Sunday, October 28, 2012

Blogs: vastly underused teaching and learning tool

You’re reading this on a blog. As a blogger since 2006, I can only say that it has been one of the most important learning experiences in my life. I don’t go on courses or attend an educational institution but I do write blog pieces and read oodles of stuff on other blogs.
For me, a blog is more than a diary. It is a place for honest expression, a bit of reflection, and some sharing and collaboration. You learn from putting yourself to the test, by writing a piece that is readable by others, but also benefit from the comments that come back, challenging or supporting your view. A blog is an invitation for dialogue. So what’s its contribution to learning?
Blogs benefits
As a learning experience the benefits are clear. The act of writing forces you to précis your thoughts, reflect on experiences and come to some conclusions. The problem with much education and training is that written analysis is either too short (multiple choice or word/phrase answers) or too long (long-form essays in higher education). Blogs provide a far more useful format. A blog post shouldn’t be too short or too long. Some topics require no more than a paragraph or two, others a more considered couple of pages of detailed argument. Like good journalism blogs should be concise and compelling. Blogs force you to be concise but substantial. They are a useful alternative to essays in schools and Universities. Blogs reinforce learning, increase writing and communications skills and (often forgotten) increases retention. They build confidence, self-expression and autonomous learning. Even the shyest students can find a voice.
Blogs and memory
Another great advantage of regular blogging is that the act of writing a clear post involves deep processing in memory that results in better retention. I have a much better memory for the topics, exhibitions, books, films, events and journeys I’ve blogged. The very act of blogging not only boosts memory but acts as an aide memoire. I often go back to my blog posts when I have to give a talk or need to respond to a query on a specific topic.
Blogs and sharing
It is important to remember that blogging is an open invitation to converse with others on a topic. In some cases, such as my critical posts on NLP, I’ve had acerbic, personal attacks. It’s all good and I rather like the idea that the blogosphere is a bit rough and tumble. More importantly, I’ve often had good examples, new perspectives and arguments I hadn’t considered before.
Blog and ‘voice’
Good blogs have a ‘voice’. In fact blogging allows you to find your voice. The best blogs are written by those who do it for themselves and find in themselves the joy of writing. I am so glad I’ve blogged for all these years as I feel I’ve produced material that would have been lost to my mind and memory. As you can probably guess I’m not a fan of blogs from organisations – no real voice and too much direct marketing for my taste.
Teacher blogs
The admirable Millie Watts, the social networking teacher, had a blog ‘What I taught this week’. This was obviously useful for her students. Most teachers leave no trace at all of their lessons, yet we know with absolute certainty that learners need repeated access to knowledge to learn. A teacher’s blog can summarise what was covered in lessons, included media content such as diagrams, photographs and video. It can also link to useful external resources. As a resources for learners who may have found the lesson to difficult, were off ill, have English as a second language it can be a useful safety net. In doing homework or revision, it is a useful resource for all.
In many ways it is almost odd that a teacher, lecturer, trainer, instructor does not blog. They are in the business of imparting knowledge and this is a simple way to do precisely that, and it’s easy to use and free!
Similar arguments apply to leaders and senior managers in organisations. Many CEOs and other senior managers and experts within organisations blog. This humanises the organisation, gives people a voice and a chance for others in the organisation to get to know that person better.
Convincing teachers can come through arguments for deep learning, reflection and retention.
Learner blogs
Benefits of blogs for learners include summarising their experience and better retention. Useful notes for revision are also created for reinforcement and revision. The blog format not only improves writing and communication skills, it is a powerful form of preparation for exams that demand reflection and good written answers. It can also be used as a form of peer-to-peer learning, where other learners are encouraged to comment on each other’s posts. This can be left open or done formally.
David Mitchel is a huge evangelist for pupil blogging. He didn't set one piece of homework all year, yet his pupils worked producing 70,000 words+ on their blogs from home. His primary school has also shown measurable improvements in writing skills. Millie Watts encouraged her students to write ‘What I learned this week’ blogs. Blogs encourage students to write the right way, not over-long essays but short, sharp pieces that communicates ideas. Get them to blog for a specific target audience. Oh and don't call blogging homework, a hideous word that turns it into a chore.
Blogs and assessment
A learner blog gives a running account of what the learner is learning. It acts as a form of continuous formative assessment. There is an argument for replacing the drudgery of homework with learner generated blogs that force the learner to reflect on what they’ve learned. There's a degree of honesty and substance in a learner blogs that one is unlikely to find in formal testing.
Informal blogs
There are millions of bloggers who have been energised to blog on almost every imaginable subject. The blogosphere has, in effect, become a source of knowledge sharing in all professions and all subjects. No matter what subject interests you, enthusiasts are no longer tied to the narrow-cast journals or trade magazines. The blogosphere is a rolling wave of knowledge leaving a useful archive in its wake. For me it is perhaps the most tangible evidence for the health of informal, lifelong learning.
Blogs and politics
At another level, that of political engagement, blogs have played a significant role, not only in stable democracies but perhaps more relevantly in repressive regimes and most notably in the Arab Spring. Bloggers have written about corruption, presented alternatives and galvanised people around causes and real events. To be absolutely clear here, for some naive commentators have dismissed this activity, bloggers have been murdered, imprisoned, tortured and harassed in many countries.
Blogs and publishing
Finally, it has to be recognised that the blogosphere is a publishing medium in its own right, as well as a source for authors, columnists and journalists who can emerge in a meritocratic fashion, to publish their own work. Entire works of fiction and non-fiction were blogs or have emerged from blogs.
Blogs are a potent and vastly underused teaching and learning tool. The habit of regular writing as a method of reflection, synthesis, argument and reinforcement is suited to the learning process. Blogs encourage bolder, independent, critical thinking, as opposed to mere note taking. For teachers they crystallise and amplify what you have to teach. For learners, they force you to really learn. A last word for those bloggers who have been jailed, flogged and killed, maybe we owe it to them to do this. 


John Rogers - Learning in Practice said...

Hi Donald, it's your enthusiasm for blogging that got me started about 12 months ago, so thanks. I've learnt loads from doing it. I've also noticed how new threads and ideas emerge from the process of writing and from reading others contributions.

On the blog and voice point I came across this quote on Euen Semple's blog that said something important to me about how to approach what to write:

"Do not tell me what to do, tell me what you do. Do not tell me what is good for me, tell me what is good for you. If, at the same time, you reveal the you in me, if you become a mirror to my inner self, then you have made a reader and a friend."

- George Sheehan

Hiran Amrasekera said...

Nice thoughts. I read this after I got your link from Gurteen Knowledge-Letter: November 2012.

It is good to encourage young students to blog while in the university. However sometimes they only do so if you allocate some marks. So we ask our students to blog about their seminar topics before presenting to the staff and then we give marks for them (for our BSc Forestry and Environment Management course at University of Sri Jayewardepura)

budrey said...

I agree on the point that the blogs are short and precise. It can be used for education as I agree that it is like a diary of true stories.