Today, I presented at the NCTE Annual Convention on a panel that also included a look at MySpace and an international blogging activity.

Blogging to Learn

My presentation was an introduction to uses of blogs at different levels (elementary, high school, and college) for both students and teachers. My main point is that blogs, when used appropriately, spark learning:

"The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another."
--Marvan Collins

Blogs are especially good at sparking learning because they multiply the learning that occurs in the classroom as students

  • interact with each other, reiterating course concepts;
  • encounter different perspectives, leading to resolving contradictions and thus critical thinking; and
  • become motivated to write more when others respond and have a sense of ownership with an authentic audience.

Blogs also work well as course management tools. Teachers can provide models, recap lessons, disseminate information, and so on. As I've had more than a few students lose handouts, I like having course information and examples online so students always have access to course materials and concepts. But even for those students who don't lose their materials, it's convenient for them when blogging to be able to see examples online pertinent to the task while online. To see the presentation, go to "Blogging to Learn".

Cultural Literacy and My Space

Another presenter, Ali Mageehon, teaches at New Mexico State University at Alamogordo, and she talked about using MySpace in the classroom in an intermediate developmental writing class. Her students who were to do a cultural analysis essay of Myspace, answering questions like these:

  • Who uses MySpace? Describe the demographic profile of the “typical” MySpace user.
  • How might you describe MySpace to someone who has never encountered either MySpace or a computer?
  • Based on what you have observed, why is MySpace so popular?

But for the most part,

Essays were largely students rehashing a common theme — that MySpace is popular because it gives them a chance to keep in touch with their friends.

It sounds like a good assignment, but Ali said that the students did not enjoy critically analyzing their social spaces. they felt that school and their social spheres should stay separated.

Generally speaking, we want to tie school learning to students' own societal practices: It makes the learning relevant, authentic, and potentially long lasting. But students may have other ideas. We need to consider how to encourage students to make these connections between school and their social life, to help them see the relevance of being able to analyze their every day life, to become more critical thinkers and writers.

"Multimodal Expression in an International Blog: Writing, Literature, and Technology."

The third panel of co-presenters was Donna Reiss and Art Young from Clemson University, who, along with Magnus Gustafsson of Chalmers University in Sweden, set up a blog looking at modernism in literature in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ for three classes: Fiction for Engineers (for graduate students), a second year general education American literature survey, and an M.A. seminar in Victorian seminar.

They wanted to

Develop an international learning community

  • Foster community by connecting to an audience not physically present in letters, a genre recognizable as interactive: a writer, a reader, a respondent
  • Invoke “presence” through salutations and signatures that project voices and social roles while developing content
  • Invite writers to include personal and cultural as well as literary responses
  • Encourage reflection and revision with asynchronous communication

The students included a large number of English language learners from countries, such as "Iceland, Norway, Spain, France, Russia, China, Afghanistan, and more." As they concluded,

Intercultural writing and reading assignments provide a rich context for student-directed learning across a variety of boundaries (language proficiency, academic discipline and level, cultural background, and constraints of time and space).

Letters in an electronic medium proved to be familiar and versatile, enabling students to fulfill assignment goals and develop new communities of interpretive practice beyond their individual classes.

Obviously, blogs can be used in a variety of ways to facilitate learning. The main points are to have the students interact with one another in ways they can find interesting.

Joel Spolsky cites with approval Dave Winer's post "The unedited voice of a person":

Do comments make it a blog? Do the lack of comments make it not a blog? Well actually, my opinion is different from many, but it still is my opinion that it does not follow that a blog must have comments, in fact, to the extent that comments interfere with the natural expression of the unedited voice of an individual, comments may act to make something not a blog.

We already had mail lists before we had blogs. The whole notion that blogs should evolve to become mail lists seems to waste the blogs. Comments are very much mail-list-like things. A few voices can drown out all others. The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you're looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones.:

Joel then turns to the destructive nature of comments:

When a blog allows comments right below the writer's post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody ... nobody ... would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.

Although noting that comments have their down side, Clay Shirky disagrees:

This can be true, all true, as any casual read of blog comments can attest. BoingBoing turned off their comments years ago, because they’d long since passed the scale where polite conversation was possible. The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons that comes from being able to hijack an audience to get attention for your own views becomes too persistently tempting when that audience is large. At large scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed.

But the uselessness of comments it is not the universal truth that Dave or Joel make it out to be, for two reasons. First, posting and conversation are different kinds of things — same keyboard, same text box, same web page, different modes of expression. Second, the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale.

If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any “everyone post to their own blog”.

Shirky has a point that scale matters, as does the content and quality of the initial post, which I've mentioned earlier in Rethinking Comments and Trackback:

Over at weblogg-ed [original post link misplaced], I looked at the first 30 comments. The overwhelming majority of comments were in agreement with Will's position, sometimes adding a twist on it, but mostly agreeing.

At Creating Passionate Users, we see a different picture on one post, "Intuition", which had 15 comments when I looked at it. Three comments added nothing, but the majority added some point that was slightly new or gave a different perspective.

At "Half an Hour," Stephen Downes writes about "Adults and MySpace". It's a long article: 1758 words. It has two comments, one with 78 words that doesn't add much, and another with 280 words that adds new insight into the issue of adults on MySpace.

Different factors do affect the quality of comments, some of which are scale, subject matter, quality of post, and tone. And Shirky's concluding remarks are pertinent:

the question to ask about comments is not whether they are available, but how a community uses them. The value in in blogs as communities of practice is considerable, and its a mistake to write off comment threads on those kinds of blogs just because, in other environments, comments are lame.

Thus, for educators, we need to ask, How will our communities of students use comments. Will a majority of them use comments to offer new insights or useful contributions to their classmates' posts? Or will most simply say, "I agree"? No doubt, students' ages and levels of maturity can make a difference, so that it wouldn't necessarily be one size fits all. Thus, on a case by case basis, the primary consideration should be, Will comments enable learning or disable it?

Related posts:

elgg Kevin Jardine has a good summary of "What Elgg gets right" (via Dave Tosh). He writes in detail on the following points:

» A user-centric rather than content-centric approach
» Tags
» Access groups
» Aggregation
» Theming

Jardine concludes,

Elgg gives individual users unprecedented power to define their own personal spaces and to find people like themselves in a potentially huge member base. This creates an enormous shift from traditional content-based sites to new user-based ones.

David Warlick provides blogging guidelines for school administrators in dealing with teacher bloggers. As he states on his blog:

This article includes recommendations for blogging professional development, district policies, and revising AUPs to reflect the read/write web. It includes quotes from Dr. Tim Tyson from Mabry Middle School, Chris Lehmann of the Science Leadership Academy, and Tom McCurdy of the Pinckney Community Schools.

Mark Bernstein in his presentation "Blogtalk" mentioned the importance of having "sunset policies on blogrolls." I'm not sure, but I believe his reasoning in part was due to preventing a few blogs from having undue influence over others. In fact, Mark in a talk in Australia states:

never put an A-list weblog on your blogroll

It also makes sense to me that if we want our networks to evolve and our learning to grow, then we need to change our networks at times to acquire new perspectives, or else our writing and thinking can become insular and self-confirming. We don't learn as much from those who think like us as from those who think differently. Of course, I don't plan to completely overhaul my network frequently. Learning needs a mix of change and stability. So, for stability, I'm thinking of keeping non-A list blogs, and for change, adding new blogs at the top (perhaps marking them "new" for two months?). Email me and let me know what you think about a changing blogroll.

A study by Brescia and Miller (via Stephen's Web) on the benefits of instructional blogging suggests that the main benefits are "the reinforcing of course engagement and the repetition of exposure to coursework are the most valuable aspects of blogging."

The Chronicle of Higher Education has opened a forum "Can Blogging Derail Your Career" (via Brian Lamb via Stephen Downes) on why Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, wasn't granted a position at Yale University, the main suspicion being that it was related to his blogging. So far, there are eight, all interesting, posts, including a response by Juan Cole:

The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic's career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about "careers," the tenured among us least of all. Despite the First Amendment, which only really protects one from the government, most Americans who speak out can face sanctions from other institutions in society. Journalists are fired all the time for taking the wrong political stance. That is why most bloggers employed in the private sector are anonymous or started out trying to be so.

Academics cannot easily be handed a pink slip, but they can be punished in other ways. The issues facing academics who dissent in public and in clear prose are the same today as they have always been. Maintaining a Web log now is no different in principle from writing a newsletter or publishing sharp opinion in popular magazines in the 1950s. ...

I am a Middle East expert. I lived in the area for nearly 10 years, speak several of its languages, and have given my life to understanding its history and culture. Since September 11, 2001, my country has been profoundly involved with the region, both negatively and positively. Powerful economic and political forces in American society would like to monopolize the discourse on these matters for the sake of their own interests, which may not be the same as the interests of those of us in the general public. Obviously, such forces will attempt to smear and marginalize those with whom they disagree. Before the Internet, they might have had an easier time of it. Being in the middle of all this, trying to help mutual understanding, is what I trained for. Should I have been silent, published only years later in stolid academic prose in journals locked up in a handful of research libraries? And this for the sake of a "career"? The role of the public intellectual is my career. And it is a hell of a career. I recommend it.

If all could learn to have this attitude, the world would be a much better place.

Much of my posting on comments on blogs has been that they often end up confirming biases, primarily those in the original post. However, they can also simply confirm the commenter's biases.

On David Warlick's post for questions on blog posts, he noted that the conversation can be "polarizing". Indeed, it was. Rather than reflecting on what was said and building on it, quite a few commenters and trackbackers, chained to their previous experiences, reacted. Not that there weren't good ideas contained in the comments. Having comments from a variety of perspectives--college professors, K-12 teachers, IT managers, and others--helps to provide the "disconfirming evidence" that can facilitate reflecting on one's own "chained" perspective, as long as one can brush away the tone of the comments to see the content.

As noted in "Rethinking Comments and Trackbacks", although trackbacks should provide more time for thought than comments, it seems that the content of the post (along with the author's expertise and the comment's tone/register) has more to do with the nature of the response: reflective vs. spontaneous, confirming vs. disconfirming, building constructively vs. destructively tearing down, and so on. So, I'm still pondering whether it's better to enable or disable comments. There's the hope of more disconfirming evidence, but that can be obtained just as easily through trackbacks. There's also the realization that Seth was apparently right when he said that comments "changes the way [one] writes". Perhaps, this is part of what learning is about.

There is also the beauty of the blog, of one's thoughts. Mark Bernstein wrote,

Comments let idiots deface your weblog, and that's intolerable.

Although Haloscan has the comments in a separate window, thus creating a distance from one's weblog, and lets one delete comments, which controls the problem of idiots, one still needs to monitor them. Hmm. Time to go back to the pondering board.

David Warlick at 2 Cents Worth (via Will Richardson who comments on David's post) provides a starting point for assessing blog posts with two sets of five questions in assessing blogs, one for the blogger and one for the reader. The blogger questions are:

- What did you read in order to write this blog entry?

- What do you think is important about your blog entry?

- What are both sides of your issue?

- What do you want your readers to know, believe, or do?

- What else do you need to say?

With just a little rephrasing, the reader questions become:

- What did the blogger read before writing?

- What was important about the blog entry?

- What were both sides of the issue?

- What do you know, believe, or want to do after reading the blog?

- What else needs to be said?

I like these questions because they provide feedback to students that help them consider, as David says, "broader aspects of the issues being written about." And I especially like the one about reading. Too often, students expect to write only from their own experience without reading, without understanding others' perspectives, without weaving those perspectives into their writing. However, I would change that question to:

- What are the different sides in this issue?

This rephrasing moves students from an "either-or," "us-them" mentality to a more nuanced picture fitting the complex reality of life.

i just came across two sites giving good advice on how to use (and not use) blogs in the classroom. James Farmer has two posts, one on how to use blogs and another on how not to use them. And Doug of Borderland comments on Farmer's posts.

On how not to use blogs in education, Farmer's main points (my summary of his summary of his paper "Blogs @ Anywhere: High fidelity online communication") are:

  • Don't use

    • blogs as "discussion boards, listservs or learning management systems"
    • group blogs
    • blogs for something they're not made for
  • And don't forget RSS

On how to use blogs in education, the main points are to use:

  • blogs "as key, task driven, elements of your course" (that is, provide structure and purpose)
  • assessment that promotes, or at least allows, personal pursuits and expression
  • blogs for what they are good for
  • blogging tools that work (Farmer covers 9 major multi-user blogging tools here.)

On not using group blogs or blogs as discussion boards, etc., at the university level, Barbara Ganning has a different perspective. See her BlogTalk paper, "Blogging as a Dynamic, Transformative Medium in an American Liberal Arts Classroom", in which she discusses her use of blogs in the classroom, including a class blog that ties together students' individual blogs, communication, and class management.

Doug supports Farmer's main points with his own experience, although noting that more centralized management systems are appropriate for younger learners. Along these lines, he notes the need for more conversation on using blogs in elementary schools, giving several examples, one of which is more teacher oversight at the lower levels:

Mainly, younger kids have a very different notion about private vs. public information. I know this is an issue for all students, but younger kids have a harder time recognizing personal boundaries. A kindergartener, for instance, would be far more likely to tell her classmates that her mother is in jail than would a 5th grader, for instance.

It makes sense to use technology for what it does well and also to take into consideration the age and background of the students. Not paying attention to this point may result in little impact on students' involvement or learning, as Farmer, based on his reading of others' use of blogs in education, asserts in his paper:

While the resulting feedback indicated a degree of satisfaction and no objection to the use of blogs, there was little to indicate any significant shift in student perceptions and activity in the learning environments. While it is beyond the scope of this examination to argue hard and fast rules, this could be attributed, along with other factors such as the nature of assessment, to the use of blogs as collaborative areas without the use of aggregation.

There are quite a few comments on Farmer's pages, indicating that the environment affects the implementation of Farmer's guidelines. With respect to foreign language learners, in particular, we need to be careful. Still, let me emphasize Farmer's point on keeping RSS in students' minds. As he says,

Ignore RSS at your peril: Probably the biggest mistake that adopters tend to make is to ignore RSS or just through it a casting glance. The problem is that these people aren’t bloggers and just don’t understand. Without RSS blogs would pretty much just be extensions of geocities pages. Your learners are NEVER going to surf each others sites everyday and the majority of them won’t even go to that funky web-based aggregator you set-up.

RSS, or news, feeds are like subscribing to a newspaper or magazine: it comes to you instead of you going to the corner store to buy a copy. Why use news feeds? Well, mainly (1) to save time and (2) to be exposed to a variety of opinions. More concretely on time, you, and your students, can subscribe to all of the class blogs and other blogs of interest so that instead of clicking on 10, 20, or more different sites, all new posts are aggregated at one's own site (and perhaps another aggregation at a single class site). On the latter reason, you and your students can create search feeds for news groups and news (via Google News or Yahoo News) and for websites and blogs that can keep a current flow of information on topics related to class studies, projects, or personal interests. Participating in knowledge networks is crucial for students to develop an awareness of audience, competing values, and diverse perspectives, which, in turn, is essential for learning to write thoughtful and complex responses to and essays on an issue.

For more info on news feeds, see my brief introduction here. For an introduction on possibilities in higher education, go here, and for different RSS platforms, read "RSS readers: best of breed picks". And, again, be read Farmer's article.As Farmer notes,

The development of knowledge through learning to self-publish and comment on postings that adhere to the protocols and norms of behaviour in the chosen communication network is expected to enhance the learners’ reflective, meta-cognitive and written skills as well as management of their learning.

In a nutshell, the combination of blog writing and news feeds helps connect students to one another and to others outside the classroom, creating networks of learning that promote reading, writing, and critical thinking.

Will Richardson writes glowingly about the new beta release of the web browser, Flock"

I’ll agree with Clarence…Flock is my new browser of choice, and that just after a few hours of playing.

When Will likes something this much, it must be good. He likes Flock because it is an all-in-one tool: browser, blog editor, uploader to and flickr, news aggregator, and more.

I tried out the blogging and RSS functions. What's nice about the set-up is that you can choose to see the RSS feeds as either one column or two, as headlines alone, headlines with excerpts, or in full. And for blogging, with a single click, you can open the entire article up into a post. This is quite useful if you want to keep it in sight as you write about it and also you indent areas you want as quotes and delete the rest. (Hmm. One problem here might be with students who who neglect to indicate sources.) One other nice thing is that it comes with the graphics in the article. You can see how this works in my blog for my students. I tried it out there with Flock because I use Tinderbox for this blog. I could use Flock, but the new post wouldn't come back to my Tinderbox file on my computer, so it would erased the next time I use Tinderbox.

As good as all-in-oneness is for a professional technophile, it's even better for students who are just being introduced to blogging and other social applications. Rather than having to go to one website to blog and others to read and to respond to--along with having social bookmarking, photo sharing, and drop & drag capability--they can do it all from one place. Having everything together not only reduces the "confusion" and the "hassle," as some of my students have complained, but also makes it easier for students to see the connections between their writing and their reading, and to read their classmates' writings and others, because they're right in front of them as they begin to blog. The juxtaposition of many readings, along with one's writing, can help to facilitate elements of critical thinking, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Although Will is considering leaving Bloglines for Flock, that may not work with our students (despite what I just said above). Will has a laptop, so he carries his browser settings with him everywhere. Students who only have a desktop at home (or no computer at all) wouldn't be able to use Flock's capabilities on school computers without letting others have access to their settings, that is, if the school granted them access to do so. That may change if Flock becames a portable app like Firefox. (See this page for a suite of portable apps.) In the future, perhaps no one will have a computer, only a portable drive. For now, however, I think I'll play a little more with Flock.

Daniel Mangrum in his post "Comments “On” or “Off”?" wrote:

I’ve been in a sort of dialogue with Charles on the issue of having comments enabled or disabled on one’s blog. His post on the question makes for a good read. I approached it with the assumption that I should come away either convince or unconvinced, but now I see that I don’t have to be either.

Although I'm mostly convinced, I'm still muddling my way through quite a few questions.

We mostly agree that enabling comments in a blog is to provide interaction between writers and readers. Is such direct interaction, however, the best form of interaction? As I mentioned earlier, much depends on the blog's purpose. For educators and learners, learning should play the prevailing role. Daniel himself wants to "improve [his] teaching", or in other words, learn to become a better teacher. In such a case, Which form of interaction has greater potential to facilitate learning? Direct comments on one's blog? Or, an exchange of "measured responses" at a distance? In what ways can the environment affect this choice? In what sorts of environments would it be better to enable comments? To disable them?

Daniel, like most of us, doesn't "see so much traffic ... [that we are] in danger of being over run by inane commentary". In such a case, does simply having any traffic (i.e., direct comments on one's blog) outweigh the possibility of confirmation bias? Although most blogs never become one of the Top 500, obviously some do. If the traffic became too much, would it be possible to turn off comments without creating a backlash, as Seth Godin has done? Or simply not respond to comments without creating alienation (see, for example, EFL Geek's comment here).

With these possibilities plus others mentioned earlier, why do people prefer direct commenting on blogs? The main rationale that comes to my mind is the motivation that comes from social interaction. One of the three pillars of Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory of motivation is social relatedness. We are simply more motivated to do something when we have a positive relationship with others. But why would that positive relationship prefer direct comments to "measured discoursed" at a distance? Is it that one seems more "immediate" than the other, and so closer in social relatedness? Or is it simply that it is easier to have a conversation when everyone is in the same room, that is, on the same blog?

Daniel wrote that my blog is about my learning. It is. However, learning is facilitated through social interaction, and the rate of my learning depends considerably upon the rate of learning for all bloggers. Consequently, whether or not comments are enabled or disabled should take into consideration the effect on the blogging community, or more specifically for this conversation, the educational blogging community. What would the blogging community be like if the majority of bloggers moved to a "measured discourse" mode of commenting on the ideas in other blogs? Would we learn more? Would we become better, more thoughtful bloggers? Or not?

The environment affects all of these points. Daniel's blog, for instance, doesn't include trackback. So, I'm not able to provide a link to his blog on my most recent comments on his post. If I wish to increase my range of interaction with others on this topic, others who are reading his blog, then I must use his comment feature to lead them to my posts, where my blog, which disables commenting, enables trackback, which lets me and others know that they've linked to your post and provides the address of their post.

Actually, it's no more difficult to interact via RSS feeds and trackback than it is through direct comments. Haloscan is a free service that provides not only commenting (which I've disabled) but also trackback. For RSS feeds, one can use Bloglines, if an online service is preferred, or one can download free applications, such as RSS Bandit (for PC users) or NetNewsWire Lite (for Mac users). Using news readers saves time. Instead of clicking on each blog individually to see whether or not someone has posted, new posts are automatically delivered to one's news reader. For more on RSS possibilities, see my brief intro with resource links here, and for more on RSS readers, read Richard MacManus' post last week, "Rich RSS Readers: best of breed picks". Richard's post seems to be a good counter to my position, a post where the comments work well. What's the difference between this sort of post with comments and the ones I've been talking about? Or is there a difference here that makes a difference?

As the purpose changes, so does the environment. How would answers to these questions change as we consider having our students use blogs?

Not having comments means I don't get the point of blogging, at least according to The Carnival of English Language Teaching:

Bloggers who don’t allow comments seem to be missing the point, don’t you think? I started to add this guy’s link to the blogroll but stopped when I realized that he doesn’t allow comments at his site [italics are mine; original has strikethrough] you have to e-mail your comments to him directly as opposed to the normal way through the blog. Recently, I found myself back by his blog and couldn’t resist sharing this post about the value of hard work versus student IQ. I guess you’ll have to send the guy an e-mail or just keep your opinion to yourself.

Clicking on the link, you can see that I'm the one "missing the point." With all the emphasis on blogging as social software, as a way of interacting with others, as a conversation, you might easily agree: This guy is missing the point. Not too long ago, I would have agreed. After all, there is something to be said for comments building on one another. On more than one occasion, I've been in a face-to-face group discussion in which one comment triggered another comment triggered another one and so on until what emerged was much, much better than the initial comment.

So, why don't I allow comments now? Actually, the initial reason is rather mundane. At first, I did have Haloscan commenting on my previous blogs here and here, but I had problems implementing it, no doubt due to density on my part, and so commenting slowly faded from my mind. More lately, I've thought about having the time to respond to many comments, unlikely as it may be that this blog would ever become a Technorati 500. Even so, I would feel obligated to participate in a conversation that I began or at least read it. There would be the ones that, thoughtfully disagreeing, would make me think, but there would also be the many that would simply join a chorus of agreement, a sort of social feel-good bonding that does nothing but promote confirmation bias (see below).

A few others have a similar position. Author Seth Godin recently posted (via Mark Bernstein, creator of Tinderbox) "Why I don't have comments":

I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers. Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters. I'm already itching to rewrite my traffic post below. So, given a choice between a blog with comments or no blog at all, I think I'd have to choose the latter.

I doubt that Seth can escape from including some anticipation in his posts, but if you want to read more about the pros and cons, Seth has quite a few trackbacks to bloggers mostly "conning" on his not including comments.

Mark Bernstein goes further than Seth and argues against including comments on a weblog:

Comments don't belong in weblogs.

The measured pace of weblog response, and the distance between rival weblogs, makes measured discourse possible. Comments let idiots deface your weblog, and that's intolerable. Because you can't tolerate it, you have to do something. And that means the idiots have to do something, too.

For example, Kathryn has been doing some interesting sleuth-work on last month's mysterious African rent-a-coup, and so her weblog has been immersed in spam, bickering, and legal threats. (You know it's getting complicated with you see Comments (158) | TrackBack (0) )

Mark is arguing against comments because of flame wars, which can destroy a blog. Still, as Angela Thomas, a lecturer in English Education at the University of Sydney, responds in "Commenting on Academic Blogs", flame wars aren't as common on blogs like mine. Yet, academics are not immune to them. Margaret Syverson in her dissertation (now the book "The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition") reported on the Gulf War's effect on an email discussion group:

In 1991, a collegial group of social scientists sharing ideas in a computer forum became embroiled in a bitter conflict about the Gulf War, which threatened to destroy long-standing research partnerships and nearly terminated the group.

Moreover, any blog can receive comments from fictitious bloggers, as Mark Glaser at Mediashift writes in his article "Bloggers Must Be Vigilant Against Astroturf Comments":

The issue came up here on MediaShift when a number of people (or what appeared to be a number of people) expressed their opposition to Net neutrality legislation. Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press , did a little basic sleuthing to find a coordinated campaign by various blog and forum posters who gave talking points from telecom companies opposed to Net neutrality. I followed up and wondered whether this campaign was indeed coming from telecom companies or people they paid.

While I have seen a lot of evidence pointing toward certain individuals who post time and again against Net neutrality, I haven’t found a “smoking gun” that proves without a doubt that this campaign is paid for by telecom companies. But it does speak volumes that none of these individuals would respond to my queries or those of other bloggers interested in this topic. If they are not being paid, and are not working in a concerted effort as it appears, then why not at least deny it?

Glaser ends by noting the imperfection of commenting systems, stating:

The best defense we have is to check and double-check what people say, and work together as a community of bloggers to out the people who would try to use sock puppetry, astroturf or other means to deceive us.

How many of us have the time to "check and double-check"?

Actually, I'm not expecting flame wars or astroturf comments on my blog. They aren't the main reasons I don't allow comments here. My main reasons, as odd as it may sound at first, are linked directly to my blogging goal of learning.

First, there's something to be said for "measured discourse" at a distance. I read the post at The Carnival of English Language Teaching, reflected on it for quite a few days, and am now responding on my blog much more thoughtfully than I would have done by dashing off a quick sound bite (and I was motivated to learn and implement HaloScan's trackback system). As pleasurable as social interaction is (and I do enjoy comments as much as anyone else), learning is more important. And I learn more when I take time to reflect.

Second, a measured response at a distance can dilute the effect of confirmation bias. In his book "Cognition in the Wild", Edwin Hutchins, a cultural anthropologist at UCSD, writes about confirmation bias, "a propensity to affirm prior interpretations and to discount, ignore, or reinterpret evidence that runs counter to an already-formed interpretation" (p. 239). When communication is "too rich" in a network, the confirmation bias tendency leads to groupthink rather than a diversity of opinions. For networks to avoid groupthink (and also solipsistic-individual-think), they need two modes of communication:

Where there is a need for both exploration of an interpretation space and consensus of interpretation, a system typically has two modes of operation. One mode trades off the ability to reach a decision in favor of diversity of interpretation. The participants in the system proceed in relative isolation and in parallel. Each may be subject to confirmation bias, but because they proceed independently, the system as a whole does not manifest confirmation bias. The second mode breaks the isolation of the participants and exposes the interpretations to disconfirming evidence, the goal being to avoid erroneous perseverence on an interpretation when a better one is available. This mode trades off diversity in favor of the commitment to a single, interpretation that will stand as the new reality of the situation. (p. 261)

Consequently, blogs with comments are more likely to develop confirmation bias than blogs without comments because they are not sufficiently independent. (Flaming also confirms biases because emotion overrules reason. See my brief posts on reasoning here.)

In contrast, a blog without comments is in a mode of being somewhat isolated and in parallel with other blogs writing on similar topics, while at any time, the blogger can break that "isolation" and get "disconfirming evidence" by using search engines, RSS feeds, email, Technorati, trackback, pingback, and so on. Thus, blogs without commenting sections can more easily promote a diversity of interpretations that may lead to new ways of thinking about blogging and or other issues. Naturally, no-comment blogs may lack reflection while blogs with comments may have diverse, reflective responses. However, most comments on blogs tend to be social and supportive (or perhaps flaming) rather than substantive: They seldom challenge us to think out of the box. Thus, the structure of no-comment blogs in parallel has a greater potential to promote learning.

Back to "missing the point." "Missing the point" implies that one size fits all, that a blogging conversation can take only one form, that all bloggers have the same purpose in blogging. But they don't. Bloggers occupy different niches in various ecologies and have different purposes. Some blog to participate in social interaction. Some do it to enhance their business or be their business. Others simply like to write. Others still have more than one purpose. And so on. Direct comments on a blog might support some goals, but not others as well. It's not "about the conversation," as Matthew Ingram and many others claim. It's about the blog's purpose. The "conversation" plays a supporting role, and its form should serve the blog's purpose(s).

For me, as my blog's title states, the purpose is learning rather than confirming my biases. For educators and learners, shouldn't that be the point?

On Wednesday at the NJTESOL-NJBE Spring Conference, I presented an overview in blog format of different web 2.0 tools for enhancing classroom instruction (i.e., blogs, wikis, RSS, Flickr, social bookmarking, and podcasting). I plan to keep it up on the Internet as a website (not blog) resource. You can find it here, grandiosely entitled "The Web 2.0 Classroom".

HigherEdBlogCon is looking at the use of technology in Admissions, Alumni Relations, and Communications & Marketing this week. Presentations and links included:

Monday, April 17, 2006: New Media in Admissions

The Teeming Web
Case Study: Blogging and Podcasting for Student Recruitment
Freshmen Reveal Their Secrets: The Mansfield University Podcast
Student Voices Online: Podcasts as a Department Marketing Tool

Tuesday, April 18, 2006: New Media in Alumni Relations

Alumni E-Networks: Using Technology to Engage Alumni and Constituents
Online Networks: A New Tool for Alumni Relations - How Third-Party Social and Business Networking Sites Can Benefit Alumni Communities
Social Networking: What Is It and Where Does It Fit in the Alumni World?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006: New Media in Communications; Resources for Further Learning

Podcasting Agriculture News
Using Wikis to Facilitate Communication, Collaboration, and Knowledge Sharing Among Admissions and Administrative Personnel
How Can I Learn More About New Media?

Special: Links to More Applications of New Media in Higher Education

Communications and Alumni
Advanced Organizational Communication
“What’s hAPPening!”

Library and Information Resources
The FLICC/FEDLINK Environmental Scan wiki

Teaching and Learning
College v2
Jason Heath’s Bass Page
Skate of the Web

Last week at HigherEdBlogCon held quite a few good presentations on libraries and the potential for using blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, IM, etc.

Susan Herzog taught Blogging 101, providing a good overview of the use of blogs in libraries, including a bibliography page on blogging and much more.

John Blyberg wrote "Patrons in the driver’s seat: Giving advanced tool-sets to library patrons." One tool among many he mentions is a virtual card catalog that allows users to share their personal card catalog with the public, something like, but with "vintage-looking catalog card[s]." Other tools include wi-fi, RSS, and even AADL-GT, a gaming tournament.

There are 13 other presentations for this week: too much to report on, but well worth the time to read. Here's a breakdown of the sessions by title:

Blogging in Libraries
Blogging 101
Subject Librarian 2.0? - ‘The Song Remains the Same,’ It’s Just a Cover Song Using New Instruments
Blog Applications At a Small Academic Library

Podcasting in Libraries
Podcasting 101: the Basics for Librarians
Learning to Speak: Creating a Library Podcast With a Unique Voice

Leveraging Web 2.0 Technologies
Blogs, Wikis, and IM: Communication Tools for Subject Specialists
An Online Research Toolkit - Exploring Web 2.0 for Library Research
Using RSS to Increase User Awareness of E-resources in Academic Libraries

Issues in Libraries
Open Access for Teachers
Upon the Shoulders of Giants — Building Library 2.0 Together, From the Platform Up
Web 2.0 and the Small College Library: How to take over the World

Making Information Work Harder
Building a “Wall of Books” From a Library Online Catalog
Go Where the Patrons Are: Outreach In the Age of Library 2.0
Google Maps and You: Five Steps To Including a Google Map On Your Website
Patrons in the Drivers Seat: Giving Advanced Tool-sets to Library Patrons


The Higher Ed Blog Conference is is full swing now. Last week, Monday looked at podcasting and screencasting. Tuesday had two sessions: one on integrating blogs and blackboard, and another on using blogs to bring Chinese and American marketing students together.

Wednesday had empirical blog studies. One compared blogging to traditional paper writing, coming up with mixed results. Another Ethan Watrall and Nicole Ellison, professors at Michigan State University, screencast their "Blogs for Learning: Case Study." They assert that the main barriers to implementing blogs are technical. However, they also note four other challenges, as perceived by students:

1. Felt like "busy work" or a "chore" for many at times

2. Too overwhelming to read all the posts and comments

3. Felt uncomfortable posting on the posts of other students; had trouble locating interesting content in others' posts.

These findings are not limited to blogs. Students generally complain of too much work and that much work is not necessary. So do teachers, and just about most people in general.

Students also saw benefits:

1. Gives all students a chance to express themselves ...

2. Many students preferred blogging over hard copy papers.

3. Some participants enjoyed the exposure to new materials and the ideas of their peers, but did not feel that it enhanced their understanding of course content.

4. Were not concerned about privacy implications of blogging

The authors were surprised by #4, but I'm not quite sure why. It seems to be fairly common knowledge in the press, and I'm also not sure why it would be considered a benefit.

Watrall and Ellison also plan to set up a "Blogs for Learning" ( website beginning in the fall, a website that will be a resource for teachers, researchers, and all.

I had to return early from the Conference on Teaching, Writing, & Technology, but that one day yielded some interesting thoughts.

Kathleen Yancey, (Professor and Director of the graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition at Florida State University), started the conference off with her talk, "Composition as Material Practices: What That Means and How That Means for the Teaching of Writing in the Early Twenty-First Century." One notion that caught my interest was that "different portfolios create different kinds of students." She compared print portfolios to being like a book, a finished product, and digital portfolios to being gallery-like with multiple paths that may not have conclusions. I think this claim has some validity, but is it necessarily so? Having a digital background could easily influence how one approached creating print portfolios, and vice versa. Even so, I will start thinking about how I might introduce my students to the notion of portfolios not having conclusions for all of its paths but rather being an ongoing exploration.

Yancey quoted Alan Luke as positing a "need to 're-invent' the discipline" and herself for a "need for a new vocabulary" of "texts/technologies/circulation." The likelihood of "re-inventing" a discipline is remote. Nevertheless, having this attitude of always seeking new ways of seeing and doing is crucial to learning, and sometimes having new vocabulary, even if for almost the same things, can help one achieve a different stance from which to see things anew.

In another sessions, Laura McGrath (Assistant Professor of English, Kennesaw State University), discussed the need to prepare students for different rhetorical situations, audiences, products, and purposes for a new global society. In doing so,she broke down learning objectives into three types:

Functional = create blog and blog intries; integrate images and hyperlinks

Critical = think critically about the power of communication technologies as well as their dangers

Rhetorical = assess available communicative possibilities; write for real readers;master conventions of Web writing; make appropriate choices in terms of presentation/style, tone, content; develop understanding of how ehtos is created, communicated, and maintained

This is a useful breakdown of keeping objectives in mind when designing one's curriculum. I wonder a little about the "critical" perspective. Up front, I think developing a critical awareness of anything is an ongoing process and a bit of exposure to it can help stimulate its development. But I imagine that a developed critical awareness depends much upon content knowledge, in the case of communication technologies, not only how they are used in a variety of ways in depth but also how they intersect with societal practices. As compositionists, we tend to be more aware of communication technologies but, again I imagine, considerably less so in other disciplines, simply due to our lack of content knowledge. When I take this perspective and then consider the time constraints in a course and student needs for functional and rhetorical understanding, I'm not sure how much time can or should be devoted to helping students develop a critical perspective. I often wonder how much of our perspectives in curriculum design is affected by where we are in our own intellectual growth, neglecting to take into account the path and time required to reach our present outlook.

In the same session, Tara Shankar (M.I.T. Media Lab) introduced her spriting tool. (Sprite = speaking + writing.) From the abstract of her dissertation defense:

Spriting in its general form is the activity of speaking "on the record" that yields a technologically supported representation of oral speech with essential properties of writing such as permanence of record, possibilities of editing, indexing, and scanning, but without the difficult transition to a deeply different form of representation such as writing itself. This thesis considers a particular (still primitive compared to what might come in the future) version of spriting in the form of two technology-supported representations of speech: (1) the speech in audible form, and (2) the speech in visible form. The product of spriting is a kind of "spoken" document, or talkument. As one reads a text, one may likewise aude a talkument. In contrast, Shankar uses the word writing for the manual activity of making marks, while text refers to the marks made.

Shankar found that spriting facilitated peer collaboration with elementary children throughout the revising and talking process unlike the one-time (or few times) collaboration of writing. In fact, the children showed a sophisticated sense of genre and language while spriting. It allows students who lack writing skills to develop their understanding of language, organization, and other genre skills crucial to formal education, and as Shankar states, "spriting can serve as a stepping stone to writing skills."

In an earlier posting, I asked, Should we blog in the classroom? One aspect of answering in the affirmative is looking at the social aspect of learning. That is, when people work together, play together, learn together, it's simply more engaging, interesting, and motivating. Katrina Rinaldi, a high school senior, has written quite a few articles on student perspectives on technology (in Students of Explanazine). In her article Students on Student Technology -- Why We Like Xanga (Part 1), the social dimension of technology and learning is prominent. Her article is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some excerpts:

Human contact. Something every human yearns for -- especially teenagers. ... Thankfully, with Xanga, when you can't be with your friends physically, you can at least browse their thoughts online as well share your own ideas.

Xanga is an online blogging site that now also allows you to accumulate a social network. ....

I prefer Xanga to Myspace because it's more personal. ...

The main attraction of Xanga for me and my friends is the ability to write and post your own thoughts and ideas, quotes and passages from books, or even pictures. You also get to read your friends' posts, and comment on them. Xanga certainly helps us understand each other better -- you learn to see people differently when you really understand where they are coming from and how they think.

Xanga is also an amazing resource for keeping in touch with friends. ...

Interaction with friends is necessary for friendships to continue, and Xanga is a great way to make that interaction happen. It works if you're separated by continents, or simply stuck inside because of weather or punishment. I think it probably seems like time wasted to parents, but a good deal of the time teenagers spend on Xanga should be considered social interaction. While that may not seem like a huge thing to some parents, but believe me, it is.

There's not much to add here, but for me Katrina highlights the need for teachers always to keep in mind how to build communities of personal interaction and friends in the classroom. In my readings, I see a lot about the need for interaction and the social, but little about "friends."

Friday morning, I'll head out to a two-day (actually two half-days) conference at the University of Amherst Massachusetts: Conference on Teaching, Writing, & Technology, K-College

New technology is providing new venues for writers and for teachers of writing, offering us all exciting possibilities and different perspectives on what writing is, can, or should be. As tech-savvy students post blogs and teachers engage with new software to organize their courses and share student writing, technology challenges our definitions and practices of writing instruction. The Conference on Writing, Teaching, and Technology, K-College, will be an opportunity for teachers from all grade levels to share ideas, methods, and projects on integrating technology effectively into the writing classroom.

Kathleen Yancey and Charles Moran will be featured speakers. A couple of sessions will focus on first-year composition and one will look at the use of weblogs in the classroom. Looks like I'll have an opportuntiy to learn.

In a few weeks, our English Department will have a poster session on "Best Practices" in teaching. Mine will be on using blogs and wikis. Of course, I present the usual rationale for using blogs and wikis, but for me the highlight of presenting this poster was reviewing my students' blogs and seeing again how they were able to tie their writing into their own interests. One of my students, for example, has an active interest in things Japanese, applying the name "yukiseguchi" to her blog. She wrote about how to wear a kimono ("Flutter your sashes") and geishas and inserting great images, too.

Despite appreciating my students' posts, one thing still troubles me: Few of these students continue to blog after the course ends. Nancy McKeand (Random Thoughts) asks, Why aren't we all blogging?. There's no easy answer, but it's unlikely that we're all made from the same mold. Some like sports, others music, and others, still, video games. One of my students moved from blogger over to myspace, where she is still active.

Perhaps we shouldn't worry about whether students like blogging or continue to blog. When in high school, I enjoyed basketball, but I didn't like the speed drills. However, they were great for developing my stamina. And perhaps that's how we should consider blogging. That is, Is there some benefit from blogging? Besides, we could also ask how many of our students continue to write essays after graduating. Should we, then, stop requiring essay writing? Hmm. I'm assuming that writing essays has some benefit. Does it?

Thomas Leverett of Southern Illinois University, as part of one of his TESOL 2006 presentations, provided this site with many good links to a variety of web resources covering podcasting, audio and visual files and storage, weblogging and videoblogging, and others.

Leverett also posted on the web his paper "Daring to Enter the Blogosphere." This site also has quite a few links, some the same as above but including many others focused on weblogs.

Friday at the TESOL conference was blog day: I attended four sessions on blogs, all interesting. I have a few highlights on two sessions, followed by notes on Joel Bloch's work.

Charles Schroen, a professor of English at Geogia Perimeter College, uses blogs in his courses to expand the course outside the classroom and to promote interaction. He crafts the blog assignments so that they build in complexity. Students (provided with detailed instructions online) begin with creating a blog outside of class. After several assignments of posting, he begins having them interact with a simple activity of going to 5 classmates' blogs, finding one grammatically correct sentence, and noting in the comments the one thought to be correct. I asked Schroen, "Yes, this creates interaction, but what is it good for?" He responded that it was for getting the students' feet wet for their later assignments that would develop interaction in more substantial ways. Schroen is on target. I think we sometimes forget that students don't have our background, that it's better to ease them into accomplishing future goals.

Christine Meloni, Donald Weasenforth, and Sigrun Biesenbach-Lucas presented the results of their research on students using blogs. They had two different groups of students using class blogs, and the difference between the two groups due to teacher influence was tremendous. One teacher evaluated blog entries, participated sometimes in discussions, and talked about the blogs during class when appropriate. The other teacher didn't. The ratio of blog postings for 7 assignments in the classes (former to latter) was 517 to 63, or a little more than an 8:1 ratio. The presenters also noted that other research has shown that blogging can have a detrimental effect on reading and writing (blogging is not academic writing) and that critical evaluation is made more difficult due to being innundated with information. Technology is not neutral.

Besides the presentation sessions, I went to Joel Bloch's discussion session on blogs. Although we didn't discuss them, he had a list of ten questions/statements, which are posted at his TESOL blog. The first on on the list is, "Technology is never neutral; it affects the writing process and is affected by the writing process." He also has posted on his blog podcasts of his papers at TESOL 2006, one on "Intercultural Rhetoric and ESL/EFL Writing: Cyberspace: The Search for Intercultural Rhetoric Online" and the other one titled "The Institution and Globalization of Plagiarism: Bringing Students' Voices into the Debate over Plagiarism in the Academy."

Neville Hobson (via Wisconsin Center for Education Research) compares Wordpress, Wordtype, and the problems of moving, referencing other blogs (Emily Robinson and Rex Hammond) discussing blogging platforms and moving.

New web tools are just popping up all the time, with many of them free or offering free versions.

News Alloy is an online news reader (still beta) that may, according to Michael Arrington at TechCrunch, become a "cult favorite."

Learner Blogs offers free blogs for K-12 students.

Stikipad is a new browser run wiki service (via Educational Weblogs).

Nuvvo, an LMS, receives a fairly favorable review from Jason Plunkett.

The Ruminate blog compares briefly blogs and discussion boards, noting that although each has its uses, blogs promote obligation and responsibility; ownership; thinking, responding, and contemplating; and postive practice. About the last one, Ruminate writes,

Learning to reflect on what is being taught, to express questions— even of the unanswerable kind, to examine one’s own learning process, to think critically about new knowledge and the way it is acquired… these are the essential stuff of learning how to learn and then learning effectively. Blogs present an opportunity for practice (in both the traditional and the Zen senses) in a form that many students, particularly the emerging digital native, intuitively understand.

The Blog Herald previews a forthcoming PBS blog called MediaShift, and it sounds quite interesting.

PBS has announced the launch on Jan 18 of a a new blog called MediaShift, which will explore how new forms of digital media are dramatically changing American society and culture.

In a particularly good signing, and the main reason we are even mentioning this blog at all, the new blog will be written by Mark Glaser, probably best know more recently in the blogosphere for his excellent writing for the USC Annenberg School for Communication’s Online Journalism Review.

MediaShift will offer a continuing look at how digital media such as blogs, RSS, podcasts, citizen journalism, wikis, news aggregators and video repositories are altering the way we live, play and work. The site is said to provide a window into this world for the average user while offering enough details to satisfy the more technically savvy, and will offer ongoing opportunities for active public participation and feedback.