Weblogs as a transformational technology for higher education and academic research
Blogtalk Conference Paper, Vienna, May 23rd-24th 2003
by Oliver Wrede
This paper discusses different questions of Weblogs in context of higher education. It is focussing on three loosely coupled questions:
1. How can the weblog format improve discourse?
2. How can Weblogs support teaching at universities?
3. What are the insitutional benefits of Weblogs in universities?
It seems obvious that these questions relate to each other and therefore probably should be discussed in context. The document grew out of a wild collection of speculative thoughts and notes. It is also based on some daily experience with Weblogs in an educational setting.
- 1. Weblogs and discourse
- 2. Weblogs and teaching
- 3. Weblogs and universities
- Footnotes, Credits, Links
There has been a lot of chat about »Weblogs in education« and »personal publishing for learners». Why is that? Well, compared to other formats there are some aspects about Weblogs that are very distinctive:
- There is a potential that increases very quick with the size of a community,
- Weblogs are both monologues and dialogues and therefore can benefit from the advantages of both forms and
- they also intersect e-mail, discussion forums, instant messaging and conventional electronic publishing,
- they are continuous in the sense that they are not result oriented but process oriented (while the process will end when discourse ends),
- weblog-enabled discourses penetrate the rather static institutional hierarchies that create much overhead.
Weblogs integrate these characteristics. Other software concepts that are relevant for education have some specific advantages and they’re definitively effective when properly applied. But they also have some drawbacks that limit their application:
- Learning Management Systems are maybe not open enough to connect to discourses outside of the class
- Groupware is often project and result oriented so that the flow of ideas is cut off once the project has been finalized
- Content Management Systems rarely offer personal web-publishing solutions and are focussed on workflows and production
Weblogs are not special because of their technology but because of the practice and authorship they shape. And it is a practice that will require a weblog author to be “connected” to processes, discourses and communities. With a linear growing number of connections the chance for interconnections increases exponentially (like the value of a fax machine increases with the number of fax machines installed). But a “massive parallel state” can not be communicated because communication is a sequences of signals (like for instance a reverse chronological order of comments on a homepage).
So the questions are these: If Weblogs can create a communicative socio-dynamic interaction, how is this “dynamic” generated and maintained? What kind of educational goals do they support better than other formats?
Weblogs combine two oppositional principles: monologue and dialogue. A reaction to a statement is not only directed to the sender but also to unknown readers. Very often the weblogger gets feedback from unexpected source: new relations and contexts emerge. This (assumed) undirected communication developes to an open and involving activity.
Weblogs not only enable interaction with other webloggers, they offer a way to engage in a discoursive exchange with the author’s self (intrapersonal conversation). A weblog becomes an active partner in communication, because it demands consistent criteria for what will be posted to a weblog (and how). This »indirect monologic dialog« of Weblogs allow to conduct communicative acts that otherwise would only be possible in very particular circumstances.
That is what Weblogs have in common with diaries. But in opposition to diaries, Weblogs are usually a form of writing in public and with the intention to offer opportunities for communication. A weblog is a constant invitation for conversation – directly and indirectly.
A specialty of Weblogs is to seperate authors and commentators. Only the author – the active weblogger – has the chance to contextualize statements with his personal identity. This identity is not described with a profile on a homepage, but rather with a sum of judgements that are implicit to his commentary.
Discourse is about relations – and not just about standpoints. It’s not a pool of arguments and statements but rather the temporal structure of communication that has to be paired with a development agenda (or at least an intention that is shared among all participants).
Discourse never ends – or at least: it will end in the moment nothing is said anymore. The same is true for Weblogs: in the moment there are no new posts Weblogs will degrade to ordinary websites [A]. And because of that Weblogs are by definition an almost daily activity for their creators that naturally requires a high level of attention.
In recent discussions about »conversational blogging« it has been noted that sometimes it is hard to follow a line of thought when replies are not posted in close proximity. While this is basically true this “issue” is also a feature: a reply on another weblog will contextualize that statement and communicate much more than the actual statement. A picture about the author can be extracted from the other posts on his/her site, the about page, the blogroll (and many other clues that may be available). The visitor gets a different image than just a name attached to the comment in a forum. The trackback functionality that was introduced by by the weblog software MovableType (and seems to become adopted by other tools) is one approach to “travel backwards” to the sites that link to a comment. Maybe we’re going to see “trackback trees” that ultimatly will remind everybody of the threads in discussion forums. And basically they would be exactly that with one little but substantial difference: the writing style would be notably different because a post on a weblog isn’t meant to be a direct reply.
The communication code in a majority of weblog entries is written language. There are audio-blogs, video-blogs and photo-blogs, but they currently are rather exotic examples for the weblog format. Weblog writing is an art that needs to be mastered by weblog authors or readers will have a hard time to understand and they will add facts to entries by simply interpreting what is said. That is not a problem of Weblogs in particular, but a problem of all computer mediated communication. Well crafted weblog posts make the difference between a journalist and someone who is not trained as journalist (and most weblog authors are no journalists).
Let’s look at an example:
Figure: An ordinary post
(seen on Weblogs at Harvard Law)
Weblog entries like this require context to be accuratly comprehended. But context also could cause noise so that readers extract more details that are actually given.
Here are some facts that a reader can extract from the above post compared to some that look like facts but are just assumptions:
|What the entry DOES say
|What the entry DOES NOT not say
I believe there are many occasions where readers would comprehend a mix of both columns in the above table as actual facts. Most weblog authors are no professional writers and most weblog visitors are no professional readers as well. Not being a professional reader means, that this reading can’t compensate weak writing skills of authors and potentially could be characterized as a kind of »seeing what one wants to see« (selective perception).
In addition to this comprehension problem unprofessional weblog readers very often are professional web surfers that may practice a reading style that could be called “fast scan reading”. Here is a quote from Dave Winer on scripting.com that illustrates the issue:
BTW, one more thing — people still, one month later, don’t get that when I was writing about browser bugs, I wasn’t writing about CSS. They’re like robots. They see one of their buzzwords, scan for negative or positive words, and go into action. That’s why I said at the time that Mark Pilgrim should write a new tutorial called Dive Into Reading Comprehension. It’s a much bigger issue than any of the crap we argue about. Back up a step. Who is listening? Anyone?
Maybe the readers used a headline reader NetNewsWire to get the message and they did not click on the headline saying »one more thing»? Technology can backfire if it takes too much control over representation.
A helpful theory about verbal communication is the speech act theory. It has been developed in the late 60ties by J. A. Austin and J. R. Searle. Speech acts are a classification of verbal messages according to their communicative function. Utterances are communicative actions that can be conducted by saying or writing something. Before the spoken or written verbs actually will have the desired effect certain circumstances have to be met.
The speech act theory developed a clear understanding of the circumstances in which certain utterance could be made (and other can’t be made). Any verbal communication can be characterized with the speech act classifications.
From early childhood we have learned to conduct speech acts. We know how to compliment and how to respond to compliments, we can request/refuse in different ways and we know how to give a command or how to open/close a conversation. We can agree/disagree in various ways and we have learned to deal with uncomfortable situations in a small talk. We have learned to correctly identify circumstances and use appropriate words to achieve goals.
With Weblogs the correct interpretation of circumstances is slightly more difficult. Readers usually don’t know why particular entries have been posted to a weblog. The weblog author must consider giving some background information, because the entry is not directed to someone in particular. Very often weblog authors assume their readers are frequent visitors and thus already have a lot of background information.
To increase the comprehension level I suggest to think about two areas of improvement: to think of weblog entries as a very own kind of speech acts and to develop tools that help users to collect thoughts and to analyze.
Here are two examples:
There are classifications by keywords already available in most weblog softwares. A different option is to run several Weblogs and to avoid conflicting modes.
One possibility is to create a classification of weblog posts by communicative acts they represent. I do not honestly believe that this would become anything more than a nice idea. But I am convinced that weblog readers and writers will develop strategies and practices to compensate missing cues for communicative acts.
Paul Ford developed a list to classify weblog posts and Weblogs according to their communicative gesture and the general intention (I have simplified the descriptions a little bit):
Narrative forms of weblog posts*
|Mimic a dialog between two fictional characters
|Always post to counterposition when posting to a position
|Seek resolution between disparate opinions
|For each link, post an accompanying link to the root concept, or to a topic in a given context.
|Identify the intellectual components of a given topic.
|Break up a public-domain text into component parts and post a new, brief section each day, with related web links and discussion.
|Find connections between different ideas and things.
|Ask people to fill in the blanks for you.
|Track an idea and show how the language around the issue evolves and changes from one idea to another.
|Entries which are organized by topic and build longer “narratives”.
|Create a character and browse in their guise.
|Use the classic “links + commentary” form, but log items not found on the Internet.
|Post links to stories about current issues. Identify what you think the outcome of the stories will be.
Weblog types by content (suggested)*
|Log things offline (children, books, asphalt, trees, bugs). [Form: ParaLog]
|Regularly document links related to racial prejudice, whether black or white or other. Alternatively: RapeLog, PovertyLog. [Form: ResoLog]
|Athiests vs. Christians. [Form: OppoLog]
|Create a characters for each political party/movement. Let them argue. [Form: RootLog]
|Link to critical texts and provide historical critical contexts for the thinking in those texts. Challenge their accuracy and bias. [Form: OppoLog]
|For every cultural activity, find a corresponding scientific way to interpret it. [Form: MeroLog]
|Remark on the activities of corporations. Show the social and political precedents for their actions, and identify consequences. [Form: RootLog & ForeLog]
|Read a large group of the classics. Abstract your knowledge into a 20-page text. [Form: TextLog]
|Create a very angry man or woman and have them write extensively about their opinions. [Form: CharaLog]
|Identify the rhetorical constructs beneath the links you post. If you link to a news article, examine the writer’s biases and use of language. Point out fallacies. Define a system of thinking. [Form: RootLog]
The common format to discuss online is a forum with topics, replies and threads. But discussion is not »discourse«. The latter is usually spread over several media (books, articles, TV, magazines), many interest groups, spanned over many years or decades and often is not even expressed verbally.
Special software could help individuals to follow discourse by helping to overcome common limitations and problems. Here are two examples fo student work of the Department of Design at the Aachen University of Applied Science (these concepts have been created in a seminar titled »discourse tools« in winter semester 2001/2002):
(Ingo Hinterding [weblog])
By constructing a personal map of a debate a reader could collect statements, questions and arguments in form of little cards from any source. The intention is to help understanding the different viewpoints when entering an ongoing debate as a new participant. Even complex debates could be reconstructed. Additional browsing and query tools are available by simple rating/filter, visual sorting according to two or more »magnets«, zooming of elements and connections drawn as lines between cards.
Katharina Birkenbach [weblog]
Some people have visual associations to a question before they are able to write down their thoughts. The »Look« concepts main idea is to first collect little images instead of verbalized thoughts and to close in to a verbal expression later on by describing relations and semantic intersections.
Both of these tools focus on the individual reader as someone who does not start with a clear picture and need to analyze before coming up with own statements. It is this insightful process that will constitute a rich discourse.
Weblogs offer a personal “owned” space to publish thoughts and commentary. There may be problems for readers to bring seperate pieces together, but by constantly working on »structuring the unstructured« the webloggers keep the “blog sphere” a dynamic place that is connected by time and by topic.
Peter Merholz once explained why he was turned off by weblogging once:
I was also growing increasingly frustrated with the echo chamber effect of Weblogs. A meme drifts out there, and then 38 different people post their take on that meme, and they all link to each other, and, as a reader, you bounce from post to post, the semantic feedback growing until it’s deafening.
My expectation of the close future of Weblogs is that -as it always has been- people get creative about it and develop ways to enrich the experience and reduce the noise. Trackback (video demo , Quicktime, 9MB) is just an example for a technical way to generate more density in the structure. There will be more to come. Weblogs aren’t any better than many other techniques, but they are a good option that might well be part of many other activities we all know (like face-to-face discussions or meetings).
During the last couple of years we made unsystematic experience with Weblogs to support courses. Our approach has been to demand participation in a course weblog and to offer free Weblogs for students in addition to that.
I have offered a small survery some years ago about Weblogs to teach. Here are the questions that have been asked:
- What is your subject of teaching (and in which institutional context)?
- How “structured” is your knowledge domain?
- How important is discourse among students for your course (learner-to-learner interaction)?
- What is the balance of online and face-to-face interaction in your courses (in terms of time and/or quality)?
- What different weblog types can you identify in your enviroment?
- Are you supporting a per-student use of Weblogs? Why?
- Did you teach about weblog-authoring as such?
- How do you integrate weblog activities on several sites within your educational institution?
- Is there anything which makes Weblogs (or the weblog software) superior to other content creation methods?
- What features in current weblog software do you value most?
- Is there a basic qualtiy created for your teaching task through Weblogs which could not be reached otherwise?
- Were there any expectations you had from Weblogs in your teaching context, which have not been met or have been exceeded?
There have been only some answers, but they showed that educators find very different ways to utilize Weblogs. They also showed that Weblogs as a format are very flexible and can be used for different purposes. So there is no teaching style suggested by Weblogs other than to encourage learners to freely explore, express, critizise, collaborate and share.
Sometimes it is not the time for exploration or sharing. Free expression and creativity may not be helpful in a certain stage of a course. Therefore there must be an idea what role Weblogs play in a course process. For example: It makes an huge difference if Weblogs are used as group Weblogs or if course members write own Weblogs or if the course uses a combination of those.
I also noticed students usually are much less enthusiastic about personal Weblogs than educators. Educators hope for the empowerment of learners by helping them to create intellectual property. Students usually don’t see a need for this and potentially see weblogging as a waste of time: the idea of having a personal webpage with (maybe) mediocre material does not seem to be appealing. I have seen very rare exceptions from this.
Many university programs still run with curricular concepts that ultimately force students to work isolated and compete with fellow students. Assigments are predictable, many courses are mandatory, performance assessments are routine tasks that don’t require any deeper investigation but to what is required to determine the marks.
There are only limited ways to reward students that behave altrusitic and subdue their personal goals to that of a group of team mates – but there are many ways to reward single individuals that have shown distinct dominance in a course. In school, students have learned for years to circumvent teacher’s demands with almost perfect cleverness. This problem that can amount to a complete detachment from primary learning goals: many students (not all) start challenging the educational system by reverse-engineering implicit rules of performance approval and without actually complying with the goals of a curriculum. In a vicious circle educators often try to tighten the curricular structure to force students on track. But they may just open more options for students to cede responsibility of personal progress to the institution: finally it’s the design of the curriculum or the teaching skills of the faculty that is responsible for failure.
Defensive learning and affirmative strategies are useless when it comes to university level and the rules of the game usually change substantially. Students are told that they are responsible for their own learning success. While it is inaccurate to identify a single source for failure or success in this regard, it is clear that without a high degree of autonomy an academic career will not be noteworthy.
If professors want students to become autonomous, creative, helpful and cooperative, educational institutions must actually allow students to practice exactly these skills (and allow students to be autonomous, creative, helpful and cooperative) by designing curriculums and courses that really value these qualities.
Figure: »Students today: Cooperative and self-determined«
How can a learning culture be changed over time? If educators want to help students to become more self-determined in a over-directed enviroment there is little option but to offer ways for self-expression and to honor any activity in this regard.
Educators from different professions nowadays have hidden agendas in teaching. Here is an exemplaric list of what educators would like students to learn:
- Optimze their learning strategies (learn to learn)
- Contextualize what they understand with what they already know
- Conclude own standpoints and arguments from a variety of statements
- Debate issues with fellow students and experts
- Create materials that help in getting the message across
- Learn to talk in front of a group of people and to articulate for different target audiences verbally or by writing
- Learn to organize team-work and develop self-organization skills
These skills are not dependent on the discipline. Students that have achieved a form of mastery in these areas are not so much depending on their core profession to become a valuable member of interdisciplinary working groups.
Authorship is a very effective way to train own communication skills. One very insightful way to learn this is to communicate to a group in form of a presentation. Another potentially useful practice is to publish own thoughts publicly. One disadvantage is that the author does not always know who is reading. Therefore he/she can’t adapt his writing style to anyone in particular. But on the other hand the discourse is open and could spark off feedback from who ever has a comment.
Design education is by nature extremely learner centered because very often students have to decide what to do next according to their abilities. It also demands a high level of autonomy from the students while at the same time a big amount of interaction with team-members. Personal Weblogs of students offer possibilities for expression and showcasing interests and work offside the courses that probably help others to learn about the weblogger. Without student Weblogs I would not know many extremly valuable details (for instance which cultural background some students have).
In my courses I encourage students to run own Weblogs. I can’t say that I was very succsessful at convincing them to do so. As an educator I am in fact watching the Weblogs for updates. Unfortunatly students do not seem to like weblogging. Maybe they don’t want to be distracted from other work.
Another approach is to run a weblog per course and assign roles & responsibilities to students. The idea is that each students has different responsibilities that generally require to work together to create.
Weblogs can function as a filter for web content. The author manually selects interesting locations on the web to send his readers to. Frequent visitors of a weblog have learned about the selection criteria and the intention of a weblog author, so they are able to distill personal value from that selection work.
Weblogs offer a way for educators and students to interact and share in the same format (to outperform the educator in reputation and public attention seems to be a quite motivating task).
Besides of that, Weblogs have nothing to offer for educational uses in particular – at least nothing any other form of content management system would do (if that allows users to create a space without asking the administrator for permission). But if there is an approach to teaching that encourages learners to generate knowledge and to express own standpoints openly and continuously then Weblogs can support this.
While universities are very often early adopters many faculty members are not interested in anything but access to the world wide web and an e-mail address. They simply don’t have the extra time or motivation to write online. Some even don’t want to learn another new software even if they may have some benefit from it. And frankly: not all academics are very interested in academic discourse at all or want to have a say in it.
In the last decades many things have change drastically for universities. Here are some observations:
- A university degree is no longer a guaranty for a job. Many students may finish after almost 15-20 years of education and find themself unemployed. If the certificate does not get you a job quicker – why studying at all? Universites have been invented not only to educate, but also to assure social difference [B]. Universities rarely offered good reasons for studying in the past and students often didn’t have any either (if you don’t believe it – go and ask them).
- Since the advance of the Internet professors don’t have access to more information than their students. There are still privileges (like being able to take books with you from the library that students are not allowed to lend), but generally students have access to extremely powerful tools to find information to a certain topic: few well targeted keywords are enough these days to find whatever you are looking for. And creates one fundamental insight: There are many things one can imagine that are not on the web, but there is more on the web than anyone can imagine.
- In recent years there has been a lot of effort to create transdisciplinary [C] courses. Sometimes complete new programs of study have been developed and sometimes the institutional boundaries have been made porous, to allow students from several departments to join in a single course. But there is more required than sharing a room and some teachers: without modernized learning methods that deal with the terminology gaps inbetween disciplines and without adjusted objectives for cross-discipline courses it became clear that the hope for synergetic effects has been premature in many cases (but it has become a late trend in the conference business to set up panels with people from all kinds of scientific areas to compensate the overall lack of interdisciplinarity in academics).
- Another change is that the final results of a student work has become less and less important. The result may be based on assumptions that are invalid tomorrow Â and frankly often that is the case. An evenly important preformance factor is to understand the process of creation of a given result. Which method has been used? What information was applied? Is this process a strategy or a practice? Can it be repeated in a different context?
- For some educational programs the number of students per professor has increased significantly. This entails a much lower amount of support per student from a single professor. Students potentially will get only a fraction of the feedback a professor could give and if there are no alternative ways for feedback it is clear that this development will degrade the educational quality as this trend keeps on growing.
This -and probably some other reasons- fundamentally change the landscape for higher education. The idea of the educator as the bearer of wisdom, the gatekeeper to knowledge and the guide to profession has served us well – but it needs to be updated: the gatekeeping has become obsolete and the professions start to blur into each other.
To talk about »emergence« within institutions and corporations sounds like an antagonism. The command and control paradigm is very dominant in todays organizations. There is a desire for certainty and we are living in the golden age of engineering where most people believe command-and-control is what drives the results.
Daniel Berlinger wrote once commented on the topic of “k-logs” (knowledge Weblogs):
Most knowledge workers hide at work. Weblogs make it easy to see who is doing meaningful stuff. Which is exactly why most corporate Weblogs will fill themsleves with junk if they are required. If they are not required, they won’t get written at all. I don’t say this lightly, I’ve tried it in a number of companies.
And that is basically true for so many things in todays companies. The way to approach this is to look ahead far in time and to develop slowly with small steps.
Richard Seel describes seven conditions for emergence in human systems (see his article »Emergence in Human Systems»):
|Everyone speaks with many others
|Relevant & “irrelevant” inputs
|Rate of information flow
|Many short “rounds”
|Lack of inhibitors
|Safe, egalitarian environment
|Clear question, tight time-keeping
|Relevant topic, desire for answer
|Wait for the question…
Richard Seel gives some wonderful explanations about these conditions that I don’t want to quote here. But I expect organizations – and especially the decision makers in organizations – having few or no chance to “decide” about the paradigm shift.
To transform an organization into an emergent human system is a very complex task. The reward would be a flexible organization that works itself around difficulties, offers support where and when support is required and reacts before damage occurs. It would be heavily overstated to say Weblogs can cause or kick-off this transition. But I would go that far to say Weblogs are a very useful ingredient.
As a informal approach to knowledge management Weblogs can create transparency in ongoing processes within the university (or even different universities). The question is not if but how and when universities will start to develop expertise in this field and to take advantage of this easy to use technology.
There are a variety of tools for setting up a campus-wide weblog system. Most of them are also very affordable. Universities won’t be able to avoid Weblogs by not funding the infrastructure. Weblogs are here to stay, because the open space for discoursive activities.
The common obstacle remains in faculty members or students that don’t see imediate benefits from being connected beyond e-mail and browsing the web from time to time. If universities create own concepts about how they could utilize Weblogs, then that grassroots development could be accelerated.
[A] I am tempted to say that it’s this discourse pattern that turns websites into Weblogs, but I don’t want to be the one that comes up with any proof for this.
[B] Many countries have already cemented this by creating an education market where »good education« is only available to wealthy citizens. This process is further intensified by the slow transformation of education from a public into a profit sector (see GATT). And as a matter of fact the publicly funded educational system recieves less and less money.
[C] »Transdisciplinarity« means the problem description and the problem definition are developed independently from the insight interests and scientific methods of the involved disciplines. »Interdisciplinarity« means the problem is defined by a shared insight interest – but in regard to the particular scientific methods.
* The »narrative forms« and the »weblog types« were suggested by Paul Ford (»»Log Frenzy», ftrain.com) published in April 2000.
Educational Bloggers Network:
Seblogging Edu-Bloggers list:
David Carraher about Weblogs in Education
Survey about Using Weblogs to teach
Emergence in Human Systems: