[This is part of a draft of the chapter I’m writing for the International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, forthcoming from Springer.]
I have been using weblogs and wikis in my courses since early in 1999. Over the last five years, I have used weblogs, in various configurations, for undergraduate and graduate courses of a couple dozen to a couple hundred students. None of these courses were exclusively online; all had a significant face-to-face component that included some form of in-person group discussion. None could be considered an entire failure, and none could be considered a complete success. Overall, however, students have responded favorably to these collaborative web publishing systems by the end of the course, and many continued using similar systems professionally and personally after completing the courses. This section will address some of the approaches taken and the lessons learned.
Collaborative web publishing brings with it some of the same problems that e-portfolios do. Trent Batson (2002) writes about its greatest drawback: “Moving beyond the familiar one-semester/one-class limits of managing student learning artifacts gets us into unfamiliar territory.” With that unfamiliarity comes a certain degree of confusion and frustration, both antithetical to educational aims. Encouraging self-directed learning does not mean setting students adrift. They should understand the objectives at hand, and participate in the process of identifying these objectives. Successfully teaching with collaborative web publishing means changing what is taught, how it is taught, and how students learn. Simply “adding” blogging to an otherwise unchanged class is unlikely to produce anything other than confusion. However, using collaborative web publishing-based approaches does not require a complete departure from the traditions and practices of existing institutions. Implementation will be impossible if the formal strictures of the institutional environment are not addressed, and more importantly, without some of those formal elements it will be difficult to ease students into new ways of thinking and learning. Good teachers know that students enter a class not as empty cups, but with the total sum of life experiences that they bring to the process of learning. It is important to remember that they have also had years of experience that influences how they approach learning and their expected role in that process.
It is possible to adapt collaborative web publishing in small steps, but each of these small steps must be carefully thought out and integrated with the rest of the class. Simply providing a collective weblog, and urging students to make use of it, will likely produce little in the way of results. It is the virtual equivalent of attempting to have a discussion in person without any ground rules and little guidance from the teacher. Changing the focus to student-centered learning requires that the teacher take on a role as facilitator (Collins and Berge, 1997). That means preparing students before engaging in collaborative web publishing, acting as a model for their work, and guiding interaction. It also means planning to include weblogs or a wiki in such a way that it is more than an auxiliary to the main content of the course. For it to be valued by students, you must demonstrate its value.
However, beyond this initial introduction, the teacher must be willing to serve in a supporting capacity, as a resource for students who are seeking out knowledge. The continuing authoritarian presence of the teacher in online discussions at some point serves to inhibit engagement. As soon as practicable, students should be placed in the role of moderator and facilitator. Rourke and Anderson (2002) discuss the advantages of placing peers in the position of leaders in online discussions. In addition to this process, students should be provided the opportunity to seek out their own discussion leaders and engage in their own online communities. Learning is most likely to occur at the juncture of these communities, where differences in perspective are most likely to lead to critical thought and interactive understanding.
Given that the technology is still in its earliest stages, there are a wide variety of ways in which it is being implemented. Many early implementations of weblogs make use of the software simply to host the materials of the class and to make announcements, with the added ability of students to comment on these announcements. While a simple first step, this can be a powerful way to encourage interaction and increase communication between the teacher and students. In smaller classes, it may also be possible for students to play a more active role in managing content on the weblog, or helping to edit it. As a replacement for existing course (or learning) management systems, the weblog represents an interesting alternative. By opening the course weblog to the world, the teacher opens a window on the world of collaborative web publishing and models the kind of open interaction that can take place.
To realize the more extensive benefits discussed above, the students need to have more direct access to the tools themselves. Many instructors have now experimented with moving discussions onto public weblogs rather than closed discussion boards or email lists. The advantage, beyond the open engagement, is that it encourages an ongoing dialogue on particular topics. There is an upper limit of perhaps twenty students beyond which these unthreaded discussions become unwieldy, and the advantages of discussion are lost; as David Weinberger has noted, “on the web, everyone will be famous to 15 people” (2002, p. 104). While there is some hope that collaborative filtering like that found on large public weblogs like Slashdot might be one way to manage these large discussions, experimenting with such systems so far has led to only limited success (Halavais, 2001, 2002).
Increased involvement in large classes usually means providing weblogs for individual students or student teams. Both have advantages. Individual blogs may provide students with an opportunity to extend blogging beyond the classroom and engage in self-organized learning. They also allow students to integrate their work from other classes. I have encouraged this in my classes, suggesting that assignments and research done for other courses, if identified as such, is included in my evaluation of their work. Students have found this integration with other courses to be very helpful, and I have received comments from instructors in other courses indicating that the students become more active and interested in there work in those courses when they can share knowledge between classes.
This can also occur with group blogs, though these are likely to be abandoned at the end of the course unless the groups are fairly permanent. There are several ways to allow students to comment on other groups, while encouraging participation within their own groups. When combined with group assignments, and a chance for peer group discussion during the class, this can be very effective. Aggregation systems (which collect recent entries from each of the weblogs and present them in a single web page), allow the teacher or students to track all of these conversations, and concentrate on those that are of particular interest.
Wikis also represent an opportunity, both in large and small classes, to contribute to a collective work. In several of my classes, I have asked students to collaborate on an open textbook for the course, based on their research and on lectures. In others, I have had them participate in creating an encyclopedic reference of terminology, legal cases, and communication technologies. The likelihood that they may gain an audience larger than just the professor has lead to consistently better written and design work in each of my courses.
Moreover, there is the impression that there is at least the possibility that the work is not “disposable”–that it will live beyond the end of the semester. As noted above, beginning last year, graduate students in some of our programs receive a weblog when they first enter, and continue to update it throughout the program. One intention was to create a more cohesive cohort experience. The weblogs have allowed students to provide help and encouragement to one another, and share events and news of interest. They also serve as a collection of work from which they can draw when working toward their culminating projects.
For blogging or wikis to work, students must be provided a good introduction to the technology, as well as to the social practices. The software that supports blogging changes constantly, but there are a wide range of systems available, many of them inexpensive or free, and some more complicated than others. No matter which software is chosen, it is vital that students become familiar with the technology itself before engaging in assignments or learning tasks. In many cases, teachers wrongly assume that students of a certain age must be thoroughly familiar with computing and networking. While they may be familiar with using computer networks within existing institutional and social frames, collaborative web publishing represents challenges to their existing understanding of how computers are used, and the time invested in preparing them use a weblog or wiki, will be time well invested. Failure to do so will lead to significant student frustration and disengagement (Hara & Kling, 1999). This is particularly true when these technologies are used in a distance education setting.
Students must be made aware of what the expectations are. Especially at the university level, many students are both familiar and comfortable with traditional means of assessment. Much of what has been learned in portfolio-based assessment can be applied here. At early stages, provide a set of requirements in terms of the quality and frequency of their participation, as well as the tone and boundaries of the discourse. As students become more comfortable with self-directed learning and writing for an audience larger than the classroom, they will begin to collectively establish new goals and objectives that move beyond the guidelines the teacher has instituted. This approach to learning will be unfamiliar to students, and with some preparation, the students will be motivated by the opportunity to interact with a wider group. To ensure this occurs you must be prepared, especially at the earliest stages, to help acclimate students to the environment and to the expectations.
The most enduring lesson of these last five years is that small changes have large impacts. The approaches here tend to take more time for both the students and for the instructors. As such, it is important that the objectives of the course, and the place that collaborative web publishing takes in that process, be clearly communicated to students. There is a natural tendency among students and teachers to rely on successful patterns, and introducing a new way of thinking about learning to a classroom can be expensive in terms of time and effort. Even minor adjustments to the way the technology is introduced, or the way the expectations are framed, can mean the difference between thrilling successes and chaos. When it works, the outcomes are sometimes staggering: I still receive comments from students in prior classes who have found their work in collaborative web publishing to have had an enormous impact on the professional lives. The hope is that by continuing to refine the use of collaborative web publishing and open learning, this kind of success will become the norm.
Collins, M., & Berge, Z. (1997). Moderating online discussion groups. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association. Chicago, March.
Halavais, A. C. (2001). The “Slashdot effect” : Analysis of a large-scale public conversation on the World Wide Web. Unpublished dissertation. University of Washington, School of Communications. (pdf)
Hara, N. and Kling, R. (1999). Students’ frustrations with web-based distance education course, First Monday, 4(12).
Rourke, L., & Anderson, T. (2002). Using peer teams to lead online discussions. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2002(1). Retrieved March 1, 2004, from http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/.
Weinberger, D. (2002). Small pieces, loosely joined: A unified theory of the web. Cambridge: Perseus Books.