October 05, 2005

Change the script: Social software to open the classroom

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.

Blogs offer a chance to change the face of our classroom and of language learning for the better. Audience, purpose and voice are catered for in blog writing - is this the first time we can truly offer these three motivating reasons for enjoyment of learning to our students?

2.5 Social Software to change the script

2.5.1 Blogging – a collaborative barrier-breaker
With the advent of “push-button publishing”, in the shape of the weblog or ‘blog’, language teachers now have a new way to get students writing for a purpose and reading authentic material. Blogging opens up the possibility of regular peer assessment and breaks down the barriers of the four-walled classroom, helping achieve the aims of the 3rd millennial classroom: collaboration, inclusiveness, flexibility and bringing more relevance to learners. What are some of the practical advantages of this curiously named technology that is taking over the traditional web page in every sector but education? Can the weblog be used or adapted for language teaching in Scotland? What advantages does this extra effort bring to teachers and learners who use weblogs to read or publish their writing to the world?


2.5.2 What is a weblog?
What is a weblog and what makes it different from a regular website, email exchange or discussion on an online discussion forum or notice board? Historically, a weblog is recognised by its regularly updated, time and date stamped posts, running down the computer screen in chronologically reverse order (i.e. the most recent post comes first). Crucially, there is an ‘Add Comment’ feature so that readers of posts can leave their opinions, questions or thoughts. Finally, there is a writing style element: weblogs are written by one individual who gives his or her thoughts in a generally relaxed ‘spoken’ style.

However, in recent years the technology has been exploited in new ways, particularly in education, to expand its possible uses. Firstly, where weblogs were once written by one person, many are now written by several contributors. With the increased use of mobile phones the inclusion of mobile phone photographs posted directly from the mobile phone via text message, has added a visual element to the previously text-only format. This mobile posting is called moblogging (mobile web logging). The addition of audio files (normally MP3 type files) gave birth to audioblogging, and video files posted to blogs result in the vlog (video log).

The content of the weblog, whether textual, audio, visual, photographic or a mixture of these, is what is termed ‘dynamic’: it changes on a frequent basis and can be used in more than one way. The dynamic content of a weblog has been compared to the ‘Send to All’ email, while its ‘Add Comment’ feature which allows the reader to respond resembles the online discussion board. So why spend time learning a new technology if two existing and relatively successful technologies resemble it so closely? There are several reasons for exercising a preference for the use of a blog in an educational context.

A blog looks like a website rather than an email correspondence and as such is not intrusive in the same way as ‘reply to all’ emails can be: a blog has its own space online and readers choose to visit it (some 'seduction' can be offered on RSS Readers - More about that here). The discussions that take place between the original post of the author and the comments that follow below it do resemble online discussion fori, but as the weblog is administered by one individual (or a selected group of contributors), the direction and pace of discussion is controlled. Here the advantage over the discussion board is similar to the advantage of having a chair at a meeting; there is someone to direct discussion and make decisions rather than allowing participants to ramble with no conclusion ever being made.

These technical differences are twinned with stylistic differences between blogs and the email-discussion board combination (which are little used in classrooms anyway). The way the blog posts are written, and the way the reader comments back, relate to audience, purpose and voice.


2.5.3 Audience – a motivation-builder
Blogs are often aimed at a broader readership than the blogger’s own friends and family because they communicate with the blogging community as a whole. Another feature of good blogs is the inclusion of a “Blogroll”, a selection of links to blogs written by other people who are respected or of interest to the author. However, in the education community a slightly different approach to attracting audiences is necessary. Take the example of a blog project with limited success in the area of Modern Studies. Four senior students had to undertake a major piece of research based on comparisons between the UK and the USA. They needed to carry out primary research also, which led me to advise the teacher and students to use weblogs. However, timescales in schools being limited by the constraints of deadlines, which most bloggers do not have to stem their steady build-up of audience, the students experienced great difficulty in gaining sufficient audience to get the information they wished. They did, however, gain more ‘Comments’ than the number of posts they had written. This is a healthy situation for a blog to be in. The reason for this large ratio of comments per post was down to some backroom work by the teachers involved to reach out into the virtual community and pull the audience into these blogs. A link was made with a US high school teacher who got some of her former students, who were now of voting age, to interact with the Scottish students. In terms of motivation in the Scottish pupils, there was an improvement that helped them move on in this large-scale research project. However, the motivation of the audience was less and, after posts were not written often enough, they began to fall off. Also, the voice of the blogs were not inviting to users: questions were asked in the first posts, but in subsequent posts the conversation that Scottish students was halted by ‘Thank you’ statements that drew a close to discourse. So blogs encourage regular writing, using a questioning tone. By having pupils ask the questions instead of the teacher we have the beginning of real meta-cognition and construction of knowledge.

In a Modern Languages context, the motivation from having a real audience is clear when one looks at the statistics for the pages of pupil experiences during a school trip to France: in seven days 400 comments were left for the students which acted as a great signal of parental and peer support for the activities of the trip. Many of these comments were questions that the pupils had to set out to answer through interview with locals or journal-writing at the end of each day. Motivation to carry out more ‘school-like’ tasks of writing the blog and creating audio reports was, as a result, much higher. The audio reports attracted particular attention from the pupils: many were desperate to speak French for the 8000 subscribers to their podcast radio show. It is rare to see such enthusiasm to speak in public in the classroom atmosphere. When the blogroll includes links from and to fellow peers’ blogs the motivation to write regularly and write well is even higher.

Moblogging is another option we would consider in the future, where a mobile telephone is used to write text, take photos and even record audio files before sending them to the blog as an e-mail. In experiments, pupils found the process easy once the teacher had input their mobile phone telephone number to the blogging service. The resultant motivation to write small notes in the foreign language was palpable; some pupils started to use more of the full capability of their mobile phones to record small audio snippets as MP3 files for publication as they traveled.


2.5.4 Purpose – setting a context for classroom work
In education, the purposes for weblogs are under-explored as practical examples are still thin on the ground. However, by borrowing from the world of the media, which has grasped weblogging as an effective means of communicating with its audience, educators can find new ways of communicating with their students, parents and the wider educational community. Likewise, students have the power to publish their thoughts, ideas and work in the knowledge that there is a critical audience reading it. Let us take a look at some purposes established during this action research project in a Modern Foreign Languages context:

School trip blog
Foreign trip online journals while students are away. These include text, photos and even audio recordings from the trip. This gives pupils a chance to write on a regular basis in English and the foreign language and, by recording and publishing some audio, encourages speaking about their experiences. Hotel or youth hostel internet connections and internet cafés can be used to write the blog posts, which must be composed online.

Student journal
Keeping a log of work is an effective way for pupils to reflect on what they have learned, and reinforced within the AifL programme. Peers and teachers (not just the classroom teacher) can leave comments for improvements or just to say “well done”.

Best work blog
One blog can be set up for the whole class on which pupils are asked to post their best work from that week. Pupils work a lot harder knowing that their work will be truly public. It was not just for the classroom wall or the school reception but available to the whole world – and their mum and dad. Senior management can be encouraged to browse this kind of blog and leave positive comments for students.

Blogquests or Webquests on blogs
Webquests, or internet challenges, are online tasks that require the pupil to move through an authentic site or sites and achieve a goal (buy a train ticket, work out a metro journey, book a hotel room). Challenges should normally last 10-40 minutes; any longer and the pupils lose interest. However, with a blog that permits time-lapsed posts (such as Typepad), you can set up a longer internet challenge to take place over a number of weeks.

Each week’s 'episode' lasts a short amount of time and leaves a cliff-hanger to keep the pupils guessing. They can even leave their comments on the challenge question to say what they think they will have to do next.


2.5.5 Voice – encouraging personal reflection
The weblog is usually motivated solely by the need for self-expression, and nearly always communicates something about the personality behind the blog, through the style of writing and the choice of topics. A weblog is not just a collection of links, therefore, as many thought in the early days of the medium (Blood, 2000), it is a recommendation, certainly, but also a method of constructing knowledge and critically appraising one’s sources. For more advanced classes (Advanced Higher) this use of blogs can help organise thoughts for course projects, such as Background Topic, literature study and a learning log on grammar and vocabulary. Students were able to borrow each other’s links and suggest better ones that they had found. For less advanced classes the personal nature of writing a weblog lent itself well to the personal writing they are expected to produce in the course of their 5-14, Standard Grade or National Qualifications study. Thanks to the public voice and different writing style and persona students are more likely to give thought-out reasons for their thoughts. Rather than just using simple constructions (parce que c’est cool) students were observed trying to push their language to express their full feelings on a matter (je pense que…, à mon avis…).

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Great Blog. I have been using blogs to teach English to Greek students and while the results have been mixed for classroom learning, private students have taken to it with a passion. The idea of an audience other than your teacher, possibly from the other side of the world, has been extremely motivating.

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Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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