Commentary,  Culture and Society,  Pedagogy

On Blogging: What is it, and How May it Serve?

I’ve known about web logs, or blogs, as they are called, for about two years now. I started paying closer attention to blogs, and thinking about their instructional potential, last summer. But almost no one I’ve spoken to in the instructional technology field on campus has any idea what web logs are, or, if they do, why I think blogs have instructional potential.

So, you ask, what is a blog? Here’s my answer; it’s a way of presenting easily digested information from the web to the web, often in the form of annotated links, without knowing HTML or much about technology at all. No, wait, that’s not it; it’s more like a public (though they can be private or shared only with a few) online journal or writing space, . . . except there are blogs that are news sites, updated several times a day on specific topics.

Like any good blogger, I turned to the web for more information. Dave Winer of Userland, makers of Manila, one of the two most popular blog hosts/hosting software, has a history of web logs. He argues that Tim Berners-Lee’s very first page at CERN was a web log. Rebecca Blood has another excellent essay on the history of blogs.

Chris Ashley, Manager, New Program Development, IST/Interactive University suggests a blog is “something like an on-line journal, a web site an individual uses to write everyday, where all the writing and editing, and the whole look and feel of the site, is managed through a web browser from wherever the writer happens to be.” Chris’ three part essay on blogging and education is well worth reading.

Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way. Here’s an example of a blog; it’s my friend Paul’s iPaulo blog, and the first blog I ever saw. Paul was one of the “happy few” who worked with me at Calliope Media; he knows useful technology.

His iPaulo blog got me thinking about blogs as tools for composition instruction, as ways of getting students to write in English, or French, or Vietnamese, or what ever, but getting them to write, and read, and think, in the language. Blogs like iPaulo are forms of free writing but the fact that they are public, “published” on the net, makes blog writers take them seriously. Getting students to write for an audience makes them really think about what, and how, they are writing.

Blogs don’t have to be “on line journals.” Dave Winer’s Scripting News is the oldest extant blog; it’s one of the blogs I check at least weekly as a good source for scripting news and information. The most useful instructional technology blog I know is David Carter-Tod’s SIT, or Serious Instructional Technology, but I also favor the venerable Tomalak’s Realm for always current information about web design.

There are other sorts of blogs, too. What you’re reading right now, of course is a blog. I thought I should try using one myself, as a way of figuring out how a blog might be used in teaching.

Blogs and Instructional Technology

I’m hardly the first to think of blogs for education; you might take a look at David Carter-Todd’s ruminations. The Curmudgeon, AKA John Marden, has a page of courses using blogs. Initially, I thought of offering our users a “Blog Tool” as an effective tool for making class announcements, as a supplement to a bulletin/discussion board system, and as a way of fostering writing and community, without users needing to know HTML.

Blogs and CMS

But after I created a blog at Blogger, and realized how much of the process is template driven, I realized how similar blog systems are to CMS or Content Management Systems, like WebCT. I’m not the first to think of that either; see Shane McChesney’s Weblogging and Content Management Linkfest at his Skipping Dot Net blog. Clueful, a group of Australian CMS consultants, has a site just about CMSs, but they don’t include those designed for instruction (LMS). If you really get interested in CMS, there’s the CMS List too, which often refers to blogs.

Learning Management Systems

Technically, of course, WebCT, BlackBoard and the like are a sub-category of CMS; they are Learning Management Systems (LMS for those who thrive on TLAs), but they typically have everything a CMS has, with the addition of education specific features, like user tracking, quiz generation, grading functions, etc. Right now, there are a several open source LMS, like the nifty Class Web Mike Franks created, available via SourceForge, but the Big Names are BlackBoard and WebCT.

You can find several toe to toe comparisons of WebCT 3.1 and BlackBoard 5.0 on the net, like this one by Sabine Siekman of South Florida University. You can see the these two and 48 others compared by Bruce Landon, Randy Bruce, and Amanda Harby.