! Blogging abroad is the innovative solution that we need. At first I thought, what would be the real difference (in terms of creating more ‘social capital,’ engaging more people, increasing participation) of sitting in a room in Berlin and blogging or sitting in Vermont and blogging? The Internet is international. It would reach everyone all the same, but the wonderful difference is that different experiences and international connections will open up the path to new networks and interests. It is great to have a blog that friends and family can read back home, but I would want a blog that people I have never met would want to read. The motherblog would definitely facilitate that through opening up many more links to different countries, different people and different networks. It would also provide a shared space to enforce community and give us all encouragement that we are blogging AND people are reading!- I am looking forward to soon posting on your blog with a link back to mine…talk to you soon, ZOEY

  2. Hello all,
    So I decided to start blogging here just to see how it works out. I have to say that I agree with the comments so far on blogging. For me blogging has been an on and off experience. I feel that at times I am on the blog for long periods of time and then I get lost. Also, since I am blogging for a class I feel a certain added pressure to blog as oppose to blogging because I want to. It is not that I don’t enjoy it, it is just that would like to see how it feels to be independently blog. This is why I thing that the Blogging the World project will be a success. To have a group of students on their own and around the world blogging their adventures will be amazing. Just to sit at an Internet café in Rio de Janeiro and check in on what people are doing in Germany, Italy and even Russia will really give me a sense of community and community building. On that note more classes should try to blog with other classes. I find that the only tiny problem in blogging with people from the same class is that you see them most of the time, yet you still learn a lot about them. Also, at times I think that blogging should just be a class all on its own. When it comes down to it blogging is like writing, if you want it to work you must spent a lot of time making it work. So, we have to ask ourselves who is the blog really for. Is it to build communities within communities or to create new communities? How can we “distribute” blogging out there to get people talking? Lastly, how can we encourage people to blog? -Amaury

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