Is blogging the new way to help students learn? How can teachers incorporate blogging into their lessons?
The Star spoke with Jason Nolan, an assistant professor at the School of Early Childhood Education at Ryerson University, about educational blogging and learning with technology.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about your research?
A: I’ve been exploring the use of blogging tools in higher education since 2001 after spending a number of years experimenting with other online communications tools at the University of Toronto. I started working on it with a number of research assistants conceptualizing ways of developing pedagogically appropriate blogging tools; that is inventing models for bringing blogs into learning environments in a way that specifically helped teaching, learning and evaluation.
After completing a pilot project, and developing an open-source blogging platform called Edublog, the project was put aside because we felt that there wasn’t yet the interest in higher education for the wide-scale use of blogs in teaching and learning.
In 2005, I renewed the project in collaboration with Rochelle Mazar (Instructional Technology Liaison Librarian at the University of Toronto in Mississauga), and we have been sharing our experiences and resources on parallel projects at UTM and Ryerson.
Our next phase is something we call Metaphorica whose goal is to develop an open-source blogging platform that can be used in universities, colleges and school boards, and tie in with existing learning administration systems, such as BlackBoard.
Q: How can technology like chat boards and blogging be used by teachers and students?
A: Blogging is a novel technology when it comes to educational uses. In the past we have used bulletin boards and courseware to allow students to discuss topics. The dialogue was always situated around the classroom and the course content. And usually, when the course is over, the content was erased. As with essays and tests, students sometimes ended up with the impression that learning was about performing for the teacher and the class, and not part of a personal exploration of growth and development.
Blogging looks at communication in a different manner. Blogging is all about me. The location of the discussion is on the individual, not the class. As a student blogger, I would write about my personal experiences within the learning moment; how the lectures, discussions in class, readings intertwine with my own reflections and thoughts on the topic. The result is that a blog post can become a unique document of the learning process; one that is particular to each learner.
Blogging in university can become the start of a lifelong learning experience, as the student’s blog can follow her from class to class, year to year, and then follow off into the world of work.
There are so many potentially positive outcomes of student blogging. When a learner takes ownership of her ideas there is greater potential for the learning experience to become internalized. When the blog is an academic, personal and social tool for communication, students learn about the variety of ways they can express themselves, and they learn to negotiate between personal, private and public forms of communication. They also get experience, in a safe environment, in controlling the information that is made public about them, which can help keep them safe, but can also help them in their careers.
As part of the traditional university experience, blogs have an important place in the classroom. I use blogs as to learn what my students think is important in the reading, and what I need to focus on in my lectures. In one scenario, I have students write a 350-word blog post on the readings before class. I can skim these posts and pick out any insights or omissions that I would like to take up. I can, at a glance, know that 120 students have done the readings, and, unlike other instructors, I don’t have to hope that a significant percentage of students are prepared for class. I can use their blogs as raw material for developing quizzes and exam questions. I can use them as the starting point for research papers. And the blogs become invaluable in identifying potential problems with plagiarism. When you have 12 weeks of writing by a student it is very easy to see if something that appears anomalous in an essay is a problem or not.
I am an avid blogger myself, though I don’t really have the time for the sustained reflective pieces that I try to elicit from my students. I use blogs to keep students up-to-date on what’s going on in the class, news and information about the field whatever else comes to mind.
I have also started podcasting this year. My recent experiment was to create a podcast lecture and post it on my blog before, or just after, class.
Q: As a professor of early childhood education, do you believe these technologies can be used with preschoolers?
A: Children are keen observers and have a sense of what is important to them; though it can be hard for adults to know what’s going on. Digital photography is a great opportunity for them to creatively interact with the world around them, even before they can describe what is interesting to them orally or in writing. Children, even under the age of 3, are able to understand what is worthy of capturing on camera, though their attitudes are somewhat different from adults.
Research suggests that they are less interested in photographing people, framing the shot or even focus, but they are interested in documenting their world; taking pictures of what’s important to them. This is often possessions and pets.
Of course, there is the issue of protecting children’s information online. However, that does not mean that children cannot express themselves and share that information publicly. In fact, it’s very good for children and parents to know from an early age what’s appropriate to share online.
A photo of a favourite toy, or a drawing they have done, can be shared online in a blog, provided adult supervision ensures that no inappropriate information is included with the images.
Services like flickr.com allow for the easy uploading of images, and more importantly controls over who gets to see these images. It is easy for a parent to arrange for images to only be viewable by a preset group of individuals of her own choosing.
Children being able to share what they have observed and created with others (parents, family, peers) allows them to communicate what is important to them. It also creates an interesting record of a child’s experience that can be presented back to them when they get older. As long as their personal information is not attached to the record, the child can decide later in life if they want to create a lifelong document of their experiences, or leave it anonymous.
Podcasting and audio-blogging is also an interesting option for young children. As soon as children are old enough to use the telephone, they can use tools like livejournal.com to call a number and talk into the phone. That audio clip becomes a blog post. This, of course, must be done under parental supervision, and using livejournal.com’s tools for controlling access to who gets to hear and comment on the audio blog post.
This would allow me to spend the entire time in class carrying on small group discussions, working in the lab, dealing with issues and questions, and the students would be able to listen to the “lecture” on their own time, sometimes over and over.
Everyone involved agreed that podcasting the lecturing component of the course allowed for more direct student/professor contact time, issues and questions could be taken up in detail, and students were able to do group work in class.
For students with busy schedules, part-time jobs, and in some cases families, any technology that can maximize communication and actually increase face to face contact in the learning environment is valuable.