It is undeniable that modern technology is beginning to affect every aspect of our lives. But can it be used to help our students learn? Although the number of studies evaluating the usage of blogs in the classroom is relatively small, there is significant proof on all levels and academic areas that supports the claim that blogging can be used to help improve critical literacy. From elementary school to the university level, students have a great deal of benefits to gain from using blogs as supplemental learning materials, reinforcing the skills and objectives being taught in the classroom and exposing them to the world of technical media that they will be eventually graduating into.
This blog was written by Laurissa Wolfram, a graduate Rhetoric and Composition student at Georgia State University.
A relatively new phenomenon, blogs have become a very “hot topic” in the realm of academia. Educators of all levels are becoming aware of the benefits of blogs when used in conjunction with traditional classroom teaching methods. At the lower level, blogs allow students to become familiar with electronic media and online navigation skills that they will need to succeed in a world where technology is becoming a necessity of life. In higher elementary school and middle school classes, blogs offer an electronic writing space to introduce students to critical reading, writing, and response, exposing them further to the multi-linearity of the internet, and providing educators with opportunities to proactively train students in the area of online discretion. In high school, blogs can be used in a variety of ways and in all areas of study to further promote discussion, critical writing, and language development, in addition to introducing students to internet research resources and the possibilities of hypertext media. The critical writing and discussion skills learned in high school can then be built upon and developed further once students reach college, through both individual work and group collaboration. Through regular blog writing, college students – communication and English majors in particular – can develop their own personal writing style and voice, while building a writing portfolio that could be given to prospective employers. In addition, educators teaching on all levels can utilize blogs to house and maintain useful materials and supplemental instruction that students can access outside the classroom. In doing these things and implementing the technology tools used in maintaining a blog, teachers are actively developing the skills their students will need to prepare for their future lives in a technology-dominated world.
Although there are numerous articles being written about blogs on the various levels of education, there are very few published that offer a comprehensive view from elementary school to college. The purpose of this study is to provide an all-inclusive assessment of blogs and their effective use within academia. The findings and discussion in this study will be divided into five sections in which I will present my conclusions in the areas of blogging in primary schools, intermediate schools, secondary schools, tertiary schools, and the limitations of blogging. This particular study only considers schools within the United States and includes only traditional education systems, excluding home-schools and online charter schools.
Blogs are just recently being considered a genre of their own, and the number of articles written about them is limited, but growing rapidly. Over the past few years, educators have begun to see their merit in the classroom and are experimenting with ways to implement blogs into their teaching curriculum. The research I have compiled consists of various articles written by educators and researchers on all levels and in many different fields of study, most of whom write from their own first-person perspective and personal experience with blogs in the classroom.
At the early elementary school level, some may argue that blogs are too advanced to be beneficial to students, but in the article “Collaborate Blogging as a Means to Develop Elementary Expository Writing Skills,” Wendy Drexler, Kara Dawson, and Richard E. Ferdig document a study that involved University of Florida preservice teachers and 16 third grade students who corresponded through blogging. At the end of the nine-week study, the number of third graders who said they liked writing in school rose from 7 students to 12 (149). It was noted that in addition to improvements in the quality of writing, the students’ motivation toward the project was maintained throughout the duration. And not only were student’s literacy skills improved, but Dexler, et al. assert that the student’s technology skills were indirectly developed as a result of the project, as well.
With older elementary school students, such as students on the fifth grade level, blogs can be used to help enforce and develop literacy skills that are being taught in the classroom. “HOT Blogging: A Framework for Blogging to Promote Higher Order Thinking” by Lisa Zawilinksi discusses “ways in which blogs can support literacy programs, especially to develop higher order thinking (HOT) while reading and writing.” Zawilinksi’s study expands to show that fifth grade students can benefit more from blogs than just responding to teacher generated posts. She turned her classroom blog into an online showcase, where students enjoyed posting their work for family and friends to view, which maintained an unexpected level of excitement and involvement.
A study published by Shelbie Witte in “’That’s online writing, not boring school writing’: Writing with blogs and the Talkback Project” demonstrates that at the middle school level, the implementation of blogs can be progressed to introduce students to critical writing, reading, and discussion. Through the Talkback Project, Witte was able to create a space where her eighth grade students became involved with an ongoing discussion about their literature readings with preservice education students at a local university. The middle school students benefited greatly from “developing their comprehension and written responses with a clearly defined audience” (93).
In another study by Michaela W. Colombo and Paul D. Colombo, “Blogging to Improve Instruction in Differentiated Science Classrooms,” the actual blog was created and maintained by the teacher as a space to house notes and study materials, in addition to podcasts and vodcasts that the teacher records so students (as well as parents and tutors) can have access to the information off-campus, increasing instructional efficiency. As noted by Colombo and Colombo, this type of blog can be especially useful for students who have learning and language barriers and might require more instruction than class time can permit (61).
Blogs are also becoming an interesting topic of discussion for educators of high school students. A study done in 2008 by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo in “More Students Master ‘Basics’ on Writing NAEP” indicates that although the numbers are still lower than desired, the scores of high school seniors on the writing portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are rising (1). Manzo suggests that the reason for this is because of the constant written communication teenagers have through online media. By assigning blog work educators can allow students work in an environment they are already familiar with in their personal lives. Moving beyond the framework of middle school blogs, high school blog work can be used to further develop critical literacy skills through more independent writing, rather than simply a response to instructor-posed questions.
Rama Ramaswami, author of the article “The Prose of Blogging (and a Few Cons, too)” mentions in his article a study in which eleventh grade students used blogs throughout the planning and writing periods of a research project in an English class. At the conclusion of the study, 74 percent of the 25 students felt that the blog helped them “articulate their ideas better,” 68 percent said that “blogs helped them determine what to say,” and 60 percent found that “blogging helped them begin writing their papers” (22). As a springboard for creative thought, blogging can provide a means to break past “writer’s block,” developing ideas without the paralyzing feeling of having to write an actual full-length paper, which can be very intimidating for many students.
A very large concern that many educators have about blogging on the high school level is voiced by Elizabeth Kirby and Brenda Kaillio in “Student Blogs Mark a New Frontier for School Discipline.” In this article, Kirby and Kaillio address the very serious issue of student abuse of internet resources and bring up the question of whether or not classroom blogs will create positive or negative results. Citing numerous news stories and court cases involving student abuse in personal blogs, Kirby and Kaillio point out why blogs have become a concern for middle and high school principles and educators, due to blogs’ propensity to be offensive or threatening. Although the particular incidents in this article do not occur as a result of an actual class blogging assignment, this does cause one to wonder whether blogs can be used within a school setting without creating risks that might have been otherwise avoided by not bringing blogs into the classroom at all.
Perhaps the greatest number of articles that have been written on blogging in education have been on the tertiary, or college, level. Lara C. Ducate and Lara L. Lomicka have compiled an excellent review in “Adventures in the Blogosphere,” in which they discuss their study of using blogs in their respective French and German language classes. In this article, Ducate and Lomicka “analyze more closely the use of blogs. . . and their relative importance to human interaction, virtual community and private and public space” (9). Another significant study on the college level discusses the UThink Blogging system at the University of Minnesota, documented by Shane Nackerud and Kurtis Scaletta in their article “Blogging in the Academy.” Through their research and surveys, Nackerud and Scaletta found that even though initially student personal blogs may appear to be superficial and tedious, they allow students a writing space where their writing becomes more reflective over time; the real benefits of blogging are not shown until several years into the blogging process (75). Blog-writing, just as any other form of practiced writing, will take time to develop and progress, but by engaging in regular writing with a specific audience in mind, students can hone their communication skills, making adjustments and improvements to their process along the way.
In “Using Weblogs in Scholarship and Teaching,” Trey Martindale and David A. Wiley explore the benefits of blogs from both the teacher and student perspective, focusing on the ease of usability and accessibility for the average user. Martindale and Wiley give a very insightful commentary on the implementation of RSS feeds and how they can effectively increase productivity, since they allow users to “quickly survey the blog landscape and receive notices of new content from a collection of blogs, as well as a wide variety of sources like online newspapers and other periodicals” (57). Another a champion for student blogging, Brian Stetler, also strongly praises the productivity of blogs. Once a student blogger himself, Stetler offers his insight in “Confessions of a student blogger” about how blogging can be instrumental in helping students cultivate their own writing voice and build a portfolio that can be used in future employment searches (32).
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
Some may assert that blogs are not of substantial use on the early primary level, since students are still learning the basics of written communication. However, Drexler, Dawson, and Ferdig’s study demonstrates that students as young as the third grade can benefit from online writing. Granted, teachers should be prepared to make their own adjustments to ensure that they are receiving the best results as possible. No one could expect a class of third graders to post responses to readings then engage in critical discussion with one another as homework on a nightly basis. They would benefit more from limited blog use, based on strong enforcement of in-class writing principles. This is not to say that the students would not be able to produce a substantial amount of online work, but the project should be broken into manageable sections. For example, in the study done by Drexler, et al., the third grade students completed a five-paragraph research essay by posting one paragraph at a time online, receiving feedback, undergoing a revision process, then compiling all the paragraphs together for the final paper (143-144).
Based on the articles consulted for my study, it would seem that at this lower level, students are not ready to interact with their classroom peers online, but when teamed with a group of older students (such as the university preservice education students in the case of Drexler et al), elementary age children can begin to learn the processes of feedback and editing. The nine-week project began with each individual student posting a blog with their ideas and requesting research help from the preservice teachers. The preservice teachers then responded back through comments with age-appropriate links for the third graders to read. The children would then take notes on their website findings and communicate again with the preservice teachers to help narrow the topics to one particular focus, on which the preservice teachers would provide further feedback and suggestions. Concept maps, which the students created in class were also posted for the preservice teachers to view and offer responses about content and organization.
From there, the students began the writing process, posting their compositions paragraph-by-paragraph for the preservice teachers to review, praise, and offer suggestions. To conclude the project, each student’s final paper was turned into a Media Blender presentation (much like a PowerPoint) that was published on the class website (145). By combining a traditional third grade level research project with blogging and the collaborative input and support from outside sources, the end result was students who not only gained valuable knowledge on the research and writing process, but a further understanding of collaboration, communication, and technology, as well.
At the older elementary school level, such as fifth grade, blogging can be taken a step further and teachers are able to incorporate peer editing and review in assignments. Students at this age can be expected to take the information they are being given, analyze it, synthesize it, and write responses that require more critical thinking skills than at lower elementary school levels. Through utilizing the internet, teachers can create assignments that will allow students to practice all these skill collectively. Working from the assigned class readings, teachers can offer prompts for students to respond to online in the form of a blog post. From there, students can read one another’s blogs and offer their own personal thoughts, insights, or perspectives.
Zawilinksi’s study suggests that when working with older elementary students, blogs can be used in a variety of ways. A teacher can set up a class blog, where she posts prompts to which her students will respond; she can give several students access at a time to post a collaborative message for the rest of the class to read, consider, and respond; students can have their own personal accounts where they can upload their work or post messages, to which the teacher and peers can comment and evaluate; or a combination of all three (652-654). Through this diverse range of methods, students have countless opportunities to think and respond critically that were not as feasible or convenient before the use of internet technology. In addition to becoming more proficient in written communication, students are learning valuable technical literacy skills they will need to draw upon as they continue to grow up in a technology-dominated world.
Electronic writing provides outlets for intermediate, or middle school, students to express themselves using technology skills they will build upon in future learning experiences. According to Zawilinksi, “Schools need to prepare students for [the new literacies of the internet] by integrating them into the curriculum, and blogs are an easy way to do that” (652). As the internet maintains a growing amount of influence on the way we conduct our everyday lives, students need to become increasingly familiar and comfortable with using technology. Blogs are an attractive resource for teachers, because they do not require extensive technical experience and can be accessed virtually anywhere that has a computer with internet access.
When working with middle school students, teachers can use online writing to encourage the practice of traditional literacy skills such as critical writing, reading, and collaboration through a variety of methods. By requiring students to respond to classroom readings through online blog postings that will be read by fellow classmates, teachers are also requiring students to write with a specific audience in mind. The blog can be viewed and read by not only the students, but used as a place to showcase work for friends and family members, as well. In this sense, teachers take the written response journals to another level, one that requires students to acknowledge an audience and reading-base that goes beyond just the teacher.
As demonstrated by Colombo and Colombo in “Blogging to Improve Instruction in Differentiated Science Classrooms,” blogs can be very useful to students, even if the students are not the ones adding the content. As the sole blog contributors, educators can upload study sheets, class notes, and other supplemental materials, such as podcasts or vodcasts, to help increase productivity outside the classroom. Although this particular article only discusses the advantages of this type of blog in a middle school science class, it could be used on virtually any academic level and in any course of study. This might be particularly attractive to college professors who wish to make all their resources readily available to a very large number of students without making unnecessary paper copies.
Many students are already familiar with the internet and as reported in February 2009 in an article published on the UK’s Telegraph website, teenagers spend an average of 31 hours a week online (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/). As Zawilinski points out, just because students are familiar with the concept of the technology, that does not mean they are able to use it to its full potential. It is up to educators to step in and provide “guidance” for “effective and efficient use” (652). Since they are already familiar with and enjoy this medium, blogs can be used as a fun way to get kids interested in both writing and technology.
Blogs can also help educators address the issues of online discretion, which could potentially curtail some problems at a later time. Most students do not fully understand the impact their online writing can have on their lives and how easy it can be to access the information they view as private. By assigning written projects that are published online in blogs, teachers have the opportunity to make students aware of how broad their online audience really could be. As Witte states in her article, “’any teenager in the world with a computer will continue to become a part of the global society, with or without the guidance of schools and teachers, by using blogs to share writing with the world” (96). Although teachers cannot be expected to shoulder the full responsibility of what their students put online in their free time, at least they can have some level of authoritative influence and guidance in demonstrating to students the difference between proper and improper online content.
Lee Rainie published on the Pew Internet and American Life Project website (http://www.pewinternet.org/) that as of January 2009, “93 percent of teenagers in America are online,” and of that number, “30 percent of them keep blogs and regularly post” (slide 6). Teens are already online, frequenting websites such as Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, YouTube, and Xanga. They are employing various forms of communication in the personal blogs they posts, emails they send, images and videos they upload, and comments or messages they post on one another’s social networking profiles. Quite obviously, a large majority of teenagers are finding enjoyment and entertainment through writing and communicating, but they are clear in their distinction that this is different than writing at school. It is “online writing, not boring school writing,” as one student is quoted by Witte (92). By capitalizing on the draw that the internet has on students, teachers can open up new possibilities for student learning and writing. In addition to using blogs much of the same way they are used in middle school settings, teachers can encourage students to publish work that involves even deeper critical thinking and response, while concurrently making students increasing familiar with online research resources and the possibilities of hypertext media.
Although the numbers are still low, Monzo’s study in “More Students Master ‘basics’ on Writing NAEP” shows that in 2008, high school seniors’ basic writing scores improved by 5 points on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) since 2002. Manzo accredits this to the number of teenagers who are “consumed by such activities as text-messaging, blogging, and social networking” (1). The greatest degree of improvement was seen in the lowest-performing students, who made an 11-point increase over the past 5 years (1). Although these improvements are just on the “basic” level and only 24 percent of twelfth graders in 2008 tested as “proficient” in writing, this minor victory still offers some encouragement to educators (1). The level of writing in text messages, emails, personal blogs, and social networking sites is most certainly not on the academic level that most instructors desire; however, students are becoming more concerned about communicating through written methods in these mediums, which makes me hopeful that educators can make the most of it and demonstrate the rewards of effective communication to their students on a level with which they are familiar and comfortable.
Obviously, there will have to be tighter constraints and guidelines placed upon online blogging projects on the high school level than may have been needed in lower levels. As noted by Kirby and Kaillio, numerous news reports have been made on the topic of online student abuse and the questionable content teenagers choose to publish on their personal web spaces. Instances such as these bring up very important questions of concern to teachers who wonder whether or not deliberately introducing blogs into the classroom would be in their students’ best interest. However, by incorporating these negative media stories into explanations of online etiquette and proper blog-usage, teachers can use these concerns to broach class discussions about internet safety, privacy, audience, and the effects that online publishing can have. Students need to be made aware that what they choose to publish online in their “personal” space is not necessarily “private” and can potentially be accessed by the entire world.
I would argue that blogs are most useful (and create less of a headache for educators) within a college setting. By the time students reach the college level, it is expected of them to already have a working knowledge of critical literacy. However, many times this is not the case, and professors find themselves struggling to bring their students to the literacy level they deem fitting for college level work. By facilitating online discussions and responses based off of readings or lectures from class, professors can provide an online writing space for students to make meaningful reflections and observations. This could be very helpful for students who may not feel comfortable speaking out in class, but still have valuable points they would like to share. Since these posts can be made public, students are under the obligation to write for an audience, which may result in better content than if students were writing responses that would only be viewed by the professor.
Blogs can also be used as tools for collaboration between students when working on a project, making all the information easily accessible to each member of the group. Acting as an online forum, blogs offer a place for students to discuss their own ideas, offer suggestions to one another, and provide helpful links for research. This can be most useful in situations where students have conflicting schedules which do not permit meeting outside of class time. With their archiving features, blogs can easily display a record of how far the students have come in the project, which is helpful for the students in maintaining focus and for the professor in tracking group progress and individual student involvement.
Both students and instructors can benefit from using RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. By subscribing to specific blogs, students can compile a list which acts much like an email inbox, sending each subscribed blog’s most recent posts to the student, which all can be viewed on one page. Although this may seem very simple to the point of being unnecessary, it can save a great deal of time if one is trying to keep track of a significant number of blogs and online resources. As explained by Martindale and Wiley, RSS feeds reduce the time that would be taken by visiting each individual blog to check for new content and information (57). In addition to the benefit this is to students who want a simple way to keep track of the blogs they frequent for research and current information, RSS feeds can also be used to receive updates during group-work projects, increasing productivity. Similarly, instructors are able to set up an RSS feed to monitor student progress and blog content.
In contrast to traditional writing assignments, blogs provide increased flexibility and diversity for their authors. Students can include hyperlinks to relevant information, easily upload images or other media, link back to previous posts, and employ countless other methods to make their message more accessible and interesting to readers. And because of the general population’s preconceived ideals of electronic writing and media, mindful students feel the responsibility to maintain a certain level of brevity in order to hold the attention of their readership. This forces the writer to be conscious of word choice, since portraying a point or idea adequately and descriptively in the fewest words possible becomes paramount.
Although the need for communication skills cuts across all areas of education, arguably, the appeal of blogging will be increased for students whose majors of study focus on writing, such as journalism or English. As Stelter, now employed at the New York Times, comments in his article about his own personal experiences, through blogging, students “develop a ‘voice’ for their writing” (32). This “voice” is something students interested in communication strive to develop and maintain as a trademark throughout their entire career, something that requires practice to achieve. A meaningful blog on something the student is interested in can help to accomplish this desired voice, while the student simultaneously builds a collection of publications to use as a portfolio when seeking a communications job. The appeal to future employers is one boasting points that the University of Minnesota makes about their own bogging project, Uthink. As reported by Nackerud and Scaletta, the University feels that the academic credibility associated with the institution can help students create a positive virtual image to future employers (83).
As mentioned previously, one of the most important questions that educational blogging raises is whether or not schools will be able to maintain student safety, especially in lower level grades. There are a number of ways teachers can go about ensuring that their students’ safety and privacy is upheld, and in making it known to the class as a priority, students can be made aware at a young age that the internet is a powerful tool that must be handled with discretion. On public blog sites, such as Blogger, teachers can disable the automatic comment feature, which would then require approval from the blog administrator (the instructor) before comments are published to the blog. Additionally, there are a growing number of educational resources that have been created specifically for incorporating blogs into the classroom, such as Edublogs (edublogs.org), 21Classes (www.21classes.com), and ePals SchoolBlog (www.epals.com/products/esb). Through systems such as these, the school can set up a variety of privacy and monitoring features that may not be otherwise available through a free blog space.
When trying to implement blogging into the curriculum, teachers also can run into the issue of sufficient and proper equipment. Unless each student has access to a computer at home, it is difficult to require blogging as homework assignments. If the school has a computer lab or mobile lab, there is the option to set aside time each week to devote to blogging, therefore accommodating those without home computers. With blogging – as with any project or new method of teaching – educators should always be prepared with an alternative plan in case the ideal situation is not possible. Additionally, all classes and schools are different and possess their own unique sets of challenges; it is ultimately up to the teacher to decide what will work best in their particular situation.
Although teachers may become frustrated that their students’ blogs are more superficial in nature than academic, they should be encouraged that “the real benefits of blogging are gained slowly, over several years, as students find their voice and become more comfortable with public writing” (Nackerud and Scaletta 75). Results may not be optimal after just one semester, and it may take time for instructors to adjust the curriculum to best fit their particular needs and objectives. Steven Kraus proves this point well in his article, “When Blogging Goes Bad: A Cautionary Tale About Blogs, Email Lists, Discussion, and Interaction,” where he outlines his negative experiences with using a blog in a college level course. Instead of using the class blog to house meaningful discussions and responses, the students all but ignored it, other than to post a few obligatory messages. The significant difference I found between Kraus’s failed attempt and the other more successful studies is that Kraus did not give his students many guidelines or parameters for the blog. Although all educators would like their students to spontaneously produce meaningful work without any prompting, this is rarely every the case, and like any other successful venture, incorporating blogs into the classroom requires careful planning and preparation on the part of the instructor.
Despite the fact that it introduces its own set of challenges and obstacles, blogging can be an incredible tool to supplement teaching methods on all levels of education. From minimal to extensive regular use, blogs can help enforce critical literacy skills that are being taught in the classroom, giving students a free writing space for them to express their thoughts, ideas, and criticism to not only themselves, but a potential audience of millions. As the world moves increasingly toward a technologically-dominated lifestyle, students today need to be equipped with the skills needed to succeed after graduation. Requiring minimal technical experience, blog writing is a wonderful starting point to introduce students to technology, while concurrently giving them an opportunity to practice their written communication skills.
While blogging is certainly not the only method teachers can use to help their students develop their reading, writing, and discussion skills, the internet is a medium that today’s average teenager is familiar with and uses regularly. Through the experience and knowledge gained through thoughtful blogging, students can not only improve their writing skills, but hone their online research skills, become increasing familiar with digital media, and create connections and opportunities for themselves that will benefit their future livelihoods as they enter a global job market that has become dependant upon technology and the internet for its existence.
A full transcript of this podcast can be viewed at http://wolfram-engl8121.blogspot.com.
The music used for this podcast is "Disco Electro Simplex," by Mr. Spastic and it is available from Creative Commons.