Internet & Web

Instructional Strategies for Blogging

Developing 'Individual Learning Voice'

Developing an Individual Learning Voice in Blogging


Developing individual learning voice using WebLogs (Blogs): 

satement categories and instructional strategies

by Ruth Reynard, Ph.D.




Introduction

This paper is a continuation of studies I wrote about in an earlier paper regarding finding individual learning voice through blogging. Since I have continued to use blogging in my instruction and studied its value to the learning process, I felt that a follow-up paper might be helpful for those interested in this topic. My comments and observations in this paper come from the continuous use of blogging with graduate education students over a period of two and one half years. This is neither an exhaustive study nor a fully developed quantified analysis. It is, however, a look at how blogging has been used and perceived by the students with whom I have worked over this period of time. In my last paper, I suggested:

Instructors need time to evaluate the importance of self-reflection as a methodological approach in learning as well as the value of integrating personal voice in the learning context. Otherwise the exercise will be perceived as futile to the students (Reynard, 2005).

Since writing that paper, I have focused on the actual use of blogs over a longer period of time and evaluated what students were saying about their own learning through their posted statements. I found certain trends in the statements, which I refer to as "categories", and a frequency of use that seems to demonstrate a strong connectedness with the student's processing of course material and new ideas. 


Statement categories

While the notion of "finding individual voice" is not new to the learning process, new technology such as blogging has presented a unique opportunity for teachers and students to work intentionally at this process. The notion of individual voice, however, is difficult to manage and evaluate. How individual is a comment? How personalized is the voice of the student? Are students aware of a developing voice? Does this voice raise the confidence of the student in the learning process? Do students perceive the blogging process as helpful or just another task/assignment? These are all useful and interesting questions, however, patterns and trends can only be evaluated over time as the answer to any or all of these questions are as diverse and unique as the students who blog. My analysis has been done mainly through evaluating the actual statements made by students in their blogs as a way to examine the usefulness to their learning. This was done by de-constructed the responses (statements) into several categories of individual response. Student response statements really cover a wide variety of "types" which reflect the instructional goals of the courses. That is, when developing individual voice throughout a learning process, each stage of that process is often reflected in the students' comments. I have described each of these that I have noticed into the following categories:

1. Reflective statements 

2. Commentary statements

3. New idea statements

4. Application statements

The order in which I have listed these is not indicative of the flow from one to the next; rather, it indicates that a flow does take place. In a general sense, however, while individual reflective statements run throughout blog posts from the beginning of a course to the end, the new idea and application statements tend to come nearer the conclusion of the course when course materials have been read and interaction has taken place regularly with other students and with me, the instructor. In other words, they are the learning outcome of the process. This linear progression is not always the case, which again is the strength of this technology. Often students are non-linear in their processing of material. Regardless, these categories can still be recognized.


Here are some samples taken from student posts that capture each of the categories (all reprinted with the permission of the students but only as they remain anonymous:

Individual reflection samples:

o I am still at a standstill about certain issues presented in the class

o I am very aware of those issues in education

o A little surprising to me; but gives me more to think about.

o I realize, more and more, how polarized many of the positions are.

I feel some authors, or some scholarly writings, use this to their advantage to promote their point of view.

o I see this as a strange paradigm

o I had mixed reactions as I read this chapter.

o I am just questioning what those roles should be…

Commentary statements samples:

o While researching information for my position paper, I also see

o I think that I am seeing that Dr. Reynard doesn't necessarily agree or disagree with her statements, she just makes a lot of them to see what we think…

o I feel this is what makes the topics such a "hot-bed" of discussions. And, since it can become a heated discussion, I feel this is one reason why, many times, people do not freely discuss their differences of opinion or differences between programs.

o Our school is in a very rural setting with what would be considered virtually no contact with those of differing cultures.

o I have read and reread and pondered all that I have read about cultural diversity and how it is manifested in our lives and in the world around us. 

New idea statement samples:

o I have learned that because students come from different cultures, learning about their culture allows you to connect with who they are and where they come from…

o I see it all the time now; my consciousness has been raised…


o I gained a new respect for the importance of the three points made above [student's own points]. I hope to always take time to internalize information that it may lead to a transformation in my life.

o My struggle this year has been how to have students to be genuine in their thoughts of race and gender. How we view people on those two things. I notice that I tend to be harder on boys than the girls and I think that realizing that can help me to make conscious decisions on how to not do that. 

o I have decided to research the effects of racism on the academic achievement of minority students in an educational setting.

Application statement samples:

o In order for students to learn about different cultures, including the cultures of their own classmates, a teacher fosters their learning by providing them with culturally diverse opportunities within/without the classroom.

o There are three points that I consider being most important to my role as a public educator and proponent of democracy drawn from [the text]…

o It does, however, cause some apprehensions when applied to education. Educational decisions should be based on the application of knowledge from sound research. I'm not certain this is always possible or even probable when…

o Parental involvement is key to successful schools according to [the text]. Parental involvement has increased in the eight years I've been at my current school, yet we still have far to go.


Once I established these statement categories, I could find samples more easily through the work of students in their blogs. As a result, the following is a percentage breakdown of the statements overall I calculated after reading through the course blogs (over the 2-year period):

? Self-reflection (25%) – although often this leads to the other stages so should not be graded as a separate category

? Learning commentary (55%)

? New ideas (10%)

? Application of learning (10%)


While the learning commentary statements are the most frequent, this does not disconnect them from any of the other categories, nor do they take place necessarily before or after the other categories. It seems, however, that students enjoy analyzing course content and making those connections for themselves. Additionally, the self-reflection takes place throughout the course and helps to facilitate the other statement categories. Many students, however, struggle with the idea of self-reflection which may be a reason for the most attention being given to the commentary statements. It should be noted, however, that the students in my courses tend to be adult students and these designations and percentages may differ with student age or course content. For example, younger students may not struggle to the same degree with self-disclosure given the increase in blogging activity for younger-aged people. Also, it should be considered that the courses I teach address educators already working in their field of practice. With undergraduate students and without considerable experience in a profession, the application of learning may be a smaller percentage of frequency.




Strategies to effectively integrate blogging in course instruction


Instructional design

Blogging must be integrated early in the course design and must be clearly connected to the course outcomes before it can become anything more than just an extra task for the students (Reynard, 2005).


It is vital that blogging is purposefully designed into the course. That is, students need to clearly understand through the course syllabus, the purpose of blogging throughout the course. Additionally, the time to complete the course blog should coincide with the final exam at the end of the course. That will mean that students are more likely to continue blogging throughout the course and take time to do the reading and various other assignments before completing the blog. This, in turn, means that the students will find it more helpful to their learning process and ultimately in the summarizing of the course in their minds and the application of key points to real-life. In other words, if the blog is clearly integrated into the course design, it should facilitate the entire learning process. 


Integrated use

Blogging should not be perceived by students as an additional task or an assignment that sits outside the main flow of the course. Students should be encouraged to view their blogging as their personal learning space through the course that connects everything together and make sense of the various aspects of the course such as projects, research, and writing. This will mean that as students interact with course material, interact with each other, interact with the instructor and the wider academic or professional field relevant to the course of study, their blogs should be evolving throughout. The instructor should be able to see the individual learning path of each student through their blog progress, which in turn, will provide the instructor with a better understanding of the learning needs of each student. This allows the instructor to provide effective and direct intervention for each student when needed. This is particularly helpful in processing abstract concepts for analysis.


Grading value

Grading does seem to motivate the students, but it seems to be more effective to grade according to effort in relevancy to course content and outcomes than simply on numbers of submissions (Reynard, 2005).


Whatever type of grading you choose for the blog (self-, peer-, or instructor-reviewed), it should be clearly communicated and explained to the students and it should be equally distributed through the blog statement response. That is, if critical thinking is one of the learning outcomes of the course, then critical thinking statements that appear in the blogs should be valued and students should be encouraged to see the value of their blog work. Additionally, if self-reflection is key to the process, then that should be valued in the grading and so on.


Maximizing published work

One student's comments to me about the blogging experience are relevant here:

"The blog helped me to "print" my ideas rather than just think them."

It is helpful if instructors focus students from the beginning of the course on the "published" environment of their blog. That is, they should take care to construct their thoughts coherently and contextually for others to read. If students struggle with the idea of the blog being "public" to the Internet, then the class should at least create a blog ring of their project group(s) and subscribe to each other's blogs. This will still provide a sense of a wider audience and achieve the same results. Peer review here helps with that sense of added publication value.


Summary

Blogs can be used effectively to develop individual learning voice for students but as an instructional tool, they must be intentionally designed into the course and clearly valued throughout the course to ensure student motivation and participation. 

Ongoing challenges: 

1. Problems with technology can develop if sufficient time is not given (preferably during the first class meeting) or through adequate online tutorial regarding the set-up steps and publishing functions of a blog site. If students feel confused or ill-prepared for the task, this will seriously diminish their productivity through blogging during the course.

2. Students can get stuck on "I am not a journaler" mentality so that the instructor must work hard to define blogging for the course and dialogue with students as to its usefulness in their learning process.

3. Participation may be sporadic rather than continuous throughout the course. Therefore, instructors are challenged throughout a course to stimulate students towards their blogs and to comment back to students' posts in their blogs. If the instructor remains current and consistent, it is more likely that students will be too.


Therefore, it requires a commitment from the instructor as well as the student if the result is to be effective. Simply to have students set up their blog at the beginning of a course without ongoing support and encouragement from the instructor will diminish the effectiveness. Additionally throughout the course, the instructor should draw attention to connections with blog entries and/or identify possible blog moments in the course discussion and interaction.


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