Edublog Revisited

Edublog Revisited

Long ago a small group of educators got together and formed a group called Edublog. The point, as I recall, was to create blogs for educational use; to promote the use of blogging packages in an educational context. The end goal was, I think, to build an educational blogging system, designed specifically with the classroom in mind.

It never happened. The players got busy or got different jobs or for other reasons scattered to the winds, and not much ever happened on the edublog agenda. Of course lots of people have seen the potential for weblogs in the classroom, and lots of people have made good use of the resources that are there.

But now I think it’s time to revisit the original purpose of Edublog, and after lots of careful attention to different available weblog packages and the particular needs and pressures of the classrooms I have known, I think I know what direction we should have gone. And the direction we should go.

What’s prompting me on this is the recent purchase of livejournal by Six Apart, the creators of Movable Type. As I’ve said, I have both a livejournal (LJ) and a Movable Type (MT) blog. I’ve also had a Blogger blog, though I shifted it over to an MT blog long before Blogger was purchased by Google. Looking at them all as a longtime student and a recently-minted librarian, I am starting to see what a true edublog system should look like.

One Journal for Many Purposes
For the end user, the student, the world of blogging for class could be extremely overwhelming. Let’s say the blogging revolution really takes off and five out of five instructors are asking students to blog their comments on lectures, readings, and to participate in online classroom discussions via blogs. Would they be required to have five separate blogs?

In the universe of Blogger and Movable Type, the answer would be maybe. The student could have one blogging account and five separate blogs, each with a separate updating interface. Or, a student could have one blog and five categories, effectively separating content into different segments, and classmates and instructors could read the categories page rather than the main journal. This is cumbersome and doesn’t support the multiplicity of uses to which the blog is being put. Categories on MT are fantastic, but they are only a first step.

In the world of livejournal, the answer would also be maybe. For livejournal what you might have is a separate community blog for each class, so while the student has one blog, she would be posting class-related posts to five separate communities. In that case, the actual blog would be irrelevant. The markable content, the required content, would be on a community blog, eliminating the confusion of going and looking for categories. Or students could simply keep all their classroom thoughts on one LJ, and have the instructor worry about where that content is aggregated to. Say, all students from the class “friend” each other (as is done on livejournal), and the instructor “friends” all the students, and any posts relevant to the class would automatically end up on everyone’s plate.

But if you have mutiple classes? Concievably livejournal could still handle this scenario; the student could create a filter for each class, and then post specifically to a filter (locking out anyone not on that filter). But this is convoluted and complicated and puts the onus back on the student to create filters and sort content. While MT creates categories to organize your content, livejournal creates filters to organize your audience.

I have a suggestion for how this can work; one blog, multiple classes, filtered content by category and by audience or class. Livejournal aggregates its own content very well; what if you could merge the concept of categories on MT and the filter on LJ? What about a blog with categories and a separate RSS feed for each? In this scenario, the student writes a post, uses a dropdown menu to choose the category, and the content is then forwarded on via RSS to the right audience. For the student, their own work is presented to them by the date they created it, all their content together in one place. They could view their own content by category (which is what MT offers now), and they would also have the option of viewing all content by classmates and their instructor or TA as an aggregated “friends page” as on livejournal, one for every class. Aggregated categories.

This way, students have an easily-accessed connection point to all of their classmates posts about class, while not having to see their thoughts on other classes or personal musings unrelated to class. These RSS categories could be controlled by the instructors directly, so that students enrolling in a class will automatically have that class show up as one of their RSS categories. Students are not merely directing their comments and questions at the instructor; they are engaging with the entire class.

The next important piece of an edublog system is a sophisticated commenting structure. Currently MT comments are extremely simple; you leave a comment under a post and it records your name and the date you left the comment, that’s it. Comments are great, and this system encourages users to leave comments for the post itself, not to engage with others who are commenting. Livejournal has extremely sophisticated comments, and long debates and ensue within them. This is because livejournal does two things; it allows comments to be threaded, like a message board, so that you can reply directly to a specific comment, and also because livejournal allows users who comment to receive email notification of replies, not only the author of the post. I think a system of comments more like LJ’s would be extremely useful and effective for an edublog system whose goal is not only to allow students to note down comments in a public forum, but also for encouraging communication between students.

I have been considering the “locking” mechanisms of livejournal. I’m not a great locker of posts myself, so I am hard-pressed to encourage such a thing. For an educational blog, my gut on this is to say that you can filter your content by allowing posts to go this way and that, and that you can create content that is not aggregated anywhere. You can write a post that goes only on your own page and nowhere else. Why lock posts?

On livejournal, locked posts are often where users discuss things they would not want the general audience of their “friends lists” to know they are discussing. These might include party plans, personal details, or gossip and backstabbing. As far as I’m concerned, none of these things are particularly appropriate on an educationally-related blog. While I have no qualms with anyone making reference to their personal life and personal struggles in a public forum, students should be aware that any content placed on a university server (and this includes email) is the property of the university. Students wanting to say something private and possibly inflammatory about a person at the university without others knowing about it probably shouldn’t be saying it on university hardware. I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t say it. I would just not encourage the use of “locking”, which only provides a false sense of security.

The biggest and most obvious reason for locking posts, I would think, is the plagiarism problem. What if a student were to post (as I’m doing) a long rant that could work its way into someone else’s essay or thesis? What if one student’s intellectual labour becomes another student’s good grade?

Blogging is not like taking notes or writing an essay, though I think it can certainly fulfill those functions. Blogging is publishing, and opening up the floodgates and letting undergraduates publish their thoughts on what they’re learning is a good thing. In using online technologies as part of classroom instruction, professors need to be aware of the issues they raise, and while posting discussion questions is a good thing, they should never take the form of exam questions or essay questions. I’ve heard of English professors who specifically pair up strange books on exam questions so that students can’t go online and find easy answers; instructors using blogs need to be conscious that while they are giving students work that can be marked, they shouldn’t be using a blog as a makeshift exam or as a timestamp method for receiving essays. Students shouldn’t be asked to share that kind of work with a class as a whole, or a university community as a whole. While creating the technology is interesting and challenging, determining exactly how that technology can and should be used is an equally daunting task.

There has been debate about automated plagiarism checkers like Students are being asked to submit their work to a database without acknowledging that student work is the property of the student, not the professor or the university. Rather than determine who has intellectual property rights around content, I would suggest that an edublog system simply work with systems like to allow bots to crawl the content regularly. Students don’t need to part with the content; in publishing it, they allow others to read it, including bots who will parse it and remember that it exists. The system could disallow Google bots and msn bots and other major search engines, keeping other students from easily finding edublog content.

I feel conflicted about how to cope with so much online information and plagiarism; in the end I feel that it’s up to the instructor to make sure her testing methods are foolproof. There are still serious benefits to the in-class, pen and paper exam with questions carefully crafted around lectures, in-class speakers, specific points that arose from discussion, and comparison between specific readings set for the course.

Blogging and the Instructor
When I first started talking about blogging in the classroom back in 2001, some of the initial reactions went something like this: “Well, that’s a lot more marking to do.” I found this comment irritating; as an instructor, do you want more participation, or less marking? As a long-time student, I am frustrated that encouraging my participation simply means more work for an instructor. But I think the reaction is coming from linking all written work together. If students are writing stuff, each post should be marked, no? Each post should have a letter grade?

I think blogging should be compared not with written work but with spoken participation. Instructors should keep track of what’s going on in blog posts and conversation (Who’s doing lots of thoughtful commenting? Who’s never commenting?), but should save the grading of it for specific times, like at quarters or at midterm and the end of term. Each student should have a comment history for each category, so that instructors can easily assess frequency of comments. Posts are all archived by category, and a quick perusal a few times a term will give an instructor a sense of how much thought went into the blog for that term. In terms of strict grading, I think instructors should allocate a fairly small percentage of the overall grade to blogging participation (10-20%), and determine only if that participation is poor, good, or excellent.

But the benefit of blogging goes beyond the grading side. Use the blogs can help students with their work, or help with understanding. When a student posts an interesting idea, leave a comment telling them so, suggesting a paper on that topic or recommending further reading. Correct a student’s assumptions when they are wrong. Commiserate with student outrage at a historical wrongdoing or a hateful character in a book. If one student posts something particularly interesting or controversial, post yourself and link to it, asking other students what they think. As the instructor you are also part of this community, dwelling on issues that helping students learn about the world they live in and helping them to develop critical thinking skills. For students unlikely to have the confidence to pipe up in class, a blog post, which will appear among many others, may help students break out of their shells.

Spending serious time using different blogging systems, and keeping an ear to the ground for new modifications and advances in software, leads to an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. I’ve found that blogging long enough has let me see what’s possible and what would be useful. Now, all we need is the time and the money, and we can get to work writing some new software.

I have ideas about how this blogging system can be used from an institutional point of view as well (interoffice communication), but I’ll leave that for another post.

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