Weblogs and the “Middle
Space” for Learning
Advocates suggest that Course Management Systems can transform the higher education classroom into a more student-centered space. However, this has not happened. To achieve this goal more easily, some educators are turning to weblogs (“blogs”). This paper compares the educational potential of blogs and reports on direct experience suggesting that blogs can be a creative and interactive middle space between online and traditional classrooms.
During the heady days of the dot com boom and the rise of e-commerce, many observers thought that information technology would make it possible for universities to deliver active, student-centered learning experiences to students near and far (Schellens and Valcke, 2002; Zemsky and Massy, 2004). E-learning advocates have long argued that the pedagogical impact of technology goes beyond the delivery of information and lies instead in the power to create collaborative, learner-centered educational spaces. Nearly five years into the twenty-first century, the impact that technology has had on the practices of higher education remains uneven. With the widespread adoption of Course Management Systems (CMSs) technology is certainly omnipresent on college campuses, but teaching and learning have not been fundamentally altered by the spread and innovation of these tools. Some writers and researchers have begun to look to blogs, which are flexible and easy to use, as tools for realizing the promise of computerized and computer-assisted education (for example, Godwin-Jones, 2003 and Oravec, 2003).
This paper takes a critical and
comparative look at CMS and blogs, paying particular
attention to how these technologies can be used to create a “middle space” (Oravec, 2003) between fully online and traditional courses. The “middle space” is a virtual extension of
the traditional classroom that encourages student-to-student interaction, provides
a dynamic context for dialogue and feedback, and is particularly exciting in
its potential for teaching with writing (for example, Brown, 2000, Hardwick,
2000, and Blair, 2003/2004). The authors
draw upon their experience with a Writing Intensive geography course at
E-learning in Higher Education
A recurring theme in the literature on computer mediated
communication is that these technologies offer opportunities for treating
teaching and learning as truly social activities where knowledge is built
through interaction and dialogue rather than lectures and recitation (Brown,
2000, Hardwick, 2000, Rice, 2003). An extension of this theme is the notion that
these tools can reshape student perceptions about who “owns” their classes. More
specifically, in online environments, students may feel more confident about
contributing (Brown, 2000, Blair, 2003/2004), establish
relationships with other students through dialogue and feedback (Brown,
2000, Hardwick, 2000, Godwin-Jones, 2003, Blair, 2003/04), and, as a result, develop ing
their understanding of class material collaboratively and collectively.
Still, for most faculty members, day-to-day teaching remains fundamentally the same as it ever was. When asked if higher education has become more learner-centered, longtime technology advocate Carol Twigg answered simply, “No, it hasn’t. I wish it had” (Veronikas and Shaughnessy, 2004, p. 60). To understand some of the reasons for this, the example of CMSs is illustrative. For many instructors, especially those without HTML or programming skills, these campus-wide systems provide a door into instructional technology.
CMSs have “become essential features of
information technology at institutions of higher education” (Warger, 2003, p. 64).
Advocates agree that they can create a learning space that is social,
active, contextual, engaging and student-owned (Carmean
and Haefner, 2002, p. 27). Critics and advocates acknowledge that in
practice CMSs are not usually used to this end. Instructors are most likely to adopt just
those parts of the CMS which allow them to easily automate the delivery of the
they have always given (Zemsky and Massy, 2004, Warger, 2003).
To go beyond the default options provided by the CMS, instructors
must know more than how to format the appearance of their virtual classrooms;
they must also understand how the CMS is configured, and populated with content
(Carmean and Haefner, 2002). A recent study at the
offered by these systems,
the possibility of student-created course content, discussion boards and chat
rooms, are beyond the reach of most faculty members (Carnevale,
enormous potential to create learning spaces that are social and student-owned (Oravec, 2003). As
with CMSs, realizing this potential lies with the
user, not with the technology itself. There are some important characteristics of weblogs, however, that warrant further exploration. Weblogs were not
designed to re-create the traditional classroom but were created as social,
communicative tools. Using them to
encourage social and communicative learning requires little or no adaptation
from their original form. Additionally, for
students and instructors alike, the technological knowledge needed to use weblogs in the classroom is relatively minor.
Not surprisingly, interest in the educational potential of online
communication often stems from a desire to encourage student writing (Rice,
2003, Lankshear and Knobel,
2003, Kadjer and Bull, 2004, Blair 2003/2004). Weblogs are used for
many different types of writing, which makes them a particularly useful way to
support activities rooted in the idea that writing is a not just a means for
expression, but also a tool for learning (Fouberg, 2000). With weblogs,
students write not only to learn, but also to build a collaborative learning
community (Godwin-Jones, 2003). They can
comment on each others’ blogs, or collectively
contribute to a shared space. Th
use of computer-mediated communication can therefore encourage
classroom participation (Brown, 2000, Hardwick, 2000, Blair, 2003/2004,
Godwin-Jones, 2003). The flexibility and openness of
weblogs , in particular, supports
student engagement with course material and with each other (Lankshear and Knobel, 2003, Oravec, 2003).
Oravec (2003) characterizes blogs as a useful “middle space” between fully online and traditional classrooms, both of which tend to be instructor-centered or dependent. Because the traditional, top-down functions of the classroom are provided in other ways, the blog can be a separate, student-owned space within the traditional course (Veronikas and Shaughnessy, 2004). At the same time, the simplicity and flexibility of blogs, and the evolving nature of blogging, mean that students can exercise their creativity within the framework established by the instructor in the classroom. Oravec (2003) refers to this as “blended learning.”
Where adapting a
course management system to
support blended learning requires a level of expertise beyond the experience of
many instructors, weblogs can be launched
easily. The accessibility of hosted blogging services, which eliminate the need for programming
knowledge, is one reason for heightened interest in the classroom potential
of these tools (Lankshear and Knobel,
2003). The ease with which instructors and students alike can use
these tools is another reason for this interest (Godwin-Jones, 2003, Kadjer and Bull, 2003).
of blending, of creating a middle
space between traditional and online classrooms and the ease with which a blog could be set up
drew us to the creation of a class weblog for GEOG 207W at
Blogging in GEOG 207W
Geography and Film is a Writing Intensive course at
public space of their own to share
their ideas and their writing. To gauge the success of this project we surveyed
students about filmtalk and community building, informal
writing, and technical problems. Eighteen out of twenty students enrolled in
GEOG 207W responded to these surveys.
filmtalk was established as a multi-authored blog where every student and the instructor had the right to post both new content, and to comment on others’ contributions. For full credit, students were required to post a minimum of three messages or comments each week that addressed class discussions, readings, and films. These discussions provided a space for informal writing. In addition, students were required to post more formal pieces of writing, specifically longer film reviews and critiques. These pieces were also available for comment. The substantive content on the blog was entirely student-created; the instructor only used the blog to make announcements about class procedure and scheduling.
It was hoped that a collectively authored blog would
facilitate the exchange of ideas and information and would build a sense of the
lass as an extended and always
in-process discussion of film and geography.
With regards to this community building function, students were asked, “How well did filmtalk work as a class discussion board?” Almost all of the students, sixteen of eighteen, indicated the blog worked well in this capacity.
Responses indicated that students appreciated the opportunity
to express themselves outside of class, and at the
same time suggested that filmtalk
allowed in-class discussions to be more focused. Others noted that the online
discussion environment gave them an opportunity to gather their thoughts before
class material. A few students appreciated
that the blog became a “record” of class discussions that could be referred to
later and in other contexts, such as in formal essays. A couple of students,
including the most critical respondent, found the discussion to be forced, with
many students only doing the minimum and checking into the blog but once a
week. One student felt that the online nature of the blog discouraged students of really
learning who their peers were.
Participation levels on filmtalk provide additional
indications that the blog worked well as a community forum. While weekly
tabulations of student contributions to the blog
student observations about minimum participation, they also show that, by
mid-term, every student in the class was regularly checking in and
contributing. This data and student responses further indicate that filmtalk became
an effective middle space, or an online learning environment simultaneously
grounded in the traditional classroom, but also having a life of its own. As a
GEOG 207W developed into a blended learning space along the lines suggested by Oravec (2003).
As previously noted, the weekly discussions on the blog
provided the medium for informal writing in the c
Outside of some basic ground rules – keep messages and comments relevant to the
class, avoid ad hominem attacks, preference for
“standard” English over netspeak – students were free
to use filmtalk
to discuss topics of their choosing and without excessive attention to the
mechanics or disciplinary specificity of their writing.
In assessing this purpose, students were also asked, “How did filmtalk work as a space to do informal writing?” Student responses indicate that they found the blog to be a comfortable space to express their ideas. Individual responses touched on a number of themes, but this is typical: “Filmtalk helped to just let ideas flow onto the screen. You don’t have to use proper grammar you can just let your ideas flow.” The references to ideas “flowing” onto the screen indicate an appreciation for the specific format, as do responses expressing appreciation for being able to write without paper. Students compared the blog favorably to traditional journals and e-mail listservs. The social aspects of the blog were also mentioned in this context, as some respondents positively noted the ability to get responses and feedback from other students. Both sets of responses are suggestive of students having developed a sense of ownership as anticipated by researchers and writers such as Veronikas and Shaughnessy (2004). Indeed, in a post to filmtalk, one student remarked, “[S]ince this is my blog, I'll make it on my own opinion.”
was set up through
TypePad, a hosted weblogging service, for two main reasons .
to set up a multiple -author
blog. Secondly, user
reviews of the service suggested that the interface
was easy to use, and that the server
provided was reliable and not prone to interruptions.
We believed that
if students found the product difficult to use, or to access, their
participation would suffer. To
assess this aspect of the blog, students were also asked to
“describe any technical problems you had posting to filmtalk.” Students were also
asked to “describe anything they thought worked well.” Most problems cited by
students related not to the day-to-day use of the blog, but to getting
registered and set up with TypePad. Once that was
addressed, students almost uniformly indicated that posting to filmtalk was
problem free. The ability to access filmtalk from anywhere – home, dorm, school – and general
ease of use also came up in responses to the prior questions. These responses
strongly underscore contentions regarding the non-intimidating nature of blogs, and the particular advantages afforded by hosted
services such as TypePad. The extent to which students were essentially
able to manage themselves once registered as authors on filmtalk , points
to the essential differences between CMSs, which are
rooted in instructor management, and blogs as online
learning and writing environments.
The more open-ended question produced a range of responses on a number of issues, many of which returned to themes from the previous questions. One student, for example, expressed appreciation that the blog could be accessed “at .” Another student appreciated the “simplicity” of the blog and expressed the view that participating on the blog made them more confident about using computers in general. Others took note of how the blog facilitated exchange with their peers. Freedom and style of writing afforded by the blog were also noted.
The experience of CMSs in higher
education reveals that technologies do not, by themselves, generate dramatic
changes in how courses are delivered and taught. The interests and capabilities of students and
instructors, and the capabilities of specific tools, all shape the impact of
technology on the classroom. By and
large, the research on CMS indicates that those technologies have had little
impact on how college and university teachers teach. However, the early
literature and our experience with GEOG 207W suggest that social and
communicative technologies like blogs may play a
significant role in changing the dynamics of higher education c
Particularly because of their
flexibility and simplicity, these technologies are easy to integrate with the
traditional classroom and can afford students degrees of freedom, creativity,
and self-management not easily achieved through existing CMSs.
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