July 10th, 2008

Blogs: An Asynchronous Learning Trend


Alex Halavais, assistant professor of communication and graduate director of informatics at the University at Buffalo, has incorporated blogs in his courses to encourage students to think beyond a single course, to integrate their learning across the curriculum, and to provide opportunities for feedback as students’ work evolves. Halavais has written a chapter on this topic for the forthcoming book International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments (Kluwer Academic Publishers). Online Classroom recently spoke with Halavais the evolving pedagogical uses of blogs.

How are blogs different from threaded discussions?

That question is actually how I got started with blogs. At the University of Washington before I knew what a blog was we had a threaded discussion board available to us. I used it several times, but students would trap themselves into threads and would not read the larger conversation. I wanted to be inclusive and for students to engage in the entire class, but the threads got in the way for me. I also wanted to make students’ work as public as possible, opening it up to a wider audience and potentially more participants. Even from the very start I found that very rewarding. For example, we’d read an author, and the students made some comments about the reading, and the author came back and participated in the conversation. It really broke down those external walls in the class.

Do your students know what blogs are before taking your course?

Last semester in a class of 120, two or three said they knew what blogs were. This time maybe half had heard of them, but only one or two — about 5 percent — had kept a blog or engaged in one. So it’s not as common as one might think.

What kind of preparation do your students need to use blogs in your course?

It depends on how I use them in the course. Recently I’ve been having students keep their own blogs [as opposed to using a single blog in the course]. That requires a great deal of preparation and time explaining the process — far more than I expected. I think everyone who does this underestimates the competence that’s required to keep a blog — both at the purely technical level and if they have built-in expectations about the social part of it at that level as well.

The simplest use is to have students post their assignments to the class blog. I can cover that process in a single class, and most students don’t have a problem with that. When it comes to maintaining their own blogs, a lot of effort is in the social part of it, making links, the idea of short, micro-content that makes sense.

What types of materials do students post?

I think the most common and the one that I still use the most is having them post their regular assignments. If they have a response due for a reading or a short essay, I simply have them post it to their blog rather than handing in or e-mailing it to me. At its basic level and for people just starting out especially, there’s no reason not to do that. That small change shouldn’t make that much of a difference, but it turns out that making it public does make a difference.

The reason I moved in this direction is that people would hand in things they would never want their peers to see. They had no problem with me as the instructor seeing that writing, but they were embarrassed if their peers had seen them write that way. The rationale was that by opening students’ work to more scrutiny, they would improve the quality of their work. And that was one of the things that moved me originally. But it’s broader than that. It makes them think about their work as being open work and as being part of a larger context. They think about the larger social context of this, and they try to make their work apply to more than just the classroom.

You mention the importance of demonstrating the value of blogs to students. Could you elaborate?

The motivation to write for any blogger doing this is largely the readership coming back and contacting them. And when students see people from outside taking an interest in what they’re doing I think they tend to want to blog. That motivation becomes intrinsic rather than part of the class.

How does your role change during the semester as students become more comfortable with blogs?

The technology itself is a really basic content management system. Part of my role is highlighting the work that is done well, using the fact that the class is transparent to pull exemplary from work they’re already doing. That process is really an experiential one that you can’t push them through too quickly. They need to figure out what’s happening. If you’re taking the view that it’s not just assignments on the Web, if you’re trying to push them toward blogging as a kind of a practice, then it takes them a while to get up to speed getting that experience and applying it to their own writing.


What are you telling students to use this space for?

Right now and I think this is going to be for the near future, my major use will be at the graduate level. We’re trying to integrate blogging across classes that students are taking concurrently and over time. They start to make much more of the connections between classes. We introduce blogs in the first course as they come into the program, and then find ways that instructors on their own can integrate blogs. Usually this means taking assignments they already have and putting them in the blogs rather than handing them in on paper.

Students link things from previous classes to their current work. We’ve talked to them about how you integrate this into some sort of portfolio and encourage them to be more retrospective in their work.

You write that instructors can’t just tack on a blog and expect it to work. How have you changed your course to accommodate blogs?

You can integrate it with what you are already doing, but you should be prepared for surprises. One of those surprises for me is that I know more about my students than I expected to know. They rarely stay on topic, which for me is a good thing. They connect this to everyday life. That’s changed my interaction with students to a certain degree.

One of the reasons I moved in this direction in the first place was because I wanted to push students to be much more self-directed in their work to find a place for that kind of informal learning that happens outside the academy and try to set up a space within the academy that allows that to happen. I don’t know that it’s changed my teaching philosophy. In terms of my practices, it has changed things. I’m more willing to allow students to steer the direction of the class. I’m happy to have students guide the class.

What effect have blogs had on your students’ learning outcomes?

Right now it’s a qualitative field. It’s a really hard issue to tackle. People come in with different backgrounds, but they may learn something that you didn’t intend for them to learn. The educational process is difficult to attach a metric to when you’re using the weblogs. Some of it is they’re learning to write better. Some if it is they may find an area in which they are passionately interested in, and those are the kinds of metrics you just can’t do quantitatively in an effective way.

What outcomes have you observed?

The greatest outcome for me and the thing that I like to see the most is students who at the end of the semester say, “I’ve taken charge of my learning.” In many instances, students come to college not knowing what they want to study, and they leave college not knowing what they what they wanted to study. The most encouraging thing for me is when they say, “I’ve found something I’m interested in.” Wholly aside from whether they’re going to be blogging it or not they’ve kind of engaged themselves in the process of seeking out information that is relevant to them.

Contact Alex Halavais at halavais@gmail.com. A manuscript of his chapter can be viewed at http://alex.halavais.net/files/EduBloggingChapter.