December 20, 2004

Against the division of academic and social blogging

Follow-up to Selling Warwick Blogs to Warwick from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Quick answer to Dan: opinion is divided as to whether there should be a formal division between academic and social blogging. But there are some strong arguments against it.

Firstly, here's a sweeping generalisation: people from the sciences and engineering have a more clear division between work and socialising. Is that because they work in spaces that are more formally designated as working spaces: the lab? Whereas people from the Arts do much of their work in spaces that accomodate both social and working activity. For some people, blogging is about recording and reflecting upon real-time events, which for people from Arts, may combine work and social. In fact they may not even concieve of a strong difference between the two. In the distant past, when Kieran and I first thought about the combination of social and academic in a single blog, I think we decided that forcing an artificial division on people would be wrong. Instead, they are left to make the distinctions themselves, if they want a distinction. The method through which they can make that distinction is categorisation, and if they so wish, also permissions control. Categorisation is not perfect, but it does allow for social and academic blogging to happen together in combination. A single entry may record the social and the academic aspects of an event, even when that event is more academic oriented. But as I said, this approach leaves it up to the individual.

A second, and perhaps more pressing requirement is this: we want undergraduates to develop confidence in their abilities to write about what they are doing, and implicitly, to become more confident about what they are doing. Confidence is a big issue for first years. We do not expect them to start writing academically sophisticated blog entries right away. If they can write cogent accounts of their university experience in general, then that would be good. If they then include some details of their academic activities within those more general entries, that would be better. If they go on to writing accounts of their academic activities, that would be superb. The PDP people at Warwick, whose job is to work out ways to improve personal student development, have seen blogging as a means of encouraging students to develop a joined-up whole person view of life at Warwick, and to make the transition to thinking and speaking confidently about their academic and social activities together. Forcing them to see the world as divided between academic and social activities may work against this.

- 4 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. There is no difference, conceptually or in practice. The only issues are (a) understanding how to blog and what it can involve and providel (b) whether there is a readership, group and "purpose" that makes people feel they want to blog. Innate ability, interest, confidence, motivation (including all kinds of external and internal incentives and rewards), learning from exemplars, debates and discussions, and so on all lead to infinitely various individual an group expression.

    "Academic" or subject-specific blogs (by academic, students or anyone else) are no more "valuable" or "worthwhile" than any other kind, but their absence from a blog system based of membership of a university community is a serious deficiency. A question therefore does arise about blogging by academic staff, and about the intellectual milieux that might allow more people to explore ideas and responses to various kinds of evidence, as well as give voice to subjective experience.

    If the question is one of navigation, then favourites usually provides all one needs to quickly get to the kind of blogs one wants to read, and favourites reciprocity the basis of creating groups of mutually interested readers, repliers, topic initiators, etc.

    20 Dec 2004, 10:35

  2. I think that 'academic' blogging possibly has much in common with the use of a discussion forum, in that there needs to be a focus or some preliminary boundary within which a discussion can build up. Some people may not be worried and discover the boundaries as they go along, but others 'lurk' ( a term I dislike) and need to feel a little more sure of where their comments and entries are broadcast into. There is some research interest in the use of discussion boards , amongst which I recall the idea that P/G students are more likely to find their own boundaries and use discussion tools in a wide-ranging way. U/G uses , and guidelines drawn from Gilly Salmon's work at the OU etc., advocate structuring the time span of the discussion, the scope/ purpose, use of the tools for assessment and the need for ground-rules.
    I guess that detailed academic discussion is situated in academic communities and there needs to be a certain level of shared language before further ( new or particular) distinctions can be made. The aspects of a blog that go beyond discussion boards ( links, visual content, mapping) make it more important to be able to have a shared interest in ideas and language. Knowledge Management means one thing within the Computer Science community and another in Organisational Behavior, these two communities might discuss ideas but there is a lot of 'noise' as the labels are used for two different areas of knowledge which both use the label 'KM'.

    Academic use needs fostering. I have a course with about 140 students which started in week 2, I suggested using blogs in week 12. I have 12 students on the course with a blog and only one so far with a category relevant to the course. I am about to give instructions of how to get to a course view of students' blogs on my.wbs. Only now are students becoming familiar with my.wbs (many who take the course have not used it before) in week 13, I don't have any way of generating an email list of those registered for the course. So it is not easy to do any encouraging. I need to be careful that Lecture and seminar times are used to get across concepts key to the subject and not lose students by pioneering IT, with 140 students confusion can quickly creep in.

    In addition the course has two groups of students IB317 and IB 212. I'm not sure that the blogs would be viewable as one course. In summary somewhere/how I would like to be able to generate an email list for course members. I would be able to give supporting details through an email that would not disturb the management of a sequence of handouts , lectures, seminars for a course.
    I don't think that I would make the distinction separating academic / personal use these are not distinct poles- but to achieve full personal-academic blogging for a large number of students does need 'tailored' help.

    20 Jan 2005, 17:01

  3. Robert O'Toole

    Hi Christine. Thanks for the comment. I'll try to deal with the points that you raise as they represent some of the key issues that have formed our e-learning architecture, as well as some of the developments that we would like to see happening.

    Firstly, a point that is more oriented towards Forums: that discussions need to be guided and structured. This is definitely proven. In fact we clearly understand and communicate to anyone using Forums in teaching that they will need to do a lot of planning and e-moderating (Gilly's term) to make a forum work. It really is difficult, and required special skills and sensibilities, as well as some kind of genuine need on the part of the students that motivates them to participate and keep participating. In many non distance-learning situations, it just isn't worthwhile.

    And this is where blogs step in. The success of a blog is less dependent upon co-operative work. Bloggers can develop their ideas in their own time and space, not necesarily dependent on or responsive to others. They have a greater sense of ownership and control than they would in a Forum, which is a shared activity with lots of dependencies.

    That is a good theory, but as I think you have identified, we also need to find ways of 'guiding' that independent blogging, and ensuring that it happens in a context and in a community. The blog collections and the directory meet that need in part, but we do need a lot more. So we are investigating the integration of blogs with other systems. Here's a couple of things that might help:

    1) blog forms – you can put a structured blog form onto a page. You can specify the category, title, permissions, relatedurl, and format, so that when the student fills the form in, they get a blog entry that is set up in a specific way;

    2) blog collections lists – i've written a web service that allows you to embed a custome defined list of 'latest entries' from a set of blogs, categories specified, and even filtered so that only entries containing titles with specified keywords appear.

    I'll post some links to examples soon. The E-learning Advisor Team can assist you with using these tools and tailoring them to your situation.

    20 Jan 2005, 17:31

  4. Robert O'Toole

    And the links:

    Plain embedded blog form

    Blog form with learning objectives

    Radio buttons blog form

    Meeting template blog form

    Custom embedded collections lists example

    20 Jan 2005, 17:36

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