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Blogging in the Academy: Ask Not What Ed Tech Can Do For You

Welcome to the TEP Blog!

If you’ve made it this far, you either know what a blog is and are wondering how it might serve something like university teaching (in which case you can scoot forward a few paragraphs) or you were curious enough to check out this newish platform. So …. what is a Blog?

The word is a portmanteau of “web log.” Blogging software and services allow anyone with a pinch of computer savvy to create and maintain a web page, the main feature of which is a text entry accompanied by pictures, short video or audio clips. Often words within the text are hyper-linked to other relevant pages. Hyperlinks allow readers to customize their text, linking when they need an explanation, definition or further context. (Try clicking on the highlighted word above.) These entries are displayed in reverse chronological order, so the most recent entry is what you see first. Many blogs allow reader commentary, tagging (a user-generated indexing system) and RSS feeds, a subscription service that alerts readers to new blog posts. That’s what this icon denotes:

That is the “what” of blogs, as in “what the tool allows you to do.” But there is a “why” to any tool as well; the same technology can have many applications. Take, for example, the hammer, as in “teach carpentry and not the hammer.” The hammer allows you to concentrate and magnify force. But the hammer has a variety of applications only one of which is the insertion of nails.

The “why” of blogs is very diverse because, like many Web 2.0 technologies, they are highly adaptable to the needs and desires of the user. Blogs and their entries can serve as newsletters, op-eds, diaries, journals, photo archives, scrap books, “how- to”s, first drafts, etc. Many educators have classroom blogs where they post assignments, reminders, study questions, lecture notes, and reflections on news-stories relevant to the class. Classroom blogs allow teachers to easily and flexibly index course materials and postings. They allow students to easily navigate the course website and, because every blog posting has a space for comments, they provide an automatic venue for dialog with the professor.

Many more academics maintain “professional” blogs, where they comment on recent news and events related to their field. These can be valuable resources for students as well; the tone and habits of blogging (semi-formal reflections, dense with references to other work, current events and personal anecdotes) are an excellent entree to the practice of academic writing, without the intimidating specialist lexicon. Blogs document the playful, wandering, fertile and expansive discovery-stage of critical inquiry. They show students what it is to look at the world through the lens of our intellectual passions.Did your last road trip change your understanding of urban geography? Did your three-year-old niece perfectly demonstrate a classic theory of language acquisition? Does a recent City Council decision address the tragedy of the commons? Blog it! and encourage your students to read the blogs of other scholars in the field. What better way to engage students than to reveal an expert’s daily engagement with the themes and questions of the course?

And blogs, more than most other forms of popular literature, are invested in intertextuality. Every decent blog links to other authors’ writings and most blogs review or critique both primary and secondary sources. Good bloggers are in the habit of situating their own intellectual work in the context of other thinkers. What a great skill for students to see demonstrated in this relatively informal way.

There are folks reluctant to integrate blogs and many other Web 2.0 technologies. When they think of personal websites, they think of Myspace and similar exercises in flash and narcissism. I can sympathize with the concern that students might be distracted by the bells and whistles of the software or that the internet produces unreliable, unsophisticated, vanity literature of the sort students shouldn’t be mimicking. And sure, there are blogs that will rot your brain out from under you, and they may very well outnumber those blogs with relevant substance. But that doesn’t mean the genre inherently leans toward mediocrity, or that it encourages students to do so. We assign students to watch television documentaries, or make their own documentary shorts, though thoughtful examples of this genre are far outnumbered by “reality programing.”

Nor does it mean the tool will do the teaching for you. Students must learn how to use blogs as scholars would, just as they learn to read, write, speak and present as scholars. They need clear guidelines about the purpose and criteria of blog entires and commentary, they need practice and feedback. But isn’t this what we do, or should be doing, with every new exercise and activity we give our students?

Which brings me once again to “what” and “why” and the large difference between them. I
find the “why” of tools, their possibilities, much more interesting and fertile than the “what.” So I’m sometimes confused when debates about educational technology focus on the latter, or when I see instructors reluctant to explore possibilities because they worry that the tools are poisonous. And this is a perennial debate in journals, at conferences, consultations and staff meetings: is the use of technology good for students? Does it increase learning? Does it rot the brain?

And it’s a debate that’s enormously difficult to settle because technology is diverse; scientific calculators and Ipods are included. And their applications are equally diverse. While calculators seem clearly educational and Ipods clearly recreational, I ignored an entire semester of AP Chemistry via TI 82 Tetris and spent hours lingering in the galleries of LACMA while listening to museum Podcasts. So, it’s hard to pin down whether the damage or benefit of any particular instance of educational technology is in the medium or the message, the vehicle or the delivered content.

But isn’t that what artistry is all about, finding the right medium for the message? Imagine an artist, trained in the use of traditional materials, the coarse horsehair brush, the thick, richly colored paint, the woven canvas. At some point in her training she comes across a set of water colors, a fine synthetic-fiber brush, and smooth, white paper. Now she has a greater range of expression. She can use these tools to paint something light, ethereal, like flowers reflected in water. The thick brush, the oil paint, the is too chunky, too real, sloppy and visceral for this particular painting. Even later in her career, she finds digital canvases she can use to make dynamic, kaleidoscopic and haunting images— images she couldn’t have made nearly as well in traditional mediums. She won’t throw out her oil paints, their watercolor and their easel. They may still have expressions that call for these other tools.

For teachers, versatility is even more important. Unlike artists, our audiences often choose us for reasons rather unrelated to our personal style. So if we want to teach effectively, to a wide range of students, the more tools at our disposal the better. This doesn’t mean we can’t specialize, or have modes in which we are more comfortable. But it suggests that there’s benefit in expanding our toolbox just as our students expand theirs.

There is nothing wrong with oil paints, big brushes, wide strokes, or smooth paper, or digital color, or the whole genre of visual art. (Nothing wrong with chalk, blue books, office hours, Blackboard, Clickers or Podcasts.) They are perfectly good tools, depending on the artist’s need and the particular project. Every new technology still has its detractors and abstainers, and that’s fine. Not all artists go digital, not all musicians will use synthesizers, not all teachers use blogs. But some do, successfully. In fact, faculty at several universities, including our own, are maintaining blogs for their classes, as well as professional blogs within their field of interest.

For further information on the use of Blogs in the Academy please see:

An Article from The Chronicle of Higher Ed

An informal article about the common pitfalls of using blogs in the classroom and pedagogical tips for making the most of student blogs.

A More Scholarly Article from the Journal of Online Learning

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