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    Blogs – Commentary

    Discussion of the Tools: Blogs

    Most economists probably know what a blog (or weblog) is.  In terms of the technology it’s a personal web publishing platform, typically arranged in reverse chronological order, where authors can publish text, images, audio and video content easily without any knowledge of html or other web editing tools.

    There is quite a lot known about using blogs in education.  [See, for example, Ayres and Sachania (2009), Downes (2004), and Richardson (2006). ]  Faculty have used blogging in a variety of ways, such as to promote peer review, foster student-to-student, student-to-faculty, and faculty-to-student interaction; discuss course readings, promote discussion and public comment;  extend learning beyond the classroom; and to develop writing skills.  Blogging can be useful both for teaching, and for professional practice and scholarship.  Here, I focus on five substantive uses of blogging.

    1. Blogging as a Tool for Reflection, a Thought Amplifier.

    Blogs are excellent tools for reflection.  For years I’ve had stray thoughts while teaching or doing research that I have wanted to think through, but ended up slipping away. A blog is an excellent place to think through those thoughts.

    Virtually anything you might wish students to do with a journal, they can do with a blog.  But blogs increase the audience students write for dramatically. They also make the audience real, instead of artificial (e.g. merely the instructor).  This is not merely potential, but reality.  Blogs bring in outsider readers, even experts.  Almost every time I’ve used blogs, students have had their posts commented on thoughtfully by people from outside the university.  For two years, I’ve had students in my research methodology course use blogs as a type of research journal.  This year one student was writing about his proposed research topic exploring the economics implicit in online virtual worlds.  Shortly thereafter he received a comment from a researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center who had collected data on virtual worlds and offered it to the student.  In a first year seminar on globalization I asked each student to locate and follow a blog on the topic.  I choose PostGlobal, a blog published by the Washington Post, for mine.  I blogged about my choice and within a few hours received a comment from the journalists who write PostGlobal, inviting me and my class to participate more fully in their blog.  In both these instances, the feedback received prompted a level of engagement higher by several orders of magnitude from any previous journaling assignment.  Will Richardson tells of how the author of a book he was using in a course commented on the class blog.  There is evidence that students put more effort into writing for external audiences.  Additionally, the public nature of blogs in particular encourages deeper reflection before posting.

    Blogs allow and even promote interaction between students in ways that rarely happen in the classroom.  There is also evidence that students who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class do find their voice in a blog.  For students abroad or engaged in out-of-classroom experiences, blogs are an opportunity to reflect on their experiences and to process their interactions.

    Blogs are a particularly good tool for composition.  Writing is a medium for thinking.  Because blogs are informal (or semi-formal) writing, students are encouraged to focus their efforts on articulating ideas, rather than worrying about grammar.  As such, students who fear of criticism of their writing (mechanics) may be more willing to engage with their writing/thinking in the blog format.

    Bloggers don’t simple write blogs, but they also read them.  This reading informs their subsequent writing and reflections.  On this point, James Seng (n.d.) notes “blogs allow me to engage my readers and for them to comment and discuss, thereby building a virtual community.”

    Stephen Downes (2005) observes:

    Blogging is very different from traditionally assigned learning content. It is much less formal. It is written from a personal point of view, in a personal voice. Students’ blog posts are often about something from their own range of interests, rather than on a course topic or assigned project. More importantly, what happens when students blog, and read reach others’ blogs, is that a network of interactions forms-much like a social network, and much like Wenger’s community of practice.

    Moreover, these communities tend to be highly personal, rather than the same for every student.  This customization raises the level of interest and engagement by the participants.  Christian Daalsgaard (2006) notes:

    Since students can subscribe to different weblogs, they can create their individual network, which means that their participation in discussions is not limited to specific discussion forums within an LMS. The potential of social software tools such as wikis, weblogs combined with RSS feeds and social bookmarking is to facilitate closer relationships and more frequent interaction between students and teachers. This is facilitated by their sharing of work and references and their engagement in discussions.

    2. Blogging Provides an Easy Opportunity to Participate in a High level Intellectual Discussion.

    No matter how obscure the topic, there are others interested in it in the Blogosphere.  Think of the thought-provoking conversations at professional conferences.  Think of pre-prints of scholarly journal articles.  Imagine being able to influence a scholar’s thinking before his argument is fully formed.  Imagine him influencing your thinking. This is the most academically powerful usage of blogs.

    The blogosphere seems to level the playing field in the academy between expert, journeyman, and novice. There is an implicit assumption that if you post, your posting will be evaluated on its merits, rather than on the reputation of the author, at least more so than in traditional forms of publication.

    3. Blogging as a tool for research:

    Blogging offers a number of opportunities for researchers.  It can be a place to test out research ideas, as well as a venue for writing notes about one’s research.  D’Arcy Norman characterizes blogging as “semi-formal thinking.”  E. W. Dijkstra comments:

    If there is one “scientific” discovery I am proud of, it is the discovery of the habit of writing without publication in mind. I experience it as a liberating habit: without it, doing the work becomes one thing and writing it down another one, which is often viewed as an unpleasant burden. When working and writing have merged, that burden has been taken away.

    If this is true, if we can get students to regularly write about their studies–notes, comments and questions about what they are reading, connections between a text and the lecture, one text and another text, one course and another course–then, we will be helping students take a major step towards genuine education.

    One can draft pieces of a research paper in a blog format.  Indeed, parts of this paper originated as posts on my blog.  Blogs also offer a platform for publishing working papers or more completed forms of writing.  Laura Blankenship used the blog format to draft her doctoral dissertation. Her research explored blogging as a tool to teach writing composition, which made this a natural format for reporting on her own research.  One of her findings resonates: “Blogging is more than writing. It is also reading and thinking critically.”  Wade Roush used a blog to draft an article magazine, and invite feedback prior to submitting the finished product for more traditional publication.

    4. Blog as a research journal.

    One application of blogging which has worked very successfully for me was to ask students in my research methodology class to keep a blog to “narrate the process of their research.”

    The blogging achieved several objectives.  It enabled students to see that others in the course were running into similar difficulties.  The blog allowed me to leverage my efforts by answering common questions once, rather than each time a different student ran into them.  It also provided a means for students to help each other by responding to questions or suggesting solutions to problems.  The blog helped me identify students with problems in their earlier than I would have without the blog.  More generally, the blog really did provide a window into the students’ research processes.

    This use of blogs is not unique.  Bud Gibson writes of a similar experience: “The goal of using blogs in the class was to get a view on what students were learning and where they were encountering problems in a relatively unstructured and technically challenging learning task.”

    5. The Blog as a Learning Management System (WordPress)

    Our institution, like many, uses Blackboard as a course management system.  Commercial CMSs are good for course administration and perhaps content management.  What they are not particularly good for is promoting learning.  Increasingly, it is possible to use blog platforms, such as WordPress, as learning management systems.  Blog platforms allow one to add only those features, via widgets and plugins,  that are useful in a specific course.  They also allow one to choose best of breed features, rather than accepting the one-size-fits-all features that come with a CMS.

    In the last few years, I have moved all of my course websites from Blackboard to WordPress.  The only features of Blackboard that I haven’t been able to replicate are gradebook and quizzing features.  I suspect that it is only a matter of time, though, before those features will be available for WordPress.

    The idea of using a blog platform as a learning management system is not unique.

    Tim Kochanski (University of Alaska Southeast) has used blogger quite successfully as an alternative to Blackboard, as he describes at:

    http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/showcase/kochanski_blog.htm

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