Monday, January 17, 2011

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this page appeared on but was removed and restored here in 2010/2011

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Chat and the language learner

Chat and the language learner

Thomas Leverett on the concerns of internet chat and its effect on language learning

If you are learning a language and have an internet connection, a temptation is open to you: should you seek out chat situations, and learn to chat in your new language, typing LOL like everyone else and laughing as you do it? It is not an easy question. If you are young, you may be much more comfortable using chat, the keyboard-typed version, than learning with the more traditional methods of reading articles, stories, or reading exercises that appear in English textbooks. Chat at least gives you live people to talk to, young people who speak your new language, but be careful: they're using shortened versions of words, misspellings and abbreviated grammar; they're leaving out punctuation and capital letters; is this good for you?

Language learners who have tried it are cautious about the power of computer chatting and its cousin text-messaging, though they may have mastered both chatting and their new language simultaneously. They are not so sure that it was good for their reading or their writing in the formal language, though they'll be the first to say that they learned to type faster, they read more, and they were able to participate actively in a new language. The influence of time spent chatting is considerable, and should not be taken lightly. You may, in the end, know more chat slang than anything else, just due to time spent in heated discussion with people who have become your close friends. Will this actually hurt your ability to learn and master formal English? I believe that it probably won't. People learn several languages at once, successfully, and become bilingual or trilingual, relatively fluent in more than one. Chat slang is like another language: you may have to struggle to separate it from other things you are learning; it may get in the way of your conscious production of your new languages, or even your native language, but it won't prevent you from learning anything. Your fluency in your new language, English for example, will be determined by how much time and energy you put into English, and won't be set back too badly by the fact that you are learning other things as well.

There are several problems associated with chatting that you should be aware of, however. The most obvious reason that chat itself carries a kind of stigma, is that it is associated with pedophiles and people who stalk the young and innocent for their own purposes. This is in fact a problem in virtually all chat rooms worldwide, anywhere where access is open to anyone, or anyone who can pretend to be someone else. Though there are many kinds of chat, formal and informal, for various kinds of people, there are also many kinds of people taking advantage of the anonymity of the chat room, for their own purposes. Be careful; follow the advice of the wise, don't reveal too much of yourself, and don't spend time in places that have proven to be trouble.

Further, as you may be aware, chat and text-chat slang carry a kind of stigma themselves, as you turn around to try to communicate formally, in virtually every language. If people in the formal English world catch you spelling "you" as "u," for example, which can happen very easily, they will associate you with a generation of young people who are versatile with chat slang but have trouble with commas, periods, and proper spelling; teachers at native-speaker high schools and middle schools have been railing against this problem for some time, and may have lost patience with students who can't or don't distinguish between slang and the proper language. You may have to work twice as hard to separate the two yourself, since both are somewhat new to you; you are in effect learning two different languages, though they are kinds of dialects of the same language. Do you have the time and patience to learn two different languages at once? Do you have the time and patience to sort out two similar, yet different, sets of rules, spellings, and customs? You'll have to. Mixing them will be easy, but dangerous, especially putting chat slang into the formal world.

This leads to your final problem, which is simply your own use of time and brain power, which is limited for everyone. If chat is more fun and more engaging, you'll naturally spend more time doing it, at the expense of your formal English study. If you can use chat to inspire you, and keep you focused on integrating yourself into all kinds of English-speaking culture, it can still be good for you. You can pick up vocabulary, notice and adopt an easy fluidity in making sentences and expressing yourself, and in general become more comfortable with the nature of English sentences and the people who use them. But if you spend all of your time typing out abbreviated vulgarities, as some people have called chat, and as it is best described, in some places, then that will be all you will know, and that won't help you much in the world where you really want to succeed, and may even hurt you.

Those who have been there point out the advantages of using chat to learn a language. You can choose who you want to talk to, and choose those whom you learn the most from. You can have long, engaging conversations that teach you a lot and are not threatening to your immediate safety or well-being; you can talk to older, interesting, polite and/or articulate people if you wish; you can talk at your own rate, and you can choose what you want to talk about. Finally, you can talk at the times of your choice, which can be good if you have trouble going to your standard English classes whenever they are offered. The advantages are clear and tempting. The dangers are also important. Don't lose your goal, which is formal study using formal language. Learning something similar to this formal language will be deceptive; it will seem easy, as if you can use the same language in both places. But it's like false cognates in related languages: words can look alike, and have the same roots, but if they are used differently, you have to learn the different variations, and that can be more difficult than learning two completely different words from the start. You'll need more discipline, and you'll need to take careful notice of the differences between chat slang and formal English, so that you don't confuse the two, especially at the wrong moments.

In the end, if you keep your eye on what you want, and you put enough time into it, you'll get it. Learning and using chat won't block you or stop you from learning anything else. In fact, you'll become master of yet another language, a kind of written dialect, which may as well be considered another language. And, you'll be using it for what it's supposed to be used for, talking to others, sharing, learning about people around the world. This can't be bad; you very rarely find anyone, anywhere, who was ever sorry that they learned any language. Sorry that they spent too much time on the wrong one, maybe. Sorry that they learned and used a new one? Almost never.

One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum

Teaching Teachers
to use weblogs effectively

This site is presented as part of a CALL-IS Internet Fair planned for TESOL 2005, San Antonio TX, USA, by Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, C'dale IL 62901-4518 USA, and Jessica Montgomerie, CESL, SIUC
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Our stories:

One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum

History of weblogs at CESL

Our program started using weblogs in August of 2004. Student publishing is an old idea; our student newsletter was already over ten years old, and a little stale. Personal journals are also an old idea, and our teachers have used them often (see below), but personal journals are personal: why should students have to publish their personal thoughts on their first try, like so many other people? Our idea was to use them to publish finished work: summaries of articles, informal writing and sharing of experiences, and portfolios of academic work. In fact, at first we had two ideas: have upper-level students make online portfolios (showcase the best of their academic writing), and have everyone contribute to the community newsletter, making something interesting and webworthy at the same time, something that would at the same time showcase our program and what we do.

The confusion caused by this duality of purpose is ongoing. It is difficult for people who are new with weblogs to see the difference: that the class weblogs are for contribution to the community; that upper-level students are to use personal weblogs as portfolios, but are also expected to fix them up, make them personal, express themselves. The situation has been aggravated by Blogger's refusal to let weblog-operators start new ones (at least, given our browsers and our situations); we couldn't very easily tell students to just keep one weblog for the public, and another for the portfolio.

Now, at the beginning of our fourth (eight-week) term, we have a history; people know what they are and what we do with them. Students have responded well; teachers are beginning to find more and better ways to use them. Below is a discussion of the ways they have been used.

Weblogs as portfolios

Weblog portfolios combine the best aspects of written portfolios and personal expression. They allow essays, research papers, and any kind of academic work to be combined with pictures, charts, links and linked references, and personal expression, such as author's notes, in the template. Weblogs are the ideal medium to present academic work in public as they are able to combine so many things and separate out the truly academic parts, in the body, from the more personal parts on the side. Do you remember how teachers used to glean clues about students' character from the smudged type and bond paper of an essay? And then have to go find the sources in the library? Those days are over. For those who are curious about weblogs as portfolios, a good example of a weblog portfolio would be here:

Mayumi's portfolio shows that she labeled her paper "first draft," and left it that way, but she at least mastered two important ideas: that weblogs remove indentations (thus new paragraphs have to have double space), and references can be linked electronically. Luciana mastered the art of putting pictures in appropriate places. An example of a web portfolio (not done on weblogs) was provided by Timothy Bonner of Lehigh Univ., who gave this link on a tesl-l branch in September of 2004:

I still maintain, and have maintained consistently, that presenting academic work electronically is a skill that our students can and should master as part of their program here. The fact that I have very few examples of how it can be done effectively is more a statement of difficulty of integrating these skills into the program itself, than of difficulty in getting students to understand what is being asked of them. It is in fact not impossible or even difficult for them to put their papers online.

Weblogs as community builders

As for the community aspect of the venture, one need only look through the class weblogs that spring off of the CESL students' page, to see that students in general understood and were able to contribute to the community. Issues of plagiarism are common and are compounded by issues of picture-using, which are complicated and provide ongoing sources of discussion. The newsletter itself is conservative in these regards but still reflects in a positive way the ongoing nature of intra-community dialogue in a young, limited-English program.

The film semester had our classes watching movies and reading novels simultaneously; for example, my class did the "Big Fish" movie and novel in the same class, one hour/day for almost eight weeks. We did not study filmmaking or cinematography; nevertheless, we entered the community of film criticism by writing about Big Fish and other movies. These classes, EAP1 and AE2, provide examples of ways that weblogs can be used to get students to engage in an online community and interact with it. Students were asked to compare the book and movie; to link to a critic and either agree or disagree; and to find a movie, link us to its homepage, and tell why they found it interesting. The results can be seen throughout these weblogs though the classes themselves may have done other things as well.

In the early days of the newsletter I remember insisting on the importance of real audience in writing, as well as the basic importance of fluency work before academic projects were undertaken. I remember the philosophical underpinnings of this approach came partly from Peter Elbow, who argued, among other things, that some basic ability to talk about the world around us had to be developed first, and that one shouldn't worry about grammar when writing. There was also Marie Nelson (1991), whose "Point of Need" theory argued that students learned grammatical points best at the very moment they found them necessary to actually communicate something real. From these two I got the approach of devaluing grammar, but correcting it with the student whenever possible. As a result some of these weblogs keep their grammatical errors until someone corrects them, often after they've been displayed for weeks; but in general, we try to work on them as a matter of process.

Weblogs as journals

An example of this kind of writing is here, where visiting students from ChungBuk University (Korea) wrote travel diaries. Most of the weblog writing in the world is journal-oriented; however, as I said above, I have never been inclined to force students to make personal reflections public. In this case, the journal entries look more like other weblogs, and thus give students more of the feeling of being in harmony with the "blogosphere" than those who, for example, are putting up research papers on coral reefs.

Weblogs as a research tool

As the leader of this movement I felt obliged to have a weblog, keep it updated, go visit other esl/efl weblogs, etc. I was unprepared for the changes it would bring about in me. I was surprised to stumble upon a conversation about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (I have lost this, but it was through blinger, an old and passionate interest of mine. What the web in effect does is allow the dozen or so people who are truly passionate about something like this, have a conversation about it, without worrying about having to be in the same physical location. In other words, it will revolutionize research. There is another benefit: just talking conversationally changes the nature of your research, and brings up possibilities that wouldn't have occurred if you remained in "research-thinking mode". I am not a researcher, but nevertheless immediately noticed the benefits of being connected to an international community with interests similar to mine.

Weblogs as a medium

Weblogs offer challenges and rewards simultaneously. One challenge is that they are always updatable; they can be seen as a work in progress, and this is especially good for people in the process of learning who can learn the skills of improving their own technological management at the same time they are mastering English. All of this, of course, is happening in the public eye. That is a challenge for a program, which in a sense wants to always be seen at its best. But our gamble was that more transparency in itself would be a reward. If people could see how we taught English by seeing parts of the process, and also see how we wrote and perfected what we did, this would presumably benefit us. The risk of having things that are less than perfect, in the public eye, is not the worst risk one could take.

We set about to have classes make their own weblogs; these were for contribution to the community; also, students would ideally have their own, though when push came to shove, we didn't force this. A few stubbornly resisted over several terms; some never allowed us to link up to theirs; but most students embraced the process and made their own weblogs, adding their work to both their weblog and their class weblog, and slowly learning skills of linking on templates, uploading files and pictures, editing, etc.

Because we have macs and the world seems to operate in pc's, we had endless problems; also, learning some basic html is still necessary for mac blogger-users. There's no point in belaboring the issues of how to make weblogging more user-friendly for everyone; suffice it to say we are in the early days of weblogging and it won't be long before people just won't have these problems. Blogger is still giving us massive problems, but we haven't replaced it yet. There are other options: getting software (Manila), using our own university server and setting up our own interface, or using one of many other free servers out there; there are now hundreds.

Our needs are simple: we make about twenty blogs every eight weeks. We need to have simple and clear directions. We don't like wading through template code to add links. We'd like picture-uploading to be simple and intuitive. And we'd like to be able to make links, italics, bold, etc., without having to learn html. Am I asking too much? As a mac user, I'm unwilling to simply buy another computer.

Weblogs and working with teachers

We were lucky to have two undergraduate assistants (American SIU students), hired to help us improve and work with student writing, who we were able to set to work on the project. I use "we" to refer to myself; I had applied for and received these assistants and had a vision for the program; the director, who I was able to convince and who supported the vision; and various other teachers who had agreed with the idea to various degrees. We have full-time Lecturers (like myself), temporary Lecturers, and graduate teaching assistants, all of whom cast a wary eye at any innovation that might compromise or threaten even their time, let alone their crowded curriculum, their self-image as teachers, or their evaluations. The students, it turned out, were not even hesitant about the technology, for the most part, but they took their cues from the teachers, and the teachers had mixed feelings, which would be difficult to document.

I could rule out technophobia, although I studied the phenomenon a little, due mostly to the fact that I've always felt a little technophobia in myself. I don't really feel that anyone is afraid of technology in general, or of change, or of weblogs, or of free servers like Blogger, which are used in the process of making weblogs. Teachers use e-mail, use the web in other ways, use dvd and smart classroom technology when it suits their purposes, and cannot be said to be afraid of learning. When I got some perspective on it, I ultimately assigned their hesitation to a number of other factors: limited time, not seeing the place of weblogs within curricular goals, protective feeling for students, unwillingness to commit class time to something so likely to go wrong or make them look bad. Teachers were often unwilling to make their own weblogs; this I took as a sign of lack of personal commitment to the project, though there may have been several other reasons for it. Finally, teachers were reluctant to seek out the undergraduate assistants, who usually knew how to get around technological problems and were able at least to get them started if they wanted to.

Thomas Leverett, March 2005


Why you should consider using weblogs

Weblogs have revolutionized communication for a good reason. They are vibrant, personal, immediate, multidimensional, visual, and appealing to the young. We should prepare people to communicate in the medium of the future. Weblogs can always be changed and updated; they empower their users. Students can publish, republish, improve, rewrite, perfect, and be proud of their ongoing progress.

Weblogs give students personal yet public space to show pictures, present themselves in English, provide links to their home worlds, and show their character in ways that "flat" paper writing cannot give them.

Weblogs give students the opportunity to learn important skills of manipulating technology: uploading and downloading picture files, adding links, integrating music, video, scrolling, etc.

Weblogs offer the ultimate audience: young, hip, no expectations, interested in what people are saying, willing to overlook grammatical errors, willing to comment and/or interact if moved. Yet the blogosphere itself is so huge, so overwhelming, that there is at the same time some comfort in being part of a movement so massive that it offers some anonymity.

In a world in which manipulating technology becomes increasingly important, having meaningful things to say and an important place to have it read offers a sense of control that will encourage the learner to navigate and use the new media.

On working with teachers

Teachers are focused on their objectives, and their objectives are focused on English skills. Making the mastery of technology anything but a tangent requires either writing it into the objectives, or personally convincing teachers that these skills are part of using English in the modern world. If teachers are not personally convinced, their priorities will be reflected in the work of the students and throughout the program.

Using weblogs for distinct purposes, to both build portfolios and to make a community newsletter, for us added a level of complexity that was difficult for people who were new to the medium. We didn't even try using them as personal journals, which is how much of the world uses them. If one is just getting used to the medium, it's a little more difficult seeing through the early attempts and seeing them for what they could be and what one could be doing with them in one's class. A couple of good models would really help, but better than that, a fairly rigorous ongoing training and ongoing reminders of what they are and why they are there, would have helped our situation. Teachers who are not comfortable with something will not bring it into their classrooms. Time is precious. Why should they?

  • CESL Teachers' weblog
  • CESL Students' weblog
  • CESL Today, student newspaper
  • Weblogs in esl/efl
  • Teachers' resources
  • Integrate the web
  • Make your own weblog
  • Tom Leverett's weblog
  • This is your brain: this is your brain on weblogs

    Daring to enter
    the blogosphere

    This site is presented as part of a paper, presented at TESOL 2006, Tampa FL, USA, by Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, C'dale IL 62901-4518 USA. The resources and links relevant to this paper come from the main weblog of this presentation.

    This is your brain:
    this is your brain on weblogs

    Weblogs and the weblogger: getting started

    People are attracted to blogging for a variety of reasons. Anyone who ever wanted to write, have people read what they say, work in the media, own their own business, entertain, express themselves, or even create a pretty collage, finds immediately that blogging offers good opportunities for all of the above. Of course, one has to be fluent with the language to be successful (this may rule out our students, and explain why they don't continue weblogging when they graduate). And, one can do it in one's own time: in the middle of the night, or whenever one is most creative.

    The fact that a blog is started every minute is testament to the fact that there may be other motivations besides the above, but the above list is a good starting place and will cover most of my motives, at least.

    A few months after I had started, I was reading some weblogs of expatriate ESL/EFL teachers in Asia (who had formed a lively community), that I realized that blogs had another useful function: they can be used to talk about one's work, to review what works and what doesn't, to discuss philosophical and practical issues about, in my case, language learning and the function of language in one's perception. An ongoing discussion of these issues is in fact more important after one has had a few years to observe people and the process of language learning; it's ironic that in many cases we learn and discuss these things before we've had the experience to judge the theories. The international weblog community, not bound by the classroom or location in any way, thus allows us to continue discussing things that we now have more to say about.

    This particular conversation touched an issue that was very important to me, without really answering the question, but it occurred to me that it offered the twenty or so people who are most interested in any given thing, in this case the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, to converge in one (virtual) spot and discuss it. Weblogs have sprung up to discuss games, theories, languages, characters in movies, etc.; this has been very good for people who are otherwise isolated in their worlds.

    They have a very useful commercial function also, though many of us do not really need that at this moment; from the commercial point of view, they are combination of neon sign and brochure, and mastery of the web in general should be seen as crucial to anyone's success in the modern world.

    I am attracted to weblogs merely by having the opportunity to share some of what I do and hope that somehow, out there, it becomes useful to someone. That's the base motivation for all writers, really. One writes out of impulse, desire to communicate. The publishing chain (buy stamps, send in manuscripts, wait, get rejected) does not have to be an obstacle.

    One soon learns that most everything about weblogs is manageable, learnable, and that is the magic of RSS feeds and such free services as Blogger. Apparently information can be stored quite easily, so that not only can one new blog be stored per minute; but also, a single web page can be made for each entry; and, this can seemingly go on forever. On this end, we can upload and even store pictures, we can access all of our posts relatively easily; we can change the name of the weblog in midstream, and we can delete virtually everything we do. The beginning weblogger becomes intrigued at the possibilities, made infinite by the fact that one can always see how someone else did something clever, just through the "view source" function.

    At the same time one gets more involved, assuming that the increasing power to communicate continues to intrigue, and one does not run out of things to say (this already rules out 90% of beginning webloggers), one becomes aware of a number of other factors.

    Crispness in language is rewarded

    The blunt and direct are attracted to weblogs; the verbose see quickly that they won't do well here. Generally people don't read ten-page tomes on the web, though they're not beyond printing good academic material and reading it later. On the web, the light does your advertising, but the crisp copy keeps people coming back. It's a little like pitching in baseball: fast is good, crisp is good; on the edge is good; one bad move and you're out of the park.

    But it's not that the audience is hostile; on the contrary, they like the truth, they like to learn, they like to know about your life, they even like to pitch in and comment on it. At their worst, they're impatient, shallow, unwilling to wait for you to say what you mean (this is also why they're good for Asian writers...). But this is hardly a detriment. Get an edge; join the community!

    Blogging can be dangerous

    It's easy to criticize, to unload, to be sarcastic, to undermine, to get revenge. It's dangerous too. The working world is high-pressured; the truth isn't always pretty; lying is slander. Where does that leave you? In the past you had to be pretty serious to go to all the trouble to publish something in a newspaper, or to create your own; nowadays, unloading is as close to us as a touch of the "publish" button. The "MySpace" explosion (REF?) shows what can happen to weblogs in the hands of the young, the inexperienced, the victims of the pressure of being on the bottom in the world's hierarchy.

    The list of people fired because of their blogging is long and getting longer. The list of people who've been told to shut down their blogs is likewise long and growing longer. The list of companies that now have policies limiting blogging is long and growing longer. Welcome to the hegemony, man. Your purity is admirable. Too bad it doesn't always pay the bills.
    -Bryan S., 10-05, comment on Volokh Conspiracy

    One can also be the victim of people who literally hunt for the mistakes of one's past; having made these public, they are out there like dirty laundry on the line. There's always the possibility that they'll be used against you (see Moran); one always has to consider the various situations in the future in which one's enemies might go digging through your old papers just to get the dirt on you (this is known as "schadenblogging").

    Using weblogs changes the way you relate to the world

    It changes your sense of responsibility. You own the media. You are responsible to it, responsible to your audience. You try to put a positive spin on the things you do, knowing that you could write about them soon, judging what you could say and what you shouldn't. Ever aware of the dangers (above), you realize you are walking a fine line.

    One becomes interested in the visual nature of weblogs

    I've been thinking about this a lot, because so many weblogs start out in your typical blogger format, but some of the more resourceful people see how important the visuals are right away and exploit them. I'm behind the curve on this one: though I have lots of photos I could use, I actually use the wrong ones; I give conflicting messages, etc. I'm a beginner.

    There are a number of implications for teachers and the academic environment. Teachers may be quick to realize when they're being manipulated by an image; or, they may be more in tune with the words, etc. But everyone likes a good picture, a "look"...and there are some good "looks" out there.

    I've also been slow on the technological end of things. The average picture uploaded from a digital camera is way too large for most web purposes, yet this is what we need a constant running supply of: instant picture news. We actually have to run them through e-mail to make them smaller, but flickr has been a lifesaver too. The hardest thing is to organize this stuff when you're busy. But I've begun to see the weblogs as the center, rather than the static pages, and I've begun to organize accordingly.

    It's the image they'll remember the next day, and the next week and possibly for the rest of their lives.
    -Watson, quoted in Badger (2005)

    Here are some example of the power of visuals:

    Jason de Fillippo, technology: his blog hits you.
    Remember a rule of web design: one's impression of a site is dictated by what one has seen before, where one has been. What catches the eye is starkness, boldness. In this respect, one reason Google is the most popular site on the web is its lightness, it's ability to make bright color brighter.

    Several webloggers have followed in the path of Google. Simple, a lot of white, colorful, let the image(s) do the talking.

    Parking Lot, Chris Corrigan.

    I have to say that, though I've always been a graphic designer, I have yet to really use those skills in my own weblogs. But I point out these two very different styles to point out an enduring law of web design and graphic design: your view of a site is determined mostly by how it's different from where you've been. Thus people who reach out for a little individuality do very well. Weblogs have a look; they have a format in common; they have blogrolls on the side; they have a presentation. And, much like fruit, they have freshness, as opposed to staleness. The most recent date is like the skin of the fruit.

    One can do a lot of things with a weblog

    One can quickly notice the many uses of weblogs: one can complain, criticize, persuade in the political arena, share information, spread rumors, promote oneself, etc. I've partaken in some of these, especially self-promotion, but I've also found them useful in some unusual ways. First, I find that if I challenge myself in them, I often live up to the challenges- so they are useful in tentative self-actualization...and very empowering in that way. Second, as a scattered person, it's good to keep track of various projects that I have going...and weblogs serve as an online organizer.

    As a "multiblogger" (Hornsby 2004) who speaks in different realms, I find that the truth is often boring but stretching it is dangerous. This is true in every realm, in self-promotion, in esl, and here. Just like the print media...

    Examples abound of creative uses of weblogs (Leverett 2005b). First, your blogger "edit-post" supply cabinet is full of drawers that you can reorganize at any time, and this can be very useful to you when you aren't ready to show the world all your thoughts right away (like now) you can treat it like your own accordion file which you can access when you are ready, and make public ready when you are ready to point to it. And the rest of the time, the world will leave you alone, because it's not the top post (which is always being read by the surfers/blogbots, etc.).

    Sometimes I want a blog for all my moods and all my interests, one for each, one for my political self even, just so I can vent whenever I want. But I already feel guilty about the blogs that I've put out there that are like dead branches on a tree. One part of me wants to go out there and "delete" all my past lapses in judgement and bad poetry. In one sense blogs are like gardens: you shouldn't plant more than you can weed or hoe, you shouldn't let them go to flower and overflow year after year. Haiku has taught me to be spare, put out there what you need, make it sharp, powerful, put it right down the pike. And then, if you're not using or enjoying it, change it or get rid of it. Then at least it'll sit there and look interesting for a little while...

    Blogging can change your relations with your fellow professionals

    In October, Daniel Drezner was denied tenure at the Univ. of Chicago, and an article in the Chicago Tribune (Johnson 2005) considered whether this was due to his active and public blogging. An interesting range of opinions were expressed over the issue; the article disturbed me because it implied that the interests of the weblogger as owner of a media outlet ran counter to the interests of the academy in preserving the established order. The idea that "the academy" was assuming that Drezner's communicating directly to his audience was somehow undermining or influencing, perhaps even trumping (or end-around-ing) his published work, was also disturbing, but obviously hit a nerve among fellow readers.

    But there is a real range of thought among faculty members about blogging. Some get it and some don't. Those who do tend to have blogs or want to start them. But there are many -- and they might not talk about it -- who don't understand the phenomenon. Some of these feel threatened by blogging or, perhaps, jealous of those who are getting attention -- unjustly! -- by blogging.
    -Ann Althouse, 10-05

    Weblogs and the researcher

    Much has been said about academia's tenuous relationship with weblogging. I have always found academia to be a little uneasy with frank open truthfulness, even though research at its heart goes after truth, seeks the science and the logic behind all human and other behavior, and isn't afraid to be proven wrong. In this sense weblogs have the capacity to profoundly change research; they help us discuss, air out, solicit comments internationally.

    Weblogging has strengthened my own professional thinking; it aerates it, forces me to think and talk about what I do professionally, and also evaluate it regularly and systematically. This is something I would have done in graduate school, was in fact taught to do regularly, but had somehow fallen out of the habit of doing, once family and other interests clouded the landscape. My interests in this case, beyond using weblogs in the academic ESL setting, involve a comprehensive explanation of human perception and language acquisition; to this end I have been using my weblog to get my ideas on paper, organize my thoughts, and solicit useful comments. On the first two of these fronts, it's been very useful; so far, however, I have very few readers.

    Linked Quotes

    Last week a Guardian/ICM poll showed that a third of 14 to 21-year-olds have their own online content, primarily in the form of a blog, and that a new blog is started every second.
    -C. Moran, 10-05

    The list of people fired because of their blogging is long and getting longer. The list of people who've been told to shut down their blogs is likewise long and growing longer. The list of companies that now have policies limiting blogging is long and growing longer. Welcome to the hegemony, man. Your purity is admirable. Too bad it doesn't always pay the bills.
    -Bryan S., 10-05, comment on Volokh Conspiracy

    Web lore abounds with tales of people being fired for blogging about their jobs, but it seems to be an especially touchy issue in the academy, bound by both tradition and a tendency to discredit work done in the public sphere.
    -S. Johnson, 10-05


    Badger, M. (2005). Visual Blogs. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Accessed 11-05.

    Hornsby, R. (2004). Multiblogging. Accessed 11-05.

    Johnson, S. (2005, Oct. 14). Did blogging doom prof's shot at tenure? Chicago Tribune online (login req'd).,1,r734374.column?ctrack=1&cset=true. Accessed 10-05.

    Leverett, T. (2005a, Mar.). One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum, from Teaching teachers to use weblogs, TESOL 2005, San Antonio TX.

    Leverett, T. (2005b, Nov.). Eighty things to do with your weblog. CESL Teachers weblog. Accessed 2-06.

    Moran, C. (2005, Oct. 11). Is it truly a sin to Schadenblog? Times Online, U.K.,,10655-1819524,00.html. Accessed 2-06.

    This paper is part of a larger paper which is listed here:
    Daring to enter the blogosphere - Homepage, Resources

    This is your program: this is your program on weblogs - weblogs in an intensive English program

    This is your class: this is your class on weblogs - weblogs in esl/efl classes

    This is your brain: this is your brain on weblogs - weblogs and the individual teacher/academic

    Weblogs in ESL/EFL - Bibliography
    Ongoing weblog for this and other presentations

    This is your program: This is your program on weblogs

    Daring to enter
    the blogosphere

    This site is presented as part of a paper, presented at TESOL 2006, Tampa FL, USA, by Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, C'dale IL 62901-4518 USA. The resources and links relevant to this paper come from the main weblog of this presentation.

    This is your program:
    This is your program on weblogs

    Today as I talk to you, articles are appearing everywhere about the use of weblogs in education (see Sharos 2006 for an example). In the primary schools they've caught on in a big way, because teachers are always trying to get students excited about things and get them learning about and connected to the outside world. As a result, small and isolated classes are reaching out and contacting classes in other countries, having extended conversations through the weblogs, etc. In ESL, contact with the outside world is no longer an issue; our students are in constant contact, both with Americans and with their hometowns and hometown friends. The argument that we make is that this, then, is the appropriate environment for them to learn what they came to learn. It's already a given that weblogs are organized in reverse chronology; that weblogs are free; that there are billions of them; that many of them are abrasive, or political, or mundane; that linking is part of the picture, etc. We have to explain this stuff to teachers, sometimes, but not students, generally.

    Before our program started using weblogs in August 2004, it had a newsletter, which was written by a lower-level class, and higher-level writing students showed their writing in portfolios, which were notebooks full of pretty essays stapled and sometimes with cover pages. The portfolio notebooks would appear at an end-of-term exhibit where sometimes some people would glance at them, particularly the director, the writing coordinator, or students of lower levels who wanted to know what kind of work they would be doing. Now those people go onto the web, as entire portfolios are there: they can read an entire research paper, and they can read fun articles, about life, that are meant to entertain other students, as the newsletter is on the web also, compiled from the weblogs that the students uploaded the articles onto.

    Thus weblogs serve to showcase students' academic work, and also entertain us and serve as a permanent electronic repository of interesting writing about the world around us. They give outsiders a view of what we read and talk about, at any time they please. But most important, they allow international students, tentative visitors to this culture, a voice that is real, heard and responded to, at the place where it is published. If people don't like what they say, or like it, they can let them know in the comments. Weblogs provide a real and dynamic audience for most of what we write, and serve as a venue for an ongoing conversation.

    Making everything public has had profound implications for all the classes, some of which this paper will document; it has had implications for the teaching, for the marketing of the program, for the allocation of our time, for everything. We have weblogs for each class; each student and each teacher is asked to have a weblog. Alumni have a weblog; students have a collective one, and teachers have another. There are poetry weblogs, weblogs about making foreign-language webpages, and weblogs for groups of students from various universities who visit our program as a group. Slowly the process of making them and making them look good is working its way into our curriculum as we simply require students to present their work online and make it look good. They rarely question the value of learning to use the new medium. Using macs and blogger means that we have to learn some code and we have some translation problems with students who have pc?s at home, but this has always been an issue in our mac lab, and learning code has not proven to be difficult for anyone except an occasional teacher.

    We started putting things on weblogs for many reasons, not all shared by everyone. First, I have faith in the concept of real audience, and really believe that our students have something worth saying. For example, our fifteen research papers documenting the Wal-Mart controversy are probably the most objective things written about it on the web, since the overopinionated tend to be all over the place, yet our students studied it, linked to it, and wrote careful opinions that spanned the political spectrum. In effect they had a dialogue with each other (as a sidelight, none of them can go to Wal-Mart with an idle mind again) - and, our class page serves as a kind of clearinghouse for this conversation. In addition, it has links to Wal-Marts in Japan and Thailand, articles about capitalism, etc. But my point is that, having spent time to make legal, well-written and timely papers, they now can enjoy the fact that those papers are being read and are influencing people's decisions.

    Second, we believed in transparency. It's kind of a challenge to every company - can you really show everyone what you do and how you do it, or is it a trade secret? In our case, we were proud of it...let's put aside the conversation about how much line-editing a writing teacher should be required to do, as we've had that conversation at SIUC also; and just say that, if papers appear in all forms, from unedited to beautiful, that shows the process, and people understand if some students don't follow the process all the way; they understand if a weblog is, at the time they see it, a work in progress. We are proud of what we do, and we were willing to take a chance that it would stay good.

    In noticing that the world is more connected now, you can also notice that the forces of nature are pulling us toward this connected world, and making us realize that we will all be using these connected media sooner rather than later. It is no secret to our students that they will be needing these skills (Leverett 2006). Finally, we were in a marketing bind: we depend on the university for our marketing, but they weren't doing any; we were in a post-9/11 enrollment crunch which is thankfully gone, but we were looking for ways to get our name out there, get our web lit up a little, get People ask if their writing has improved from the use of weblogs, and I think it has; I think they learn better from seeing other students' work than from seeing a textbook or any formal explanation. Thus a body of students' work is extremely useful even if it is on a different subject; of special use to them, I think, is work of students from the same country who have been on their path before. One good thing about weblogs is that you can see not only what shows (a link) but also how it was made (the code), since we all have access to one community logon and password. Thus when one student learns a trick, such as using colored font or scrolling text, frequently others learn it quickly and do it themselves, in a kind of fashion movement. It's all there in a big show and tell.

    Reasons for using weblogs in some or part of a program

    These are from Teaching teachers to use and teach with weblogs:

    Weblogs have revolutionized communication for a good reason. They are vibrant, personal, immediate, multidimensional, visual, and appealing to the young. We should prepare people to communicate in the medium of the future.

    Weblogs can always be changed and updated; they empower their users. Students can publish, republish, improve, rewrite, perfect, and be proud of their ongoing progress.

    Weblogs give students personal yet public space to show pictures, present themselves in English, provide links to their home worlds, and show their character in ways that "flat" paper writing cannot give them.

    Weblogs give students the opportunity to learn important skills of manipulating technology: uploading and downloading picture files, adding links, integrating music, video, scrolling, etc.

    Weblogs offer the ultimate audience: young, hip, no expectations, interested in what people are saying, willing to overlook grammatical errors, willing to comment and/or interact if moved. Yet the blogosphere itself is so huge, so overwhelming, that there is at the same time some comfort in being part of a movement so massive that it offers some anonymity.

    In a world in which manipulating technology becomes increasingly important, having meaningful things to say and an important place to have it read offers a sense of control that will encourage the learner to navigate and use the new media.

    To these I would add a number of others, given our experience and our present perspective.

    First, weblogs, at least in the writing curriculum, have changed the way we look at plagiarism. Our work is now geared toward publication, and plagiarism is therefore much less abstract to us, and the stakes are higher. While the copying of pictures and such is an issue throughout the weblog world, the fact that almost every paper that I have graded in several years is still publicly available makes me a little more vigilant in my desire to teach thoroughly the concept of plagarism, and root out one word at a time, every violation.

    Second, I often surf through our world of weblogs and realize that I know more about our students now than I used to. Since each of them has a personal spot on the web, with some representation of themselves, although it may only be a response assignment in a class, this is more information than I used to have. More often, I have links, profile, a number of assignments, and an informal history displayed by a series of assignments, shown from most recent going on down backwards. This personal history could provide rich data if I were doing research, but sometimes I just want to know: how long has this student been here? How long have they been online? What is their writing like? The weblogs have made us more connected; in some cases, I'm connected to their friends, or their home countries, or other places on the web that they'd have us see.

    Uses of weblogs in the educational setting

    Though we, as most others, started out asking how weblogs could enhance or improve our program, I've come to be influenced by other perspectives that made me wonder why it took so long for us to at least explore other media. For example, O'Donnell (2005) says:

    Although there has been some wonderfully innovative uses of blogging by both journalists and educators I believe that the media and the academy as institutions are still asking the wrong questions about this phenomenon. The standard questions are most often posed in terms of productivity: how can this technology enable us to do what we already do but more efficiently? How can we reach more people? How can we encourage more discussion?...I believe we will only unleash the full practical potential of blogging when we pay due attention to its place in this complex field of new communicative practices. We need to look at blogging, not as an isolated phenomenon, but as part of a broad palette of ³cybercultural² practices, which provide us with both new ways of doing and new ways of thinking. (pp. 2-3)

    As we now have a couple of years of weblogging behind us, we are beginning to get a better overview of what can be done, and what we should be doing to improve our presentation. They do, after all, represent our program on a daily basis, and the system consists of a number of defunct weblogs that still collect comments (usually from spammers) and are even read occasionally. The second part of this paper describes some of the class uses of weblogs, while third spends some time on the phenomenon from a personal point of view. The vast majority of our weblogs branch off, in one way or another, from our main student weblog, but we also know that both students and teachers have branched off and started some of their own that are more or less "off the radar."

    We primarily use them to build community (by making our newsletter from the work in the class weblogs), and as portfolios of written work in the higher levels (personal work goes in personal portfolios), but we've also had successful group weblogs, and different groups related to CESL have begun starting and using them.

    Weblogs and the powers that be

    I have no idea what the dean, the provost, or the chancellor think about our weblogs, though I know that our director is, thankfully, all in favor of them. I've also been in the local newspaper (Shepherd, 2006), and for that was included in the dean's writeup of successes in the department, so I know that they are at least aware of them. But whether anyone up there actually read any of them, or even cast a wary eye in our direction, I don't know yet. In general, the awareness of the great importance of the web in general has increased dramatically; ironically, at the same time the university has moved to control the static web and what appears on it, the bulk of both student and teacher writing has moved off of it and onto the weblogs.

    We are considered brave by some, to put our program out in public, to show so much of what we do, and it is in fact brave. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and somebody has to actually be there to do this vigilance; for the moment, I do much of it for our program and our writers. The list of things that can and do go wrong is endless; the primary difference between weblogs and the print media is that publishing is instantaneous in the electronic world, so that sometimes mistakes can go a while, published and seen by everyone, before the appropriate editors can see it and point out that this is, really, unacceptable or untrue. And maybe the damage is already done. China and a number of other countries have already seen the difficulty of controlling the media and have moved to just have it outright banned, if not controlled in some other way; weblogs put our sense of freedom of speech to its ultimate test.

    The comments themselves have shown an interesting reaction to what we do; the vast majority are comment spammers, but quite a few have reacted to the content of what students have said. One vowed to corrupt their innocent minds before he dropped spam-porn; that I've erased or at least hidden. But one time a group of students wrote serious mini-essays about the gay marriage controversy and got right in the middle of some very serious culture wars. Another weblog that attracted a lot of comments was one that mentioned a number of cities that the students in that group were visiting. My reaction in general to these is, that's ok, our students are grownups and can handle unwanted advances. They can make comments invisible, get rid of them, or ignore them. In general, they like them, even the comment spammers.

    Let's get back to the risk.

    It seems clear that although blogging can and does have a significant and worthwhile educational impact, this impact does not come automatically and does not come without risks. As many writers have noted, writing a weblog appears in the first instance to be a form of publishing, but as time goes by, blogging resembles more and more a conversation. And for a conversation to be successful, it must be given a purpose and it must remain, for the most part, unconstrained. (Downes, 2004)

    My sense is that the institution in general would probably be more worried about a well-done deception (several of these have been well-documented)...than a disagreeable opinion. After all, they are used to the various degrees of inflammatory disagreement with their policies, and have even come to expect them.

    It's interesting, however, to speculate about the prospect of actually teaching people from all over the world to expect to be able to own the media, to communicate with anyone at any time; to go back and change anything at any time; to even be trusted with the key to the entire system.

    One of my students was shocked the other day that everyone had the log-on and the password to our entire system. That's a fact, at least at the moment. But I think we forget the fact that, really, the whole world has freedom of speech anyway. It's just that people don't always realize the consequences of certain speech until it's too late. Or, as with weblogs, they have to learn the hard way.

    Downes, S. (2004, Sept.-Oct.). Educational Blogging . EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 5, 14-26. Accessed 3-06.
    Guardian (2006). How blogs can make the link.,,1682538,00.html. Accessed 3-06.

    Leach, J. (2006). A teacher's guide to blogging. The Guardian.,16926,1682441,00.html. Accessed 3-06.

    Leverett, T. (2006). Survey on blogs and chat. tom leverett weblog. Accessed 3-06.

    Leverett, T. (2005). One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum, from Leverett, T. and Montgomerie, J., Teaching teachers to use weblogs, Internet Fair presentation, TESOL 2005, San Antonio TX.

    O'Donnell, M. (2005) Blogging as pedagogic practice: artefact and ecology. Accessed 3-06.

    Sharos, D. (2006, Mar. 13). Blogs taking a seat in, out of classroom. Chicago Tribune (log-in req'd).,1,6691250.story?ctrack=1&cset=true. Accessed 3-06.

    Shepherd, M. (2006, Jan. 8). Everyone's talking about blogs: Locals jump onto the weblog bandwagon. Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale IL, Life Section.

    This paper is part of a larger paper which is listed here:
    Daring to enter the blogosphere - Homepage, Resources

    This is your program: this is your program on weblogs - weblogs in an intensive English program

    This is your class: this is your class on weblogs - weblogs in esl/efl classes

    This is your brain: this is your brain on weblogs - weblogs and the individual teacher/academic

    Weblogs in ESL/EFL - Bibliography

    Ongoing weblog for this and other presentations

    This is your class: this is your class on weblogs (p. 2)

    Daring to enter
    the blogosphere

    This site is presented as part of a paper, presented at TESOL 2006, Tampa FL, USA, by Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, C'dale IL 62901-4518 USA. The resources and links relevant to this paper come from the main weblog of this presentation.

    This is your class:
    this is your class on weblogs (p. 2)

    [Return to p. 1]

    High-level writing classes: Portfolios and fun writing

    For this high-level class, I try to separate out the serious writing and the fun writing. I ask them to put the serious stuff (the portfolio) on their own weblog. My reasoning is that if they want a more fun weblog they can always just start another one, or add fun stuff to their serious portfolio. Besides, and I tell them this frequently, I don't care what else you put on that weblog, as long as you put your academic papers on there, and they look good.

    I now teach them to link all the references, double space between paragraphs, and identify the portfolio as being a set of papers for a writing class. I have them put their abstracts on the class weblogs and point them to their research papers, which are on their own weblogs; and (last challenge), point them to the particular post of their paper, rather than just to the weblog itself (about 1/4 get this far, but I could follow through better). Linking the reference is the hard part, because on the blogger/mac interface it requires learning some basic html; it is clear to me that many have never learned this, and sometimes look at me like I'm from outer space when I expect them to. When we first started out, we had undergraduate assistants to help us with that, but now the system works by itself, and students teach each other, much like they teach each other how to study for certain quizzes or how to use spell-check.

    You can look at their portflolios and learn quite a bit about their relationships both to their perceived English-speaking world and the technology that they've become a part of. Again, some master the art of personal expression better than others. Here's one I like:

    Awni has a history of taking pictures from other sites without proper identification, but it's partly because he was fluent in the technology long before he was fluent in the cultural norms of picture-sharing. And he definitely showed how he could link to teachers, friends, and home places!

    Moon was unusual in that she continued to write after she returned home. This is relatively rare, but it shows the use of weblogs for more social purposes.

    Mayumi Iguchi (Aug.-Oct. 2004) shows the development of portfolios; she was one of the first to learn how to present herself well. She was an early model for the others.

    Daniel Rosa shows the white-on-black style: popular with students. He has also begun to use his weblog in his academic classes.

    Luciana Mottola (Jan.-Mar. 2005), an ardent borrower of pictures.

    Daniel Amato, Lehigh Univ. TESL program, 2004; a portfolio of an MA TESOL student. This portfolio was shared by Timothy Bonner on a tesl-l post.

    In term 061 (Jan. - Mar. 2006) students did Wal-Mart as a social issue (stemming from a possible new SuperCenter between Carbondale and Murphysboro); we learned about health insurance, women's rights, Wal-Mart and unions, etc. The fifteen research papers linked (for the most part) from the abstracts in the class page reflect a variety of opinions, as they should, since I am not really interested in inflicting mine on them. I am in fact proud of the range, since I have demonstrated that they are comfortable enough to express their true feelings on the subject. As an interesting sidelight, we have what is probably a very thorough and objective picture of the issue, just by virtue of having such a range, and having linked to so many interesting sources. It's a collection of perspectives on the issue that is comprehensive in its own right.

    In term 056 (Oct.-Dec. 2005) we did environmental problems of the New York City area. To see these portfolios, click on any of the names in the template under 055. You'll be surprised by how much material they each actually get up in their own weblogs...They write it on paper, I line-edit it, they go back and upload, then they look at the weblog and fix it. Sometimes I print the weblogs and show them the problem on paper. They aren't perfect. These portfolios are works in progress. Many also are putting their papers on the class weblog, in misunderstanding of the assignment- (formal papers on the portfolios, fun stuff on the class weblog)....I'm patient with this kind of error. It doesn't hurt us to have the weblog in a state of the end, it's better for the student to move stuff around, put it where it belongs, than for me to do it.

    Here is an example of what I consider a model portfolio (for our program, considering what we do at the highest level). Angelica writes about the black market in endangered species. She links her references and puts spaces between paragraphs (I already know that the papers have been line-edited, though not always perfectly). She borrows a picture and gives credit to the photographer. She agreed to let me show her portfolio. Nice!

    Showing the world

    One of the scary things for the teacher is the fear that one is not teaching exactly what the standard "summary-response," "argumentative essay" is, let alone the "standard APA". This I would imagine would come back to haunt me if in fact I'm miles off; there is no doubt that there is disagreement in the field about what writing formats best prepare the student for academic work. I can't honestly say that the fear of having my students publish what I "believe" is correct made me any more diligent in tracking down what the standards are, out there, at this moment. I think that at some point you have to just take what you know and go with it. In our program we gave up assignments like "Cause-effect essay" and "compare-contrast essay" in favor of "summary-response" essays leading to a research paper. But what do I know about these, having been out of school for a while? I find myself saying to myself: "I've been teaching for many years...if my version isn't good enough for the world, that's their problem..." but I think it does make grow in you a greater curiosity...what's out there? How do my standards measure up? Am I teaching the right way? What do other writing portfolios look like? Is a "Summary-Response" different a few states over?

    Even APA changes so rapidly as to be forcing us teachers to take a stand as to how certain references appear. As a line-editor, I should probably be more up on this. We are, after all, showing the world a lot of APA; we are even setting a standard, by pure volume alone, if nothing else. And later students are always looking at earlier ones to see how it was done... It should at least be close to right....

    For example, we have this problem of what to do when there is no author listed...and when APA (apparently) says put the title first in the reference...but we also teach in-text citation, and have encountered many who advocate putting the organization of the author in the authro's slot there (makes citation easier)...I realize that whatever I teach, whatever I do, I'm putting it out on display. People could consider my students "untaught"...or worse, "improperly taught..." it's the chance I take. I'm not losing sleep over it. But I realize it's a major stumbling block for some. And, what you put up there, generally stays up there.

    In the end, though, I like having them public, even when they are imperfect. They are a body of work; students have tried hard, succeeded at using the medium, and achieved academic expression. Why should they not be public?

    Newstalk group projects The idea of these projects was to get students out talking to people in Carbondale about issues that were entirely local. One summer a violent deer was attacking people outside our building. Our students went to the web; read several articles; comapered notes; decided who they wanted to talk to; did interviews; came back and wrote up their experiences on a group weblog. These project weblogs still stand as very interesting compilations of work on a single subject. One, about Wal-Mart, was a forerunner of the research papers mentioned above. Another explored Carbondale Halloween violence. Still another was about smoking laws.

    Students in general showed a little more creativity when they worked as groups. There is the problem of one student remaining as webmaster long after the others are gone; I don't know the answer to this.

    After they're gone

    Students are free to delete their entire blog the minute they leave. They very rarely do, though. It is also very rare that they actually use them for anything else once they're gone; they usually struggle with their academic classes and have very little time to do any "journalling"...but some do. Those that do are the ones that are fluent enough to do what they want, but still able to look back at their English program and see that this process is very interesting and accessible....


    Elkins, J. (2000). Lawyer as Writer: Peter Elbow on Writing. Accessed 11-05.

    Glogoff, S. (2005). Instructional blogging: Promoting interactivity, student-centered learning, and peer input. Innovate: journal of online education. Nova Southeastern University. Accessed 2-06.

    Lowe, C. & Williams, T. (2004). Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the writing classroom. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Accessed 2-06.

    Nelson, M. W. (1991). At the Point of Need. Heinemann, available at NetStores USA.

    O'Donnell, M. (2005) Blogging as pedagogic practice: artefact and ecology. Accessed 3-06.

    Seimens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. elearnspace. Accessed 2-06.

    This paper is part of a larger paper which is listed here:
    Daring to enter the blogosphere - Homepage, Resources

    This is your program: this is your program on weblogs - weblogs in an intensive English program

    This is your class: this is your class on weblogs - weblogs in esl/efl classes

    This is your brain: this is your brain on weblogs - weblogs and the individual teacher/academic

    Weblogs in ESL/EFL - Bibliography

    Ongoing weblog for this and other presentations

    This is your class: This is your class on weblogs (p. 1)

    Daring to enter
    the blogosphere

    This site is presented as part of a paper, to be presented at TESOL 2006, Tampa FL, USA, by Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, C'dale IL 62901-4518 USA. The resources and links relevant to this paper come from the main weblog of this presentation or the homepage of the entire paper.

    This is your class:
    This is your class on weblogs (p. 1)

    [ p. 2 ]

    The first adjustment you make as a teacher when you put a class and its work on weblogs is that whatever you do with the class, you orient the class toward their relationship with the public, as opposed to their relationship to you the teacher (a private reader) or their relationship to their grade. You engage them in being and owning the media, and in starting a dialogue with the public, although in some cases this may for all intents and purposes be comment spammers most of the time. This orientation shift has a dramatic effect on the teacher's relationship with the student, which is often adversarial in a subtle way; I've found, through working with drama also, that whenever a teacher can be on the student's side in facing the adversarial cruel harsh world, that this helps to lower the affective filter within the class itself; it also keeps the big picture in focus. In general, I find it better to put the real world in the classroom from the start, rather than to set up a falsely comforting environment that then is so different from the real world that the student can't apply his or her skills when going from class to real world.

    In our program, a teacher has many choices: to post no assignments, post some, or post all; to get involved or stay aloof. Every class has its own weblog; every student is asked to start his/her own, though some manage to avoid it at the lower levels. Teachers can use both the class weblogs and the student weblogs in a number of ways; they can ask students to put posts on either or both.

    Whether this has improved the overall writing in the program is hard to measure, though we have other objectives to using them as well. It has made much more of the writing public. We can all just go online and see what was done earlier, see what others have done, see how certain people handled certain assignments (the assignments do tend to be repeated). Assignments and papers become public record.

    It has been said that the weblog straddles a line between the personal/intimate and the public forum. They are personal journals; even the most casual observer can see this personal nature fairly quickly. We use them for other things: to present academic work in portfolios (see page 2), to build community and share what we can of each other (these are the two most common in our program); but perhaps the best thing about them is that they allow each of us to show something personal about ourselves...all the time. They date our work; they archive our progress; they become an online who's who.

    Our students are from all over, many countries, so it's nice that we have a realm, a place, where we are made equal, or at least have the same templates to choose from. We almost all use Blogger, for better or worse; though we've tried others, those attempts were mired in problems with systems that were less than intuitive to beginners and lower-level students (Blogger beats others in this area, believe it or not). We have other problems due to using Blogger: we have to start the weblogs on Safari...we have to learn some code to make links...but overall we've had a good experience.

    Technological issues

    Naturally, students come into the program with a wide range of abilities and experience with computers. We strongly feel that it's important that they learn some basic computer fluency (see below), but we also try to remember that we are not a computer program, we're an English program. They should not be punished because they have trouble typing or have trouble uploading or fixing what they've uploaded. We loosen up on that end of it and just help each other a lot. Sometimes the students know more about it than the teachers- they're better connected; they find things more quickly on the web; they can fix frozen computers, etc. This can be tough on teachers, who are used to having mastered virtually every other environment they've worked in (the blackboard, thw written paper, etc.) Those who enter this realm can't be too proud; things change too quicklly to ever master any of it, anyway!

    More recently a problem has affected the way some Blogger sites appear on the IE/mac combination that we rely heavily on; these sites are flattened out and centered, and lose their templates to the bottom. I can only assume that it's part of what has been called a deliberate incompatability strategy, taken by the big players, to drive each other out of business. It's working. We're switching to Safari consistently now, where we are free of this problem at least for the moment. I don't know where the problem came from, or why it occurred, but I expect more of it; it seems to have become a regular part of an industry where the bullying of monopolies is a major marketing strategy.

    Lately I've been busy with two different kinds of classes, so I'll demonstrate how I use weblogs with each. This is not an exhaustive overview, but because I've been involved in these kinds of classes for a while, these accounts represent evolved assignments and experiences; hopefully they'll be useful.

    Intermediate reading/listening (Core) class

    The first is a lower level (intermediate, actually) reading/listening class where I'd actually like to develop their conversational fluency, their ability to recognize and relate to basic English on the web...and to basic things they hear and see in their environment. My goal is for them to be able to use any medium: speaking, writing, reading, or browsing the web, to get information that they want. I'd like them to be able to evaluate what they see or hear, though I don't demand critical analysis. And I'd like them to be able to talk about it; not just repeat what they've read, but add something to the discussion.

    My tactics with such a class, which I've used with some success several times, are:

    1. make sure the regular reading-listening class goes through a variety of interesting and discussion-starting topics. I rely on the textbook, of course, to do this, and also bring in side readings when I suspect that a tangent might be fruitful. What I'm looking for is a spark in their eyes, that tells me there's a kernel of interest there, something they want to know more about.

    2. give them a choice. I say, we are going to do a weblog project that involves looking around a little and then coming back and telling the class (and the program) what you found, on the you're going to look into something, but you have to help me decide what. And they choose. I put them into two or three groups. This term they are doing paparazzi and rumors/political weblogs. Look at the assignment: I've kept it simple. Get into the computer and start looking around. I stress that I'm not teaching formal writing here...when they write their paragraphs, I'm not going to grade grammar, structure, etc.

    My hope, of course, is that they'll follow some links. Look at their classmates' assignments. Fish around a little. Sometimes in the lab I get behind them, look at the tentative way they forage around hoping to find something to relate to (usually they're well aware that I'm back there, does that change their behavior??) I'm interested in how much of anything they read and whether they believe anything they read. What do they like? How do they find what they like? Often I have them describe the site they found, rather than just the information they were looking for (which they would copy, generally, anyway, unless I insist they don't).

    3. They write paragraphs about what they found and what they think of it. We (I) line-edit the paragraphs before we (they) put them up. They have a right to know that what they are publishing is at least acceptable grammatically, appropriate, etc. They have a right to some of the control needed to ensure that they don't face dire consequences (slander, etc.)...

    4. I teach them how to link systematically. I want them all to know how to do it and do it as much as they want. On mac/IE this entails learning some html; this is usually not a problem for students. Some have absolutely no clue about weblogs when they get to the program but pick it up from friends, as they do with a lot of what happens in class...the ones who don't have same-language friends have to pick it up from me or from somewhere else, but in English, which means they become fluent faster, at least in these most urgent areas.

    5. Next project, just like the first. Only this time I make them go out and talk to a few people before they start writing on the weblog. On the second one they write a little about what they've read on the web, but write a little more about who they talked to and what that person or those people said. Scroll down for projects on Carbondale Halloween, alternative lifestyles, and web design (that one may be back in the summer)...

    In this class I've had several memorable projects. We have gone mostly where the students' interest and curiosity has taken us. Here are a few:

    Celebrity weblogs (scroll down): Go into them and report what celebrities say about themselves.

    Also this month: Web marketing: Is it true that certain colors have associations for people? Is brown a better color to package a tour to a place like Italy, for example? (July 2005)

    Paparazzi: Are there other opinions about them besides the one expressed by the movie (basically, that they are immoral scum)...?

    Carbondale Halloween and its accompanying violence: also, alternative lifestyles (Oct. 2005)

    Socialization and Folk Tales (Oct. 2004)

    Media fluency and weblogs: Getting students involved

    Part of my philosophy is that it is important for the student to just feel what it is like to click through a weblog environment, have the power to linger or move on, and begin the process of searching out, reading as much as necessary, and making personal comments about what they've read. They become part of the new media, in English, and I help them through the process. They notice what they like and doubtless go back when they have time, and explore more.

    In this sense I have been influenced by connectivism (Siemens, 2004), who explained that in the modern world being connected, knowing how to find things, is more important than what you actually know.
    Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.
    I consider part of our goal to be to make the student more able to evaluate information in an online environment; if they can begin to do this with things they like, in English, I have succeeded to that degree. I agree with O'Donnell:

    One of the aims of using blogs in educational settings must actually be about the process itself. In the same way that one of the aims of encouraging good essay writing is to assist students to develop expressive skills that they can then apply in a range of different ways in professional or personal contexts, one of the aims of blogging ought to be to encourage cyber-literacy and an understanding of the ecology of the link in a networked society. (p.10)

    Learning English is a process of becoming more comfortable with one's voice; in this respect, I've been influenced by Peter Elbow, who argued that some basic fluency in conversation is necessary for the student to get started; that good writing arises from conversational fluency and confidence in one's own voice. I see media fluency as related in the sense that through working in the medium, students become more confident, more able to express themselves. Since all writing is ultimately to an audience, to the ultimate audience, we might as well lead them there and help them serve it up. The conversation that is held in public is at least adequate preparation for a lifetime of public conversation, as opposed to a private exchange between teacher and student that prepares them only for the next teacher that is as close to them as I have become (there may never be another). Generally, the world beyond our program is scarier, more hostile than ours; I at least feel that I have, by raising the stakes and making their writing public, defined fluency as conversing publicly.

    It takes a while for the sense of reflection to set in, for them to realize that others are viewing their site in the same way they are viewing others. Then it takes a while longer for them to actually start changing their sites accordingly. Some, of course, are onto it right away; they've already gotten used to the medium, perhaps, in their own languages.


    You will see that some of these entries are line-edited more thoroughly than others. There were terms when I did not collect paragraphs or entries before they were posted; I hoped to line-edit them afterwards, or line-edit them on the printed weblog and let the student go back through "edit-post" and fix it. This did not always happen according to plan.

    Sometimes I prefer the unedited versions, because they are more raw and frank, but I remind myself of my goals: help the student say what he/she wanted to say; stick as close to their meaning as I can; give them options whenever possible; if they have overstepped the bounds of appropriateness, let them know how and what reactions they can expect. After many years of this I am often confident enough that I can just change things if it is really too late and they are gone. However I'd always rather they do it, since that alone is a learning process and invests them in the appearance as it goes out. I devalue the grammar/appearance even as I know that others value it highly, including the student, but that's because lowering the affective filter puts me on their side against a hostile audience and allows learning at a better pace. I still believe that the more of this kind of editing they notice the more likely I can make positive changes in their grammatical system, though I can't expect those changes to appear immediately, nor can I always even be sure they understand the reason for those changes. But my own experience with language learning is: people learn the right way by being corrected. Occasionally it registers and they are ready for that step in their learning process. Line-editing, therefore, is effective, whether you can see it at every turn or not.

    In my grammatical theory I am influenced by Marie Wilson Nelson (1991), who argued in her book "At the Point of Need" that students learned grammar at the point at which they actually needed a structure for a real-life situation. Following this logic one of the points of teaching is to set up situations where students urgently need to communicate something important that they are invested in. You thus set up the environment where it matters whether they get grammar right because their own meaning is bound up in the way it appears.

    The newsletter which now appears online appeared in print form for many years; students of a single class took on as a project writing it, printing it, etc. Many programs are familiar with displaying student work and having close friends, relatives back home, lab workers and those around us, read about their lives; however, the online version brings a number of changes to the traditional format. Though I used the same set of steps to ensure that we were writing things that students were invested in, I have a different perspective now, because I know that what ends up on the web stays there and has a lot of importance in the freewheeling world of Google, Yahoo, and the international student alone at the keyboard. Our assignments have become livelier; they usually include links and the awareness of links; the final product is often linked to a variety of interesting places; and the prevailing awareness of "connectedness" influences everything.

    Showing off the final product

    I make a point to brag about what my classes are doing on my own professional weblog, which gets a lot more traffic, and as a result, I often can keep track to a mild degree of what has worked and what has not. Generally if my students are interested in a topic, other young people are also, and people are generally interested in hearing or reading of what a variety of young people think about any given topic. So these collections on the class weblogs get a lot of reading. They are much closer to the informal nature of the blogosphere than are, say, portfolios.

    The students generally like the comment-spammers. They like it when anyone reads their weblogs, and the comment-spammers always say nice stuff, insincere as it may be. But other people pop in and say interesting things too. Their friends use the comments a lot. And you never know what people will say. That's part of the fun of it.

    [Page two: Portfolios, group projects, bibliography]
    This paper is part of a larger paper which is listed here:
    Daring to enter the blogosphere - Homepage, Resources

    This is your program: this is your program on weblogs - weblogs in an intensive English program

    This is your class: this is your class on weblogs - weblogs in esl/efl classes

    This is your brain: this is your brain on weblogs - weblogs and the individual teacher/academic

    Weblogs in ESL/EFL - Bibliography

    Ongoing weblog for this and other presentations