Videoconferencing with James Farmer and The Technology School of the Future in Adelaide, Australia

What a remarkable week–going from the UK’s edublogging conference where I met some of the great eduboggers from that island to this morning traveling to Australia via videoconference for the Technology School of the Future’s Masterclass. Tomorrow will feel quiet when I’m talking about using audio in teaching to colleagues here at Middlebury.

It was great to hear James Farmer talk about how school blogging fits into a continuum of online education–I particularly liked his distinction between the merits of discussion boards and blogs, and will borrow from him to explain to people why I don’t use discussion boards in my classes. His primary objection to them is that they do not involve a personal presence, which is exactly what blogs do–real people are all over their blogs through the choices they make in terms of design and content. Blogs, he said, are about centered communication, centered, that is, around the individual. He drew upon Garrison & Anderson’s elearning in the 21st century, the diagram of effective communtities of inquiry with its intersecting circles of social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. He was persuasive in arguing that we have to stop thinking about people going out into online environemntts to interact with others; we have to think about individuals interacting with one another, about who we are as people and how we really communicate.

Here’s my talk:

Centering, Connecting and Creating: Transformations in Blogging Classrooms
The Technology School of the Future Adelaide, Australia June 8, 2006
Videoconference Presentation

The Presentation Abstract:
We’ve all heard stories about the remarkable outcomes teachers claim by bringing social software into the classroom. But enhancing the learning experience for our students is not simply a matter of “handing out blogs” like notebooks and then standing by to watch the miracle; nor is it a matter of setting up series of strict rules and parameters and methods. By thinking first about the nature of our learning community and our pedagogical framework, and how connecting students to themselves, one another, and the world makes sense in our classrooms, we can take powerful advantage of the connectivity and the transparency of the medium. And once we’ve seen the effects of blogging on our students, we’ll find ourselves blogging alongside them, and adding podcasting, skype, RSS, and digital storytelling into the blogging as ways to make learning exciting and effective for every student.

I’m delighted to be here today (even if it is a bit early my time), for a chance to listen to James Farmer, one of the real leaders in this work, and a chance to hear from all of you in a few minutes. I’ve found my own blogging practice greatly informed by Australian bloggers, teachers, researchers and theorists, and so it’s a real pleasure to join you.

At the UK’s first edublogging conference I attended last week in London, a conference for experienced edubloggers, I was struck by the interest in hearing practical advice about classroom blogging. So instead of focusing on research on social software and learning theory, I’m going to return to my roots—my teacherly roots and give you a tour through the blogging landscape that has evolved in my classrooms over the past five years. First off, you need to know that I am actually not very interested in talking about technology. Or at least technology in and of itself. I’m not a technologist; I am a classroom teacher trained in literature and writing, and before I brought blogs into my classes five years ago, email was about as high-tech as it went in my teaching. I am, though, passionate about learning and about helping my students prepare for the challenges of citizenship in this rapidly changing, complex world. And I have found that this goal demands that I focus on a set of new literacies as well as old, which in today’s world means a whole spectrum of visual, auditory, textual, quantitative, cultural, and network literacies. It means that students need opportunities to connect and to collaborate, to explore their roles in a community of practice as well as to understand themselves as learners, as humans. And that’s where technology—in particular blogs, in my case, and digital multimedia—come in.


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Our students—they’re plugged in, or at least those with access to computers are, we all know this. What we don’t always know is what, if anything, to do about this. As I’ve written on my blog recently, the one thing we cannot do, is ignore the fact that many kids are playing around creatively, finding friends, watching videos, listening to music, communicating online whether we like it or not, whether we talk about it in school or not.

Adults used to be able to ignore, to resist, to fool ourselves, even, about the realities going on in children’s lives. Once they reached our classrooms, we paid attention to their engagement with our subject matter and their classmates—the world could and did, for the most part, stay out of school. It was tidier that way; we could get about the serious business of education if our classrooms were sanctuaries far from the madding crowd. But now, these digital natives of the transition generation (James Martin’s term) cannot keep their digital selves out of the classroom. They learn differently according to many researchers (see Oblinger & Oblinger, for example); they interact with the world much differently than did we or anyone else brought through our current educational system designed some 200 years ago to produce efficient, docile factory workers. They are awash in information and agile at the keyboard. Many of them live as much online as off, it seems, and those who do not have the facility with computers or friends who do, are going to be left out and behind.

The kinds of tasks we filled the days of school with in the past are no longer necessary or effective (if they ever were)—kids don’t need to be filled and drilled; they need to know where to get information and what to do with it. They need to know WHO to contact and what to say; they seem to understand implicitly what John Dewey was driving at when he said:

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Some edubloggers argue that we don’t need to do much more than model learning for them—kids will absorb the 21st-century literacies and do well forming groups on their own in spite of what we do. But I’m not so sure about that. Some will, for sure. But who won’t? I’m not sure that they all will gain the critical insight that will allow them to negotiate this world with skill and integrity if left to their own devices. Have they had the chance to think about what it means to engage in an online community, what it means to connect to the world, what it means to collaborate? Have they looked at themselves within such a community?

In our classrooms, then, we must model and display, mentor and guide and set up situations conducive to learning about effective and ethical interactions in different kinds of communities. In a safe, inclusive environment (meaning that our classroom community invites all to participate respectfully and equally) we can help them learn how to communicate effectively, to work collaboratively and independently, and to find effective ways to grow their ideas, to deepen their grasp of processes and context. Our job is to give them the apparatus to do so ethically, sustainably, beneficially in their preparation for citizenship.

We have to let them stumble a bit, make mistakes: try things out, take a look at them, try them out again. We’ve forgotten that glorious failures are what we’re after, actually, in our classrooms. Instead of implying that there is only a single route to an answer, or a single answer, and that we teachers hold the goods, we need to find ways to open up thinking inside our classrooms to invite multiple perspectives. If we want to form a vibrant, strong community, we need to think about how a learning community functions in a series of reciprocal apprenticeships ( Pierre Levy), each of us an expert, each an apprentice. We search for ways to make peer-to-peer learning effective while reducing our own prominence in the classroom. The learners take much responsibility for their own learning, even at an early age, making it real and relevant—making it authentic and efficacious for each of them as individuals, and for the group. To make a learning community work, all need to feel a part of that community, with a role that matters.

This brings me—finally– to blogs, podcasting, and digital storytelling. Because blogs are about transparent connecting, having a visible, ongoing conversation with onself and/or others that can be revisited, reflected on, expanded and changed, they can both help us to nurture a budding learning community while working on essential literacy skills as well as whatever other core content we are covering.

I want to stress right off, though, that bringing blogs into the classroom does not mean we take time away from in-class, face-to-face experiences. And yet blogs are not add-ons, either. If carefully planned and integrated fully into the architecture of the pedagogy, they are a tool, a medium and an ecology. They are a fundamental instrument of the learning and the learning itself and can help:

–Create/foster/nurture learning communities
–Engage students in their learning process
–Extend learning beyond traditional time and space constraints
–Contextualize learning within the discipline and the wider world
–Initiate a portfolio for ongoing assessment
–Create a dynamic, ongoing archive of materials and models

One Recipe for Using Blogs in Almost Any Classroom —
Five Years Of Motherblogs and Solo Blogs:

The Motherblog
4.jpgFrom theEL170 Spring 2006 Blog

The course blog, or Motherblog, is the primary gathering spot for the learning community when we are not together. It is an aggregator of news, posts, resources, and archives. It is a place for informal conversation within the group and conversations with the larger world. It is, in fact, a portal to the classroom and all that we are learning. (Of course the blog does not capture what happens in the class meetings or in one-on-one conferences—and thus does not, of course, represent EVERYTHING in the learning equation.)

In most classes, I set up a three-column Motherblog: the left column is for course information, syllabi, links to outside resources:

5.jpgFrom theEL170 Spring 2006 Blog

These static pieces of the course organized and gathered here where the students have easy access to them, but where they do not intrude upon the active building and talking and collaborating that occurs in the other blog spaces. I also link several blogs here —bgnotes, which is my class-related personal blog of updates, notes, and news; bgblogging, which is my own teaching-reflection blog; tutor blogs and blogs from previous classes. Except for the archived blogs, the linked sideblogs are regularly updated, being dynamically updated through a feed.

6.jpg From theEL170 Spring 2006 Blog

Central Blogging Space as Informal Meeting Place
The central section is devoted to class talk, for the most part informal and spontaneous postings by students reaching out to the group as a whole. For older students, I like to let this space evolve naturally out of the community’s needs and wants and personality. I start off by posting a couple of times in the space to model this kind of posting, and I point to interesting posts from other semesters, and I do return from time to time to post something if what I have to say really seems to belong on this space, but for the most part I really try to stay off this space. In fact I tend to err on the side of absence purposefully to subvert any notion that the students can look to me for all the answers. I want them to take responsibility for initiating and feeding the dialogue. (Of course by deciding to stay off the center, I do realize that I am still making a decision as the ultimate “authority.”) And the blogging here sometimes bogs down, or students make rather silly posts or write sloppy prose, but I am okay with that because it provides us with an opportunity to talk about collaboration and communication roles and responsibilities—what works and what doesn’t and why.

For younger students it can be useful to assign small groups the task of managing this space: they can point to interesting threads & posts within the class blogging, or links to the outside world; keep a tab on relevant RSS feeds; summarize classtime for the group; synthesize several of the activities and/or assignments for the rest of the group; think about what they’ve learned from tagging (creating categories); initiate discussion coming out of the course readings and class discussions by posing questions to the group, etc. And at the end of their tenure, reflect back on their successes and failures, articulating for themselves and for their blogreaders their learning journey through these roles. As you build archives over the years, you can use previous groups’ posts (both good and bad) as models and subjects of discussion.

A Place to Meet Experts from the Outside World

7.jpg From the Artswriting Spring 2005 Blog

The central section can also serve to connect students to the outside world through planned discussions with experts in the field who agree to visit as guest bloggers, either via time-specific asynchronous discussions, or through threaded comments. These online discussions can be coupled with class visits or remain exclusively online meetings. Either way, students come to understand that what they write on the blog really does go out into the world and can have an impact within the larger conversation in the field a well as on them. As soon as they feel this connection to a real-world context, they often invest themselves even more in the learning experience, raising the bar for themselves. Sometimes outsiders will happen upon the blog and leave comments—I have found that these are almost always useful—writers who we have studied finding their way to our discussions, people who grew up in Irish villages we have studied finding their way to the blog. Some students do remain intimidated by the “expert,” finding it overwhelming to participate in such discussions, but nevertheless they find it very useful to listen in. My thinking is that this experience helps prepare them for the next one, when they might take a chance at interacting with outside experts, perhaps by asking a question, or making one brief comment.

The Individual Blogs
 8.jpg From theEL170 Spring 2006 Blog

Because not all learning is collaborative, I underscore the importance of quiet reflection, doodling, musing, and playing around by oneself in the learning process. Individual blogs are kept by each student as a personal space within the communal atmosphere, as a workspace and publishing space. Not all students take to this medium with equal energy but all of them love the fact that they can read one another’s blogs and receive feedback in writing to their posts.

The right-hand column on the Motherblog links the students to their individual blogs. I like to include photos of the students to take advantage of the visual nature of the blog and to create an additional layer of bonding though I do understand that can be problematic for younger students. My students do not identify themselves usually by their full names nor do they take on pseudonyms. We discuss safety on the Web and the fact that once you publish a post, what you write is difficult to remove from the public sphere. In other words, in spite of my urging to be playful with their posting as they develop lines of thought, I also ask them to think before they post. The links you see are feeds to each of their blogs, linking us to the opening lines of their most recent post. So at a glance they can scan the Motherblog for the latest postings from their classmates.

9.jpgFrom the Artswriting Spring 2005 Blog

The students connect to one another by reading one another’s drafts, leaving comments and encouragement, learning from one another, becoming inspired to grow in their own work by the remarkable accomplishments of their peers. I have found that this coupling of the linking to the transparency reduces competition among the students and rather draws the students closer together. It also offers me opportunities to model commenting and dialogue, how to connect the dialogue to a larger conversation by pointing to other posts, other issues.

10.jpg student blog

The individual blog also serves a purpose that can sometimes be overlooked, one that balances the collaborative impulses governing the Motherblog with the reality that learning is a solitary affair as well as a social act. Here we honor the individual musings, inventions, and accomplishments. They continue to connect with one another through the comments, linking to one another’s work and trackbacks, but they also, and this is important, link to themselves. Blogs invite a continuing dialogue with the self, building the learning post to post, spiraling back to find a dropped line of thought that ripens over the weeks and months. Each student, in essence, builds a portfolio as they go .

11.jpg From a student’s comment on my blog

By asking students to establish a reflective practice, and by modeling such a practice on my own blog, I emphasize the importance of looking back to their earlier work, of taking account of it as part of their learning process and of building on it. The transparency of the blog, the archiving, the linking relates here to their own cultural and learning perspectives and to the world.

Tagging their entries pushes them to consider classifications and taxonomies; the class can discuss central terms within particular fields, testing their own categories and tags against those used by researchers and libraries. Tagging also points to the themes that emerge in their own work and their own particular interests and perspectives.

12.jpg From Artswriting projects

Blogs do not, of course, rely on written text alone. Being a highly visual medium, blogs invite multimedia and lessons and experiences with media literacy including stories-in-images-only; essays created in words and images; <a href=”http://www.flickr.comFlickr sets of images; digital stories which combine a voiceover narration, a soundtrack and images, moving or still. Students enjoy integrating what they consider creative media into academic responses, and they are moving academic discourse into a new realm.

13.jpgFrom an earlier blogging post

Audio, too, can play a powerful role on the blog. Many classrooms are pulling podcasts onto their blogs, with students designing and hosting talk shows and giving lessons that are then archived on the blogs. Students can listen to podcasts and audio files from around the world, gaining insight into worlds quite different from their own. Some classes, particularly in languages, are trying out skypecasting to connect students school to school, country to country, language to language. I am interested in students examining the differences between their speaking and writing voices, and so I have them record themselves reflecting, thinking-out-loud, and reading their work or that of classmates to compare interpretation through voice. They also can consider how and if ideas differ if they rise when they talk to themselves, versus write, or converse with others.

Students also give short lessons and presentations to the rest of the group which we capture and embed onto the blog for current and future students. We thus build a richly, complexly textured course document that stretches and unfolds over the course of the particular semester and beyond. Students know that their work—their ideas, creations, inventions, recordings, movies will serve the next group as models and examples just as they are drawing upon the work of previous semesters themselves.

Indeed all of this work, in making the learning connected and transparent, demands that we teachers think about the relationship between being in a networked, visible medium and the learning outcomes we have set as goals. When a classroom becomes a real knowledge space, the learning becomes messy, associative, and even chaotic for both teacher and students who may feel for a time that they are in freefall as they adjust to an immersive, exploratory approach to formal learning. Classtime will become intense: while they are making bridges to the outside world, they are making bonds with one another and with you. Students will have a say in their learning, negotiating with one another and with you and the system, and such negotiating can grow noisy. And you will have to get used to letting go—and not read everything they post and not respond to everything they produce, and not micromanage every moment in the course.

There is something very different going on in this network of learning relationships.
As students put it,

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They want more time together to discuss the ideas, relishing the physical presence of the group. They are prepared for class, moving past the first skim of ideas easily, diving into discussion intently. You as teacher can capitalize on learning moments, having scanned the blog before class, knowing where they stand with the material and one another.

And because such a learning environment is fluid and responsive to the particular needs and interest of the group, it won’t all go well. Servers will crash, kids will resist using technology in ways they associate with their out-of-school lives, other kids will test you, some won’t want to work this hard, administrators may resist change, parents will wonder why their kids are online so much. But I see these pressures as learning opportunities for the group and for myself, and I try to prepare for as many of them as I can by inviting parents and administrators to participate or to observe, to work with the group to establish rules of etiquette and expectations. You may well feel vulnerable because if the learning is largely visible online, well, then, so is the teaching. It may feel risky; at first it will take a lot of time to set up carefully and mindfully. But if you have grounded your use of social software deeply into the learning goals of your classroom, it will be well worth the trouble. To adapt one of my favorite Flannery O’Connor writing quotations to the classroom learning experience, “If you don’t discover something through your teaching, you can be sure that your students won’t.”

A List of Links

NOTE—USE MOZILLA (a free download from mozilla.com) as your browser if you want to see the full three columns of the course blogs listed below.

Links to My Students’ Work
EL170, Introduction to Creative Writing, Spring 2006 Blog
This is the Motherblog for the course for students who intend to pursue creative writing at Middlebury (these students are serious and accomplished writers when they enter the course); the student blogs are dynamically linked on the right-hand column (you’ll need to use Mozilla as your browser for effective viewing), my blog, course info, the tutors’ blogs, and the archived blogs from previous semesters are linked off the lefthand column. The central blogging space is for conversation about writing—I do not make this posting mandatory; if they have something to say to the group as opposed to posting their writing assignments (which they do on their individual blogs), they can post (and respond) within this space. The students contend that they want to keep blogging to this space after the course has ended. I am very interested to see if they can keep the momentum going without the formal learning community in place over the summer holidays (my guess is that they will stop blogging here, but that some of them will keep their own blogs, or start new ones).

WP 100, The Writing Workshop, Level One

A composition course for students who lack confidence and skill and experience in academic writing. The Motherblog/student blogs work quite the same way as in EL170.

WP200, Writing Across the Arts

A second-level writing course for students interested in arts journalism or creative engagement with the arts. Many arts majors, English majors and philosophy majors enroll in this class. The blog is set up as six blogs in one (and the students have their own blogging spaces as well) to create the look, feel and function of an arts ‘zine.

Contemporary Ireland through Fiction and Film, A First-Year Seminar

A writing and reading intensive seminar for first-semester students. This is the blog from which sprang much of the material of the BLOGTALK paper (see below). You’ll find discussions, essays, digital stories—all kinds of writing here.

Blogging the World

A pilot project involving students from three American undergraduate colleges who are spending one or two semesters of their third year studying abroad. The students are blogging the experience voluntarily (not for course credit) as a way to deepen the learning value of the experience.

Independent Study Blogs
A Journey Back
A student’s award-winning blog chronicling her winter-term independent study in India

Remy’s Blog </a.
A student’s blog chronicling his experiences writing about being on the road on a winter-term independent study in Southeast Asia

Carrie’s Antarctica Blog
A student keeps a blog on a geology expedition to Antarctica and attracts all kinds of readers, including a 10-year-old boy and his grandfather.

For an overview of my journey into blogging with my students, refer to the following papers and blogposts:

Blogtalk 2: Blogging as a Dynamic, Transformative Medium in the Writing Classroom of an American Liberal Arts College
ASCD Express Article: Elevating Creative Discourse Through Student Blogs

For an overview of readings that have influenced my views on effective learning pedagogies, see this blogpost

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