Instructional Models for Using Weblogs In eLearning: Case Studies from a Hybrid and Virtual Course

During the past academic year, faculty members at the University of Arizona have integrated blogging into their courses. The courses have been offered either totally online or as hybrid instruction where students met in a traditional classroom environment but other coursework and communication occurred virtually. Blogs were used in conjunction with other instructional technology tools such as a learning management system, threaded discussion forums, e-mail, and chat rooms. At the end of the course, students completed surveys to assess their use of blogs for skills acquisition as well as their general acceptance of this technology. This article presents models for using blogs and offers recommendations for faculty who are considering using blogs in their courses.

Introduction

In recent years, the professional literature has been filled with calls for faculty to better engage students in learner-centered applications. Reports on the learning and behavioral tendencies of the Network Generation1 and most recently of the Millennials2 emphasize that these students have grown up in the information age with technology, and have developed skills, aptitudes and attitudes that differ from many faculty active in instruction. For example, the Millenials look to the Internet for information and are comfortable interacting online with their peers; they work collaboratively and thrive on interactivity; and they have an expectation of immediacy not just in problem-solving and knowledge acquisition but from their instructors as well. What pedagogical models might faculty design that cater to self-directed learners? A first step toward developing models of scholarship aligned to innovative teaching is to pilot approaches that blend technology with the skill sets being developed in core subject areas. As best practices are identified, they can be incorporated into revised pedagogical models.

Blogging and Instructional Techniques for eLearning

In their book eLearning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, Ruth Colvin-Clark and Richard E. Mayer identified three instructional techniques for eLearning:

  1. Receptive: information acquisition
  2. Directive: response strengthening
  3. Guided Discovery: knowledge construction3

The receptive technique emphasizes acquiring information and involves building instructional modules that open avenues to greater amounts of information while limiting application and experimentation. In contrast to this, the directive technique emphasizes frequent responses from learners with immediate feedback from the instructor. Guided discovery places the instructor in the role of expert who leads students toward solving real-life challenges and identifying the appropriate "conceptual codecs" to support student knowledge acquisition. Blogging is a simple technology that can be used to construct learning environments that fulfill these three instructional techniques.

The Hybrid Experience

Learning, Reading and Culture (LRC551) was taught as a hybrid course through the College of Education. LRC551, Reading, Writing and Text, addressed "readers and writers as users of language; reading and writing as language processes; and what makes a text a text." It drew students from the College of Education, Department of Linguistics, and a specialized program called Second Language Acquisition and Teaching (SLAT). SLAT is an interdisciplinary doctoral program designed to provide advanced training for researchers, teachers, and administrators concerned with second language acquisition and teaching.

A blog was introduced as a formative experiment to give students a way to experience so-called "New Literacies" and to help build a classroom community of learners. It was used for class assignments, reflections, and journal entries. In addition, the blog served to extend discussions between class meetings and helped in collaborations. Many students used it often for course activities: literacy inventories, such as lists, purposive reading, observation notes, and linguistic analysis. Other students brought in ideas, terminology and methodology from their other courses. Many were coming directly from their own classroom and brought issues from that environment. Students used their blogs to chronicle the development of their class projects, which they also regularly presented in class. These students for the most part knew what their classmates were working on and bringing to the class. The blog was discussed during class time so aspects of the class as a community were present in a more obvious way. We observed ways in which the experience affected the relationships among readers, writers, and text.

A Virtual Course Environment

During the summer of 2003, Decision Making for Information Professionals (IRLS613) was a virtual course offered in the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science. IRLS613 emphasizes an understanding of the various technologies and systems utilized by information professionals to make informed decisions when recommending a system for purchase or use by a client. Approximately thirty students, dispersed from Alaska to Ohio and California to New Mexico, were enrolled. Some students already were working in libraries in a staff or professional capacity; others came from different disciplines, such as education. Ages ranged from early twenties to early fifties. The one common thread was that all were working towards a Master's degree in the same discipline. The characteristics attributed to the Network Generation and Millenniums- facility with online interaction, preference for rich and immediate collaboration, expectation of faculty in the role of problem solving "guides" more than "experts"- simply did not apply.

Blogs were used in IRLS613 to share learning experiences, provide feedback to the instructor and fellow students, and to demonstrate an understanding of particular learning principles developed during the course. Sharing information about new technology was at the heart of the Technology News blog. In Technology News, students made direct observations of uses of technology, provided summaries with links to complete articles, and added entries relevant to their discipline or personal interests. The IRLS613 blog was initially intended for postings that could help students use the course's different instructional resources. It evolved into a blog where students posted entries about topics of interest and serves as an example of a virtual community in practice because these changes were derived totally by student actions addressing a perceived need.

Survey Results

LRC551
The survey used was an informal instrument to see how the blog was viewed as a part of this course. Thirteen students (of 17 present) responded to a survey that was distributed on the last night of class with the University Student Evaluation Forms for the course. Most respondents had not had experience in Web publishing. Only one person indicated that she had participated in "something like a blog" before. Six individuals indicated that they wanted to continue using blog551, although in point of fact, no messages were posted the following semester. Responding to a question about whether they would use a blog in a future class (either teaching or taking), five said "yes," and three indicated "maybe." Students in LRC551 were asked what they liked most about using the LRC551 blogs. Comments included: "It was an opportunity to participate," it was "easily accessible" and "user friendly." The blog "extended class discussions …without taking class time." It was a "'safe' way to participate." One student noted that she liked being able to "participate in writing, not necessarily verbally." Asked how they might use a blog themselves, responses included: "as a journal," "for notes," and "to post examples." One student wrote that she saw it as a way to introduce "new technology as a way to study new literacies." Another suggested using blogs as "a way for scholars to discuss articles." Several mentioned that it could be a "place for students" that could promote "interactivity." A small number of students were negative on the value of blogging as a good way to learn or to participate in class. One student wrote that blogs invaded her privacy.

IRLS613
The end-of-course survey revealed that although the vast majority (95 percent) of students responding were novice blog users, 90 percent agreed that the "Technology News Web log was a good way for me to learn more about technology." Twenty-nine percent reported that they joined another blog since the course began, 70 percent of the students planned to join at least one blog in the coming six months, and 76 percent "would like to continue using the Technology News Web log." One student commented that the best thing about using a blog was its "casual sharing of information." She wrote: "I almost got the feeling I was sitting in a coffee shop somewhere and the person next to me poring over the newspaper casually said, 'Hey, did you hear about this new thing that just came out…?'" This is the sort of sense of place that we do not realize fully with threaded discussion forums, e-mails and chatrooms.

Faculty Observations and Recommended Next Steps

Betts
I found the blogs to have a great deal of potential for making more of an integrated experience of the weekly graduate course. Those students who authored lengthy blog entries but generally did not talk in class were particularly interesting. The ways students used blogs was also enlightening. Some submitted almost all of their assignments on their blog. Others included attached files and some used the blogs as an extended entry gate. We started the blog as an experiment related to the subject of the class, New Literacies, and we ended up actively participating in them.

Most of my students are teachers and I am very interested in helping them put these new affordances to work in their classrooms. A student in my seminar established a blog for her eighth grade English classes the following semester. Starting from scratch, and dealing with her school and district and limited on-site support, she wasn't completely successful. However, she reported that she was able to establish a Web-based presence for one class by using NiceNet (www.nicenet.org). She created an author study research assignment and provided the threaded discussion tool for students to publish and read their work. The students who used the Web tool "had a higher level of assignment completions." Like me, she plans to try it again next year. The next time I teach LRC 551, I will organize it a little differently. By assigning weekly blog reading and response at the beginning of the semester, I hope to get people using blogs as they work on their collaborative projects and share resources. I would like my students to use blogs to give their students authentic literacy experience, and for classroom community-building.

Glogoff
Blogging is a tool well-suited for decision making sciences because it can be constructed to emphasize declarative or procedural forms of knowledge, where learners either come to know the basic knowledge schemas of the discipline or describe how to apply their knowledge. Because the students taking the course came from different disciplines and professional backgrounds, there is potential to attract interest from a wider audience of teaching faculty in whose disciplines information acquisition, response strengthening and knowledge construction are important.

Faculty considering using blogs should weigh whether individual student blogs should be assigned, or if "community" blogs will serve the purpose. My observation from the Summer 2003 course was that far too many students lurked rather than participated, even though participation was required and points towards the final grade were assigned based upon the quality of ones participation. During Summer 2004, each student in the course has been assigned a blog and is required to post on assigned topics each week. My goal is for this technique to strengthen participation and draw the more reluctant bloggers into stronger information gathering practices.

1 Tapscott, Don. Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Network Generation. New York & London: McGraw-Hill, c. 1998.

2 Oblinger, Diana. "Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials: Understanding the 'New Students,'" Educause Review (July/August) 2003, p. 37-47.

3 Clark, Ruth Colvin, and Mayer, Richard E. (2003) eLearning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, p. 28.

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