BLOGS AS ELECTRONIC LEARNING JOURNALS
Laurie Armstrong and Dr Marsha Berry
School of Art, Design and Communication
and Reece Lamshed
Blogs (web logs) are one of the fastest growing features ofthe World Wide Web.. At its simplest a blog is a personal web based space forwriting managed by the author who compiles lists of links to personallyinteresting material interspersed with information and editorial.
Recent research conducted at the RMIT in the Faculty of Art,Design and Communication has explored the range of potential applications ofblogging technology in education and training for student communication,learning content delivery, student mentoring, professional development,collaboration and knowledge management.
The focus of this article is on the use of blogs by studentsas learning journals. Blogs are able to integrate the personal aspect of atraditional learning journal or diary that documents a student’s journalthrough their leaning with the immediate publishing capability of the web.
A blog site was developed specifically for the research andgroups of students from three learning contexts developed online learningjournals as part of their studies. Qualitative interviews were conducted withparticipants using informal open ended questions.
Participants reported enthusiastically about the use of blogsfor storage and safekeeping of learning, maintenance of study routines,encouragement to structured thinking and revision and the possibilities fortransformation to meaningful knowledge from learned information.
The use of blogs as e-learning spaces is supported by thisresearch which offer the possibility of a new tool to add to the more familiarforms of online communication and extends the body of evidence that support theuse of learning journals as part of the education process.
A weblog (or blog) is a web-based space for writing where allthe writing and editing of information is managed through a web browser andis immediately and publicly available on the Internet.
A blog site is managed by an individual who compiles lists oflinks to personally interesting material, interspersed with information andeditorial. The user can instantly place their words and thoughts onto their ownblog site through one of the many pieces of blogging software available.
Blogs can be a continually updated resource that grows overtime with the accumulation of writing and other content. This archivedinformation is accessed using a simple calendar that highlights the dates onwhich entries were made. Some sites have a basic text search engine to assistfinding material of interest.
The main features of a blog as a publishing tool are:
Ease of use, where the author can publish to the web without using any programming code.
No need for installing any server software on the users' machine.
The user has extensive control over how their blog looks and operates.
Whenever the user edits his or her blog the results are instantly updated and available to others.
Like any other website, blogs can be simply linked to and navigated.
The blog can be a record of an individual or a group: oftheir experiences, observations, advice, impressions, opinions, analysis, notes,and comments across a whole range of subjects – news, politics, travel,economics, journalism, computer programming.
There are a range of potential applications of bloggingtechnology in education and training including for student and teachercommunication, delivery of learning materials, the provision of mentoring tostudents, collaboration and professional development for teachers and knowledgemanagement. The focus for this article is on the possibilities of blogs aslearning journals in the virtual teaching and learning environment.
To this end, the project set to out to:
·Design and build a blog hosting site.
The site explored the navigation design principles underpinning blog sites, and experimented with a variety of ways to enter information.
Information was uploaded using different input technologies:
a) browser (using an HTML form)
b) Palm Pilot
The scripting language used to create the blog was PHP.
·Trial the blog site using students in real learning situations including the use of blogs as a form of electronic learning journal. They were observed using the blog, and then interviewed about their blogging. The findings are included in this article.
·Explore the broader application of blogs in education and elearning contexts and the pedagogical implications.
Learning Journals and Blogs
There is a large amount of evidence on the value of learninglogs in education (Joyce, 2000) Learning journals, learning logs, thinkingjournals, reflective journals and visual learning logs have been used ineducation for some time. There is now quite a considerable body of theorysupporting their use in learning, particularly for the adult learner (e.g.McGuinn and Hogarth, 2000).
In general, the learning journal is a way of documentinglearning and collecting information for self-analysis and reflection. Thewriting style is often in the first person and informal; resembling naturalspeech. Students’ thoughts become visible and the student has to find ways ofexpressing and writing thoughts that are closely connected to their sense ofthemselves. Learning journals are often located in action research learningstrategies (Cherry, 1998) so that the learning journal forms a part of theiterative action research learning loop.
Fulwiler, T. (1987) suggested though that there needs to becritical reflection in the journal, it is not sufficient to simply document ordescribe. The learner needs to articulate the connection between new informationand what they already know.
The reader response journal or literature log has often beenused for readers to comment and reflect on the texts they are reading. Theselogs, after time, are shared with other class participants. In some cases, aloose-leaf notebook is made accessible to the whole class – forming a collaborativejournal. Hence the notion of logs being a shared learning activity is alreadyestablished as pedagogical practice.
Learning journals provide a way of capturing part of what isin the mind of a learner and their responses to experience, in this caselearning. The kind of language used is paramount for it is through language thatwe make sense of the world and our experiences of it. Dialogue with self andothers may reveal how meaning is built:
"all interpretation involves making sense of things - deciding they "mean" something or other... though we use dress, gesture, touch and even smell to communicate meaning, the most sophisticated way we do is through language." (Jones, 1985).
In extending the practice of learning journals to bloggingthere is a similarity between blogs and a traditional learning journal, exceptthat the former is electronically published - thus making it publicly available.
The blog has the potential of being immediately public.Anyone else can visit - other students or the teacher - at any time. Reflectivehardcopy journals are very private, thus generating a particular privatediscourse. Blogs on the other hand are not private: they are openly published.The writing style and discourse will be modified as a result yet the traces oflearning will remain visible.
There are advantages to the public discourse, particularlyfrom the point of view of shared learning experiences. Other students in theclass, or other visitors, can read the logs, and in this respect, the learningis a shared experience or studying is a shared experience. Where students areable to observe others’ learning through reading each other’s learningjournal blogs.
Methodology – Trialing a Student e-Learning Space
In order to gain more knowledge about the questionssurrounding the application of blogs to educational settings and environments ablog site was built and students were invited to use the site.
The steps undertaken to achieve information regarding blogsas an elearning tool were:
The creation of experimental project blogs
Students were instructed on the use of blogs as learning journals
Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gain information about user satisfaction
The data was analyzed
A site was constructed specifically for the trial purpose.This site was created in a minimalist style, so that the students would feedback as much as possible about design, navigation and their use. For instance,there was no formatting facility, nor could documents be attached to thepostings. A comments facility was installed. The interface of the blog isdepicted in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1: Trial Blog Interface
The rolladex at the right hand side column in Figure 1 listsall the participating students. The central area is for the user to post items.Like a typical blog, these are ordered from the most current at the top. Eachblog is stamped with the date and time that the blog was submitted to the site.
Figure 2 below shows the login page where the text content isentered.
Postings were able to be edited or deleted by the student andmay be edited by the educator.
Figure 2: Blog showing log entry state
Description of Students Participating in the Trial
The students interviewed were using their blogs in one ofthree learning contexts:
A class of students who were given blogs as a set part of their radio writing course. The students were given 15 minutes at the end of radio class to work on their blogs.
A single student doing a university Arts course, who updated his blog at home at the end of each day. In the first half of the trial this student wrote directly onto his computer. In the second half, this student used a Palm Pilot to compose the entries.
Two students doing a communications course at RMIT volunteered to use the blog for a specific assignment. The assignment was to keep a journal of their responses to the print they encountered in daily life focusing on the use of language in different contexts.
Semi-structured guided interviews were conducted with 11students from the blog trial, using informal, open-ended questions to gainfeedback about their experience using blogs in an educational setting. Theinterviews aimed to uncover their perceptions and impressions from theirexperience, and to gain their suggestions and recommendations for future use.
Interview questions addressed the following issues:
Blog journals as a way of recording thoughts and learning in a personal yet public space
The structure of blogs in terms of chronology
Blog journals as a way of focusing ideas
Blog journals as a means of communicating with fellow students
Design of the blog
Establishment of a set of conventions
Summary of the Student Experience
Students’ views on the use of blogs were overwhelminglypositive. Students spoke enthusiastically about various features of the blog intheir learning process. They found the blog useful for storing and safekeepingtheir thoughts where many students considered the blog as anecessary adjunct or even an alternative to a paper-based notebook. The blog wasparticularly useful to students whose personal study routines lack order androutine. The blog served to keep their lecture notes for safekeeping: a centralstorage bank of information, which unlike their notebook, was simple to locate,easy to manage and access, and impossible to lose.
The chronology of the blog (the day-by-day linking of entrieswith dates) gave the students' notes an internal logic: an easy way to organisetheir information. This was a definite benefit for those students whosenote-taking skills are not yet developed enough to a stage where they can manageand keep a useful set of paper notes. The students also spoke enthusiasticallyof the chance to track their learning progress through time. They liked the waythey could watch their knowledge grow and looked forward to reviewing theirlearning record at the end of the year.
The most widely praised feature of the blogs was that theprocess of writing postings focused the students' thinking. It encouraged themto review and revise their learning. The students filtered the information fromclasses then recorded brief summaries onto their blogs. They recorded the thingsthat seemed (subjectively) important to them – the things that were directlyand immediately relevant to them – the things they wanted to remember forlater.
The students definitely felt their notes were personal, yetat the same time were happy about it being viewed 'publicly' by other studentsand the teacher. They didn't consider their blogs to be intimate enough to beconsidered private. The students were clear that this was a public presentationof their personal learning. Many commented on the good experience being gainedby writing publicly, even for this limited community. Many found the daily"flushing it out" and "pumping it back" process veryrewarding: some felt the process forced them to improve their writing skills,and many students took pleasure in seeing their entries improve.
Even though the opportunity existed for the students tocommunicate with each other, none of the students utilized the 'Comment'function on the blog (see Figure 1). They were satisfied to simply display theirlearning to each other without addressing each other directly.
Although a prominent element of 'traditional' blogs ingeneral, communicating was the least used and least praised feature ofthe trial blog. A number of students used to public aspect of the blog to checkwhere other students "were at". They wanted to see what other studentswere learning, but also to gauge their own progress compared to others. Eventhough the blogs were not used to display personal information directly, itseems that the blogs were an important part of getting to know each other interms of knowledge and learning skills.
Across the three learning contexts the students shared asimilarly positive experience of the blog as a learning tool. The students usedtheir blog for a similar purpose: as a storehouse of vital snippets ofinformation gleaned from their lectures and their own scrawled notes. The bloghelped to make meaningful knowledge from learned information.
The blog had a clear set of rules. Unlike some other blogs onthe web, theirs was not an intimate web space that exteriorises personality byrevealing the bloggers' likes, dislikes and interests. There were no links orcommentary on links. The blog was not a place for intimate or even informalcommunication. While reading others' blogs was important to the group,commenting on each others' was not. The blog acted as a closed circuit where acertain group dynamic was established with its own set of rules, even thoughthis group was spread (unevenly) across three campuses and some had never met inperson.
While the students had no wish to use their blog to generateor discuss new ideas, the blog served to display their personalperspectives and insights. All the students were very conscious of theperformance aspect of the blog and thought carefully about the way theydisplayed their knowledge. The blog was somewhere between public and private,notebook and essay.
It is clear that blogs have potential in educationalsettings, not only to track students' learning curves, but as a learning toolfor writing and study skills. The design of the blog was felt to be satisfactoryby the trial group.
The findings of this trial support the view of TorillMortensen and Jill Walker (2002) who wrote in their excellent essay 'Bloggingthoughts' that:
From a junior scholar's point of view, blogging can be an excellent method for developing and sustaining a confident and clear voice of one's own and the ability to formulate and stand by opinions.…Writing in a blog one is forced to confront one's own writing and opinions and to see them reflected in the words of others.
Design of Blog
Although the student’s were comfortable with the basicdesign and navigation, improvements could be made that include:
The capacity to up load documents to the page. These can be photographs, drawings, and documents. This would greatly enhance the content of the blog. In fact the latest version of the blog is the vog – video blog. Many of the personal blog sites have these facilities.
The text input can be improved so that formatting – bold, italics, paragraph breaks, dot points – can be used.
The capacity to comment on postings has to be given more significance –either in the way this is described – "Comment" was seen as very passive to "Discuss". Maybe even more explicit – "Discuss what is written here" or ‘What do you think?’
An addition (in some circumstances) of an email alert facility. This could be devised so that if a student made a new posting, an alert would be emailed to the trainer/mentor. This would ensure they were consciously visiting the site on a regular basis, and could respond immediately when a posting was made.
The blog is still an essentially computer based application.This means the standard input is by using the Browser form. However, as pointedout by the students using a PDA (Palm Pilot), this allowed him much moreflexibility. He could enter his thoughts immediately after the lecture (when hedidn’t have access to a computer). He could enter his posting from theconvenience of transport, or at a café, or in his bedroom. Then, whenconvenient, he could cradle the PDA, link it to the Internet and post the itemto the blog.
Irrespective of where the trial students were learning, theirexperience and appreciation of blogs was very similar.
In the Radio course, students were given time out to posttheir blogs. In the Communications course, they were encouraged to post theirblogs after class when they had a spare moment. Both these were verysubject-related experiences. In the case of the university student, he wascommenting on his learning as a whole.
Yet despite these differences, they all agreed that itfocused their thinking. It encouraged them to review and revise their learning.The students filtered the information from classes then recorded brief summariesonto their blogs. They recorded the things that seemed (subjectively) importantto them – the things that were directly and immediately relevant to them –the things they wanted to remember for later.
This suggests that the experience from the trial may bereplicated across many different learning environments and discipline areas.
Writing for Publication
The trial validated the theoretical notion that the writingfor a blog would be highly self-conscious – because it is a publishing or assome of the students put it, public "performance".
This seriously tempers the way in which postings are made.They are not anonymous. They know other students, and certainly the teacher,will be reading their postings. Therefore, there is more care about the way theysay things, how they collect their thoughts and summarise their understanding.As noted, (and paper-based reflective journals have been used in this way in thepast), this has great effect on writing experiences and therefore an improvementin their general literacy skills.
Traditionally, the learning journal has been used as a toolto improve the student’s level of English literacy. The blog takes this onestep further: publication. As the students commented, this forced them to adopta much more careful mode of expression.
Rules and Conventions
It is important to set the ground rules. As the trialdemonstrates these will be set consciously or unconsciously. In this trial, noapparent rules were set other than "here’s some time to post your blog"and "here’s some idea of the things you should write". Other thanthat, students took their lead from each other. They viewed what each otherwrote, and then copied or modified. But, they also set certain limits on whatthey could write and do. Most importantly not commenting on what each hadsaid. To them, this was a line not to be stepped over. They respected eachother’s personal space, and did not feel they could transgress this bycommenting on what someone else had written.
Had the subject coordinator explained at the beginning thatthe students should comment on what others were saying, it is likely thestudents would have accepted this, and come up with another set of rules. We canonly speculate here, but these ‘rules’ are very transitory and it’s likelythat as time went on, comments would have been posted.
While the potential for (as in bulletin board and chat sites)for defamatory and derogatory comments exists these aberrations did not ariseduring the course of this study. Should such events occur we would followgenerally accepted ethical and legal rules on such matters.
Most public blogs do have rules that prohibit breaching thenormal publishing laws of obscenity, blasphemy and defamation. People whotransgress are denied access. There are two aspects that militate against asubstantial transgression.
The blogs are set up in the individual student’s name, and their logins are kept private. for each area militates against this. For someone to breach these social rules, they are doing it publicly and can’t hide behind anonymity of fictional character as in an open discussion or chat group.
The interesting issue here is that the blog is personal space. It is owned and occupied by the individual student. But it is a public space that can be visited. It’s more akin to someone’s flat or apartment where someone can walk in unannounced at any time. It’s unlikely that we would leave mess around or graffiti the walls if this was our living situation.
The trainer or blog coordinator has access to all blogs (because they have access to the logins). If a transgression is made, they can immediately edit the material and then discuss with the offending student the nature of the transgression.
Taking a more positive attitude to this, it’s importantthat students are aware and comply with the standard publishing rules ofcopyright and defamation. It adds to their level of knowledge and engagementwith the real world if they are encouraged to accept this degree ofresponsibility.
Another area of concern about the openness of student blogsis copyright. That is, where the students load another person’s information(text, photos, graphics etc) on their blog. The standard laws regarding theacknowledgment of third party material apply. The student therefore needs to beclearly informed about copyright issues, as with any publishing enterprise.
Educators are always looking for interesting and innovativeways in which to improve the communications skills of their students and incommunicating with their students. This is even more important when the studentsare studying online.
Research is indicating that the numbers of students who dropout from online courses is high. There are many justifications made for this,not the least being that some of the click-through online materials are just tooboring or pedagogically unsound. (Islam, 2002). It means that online teachershave to experiment continuously with new forms and styles of teaching andcommunicating.
Blogs open up another whole world of doing things that maybring new learning habits and a more eager and committed clientele. Thedifferences between blogs and more familiar forms of online communication inelearning, that is bulletin boards and chat, were supported by this study.
The social and peer contact and learning between students inface to face training is very difficult to replicate online. Emailscorrespondence has been utilized to a high degree. Posting comments andsuggestions on a bulletin board has also been tried with various degrees ofeffectiveness. Chat has also been used with moderate success. Blogs present aform of communication where each individual student has a greater sense ofcontrol and this could potential lead to greater student satisfaction in onlinecontexts.
This study has demonstrated the ability of blogs to integratethe personal aspect of a journal or diary that documents the student’s journeythrough the learning with the immediate publishing capability of the webcreating the ability to have a collaborative, public discourse on thereflections of learners. This has the effect of sharpening the journalcommunication as it resides in the public domain for other students to read andponder its information.
Laurie Armstrong and Dr Marsha Berry – School of Art,Design and Communication, RMIT University
Reece Lamshed – Binary Blue
Cherry, N. (1998). Action Research: A Pathway to Action, Knowledge and Learning. RMIT Publishing.
Fulwiler, T. (1987). The Journal Book. Portsmouth, NH:Boynton/Cook.
Islam, K. (2002). Is E-learning Floundering? E-Learning2002. http://www.elearningmag.com/elearning/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=18563 Accessed 25/5/03
Jones, P. (1985). Theory and Method in Sociology: a Guide for the Beginner. London: Bell and Hyman.
Joyce, M. Double Entry Journals and Learning Logs. Wessex Grid for Learning. http://wsgfl.westsussex.gov.uk/curriculum/ict/strat/skills/log1.htm Accessed 25/5/03
McGuinn, N. and Hogarth, S. (2000). Learning Logs. The University of York Department of Educational Studies. http://www.escalate.ac.uk/exchange/Learning%20Logs/ Accessed 25/5/03
Mortensen, T. and Walker, J. (2002) Blogging Thoughts: Personal Publication as an Online Research Tool. In Researching ICT’s in Context. University of Oslo: Intermedia Report.
This research was made possible through the support andfunding of the TAFE Frontiers.