Falling out of love ...

I used to love blogs. I thought they were going to be the Next Great Thing to introduce in the classroom. After three semesters, however, blogs are losing their lustre. Students are confused by them, unable to write, paralyzed with fear of blogging, or they are already light years ahead of the class with their own LiveJournals which have all the bells and whistles.

I have discovered that my honeymoon with blogs is over, mostly because there really is no room for spirited interaction between my students and myself in the blogs. Yes, I can require that they respond to another person's blog, but one student said that, compared to a discussion forum, leaving responses to blogs felt more like leaving a note for someone who is out. The discussion forum, she said, felt more like an ongoing conversation which was more fun.

Don't get me wrong; blogging is still a great tool, especially for undisciplined writers like myself who need to have a place to unload professional brainstorming, personal issues and general whining, and threads of ideas for creative ventures. Who knows? Perhaps the Great American Novel might emerge? I won't hold my breath. But the space is personal. And just for pure laziness, blogs allow me to avoid the semi-weekly task of having to cart home 100 little journal notebooks . I'm sure I will still use blogs in some form or another but I'm out scouting for the Next Big Thing in Composition.


Alas, there you go with the emperor's new clothes. Not blogs, not wikis, not CMSs (even the pre-packaged, proprietary ones like BlackBoard) have ever managed to overshadow what you say about blogs above, that "Students are confused by them, unable, to write...or they are already light years ahead."

There's a really simple truth we need to remain aware of: while we might be proud tech-heads, geeks and hackers, our students typically aren't. Their primary interactions with computers involve logging into a hotmail account, using AOL IM, or playing EverQuest. Blogging, negotiating a wiki interface, or trying to grok the labyrinthine and user-hostile guts of Blackboard or WebCT don't make writing easier, more interesting, or compelling; it puts students in a position of having to negotiate a series of unpleasant & alienating hurdles in order to accomplish a task they could probably do without anyway. Is it any wonder their writing in these contexts is, frequently, disappointingly pro-forma and uninspired?

I get it, though. I really do. There are things blogs/wikis/webcollabs are great at (abolishing the pile of notebooks is just one). Making writing more appealing is not one of them. Making writing automagically effortless and satisfying are not on the list. I'm both increasingly weary and wary of the unreflective tech-boosterism that says the next rhetorical benchmark is just one rpm file away. For students who've barely ever put fingers to keyboard (community college teachers, in particular, have seen this), the terminal is not a conduit into more substantive communication with their peers, their teacher, their world; it's a window they can't see through, controlled by an abstruse and obnoxiously complex codes of construction, operation, and gatekeeping.

I wish it seemed as though as many people talked about the fundamental limitations of technology in rhetoric as blog about the newest wiki package or Movable Type update.

I am having the same trouble. My fourth year students are not loving the class blog. The have had problems being added as members, hotmail dumps blogger emails into the spam box, and sometimes they can't see various comments depending on the browser (or even computer) they are using. I was surprised that they prefer WebCT (I hate it). One student asked me why he had to enter a post rather than make a comment in response to my post. I tried to explain the reasoning behind this blog - the hopes for communication and so forth - but they didn't buy it. Not too sure if I will do this again - or maybe it is me and how I presented it - maybe they are not tech saavy. I don't know.
Someone commented on my own blog that blogs are personal diaries, and not conducive to group discussion. I don't think I agree, but regardless - I think I need to use a different approach to blogs in the classroom.

Yes, C. Worth, but we have to consider the advantages that hacking skills bring. People who can barely navigate HOTMAIL or is actually using AOL has a pretty serious problem. They are wide open for exploitation by any number of really nasty people. Meanwhile, people with superior computer skills have fantastic advantages. Imagine, for example, being stumped over a Calculus homework problem. In my day, I had a textbook, and if I couldn't figure the problem out from that....Now, there's the net--thousands of helpful sites, forums where I could have asked questions, free books and materials...! The only excuse I could have for not acing the class was just pure laziness.

I think we might as well face it: As important as building good essays are, knowing how to surf the net and use basic software is more important. It's not so critical that students know how to blog per se; it's critical that they learn such skills because they easily transfer to other problems they'll encounter.

In my practice, I can't separate computers from composition. To me, it'd be like trying to teach driver's ed with a horse and buggy. If I have to spend some class time instructing students how to use Microsoft Word's comment feature, for instance, I don't consider that a deviation from "what I'm supposed to be teaching," instead, I see it as teaching a writing and editing strategy.

If I had my way, I'd ensure that students got a healthy dose of computer skills in a separate class. Such a course need not be focused entirely on hands-on activity; there is plenty of theory and history here. I know some universities already require such courses, and I predict we'll see much more of it. It's really silly to expect students to already possess computer skills--but these things should be tested on the standardized SATs and ACTs. Students who need training should be required ot take the courses in computing, just as students who can't write are plopped into composition courses.

On the other hand, I rather enjoy teaching computer skills in my comp class, and I'd hate to have to give that up to some egghead that can't write. :-P

To respond more to the original post, though--

I really prefer discussion boards to blogs. I decided to use blogs exclusively in this course because they were so highy recommended, and I love to try new things. However, I don't have as much fun with blogs for the reasons you mention. I'd rather see students interacting with each other and with me in a forum. My former policy (which worked well) was to require students to write three 250-word posts a week. They could either start a new topic or respond to a previous topic (most chose to respond). Looking back, I should have asked them quote from previous messages in their follow-ups. I also had several boards setup for various topics; sports, politics, relationships, etc. I spent plenty of time in class talking about intelligent posts and gave plenty of examples. I also had a rating system so I could award stars to posts that were particularly excellent (students could also vote on each other's posts).

I also allowed students to blog if they'd prefer (my website, tikiwiki, features integrated blogs/wikis/forums). A few students took this route. There were something like 1 blogger for every 7 or 8 forum posters, though, to give you some idea of what the students preferred.

Probably the best strategy for using discussion boards would be split up the boards into distinct forums (I wouldn't be so frivilous next time with topics like "sports.") I'd post at least once a week in each forum with a reading assignment they were supposed to respond to (and include quotations from). Students would have to respond to one of these prompts per week, but could also start new topics or spin off a current one.

Even though I try hard to get students to respond to one another's blogs, I think students still feel that their blogs are somehow isolated and private, rather than public. I can see why. Besides, when you start really trying to use blogs to start discussions and communicate across blogs, they start to resemble discussion boards anyway. Why not just go with the boards and skip all the problems associated with blogs ?

What a relief to read this post. I used blogs in my intermediate-level writing class last quarter, and also had mixed results. In my students' blogging projects, they were required to become bloggers in the ways that most "real" bloggers do: pick a topic they care about, or no topic at all, and write.

I asked that they post weekly, but not on any set topic (as I've seen some people do in their blog assignments).

A few of the blogs, like this one, were visually outstanding. Others had both dynamic design and content. But others, like maybe this one, seemed mainly to function to pain the students.

It was mandated writing all over again, only now, since they were composing blogs, all the world could see their discomfort.

So now I'm also rethinking the use of blogs in my classes. Next quarter (a pedagogical methadone program to move myself away from blogs), I'm thinking about giving students an array of options for their quarter-long writing venture -- a blog, a LiveJournal account, or a printed 'zine -- then I'll develop assignments to explore the significance of materiality in the different technologies.

Sure, Matt--it'd be great if we had the leisure to take on issues of fundamental tech literacy. We don't, though. I can't hope to when an appreciable percentage can't type or mouse with any fluency. The inescapable fact remains that most students are at risk of being made cyberstooges to some spammer, Nigerian email scam artists, or phisherman. Yes, certainly, they should be armed against this, but most don't care, because they don't know to care.

Whatever our desires and action to the contrary, students will remain technophobic or, at best, techno-apathetic. When the tech becomes a seemingly arbitrary hurdle to just getting through a class they resent being placed in anyway--what, precisely, does the point become?

Whatever our desires and action to the contrary, students will remain technophobic or, at best, techno-apathetic. When the tech becomes a seemingly arbitrary hurdle to just getting through a class they resent being placed in anyway--what, precisely, does the point become?

Well, I think you're extending this a bit unfairly. There's not really much that ANY of us can do with students who hate school (and probably life as well). These students need a lot more help than I feel certified to provide. I've had some students arrive on day one with a severely piss-poor attitude, and, naturally enough, I was unable to do anything but flunk them. There are few teachers I admire more than those who can turn such people into active learners; I envy skills I do not (yet) possess.

I've had other students who lacked even basic computer skills, but guess what--they also lacked basic writing, reading, and study skills. They were completely unprepared for any type of higher education; they were the proverbial students about whom the question is asked, "How did they make it this far?"

Now, with students like THAT, yes, of course it's going to be hard to get them excited about blogging. For that matter, it's going to be a Herculean task to get them to care about anything other than their own little world and narrow self-interests.

Fortunately, I don't always end up with a class full of such people. True, I sometimes have suffered through it (as I'm sure any teacher has), but I wouldn't say that deadheads are the majority (though even a few can ruin a class that could have been wonderful). I usually end up with a pretty good mix of students who may hesitate using computers at first, but soon get the hang of it and end up loving it. Countless students have taken my 1101 class and then complained about another teacher's 1102 class; "He/she doesn't use the computer at all; we have to print everything out," etc. Countless students are bitter to the point of rudeness if their instructor doesn't take advantage of Blackboard. Still others laugh or snicker about professors who admit to being computer illiterate.

I really prefer discussion boards to blogs. [...] I'd rather see students interacting with each other and with me in a forum.

I've never been tempted to blog before this, much less try getting my students to do it. Like you, I much prefer discussion boards, primarily because of my experience with Usenet. I ran a discussion server quite successfully for six years before getting tired of the hassle, and I wouldn't be trying Wikis unless I had identified a trustworthy provider.

I only had brief encounters with USENET, but spent quite a lot of time on dial-up bulletin-board systems. I lived out in the boonies, so I joined a community of teen hackers who were hanging out on 1-800 BBS, most of whom were run by the state--SBA (Small Business Administration), DWIE (Drinking Water..?), DOE (Dept. of Energy). Most of these sites ran a BBS package called--WildCat, if memory serves me. Anyway, the sysops wouldn't list the chat options in the menu, but with a little experimentation you could get a list of people online and page them. Of course, most of the sysops would eventually figure out that their boring old BBS was a little busy; then they'd block out the features. I finally gave it up when I got a threat from AT&T about abuse of WATS lines or something like that; I was only 15.

Anyway, I love internet forums because of the democratic aspects. Although it's true that some moderators can be tyrannical (deleting posts they disagree with, locking threads, blocking users, etc) I've generally had a pretty good time. I've seen and participated in quite a few arguments of epic proportions; it's quite exciting to make a great post and then wait around for the next move.

I have never been very strongly drawn to blogs, though. They always strike me as a rather unwholesome celebration of one's ego. Most blogs I've had the misfortune of stumbling across were almost totally lacking in substance; it's simply excruciating to see just the horrifying effects of a severely bloated ego. I've waxed on the subject many times before.

The only blogs that I enjoy are either community blogs like this or Joe Moxley's excellent Writinblog (which are almost discussion boards anyway), or the very rare blog from some public intellectual I admire. Even these tend to be a tad vain and often poorly developed, though the exceptions are stirring enough to make up for most of the crap. I just have less than zero interest in reading about someone's day or the random thoughts they may have on whatever current events or reading material passes over their barcode scanner. The thought of reading their poetry--no, I can't go there, now. Bloggers abuse poetry far worse than the Vogons ever dreamed.

In short, blogs are the digital equivalent of a vanity press gone berserk.

Of course, blogs would be much better if bloggers would take Joe Moxley's excellent advice about blogs. Moxley is "The Man" when it comes to teaching students how to use blogs effectively.

Discussion boards can quickly get just as bad, though not the same kind of bad. A bad discussion board is one overflowing with newbies and, for lack of a better word, idiots who flood the board with near-incoherent babble, trite remarks, or attempts to be offensive. It's sad to see an intelligent and thoughtful forum community collapse underneath the pressure of a hundred teenage nincompoops foaming at the mouth over whatever irreverent subject fans their thoughtless passion. Once members of a forum community start disrespecting and abusing one another, it's all over.

Thankfully, we've managed to build and maintain quite an excellent community over at Armchair Arcade. I think part of the key is remaining--how did Aristotle put it--small enough to be a polis? We have about 20 or so folks who post pretty regularly and probably well over 200 lurkers (it's hard to judge). That's a pretty good stat, I'd say. If we were to start getting 100 new posts per day, the board would rapidly erode.

The sheer chaos of Usenet was a large part of its appeal for me. It was like a great big sandbox where I could hang out with flakes like me. I ran a much tighter ship on my personal WebBoard server. The students tended to behave very well on the open-access board. The invitation-only hidden board was populated mostly by recreational flamers, but in six years I never deleted a post or kicked anybody off. The only aggravation they caused me was when they wandered over to the open-access board to troll the students from time to time. On the other hand, some of the students responded to the trolls so cleverly that I brought them on to the hidden board.

I once tried to write an article about my experiences running a bulletin board, but it became boring very quickly.

I'm ambivalent; on the one hand, forced religion is no religion (how many of us are using Kairosnews because we have to?), and when teachers dump a technology onto a list of course requirements, without providing a rationale, then most students will be resentful (if there's enough motivation, on the other hand, students--like anyone else--can learn technology fairly quickly). In general, I agree with those who are questioning the unquestioning use of blogs.

But I don't think the personal expression mode of blogs is necessarily their best feature for teaching writing (blogs are more convenient than paper journals--for the teacher, not the student; the student can carry a paper notebook anywhere, easily make additions or corrections, share with friends who are aren't online, etc.). Blogs are, however, interesting in their social mode (as Matt points out, Kairosnews is a community site). Comments to the posts of another writer is a fairly clunky of creating dialog, as some have said, and a threaded message list or bulletin board might be better. But what about trackbacks? If student writers are saying something of significance for others, why shouldn't they want to find out who else is doing so, and create a link to / dialog with that blog? Then the trackbacked author can consider the trackbacker's post and contribute a new entry. This kind of interaction has the potential to transcend the sound-bite level of most comments and threaded messages.

I want to reply to you, shale, because both you and blacklily8 are hitting one of my points in response to the original post, but I have to go somewhere else first. . . .

It's funny to watch the relationships that writing teachers and other educators have with blogs. They fall in love with them because of the personal expression mode that is so popular and fits with what they like; but once the honeymoon is over, they tend to give up without considering the other uses and modes of blogging (mode definitely seems a good term here :).

To me, there are two useful modes for weblogs in education besides the personal one: km and community (social) modes. Clancy reminded me of knowledge management because of her recent post on CultureCat where she references Michael Angeles' work. I use weblogs as places for students to keep project logs and research notes, a convenient tool for them to keep up with everything and share it with others. In one sense, it is forced, but in another, they do come to see as it as an efficent means to manage and share their texts.

And like shale and blacklily8, I value the potential of weblogs to promote community interaction, but I do so without overly privileging the individual weblog as the only means to accomplish this. Consider what works best in discussion boards, and try applying it here. Blacklily8 noted in his experience with discussion boards that,

"My former policy (which worked well) was to require students to write three 250-word posts a week. They could either start a new topic or respond to a previous topic (most chose to respond)."

We can do the same with weblogs. Not everyone need be the poster of a new blog; the important thing is community interaction, and those who post comments are just as important as those who begin new threads of discussion. Some people like to stand up in front of a crowd and start a discussion; some only like to join in once the conversation has begun.

But we should also be careful to discriminate between how weblogs are different from discussion forums. I've heard plenty of criticism of community weblogs that they are nothing more than discussion forums. Well, it's all one big discussion forum--the Internet, that is :) But there are certain charactertistics of weblogs which make them different from discussion forums. For example,

  • Good discussion forum software "bumps" a forum topic back up to the top of the list. Weblog posts move down off the page regardless of popularity, forcing new posts to be the "hot" topics, quickly relegating old posts to inactive conversations. This has an effect on discourse. Visit Slashdot regularly, and you'll see that conversations are only hot for a day or two.
  • Discussion forums provide just titles in their listings; weblogs provide partial posts (well, except in the case of Blogger, which is why I find it an ineffective community weblog tool compared to other software). This necessarily effects the way that users are drawn to posts and choose to post comments.
  • Trackbacks enable those on other sites to easily enter the conversation locally.

I'm not necessarily advocating weblogs over discussion forums here. In fact, I have some opinions in which situations one is better than the other. But I do think that it's time for writing teachers to shed their infatuation with the personal, and start looking at weblogs from a wider perspective, and love them for all of what they are and can be, instead of holding on to romantic visions :)

TrackBack from Collin vs. Blog:

-new; and you know consequently a little stiff Couple of weeks ago, Clancy posted an inquiry about Cluetrain, whether anyone in the field was picking it up or not, and that question has been bouncing around in my head ever since. It came at a time where I was thinking about excerpting it for my class next semester, and at a time when I've been adding people like Hugh MacLeod to my aggregator (having already aggregated the Cluetrain principals). This morning, I came across an entry at Doc Searls's site, on the issue of branding, and that set me to thinking even more. (good set of followables there, that I won't simply repeat here) The gist of Doc's remarks is that there is an inverse relationship between company-sponsored or -encouraged blogging and the strength of that company's brand. In other words, companies that have a high-intensity brand (like Apple, e.g.) need to exercise a great deal of control over the information that leaves the company. Hence, they're not likely to be as blog-friendly, which would require a certain amount of relaxation of control over information flow. Normally, I'm not a huge fan of the corporate metaphor for education--I think it was Anne Balsamo who said once that education needs no metaphor--but in this case, I've been thinking about how compatible blogging will prove to be in composition classes. Actually, that's...

TrackBack from Open Artifact:

An interesting discussion in Kairosnews occurred when one educator wrote that he/she was no longer "in love" with blogs in his/her class. It is worth reading the entire article and comments. I found two points interesting.

In a followup post on ...

I thought of a cool way to engage the students with blogs and still have spirited discussion with them: have one blog dedicated to each class. I will post some comment/interesting article/prompt and students will be invited to respond to each entry. I guess I'm interested in this mainly for the purpose of observing discourse. Individual blogs would still be required, linked on the class blog page, and following Charlie Lowe's advice, would be for project logs, research notes, etc.

I'll give this a try next semester.

try blog discussion leaders. I do a lot of group work, so one approach has been to have each group responsible for posting to the class blog at a different time. Perhaps in response to an assigned reading, or a reading of their choosing. If class is on Wednesday, I would have each group member post a blog by noon on Tuesday. Then everyone, including those that posted originally, is repsonsible for posting so many comments by class time. This begins the conversation outside of class. As the teacher, I respond with just a few comments. Some directly to the original weblog. Some in response to a comment.

This is a similar model to what I have done with discussion boards, but I think blogs may facilitate this more because someone can scan the different posts, rather than just forum topics, and choose which to respond to.