Becoming active in the public sphere – Blogs and collaborative writing for pedagogical purposes

co-authored by Marianna Vivitsou, Ahmad Aljanazrah & Montaser Al-Halabi

Blogs entered the pedagogical landscape in the late ‘90s and have changed the way we understand web-based interaction and online communication. Now the users could set up a space to post and share ideas and arguments, research, teaching material, textual, visual and multimodal with the world. Those were the days when the blogosphere was a promising public sphere for many.  

For progressive teachers, considering matters of student agency and engagement in the classroom, blogging is seen as an opportunity for more collaboration-oriented pedagogies. A pedagogy based on the principle of collaboration aims for engagement and allows student ownership of the narrative that emerges out of the writing process, more opportunities to articulate own voices, to become authors themselves, and co-authors in the process of the pedagogical narrative.  

But how can collaborative blogging be possible when writing collaboratively and in public has proved to be challenging in many ways? More particularly, when it comes to blogging, not only does it take loads of time to maintain a blog, to thoroughly think and outline its posts, it also takes commitment to the purposes of writing and the intended audiences. 

As well, as our experiences from integrating collaborative writing into our teachings show, blogging cannot be an end in itself. Integrating blogs into our curriculum needs to be linked with the overall purposes of the course and the needs of the students. 

As Ahmad writes about blogging experiences in a newly developed course, part of a master’s program in education at Birzeit University in Palestine, students’ blogs have been used as assessment tools for- and of students’ learning. The course titled “Learning and teaching in the Digital Age” consisted of 15 sessions addressing the educational foundations of using Web 2.0 technologies in diverse educational settings. The course started by providing practical training for students on developing and sharing blogs and it was set as a part of the course assessment.  Each student was provided 10 to 15 min at the end of each lecture to write two short paragraphs describing what was newly learned (if any) and to reflect on that learning. 

In order to explore benefits, challenges and pedagogical opportunities of this use of blogs within the context of this course, 24 Students’ blogs were thematically analysed and evaluated and semi-structured interviews were conducted with eight students. Results revealed that although students expressed their initial scepticism on developing and using their own blogs in the beginning of the course, the blogs helped them to gradually document, share and understand the content of the course. They used the blogs to communicate knowledge and feelings among themselves and as a study material for the tests and other evaluative tasks. 

As the lecturer asked students to write a short paragraph/ sentence to describe their feelings about what and how they learned in lecture, blogs helped follow up students’ learning, deal with emerging misconceptions, and modify pedagogical practices accordingly. 

The findings strongly recommend the integration of blogging in higher education as both self-learning environments and an authentic assessment tool of students’ learning with special attention to providing continuous follow up and timely feedback. 

This mode of integration, as described by Ahmad, reflects the account of Bruns and Burgess where blogs are used as tools for reflexive learning and discussions. Also, blogs can become part of the research process itself. Indeed, as Rebecca Olive shares in her article on research methods, the practice of blogging  allowed her “to develop ideas, to collect data, to reflect, to connect, to access people and opinions” that would not be possible otherwise. In this way, blogs and the act of blogging became a method of the research. 

Considering the way that R. Olive explains her experience of blogging as a researcher, we return to the metaphor of continuum. Evidently, this profound use of blogs agrees with suggestions for the integration of multiplicities of digital tools and environments, if we aim for a kind of redefinition of our students’ learning. Further than the multiple-tool integration principle, O’ Donnell proposes, rather than fragmentary, an across-the-curriculum (or networked) use of blogs. 

Under this light, Montaser’s insights from working in teacher education and E-learning in Al-Azhar University Gaza, are linked with the use of similar technologies for blogging and essay writing. These include, for example, sharing files and documents through cloud services. Although shared documents are not built for public publishing, Montaser’s students use them extensively in their professional development assignments, to plan their practicum lessons. Cloud-based documents give the students the opportunity for continued follow-up and formative assessment by their mentor and an ongoing monitoring of the process by the senior practicum director.  

At a later stage, where the students need to share reflections with peers, the forum of a Learning Management System (e.g. Moodle) is used in asynchronous learning sessions. In addition, the students practice a kind of controlled blogging, which aims to gradually lead to more free forms of engagement with writing. Through this kind of mentored writing process, the student teachers are in ongoing interactions with mentors who follow up with suggestions for improvement. Mentored writing takes place in an inquiry-based mode.

Montaser believes that, in this way, the power shifts gradually from the mentors to the student teachers. Over the last few years, he has observed better student-teachers’ learning through written expression. In this way, the students find their way around in the early stages of the studies. When they feel lost and confused about where to start or how to build the plan and/or express ideas, the mentors have a bigger portion of the power. After about 2 semesters, as the students formulate and document their own plans, the dynamics change. The students like to keep their writings mainly private, with only a few of them sharing it with peers. Public writing seems to be a challenge for the students.

Public blogging, then, requires courage, as the students are very skeptical about sharing their writings, especially when the educational system is tight like a train track, Montaser observes. 

Marianna acknowledges these challenges of collaborative writing and blogging. However, she also agrees with T. Holland’s position on the public necessity of students’ blogging. In his blog post article, Holland sees a mis-match in naming ‘blogs’ those closed environments that are embedded in Learning Management Systems. As these are targeted to the specific audiences of the universities, they negate the basic principle of blogging for open discussions and interactions aiming for expansive, rather than exclusive, learning communities. The use of blogs, then, should encourage students “to engage with current practice in their field and reach out to and get the attention of professionals, which is good for both the student and the university”, Holland argues. 

Under this light, Marianna has set up the Pathways to Scholarship blog as an open forum that hosts different layers of collaboration with students and teachers. In the blog, the students are invited to comment on and take a position toward ideas that are relevant to their studies and work. The students comment and articulate their views in different ways. To better understand the narrative that emerges, further analysis and discussions on these contributions are needed. However, one initial insight is that the students’ work can very often be inspiring and lead to new pathways such as, for instance, new conceptualizations of the very notion of studentship itself. 

Being a student, then, can be associated, not only to the one being assigned tasks by someone else. As well, it can be about becoming a collaborator, a creative and imaginative, engaged partner in the process of building knowledge together. Toward this direction, Marianna finds the metaphor of ‘fold’ helpful, as used by Elizabeth St Pierre in a study aiming to challenge the ways we do postfoundational research. The metaphor is rooted in the works of Deleuze and Foucault and St Pierre uses it to argue that, in order  to produce knowledge differently, we need to think, to teach, to do research in fold. In practice, in ‘fold’ means that we act by constantly shifting the boundaries of our subjectivities and identities as teachers, researchers, thinkers, scholars. 

And this is exactly what happened in this collaborative effort for writing. Our own writing was/is in fold. In our case, when we started working on this blog post, we needed to set a common ground to make this writing meaningful and coherent. This meant we needed to revisit our initial individual purposes and recalibrate toward co-writing about collaborative blogging. In this way, our initial understandings of collaborative writing and blogging also shifted to certain extents by immersing our-self into the experiences of the other-s. This happened in a, rather than linear, spiral process where we moved from text to discussions back and forth. In this spiral movement, our teaching and research experiences with collaboration, writing and blogging became more visible, also by publishing and sharing the writings on the public sphere. 

It is, then, the process of shifting boundaries and the commitment to do so that makes the collaborative writing possible. As well, working in fold also makes it possible to realize that collaboration-oriented pedagogies are, rather than solid, fluid and multi-layered. As such, they cannot be achieved once for all. Instead, they are revisited and reconfigured, allowing for diverse knowledge construction, depending on the needs, the participants and the purposes of the collaborative event each time. 

Online teaching and learning environments

Possibilities and challenges for pedagogical use

Author: Marianna Vivitsou

As virtuality is a topical issue in OLIVE project, online teaching and learning environments are at the core of discussions that take place in the pedagogical cafes. In the gathering early last April, I came up with the idea to frame the discussions on the basis of types of interaction and on whether platforms and/or web services are integrated in the official curricula. Here are some highlights that emerged out of this framework, along with my reflections upon these conversations. 

The categorization is an initial one and is linked with institutional practices. Thus, the category formal online teaching environments concerns those playing an integral part in the everydayness of teaching (e.g., Moodle) and have substituted (to an extent) its conventional paper-load (e.g., by uploading digital assignments instead of their paper versions; inserting links to resources thus replacing photocopies; uploading slides instead of blackboard chalk writings and notes, etc.).  

Despite their contribution to a potentially more ecologically oriented pedagogical practice, it is questionable whether online teaching environments have kept their promise. Instead, it seems that technologies have been received as self-fulfilling promises themselves. Very often they are treated as the content of the pedagogical practice, when the interest turns to what brands we will bring into the classroom at the expense of a student-centered pedagogical use. Also what pedagogical use means in different situations.

This instrumental approach to technology integration (whether for online, blended or hybrid teaching), as research has shown, has reproduced patterns of fragmented, a-contextual learning.  

The use of Moodle groups is one example of this situation. Teachers, for instance, often comment that student exchanges in group work are lacking depth, thus limiting the narrative to superficial interactions, comments and so on. Questions that arise, then, concern the root causes of such phenomena. What are the reasons underlying content limitations? And, what can we do to overcome them?  

This is, then, a quite complicated affair that the rhizomatic use of technology makes it even more complex than we are, possibly, willing to admit. 

Nowadays, the use of formal teaching tech does not come on its own. It is complemented by informal online teaching environments. Examples of these usually include instant messaging platforms and applications (e.g., WhatsApp, telegram etc.) that educators use to share with students, multi-modal information, links and hypertextual material, essential for their learning. The use of informal web-based spaces brings with it challenges as well. The sense of fragmentation and incoherence are examples of such challenges. The screen interface, especially in mobile devices, limits visibility and readability. Also, the need for immediate response allows for rather superficial exchanges to arise, according to experiences shared by teachers.   

However, we need to think beyond the dichotomy of right/wrong and revisit the integration of technology by contextualizing it.  

It is true, for instance, that it is challenging for teachers to read student assignments on the screen of mobile devices. But it doesn’t really matter.

As the experience of the catastrophic events of the pandemic has shown, this way of writing is better than having no options at all for completing assignments.  As M. Cucher writes, in a situation when everything is in flux, , like in Puerto Rico, many students are dealing, not only with changes in schedules workwise and school-wise. As well, for some the change meant they had to use their phones to participate in class activities from work to avoid losing income and steady employment; for others, that they had connect to classes from the homes of elderly relatives. Many more can be added to these experiences, from different places in the world, showing that instant messaging made it possible for students to continue being connected with the community and their learning.  

Drawing from my own experience, it was through Telegram groups that I kept being connected with students from Al-Azhar University during the tumultuous 11-day war situation in Gaza. With instant messaging technologies, the students shared videos, images and texts about how their own imaginaries of a better future in the area.  

There is more to share about the students’ video storytelling from Gaza and will do so,  in a later post.  

For the moment, for the featured image of this post, a pic shared by a student in AUG, in April 2021.  

Concluding this one, once again I will point out that it is the stories of using the technologies that make the use of technology matter.  

It is the why’s and the how’s and what historical events and what spaces these were happening that make the use of technology pedagogical.  

Stay tuned! 

Teaching STEM with technology and collaborative work

Voice Analyzer with Gas and Mirrors, Natural Sciences and Technology Museum, National & Kapodistrian University, Athens

Out-of-the-box approaches and practices for thinking critically  

authored by Marianna Vivitsou

Thinking STEM in education

The theme of STEM education is intertwining with many of the basic areas of interest in OLIVE and relates to different outputs and project activities.  

These include, among others, the need to establish virtual peer mentoring teams to strengthen exchange of ideas and learning from one another, to define new practicum strategies and set a framework for shared teaching in the OLIVE partner universities. Undoubtedly, this is a complex situation. Yet, this is not the only kind of complexity that approaching STEM education presents.  

As it spans across major fields of science, research and teaching, considerations arise concerning the epistemologies and the pedagogies that should underlie the effort to introduce a working model of STEM (i.e., an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in education. In addition to that, although science, technology, engineering and mathematics related occupations are expected to experience rapid growth in the years to come, STEM does not seem to be for all.  

Recent studies show that gender gaps and other divides and inequalities in the professional domain are rooted within expectations, stereotypes and structures established and observed early in the education continuum. In alignment with these, an introduction to a collection of articles with a focus on participation barriers, Nature Research and Scientific American point out that many groups are underrepresented in research including women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and socially disadvantaged populations. Far more action, therefore, needs to be taken in institutions and scientific communities. 

Taking these insights into consideration, in the pedagogical team of OLIVE we departed to set some commonly agreed principles aiming to frame the basis of joint work. At the same time, we recognized the need to think and act differently and in ways that would align with outofthebox approaches and practices. «Out of the box» is a metaphor that signifies new, creative ways that are go beyond established (here, teaching) practices and look into the multiple dimensions of phenomena with a critical eye.  

On this ground, we agreed to bring multiple perspectives into our conceptualization of STEM and, in this way, aim for increased student engagement and initiative-taking for problem solving. Given that OLIVE itself is a collaboration-based project, the activities of the pedagogical team cannot but be consistent with the principle of working together. Therefore, in order to allow for student agency to emerge by calibrating upon a critical lens, our plan for Stem education relies on teamwork and combines individual with work in groups.  

As technology-enhanced Stem education goes along with similar principles, we set out to think together in our regular pedagogical informal discussions.  

Teaching STEM with technology

Technology-enhanced STEM education is a major goal in OLIVE and includes the use of real time and asynchronous (I.e., on demand) technologies for teaching. With this in mind, the focus of the discussion was on possible ways to integrate Moodle and Zoom in the teaching of a STEM-related phenomenon.  

Moodle and zoom are two of the most popular platforms of our era. Their popularity, however, resides in quite distinct reasons that reflect wider societal phenomena. Moodle, for instance, offers a safe space for teachers to set up virtual classrooms, share materials and invite students to participate in discussions, upload their assignments, offer their feedback. It is open coded software and institutionally bound. While the use of Moodle serves on-demand pedagogical needs, Zoom is a real-time web-conferencing platform. While Moodle has been around for more than a decade, the popularity of Zoom spiked to serve the needs for remote teaching that the Covid-19 circumstances and restrictions generated.  

So, we used a real-life pedagogical scenario to discuss practices on these two teaching environments. 

You are planning to teach a Stem-related phenomenon to a class of year 3 students. As you will be using both Moodle and Zoom for virtual teaching and real-time sessions, think along these lines of a real-life pedagogical scenario:  What practices and activities would encourage students to apply critical thinking on the phenomenon that will be taught? What should the students be able to do, as critical thinkers? What practices and activities would be a better fit for group work on Moodle? What practices and activities would be a better fit for breakout rooms? 

A real-life pedagogical scenario 

Supporting collaborative work for thinking critically 

The most popular themes among the discussants were connected with environmental/climate change issues, such as volcanoes and how, for instance, extractivism impacts their action or in-action; plastics and recycling; and the COVID-19 phenomenon.  

As practice has shown, there can be links between these two different types of online environments, as both can support critical thinking and collaborative work. However, this happens in different ways. For example, Moodle, with its on-demand built, can support the process of reflecting upon learning. By sharing textual, multimodal, audio-visual materials (e.g., articles etc.), the students have the opportunity to read and think deeper, then develop their ideas on a topic in written form, e.g., in learning diaries.  When students read one another’s work, a space opens up for offering comments and suggestions for improvement. Peer assessment and peer learning becomes, in this way, possible.  

On the other hand, real-time web-conferencing platforms (e.g., Zoom) encourage collaboration in live mode. Everyone can present there, in real-time. Having chosen an object (I.e., a topic, theme, phenomenon etc.) to examine, by analysing its different dimensions and trying to figure out possible answers to why and how questions. Live classes, therefore, can be opportunities for discussions through a critical lens and open up the space for students, not just read and listen, but offer opinions and contribute to the collective wisdom of the class with logical and clear argumentation.   

Teaching Stem out-of-the-box means…  

Critical thinkers will be able to:  

  • Take a stance toward different claims  
  • Read critically (e.g., articles)  
  • They can get there:  
  1. By asking questions  e.g., Covid-19 and its impact on health, economy etc.  
  2. By recognizing naïve conceptions, truth, lies – e.g., what is true/not true about Covid-19 and vaccination  

Teaching, assessment of learning, technology and other entanglements

Favorite street on a cloudy day by anim@vit

Co-authored by Marianna Vivitsou & Hanna Posti-Ahokas

How does digital learning challenge our thinking around assessment? 

Assessment is a multi-dimensional and highly debated topic in higher education research and practice. The Olive team gathered in its first pedagogical café to discuss assessment with the aim to think how the digitalization of learning challenges practice. The new ways of teaching and learning require new ways of assessment. How to respond to the change in a way that makes assessment work towards it intended purpose of supporting learning?  

Assessment in focus 

Assessment is multi-dimensional and highly debated. For a start, it draws parallels with research, as when we set off to construct an assessment tool, we should take care that we assess what needs to be assessed. Validity, therefore, is one significant criterion of the assessment process. Second, assessment seems to be often confused with evaluation. While evaluation is product-oriented, assessment is process-oriented. In education, evaluation concerns the outcomes of a course, a lesson or a project, where learning has taken place. Contrary to this, assessment concerns the process that leads to learning outcomes. The fact that what constitutes a learning outcome (or not) is itself a highly debated area makes even more pressing the need to revisit assessment and evaluation as intertwining and overlapping concepts.  

In this complexity, it could be helpful to think of what the focus of our assessment is and what the purposes of assessment are 

In the small group discussion during the pedagogical café, one recurrent theme was how the use of technology in teaching and learning relates with assessment. While it was agreed that the new ways of teaching require new ways of assessment, the path towards renewed assessment practice is not a clear cut one. The functionality of technology and fairness of online assessment have already manifested as obstacles after moving teaching and learning onto digital and technology-supported environments. These may be considered as implications of more fundamental issues around assessment.  

Assessment should be connected to the learning objectives and expected outcomes. However, learning is not always measurable. The instrumentalist, exam-focused culture of assessment does not necessarily capture/support deep understanding. Large student groups may also have influenced the use of instrumentalist approaches. However, as Gandini & Horák (2020), among others, point out, it is essential to seek ways to integrate into technology-supported assessment personalised feedback for students. In this way, we will be able to highlight areas they need to work on and give suggestions, and, thus, guide them through their future learning. In addition, personalised feedback opens up the whole process of assessment and allows the students to get deeper into its logic. Based on this understanding, students can be better equipped to modify their own approaches and practices in the learning process.  

The way forward? 

How could the assessment methods evolve? Self- and peer-assessment was mentioned as a potential area of development. Also, a more profound, complex understanding of learning could result in development of more meaningful assessment practices. As Woodhouse & Wood (2020) argue in their paper on developing doctoral students’ critical writing skills, peer assessment opened up a dialogic space for sustained engagement and learning. The students were involved in peer assessment and review activities or writing, editing and publishing a student-led journal over a sustained period. During that time, their ability to write critically developed, while the sense of feeling ‘at home ‘with academia was enhanced.

We, therefore, take such insights from the literature and our own experiences as a challenge for the OLIVE community and continue the pedagogical conversations that complement our understanding and help to generate change in our institutions.  

Food for thought:  

The following are terms from the literature on assessment. How are these different types of assessment and their effects visible in your current practice? What new would you like to bring in?  

Assessment types  

Diagnostic: when planning a course and we need to get a clearer picture of the students’ previous knowledge of the topics/phenomena etc. taught during the course 

Formative: takes place throughout the teaching of a course, the implementation of a project etc.  

Summative: takes place at the end of a course 

Objective: usually closed item, in the form of multiple-choice questions etc.  

Authentic: uses methods and techniques that are close to real-life situations, e.g., a debate, a group discussion, an experiment etc. 

Norm-referenced: how the performance of an individual compares to performance of a group of peers (e.g., a class of students within a school, across a nation etc.)  

Criterion-referenced: compares a person’s knowledge or skills against a predetermined standard, learning goal, performance level, or other criterion. With criterion-referenced tests, each person’s performance is compared directly to the standard, without considering how other students perform on the test. 

Performance-based: Students can create, perform, and/or provide a critical response. Examples include dance, recital, dramatic enactment. There may be prose or poetry interpretation. 

Backwash effect: Backwash effect is usually defined as the impact of assessment on learning and teaching. Backwash effect is positive if the assessment results in favourable changes in learning and teaching strategies; and it is negative if the changes are undesired and discourage students from adopting a deep approach to learning. Harmful backwash takes place when the contents and format of the test are not congruent to the objectives of the course or when certain skills are tested with, for example, a multiple-choice item format that results in the idea of giving a lot of practice in this type of test instead of practicing the skill itself. 

Wash-forward effect: how assessment influences the students’ future learning. F. ex., providing students with personalised feedback, directly linked to their performance, has positive washforward, because it means we can guide their future learning, highlighting the areas they need to work on to improve their language skills and giving them suggestions on how to succeed in academia.