Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

From Ida takes Tea: why not to use blogs as e-portfolios:

The persistence of blogs (via permalinks, trackbacks etc, to say nothing of the recently-sued Wayback Machine) is at odds with the desire to create a personal repository that can be selectively shared and edited, over time.

Catherine has more to say that this snippet, but this snippet sums up an important piece of her issueswith the idea of blogs as portfolios. Put it out there and it’s out there for good. All data is ahistorical, existing right now even though it may have been created 6 years before. Students are not ahistorical; we need a system that respects the chronological growth of the student’s learning.

I actually found this argument really hard to wrap my brain around. I don’t know why the internet would seem more ahistorical than any other document. Manuscripts from the 14th century still exist, and I’ve even seen and held a few of them. The fact that they exist in the now, that I can pull them out and flip through them, does not convince me that they are of the now. Serial literature is the same way; sure, it might have just come into my hands, but I still look at the date on it. It makes a difference to me if the paper is today’s or one from last week. I see absolutely no difference between that and online publication.

This critcism feels as if it comes from a place without any online information literacy. The internet is full of documents, some of them old and some of the new. There are ways to date an online document, from clues as hazy as the design and layout of the page to as concrete as how many dead links a page contains, or the copyright or ‘last edited’ date. The same skills we teach students about information literacy apply here; does the content tell us anything about the age of the document? Is it full of references to something terrible that happened to the World Trade Center yesterday? “Yesterday” is a subjective term, and in a world where every post is written in the now, maybe this is just something you get used to over time. Diaries tend not to be retrospective of themselves; they are forever reflecting on now as if, well, it’s going on right now.

And actually, the fact that this criticism is being leveled at blogs in particular strikes me as odd. If anything goes out of its way to historicize web documents, blogs do. They are archived by day month and year, they are signed and timestamped. Most blogging software allows for some context for blogs, showing you a calendar and links to the post that came before and after the post you’re reading. Additionally, posts on blogs that are a part of a larger community also come with comments affixed, also time- and date-stamped. So, were I to pull up some posts from 1999, I would see, constantly, that it’s 1999. The comments may give me a sense even of how long that particular conversation went on. The post may be written with a sense of immediacy, but I have every chance to witness its context, its datedness. No document exists in a vacuum, and that’s just as true of online documents as of any other.

To turn this debate around a bit: were it possible for students to submit work to a journal and have it published, should we discourage that as well? After all:

persistence creates the illusion of fixed identity, whereas higher education explicitly conceptualises its mission as formative and processual: we believe that students are shaped, and we want them to be so shaped, by their experience of participating in a learning community.

If persistence disrupts that important process, should we disallow publication altogether? Does the requirement of faculty to publish diminish their ability to be formed by their work, to engage in a process of learning? Does hard paper publication prevent us from being shaped by the experience of participating in any learning community?

Or does publication (in any context) allow students the opportunity to engage in participatory learning? Doesn’t putting something out there allow us to grow while at the same time reflecting the benchmarks of our learning process? Why would a persistent record of that process necessarily be bad? To drag this out to an illogical conclusion, should we suggest that students not speak in class, for fear that they would express an idea that, in a few weeks time, they might think better of? Does student participation in any context limit who a student is by putting unformed pieces of them before the eyes of others?

The key to all of this is context. Something a bit newer in the blog world is the possibility of tagging and categories, and I think that this simple classification method bears mentioning in this debate. While Catherine sees no value in the persistence of blogs to education, doesn’t one old blogged idea now sit within a category of similar ideas, organized chronologically, so that the history of that idea can now be easily traced, with the emphasis placed on the most recent addition? Isn’t that even a better and easier historicity than, say, a paper publication? Or a conference contibution?

All that aside, I get the general argument. At its heart it’s an ethical question: should we be asking students to create a web presence that will be with them for life? This may not be their finest hour. Perhaps at some point later on in life they will want to create a new web presence, and they will have to be dodging the one we forced them to create.

Of course, this is a purely intellectual debate, based entirely on one assumption: blogs must be public. Blogs must be googled, tracebacked, ranked on Technorati, traded on blogshares, and tracked on the way back machine.

There is nothing about the structure or features of blogs that require them to be public. In fact, many of livejournal‘s 8 million blogs are entirely locked to the public. The posts are never found on the wayback machine, Google never peeks in; the posts exist only to the people allowed to see it.

As far as I’m concerned, educational blogs should follow Livejournal’s lead. I know there are educational blogging projects in the UK following that precise route. For an educational blog mandated by schoolwork, there should be multiple options: visible only to you; visible only to your instructor/TAs; visible only to your instructor, guest lecturers, librarians, and your classmates; visible to your friends at the school as you choose them, but to no one else; visible to anyone at the school; and visible to the whole world.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a student shouldn’t have complete control over how their e-presence is created. None of this precludes the use of blogs as educational tools or as e-portfolios. Google and the way back machine should not be figuring into the use of blogs in the classroom anymore than Old Navy and the Gap should. They exist, they’re out there, they’re ubiquitous; but we don’t need to invite them in.

The argument is often made that the public nature of blogs is an educational bonus. Putting your ideas out there for the wild internet to see means you may attract the interest of just about anyone, and you may benefit from their comments and questions. I know lots of people who will make the argument that class work should be available to all and sundry for pedagogical reasons. Since students own the copyright to their own work (including everything they create at the request of the professor and hand in), I think they shouldn’t be asked to put that work in the public eye, but that’s a conversation to have in class #1. There’s no reason why we can’t moderate the degree of “public” that students have to deal with, let them decide what they want to add to the public record and what they want to keep ephemeral.

I get frustrated by criticisms that are hinged on the limitations of one particular version of a technology. One of the best things that can happen to anyone is to learn enough about technology to realize that no interface is unchangeable. Everything can be changed, fixed, transmuted. If something is getting in your way, well just change it.

That’s what I love about the internet. Infinite possibility.

0 thoughts on “Historicity, E-Persistence, and Blogs as E-Portfolios

  1. Dear Rochelle,

    The appearance of this article by some wierd function of Google amuses me in terms of its context if, apparently, it was written some five years ago.

    However, as to your erudite defence of the blog I would disagree. As much as all the functions of a blog may be possible, Catharine’s article was, to my mind eloquently expressed in her statement, “the desire to create a personal repository that can be selectively shared and edited, over time.”

    Perhaps she was assuming that the reader would know more about the additional functionality of a learner-owned ePortfolio, provided by tools such as polls, surveys, Likart Scales etc.

    But secondly, implicit in the above statement, is the concept of presenting different information to different audiences. I would agree with Catharine that when I use my ePortfolio to showcase to a selected audience I do NOT want historicity to follow me. I carefully select what I want to present and nothing else.

    Thirdly, the aspect of longevity must be understood. The ePortfolio can ‘change its colours’, chameleon-like, according to loyalities or interests. The football team or pop group that a teenager may follow today could easily change by tomorrow and the face or ‘view’ of the opening front page can reflect whatever I choose as a self-representation.

    Please see my blog for more.

    Kindest Regards,

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