Using Blogs in a College Classroom: What's Authenticity Got To Do With It?
Sarah Lohnes, Doctoral Candidate, Teachers College - Columbia University
Have you ever tried using a blog as part of a course, in the hopes of fostering dynamic interaction between you and your students, only to have it fall short of expectations? This article suggests that while course blogs may rarely live up to the expectations of the type of blogging that goes on outside of the classroom, course blogs may represent a hybrid form of blogging that draws on the best of both worlds.
“Weblogs can foster the development of a distinct, discriminating voice in the context of Internet materials related to particular subjects. …Thus through weblog construction, students can gain a sense of empowerment and personal identity while learning how to interact with others online.” (Oravec, 2002, p. 6)
This quote is emblematic of a good deal of the current discourse on using blogs in the classroom. In their native, non-academic habitat, weblogs are a hyper- and inter-textual, and many times engaging, vehicle for communication. This fact has not escaped instructors who seek to foster dynamic types of interaction in their courses; indeed, it’s often this specific type of communication that the instructor wishes to foster. For example, a few semesters ago I had a professor who told our class that he wanted us to have a “blog-like discussion” - using a discussion board! Given the passionate, creative discourse in which some bloggers engage, it’s easy to understand this instructor’s desire (though perhaps not his choice of tool).
Such well-intentioned assumptions often lead to less-than-desirable results in classroom situations, leaving instructors to wonder where their course blogs went wrong. However, we don’t have much data that speaks to this issue; much of the research conducted thus far has focused on blogs in their “native habitat” - everyday blogs maintained by everyday people - rather than blogs that are used as part of academic coursework. As a result, we do have a sense of what makes a “good” blog, at least in the sense of these everyday blogs. A number of books and articles, most often written by bloggers, offer something of an insider’s view into what is considered important in creating and maintaining an “effective” blog.1 Some of the necessary ingredients:
- quality of posts: blog posts should be original, “well-crafted,” “well- informed”
- an authentic purpose for maintaining the blog
- point of view: a blog should offer a window into the author’s identity and community affiliations
- a blog should take advantage of the medium to offer a sense of immediacy and intimacy. 2
Although such “effective” blogs may foster the development of voice and identity, and support certain types of communicative interaction, something often seems to get lost in translation when an instructor assigns students to maintain a blog as part of a course. In fact, one may go so far as to hypothesize that a course blog cannot be an authentic blog, by virtue of the fact that that they are assigned and created in the context of an academic program. John Seely Brown and colleagues defined authentic activities as “…the ordinary practices of the culture.” Based on this definition, the authors proceeded to characterize the classroom as inauthentic because “it is very different from what authentic practitioners do.” 3 Coming from a similar standpoint, Knobel noted that several course blogs that she examined on the blog hosting site schoolblogs.com were lacking in the sort of authentic practices that she described as part of “effective blogging” in everyday life. The non-course blogs were positioned as authentic, part of “the ordinary practices of the culture,” while the course blogs were deemed inauthentic according to these standards. 4
Challenging the in-and-out of school dichotomy
This viewpoint poses a challenge to educators; if we accept these course/non-course, authentic/inauthentic dichotomies as true, what hope do we have for bringing the type of dynamic communication represented by blogs into the classroom? I would like to suggest that if our goal as instructors is to apprentice students into the practice of non-course blogging - in other words, maintaining an “everyday” blog - then yes, in asking our students to maintain a course blog, we will probably fall short of this goal. But what if we consider course blogs as their own type of blog? From this perspective, our position shifts from the difficult task of apprenticing students into a practice that is not native to the academic environment, to apprenticing students into a practice of course blogging. The next logical question is, of course, what might the practice of course blogging involve?
The short answer to this question is that we don’t yet have enough data to provide a solid picture. Recently, I conduced a small research study examined the course blogs of three students in a month-long new media theory and production program in which I taught. Working from the authentic/inauthentic dichotomy, I hypothesized that these course blogs would lack features present in authentic blogs, by virtue of the fact that they were assigned and created in the context of an academic program. The results of the study, however, suggested that these course blogs had a hybrid nature; while they could not be called fully authentic in the sense of non-course blogs, at the same time they presented certain features of effective blogging that are integral to the practice of everyday blogging. In other words, these students’ blogs were situated between school and not school.
Borrowing from the literature on adolescent literacy practices, the notion of circulatory practices may give us one way to begin to conceptualize course blogs in their own right. The idea of circulatory practices suggests that while in-and-out of school is a useful dichotomy for theorizing about the specific contexts in which practices take place, in reality practices are embedded within, but not confined to, these contexts. The literature on adolescent literacy practices tells us that adolescents draw on literacy practices from a variety of settings while participating in school-sanctioned literacy events. In other words, students, in their school practices, draw on other practices from a variety of contexts, producing a hybrid of in-and-out of school practices that complicates their straightforward classification as either (school)/or (not-school). 5 The same was true of the blog practices that I found in my students’ work.
“As a practice, blogging is situated between a variety of different tensions - orality and textuality, corporeality and spatiality, practice and artifact. In essence, blogging is a liminal practice that challenges other practices in the process of defining itself.” (boyd, 2005)
danah boyd, whose research on blogging is a first step toward defining blogging as a practice, has argued that “we must transition to a conception of blogging that is something meaningful in itself.” 6 In conclusion, I’d like to suggest that, as we think about course blogging, it may be useful to move toward thinking about the practice of course blogging as meaningful in itself. This view opens up the opportunity to provide rich descriptions of the practice of course blogging, and eventually to come to an understanding of “effective” course blogging. Starting from a notion of course blogging as authentic in its own right will also have practical implications for instructors seeking to integrate blogs into their courses, helping to guide decisions and avoid mistakes similar to the one made by my “blog-like discussion board” professor. In essence, it may be time to put “course blogs” on the blog taxonomy.
- See Rebecca Blood, The weblog handbook: Practical advice on creating and maintaining your blog (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002); Paul Bausch, Matthew Haughey, and Meg Hourihan, We blog: Publishing online with weblogs (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2002); Michele Knobel, “The medium and the message: A sociocultural analysis of power, writing, and the blogsphere,” presented at the Series on Multimodal Discourse (New York: Teachers College, 2004).
- Knobel, ibid.
- John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid, “Situated cognition and the culture of learning,” Educational Researcher 18 (1989): 32-42.
- Knobel, ibid.
- See Guy Merchant, “Imagine all that stuff really happening: Narrative and identity in children’s on-screen writing,” E-learning 1 (2004): 341-356; Donna Alvermann, Andrew Huddleston, Margaret Hagood, “What could professional wrestling and school literacy practices possibly have in common?,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 47 (2004): 532-40.
- danah boyd, “Broken metaphors: Blogging as liminal practice,” presented at the Media Ecology Conference (New York: NY, 2005).