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«ABSTRACT: Various forms of computer-mediated communication have resulted in the formation of multifarious online communities. Blogging is one such ...»

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6 Pedagogical Blogging for

University Courses

■ Brad Blackstone and Chris Harwood

National University of Singapore

ABSTRACT: Various forms of computer-mediated communication have resulted in

the formation of multifarious online communities. Blogging is one such form that

is now used widely within the university for educational purposes. This paper gives

an overview of pedagogical blogging and discusses the way it was implemented

in two university courses. It also proposes that because students and their teacher facilitators develop and share common interests and goals, they evolve into what Lave and Wenger (1991) have termed a “community of practice” (CoP). Following that, the paper explains how blogging in these two course CoPs extended teaching and learning out of the classroom into a class-centered “blogosphere.” A theoretical justification for utilizing blogging is also provided as is a description of the manner by which a systematic approach to blogging can broaden learner-learner and learner-teacher interaction. Finally, the paper shows how students following a strict blogging regime positively view blogging as an opportunity to refine various writing skills within the context of their “real world” writing tasks.

Introduction At the advent of the Internet, Warschauer (1996) suggested that computer-mediated communication would provide learners with a way “to share not only brief messages, but also lengthy (formatted or unformatted) documents—thus facilitating collaborative writing—and also graphics, sounds, and video” and that it would enable them “to publish their texts or multimedia materials to share with partner classes or with the general public.” When we look at the Internet today and consider the impact on the world of over 50 million weblogs (known as blogs) (Weybret, 2010) as well as websites such as the social networking site Facebook, the video sharing site YouTube and the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia, Warschaurer’s foresight was not only accurate but arguably visionary.

The popularity of these various forms of computer-mediated communication has resulted in the formation of multifarious online communities. In these communities people exchange gossip, stories, ideas, advice, insights and goods as well as various media and files, mirroring the communication that occurs between members in physical communities. This is a major reason why blogs have become popular teaching-learning platforms among educators. A blog is an easy- to-create website where anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can create, present and archive content, written or otherwise, and receive feedback from site visitors. Within an educational setting, having blogs enables learners to create, as Lee (2009) notes, a social workspace where, while adhering to group-generated values and norms, they work to collaborate in sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas. In this way, blogging provides both teachers and learners with more opportunities for meaningful interaction, ultimately helping them forge vibrant online communities.

This paper gives an overview of pedagogical blogging and discusses the way it was implemented Brad Blackstone & Chris Harwood 67 in two university courses. In addition, it suggests that since members of pedagogical blogging communities share common values and norms, interests and goals, they evolve into what Lave and Wenger (1991) have termed a “community of practice” (CoP). Following this, the paper explains how blogging in these two course CoPs extended teaching and learning out of the classroom into a class-centered “blogosphere.” Of course, any learning activity in a course should be theoretically justified and systematically implemented. To that end, this paper explains the theory underpinning institutional blogging, how learner-learner and learner-teacher interaction is enhanced in the process, and how students following a strict blogging regime positively view the activity as an opportunity to refine various writing skills within the context of their “real world” writing tasks.

Blogging and its main elements: The blog, the blog post and reader comments Blogging is the act of bloggers communicating on blogs. After a writer has set up a blog, using one of any number of freely available blog sites—www.blogger.com and www.wordpress.com are among the most well-known—they can then write and upload the post, and if need be, attach other files. Posts are archived in reverse chronological order, with the most recent post listed at the top of the main blog page. With each post, the writer can also receive comments. When writing is being shared within a particular group of bloggers, such as a class of students who have common interests and goals and who are working through similar writing tasks, the individual is given an opportunity to see how others have written on the same theme, articulate a critical response, and while reflecting on both the process and the various products, return to their own post and, if so inclined, reshape it.

The students’ individual blogs then becomes a place where they can post and archive blog entries, whether written discussions on various topics, responses to questions, free writing and/ or draft assignments; include photographs, songs, video clips and accessible web-links; receive critical feedback, not just from the teacher, but from anyone in a class and from other interested online parties; and analyze, evaluate and then comment on the post of others. The result is informal peer teaching and learning, which can be highly motivating as each student negotiates new understandings and develops an identity as a valued member of the learning community.

In this way, blogging serves the teacher as a means of having students interact with each other in a highly meaningful context via regularly posted assignments on course-related themes.

Additionally, it can serve a teacher as a means for monitoring each student’s communication within a community of practice and enable them to intervene and guide practice where necessary.

Communities of Practice (CoP) In a CoP, people who share a common interest, profession or goal are bound by what they do together, whether that is having lunch or discussing solutions to problems. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group (or community) that the members learn from one another, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally. Toohey (1996) suggests that the CoP perspective offers a new framework for looking at second language learning, arguing that in a CoP...the second language learner is seen not as internalizing the second language, but rather as a newcomer beginning to participate in the practices of a particular community. (p. 553) Within this framework, language learning is considered a process of increasing participation in the performance of community practices.

68 Global Perspectives, Local Initiatives CoP and learning

Wenger (1998, p. 2) suggests that any CoP should identify itself along three dimensions:

What it is—its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members ● How it functions—the relationships of mutual engagement that bind members together into ● a social entity What it has produced—the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, ● artifacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time.

The educational focus of a CoP centers upon the talents and skills, and goals and achievements that members value. For example, in a business CoP, letter-writing skills would be seen as important. In order to effectively communicate with customers and colleagues, members would be encouraged to develop such skills, a talent for writing would be highly valued, and anyone who had won a contract through writing a series of persuasive letters would be lauded. Members of a student business CoP would also see refining of letter writing skills in English as an important goal as well as a form of professional development. While external directives and conditions may influence this understanding of what is important, the student business CoP itself, and within that, any teacher and student members themselves, would be essentially self-organizing and self-determining, setting their own goals and judging how well those are achieved. In short, the individual CoP determines what is important and why.

According to Lave and Wenger (1991), new CoP members acquire skills and pursue activities by actually engaging in the practices together with expert members rather than being explicitly taught. They suggest that participation in the activities of the group is not only a condition of membership in a CoP but also “is itself an evolving form of membership” (p. 53). The same authors use the term “situated learning” to describe the learning that happens in a CoP and argue that situated learning takes place in multiple and varied ways. The learner’s role in a CoP is not a single role; in fact, the learner usually participates or engages in several roles within a CoP.

In a second language or communications skills class CoP, these roles might include a learning practitioner, aspiring expert, peer tutor, least experienced member, member with the greatest IT know–how, community grammar/vocabulary/writing expert and so on. When the members of a CoP such as this interact, be it one to one, in a small group or all together, the role each plays depends on the task at hand, the personalities involved and the social dynamic of the setting.

To pose an example, if students in the language class are assigned to do situational pair work, and in their pairs, need to develop answers to a reading activity, the member of the pair with the better reading skills might well take over, guiding the other toward more reliable answers. In some situations, this member might be younger and even less socially mature than the one being guided. However, within the confines of this particular task and its required skills, she or he acts as the expert of the moment. As Hanks (1991) notes, learners switching roles in this manner implies a “different sort of responsibility, a different set of relations, and a different interactive involvement” (p. 23).

It is in this context that the idea of pedagogical support being provided by a CoP is especially relevant. Similar to the concept of the “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978) and in line with the tenets of social constructivist learning theory (MacMahon, 1997), the CoP framework stresses the importance of social interaction in enhancing the educational process. Within the CoP framework, the processes for learning a second language or developing communication skills are not just viewed as a matter of acquisition but of participating in the social world. For that reason they become enhanced when the learner has an opportunity for playing various roles while engaging others in practice-based activities within related practice-focused communities.

This reflects the sort of interaction learners experience in authentic situations, which Haneda (2000, p.

14) sums up as follows:

The concept of a ‘community of practice’ in the foreign-language-learning context can therefore be best understood as applying to students who are simultaneously members of multiple communities, ranging from the classroom-bound community of teacher with student

–  –  –

CoP and Web 2.0 By 2003 the Internet and Web 2.0 technology extended the reach of CoPs further, freeing learners in educational settings from being “bound” to the classroom in the way that Haneda (2000) describes. Students can now readily engage one another and the teacher outside of the classroom.

Along with near ubiquitous access to the Internet, the increasing array of Internet devices such as cell phones, laptop computers and iPads has also facilitated greater acceptance of learning theories and pedagogical practices with a CoP orientation. Long past are the times when learning was viewed as the simple acquisition of knowledge in isolation. Today, students living in regions throughout the world and studying at all levels in various education systems participate, share and collaborate in work groups and broader learning communities, often times interacting with peers with greater frequency online than face to face. Accepted as members in these multifarious groups and buoyed by the support of numerous communication channels, they not only acquire knowledge and understanding unavailable in their own homes (and sometimes not provided in their schools), they develop skills and tool sets unfamiliar to their parents and teachers.

Modern curricula around the world emphasize collaborative, task-based, student-centered learning, whereby students learn through working together in CoPs to complete tasks and activities as they would in any other community. For example, if one goal of a language class is to learn and practice new grammar points, teachers nowadays will have different groups present on different grammar points. Each group may initiate discussion on the grammar presentation inside class, and then most probably continue work outside of class: researching content, sharing what is found, and then organizing it as a presentation. The group will be doing some work faceto-face and some of it online.

It is in this context that Lave and Wenger’s idea of “situated learning,” born in the pre-Internet early 1990s, has been supplanted by Jones and Jo’s term “ubiquitous learning,” or u-learning.

Jones and Jo define u-learning environments as “any setting in which students can become totally immersed in the learning process.” In the modern world, this setting can be extended to almost anywhere, with the potential only limited by Internet access or the availability of a device to connect to it (2004, p. 469).

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