Blogs in Media Education

Original Citation:
Miles, Adrian. “Blogs in Media Education: A Beginning.” Australian Screen Ed.41 (2006): 66-9

Blogs in Media Education: A Beginning

In this article I would like to introduce and explore the possible use of blogs in media education. What follows applies, more or less equally, for students and teachers, so if you are wondering about how blogs may be relevant to your professional practice as a teacher, or as a classroom tool, then most of what follows will apply. However, before I launch into the nitty gritty of blogging, some pedagogical context is in order. I have maintained an academic blog since 2000, and have used blogs on a subject by subject basis with university students since 2002. In 2005 I was part of a large and ambitious project within the Bachelor of Communication (Media) program at RMIT that provides a blog for every Media student for the duration of their undergraduate candidature. This use of blogs as a networked writing technology that I have developed over this period has emphasised and explored what is ‘peculiar’ to blogs, what sorts of things they make possible that other forms of writing (such as diaries, journals, notebooks and web pages) do not, and how these possibilities might contribute to teaching and learning. This approach, in many ways, is different to what happens at the ‘enterprise’ (university or school wide) level where new technologies have tended to be appropriated to replace or reproduce traditional academic genres or teaching practices, or even simply applied willy nilly with little consideration given to their specific qualities and the relation of these qualities to teaching and learning.

What is a blog?

A blog is a web based publication. It traditionally consists of entries of varying length (shorter rather than longer being the norm) that are published in reverse chronological order so that the most recent entry appears first. All entries, which in a blog are referred to as posts, have a heading, some sort of date and time stamp, and usually attribute authorship. All posts are automatically archived by date, and it is also common to apply categories to individual entries (categories are basically topics that the blog author defines) and for archives to be automatically generated for each category. A blog has a name, like any other publication, and usually includes a blogroll which is the list of other blogs that the author regularly reads. Most blogs also support optional comments, where readers can leave notes attached to individual posts, and trackback, where links are automatically made between individual blog posts that refer to each other.

All of this automation is realised through what information technology people usually refer to as a Content Management System, or CMS. In the case of blogs, these are specific CMS’s that have been developed for the specific purpose of blogging (any organisation that maintains a complex web site via automated systems is using a CMS). While some CMS’s are better than others it makes little overall difference which particular CMS you use for your blog — much like there may be a difference in driving different cars, but they all more or less allow the same outcomes. However, what is important about using a CMS in terms of the World Wide Web is that it lets a blogger become a publisher, rather than just the author of a single or even series of single web pages.

That’s the technology. What it has allowed to develop is an informal, loquacious and occasionally garrulous medium that has made a strength of the formal qualities of hypertext. In a nutshell, blog posts are small ‘chunks’ that can be easily interlinked between blogs, and allow writing with a diverse range of ‘voices’ including scholarly, personal, professional, conversational and humourous tones. This makes blogs exemplars of an interlinked, networked, fluid and distinctly contemporary writing practice and communicative space, and it is these qualities that can be leveraged to make them effective learning environments.

Why Use a Blog?

There are a host of reasons why blogs may be useful in teaching. However, like most literacies and in particular around new technologies and literacy, it is very useful to keep some salient points in mind. The first is that students usually receive several years of intense, specialised and very high quality training in print literacy. This is the basis upon which blogging can work, however the most productive blogging is not the replication of print literacy but is closer to what might be thought of as a post print–literacy. Therefore it takes time to learn how to blog — successful blogging is not something that happens in one class, or even a week — just as successful essay writing usually takes many years to develop.

The second major point is that even with the best of intentions if the use of the blog is not strongly integrated into the learning and assessable outcomes of a subject then students will, deservedly, recognise that it simply isn’t worth their while and will treat it as a rote activity. (Of course if you as the teacher also don’t accord it appropriate ‘weight’ then there is also the problem of what this models for your students in terms of your valuing of its importance.)

With these caveats in mind, why or how might a blog be used in teaching? Well, and this is an incomplete list, blogs are very useful to document your practice, to encourage and support reflective and process based learning, to nurture peer support and learning, to provide a record of achievement, in assisting idea creation, supporting collaboration, and finally in developing multiliteracies that allow participation within contemporary information ecologies as creators, rather than being limited to being passive consumers.

Blogs, like journals, allow a record to be maintained of ideas, reflections, activities, things to be done, and so on. In this they have the same sorts of benefits that a journal or diary may allow, with several key differences. The first and most obvious one is that a blog is a public document, and it is written with the assumption that it has readers. The number of readers does not matter, the point is that what you write about needs to be written about in such a way that it makes sense for other readers, so requires more care, elucidation and clarification than may be the case in the personal diary or even journal writing. This publicness means that care needs to be exercised, that it is not enough to make a cryptic note to yourself or, what amounts to the same thing, an aside to yourself, since you write with the knowledge that this post will be read by others.

The second key difference, which is a consequence of the first, is that by being public, and a blog, it can be linked to by others. Once this happens, and it is often a watershed moment for the beginning blogger, the experience of blogging and your writing moves from being semi–private to public. This helps you to recognise that your work is able to make a contribution to a larger community, and by learning how to reciprocate — by reading other blogs and commenting in your blog on your views there, a community of practice (in this case a community of learners) is able to be nurtured. This community emerges in use, and in most cases while it may reflect the classroom it is in no way limited to a single cohort, and regularly changes shape during the course of the students career as they change subjects, work groups, interests, and use their blog to document and explore changes in their lives. Through the careful introduction of blogging, with appropriate invited or required tasks, and sufficient scaffolding offered through class time, participation and simple technical support, a very rich communicative environment does emerge. Students will document lectures, tutorials, readings, problems with what they don’t know, respond to others’ questions, detail confusions (for other students and teaching staff), collect meeting notes for collaborative projects, and loudly proclaim why their sporting team is better than everyone else’s.

Yet, to get to a point such as this student bloggers need to have their blog writing ‘seeded’ by a range of tasks. The role of this ‘seeding’ is to help overcome any anxieties about using the technology, offer enough teaching and use so that the experience of driving the technology becomes secondary to making and publishing content, and to get students over the tipping point where their blogs shift from becoming assessable, teacher set activities to their own online writing spaces — in effect personal learning web documentaries. In addition, some attention needs to be given to supporting students in process based reflective practice, otherwise the blogs, from an educational point of view, really do risk being little more than garrulous vanity publishing.

Strategies

In my own teaching when I first introduce blogs I set aside a minimum of 30% of the total mark for the subject for the blogs. This often surprises students, who generally have the experience of the emphasis of assessment falling on essays. However, if I want students to actively use their blogs, and get to the point where their blogs become useful (even valuable) to what they do, then their use needs to be rewarded. The next step is to then provide teaching time dedicated to learning how to use their blogs, which consists of how to make and edit entries, making links, adding external links to their blogrolls, and simple customising of their blog designs (this is extremely important and essential to allowing students to ‘own’ their blogs). A series of set tasks can be useful here, each of which should let the student exercise a particular technical skill while also introducing a complementary learning activity. For example, a task might be to require each student to write an entry which identifies one key idea they have read or noted from the reading or lecture. The task may specifically invite students to note what they like about the idea, what they are unsure about (giving permission and modelling that your blog is, perhaps unlike the essay, a space where you can express doubt and insecurity about your knowledge) and how they think it relates to another idea, for example the general theme of the subject. Then a second follow up task would be for each student to read the same post in several other student blogs and then to write a new post that links to each of these other posts and identifying what they found useful in each of these.

Generally a range of such set tasks encourages students to read and comment on each others work, and helps model for them that they can enhance their learning by reading each other’s contributions. In addition students are given permission to write about whatever they wish in their blogs (subject to basic electronic rules of use and legal requirements) so that their blogs are not only used for classroom activities but also used to discuss their extracurricular lives. In these supported blogging contexts I find that the majority of students, largely through their own direction, begin routinely reading each others work (not necessarily all blogs, but those they choose to read), and in their blogs will elaborate upon and explore course content beyond the discussions undertaken in class. These may reinforce ideas covered in the teaching, expand the ideas outside of the contexts provided, or simply provide a litmus test for the teacher and other students to gauge student’s understanding in situ. In addition, since students can now see each others writing (and the amount of writing being undertaken should not be underestimated or undervalued!) they can also more effectively see and understand the differences that exist between each others capabilities. As a result the poor student actually sees what excellent work looks and reads like, how it engages with ideas and what that actually might be. In a similar way the excellent student can see why their work is in fact exemplary as many students who routinely receive high marks have little idea what poor work looks like and don’t really know what it is that they do that qualifies as ‘excellence’!

The assessment of blogs varies within my teaching on the basis of how much experience students have had with their blogs. When first introduced there is an assessment matrix provided which outlines key assessment criteria for their blogs. This usually includes a required number of regular posts, evidence of documenting classes or readings, posts that reflect on what has been done, and also posts that reflect on how the student is experiencing their learning, including their use of their blog. At the end of the semester students write an assessable blog post that addresses each of these criteria (which they have received at the beginning of the subject) providing links to individual blog posts that provide supporting evidence for each of these items. This forms the basis of their blog mark, while in later subjects more sophisticated, and generally more strongly process based and reflective self assessment strategies are used.

Consequences and Conclusions

It ought to be a given that the Internet is a paradigm shift in communicative technologies, a shift that has positive and negative aspects. A key feature of the Internet as a communication environment is its decentralised, distributed and densely interconnected nature. Blogs as a medium model this, and so their use within media teaching is relevant not only for their educational benefits, but for the collateral outcomes that blogging achieves for staff and students as they write not only for this network, but within it.

Another such collateral outcome is in the development of an online portfolio. Blogs support the use of categories, which are keywords that can be applied to individual posts, and each category has its own archive within the blog. Simply clicking on the category title displays all posts within that category, arranged according to date of publication. Through the use of such categories it is easy for a student or teacher to collate posts around specific themes or practices, eg reflections, photographs, and construct a learning portfolio.

The use of blogs also model questions about online identity. As students write themselves through their blogs they develop an online persona which they control. Once they can be found through search engines such as Google, and receive comments or realise they are being read outside of their immediate class cohort, then the nature of the persona they wish to develop and present becomes a legitimate and pressing question with great relevance to all social aspects of the Internet. A simple case in point is to realise that just as we all Google our prospective employers (or teachers), they too will Google us, and how you are recognised within the context of this social informational network can be controlled by you through your blog.

Finally, contemporary media students need to develop a range of literacies around Internet and digital technologies. A blog models this in an exemplary manner as students are able to publish digital photos, audio, and even video via their blogs, and to write and explore practices that are immanent to contemporary information networks. The shift offered by blogs may appear minor in light of the Internet in general, but blogs consolidate the difference between confusing the Web as a publication medium rather than as the ‘writing’ medium it has come to be. In addition, through using their blogs simple but essential questions about copyright, intellectual property, and Internet ethics will arise, and these are issues that any student, certainly in senior secondary education and above, needs some familiarity with within media studies.

Blogs provide access to much of this in ways that complement and make concrete what might otherwise appear as abstract or distant concerns. Blogs provide ample opportunity for students to participate as peers within the information rich, interlinked and emergent network of practices and writings that constitutes contemporary information ecologies, and this participation, I believe, has the potential to make a significant contribution to contemporary media education.

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video blogging, et al.