October 07, 2005

Learning (B)logs: time to give students a voice

Continuing the beta chapters of my current research piece on giving more opportunity for able pupils to engage in higher order thinking through the use of social software. Comments welcome.

If blogs are so easy to use why are more of us not using them? Learning logs have long been seen as a successful way of encouraging self and peer assessment and constructive learning. By putting this tool online we offer our students much more added value.

3 Where next?

Learning (b)logs
At the end of the research period senior pupils were asked to begin writing their learning logs - a summary of what they had achieved in a lesson – but to write them on a blog. The pupils designed their own blog looks and link to each other’s learning blogs. Students commented on each other’s work and leave motivational messages for each other. It has also become a place for the classroom teacher and other teachers invited onto the project from abroad to leave constructive comments on student posts. Further still, teachers can provide links they believe the students should be consulting. This is an advanced version of the learning log. The advantages of keeping a learning log per se are clearly stated in the Assessment is for Learning programme that all schools should have implemented by 2007. The advantages of publishing a learning log add to these arguments. Zoltan Dörnyei recalls an experiment where the researcher took together all the learning logs of students and published them. The motivation of the students increased when they saw that their peers had experienced the same highs and lows during the course of study. The same is true of the written work (audio recordings results in an even greater motivational ‘high’) that was published online, either on a traditional web page but more recently with the immediacy of the weblog’s “one-click publishing”. Often this represented the best work produced by a smaller number of pupils, but a wide number of their peers were reading their work and leaving comments.

Furthering creative writing in foreign languages
Creative writing was begun in one of the S1 classes with no use of technology and was very much enjoyed by the pupils. The six-week long project used most of the pedagogical ideas aired in this paper, but used little technology beyond the word processor. However, creative writing could be greatly enhanced if students record the ideas of their creative writing group on a blog. No idea is lost and by using the comments facility other groups in the class can suggest possible next steps to the stories or poems being created by their classmates. This is the process that was used but in a small group setting within the classroom. Discussion was limited due to time constraints and students within these groups had little “thinking time”. While this is the kind of blogging that would have to be done in class – groups would write each post – there are advantages of collaboration beyond the classroom walls where individuals are encouraged as part of a homework or library reading task to read the contributions of others. These contributions may be in the foreign language but would more likely be a mixture of mother tongue and foreign language (franglais, spanglish…). Above all, it offers the teacher the chance to provide links to websites, such as Lire & RéCréer, containing real French fairytales and poems, or calligrammes at UbuWeb that match the ideas of the pupils and give them more food for thought. This is the kind of thoughtful interaction requiring further time for research by the teacher and by pupils that cannot be undertaken within the constraints of the 45 minute class.


Getting more students to blog
The Techlearning blog recently put forward a pertinent point: If blogs are so easy to use and so invaluable for motivating student writing, then why aren't more students publishing online? According to a principal proponent of weblog writing, web log pioneer Pat Delaney, librarian at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco, California, and associate director of technology for the Bay Area Writing Project, "The barriers are permission and server space. Most schools want to set up an intranet where a Webmaster can approve new content and then push some of it live."

But it is the spontaneity of one-click publishing, the empowerment of pupil and teacher to post and to comment, the sense of real worldwide audience and the ability to collaborate beyond the barrier of the classroom (and therefore the school) that makes writing and reading through weblogs a more educationally interesting proposal than others. Furthermore, as students’ home technology rivals that used in schools, we risk losing out on two things: technology that is universal and works on relatively poor hardware (weblogs); secondly, students are doing this already. If students are not encouraged to write weblogs in class then they will join the millions already blogging on services such as MSNSpaces: this weblog service is mostly inhabited by teenagers and has grown by 957% in the past year. They will not have the positive involvement of their teacher, nor the guidance on safe internet and blog use. Students will not experience ownership and responsibility for their work in the same way as when it is published and criticized constructively by those in the classroom and, more importantly, those outside the classroom in the wider world. The teacher also loses out on a great opportunity to improve writing and reading skills. Above all, the whole education community loses out on the chance to motivate large numbers by using technology that is available and which increasingly forms part of teenagers’ lives.

If we don’t show them how it can be used to learn then we will have a generation of highly competent monolingual technicians with nothing much to say.

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If blogs are so easy to use and so invaluable for motivating student writing, then why aren't more students publishing online? According to a principal proponent of weblog writing, web log pioneer Pat Delaney, "The barriers are permission and server space."
I'd add access to the internet, both at school and home, one or two computers in a class and a blogging becomes an organisational task.
Lack of access at home means blogging cannot become a tool of all. In Scotland, many of our children do not have access to the internet at home. With the coming of SSDN this seems to me to be something that needs to be addressed.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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