The following article appeared in the Faculty Voice column of the Fall 2005 Out of WAC Newsletter.
by Evelyn Stiller and Cathie LeBlanc
A web log (also known as a blog) is a new mode of electronic communication that has recently taken off in popular culture. A blog is a specialized web page that contains periodic entries by the owner of the blog. It resembles a public electronic diary in which the reader views the dated entries in reverse chronological order, with the latest entry first. Blog entries differ from traditional diaries because they are web pages, and, therefore, they accommodate a variety of electronic elements, such as links to other web sites, images, sounds, and animations. Blogs have become an important media force and we are embracing the use of blogs to facilitate written communication in two courses in the Computer Science and Technology Department. We also feel that blogs could be a useful resource to promote writing in a variety of other educational situations.
Why is blogging (the act of creating blog entries) a noteworthy phenomenon? From a technological perspective, blogs allow people with limited technical experience to communicate thoughts and ideas to a world-wide audience with ease. Other easy-to-use communications technologies, like email and instant messaging, limit communication to a small number of predetermined people. From a sociological perspective, blogs and their variants (pod-casts and video logs) are shaking up the otherwise corporate-dominated media outlets. Blogs allow information to be disseminated in a decentralized, personalized manner. A recent example of bloggers forcing a news item into the limelight occurred when bloggers expressed their outrage at Trent Lott’s racist remarks during Strom Thurmond’s 100 th Birthday celebration. While the traditional media initially let the remark go unnoticed, the attention given to Lott’s remark by bloggers forced conventional media outlets to report on the incident as well. The subsequent outcry forced Lott’s resignation as Senate majority leader.
Blogs also have several features that can be exploited to positive effect in an educational environment. The software for creating blog entries facilitates periodic entries containing text, images, links, animations and sounds which allow bloggers to create multimedia content. Another relatively standard feature allows readers to post comments on specific blog entries. Individuals may post comments on comments as well, and, thus, a conversation may grow out of a blog entry. Typically, the blog author will respond to any comments by commenting on the reader’s comment. Another feature of most blogs is trackbacks, which provide links to other blogs entries that reference the blog entry. Using trackbacks, a global dialog can occur between interconnected blogs. Another feature that poses a vulnerability (discussed later) is a top referrers list, which enumerates web servers which have the most references to one’s blog.
There are a number of different types of blogs and all are potentially useful for educational purposes. Blog categories include editorial, journal, commentary, technical, geographic, informational, photography, and special interest. The best known blogs are editorial in nature, typically commenting on current political events. Some examples of this type of blog are wonkette.com in which Ana Marie Cox spoofs political events by characterizing key political figures as though they were characters in a soap opera. Another well-known editorial blog is the DailyKos (www.dailykos.com), which has become prominent because of the many other blogs that reference it. The least discussed form of blog is the journal blog. These blogs are essentially electronic diaries and are the most common blog format for women and young people to engage in. They are probably the easiest form of blog to start with as a new blogger, because the author is writing about his or her life experience, and, therefore, does not need to a great deal of background research to post an entry.
Why is blogging an appropriate topic for the Out of WAC newsletter? Clearly, blogging requires some amount of writing, but is this form of writing something we should cultivate in our students? We would argue that blogging encourages blog authors to create well-written, well-reasoned, and concise entries. Editorial blog entries are particularly conducive to being crafted into highly persuasive, yet small, pieces of writing. When writing an editorial blog entry, the author can use links to provide background information, definitions, and supporting evidence, and use the majority of the blog entry space to make a well-reasoned argument for his or her perspective. Blog readers tend not to be attracted to long, wordy entries, so an author who wants to create a popular blog site is encouraged to be concise. In addition, because the perspectives espoused in blog entries are frequently challenged by readers around the world via comment links, blog authors are motivated to ensure all statements have sufficient supporting evidence. Finally, the public nature of the blog entry encourages correct spelling and grammar. For example, one of us (Stiller) once made a typo in a blog entry and was quickly reminded to spell correctly and use proper grammar by the world-wide blog grammar police. Thus, many forces exist to motivate blog authors to craft their entries very carefully. If we use blogs in our classrooms, this form of writing will encourage increased thoughtfulness about their writing among our students.
Blogs can be useful in a variety of university-level courses. For example, poetry students might create a poetry blog, which could serve either as a place to post finished pieces or, through the comment mechanism, as an electronic workshop facility. Literature students might have journal blogs, in which they respond to course readings. Political science students might create editorial blogs commenting on current events. Psychology students might engage in self-reflection using journal blogs. Communications studies students might create blogs to comment on mass media. We are sure that many other possibilities exist.
At this time, two courses offered by the Computer Science and Technology Department use blogging as a mode of writing expression for students. One course, called Web Expressions, is a general education Creative Thought Direction course. The other course, called CyberEthics, is an ethics course for our majors that also fulfills the Writing connection in the new general education program. Blogging is used for different educational objectives in these two courses, which serve as useful examples of the pedagogical power of blogging.
In Web Expressions, students are allowed to pick their own blog genre and topic so that they are motivated to blog by having a sincere interest in the content. Our educational objectives for the students in this course include:
- Depending on the blog genre chosen by the student, either,
- Read and synthesize information from at least one media source, or
- Reflect on and analyze information or experiences, or
- Organize information or artistic artifacts; and,
- Communicate perspectives, information, or artwork; and,
- Identify evidence and background information to support ideas; and,
- Develop a distinctive voice on the Internet.
Students are initially instructed on the use of the Computer Science and Technology Department’s blogging tool, which is called Serendipity. After having created a small number of prescribed blog entries, the students are then directed to select their own topic and genre and to post blog entries at least twice a week. The criteria that students’ blogs are evaluated against include the clarity of the blog entry, the entry’s adherence to student’s specified theme, the quality of writing, the initiative and originality displayed in the entry, the visual appeal of the entry, how interesting the post is to other readers, and whether the author responds to comments. So far feedback has been positive by most Web Expressions instructors, indicating that students are enjoying blogging and finding it to be a useful mechanism for expression on the World Wide Web.
The students in CyberEthics are typically very sophisticated users of technology and, therefore, much less time is spent on explaining how to set up the blog and how to add an entry. In fact, without help from the instructor of the course, many students customize the look and feel of the blog space to create a unique home for their writings. This step is one of the first toward getting students to develop a distinctive voice on the Internet.
In addition to the students being different, the goals for blogging use in CyberEthics are different than those for Web Expressions. In past semesters, the papers written for CyberEthics have had the feel of work written for an audience of one, namely, the instructor of the course. Therefore, the primary goal for the use of blog entries in place of traditional papers is to get students to begin to think of a larger audience for their work and, we hope, to take the work more seriously. Rather than being read and graded by a single instructor, the students are acutely aware of the fact that others will be reading their work. In fact, some of the writing assignments require students to read and respond to their classmates’ blog entries. Getting students to write for readers other than the instructor seems to be working well as the quality of many of the entries seems to be higher than the quality of the traditional papers used in past semesters. We have not noticed outside responses to the blog entries yet but perhaps future writing assignments can be more carefully crafted to try to elicit such response.
Although there are many benefits to using blogs in the classroom, there are some dangers as well. As soon as someone develops a new means to communicate over the Internet, someone else figures out a way to exploit it for commercial gain. In particular, the pornography and the spam industries have programs that look for blogs. When a blog is found, the programs place links to the porn or spam site in either the comments section of the blog or the top referrers list. The blog then has a direct link to pornography or spam, which is typically not desirable. Faculty and students should keep this in mind when setting up new blogs and use a variety of mechanisms to prevent this activity. These mechanisms usually require customization of the blog. For example, the top referrers feature may have to be removed.
We have described two examples of how blogging is currently being used on campus, but many other possibilities exist. Providing students with a new technology for engaging in the writing process just might be a creative spark that brings new energy to that process. Additionally, PSU’s Information Technology Services group is working on campus-wide blogging support, so that students and faculty will have easy-to-use blogging tools readily available to them.