Saturday, January 15, 2011

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

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