What’s the blogging point?

James Farmer discusses once again the benefits of weblogging in education. He concludes:

… in a setting where expression, collaboration, peer support, successful class dynamics, risk taking, sharing and all these recognized characteristics of effective learning are fostered, then personal publishing allows for a revolutionary form of expression and exploration between learners in the same class and the rest of the world.

So where do we find this setting? And how to set it up if not present?

Almost every examples I have seen of serious student blogging, took place because running the weblog was more or less a requirement in the course. Students that start (and keep) a weblog without “formal requirement” are quite rare and only a fraction really blog in relation to their learning goals at all.

What might be the reason?

As I pointed out in my “Weblogs and Discourse” paper in many cases the learning culture at universities is actually not formally and/or informally valuing free exploration, expression, criticizing, collaboration and sharing beyond the scope of single educators. So if there are only some (often tech-savvy) teachers that are pushing weblogs, most students will spend time on weblogging only if they visit courses of those teachers.

Following the (mis-)conception of many students, that it is not themselves (or the work group) but mostly the teacher that is responsible for the learning progress, it appears to be a ineffective activity for many of them to maintain blogs that non-blogging teachers do not evaluate (and thus will not influence their strategy for ensuring the learning progress). And even if students are blogging: few of them really will use a self-reflective style that actually displays learning progress and obstacles.

So we have two questions that relate: one is about why students would blog at all and the second about how and what they blog. I have seen student blogs that are utterly useless from a teachers perspective, because they rarely dealt with issues from the courses. In other words: students were not showing much interest for the course contents at all – or – were hesitating to be explicit about their potential weaknesses or just things they were not sure about.

But what – instead – I have seen were student initiated discussion groups that were completely unknown to the teachers. In fact, there is good reason for students not to display learning progress but rather to surprise teachers with more or less polished results near the end of a course. It’s a seductive strategy to keep the benchmarks low. This is especially true if students are skeptical or unconvinced about the professional skills of teachers – which happens to be part of the changed image of formal learning nowadays.

I don’t want to express that many students actually want to learn this way. But I am convinced that they have learned to prefer this vicious cycle instead of the other one: facing a never ending difficulty because of teachers that are always tracking down weak spots (and so potentially narrowing the chances for good marks). The motto is “You don’t need to be good – you just need to be good enough!”.

So before “personal publishing” can be a valuable tool and students really get more process oriented, we need to introduce a learning environment where teachers change their evaluation method and depart from a result orientation as well.

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