Learning in most of the online courses that I have taken relies primarily, but not exclusively, on the constructivist approach and the threaded discussion element built into the LMS/CMS. In my experience, this works. How well depends on factors like organization, learner participation, topic/question presented, teacher presence, etc. So we’ve been experimenting in a Google site recently for one of my distance education courses. In this particular case, we seem to have taken our threaded discussions on the road and started to call it a web log. What is a blog and what is blogging? Are we blogging? If we are not blogging, then what are we doing and why are we doing it? Why blogging is a valuable personal development tool, in my opinion and in my experience.
Let’s get started :-)
So, what is a blog and what is blogging? Open your browser, type in either question, and you will get in excess of 163 million items returned. I think it’s probably safe to say – from a broad perspective – that a blog is whatever the blogger wants it to be, within the limits of the law. It can be a personal journal. It can have a more narrow focus on a topic, a place, a problem. The point is that it is generally the act of one individual (with perhaps a guest here or there). A blog is also a public personal space; it’s open to the public, but likely designed and controlled by the person. If a reader finds the blogger or topic to be particularly relevant to them, they can choose to subscribe. If a particular post moves the reader in some way, they may be motivated to share a comment. In some cases, an authentic asynchronous discussion takes place, but I would not venture a guess as to how often. I’m fairly certain that it is not the majority, however. Is a blog the best tool when the goal is asynchronous discussion, though?
In my class, are we blogging? Well, our use definitely does not fit my prior description. Instead, we have more than two dozen graduate students using a single Google site for one course. The site is private, with the exception of students and instructors, and I can’t consider it a personal space, though perhaps others can. The ability to edit and customize the site may rest with the site users, but we – as students – do not have permission to make any changes. The site is a bucket of sorts. Students go to the site, dump in their contribution, and depart. Are they writing because they want to; because they have some burning desire to share something about themselves or something they consider important, or because it is a requirement, or both? Nothing like returning to the old extrinsic/intrinsic motivation debate in education, eh? Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that a blog cannot be a useful tool in education or that a blog cannot be a discussion – that it cannot elicit dialog. It certainly can. In my humble opinion, however, we are not blogging in this class.
So, if we are not blogging, then what are we doing and why are we doing it? This is an excellent question to which I do not and cannot have an explanation. Speculation on my part may even be unwelcome, if not unwise. As students studying distance education by way of distance education, the process is part of the learning. Certainly, we are reminded frequently that distance education is not technology and it is not online education. That is definitely true. Another frequent lesson is not to teach to the technology, but to assess the appropriate tool to support the instructional goals of the teaching and learning experience. Yes, I have paid attention. Then why are we all here – the present experts and the future innovators – and not using the most appropriate tool for our teaching and learning experience?! Perhaps the answer rests in the instructional goals. Are we all on the receiving end of a valuable lesson in inappropriate tool use?! Perhaps the goal is for us to learn our way around Google Sites and reevaluation of the lesson objectives is in order. Perhaps the lesson is in trying to understand the challenge of integrating technology into education when technology is the hare and education is the turtle. Maybe the idea to incorporate Google Sites is just new and will continue to be redefined and refined.
In my opinion and in my experience, blogging is a valuable personal development tool. I have not been blogging for very long. It took me a year to work up the nerve, but I had support and encouragement and eventually I took the leap. In just a short time, blogging has changed the way I write, and to some extent, the way I interact with peers in my learning environment. Let me explain. I almost did not pursue the graduate program that I hope to complete next year. It’s not that it wasn’t of interest to me. It’s because the program is designed for professionals already working in the field. You guessed it; I am not one of those professionals. Had we all been sitting in a classroom that first semester, I would have been the silent student with a fixed stare like a deer in the headlights. To quote Wayne’s World, I didn’t feel worthy. I didn’t feel like I had valuable contributions to make. It’s not that I didn’t try, but I was in awe of the diverse experiences of my professional peers. Writing a blog that is open to public view; using it as a means of communication with other #MOOCers; interacting with people who have similar interests and learners at all levels; and receiving positive feedback in return has given me a measure of confidence that I did not have before. Not only that, but being forced to articulate thoughts and dreams and ideas in a way that others will hopefully understand, when before they were all locked up in a jumble, really introduces tremendous insight into the personal development process.
This transformation translates to my learning experience. Want to know how I know? When meeting a few peers in Skype, someone said that my posts on our “blog” are different and others agreed. This made me really stop and consider why. While other students were uncertain about expectations and focused on whether or not they were meeting requirements for content with their contributions (as established and measured by the instructors), I was more focused on sharing something that I considered valuable – something that I hoped might transcend our learning experience in the course. I was writing for me and sending a little part of me out into the world. Writing for public consumption is different and it’s very different than what we are doing in class on Google Sites. So, my advice to you and to anyone else out there reading this is to start a blog of your own and see what happens. I highly recommend it :-)