[This is part of a draft of the chapter I’m writing for the International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, forthcoming from Springer.]
Technologies provide a “valence” of potential uses, to borrow the terminology of Carolyn Marvin (1990), writing in the context of the early adoption of the telephone. What we think of as the telephone today is the result not only of the initial development of the technology, but a complex evolution of social practices over time. Examples of telephone systems used for news broadcasting, or Edison’s decades-long delay in accepting the use of the phonograph for music recordings, remind us that a technology does not choose its own use, though it may suggest some uses. In part, this is because new communication technologies are inevitably initially fit into existing ideas of how communication takes place. Depending on the metaphor with which blogging is approached, it may seem fairly obvious how such a technology is to be employed. Nonetheless, new communication technologies also have the capacity to violate our expectations, and usually do (Nord, 1986). Having our expectations disrupted need not be a bad thing; indeed, it is central to the process of learning. Nonetheless, the earliest applications of collaborative web publishing in educational contexts have aimed to replace existing analogues.
Despite the range of ways in which weblogs might be employed, the two general types of weblogs identified by Blood, above, suggest the most obvious potential uses. Diaries and journals are a longstanding fixture of writing and foreign language classes. Journals are also commonly employed in other subjects, including lab notebooks in the sciences, and sketch books and portfolios for teaching the arts. Teachers often encourage students to keep notes of their own, and sometimes use these notes as an additional indicator of their progress. The earliest uses of weblogs thus far have been as replacements for writing journals. Despite difficulties, there are several advantages to the use of weblogs in this setting, especially in that they provide a more immediate and social environment for writing (Kajder & Bull, 2003), which when combined with the improvements to student writing that seem to accrue simply by moving to a computerized form of journals (Goldberg, Russel, & Cook, 2004), represents an obvious area for experimentation.
There has been a move over the last decade toward using portfolios of student materials to improve evaluation and learning. Such portfolios not only provide a richer understanding of student abilities and progress than do narrower evaluative approaches, but also provide a way of allowing students to better monitor their own progress and become more active in the learning process (Frazier & Paulson, 1992; Lamme & Hysmith, 1991; Tierny, Carter, & Desai, 1991). The involvement of students in their own education, not surprisingly, often results in a better understanding of the material, when compared with traditional evaluation methods (Finlay, Maughan, & Webster, 1998). Portfolios can also be used to communicate progress to parents and others (Flood & Lapp, 1989), and to help teachers evaluate their own efficacy (Hiebert, 1992). There are a variety of ways in which portfolios may be organized. Some students assemble their best work, and provide an overarching narrative to frame that work in a “showcase” portfolio. Others use learning portfolios: records of progress and achievement in a field of study. Portfolios have gained ground in areas outside of education as well, and much of the work relating to school portfolios applies equally to professional and personal portfolios.
There have been various efforts to move portfolios online and create electronic portfolios, or e-portfolios. This has been particularly popular at the tertiary level, with a number of universities promoting e-portfolios for their students. E-portfolios provide the advantages of traditional portfolios, but in many cases also provide a way of moving beyond the student-teacher dyad. When a portfolio is placed online, it provides an opportunity for parents, friends, and others to view the work of the individual. Making the portfolio electronic has the further advantage of allowing for a variety of multi-media and interactive content, depending on the skills of the student both in creating such material and, not insignificantly, making it available via the Web. While there is much excitement over e-portfolios at the moment, and a number of incipient projects, it seems that effective supporting software remains a stumbling block (Young, 2002). Moreover, the approach is much more akin to traditional publishing models: portfolios may be updated, but rarely incrementally.
Weblogs are a natural extension of online portfolios. As noted above, weblog software is little more than a simple content management system, a way of placing work online with little effort. Such software can provide a easy way of managing online portfolios, and often the term “e-portfolios” is now used in the same breath as “weblogs” (or as “blogfolios”; Levine, 2003). While it does, at some level, provide some of the same functions as an online journal or portfolio, generally, an implementation using weblog software will bring with it certain expectations in terms of the length and permanence of the materials, the connection to the audience and other online content, and the motivation to publish.
Before examining some of those differences in more detail, we might turn briefly to the other form of blogging: those websites that focus on selecting and annotating links to information found on the Web. In 1945, Vannevar Bush described what many have suggested is one of the earliest visions of hypertext, and suggested that mapping information space would be a primary way of transmitting knowledge in the future. He writes that the associative process of research through the literature of the world could be recorded as a “trail” of a researcher’s linkages and annotations, “and his trails do not fade.” The processes of discovery, as well as the records that make up that discovery, are easily recalled in this “enlarged supplement to his memory.”
Students at all levels often turn first to the Web when called upon to do research, only later reverting to the library, if at all. Given the increasing availability of authoritative information available on the Web, using this information effectively is a worthwhile skill. The process of annotating their search, using a weblog or wiki, provides a window on research, an opportunity for teachers to intercede in the process, and for the student to be more reflective about their own efforts. Students can use this process to learn to manage information effectively. Also, linking to their sources helps to avoid problems of plagiarism and provide a venue for understanding copyright, as students come to a greater appreciation of the originality of their own work (see Oravec, 2002).
Finally, especially at the college level, teachers have experimented with using weblogs for course management. Because of the flexibility of many weblogging systems, they may be customized to this end relatively easily. Readings, handouts, and assignments may be distributed through a weblog, but weblogs are even better suited to providing a central location for news and discussion related to the course. Many of the large, commercial course management systems have been experimenting with collaborative web publishing systems of various sorts. It remains to be seen whether such systems will retain the cultural practices that have led to the success of weblogs and wikis.
To draw on a metaphor already applied elsewhere in the context of blogging (Frauenfelder, 2000), the automobile began as a replacement for the horse-drawn carriage, and was for some time the “horseless carriage” before it was clear that it not only provided for new kinds of uses, but shaped social interaction, the built environment, and a national culture. Weblogs can certainly serve as replacements for existing educational technologies, but their potential reaches far beyond this. Weblogs provide an environment amenable to decentered, distributed, experiential learning. One of the greatest differences between collaborative web publishing and other computer-mediated forms of educational interaction is that weblogs, wikis, and similar technologies encourage public engagement, interaction with a broad community, experiential learning, and an extension of the learning process beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of the classroom.
Etienne Wenger describes what he calls a “learning architecture,” based upon certain needs:
“1) places of engagement
2) materials and experiences with which to build an image of the world and themselves
3) ways of having an effect on the world and making their actions matter.”
The following sections suggest that collaborative web publishing can help to provide for these three needs. By creating virtual places of engagement, and in combination with directed self-discovery, students can use weblogs, wikis, and related technologies to engage in an active, communal learning process.
Finlay, I.G., Maughan, T.S., & Webster, D.J. (1998). A randomized controlled study of portfolio learning in undergraduate cancer education. Medical Education, 32(2), 172-176.
Flood, J., & Lapp, D. (1989). Reporting reading progress: A comparison portfolio for parents. The Reading Teacher, 42, 508-514.
Frazier, D.M. & Paulson, F.L. (1992). How portfolios motivate reluctant writers. Educational Leadership, 49(8), 62-65.
Goldberg, A., Russell, M., & Cook, A. (2003). The effect of computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002. The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 2(1). (pdf)
Hiebert, E.A. (1992). Portfolios invite reflection – from students and staff. Educational Leadership, 49(8), 58-61.
Lamme, L.L., and Hysmith, C. (1991). One school’s adventure into portfolio assessment. Language Arts, 68, 629-640.
Marvin, C. (1990). When old technologies were new: Thinking about electronic communication in the late nineteenth century. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nord, D.P. (1986). The ironies of communication technology. Clio, April.
Oravec, J.A. (2002). Bookmarking the world: Weblog applications in education. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. April.
Tierney, R.J., Carter, M.A., and Desai, L.E. (1991). Portfolio assessment in the reading-writing classroom. Norwood, Mass.: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Young, J. (2002). Creating online portfolios can help students see “big picture,” colleges say. The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 21.