Guidelines or Tramlines – blogging safely towards digital literacy

Jun 03, 2006

Miles Berry

Peter Ford led an excellent session at yesterday’s unconference, looking to arrive at the sort of guidelines which would give institutions the confidence to make a start with blogging. The following commentary was distilled from contemporaneous notes, but some key contributions will, I’m sure, have been unintentionally missed out or misinterpreted – I’d rather this be seen as a way of continuing the conversation in this area than an official minute.

The aim was highly practical, to come up with some concrete advice to promote and support the use of blogs, and the group diverse, with representatives from all educational sectors. Whilst the practical applications of such guidelines would depend on the actual technical solutions in place, there were bigger picture issues to do with appropriateness and effectiveness which would transcend such considerations.

Peter was anxious that any guidelines we expressed did not become tramlines, and the metaphor for QCA’s latest thinking about the future curriculum of building regulations rather than architecture could apply here too, and that it would be important for schools to retain freedom in their interpretation of any advice that we could offer, however as those contemplating blogging in education seemed to ask similar questions, perhaps we should start trying to give some answers.

Becta’s advice on blogs provided some starting point for this. In the end, we didn’t so much write a set of guidelines, as scope some of the issues that institutions writing policies ought to think through for themselves.

Effectiveness – what are the benefits for learners?

Blogging, we felt, made three particular and significant contributions:

Blogging is more than writing, it’s about thinking and reflection.Blogging was also seen as a powerful tool for encouraging learners to write, or to work creatively in other modalities. In contrast with more passive styles of learning, that learners became content creators rather than consumers. Being able to just get started, without worrying about formal assessment criteria and with the chance to come back later and refine thoughts, was considered important, as was the ability to provide some structure to the semi randomness of the stream of consciousness. This facility to look back on , and reflect on earlier experience was valued. This sort of critical reflection should form a key part of any education, and some of us felt that awarding course credit for blogging would be one means of encouraging this, whilst others felt that this would intrude on the independent, autonomous aspects of blogging, although we nevertheless acknowledged value in actually teaching learners how to blog.

Blogging provides an audience for learner’s work and thus their individual voice. There is a strong sense of responsibility and integrity associated with blogging, as learners no longer had to suspend disbelief when writing for an audience. Blogs also provided a means for pupils to demonstrate their understanding, a “window into excellence”. We perceived a tension between the desire to focus institutional blogging on learning, and that of acknowledging learner autonomy, choice and blogs as a validation of experience outside school, in which any element of compulsion seems alien.

Blogging facilitates social learning through access to other learners’ work and peer review, thus building a vibrant learning community. We perceived the opportunity to move away from the techie computer stuff, and concentrate on the social network. Blogging was acknowledged as a powerful means of generating ideas and constructing knowledge within the class rather than relying on teacher input. For those less confident in writing, blogging provides an opportunity for legitimate peripheral participation, with these learners able to benefit through the shared experience of their more articulate peers, and that scaffolding contributions from such learners was no more difficult online than in the classroom, and similar support strategies would work both on- and off-line. The social aspects of blogging further encouraged critical reflection through commenting processes and other peer review mechanisms.

These benefits apart, we were conscious of the tensions between the desires of learners, of teachers, and of school management, and of the difficulties of demonstrating measurable learning gains through blogging when the only measurement tools were narrow spectrum individual exams, although QCA’s interest in thinking skills and a more flexible, creative curriculum might lead to an eventual change in this area. We felt that blogging could go a long way to encouraging the development of a cluster of skills high up many employers’ wish-lists, and indeed the concept of blog as e-portfolio or placement diary may be relevant here. The greater sense of participation in, and enjoyment of, learning that it might encourage could do much to promote an institution’s image amongst key stake-holder groups.

Appropriateness: what makes for good blogging? what can go wrong?

In considering the appropriateness dimension, we explored both positive and negative aspects.

A number of activities seemed to lend themselves more naturally to blogging, such as those in which students are working more independently, perhaps physically separated from the institution’s staff, such as work placements or homework; the use of a “Mother Blog” to aggregate staff and students contributions was seen as particularly valuable in this context. Blogs also provided a powerful vehicle for formative assessment for learning, perhaps particularly through a process of self- and peer- review. The use of blogging software alongside or as an e-portfolio was discussed, as was the role of blogs as providing a means for learners to represent themselves, to establish a digital social presence. The multi-modal, parallel, networked nature of blogging provided a rich source of opportunities for concurrent learning opportunities.

Potential problems associated with blogging should not be seen as detracting from the significant benefits which this technology was seen as providing in educational terms; however any institution contemplating its introduction should carefully assess potential risks and develop processes to minimize these. A number of these fell within a cluster that relates to a school’s duty of care for protecting children, and might be of less significance for HE or ACL institutions, such as the dangers of attracting unwanted attention and inappropriate inbound links and ‘cyber bullying’. More general privacy related issues are raised by comment and trackback spamming, the publication of email addresses and potential for impersonation. Learners would, we felt, sometimes need guidance on understanding what respect for personal space might mean in this context, and many teaching staff would be eager to maintain some semblance of work-life balance. There was a perceived tension between the need for individuals to take ownership of their work and the affordances of anonymity.

From an institutional perspective, the flattening effect on hierarchies that social software effects might not always be perceived positively, and there is a potential risk of some posts bringing the institution into disrepute. Monitoring activity is a technical and social challenge, and situations may quickly get out of hand. Although the situation is more positive now, issues of accessibility, possible digital divides and inclusion still need to be thought through. Whilst many of these possible difficulties can be tackled through acceptable use policies, within the best communities de facto

Effectiveness: what digital literacy skills do learners need if they’re to blog?

Although the comparison with near ubiquitous technology such as mobile phones suggested that most learners might not need much input in technical terms to engage with blogging, a number of skills might still be usefully covered in any introduction, such as how to insert hyperlinks, upload media, and checking the ownership of sites and material.

A more significant body of skills relating to broader information literacy and critical thinking were however important if blogs were to be used for serious, educational purposes. Learners would need to develop an understanding of intellectual property issues, including plagiarism and the need for referencing. Similarly, educators should seek to develop learners’ skills in choosing between myriad sources of information, in a virtual environment closer to a car boot sale than a library, and evaluating these critically. Furthermore, learners sense of cyber-spatial awareness would perhaps need attention, as might their visual literacy.

It was felt that skills alone would not suffice, and that content did matter if learners were to feel that they were indeed learning, but that the skills learnt must be transferable between subjects, courses or phases; the blog as a personal rather than institutional artifact might help promote this. Many of us felt that, initially at least, there was much to be gained from learning to blog within a safe, nurturing environment (the walled garden), before embarking on more adventurous excursions along guided, accompanied ‘discovery trails’, or moving off to explore the wild woods of the open web.

Our final message to those contemplating blogging in their institutions was that the ‘why’ was far, far more important than the ‘how’, and that learning rather than technology needed to be the key to the decisions being made.