Blogging in an Educational Context

As part of my studies, I am required to produce a presentation about how I use blogging in my work practice.  My presentation is hosted as a voicethread.

Voicethread Presentation

Following is a more in-depth reflection on the use of my blog in my work practice.

What is a Weblog?

Essentially a weblog or blog is a web site that is easy to create and update without requiring any technical or programming skills such as HTML.  This makes it an accessible web publishing technology to a wide audience.  This means virtually anyone can be a publisher.  It is a great tool for facilitating conversations.  These conversations can be between publishers and readers, but also between publishers and other publishers generating a powerful mesh of interactions.  This is achieved by the ability of readers to comment on articles written by publishers.  In fact, a publisher’s article on their blog can be a comment to another publisher’s article.  This is called a pingback where one article links to another.

The format of a blog is typically a chronicle of articles organised by the date in which they are posted, much like a diary only typically sorted in reverse order (most recent to least recent articles).  It is this structure that has given the weblog its name – a web log or journal.  However, many blogs also support web pages that do not conform to this chronicle structure and can be arbitrarily published and linked like a typical website.

Organising and cataloguing of information within blog articles (or more commonly known as blog posts) is achieved using keywords known as tags.  These tags are unstructured and can be arbitrarily selected by the blogger to represent the contents or topic of each post.  Posts in a blog, and even between blogs can then be arranged and categorised based on these tags to generate listings of articles that are all related.  It makes organising the contents of blogs easier so that readers can identify posts that are interesting to them.  The collective label for blogs is the blogosphere.

The computer language that allows the sharing and re-use of information in blogs and other social network media is called RSS or Really Simple Syndication.  RSS allows a publisher to syndicate their blog posts and comments on their blog posts to the public.  This functionality has enabled a transition from the “go out and get” web to the “come to me” web.  Readers can subscribe to RSS feeds from their favourite blogs and other online social services, and have the information come to them in one application known as an RSS reader.  This allows the reader to aggregate information from many different sources to one location.  Using filtering technologies such as Yahoo Pipes, a reader can also limit syndicated data only to specific topics of interest.  Tags can assist with this approach.

Using these technologies readers (or consumers) are able to personalise content to their specific desires – a revolution from the days of tradition mass media where professional writers and editors decided what arrangement of content is published.

What software exists?

There are many different blog services on the Internet.  They all pretty much perform the same functions, although some have little niches and tricks over others to distinguish themselves.  For example, WordPress has a spam filtering technology known as Askmet, which is incredibly effective at blocking spam on blog sites.  Yes sadly, spammers attempt to deposit their Viagra advertisements as comments on blogs too.

The most popular blogging services include:

  • WordPress
  • Blogger
  • Twitter (microblogging)

Twitter is a quite unique blogging service in that it limits all posts to 140 characters, hence the label “microblogging”.  It means that your posts must be very succinct and typically limited to fairly high level ideas.

What are blogs used for?

Blogging means different things to different people.  Bloggers range from individuals, organisations to political parties.  Each have a particular focus for using a blog.

Individuals use blogs as a tool for reflection, to connect with peers, and as a way of thinking out loud.  An individual may use their blog for their personal lives, or for their professional lives (or even both).

For a personal blog, it may be an opportunity to express themselves and their beliefs, ideals and challenges in life – reflecting on one’s own personal life.  Peers in this context would likely be family and friends.  For example, sharing the highs and lows of a recent holiday trip with family and friends can be communicated via a personal blog.

In a professional context, a blog is a tool to facilitate the sharing of ideas and concepts, and challenges in the given profession.  It also allows professionals to connect with one another and form communities online.  For example, an acting professional may share their challenges for certain roles and scenes on their blog, and provide feedback and suggestions to fellow actors in their challenges.

Another class of bloggers is known as a professional blogger.  Not to be confused with professions blogging, a professional blogger using blogging as a source of income – it is their profession to blog.  Income is typically derived from advertising displayed on the blog site, and is only really possible with very high readerships.  To be a professional blogger, you need to be able to draw consistent readership such that the advertising displayed on your blog site receives attention from visitors, thus generating revenue for the advertisers and commissions to the professional blogger.  Being a professional blogger can be very challenging as blogging is a very competitive space – many many blogs competing for attention from readers.

For an organisation, a blog is an effective and inexpensive tool for external communication with partners, clients/customers, and the general public.  An organisation can use a blog to publicly advocate a point of view, draw attention to organisational achievements, and respond to critics rapidly.  It can be a very powerful public relations tool.

Likewise for political parties and politicians, a blog can be a very powerful public relations tool.  It can be used to advocate policies and direction showcase politicians, quickly respond to critics and provide communicate engagement.

What do I use blogging for in my context?

I almost exclusively use blogging in a professional capacity relating to my work as a curriculum designer.  For privacy reasons, I do not blog personally.  However, as a professional, I blog for a variety of reasons and purposes, which includes personal reflection, sharing ideas, discussing professional challenges, collaboration, publishing workshop notes and discussion, and team advocacy and corporate public relations.

Professional reflection

I find blogging a very powerful tool for reflection.  I am generally a reflective learner and so blogging allows me to think things through and write about it.  It also makes it easier for me to return to my thoughts at a later stage to remind myself what I was thinking previously and compare that thought with current ideas.  As an example, I have used my blog to reflect on previous courses I have completed as part of my study program at the University of Manitoba.

Publishing/Collaborating on ideas

My blog is a great place to put ideas out into the world.  I use it to link to ideas of others, building an argument for my own ideas – standing on the shoulders of giants.  It is also a great tool for discussing and debating ideas.  An example is a blog post I made where I referred to my frustrations with “eduspeak”.  What ensued was a discussion with my colleague over the value of “eduspeak” and its relevance to higher education.  While I don’t believe a consensus was reached, it was a valuable conversation from my perspective.  I also share information with colleagues using my blog such as my reflections on conferences I have attended.

Publishing Challenges in my profession and employment (ie. Minors & SL)

Being able to share one’s own struggles professionally or personally can be a very positive step.  A problem shared is a problem halved is an adage that illustrates the power of people and problem solving. I have used my blog to publish challenges in my role as a curriculum designer and have received feedback from others in how they have addressed such problems.  One example is a blog post relating to the challenges of working in higher education when school leavers entering their first year of study are often of minority age (<18).  There is a legal responsibility for these minors and it can add barriers to pedagogy.  For example, the use of Second Life as a learning technology is limited to users of majority age, which precludes minors from participating.

Facilitating a face-to-face and distance workshop introducing SL.

Publishing websites is another function of many blog services.  I use wordpress.com and have published web pages for a workshop introducing Second Life to new residents. The workshop was facilitated in a classroom setting, but the workshop web pages were designed to allow self-paced exploration of Second Life.

BIM – Feed Aggregation Management & Marking

A colleague has invested some time in trying to build management automation around the use of blogs for student assessment in formal learning environments such as higher education.  In particular, BIM allows students to register their blog with their course instructor.  The students can then use their blog to post responses to questions posed by the instructor of the course.  Using BIM, the instructor can then aggregate the posts of the students into a management framework that allows the instructor to access the posts, mark them, and return a grade and feedback to the student.  In essence, BIM assists instructors with managing the laborious tasks associated with assessing student work published via a blog.

So why focus on students blogging in assessment?  It has been well established that blogs are an effective tool for reflection.  Student reflection is an important element of learning as evidenced by the following articles:

http://sites.google.com/site/startusingtech/tools-for-student-reflections

http://spanishandillinois.blogspot.com/2009/12/student-reflection_21.html

http://www.edutopia.org/student-reflection-blogs-journals-technology

Team blog – cddu.wordpress.com

As part of my work team, we have a collective blog that we use to represent the team.  The blog is used to publish team related content to our clients (teaching academics), and facilitate a conversation with them.

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