Saturday, January 15, 2011

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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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
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