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Blogs and learning

Marg O'Connell busy putting her Nokia mobile phone to good use while visiting Wellington, NZ.I first met Marg O’Connell back in November 2004. We were both attending a Research in Distance Education Conference at Deakin University, Geelong, Australia. This turned out to be a rather intimate gathering of researchers in open, flexible and distance education. I was new to this world; it seemed as though everyone knew one another only I didn’t know a soul. I had a feeling I was at a groupie convention for professors and their PhD candidates. I wondered what I was doing there. I was even brazen enough to present my research project at the roundtable research discussion. It was only later that I realised everyone else was talking about their PhD research and I was talking about my Master’s research. What was I thinking?

I saw Marg’s name on the conference programme. I recognised it; she was an Australian Flexible Learning Leader. Bingo, there was someone that I had something in common with, as I was in the early stages of my own Flexible Learning Leader year.

We met, we talked, we shared blog URLs, email addresses, and we parted. It was a brief encounter like so many we have at such events.

I can’t remember the specific details of how we re-connected but I do know it happened through our blogs. Our relationship as trans-Tasman colleagues may have been initiated through a brief in-person meeting but it developed online. By reading each others blogs we learnt a lot about how we think, what we think and believe, and about how we put our thoughts into actions in our professional practice. We have conversations with each other by adding comments on blog postings, by hyperlinking to each other’s postings, by email which enables us to discuss things in more depth, and recently we have started using Skype to talk to each other in real-time.

Then this afternoon Marg and I facilitated a conversation session at Efest 2006 on the topic of Blogs and Learning. We planned the session at distance and finalised it all when Marg arrived in Wellington earlier this week. The conversation session format was being offered for the first time this year at this conference. We were delving a bit into the unknown – something that has become increasingly familiar to both of us. Our intention was to model best practice facilitation and create something a bit different for participants. We were also aware that the energy levels of our participants would be pretty low as the session was scheduled for 3.30 – 4.30 pm on the first day of the conference. At the very least we hoped to get a conversation started amongst participants which would continue long after we parted.

We set up the room with the chairs positioned in small circular groups. I have to admit it looked a bit chaotic – as though we weren’t organised. Yet we wanted people to talk to one another and this wasn’t going to happen with everyone sitting in rows.

wikispaces.comWe used a wiki to present the session plan. I had never used a wiki in this way before. The intention was to put up the backbone of a resource page for participants which could be added to after the event. This was a web space in development.

We used a to present the session plan. I had never used a wiki in this way before. The intention was to put up the backbone of a resource page for participants which could be added to after the event. This was a web space in development.Here is what one of the participants wrote about the session in her blog, Lorna’s e-musings:

This was a brilliant interactive session. Marica (a lecturer from the Open Polytechnic) had her wiki up on line which outlined the session and gave it a really interactive feel. She showed us a video about blogging and then asked us to describe our feelings about the concept of blogging, identifying keywords and writing them down on a piece of paper provided. We were then asked to exchange sheets of paper with others in the room and to comment on some of the things that they had highlighted on their sheet by writing on post-it notes and then sticking them on the sheet. While we were doing this, a sinister looking character dressed in black with a balaclava and dark glasses on started weaving his way through the participants sticking post-it notes on the sheets with web sites listed. I suddenly realised that we were carrying out a paper based version of blogging, engaging in discussions that we had triggered with others and even receiving spam! It was a very powerful exercise and put a lot of things in perspective for me as a kinaesthetic learner. We then teamed up with people who had listed similar key words to us and I met a delightful woman from Amsterdam who had only arrived in New Zealand to work a week ago. She was a web designer and was able to fill me in on a lot of the gaps in my knowledge of blogging and wikis and provided me with some websites that may be of use.

Blogs and learning conversation session at Efest 2006

Blogs and learning conversation at Efest 2006

Blogs and learning conversation session at Efest 2006

Spam arrived at the blogs and learning conversation session at Efest 2006

I came away wishing we had more time to explore and discuss. We need to learn more about blogs and their creators. There are all sorts of statistics available about the blogosphere.

The key to understanding blogs is understanding the blogosphere. Blogs themselves are just a web format, whereas the blogosphere is a social phenomenon. It is hard to overstate the importance of this.

What really differentiates blogs from webpages or forums or chatrooms is that blogs (at least properly implemented ones) are designed from the outset to be part of that shifting internet-wide social network. There have been many attempts to design ‘social software’ but thus far the only effective example is the blogosphere, which was not ‘designed’ by anyone but is an emergent phenomenon.

A Pew/Internet survey released in July this year, entitled Bloggers: A Portrait of the Internet’s new storytellers, reported that:

The most distinguishing characteristic of bloggers is their youth. More than half (54%) of bloggers are under the age of 30.

Age Bloggers % All Internet Users %
18-29 54 24
30-49 30 45
50-64 14 24
65+ 2 7

This report makes interesting reading. It only provides a snapshot of a developing online culture but it is one we cannot ignore. We need to work out how we can take advantage of what these social tools offer us to engage and motivate our learners in ways that make sense for them. By becoming bloggers ourselves we can better understand what is involved and its potential for learning. If you don’t want to blog at the very least you need to become a reader of blogs.

Participants at the session today raised many issues and questions in relation to using blogs in a learning context: how can I apply this in my programmes, what about privacy, the role of reflection in learning, concern regarding the quality of what is written in a blog, literacy concerns, my learners don’t have access to an Internet enabled computer, etc. For more thoughts, information and resources check out the Seeking wiki.

Let’s keep this conversation going.

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