Thursday, January 13, 2011

Weblogs happen: stuff happens on weblogs

Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration

The following was written in preparation for TESOL 2007 in Seattle: Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration. Demonstration, Writing IS, CC 3B, Sat. Mar. 24, 10:30-11:15. It appeared at until 2010 and was restored here in 2011. The homepage for this presentation now is here.

Weblogs happen: stuff happens on weblogs

A brief tour of CESL weblogs will show that I don't always practice what I preach, nor do I successfully teach other teachers to practice what I preach. I do the best I can; I visualize goals, and I try to reach them. I consider all weblogs works in progress, including this document; although, chances are, I will leave it virtually untouched, after the TESOL presentation, I will also, if I spot a problem with it later, either fix or delete the problem. The changeable, temporal nature of weblogs is what gives them a large advantage over the print media, and what makes some get better over time, while others sink into the archives of history. And in fact, a shrewd observer will notice that in the weblog community, a post that is a big hit will be linked to a lot, and this will cause the author to be more hesitant about changing or fixing it, since he/she is conscious of the fact that it is being referenced and linked to. For our program and our students, there are several unspoken but still well-known maxims. One is that, though students are expected to learn basic formatting conventions, often they don't, and work that they put on class weblogs may be formatted later. It may also be edited or changed slightly, without affecting the meaning; this may be considered unethical by some, but has never to my knowledge been objected to by a student (see skill through correction, #2); lately we've become less self-conscious about blatant ungrammaticality on class weblogs, and have let these things slip. It is, after all, a picture of a class's work, and it is a picture in time, an incomplete picture, a picture in which the teacher's red ink pen is missing. Over time, this becomes data to the acquisition researcher, but only if it is clear that no correction is made; in the same way, it is an embarrassment to both the student and the teacher, to the student because it is blatantly imperfect, and published forever; to the teacher, because it represents work not finished, not completed, yet published anyway.

A harder question is how to deal with profanity, inappropriate content, plagiarism, or image trafficking on the class weblogs. Here again, you'll see that our weblogs are works in progress. We can and do delete comments and work that is offensive, inappropriate, or plagiarized. But we don't catch it all right away; sometimes it remains indefinitely as a student's experiment, conscious or unconscious, with crossing the line of appropriacy and seeing how long it takes before someone notices. There are a number of good stories to be told to illuminate this point, but these are best left off of this permanent document. It is best put this way: True freedom of speech is a precious thing, and is frequently a shock to the person who is experiencing it for the first time; it's powerful, and one may not know immediately how to handle it. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance (I have lost the reference to this quote, but the author is carved into Mt. Rushmore, I believe).

How do I plagiarize thee? Let me count the ways

A far more serious problem is plagiarism, since at this low level they have very little confidence in their own ability to make sentences that make sense (a well-justified self-doubt, in some cases), but are quite able and willing to copy and paste parts of what they've read, and in fact come from cultures and communities where this is quite common (Leverett 2006d). It is at this level that I can most eagerly and forcefully stamp out plagiarism, for it is generally easily recognizable, and the informal nature of the assignment does not change our general cultural taboo against copying, or the consequences, further up in the academic food-chain, of ignoring them. At the higher levels one can announce to the class that plagiarism will not be tolerated, and they'll understand it pretty quickly, but the lower level classes have a much harder time understanding it, and have to receive a few zeroes on their assignments sometimes, before it truly sinks in.

I have come to believe that the greatest sources of this common form of plagiarism are the following. First, they lack confidence (above); their estimation of the difficulty of the assignment exceeds their estimation of their own ability to produce what is expected to get a good grade on their own, and they believe that someone else has said it better than they possibly could. Second, learning at a low level involves a lot of copying, in general; they are in the habit; they have been taught to cooperate and collaborate (Wagstaff 2007). When they look at a limited piece of English text, it does not occur to them that the same information could appear in a different form, could be reported in their own words, without copying; they just feel that it's important, and that, in talking about the subject, they must convey that information somehow. So, they copy and paste it!

Other factors include the fact that other cultures view copying differently than we do, and, students tend to put off assignments until the last possible moment. These reasons are common to all esl/efl writing assignments (see Internet Plagiarism). There is nothing particular about this assignment that attracts it, except that the student must be at the computer while completing it. The student is generally familiar with copy/paste as a way of constructing some assignments. And, the student has little concept of how seriously it is taken, or of how easily it is spotted by the veteran teacher.

One factor on my side is simply the fact that the assignment asks them to tell about the site itself, rather than the content; that is, whatever they have said about the topic (which they can get from various sources), if they have said nothing about the site itself, they've said nothing. Or at least, they haven't completed the assignment successfully.

Swiper no swiping: Image trafficking

Lately I've had a number of these low-level students produce pictures on our class weblogs, on their assignments, much as the cat might bring in a mouse from outside, and produce it on the living room floor, a gift for the family. I use this analogy because, as host of the class weblog, it is a gift that makes me uncomfortable, but it is meant in only the best intentions by the givers, who, painfully aware of their own linguistic weakness, are still eager to show that they're not bad at using Google images and the copy/paste skills mentioned above. What to do? They do spice up the weblog, make it more interesting, complement the writing, and in general add positively to the feel of the weblog. On the negative side, this kind of activity is definitely stealing, unintentional or not, and is likely to be seen as such by the artist/photographer, if they should find out.

I mention this for several reasons. First, their ability and willingness to do this is often an indication that in general their technological fluency surpasses their English fluency; the former may in fact be being used to compensate for the latter. Second, the teacher must have an active pre-planned strategy for dealing with this; looking back on my term, I can clearly say that this problem snuck up on me, as I didn't have such a strategy, and a critical mass of students had the skills to doctor up the weblog very quickly. The hard part of the situation is that the pictures they choose (often gotten innocently from Google image search, which does state that the pictures may be protected, but does not actively prevent anyone from using them) are often well-chosen, visually appealing, and attractive to their classmates when they go into the weblog to read each other's work. Thus, it is often difficult for the teacher, or responsible party, to take them down.*

Nevertheless, I can say this: there are free pictures out there; students can be pointed to them and invited to use them. Also, they can be taught to ask permission and give credit. And finally, we as a class are not exploiting the pictures, are not making money from the use of them; therefore, the price of letting it go, as a teacher, should be seen more in terms of teaching them poor internet habits, than as leaving the class and school as liable for being sued by irate artists and their agents.

Vacuous opinions

One cannot blame the student for having virtually nothing to say; for being like a deer in headlights, when faced with the task of giving a clear opinion in a new language. It is a daunting task for all of us, even in our native language. I like to give the option of being neutral in an argument, pointing out that something is "interesting," or just saying (when faced with a huge issue of the day, such as gay marriage) that it sure is different from what happens in my country. Students are not required to have a strong, forceful or polarized opinion.

It is disappointing, however, and also somewhat common, to have students say basically nothing, repeatedly, for as long as they can get away with it. I detested the length requirement (5-7 sentences), but found that, if I did not charge points for not doing the entire assignment, I would be faced with 1-2 sentences, not once, but repeatedly, and worse, they often said nothing beyond that it was interesting. I did not really want to grade "interesting;" I was hoping for fluency; I was getting a reverse process, turtles going back into their shells.

The length requirement solved the problem to some degree. It is much harder to say nothing and back it up than to just find something you have an opinion on, and many of my students are now choosing the latter, though they remain fairly conservative and cautious. I cannot blame them for this; I know that many people actually read what they write!

*In our case, the class page is like a wiki; everyone has the password, and for us to remove the pictures after they've been uploaded is probably far more difficult it would be if we had simply put adequate controls on the posting in the first place. We don't suffer from much conscious abuse of the class pages by our own students, but the image problem is vexing, if only because students generally don't understand what is happening or why we would want to remove them, after the fact.


Leverett, T. (2006a, Aug.). This is your class on weblogs. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication.

Leverett, T. (2006b, Aug.). Three ways to integrate weblogging into your writing classes. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication.

Leverett, T. (2006c). Daring to enter the blogosphere. Prog. Admin. IS, Paper, TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL, Mar.

Leverett, T. (2006d). Internet plagiarism, CALL-IS discussion, TESOL 2006, Tampa FL. Accessed 3-07.

Leverett, T. and Montgomerie, J. (2005). Teaching teachers to use weblogs, Internet Fair, CALL-IS, TESOL 2005, San Antonio, March.

Wagstaff, J. (2007, Mar. 8). Plagiarising students, or wiki-style collaboration? Loosewire blog. Accessed 3-07.

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