Moving Student Blogging Beyond the Classroom: Another Look

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This past week I’ve talked about social software in learning communities with a range of people ranging from teacher educators to doctoral students researching student technology use to state college system tech gurus to community organizers. Unlike George Siemens who wearies of the same old conversation in spite of understanding why it must be so, I quite enjoy both conversations, and find them equally important–the long-view-changing-educational-spaces talk he embraces, and the local-work-where-people-are-at-with-these-tools-to help-them-along talk of others. Both are crucial, and not everyone need do both. The buzz in the air about new ways of thinking about learning spaces, learning ecologies, seems to be driving the local talk around me, not the other way around. The irony is, of course, that just as some are trying to shut down equal and open access to the Internet and web technologies (i.e. DOPA and the Blackboard patents), teachers and community organizers are getting curious about Web 2.0 technologies, about ways to use them effectively to effect change. They want to change things, and they’ll use whatever tool will help them do just that. There’s a new fire out there, a calming of the fear of tools, an eagerness to try things out.

And I’m glad to say that among the many questions and concerns raised repeatedly in these conversations has been the crucial one of authentic engagement. How do we get our communities, be they students, teachers or activists, to use blogging and other technologies in ways that actually have meaning for that community and each indivudal participating? How do we keep the conversation going but not forced?

The answer is pretty straightforward and oft-repeated–before you blog, for example, you have to ask yourself and your group, why blog at all? How would connecting via blogs serve the community; how do you want the community to function? You also have to spend time forming the community, pulling each person in as an apprentice and as an expert (yes, I post about Levy A LOT ), thinking about how the community itself is an agent of learning. If your community-forming work is done well and is central to the work you are doing, then getting blogging going and keeping it moving and effective will happen pretty naturally in most cases. Of course there are always potential impediments, most notably equal access to the Internet and comfort using computers and fluency with writing with text and/or images and/or audio. You have to think quite creatively to get around some of those hurdles. And then when you do, you have to think deeply about your community of practice.

I spend a full three weeks at the opening of the semester talking about our community and about how we use various modes of expression to deepen the learning and to communicate it. We play around with the various tools and modes of expression; we play around with our community. Some faculty, in particular, might think I am squandering precious time that could be devoted to the subject matter. Hardly. A dynamic, strong community at work creates all kinds of opportunities to extend, deepen and accelerate our learning. Examining community processes and ways of reflecting and connecting and communicating provides students with a powerful sense of ownership over their own learning and a clear sense of their own goals and processes.

For me, one of the most important tests of the effectiveness of this work is to hear from students semesters and years later about the impact of this classroom experience. I’ve written about this before, here and here most recently. Today my thoughts turn to my students because it is clear that they are inching their thoughts out of summer and back to school–my email box has been hopping with messages from current students and grads. Some of them are giving me tips on software they’ve come across or links to article they wonder if I’ve seen; others have sent me links to their blogs for their study abroad year; several have asked me how they might get some of their writing published. This all points to the fact that this online work resonates with them; in some way or other, every contact has something to do with the blogging and/or digital storytelling we did in class. All of it has to do with the lasting connection they feel to the community we nurtured through the semester. In the pre-blog days, I’d receive a smattering of emails from students, but not this many, not about these kinds of things.

One student may just be moving his multi-media blogging skills into a job next year; a couple have left me wonderful comments on my blog–imagine college students spending precious summer time on their professor’s blog! Her entire comment is well worth a read, but for those not inclined to link-hop, here’s the final paragraph:

So asides from educating K-12 we need to think about our own college community, and how higher education programs need to be altered, re-designed and re-assigned to get the entire acadamia ready for this fast approaching technological, creative and intellectual change..

And we think that college students aren’t paying attention…Another student has started a new blog, her first post warmin’ the cockles of me heart, from which I’ve pulled this excerpt:

I think the reason I called this blog “On Second Tier” is because I find it very difficult to find an outlet in this stage of my life to release some of the thoughtful, idealistic, grandiose thoughts I have running through my head that end up shriveling up from sheer thirst of expression. Things like how blogging can really change the dynamic of education in that edublogging has established itself in an atmosphere in which young adult students are naturally comfortable in. It is about pushing the boundaries of which Internet has originally been set in and having young adults motivate themselves to bring that more introspective side to their usually gossipy, flashy, thrill-centered focus when on the Internet.

(I’ll add a link to the blog once I have been given permission–I like to do that with the new bloggers.) Her post reminds me of the opening post my daughter wrote about why she’s taking up blogging on her own. These twenty-year-olds are finding an important means of communication and expression through thoughtful blogging, and they are articulating quite magnificently much of what we are hoping they take from this experience.

To gauge the lasting impact of this new learning landscape, it is essential, then, to think about how students are using technology outside the classroom both while we’re teaching them and after they leave our classes. It is important to touch bases from time to time as they leave class, noting when and how and why they find the classroom practices feathering out, being integrated into their real lives. If that happens, we’ll know the classroom experience had relevance for them, we’ll know that something touched them and helped them along their way. We’ll know they are thinking deeply about positive change and their roles within the world. That’s enough to keep me coming back every day to talk with all kinds of people about why this work has real, lasting value.


One Response

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. The message that I take away from your post is that blogging will have the most significant impact on the classroom when it is used for real purposes. (Ideally, in a few years we won’t be asking when to use blogs. It’ll be as obvious when to use blogs as it is now obvious when to use pens.) As college students and recent graduates learn to use blogging in their daily lives they are making up real purposes for using it. Wehn they become teachers they can take this understanding of how, why and when to use blogs into the classroo with them.

    Andrew Pass

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