Reading & Literacy

‘Blogs’ Catching On as Tool for Instruction

By Rhea R. Borja — December 13, 2005 6 min read
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Teacher Matthew J. Clausen looked at his Web-design students—their fingers flying over their computer keyboards—and marveled.

These 10th, 11th, and 12th graders—even the sullen or quiet ones who never raised their hands or took part in class discussions—were spilling out their thoughts on an assignment both to him and their classmates, he recounted recently. They did so through This Digital Life, their class Web log at Willard Alternative High School, a 130-student public high school in Missoula, Mont.

Mr. Clausen is part of a growing number of K-12 educators using Web logs, or “blogs” for short, to foster better writing, reading, communication, and other academic skills. Such Web sites, often open to the public, double as chronological journals and can include Web links and photographs as well as audio and video elements.

The interactive nature of such sites is a major reason they’re catching on in classrooms, say experts such as Tim Wilson, the technology-integration specialist for the 8,000-student Hopkins, Minn., school district west of Minneapolis.

“Blogs are like a conversation. Regular Web pages are static,” he said. “When kids can talk with one another and share ideas, that’s powerful.”

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Blog Basics

A New Jersey high school English-literature class, for example, read and created an interactive “reader’s guide” blog on the novel The Secret Life of Bees. The author, Sue Monk Kidd, read the blog and used it to communicate with the class.

Some budding reporters at J.H. House Elementary School in Conyers, Ga., got mentoring from high school journalism students in New Jersey via a class blog. One of the elementary pupils’ teachers, Anne P. Davis, who now works in the instructional-technology center at Georgia State University’s college of education in Atlanta, said the project was a way to get the pupils to write.

“Most students don’t enjoy writing,” she said. “And I thought there were possibilities there.”

And a teacher at a private high school in Vancouver, British Columbia, has his senior English-literature students blog on their reading assignments, bringing medieval narrative poems such as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” into the era of ubiquitous computer technology.

Student Voices Heard

Blogs have flooded the Internet over the past five years. Some 60 million blogs, on subjects as varied as dieting, NASCAR, politics, and Las Vegas buffets, now crowd the World Wide Web, according to The Blog Herald, a Web site on blogging news.

Experts say they don’t know how many education-related blogs exist, as the trend is still emerging in the K-12 arena.

It’s only in the past year or so that blogging in schools has spread from a handful of education technology hotshots to thousands of typical classroom teachers. Among them is Mr. Clausen in Missoula.

“What I’m most attracted to in Web logs is the empowerment of the student voice,” he said. “Many of our students … don’t often feel like they’re heard. And here they have a tool that gets them noticed.”

Each week for six weeks this school year, his Web-design students blogged about their class assignments, on such topics as copyrights and the elements of a user-friendly Web site. Before the class, none of them had ever written anything in class that could be read beyond the school walls.

One week, they blogged about, well, blogging. “Blogging allows everyone in the class to share their opinion, not just the loudest or most outspoken student,” wrote senior Caitlin Nunberg. “Blogs are more in-depth than a classroom discussion.”

The often-public nature of blogs is also a draw for many students, who tend to be more careful with their grammar, logic, and writing style when potentially millions of people can read what they write, said Will Richardson, a self-described “blogvangelist” who supervises instructional technology and communications at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J. His blog, Webblogg-ed, is one of the most highly read blogs among precollegiate teachers.

“I tell the kids after a few days of [blogging] to ‘Google’ themselves,” he said, referring to the popular Internet search engine. “And they say, ‘Oh my God, I’m really out there.’ ”

Still, some teachers may fear that blogs can isolate instead of connect people. Educational technology experts point out, though, that many students prefer to blog after school, even in the middle of the night.

Ms. Davis of Georgia State says blogging should complement rather than supplant classroom conversation.

“It shouldn’t replace oral discussion. It’s not either-or,” she said. “You should use all the tools at your fingertips.”

No Last Names

Web sites offering free or low-cost blog-hosting services, such as Blogger.com, have proliferated. Create a user name and password, and you’re officially part of the “blogosphere.”

But teachers and administrators must surmount some pedagogical and logistical issues to use and manage a blog effectively, as well as security issues to protect their students and districts, technology experts say.

The thorniest issue is how educators can use classroom blogs to advance student achievement. So far, little analysis has been done on the quality of blogs as a classroom tool.

“Creating a blog is easy,” said Mr. Wilson of Minnesota’s Hopkins school system. “Using it well and in a way that enhances learning is difficult.”

Mr. Wilson suggests that school districts—not third-party Web sites—should host class blogs themselves to maintain sufficient oversight. On Blogger.com, for example, a student could post an inappropriate comment on a class blog outside school hours.

That’s what happened recently in the Chicago school district: Three 7th and 8th grade boys in Taft High School’s Advanced Placement program last month allegedly threatened teachers online on a personal blog unrelated to the school. The district disciplined the students, but did not specify their punishment, citing confidentiality.

Districts can download blogging software, such as Movable Type, on their servers, and teachers can control who reads and comments on a blog through sites geared to education.

For security reasons, experts advise against letting students reveal their last names or post photos of themselves on blogs. But they say students should be able to use their first names, or initials, instead of being identified merely as numbers.

“You have to weigh safety concerns with pedagogy,” said Mr. Richardson. “If you’re creating great content but you’re referred to as Number 4672, there’s not that much ownership.”

He and other instructional-technology experts suggest that teachers first get the lay of the blogging landscape before starting a class blog: They should read widely, comment on others’ blogs, then create their own.

Familiarizing themselves with blogging tools that can help them and their students is another good idea for educators, experts say. Such resources include Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, which provides subscribers to a blog e-mail alerts when that blog is updated; Flickr.com, a site for storing and sharing photos; http://del.icio.us/, which “bookmarks” favorite Web sites, making it easier to visit them; and SuprGlu.com, a “meta-aggregator” that brings all types of online content onto one Web page.

“Become part of the conversation,” Mr. Richardson said. “Everybody really does have a printing press now.”

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