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Living in Parallel Worlds: Blogs and Course Management Systems

During the closing plenary session at the Syllabus Conference last July in San Jose, I made a comment about the software I was using to create and maintain my Weblog or blog. I was struck by the questions and comments my brief remark generated. A few years ago, mentioning blogging software would have caused a faint ripple of recognition in the audience. However, it seems clear that blogging is coming to the academy.

Before turning our attention to the blog in the academic setting, it’s important to provide a basic definition. A Weblog or blog is a site that contains the personal thoughts of the blogger. Sometimes the blog is an online journal or diary, but, in other cases, the blog might be news digests or topical commentary. Blogs typically include links to other sites, as well as an opportunity for others to comment on the author’s posts. The concept of a Weblog g'es back to the opening days of the World Wide Web, while the labeling of the activity is a relatively recent occurrence. During the past few years, a significant number of software products, many at little or no cost, have been released to make blogging an easy, non-technical process with virtually instantaneous publishing to the Web.

While blogging remains a largely personal activity, increasingly, blogs are entering the academy. One can find thousands of academic-related blogs across educational institutions from K-12 to professional schools.

Instructors are actively exploring ways to integrate blogging activities into the academic experience. Early on, faculty used blogging software to add student logs and portfolios to the class assignments. For example, at the beginning of a term, students were provided a personal blog space. During the term, students then added their personal reflections. These postings might be initiated by the student or assigned by the faculty. At the end of the term, students have a well-developed Web identity.

Weblogs are an effective way for students to collaborate on class projects. They find it easy to collaborate in this environment, and the faculty can provide expert guidance and focus to these collaborations as the process evolves. There are numerous examples of blogs that capture research notes and references. Finally, a number of institutions have added courses on blogging to the curriculum. Several journalism programs now teach blogging as an emerging form of journalism.

Because blogging tools are so easy to use, faculty and students are developing new ways to utilize the technology daily. It is now easy for faculty to use a blog for classroom management, such as a class Web page, or the posting of assignments.

Educational Weblogs are helping the faculty learn more about using blogs in the classroom. This form of Peer-to-Peer collaboration provides best practices, opportunities to expand collaborations, information on emerging trends and Weblog trends. Still, other blogs comment on the tools of online education.

Clearly Weblogs are growing rapidly outside the Course Management Systems found on so many campuses. Blogging tools focus on making it easy to create and maintain personal blogs that exists as individual Web pages or Web sites. While some blogging tools categorize themselves as content management systems, that is a description of the internals of the software, not the result seen by users.

This means that the typical Weblog sits outside the Course Management System and is not a part of the CMS environment. This is an interesting situation. With the abundance of blogs used in the classroom, and others discussing all manner of instructional design and technologies, it is striking how little integration there is between blogs and CMS environments.

There are few examples of Weblogs being integrated into Course Management Systems. Typically, however, these solutions retain the blogging software and use CMS pointers to make the blog appear within the CMS.

The apparent high level of satisfaction with the features and functionality of blogging software is driving the explosive growth of blogging. Many would argue that the functional nature of Weblogs and the ease which personal content is created is more important than integration with the campus CMS. However, this means that Weblogs, especially those used for student created content, are outside the CMS.

This essentially places the academic blog in a parallel world to the CMS. As the desire to capture student work for class assessment builds, we may reach a time where we need to build the bridges between two important technologies. When these bridges are built, we should be mindful of the key factors that are driving the explosion of blogs, ease of use and promotion of self-expression.

We would like to hear your thoughts on this issue. Do you have examples of effective Weblog integration with your CMS? Should blogging remain outside of the CMS? Do you have an example of a great use of Weblogs within your teaching environment? Help us start a discussion on the role of Weblogs in the academy.

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