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By Kristen Senz
Just as today’s global marketplace was born out of a combination of technological advances and opportunity, the advent of the Web log, or “blog,” is giving rise to the global classroom.
For the uninitiated, a blog is a specialized Web site that uses a simple–and usually free–online application to immediately publish articles, pictures, and audio and video clips in reverse chronological order, with the latest entry first. Blog posts often contain links to other blogs or online resources, and many blogs allow readers to post comments.
At Plymouth State University, educational blogging is still young, finding its most notable niche among professors who lead travel-study courses. One such faculty member is Mary Ann McGarry, associate professor of science education. Last year, McGarry became one of the first professors to integrate blogs into her curriculum when she took a dozen of her students to the Four Corners region of the United States – the intersection of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona – to study archaeological ruins in the high desert ecosystem.
McGarry had never administered a blog site before, but she wanted a way to broaden the reach of her students’ research. “To assign a paper that only I would see is just not enough,” noted McGarry. “I wanted my students to have a chance to share what they’ve learned with each other as well as a broader audience.”
Because of the immediacy and accessibility of blogs, students in McGarry’s class are writing not just for her, but for a worldwide audience, and that means translating science into plain English. “I am perched on a ledge at 7,000 feet on the underside of a cliff,” begins one blog post. “There is an ancient cliff dwelling directly in front of me. Me hands are touching it. It feels firm, architecturally secure, almost like it was constructed in modern times. I would guess it dates back to the 12th century.”
McGarry said the Four Corners blog allowed students to contribute to the existing pool of online knowledge about the Four Corners region, adding value and new resources for those who will come after them. “I look at blogs as tools that really foster communication and help with the dissemination of knowledge,” she said.
Of course, McGarry did have to deal with the inevitable spam—unsolicited or undesired material – posted in the “comments” section beneath her students’ thoughtful writings. “But as the administrator, I was notified every time there was a post, so I’d go and review it immediately,” she said.
Last summer, McGarry led another travel-study course, this time to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. Building on her experience with the previous blog, she amassed the necessary video-recording equipment and software to enable 11 graduate and undergraduate students to post live podcasts to the Web during the research trip.
A podcast is a collection of audio and video files that resides at a unique Web-feed address. Internet users can subscribe to the feed by adding the feed address to a tool called an aggregator, which also allows readers to monitor a number of blogs at once without visiting each site individually. When a new blog post or podcast becomes available, the aggregator automatically downloads it to the subscriber’s computer. Unlike radio or streaming Web content, blog posts and podcasts are not in real time, so users can view them offline.
McGarry and other professors at PSU are learning about these technologies and looking for new ways to use them academically with the help of specialists at Lamson Learning Commons. Together, they see blogs as an evolving educational tool with unlimited potential.
John Martin, PSU’s coordinator of learning technologies, said some professors are surprised to find that when it comes to using blogs, their students often aren’t as tech savvy as they expected. “Most of their experience is with [social networking sites] MySpace and Facebook,” Martin said. “We’re finding that more educators are starting to use classroom blogs, and the students are playing a little bit of catch-up in that sense.”
Thanks to such PSU courses as Web Expressions, which requires students to create their own blogs and track other blogs on the Internet, students are quickly getting up to speed. In Martin’s graduate-level class, Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century Classroom, students connect through a blog to a Canadian undergraduate class that’s studying similar material. “The beauty of blogs,” he said, “is [they] add a level of transparency about what’s occurring,” which allows teachers to broaden discussions and access new resources.
Outside the classroom, blogs have begun to fill an important role in the University’s external communications strategy. PSU’s Office of Public Relations has launched a blog to discuss Langdon Woods, the new eco-friendly residence hall on campus [see story page 24], as well as ThisWeek@PSU, a calendar where events can be posted and viewed by the entire PSU community in a centralized location.
As time goes on, technology will take on an even more pivotal role at PSU. Martin envisions a future in which students create online “living résumés” that chronicle their learning pursuits from their college years to their golden years. “What I see happening is a shift,” he said. “All of the learning right now is centered on the organization or the faculty, when, really, most of the learning should be focused on the learner.”
Martin also predicts that personal learning environments, or PLEs, will eventually become the standard method through which PSU students manage and share their learning experiences with professors, friends, family, and potential employers. PLEs integrate blog and aggregator technology and act as electronic portfolios where students can share research interests, writing, photography, video, and pretty much anything else. “It becomes a living résumé of what they’ve done, what they’re capable of, how they think, and what value that might bring to someone they might work for,” Martin said. “What we would like to see is more of the continual process of reflection and growth over time, rather than just what comes out at the end of an experience.”
This technology-driven vision of the 21st-century classroom reflects the changing nature of our world and the quickening pace at which information travels.
“It really ought to be global, because that’s the world we’re living in,” Martin said of today’s classroom. “We just can’t live in an insular, isolated way anymore.”
Kristen Senz is a freelance writer based in Newbury, NH.
by Kristen Senz
Many scholars and academicians worldwide herald the blog as an educational tool that has the power to revolutionize higher education. Faculty praise blogs for their simplicity, the way blogs train students to write for a wide audience, and for the “comments” function, which allows other Internet users to engage in academic discussions online.
Blogs and their impact have garnered considerable attention from academic journals, mainstream media, and the “blogosphere ” in recent years. In December 2005, the Pittsburg Post-Gazette reported that a Seton Hill University student had written on a class blog that she thought the author of a particular course textbook was biased. The book’s author read the post and responded online, promising to consider her position when writing the next edition.
In that Gazette article, Seton Hill’s Dennis Jerz, an associate professor of English and an avid blogger, noted, “In another generation, these students would have simply been users of a computer. Now, they are co-creators of the Internet.”
Henry Jenkins, who teaches literature and directs the comparative media studies program at MIT, recently wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that blogs help unlock ideas and unearth job prospects for students. “At my university,” he wrote, “we noticed that a growing number of students were developing blogs focused on their thesis research. Many of them were making valuable professional contacts, some had developed real visibility while working on their master’s degrees, and a few received high-level job offers based on the professional connections they made on their blogs. Blogging has also deepened their research, providing feedback on their arguments, connecting them to previously unknown authorities, and pushing them forward in ways that no thesis committee could match.”
While for many educators the potential of blogs to enhance education may be obvious, the challenge continues to be finding the best pedagogical approach for integrating this relatively new technology into higher education courses, programs, and beyond. MIT’s Jenkins says optimizing blogs in higher education requires open discussion, not only among academics, but also with other societal domains that are working just as hard to adapt to technological advancements. “We should see these efforts as opportunities for us to learn from other sectors equally committed to mapping and mastering the current media change.”
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