B.C. Educational Technology Users Group ‘Blogtalk’

http://etugblog.typepad.com/blogtalk/

Today is officially the last day so I can finally let the cat out of the bag for those who haven’t seen this yet.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, for the past two weeks I’ve been helping to facilitate, along with 4 other educators from B.C., an ‘online discussion’ on possible uses of blogs in education for the B.C. Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG). Many of you will recognize at least one of the other facilitators, Brian Lamb from UBC…

Typically, ETUG discussions happen through the mailing list. During our one and only conference call to organize this online talk, the facilitators agreed that it was important to actually show the ETUG members a blog in action instead of just talking about one. To that end we set up this Typepad site which has been the focal point for the two weeks. It is a ‘multi-author’ blog which doesn’t necessarily convey the true richness and multi-vocal nature of the blog experience, but it seemed a reasonable compromise at the time.

It has been an “interesting” experiment. Going in I already knew that the kind of ‘conversations’ facilitated through blogs do not end up looking the same as those facilitated through a mailing list or threaded discussion, even when everyone involved has access to their own blogs in addition to a comments facility. This wasn’t even the case here; the facilitators were the only ones with ‘author’ access to the blog and the rest of the discussion participants could only use the comments facility. Because of this, it seemed like right off the bat the focus became the fact that blogs were lacking as a mechanism to facilitate discussions like this or as replacements to mailing lists or threaded discussions. The irony is that while it is true we had less of the “discussion” initiated by the individuals and more “led” by the facilitators because of the setup chosen, on a purely statistical basis this “discussion” was as successful as many of the previous ones facilitated through the mailing list, with 14 people other than the facilitators posting comments.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that from a discussion standpoint we could have set this up differently. We might have still posted to the blog but had the actual discussion happen through the mailing list. The downside to me of this approach is that you are generating a lot of email to people who potentially are not that interested in the specific topic (there’s around 400 people on the ETUG list, and an average ‘eDiscussion’ is lucky if it generates posts from 10 of them). We could have set up anyone who wanted with a blog of their own and brought their posts into the mix. We never closed that door; we did show people Typepad and Blogger, and in fact did have one or two people either start blogs during the discussion or post to their existing ones about what was going on. But one of the other constraints we self-imposed was not to have to make people get accounts for this 2 week session, partly out of consideration for ‘ease of use’ and partly out of consideration for ease of administration on our side. A better threading mechanism in the comments facility for Typepad? Actually, this is one I’m all for – to offer the ability to post a comment but to then not allowing threading in the comment doesn’t make a ton of sense to me and has always seemed like one of the shortcomings of blogs in relation to discussion. If you have a look and can think of other models we could have adopted, I’d love to hear about those too.

So what about the substance of the discussion. Well, there did seem to be a few people who cottoned on to the idea that maybe blogs were a new form of ‘narrative’ that promoted more personal, self-reflective style of writing and less of a ‘debate’ and more ‘active listening’ than you sometimes get in threaded discussions. A few others seemed to see potential as a journal tool, and as an eportfolio tool. But there were some really valid observations about difficulties that blogs present: as they stand now they can be labour intensive for the instructor or administrator to set up for each student to have an ‘individual’ site; there are some really valid concerns about student privacy and exposing the students to online ‘predators’ or the potential for students to stir up public controversy online.

So I am left with some mixed feelings about the whole thing. We did get some decent traffic to the site which makes me think that people were reading some of the stuff and maybe we exposed them more to this technology than they had been, definitely one of the goals. We did get *some* discussion happening, and who knows, maybe that will go someplace on the individual campuses. On the applications of blogs to education, there seemed to be a few glimmers but then there were just as many issues that arose. This was actually fine with me – one thing we agreed as facilitators was that we were not going to be acting as ‘advocates’ but instead as ‘guides’ – introducing the technology, pointing to some possible uses, but very open to the possibility that there may be more problems than solutions here. I don’t think the discussion was conclusive either way, and probably shouldn’t expect it to have been.

Personally, I’ve never been a ‘true believer.’ It’s not that there’s ‘nothing new under the sun. I do think the blogs and the blogging technology that we see today are *different* than what’s come before: they *are* helping people to create connections in ways that were previously much more difficult or not even possible; they are helping to provide new channels of information and knowledge; they are, as has been said recently, turning ‘people into webpages and webpages into people.’ But they are mostly still a first step. And as further steps unfold, I think we will see some of the lessons and models from blogs be adopted into other technologies (e.g. it is no big step for existing CMS to adopt ‘personal journals’ or ‘eportfolios,’ we’re already seeing steps in that direction, and this is less a technology issue and more an acknowledgement that a ‘content-centric’ view of education with the students as empty vessels is wrong and will not suffice. Maybe blogs have helped this acknowledgement along. Maybe not.) We will see blogs themselves improve but also narrow in scope and hype (not everyone will publish a blog or use RSS, and that’s fine.) And we will see that certain technologies that pre-existed blogs will continue to exist and be used because they were different and fill different uses and needs (both threaded discussions and email still have their places).

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B.C. Educational Technology Users Group ‘Blogtalk’

7 thoughts on “B.C. Educational Technology Users Group ‘Blogtalk’

  1. Scott, I was wondering if the technical design of Typepad (as a typical blogging tool) was part of the challenge in regard to encouraging discussions, though it is set up to do what it is supposed to do. But other bloglike sites like Kuro5hin and Slashdot do seem to make it easier for a blog-type prompt to evolve into a discussion.

    I think you’re dead on in trying to explain the value of blogs and blogging technology without extolling it too far. I always get the impression that if ed tech people were to say “here’s something that might help” more often instead of “…the next killer app!!” then people would be more receptive to seeing what these tools can do. Blogs happen to be one type of tool that one can start off with in an extremely simple fashion and then develop into more complex uses, depending on what people are interested in doing once they become comfortable with the technology.

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  2. Dave, it was definitely attributes of Typepad that led to challenges with hosting the discussion this way, but as you say, Typepad is a very typical blogging tool, so I wouldn’t single it out. Rather, I’d say that blogging tools in general do not replicate (nor should they be expected to) the kind of focused or threaded discussion that can (sometimes) happen in discussion forums or mailing lists (I think people over-estimate how coherent these are, but that’s another story) and this may or may not be seen as a shortcoming. In this instance it seems to maybe have been.

    With Kuroshin and Slashdot (and others like Drupal, PostNuke, Zope, Plone…the list is long) you are starting to leave the realm of straight ‘blogging’ software and entering the realm of ‘community’ software, ‘collaborative content management’ … not sure the exact moniker, and it is more of a spectrum than a clear delineation. In terms of using this tech for education or for this discussion, I think in both cases this is absolutely the way to go, especially if you are looking for more than single author publishing. There were a variety of reasons why we couldn’t in the case of the ETUG discussion – some of them practical (lack of time, experience, technical support) and some political (such a beast may well be in ETUG’s future but we were under explicit orders not to pre-empt that with what we were doing).

    But absolutely, I think you are right, these kinds of packages give you most if not all the benefits of blogs, provide account management features for multi-user setups and also many have far better discussion facilities integrated in. Laura Trippi actually has a fair bit of experience experimenting in that sector, and the other person I would refer to is Charlie Lowe at KairosNews (http://kairosnews.org/) who has been exploring a number of these systems.

    Cheers, Scott.

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  3. Perhaps the lack of facility for threaded discussion is a good thing. Short bursts of contextual information can lead to future blog entries – there or elsewhere.

    I mean… As a moderator of discussion boards, I can tell you the longer the thread, the better the likelihood that it’s drifted offtopic. And if you don’t believe me – there’s always Slashdot to watch (and Slashdot, for all intents and purposes, is a blog with editors).

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