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.