Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Who Cares About Blogging for its Own Sake?

Sebastian Fiedler contributes to an interesting discussion: Are Students Really Blogging?. Many of the edubloggers seem to be wondering how we're going to get teachers and kids to embrace blogging for its own sake, mostly because it's been good for us and we think it's so very important. These ideas all have value and I share many of the concerns, but I think we've lost sight of the reality in the trenches.

Last week I experienced my first open mockery of the fact that I had "jumped on the trendy blogging bandwagon". My critic took the standard tack: "what would make you think that anyone would care about what you're writing?" My lame response (on the fly and feeling defensive) was that a blog isn't really any different from any web site -- people have been building sites on their own or with Tripod or Geocities for close to ten years already. He scoffed and announced, "well, some web sites are actually useful." Ouch. I think his view represents quite a large number of people out there who don't (and won't) do a lot of reading and writing online.

Around the same time, I got an e-mail from Darren, who's thinking about doing a blogging conference in Vancouver in fall. With my blogger hat on, I initially thought it was a great idea...I thought I might even consider going. But then I realized that I don't really care about blogging per se. No more than I care about my toaster oven, even though I really enjoy toast. I like the benefits of reading and writing online -- new learning, connections to interesting people, reflecting on what I've learned -- but as a writer/reader, it's sort of irrelevant to me how all those words got onto all of those web pages.

We know that the power of blogs lies in how easy it is to post stuff online. Most people won't ever create a site, blog or portfolio no matter how easy it is. And many of the passionate bloggers we see today would be maintaining sites full of their writing even if blogs had never been invented. But for the people in the middle -- ones who do want to have a say or an audience, but won't learn FrontPage or html and ftp -- blogs are their best conduit to the web. I may not care about what 99.9% of them have to say, but I'm pretty glad that the "technology" helped get some of my favourite thinkers and writers online. That said, as a user (as opposed to educational technologist) I still don't care about the technology itself...I'm just happy for the knowledge and connections it enables within my very narrow slice of interests.

Since one of my interests is educational technology, I see why the potential of blogs could be important. But I also remember being a student in the faculty of education when the web was really taking off in the mid-'90s, and the initial focus was to make sure that kids were being exposed to using it. Very little thought was given to what they should actually be using it for -- the purpose was just to get them online at all costs. Perhaps we're just emerging from that stage with blogging...we're realizing that the process must serve some specific need.

I can't find it now, but I saw a book about creating e-portfolios using Microsoft PowerPoint. An educator was enthused about the possibilities in the review I read because "we already have PowerPoint on all of our machines and know how to use it." I detest PowerPoint, and couldn't believe that someone would actually force kids to use it for their portfolios, especially if the goal was to put them online.

Compared to FrontPage or Dreamweaver, PowerPoint is easier to learn, but this is one example where the "technology" of blogs would really blow everything else away. By freeing students from an archaic interface and meaningless decisions about fonts and layouts and connecting pages, blogs would let them create attractive collections of their work, reflections and related learning. The focus would be on the content itself and the thoughts reflected in the writing. Good tools fade into the background immediately and force you into the real substance of what you're trying to create.

Along with using blogging tools for portfolio-style reflection and displaying work (think art or photography), I don't think it's any coincidence that the early successes in integrating blogs into classrooms have come in journalism and writing classes. These activities were already all about the writing, and the tools simply enable new types of connections, reflection and publishing. An ambitious teacher could get every student in a journalism class to learn Dreamweaver and have them all publish their work online, but why not use all of that teaching time to focus on the writing itself?

These types of examples seem more meaningful to me -- finding ways to apply blogging tools to situations that would really benefit from them, rather than getting excited about "getting more students blogging". Like most of the things we call education, we believe that the blogging process would be for their own good...but if they aren't motivated by the topics, it doesn't matter how easy the publishing is -- they're not learning. Conversely, some small percentage will embrace blogs because they're looking for a venue to write about what interests them, but we know that it won't be related to school in any way.

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