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Can Blogging Make a Difference?

When Michigan State University doctoral student Todd Ide needed a research topic for a large-scale study required for his Ph.D., he looked at the classes he was teaching in his role as a graduate assistant. He wondered if there was a meaningful way to incorporate Web 2.0 into his curriculum for "Reading and Responding to Children's Literature." He reviewed current literature about blogging in education and saw an opportunity to further the research.

Formal studies about incorporating blogs into curricula were minimal, and what was out there was more anecdotal in nature, said Ide. "Most other studies reflected what the researcher's experience was and what they believed the students took from the experience," said Ide. "What I found lacking was research that examined blogging's effectiveness from the student perspective. There was little discussion of student perceptions concerning the value of blogging as an activity or whether the students believed blogging impacted their learning."

Ide began with a pilot study in 2009, which sought to answer three main questions:

  • Does participating in a blog help reinforce learning that is done in the classroom by extending these conversations outside the confines of class hours?
  • Do students believe that participating in a blog was valuable to their learning and understanding of key course concepts?
  • Do students view the blog as a positive addition to their course learning or as another obstacle or requirement to be completed?

Another goal was to offer insights to instructors as to how to incorporate blogging in a way that is beneficial to students. "Most educators use technology for administrative tasks rather than instruction because they don't feel prepared and aren't getting the technical support needed. The results of the study, I believed, could help suggest best practices for using blogs as learning tools."

Nature of the Blog
While there are certainly plenty of other Web 2.0 communications media from which he could have chosen, Ide decided to study blogging because it combines solitary thought and social interaction to engage students and reinforce learning. The theory is that blogging increases collaboration, helps students transform and refine their ideas owing to the reflective and interactive nature, and improves critical thinking. Blogging disrupts and transforms, said Ide. In addition, blogs, these days, take very little time for a teacher to set up. "The ease of blogging with new tools such as Blogger and Wordpress and the fact they are hosted and are free to use, also make it easier to get started," said Ide.

Another reason Ide chose blogs as the topic of his research is that blog posts are accessible to a large global audience. According to Ide, blog search company Technorati reported more than 133 million blogs in existence, and there are currently 346 million people globally reading the 900,000 blog entries that are posted every 24 hours.

"The numbers are not consistent," he said, "but it's explosive, and it's trending vertically. This means that blogging allows students to publish their thoughts and ideas in a public venue that potentially has a worldwide audience. This public exposure should lead to students being even more reflective and thoughtful about their posts and comments, because anyone and everyone around the world can view what they write."

To Find Out
Eight out of 25 students in Ide's "Reading and Responding to Children's Literature" class volunteered to participate in the study. Ide set up the blog before the semester began. "We used Blogger mainly because it's free and fairly intuitive when learning how to use it," he said. "Students were given author access so they could create posts and comments."

He began the semester by sharing articles about what constitutes a quality blog post to give students a benchmark for achievement and to take the guesswork out of what is expected. "We also discuss what a 'substantive' post looks like mainly to avoid the 'Here's a great Web site' or 'yes, I agree' comments that are really not helpful in furthering the dialogue," he said. Ide also warned them that owing to the nature of the Internet, once a blog post is out there, it's there forever. "I wanted to make sure they are thinking through their arguments to put them in as good a light as possible," he said.

All students were required to post or comment a minimum of five times during the course. Two posts were assignments. In one, for example, Ide posted a link to a video and asked the students to watch that video and respond. Another assigned post was to gauge their reaction to a particular reading. The three other posts or comments were to be of the students' own choosing. "They were free to extend the discussion of topics covered in class, respond to the readings, ask questions, pose ideas about course themes, or to bring up material that they encountered elsewhere," said Ide. "The only requirement was that these posts be substantial in nature and that they needed to somehow tie into the course theories."

Ide mostly stayed out of the blog. "I tended not to comment," he said. "I wanted this to be a conversation they are having: engaging in the course material and thinking about children's literature. I am afraid if I am involved it will be seen as 'word from on high' and it might shut down conversation if my opinion is different from somebody else's."

One example of how blogging was an integral part of the coursework was a discussion about fact versus fiction regarding a piece of United States history. "We reviewed an article about Rosa Parks," Ide explained, "which looked at what really happened and debunks a lot of the myths. So, for instance, we talked about how she was not just a tired woman who didn't want to move to the back of the bus because her feet hurt. She was an active member of the civil rights movement, and that the act was planned, not spur of the moment as the myth would have it. The act was part of a very well thought-out strategy to push the issue into the public domain and have the public debate it." Many students did not know that, said Ide, and only knew the storybook version of this part of U.S. history. "This encouraged them to find other resources and write about their findings on the blog," said Ide.

Another example of blog participation was when students argued about the appropriateness of some of the books read in class. "One student's post was called 'How The Book Thief and The Hunger Games ruined my spring break' because he hated the downness of the books," said Ide. "That post sparked a good conversation of what is and isn't appropriate reading to offer youth and what themes these books offer young readers that are beneficial."

Participation in this online activity represented 10 percent of the students' grades. Extra credit was offered to the students for greater participation in the form of one percentage point added to the final grade.

Eight separate interviews were conducted over the course of two weeks. "The interviews were conducted toward the end of the semester so that it diminished fear in terms of how their responses might affect their grades," said Ide.

Prior to the start of each interview, students were told Ide was seeking to examine whether or not blogs and blogging improves student learning and engagement in the course. Each interview, which was digitally recorded and transcribed, lasted between 45 minutes and an hour, and the participants were asked a set series of questions. Follow-up questions were asked if Ide felt the need to clarify or further probe the subject's responses.

Ide interviewed them about their experience and their perceptions, probing their own understanding of how they learned, and what they did or didn't get from the activity. The transcripts were then coded for analysis using HyperResearch 2.8 qualitative analysis software.

Positive Results
Students reported positive results, with benefits such as "providing an outlet for thinking about things we talked about in class." Students began almost immediately as a result to make more interesting observations online than in class or in papers. In collaboration with peers they extended the analysis beyond the obvious, building arguments carefully yet succinctly, often by synthesizing the postings preceding theirs. "They made a real attempt to communicate something about which they felt strongly," said Ide.

Other positive results included:

  • The class was only held once a week, and blogging proved to be effective for extending the discussion during the days in between;
  • When a student encountered something interesting pertaining to the subject, he or she didn't have to wait an entire week to share that information with the rest of the class;
  • Blogging also provided a way for students reluctant to share in a classroom setting to find their voices and express themselves in a less intimidating setting. One student thought it was "cool that she was interested enough in the subject to post about it";
  • The blogging aspect of the class helped some students overcome a sense of isolation;
  • The blogging helped create more intimacy with fellow students, leading to a greater sense of community;
  • The exposure of their posts to meaningful audiences, including other students, and a potential global audience, encouraged careful reflection and articulation of the subject;
  • Blogging helped students direct their own learning;
  • Blogging increased the sense of engagement in the course material, providing the scaffolding necessary to support student learning.

Challenges of Incorporating Blogs into Curricula
"While the students reported positive experiences with blogging overall, that's not to say this technology is without its problems," said Ide. "Some reported that at times, they responded for the sake of responding rather than processing the information and learning," said Ide. "They posted fast and did it because it was an obligation. Another student said that, sometimes, her schedule made it difficult to focus. If her attention was needed elsewhere, she would just read as quickly as possible to find something she could comment on to fulfill the requirements. Two others shared similar experiences."

The results also seemed to confirm perceptions reported in earlier studies, which indicated that subjects did not perceive a connection between classes and blogging.

"All the respondents in this mini study indicated they would have liked a more explicit connection between course content and the activity of blogging," said ide. "They needed the connection to be made more clear and maintained during the course of the semester in order to understand why we were doing it and encourage them to continue to make the types of connections necessary to make the activity meaningful."

The Study Continues
This last year, Ide continued the study with a larger section with a larger pool of 40 students and a larger number of required posts and comments, and he was able to incorporate the lessons learned in the pilot study.

"Clearly the issue of how to get students engaged in the activity without simply doing it because it's a requirement [was a challenge to be addressed]," said Ide. "And regarding the blog-class separation, the students were right. So I needed to change the way we use blogging in class."

In direct response to this mini study, said Ide, he incorporated new ways of using the blog during lessons. "I call it the Blog All Stars. I select two or three posts that were very good and well thought-out and I explain to the class why these are great examples. I ask the poster to read them, then I open up the floor and ask if there are other things on the blog that people want to talk about."

The second batch of students were also better able to make the connections because Ide explained early in the semester how everything that goes on the blog needs to be connected to course content, and he offered suggestions. "During class, I might say, 'This is a good topic, and if you wanted to write a blog entry about it, it would work well.' I also point out areas that might need more explanation or research, and a lot of times students do look up the extra info and post about it."

Ide said his research confirmed what earlier studies found, that blogging "combines the best of solitary reflection and social interaction by actively promoting the development of learning communities." His study indicates that this is true from the student perspective as well.

"Blogging does go a long way toward helping students be autonomous, creative, helpful, and provocative," he said, "by providing them with the type of environment that allows students to direct their own learning in a manner that transcends the existing curriculum."

Blogging helps blur the line between formal and informal learning, he said, and the blogging activities in his course have real world implications too.

"Blogs and wikis and podcasts are real-world stuff," said Ide. "In terms of blogs, look at things like Slate Magazine, which is basically a political blog, and many other blogs and Web sites have stepped into the mainstream in terms of journalism and news reporting. Students can get real world experience doing this."

In fact, Ide said, advertising majors have come to him and reported that while they were on job interviews, they were asked specifically about their blogging experience. "The ad agency is only interested in hiring students who have experience in social media because that was a weakness in their agency. They need people who are able to do that, and we are providing that experience."

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