Saturday, January 15, 2011

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

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