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Blogging to Learn

I must admit, I was initially a bit befuddled by the blog-o-mania that has hit society with the sudden, formidable force of a tsunami. Why, I thought, would anyone want to journal publicly? And why, I mused, would anyone want to read the online musings of random strangers? The answers eluded me until I stopped fighting the tide, took the plunge, and let the wave carry me wherever it might.

I find that such overwhelming mass appeal usually points to something interesting about human behavior. Since I am generally a proponent of the theory that experience is the best teacher, I figured I should make a genuine attempt to see what the fuss was all about from the inside. And so I began writing this blog, reading and commenting on blogs of others with related interests, and corresponding with other education bloggers through online educator networks. While I had been using various Web 2.0 media in the context of teaching and learning for years, until recently, I had not yet committed to maintaining a professional blog and actively trying to penetrate the blogosphere, which, of course, is no small commitment.

Thus, I have begun to discover answers to my persistent pre-blogging questions. One good reason I have found to journal publicly is that writing helps to clarify my thinking, especially if I am writing for an audience beyond myself. This is not a new idea, of course; it runs through the literature on writing development and instruction, and good teachers have been capitalizing on it for years. But blogs offer some new affordances that provide significant leverage, and it is not inconsequential that such leverage can be felt by experienced as well as novice writers. For example, I can enjoy the benefits of writing to further my own thinking, while also potentially sharing that writing with others who might be interested in communicating with me, which can further my thinking even more, thereby smoothly fusing the cognitive and social benefits of writing.

This writing, which lives on the web and is therefore accessible to anyone at any time, can travel through a network of people at lightning speed, which keeps the collective thought processes in motion, engaging people who might never otherwise be engaged if it were not for the mighty web lifting the constraints of time and space. I am the manager of my own dynamic text, which means that I can revise it as I choose without interfering with its distribution; others can bookmark it, embed links to it within their own posts, or send it to others within their own networks, while I continue to maintain creative control over it. Linking to blog posts within discussion forums (and vice-versa) combines the advantages of both media. Time to reflect between interactions can deepen in-conversation thinking and allow room to confirm that we are saying what we mean.

Even if no one ever reads it, writing for a potential (real) audience makes the writing and the thinking behind it better than it would be if I were not planning for it to be read by others. (This well-known, but still vastly under-utilized tactic always worked well in teaching writing to my sixth graders long before blogs were a gleam in society’s eye, but blogs make it so much more practical.) The blog structure and conventions encourage bursts of writing that are short enough to feel manageable (for readers as well as writers), but long enough to be substantive and coherent. Successful writers generally agree that writing regularly is one of the keys to their success, as frequent practice improves anyone’s game. Periodic publication also helps to broaden one’s audience, especially in a medium that is so conducive to widespread dissemination. RSS feeds, trackbacks and pingbacks help to keep authors and their audiences connected. The fact that we are always writing in hypermedia means that the possibilities for directly linking our thinking to that of others are infinite.

Through blogging, we are able to establish dynamic identities as authors within online communities of practice that ideally complement rather than replace those offline. We are not necessarily writing for everyone, but everyone has access to our writing if we so choose, and thus we may find and engage audiences and conversation partners through channels previously unavailable to us. Strategic blogging can dramatically increase one’s chances of actually being heard, which is naturally one of the great thrills of the human experience at any stage. Authorship is empowering, and it helps us shape our identities, both internally and externally.

Where I went wrong in my pre-blogging thinking was in asking why anyone might be interested in the musings of random strangers. The key is that bloggers’ audiences and conversation partners are not random strangers; rather they are a self-selecting subset of people who share interests and might never encounter each other without the internet. We need not read every blog that is written, but if we find even a few kindred spirits with whom we can stretch our thinking, our minds and worlds are expanded.

These potential benefits do not void the challenges we currently face in managing information and communication on the Read/Write Web, but they make them worth tackling. For example, I am finding it difficult to keep track of everything I have written in conversation with others through discussion forums or other people’s blogs, and it can be overwhelming to try to stay on top of all the writing of potential interest that is being organically generated each day. Many of my comments go unanswered, so I cannot tell if I have communicated anything to anyone. Often I am not sure of the best cybervenue for responding to someone…in a blog comment, in a discussion forum within a particular network, or in a new blog post. We are collectively still sorting out both the optimal functionality and the rhetorical conventions of these new media, and, thus, we are not always playing by the same rules, which can cause communication interference. Blogging is very time-consuming, but at present, I feel that it is extending my learning and informing my teaching and my research enough to make the time and effort worthwhile.

Somewhat ironically, my previous post, entitled So Many Nodes, Not Enough Reciprocity (Yet), speaks to some of these challenges, while also demonstrating some of the benefits. For instance, across the world, Paul Beaufait responded to my post in two different blog posts of his own, So Little Reciprocity? and Balance, on all fours, as well as bookmarking it in Diigo and discussing it in a forum within an educator network called Blended Learning and Instruction, where I believe he first encountered the post through an embedded link. Both the contents and the mere existence of his responses informed my thinking about this post and its subject matter in general. Thus, as with any movement as organic and potent as Web 2.0, the benefits and challenges are two sides of the same coin.

So, at the risk of falling into the tiresome trap of blogging about blogging (or meta-blogging, one might say), I am using this opportunity to think through some ideas in writing, share them with any who might be interested, and potentially initiate (or continue) some constructive dialogue about them. The authorship drive is a strong one, and blogs clearly offer an inviting outlet for it. Before blogging myself, I could not fully appreciate the interactive writing experience that emerges from this particular set of affordances. The affordances of blogging have much in common with the affordances of participating in discussion forums and wikis, but they also differ. We cannot fully optimize these media in teaching writing without authentic experiences of authorship. And reflections on my own experience suggest that, in the context of effective instruction, blogging can potentially put a whole new spin on “writing to learn” at its best.

The mushrooming activity generated by the Read/Write Web is truly astonishing, and its implications for education and society are breathtaking. The eagerness that vast numbers of people have demonstrated for connected authorship is inspiring. The potential some imagined years ago when the internet opened up to the general public is now being realized at a scale that exceeds all but the furthest-reaching visions from those ancient days (a mere 15 years back). And yet, the phenomenon is far from established. Rather, it is in rapid, dynamic evolution, like the English language in the days of Shakespeare, yet more so.

One of the ways I hope to see the ubernetwork that is the internet evolve is for its depth to begin to catch up with its breadth. With the viral spread of online networks, we must take care not to dilute them so much (by rapidly migrating to new ones) that they lose their power, which derives from the quantity and quality of their membership. With the proliferation of blogs, we must take care not to get lost in a plethora of solipsistic silos, speaking without listening, reinventing rather than building upon each other’s ideas and deepening the collective dialogue.

Whether these tendencies are an indicator of the novelty of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, an extension of dominant American cultural values emphasizing independence and entrepreneurship, or the result of some other socio-cosmic force, I do not consider them to be an inevitable end. I believe that if we choose to be reflective about the ways in which we interact online, we can optimize the enormous learning possibilities that such connected authorship affords. We can become even smarter and more knowledgeable than we are, both individually and collectively.

In particular, I find myself wishing for more reciprocal dialogue. For example, I was pleased to receive a number of quick, thoughtful responses to my initial post in a discussion forum I initiated about Teaching Writing with Web 2.0 within Classroom 2.0, an online network for educators interested in Web 2.0 created using the Ning platform. However, conversation seems to have withered with my responses to those responses, full of open questions posed in an effort to probe deeper into the topics at hand, make additional connections, and learn more by thinking together with my cyber-colleagues. Similarly, most of the comments I have made on other people’s blogs or posts I have made to other discussion forums remain unanswered, despite my efforts to engage others in dialogue.

One can only speculate about the reasons for this…people are busy and easily distracted or overwhelmed…the design of popular tools does not inherently foster two-way communication…social norms and time constraints favor more cursory discourse. And yet, it is my hope that once they are experienced more broadly, the benefits of such interactive communication will ultimately prove strong enough for cyberculture to break through those barriers and realize its potential to promote sustained, enduring, thought-provoking conversation as well as individually authored, interconnected literary nodes.

Just as we are innately driven toward both adventure and safety, people are driven both to speak and to listen. Real dialogue involves multiple cycles of speaking and listening in the spirit of inquiry. Such dialogue, in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and their cohorts, is preciously uncommon in contemporary society. It is my hope that just as we have seen authorship and publication rise to new levels with Web 2.0, so shall we see true dialogue also rise.

Naturally, I would welcome any dialogue on the subject!

The university commencement address is a special genre. At its best, it offers a window into a great mind that may not often be open to the masses, bestowing elusive keys to the success of an accomplished individual, highlighting both the uniqueness and the universality of that person’s story. The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination, J.K. Rowling’s address to Harvard graduates this year, is one of those speeches. Thanks to the magnanimous web, even those who did not attend may enjoy the speech in the author’s own voice. (Rowling is introduced 1 hr into the video.)

Though the central topics of her address are not unprecedented in this genre, their meaning both extends and is enriched by knowledge of Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter tales. In particular, she reflects on one of the underlying themes of her celebrated opus, explaining that “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

One of the qualities that makes Rowling’s books so transcendent is that they are simultaneously fun and wise, artfully mixing adventure and parable in ways that define the sort of literature that leaves a permanent mark on society. They are at once entertaining and thought-provoking, engaging and instructive, amusing and unsettling, enjoyable and cathartic. Rowling’s unabashed moral and political stance is evident in the novels (which is likely why they are more than occasionally banned), but it is a rare treat to learn about some of the experiences that have informed the author’s passionate positions. Though I consider being a children’s author one of the most exalted vocations in its own right, I especially admire Rowling for doing such an exceptional job using her authorship for the common good. Hers is a shining example of writing that transcends genres that tend to be artificially separated in the standard curriculum; she demonstrates that creative writing and persuasive writing are not mutually exclusive. The best fiction is full of truths, and there are more ways to explain a perspective or convince an audience than the five-paragraph essay.

Fortunately, children are smart enough not to limit their education to school. Henry Jenkins of MIT’s New Media Literacies Project speaks to this phenomenon in his article Why Heather Can Write, which characterizes how Web 2.0 media can support young authors in ways that schools often do not. He describes the Harry Potter fan fiction community, also featured in a new film called We Are Wizards. These irrepressible writers take inspiration from J.K. Rowling’s brilliant stories, which serve as templates rich with multifaceted characters and complex plots that engage readers’ imaginations and invite them to try their hand at authorship, guided by a helpful framework and a supportive community. Naturally, such “affinity spaces” are self-selecting, but teachers who employ such media and encourage such “participatory culture” in the classroom could distribute their benefits much more broadly. Sites such as Fiction Alley and The Daily Prophet provide infrastructure for paying tribute to Rowling’s literary genius and mobilizing new authorship in ways that were not possible before Web 2.0.

Ironically, Rowling’s commencement message seems to have evaded the very segment of the audience for which it was most directly intended. An NPR story about the event indicates that some graduates found her unworthy of the honor of speaking to them on the auspicious occasion of their transition to adult life. All the more reason, I suppose, that the rest of us should heed her sage advice.

Threaded discussions are where it all began. Back in the early days of the Internet (when it still had a capital “I”), Usenet newsgroups sparked great excitement about talking to other people (often previously unknown) in writing without constraints of time or place. Thanks to technical advances that have made web-based authorship as simple and accessible as word processing, such excitement is now hitting the mainstream, essentially transforming the internet into a qualitatively different entity that warrants its very own name: Web 2.0 (or the Read/Write Web).

And yet, in all the present excitement about blogs and wikis and social networking and other web-enabled communication media in education, the old-fashioned threaded discussion has gotten short shrift. Threaded discussions facilitate true dialogue in ways that blogs and wikis often do not, especially when coupled with curriculum, instruction, and facilitation that capitalize on their affordances. For example, the nonlinear nature of threaded discussions allows participants to respond directly to a particular comment, regardless of the time it was made, which can promote a depth of discussion that has significant learning value. Responding directly to someone who has responded directly to you, all in the context of a public discussion, is quite a different experience than posting a comment on an author’s (blogger’s) published work. Both have value, but they are not interchangeable. Written discourse feels more like communication (and is often more engaging) when you receive a response, indicating that you have been heard. Blogs primarily facilitate one-to-many communication, while threaded discussions enable many-to-many communication, as long as those involved know how to take advantage of it. They can help teachers achieve that elusive goal of getting out of the middle of a class discussion and encouraging students to talk to each other. Such decentered discussions can potentially engage students in deeper, more authentic communication, which can enrich their learning in a variety of ways.

Naturally, successful instructional use of online discussion forums (much like successful instructional use of face-to-face discussions) requires clear expectations, generative prompts, shared discussion norms, and skilled moderation. However, under the right conditions, such online discussions can probe further and promote more substantive exchanges even than face-to-face discussions, with many added benefits. For example, threaded discussions afford the opportunity for any participant to enter the dialogue about any point at any time, regardless of where the conversation has traveled since the point was made. They are often more inclusive than face-to-face discussions, since many students feel more comfortable contributing to a computer-mediated discussion without the pressures inherent in speaking in front of an audience. The time cushion also allows for more thoughtful, reflective contributions, and there is no limit to how many people can respond to a certain point without sacrificing coherence.

Unfortunately, many of the most recently developed online tools and environments have abandoned the threading feature, which I believe is a big loss. Ning is one that does a nice job with threaded discussions from a technical perspective, and Tapped In is another. Most of the CMS/LMS/courseware environments also include threaded discussions, but they are not free. Many of the blogging tools lack this feature, which, in my view, limits their flexibility as communication media. Most blogs are essentially designed for readers to communicate with one author, which can be of enormous benefit in promoting authentic written communication (although readers can and do also address each other). However, I believe they could be even more powerful if they structurally supported discourse in any direction, encouraging readers to communicate with each other in writing, thereby distributing authorship more broadly. In this model, authorship can be viewed in a qualitatively different way, blurring the lines between author and audience, between speaking and writing, between conversation and publication. These blurred lines have important implications both for learning how to communicate (skills), and for learning about the subjects that are the focus of communication (content).

Another benefit of threaded discussions is that there are relatively low barriers to entry, which make them a good initial opportunity for participating substantively in the Web 2.0 community at large. I think that if students and teachers had positive experiences with discussion forums optimally implemented, they would get more out of the blogging experience and its potential to support interactivity as well as publication. I hope that the next generation of digital communication media will resurrect this important, often unsung hero of Web 2.0. Communication environments allowing for both instant global publication AND true dialogue would offer teachers and students the power and flexibility to take authorship to a whole new level.

Earlier this year, blogger Andy Carvin issued a provocation: “Web 2.0 and Education, Hot or Not?” He went on to discuss reactions within the education community to Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture, including a blog started by Ann Collier called Why we like Web 2.0… Carvin’s response was a call for educators to share what they dislike about Web 2.0 as well in order to gain credibility with critics.

My approach to this issue is to try to break free of either/or thinking about whether Web 2.0 is good or bad for society and/or education and focus on context of use and conditions of value. Such an ecological approach considers how the affordances of a particular medium might help people achieve specific purposes or address particular pedagogical goals under certain circumstances, while also considering its limitations. For example, if people understand how to conduct an efficient web search and evaluate the reliability of sources, then the benefits of having access to the thoughts, ideas, and creative achievements of millions of newly self-published authors may outweigh the challenges of sifting through them to find the worthiest ones. And the potential benefits of being able to interact so easily with people and their ideas without restrictions on time or distance are enormous.

The social web can offer a great deal of value as a learning environment, under the right conditions. Web 2.0 media such as blogs, wikis, and threaded discussions can help developing writers build a sense of audience and purpose as they interact in writing with others around their ideas. In the context of effective instruction, this sort of authentic written communication can potentially help students learn how to write better than typical classroom composition activities in which the sole purpose of writing is to prove competence to a teacher. However, Web 2.0 media do not inherently provide instruction; in order to achieve such results, teachers need to guide students toward learning the rhetoric and applying the conventions of academic discourse, with clear expectations and reliable accountability mechanisms. They also need to provide writing tasks and prompts that engage students in genuine authorship involving critical and creative thinking about substantive issues, works of literature or art, or other meaningful content that has relevance to students and to society at large. Discussing the value of Web 2.0 for authors as well as audiences, considering both challenges and opportunities, essentially reframes the debate about Keen’s polemical argument. Rather than listing “why we like (or do not like) the social web,” it might be even more compelling to explain “when we like the social web and why.”

When I use the term “authorship,” I am referring to the practice of writing or otherwise creating an original text in any medium. For example, one might author a story, an essay, a book, a message, a diagram, a video, a multimedia presentation, a blog, a podcast, etc.

I believe that authorship is an important vehicle for learning. Teachers often ask students to write, but such activities do not always engage students in true authorship.

This concept map that I authored with MindMeister elaborates on what I mean…
[Mind map is interactive...Click and drag to center map and mouse over gray dots for additional notes.]

In collaboration with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has just published Writing, Technology and Teens, a research report on perceptions of teens and their parents about the relationship between their frequent informal writing through digital communication media and formal writing considered to be important for success in school and work. In short, they found that, “Most teenagers spend a considerable amount of their life composing texts, but they do not think that a lot of the material they create electronically is real writing.” Perhaps if they were using electronic communication media in the classroom, as well as outside of school, they would feel differently.

Most teens felt that they could benefit from improved instruction in writing. When teens were asked about their suggestions for improvement, researchers discovered that, “Overall, 82% of teens feel that additional in-class writing time would improve their writing abilities and 78% feel the same way about their teachers using computer-based writing tools.”

Focus group teens offered this helpful advice to educators:
“…they are motivated to write when they can select topics that are relevant to their lives and interests, and report greater enjoyment of school writing when they have the opportunity to write creatively. Having teachers or other adults who challenge them, present them with interesting curricula and give them detailed feedback also serves as a motivator for teens. Teens also report writing for an audience motivates them to write and write well.”

Asking students to share their views about their own learning can be so illuminating. Students, in their infinite wisdom, have identified what makes Web 2.0 communication media so powerful: they genuinely put the act of communication back into writing. They offer a platform for students to use writing to develop their ideas and communicate those ideas to real audiences with real purpose. Isn’t that what we’re trying to prepare them to do? If we want students to learn to communicate in writing, then we should give them opportunities to do so authentically in the course of instruction.

Artificial writing exercises that ask students to tell teachers and test-makers what they already know, or prove command of rhetoric divorced of meaningful substance, do not qualify as authentic communication. Students are eager to use blogs, wikis, and threaded discussions for academic writing because they offer opportunities to interact in writing with other people around ideas. As teachers, we must find ways to engage students in writing about things that matter to them and to society and facilitate the sorts of interactions that help them sharpen the expression of their thoughts. And we are fortunate to now have such helpful tools available to help us meet those goals.

I recommend listening to TED Talks – Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? I heartily agree with Robinson that, “we are educating people out of their creative capacities.” In fact, I have preached a similar gospel, having observed that most every 4-year-old I’ve encountered exhibits great imagination, and yet we seem to systematically bury this instinct through our education system, which clearly and relentlessly privileges “right” answers and “correct” form over creative ideas and complex thought, year after year, essentially bullying students into relinquishing this precious birthright. This is not meant to suggest that we should lead kids to believe that 2 + 2 can equal anything, or that punctuating sentences is unimportant to communicating clearly in writing, but rather that we should emphatically convey through both word and deed that other more open-ended types of questions and tasks are also worth pursuing.

In my experience, most children in the primary grades are encouraged to view themselves as authors and artists, but by the later grades, kids typically have internalized a belief that imagination and authorship are the province of only a “creative” few. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by the recent obsession with high-stakes standardized tests, which now drive so much of what happens in classrooms on a day-to-day basis. Such tests go far beyond merely measuring what students know to very narrowly defining what is considered worth knowing.

In her book, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, Eleanor Duckworth argues that “Standardized tests can never, even at their best, tell us anything other than whether a given fact, notion, or ability is already within a child’s repertoire. As a result, teachers are encouraged to go for right answers, as soon and as often as possible, and whatever happens along the way is treated as incidental.” When the culture of schooling is overwhelmingly focused on demonstrating what one already knows rather than exploring what one doesn’t, children repeatedly receive the message that knowing is more important than learning. And, as Duckworth points out, “The virtues involved in not knowing are the ones that really count in the long run. What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will ultimately know.” This is not to say that knowledge is unimportant, but rather that banking inert knowledge should not take priority over building active knowledge; knowledge should be something we expect students to use and expand, not just to have.

We as educators must not acquiesce to the pressures bearing down upon us, as strong as they may be, to act against the best interests of our students. The stakes are too high – far higher than those imposed by any test. We must push back and reclaim the culture of education, and renew our commitment to cultivating creativity in students of all ages in all disciplines. The good news is that many kids are exercising their creativity all over cyberspace…outside of school. Imagine what they could do with our guidance and support…

Web 2.0 (otherwise known as the Read/Write Web) has ignited a revolution in authorship. A rapidly expanding variety of freely available web-based tools support authorship in new and transformative ways, giving rise to what I am calling Authorship 2.0. While new tools are constantly emerging, and existing tools and categories are in a constant state of flux, these are a few relatively stable recent innovations in digital communication media that have generated great interest among authors of all varieties:

Forums are online discussions organized topically and chronologically. Whether public or private, forums are open to a number of participants who need not be online simultaneously to participate, as contributions can be posted asynchronously. Threaded discussions maintain the coherence of a given conversational thread, with a hierarchical format that tracks each chain of responses and how they are linked to each other.

Chats are real-time (synchronous) conversations online via text involving two or more people, often at a distance. Chatting (or instant messaging) often involves informal rhetoric, shorthand conventions, and emoticons :-) to convey tone. As with any digital text, chats can be saved and transfered to other media.

A blog is a public online journal managed by a primary author who posts entries that appear chronologically. Blog posts are in digital hypermedia format, which means they can include text, images, links, video, audio, or animation. Readers can comment on blog posts, and bloggers can link to each other’s blogs and to other web sites.

A wiki is a web site that is open to many contributors who share authorship. Pages can be created, edited, organized, and discussed by different authors, and all changes are tracked. Authoring permissions are managed by wiki owners and may include a range of levels.

A podcast is a digital media broadcast via the internet, in either audio or video format, often through syndication feeds, for playback on a portable media player or personal computer. Podcasts allow radio shows, television segments, or homemade productions to be distributed widely for anywhere, anytime listening and/or viewing.

Digital multimedia productions take many different forms and can be distributed through many channels. For example, a slide show with text, images, and animation can be saved as a movie. Videos can be taken with a regular digital camera, imported into editing software to create movies, and then uploaded to a blog, an online social network, or any other web site.  Any digital media can be combined with any other digital media, and authors can share their digital creations with the world via the internet.

Every day makes new resources available to authors of all ages and experience levels, helping them engage in meaningful expression and interaction and make their voices heard all over the world. Though we have barely begun to explore the implications of the Web 2.0 revolution for authorship, I believe that these developments have a great deal to offer teaching and learning. That is the subject of this blog.

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