Parallel, Transparent & Collaborative Blogging in the Liberal Arts Classroom: First-years, Juniors and A Teacher

Recent moments on the three blogs absorbing my blogging energies these days and a lecture by James Martin have me thinking about why it is I have my students blog so publicly, why I encourage them to read my blog, and why I’m trying so darn hard to get people to see that the most important function of classroom blogging is the connecting, the discussing, the collaborating it fosters. I’m referring to three very different blogs I’m using: this bgblogging blog on which I try to spin out some of the technology-related ideas that stir during my teaching week; the Blogging the World blog on which a clutch of juniors, experienced classroom bloggers, are blogging from abroad,outside the classroom experience (yup, their blogging is completely voluntary and part of no course requirement); and my Writing Workshop blog on which my class of first-years, all of whom are uneasy about writing in the first place, are posting just about everything they write for the course, including podcasts and wordless stories. A comment left on bgblogging; the elegant, confident posting on the Blogging the World Blog and the responses it is generating; and the first attempts at blogging by my first-years have me convinced that sustained blogging over the years, not just in the classroom, but after and outside the classroom experience, as a way to reflect on and discuss the connections between the lessons learned inside the class and the world outside our walls, is perhaps the most promising way to use blogging and other social software in a liberal arts institution. And coupled with the kinds of classroom-wall-toppling learning practices as engaged in by the students of Hector Vila, we could really be moving forward into a twenty-first-century educational model.

If we want to encourage our students to use blogging as a powerful communication tool, we have to teach them the difference between blogging as daily diary, and blogging as a way to dig deep into ideas and to grow communities of discourse, of knowledge and of action. So, of course it isn’t simply a matter of handing blogs to students as they enter our institutions and saying, go ahead, write; you have to give students a chance to grow in this work within a learning community–the new wall-less classroom–and then turn them loose to develop their own blogging practices within a supported framework. The institution and its faculty must mentor and model this practice of reaching out in the world to discuss and share ideas, ask questions, and work collaboratively. In other words, it is in the second-wave blogging, the blogging that my juniors are doing out in the world as a way to express, explore and understand the world in which they have been thrust that will teach them huge lessons about the role of communication, of technology, of community in bringing about change in this stumbling world. Indeed, I think that they are achieving what George Seimens, in a recent post, is calling learning ecologies:

Instead of designing instruction (which we assume will lead to learning), we should be focusing on designing ecologies in which learners can forage for knowledge, information, and derive meaning. What’s the difference between a course and an ecology? A course, as mentioned is static – a frozen representation of knowledge at a certain time. An ecology is dynamic, rich, and continually evolving. The entire system reacts to changes – internal or external. An ecology gives the learner control – allowing her to acquire and explore areas based on self-selected objectives. The designer of the ecology may still include learning objectives, but they will be implicit rather than explicit.

So what were these blog moments and how do they connect?

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Over the past two weeks, I have slowly been pulling the Writing Workshop Blog to life. And the catch-word is slowly. From the first day the students are up and blogging, but not yet expected to do more than to make a mess of things, including getting hung up posting images and podcasts. No one has to leave comments. We take it slow while we’re looking closely at the writing. (For anyone who wants an in-depth discussion of how I use blogs in the classroom, you can take a look at the paper. I wrote last year for BLOGTALK, or at any of the talks linked off the homepage.) The biggest hurdle at the beginning of the semester has to do with the public nature of the blog. It’s scary enough to hand your writing to a professor or to a peer workshop group much less to put it into the public arena where anyone happening by might find it. The students are shy, self-conscious, some of them still figuring out how to write in English. They have been conditioned to succeed, to achieve, to excel, and they feel that showing their work like this exposes a weakness, a flaw, a secret. They don’t altogether buy it that they are here in college to learn, (I’m not sure they’ve really thought about what that word means except in the most literal sense of acquiring a body of knowledge to be tested on) not to produce shiny objects, one after another that demonstrate their worthiness according to some unfathomable scale. After all, they spent the last ten years or so in the mad race to get to college, spending more time, perhaps, compiling resumÔøΩs than exploring the processes of learning and of expression. Publishing their work to the Web takes some getting used to. Absolutely.

Some educators, wondering why ever I would have my students post to the world even their first messy drafts, think that in so doing, I’m encouraging them to post any old thing, thereby espousing messy thinking and sloppy writing. Some don’t like the exposure of having their students’ “flawed” work on the Web–it opens them up to criticism that they are not doing their jobs. They worry that people will think they do not hold their students to sufficiently high standards, or even, perhaps, to any standards at all. These same educators sometimes ask if I am worried about protecting the intellectual property of my students, if I have concerns about other students ripping off their work. And some of these educators think it inappropriate for other students, let alone the world, to see the novice’s work–it takes away, they contend, some kind of freedom the student has to make mistakes if their student attempts are put out there in the world. The argument is that the student writer will seize up under the gaze of the world, play it safe, try to please. And some worry about potential employers Googling the kids years down the road and finding some of these flawed pieces of writing.

Well, I’m not bothered by any of that. In fact, I can think of only one good reason for not publishing student writing to the Web at all stages of its development: the student is writing about something too delicate, too painful, too private or too hurtful to put out there. My students always have the option to keep their work off the blog for those reasons.

Why, then, have them publish to a blog open to a public readership?

~Writing for an audience beyond the walls of the school gives students valuable experience with real world writing situations. They carefullly consider tone, diction level, organization, and content when they know they are being read. The writing improves dramatically and quickly once they realize that it’s really out there in the world.

~Writing for a real audience versus a forced one leads to efficacious, authentic learning. Student writers see the effect they can have on their readers, and that in turn spurs a deeper engagement with their own writing and learning. As students link and refer to significant discussions going on via the Web related to the subject matter in class, they contextualize the learning in the greater conversation unfolding beyond the Academy. They can be a part of something far bigger than themselves. They experience the power of writing, of their writing. As a result they put more energy and effort into developing their writing skills.

~Collaborative blogs build communities, and if there’s anything I’ve learned over the course of many years of teaching, it is that the most effective, enduring classroom learning takes place within a committed learning community. As usual, I refer here to Pierre Levy’s notion of collective intelligence, knowledge spaces, and reciprocal apprenticeships. (Read his book, Collective Intelligence) Students publishing together, by linking dynamically off a Motherblog on which they engage in freewheeling discussions enhances the building of such a community. So often we champion the individual’s achievement, isolating our students from one another, privileging the individual’s pursuits and pleasures over the community’s well-being. In this century, in particular, it is going to take all our efforts, in concert, to tackle the pressing problems facing us, as James Martin outlined in his talk.

My previous post,Thinking about Images in a Writing Course, brought a wonderful response from a student who blogged in my creative writing course two springs ago and is now part of the Blogging the World Project, keeping a lively blog to which I’ll return further on here. Students who have blogged in my classrooms feel comfortable venturing onto my blog and posting comments, engaging me in discussion, asking for more, questioning, probing. They are all about learning in the full sense of that word.

Another comment on that post asked me why my Irish blog hasn’t been updated in ages. My first response was regret that I hadn’t been able to keep that group of students blogging there. But actually, it’s okay for classroom blogs to circle in and out of existence depending on what I’m teaching any given semester. At least for now–until we see the importance of getting our students to see the connections between their explorations one year and their discoveries the next. The blog remains as a valuable archive for me, my students, anyone wanting to see what a group of American students thought about things in contemporary Ireland, and how blogging could work in such a course. And, indeed, people are still taking a look at that old blog. The students benefitted from that one blogging experience, but have moved on from their study of Ireland. That’s fine. For the moment.

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And then, finally, there is the sophisticated blogging the Blogging-the-World bloggers are doing. With a few notable exceptions, when I look at most Study Abroad blogs, I am usually left pretty uninterested by the lists of look-at-this-cool-thing-I did today, largely descriptive or narrative writing pointed at the self. What is unfolding on the Blogging-the-World blogs is way more exciting than that. The opening posts of the students focussed, almost without exception, on the disorientation they were feeling as they tried to sort out how they fit into this new place. But even these entries go beyond the obvious, and spark interesting discussions off the comments pages. And then, about a week ago, they started opening up, shifting focus, and really looking around them at the cities they are now inhabiting, and the distance between their expectations and reality. Lizi, in “Culture Shock, Part 2” explores what happens when you are confronted by what you had assumed you would NOT really see (the stereotype) but find, in actuality, around every corner. Piya chronicles glimpses of the stories of the people and places she encounters. Zoey has been riveted by the politics of Berlin, taking her own course on the political life of the Berliner. Amaury on his own blog and on the Motherblog is trying to make sense of Rio. They have all lifted their heads from their own particular stories to look at the stories around them.

And they are generating some interest, already–their parents and friends are leaving probing comments, connecting the fullness of the experience to the people at home, and helping the bloggers to blog even more fully. Others have discovered them: Zoey has German bloggers discussing her posts in her comment section (in German); Amaury has attracted an entire classroom from Brasilia onto his Motherblog posting. Some of the Brazilians are moving over onto the other blogs, and on it goes. The students feel the rewards of getting a response–they’re not just blogging into the wind, in other words, they’re blogging with an emerging community; and they in turn, are fired up to keep digging through the experience, and using writing (not private in-the-journal writing, but communications to the world about this experience) to reflect, to connect, to explore. Their previous in-the-class blogging experience prepared them to post these kinds of entries, to see social software as truly social, and to dare put their observations and musings out there into the world and see what comes back.

And it is the Motherblog that keeps them linked within a community–they venture back and forth onto one another’s blogs, taking comfort in their peers’ experiences, pushing one another, and learning from one another. And I’m rarely on the blog at all. Isn’t this what we’re after in a liberal arts education? The students naturally, on their own, gravitate towards the learning ecology. I’m keeping these second-wave bloggers in mind as my young first-years wonder aloud why we’re doing this public blogging thing. I want them to read the Blogging-the-World blog, and I want them to look down the road at where they might be in two years. If I teach them the grammar of the blog well, and they take to it, they can use the medium (or whatever other tool will be in play by then) to make their learning real, active, and worth crowing about.

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7 Responses

  1. Hello Barbara,

    As you discussed the disadvantages and advantages of posting messy first drafts on the web I was reminded of a personal experience. A few weeks ago I mentioned my blog to a friend, student who I met at my german summer course. The next day he came to me and said he googled my name and found some “interesting stories.” He chuckled and I felt slightly embarrassed and I tried to defend myself. He was referring to my postings on our creative writing blog from last year. First drafts and personal explorations can be a little awkward when taken out of context. Then I decided just to laugh along with him, for I knew how far those postings have taken me. Without those first few novice pieces I would never have gained the confidence to continue writing, searching and discovering the orbit of a blog. It is inspiring and encouraging for me to have such work to read and look back on, it is a personal log of improvement. As I continue to blog I am feeling the benefits of having such a raw experience.

    We all have to start somewhere and for a student to aim for perfection with every post defeats the purpose of a blog. We are in a discussion, gradually improving our speech, learning from eachother and learning from ourselves.

    Talk to you soon, send my regards to all at CTLR, ZOEY

  2. Barbara, I’m so glad you’re blogging about this. My husband and I are in the midst of teaching a course on blogging in which the students are, of course, blogging. I’m not sure that everyone is still getting the point of blogging vs. writing a personal diary, but we’re getting there. We’re hoping to write something after we’re done. In the meantime, feel free to check out the blog (woi.brynmawr.edu).

  3. blogging = connecting + communicating

    So, of course it isn’t simply a matter of handing blogs to students as they enter our institutions and saying, go ahead, write; you have to give students a chance to grow in this work within a learning community–the new wall-less classroom–and then t…

  4. Hey Barbara

    It’s somehow strange to be back in the loops of blogging after a long semester away. But wonderful all the same. It’s interesting what Zoey writes about feeling embarassed about what she has posted about herself in the pat which is so available to the entire internet community which can definitely be vicious at times! It reminds me of one of the grad students in LA who actually closed the comments section of his own blog for fear of what would be said.

    The other day one of the Midd students here in Italy asked me about our blogging project. She asked if I was “ever going to share the website with the rest of the group.” And I haven’t and don’t really plan on it. It seems hard enough to blog about this experience while trying to immerse myself in it without having to hear feedback from the people I am with, that I am in a large part blogging about. It seems it would be disturbing, a hinderance to the process. I can already see two different entries being a problem if read by the other students here. I ran into similar situations with my India blog and managed to escape unscathed. But am I pushing my luck?

    Reminds me of the story about the professor reading along with his student’s blog and never saying a word. Is blogging ethics back into the picture and if so how far around do we turn our heads?

    Piya
    P.S. Tell Mama Jo I need brownies ASAP! Ha

  5. Thank you for your answer =)
    Hope one day you’ll be able to start again the Ireland project.

  6. Deconstructing the Classroom Walls…

    I keep circling around the work of Barbara Ganley when it comes to blogging and incorporating it into the classroom. Her post entitled “Parallel, Transparent & Collaborative Blogging in the Liberal Arts Classroom: First-years, Juniors and A…

  7. […] written about many times over the years here, including the final paragraph of one of those long-long posts of mine from 2005 (with lots of broken […]

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