Sunday, February 11, 2007

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Student blogging

Over the weekend, I've finally gotten around to going through the posts highlighted in the 104th Edition of the Carnival of Education — a daunting task, since the CoE highlights a lot of posts. Last week's carnival had two entries discussing whether students should be encouraged to blog, as school assignments. Those posts pointed to two others, and here's the list:
Dana, from Principled Discovery, “Blogging in Education
Russ, from The Student Help Forum, “Why School Students Should Blog
Nancy, from Random Thoughts, “Why my students should blog
Ewan, from edu.blogs.com, “Can the last person to leave the edublogosphere change the record, please?

My answer is “Yes, of course they should be encouraged to blog,” both in general and as a school assignment. But I don't agree with some of the reasons that some give. So let's look at that here.

Starting with Russ's post, I'll note that Russ is a student, and I must consider what he says from that point of view — not necessarily as being representative of students' views, but as being a representative view of a student. He has a better idea of what will motivate him and his fellow students than I do.

That said, I disagree with two of his points, and only partially agree with the other two. His first point is that blogging will improve students' writing ability:

The only way for a blog to succeed and gain popularity is if it contains great content — content that is spelt correctly, has no/few grammatical errors, and is formatted in an appropriate way.

[...]

By creating a blog where students are judged by real people, decent content will need to be created. This constant writing provides a practical reason to practice writing, and as we all know: Practice Makes Perfect.

This presupposes that students assigned to blog will care to have their blogs “succeed”. I'm certain that some will, and that those students, knowing that their writing will be read far from the teacher's desk, will be motivated to hone their writing skills. I'm also certain, though, that many will not care, and their being pressed to write will not result in improvement to their writing. “Practice makes perfect” is a good aphorism, but I contend that practice without instruction is not often the route to perfection. Bad habits, too, can be honed by practice. Which gets us to Russ's second point, “No Grades”:
Because teachers are not constantly looking over the students’ shoulders, and checking drafts, their blogs can be a pure expression of creativity.
I like the idea of having a less formal way for students to write, in addition to the more formal graded papers — more on that later. But if there's no review and “correction” (I use that term here guardedly, because I'm not sure exactly what I'd want, but I would want it to be informal), it's less likely for the practice to turn into improvement.

Russ's third and fourth points are that blogging can expose students to the opportunity to turn writing on the Internet into a career and to the opportunity to learn about other things, as they do research for their blog entries. I agree with these to some extent. On the first, I don't think that high schools in the US do enough to show students the way to careers in writing. If having them blog — and read professional blogs along the way -- accomplishes that, I'm eager to see it happen. I also know how exposure to information en passant can teach one a great deal, and if blogging can encourage students to read more, as well as to write more, that's a wonderful thing. I'm skeptical that the typical student will do much research, though, which is why I only partially agree with this one.

I'd love to have more discussion with Russ on this; perhaps he'll comment here (I'll post a pointer to this as a comment on his blog entry).

Dana is a mother who home-schools her children, and she comments on a Chicago Tribune report about why blogging will “revolutionize education.” I have to say that I agree fully with her — I think the report is way overblown, and that the “benefits” that they claim are not specifically enabled by blogging, but exist on paper as well. And — and I can't stress this enough -- no one will win any points with me by claiming that spelling checkers (yes, spelling; “spell checkers” are for witches) will help anyone learn anything. Over-reliance on spelling checkers has visited a pox on writing, and few actually learn anything when their spelling is corrected by them. But that's fodder for another post. Go read Dana's comments.

Nancy and Ewan, who are professional teachers, take the approach that blogging will help students find their voice. I absolutely agree, and, to me, that's the primary reason to encourage it. By pushing students, gently, to write regularly, we do not turn the world around — we do not “revolutionize education” — but we do give them a way to frame their thoughts and to see where their thoughts lead them. The interaction with the rest of the world that blogging creates can also show them how to consider alternative views and how to form amalgams. Find your voice, relate to others' views, accumulate information and opinions, see where it gets you. Yes, students, as the rest of us, will get that from blogging.

Nancy talks about having had her students keep journals, and it reminds me of something we did in English class in 7th grade. We had a bound book of blank pages, and at the start of class each day the teachers would write something on the blackboard. It would be one sentence or question, and might have to do with current events, popular culture, literature, arts... or about nothing in particular. We had five minutes to write whatever we wanted on a page in the book, in response to what the teachers wrote. While we would occasionally turn in our books for the teachers to review, and would once in a while read them aloud to the class, these were at least semi-private writings, not published for all to see (and certainly not for anyone to comment on). It was an opportunity to write anything we wanted about a daily topic, and as I blog I think about that, think of it as a start of this, in a way.

This is a far more powerful mechanism, because to the unrestricted writing it adds the opportunity for comments and interaction. I'd love to see schools assign blogging as class assignments. But with some moderation and supervision, to provide teachers' input to the learning process... and without the hyperbole of “revolutionary” learning.

4 comments:

Dana said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree. I think a couple people misunderstood my point, which was probably clarified a bit in the comments. I do think there is a definite place for blogging, but some are too enthusiastic about embracing new technology without really thinking about what purposes the new technology will best serve.

I wish I could find it now, but I was reading the blog of a teacher who uses blogging with her students..what she wished to accomplish was clear and she did not have unrealistic expectations of what the technology would do.

One of the students got a comment from a specialist in the field he was writing about and got the opportunity to ask more questions. That would be an incredible opportunity for the entire class! It reminds me of a geography project another class did. Students sent a packet of information and questions to a few relatives. The person was supposed to answer the questions and send it on to someone else they knew and send a postcard back to the student.

At the date written on the packet, whoever had it was supposed to mail it back to the student. Can you imagine the excitement the entire class would have as they plotted the origin of each post card? And how much information they would learn about each state...and possibly even country...as their projects were returned?

Even though many of the projects likely would be lost, and thus couldn't count for a grade.

Sorry about the lengthy comments, but I agree with your observations!

Maggie said...

Last year or the year before I helped my daughters create blogger blogs. I had a number of hopes:
1. It would motivate them to learn to type. One of my daughters has difficulty writing. It turns out she has difficulty typing, too.
2. It would motivate them to write because they could write about topics of interest to them. One writes creatively all the time, the other reads all the time. But neither of them was interested in posting the museum reviews and information summaries I had hoped for. Their posts were more along the lines of "We went to MV today, I had fun riding on the carousel."
3. I was hoping that they would learn about audience, and try to write things that would be of interest to their audience.

But they rarely post to their blogs. Maybe if they had a clear audience of their peers, they would.

I think that if blogging helps you hone your writing skills at all, it's through practice focusing your topic and thinking up topics that are going to generate comment. The best reward for a blogger (I think ?) is when people comment on a post. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's your best written or most thoughtful post. On my husband's blog, people enjoy weird quizzes and controversial topics, because they're ready to weigh in with an opinion. But even to hone in that way, you have to be thinking about improving. Nobody gets better through practice if they're not actively critiquing themselves and attempting to improve. And even then they might not be answering the questions they ask themselves correctly.

Eric Hoefler said...

I just found your blog and enjoy the thoughtfulness you bring to the various topics you address. This post is one example: a thoughtful, balanced approach to the issue.

Just wanted to express my appreciation and let you know I'll be reading.

Barry Leiba said...

Thanks Eric!