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Reflections on the Australian Blogging Conference and Blogging in Education

As readers of this blog will know, I spent Friday at the Australian Blogging Conference at QUT’s Creative Industries Precinct in Brisbane. It was a fabulous, stimulating and intellectually rich conference and a great end to Tama’s-month-o-conferencing. I was the facilitator for the ‘Blogging and Education’ session so thought, in the spirit of the conference, I’d better get my notes up here:

Blogs and Education

The session ran for two hours, with a good balance between K-12 educators and those of us from the Higher Ed sector. After a brief (well, brief for me) introduction, the session was loosely structured around three main questions…

Why blog in education?

The Pros

* Allowing students to connect with community, family and an intellectual arena beyond the boundaries of the classroom.
* While most educational institutions have some sort of Learning Management System (such as Blackboard), the architecture of these systems tends to be inward-focusing, getting students thinking that everything they need is inside the walls of the black box. Blogging, by contrast, is outwardly-focused and keeps students focused on the broader (potential) public or audience they may be writing for. Thus, if we’re teaching life-long skills, blogs are often better platforms, due to their openness, than other closed systems.
* Blogs can meaningfully extend the educational experience, giving students a space to engage, write and communicate beyond the tutorial room. The uptake of this opportunity will often be uneven, but it’s often the less confident students who flourish in blogged communication.
* in certain contexts, blogs can become ‘student property’ once a particular unit of course is over, thus allowing students to continue to build and use their blogs (this clearly differs depending on the context and aim of an educational blog, and on the age of the participants).
* Blogging as an ethos is about sharing knowledge, building ties and acknowledging the input of others – all key characteristics of good pedagogy!

The Cons

* Having purchased the (usually quite expensive) Learning Management System, the majority of schools and universities invest most of the training, support and infrastructure costs to maintain the hardware and use of this system. Blogging is thus often done using peripheral tools which educators must teach themselves to use rather than getting central support.
* Many institutions desire to contain and control everything that students are producing, both in terms of protecting student privacy and in terms of protecting institutional intellectual property or even just keeping work away from outside scrutiny. While this can be overcome, it’s often IT and central policies which have to be convinced and converted to make the use of blogs (and other web 2.0 tools) feasible.
* At times education in Australia is still focused on the idea of a digital divide – where the aim is to get every student access to a computer – whereas the meaningful discussion needs, really, to shift to the idea of the participation gap – where the focus needs to be on ensuring all students are familiar with network and digital literacies, thus being able the meaningfully utilise social software and other tools, which is a lot more than just having occasional access to the internet.
* The mythos of the digital natives tends to scare many educators because it suggests that many younger people (dubbed digital natives as they’ve never know a world without the internet) will always have more familiarity than their teachers (who are dubbed digital immigrants since the web appeared at some point during their lifetime) and thus teachers are worried about not being knowledgeable in these areas.

Examples and reflections?

K-12 Examples

* Year one ‘Little Gems’ blog – Amanda Rablin demonstrated this outstanding blog by year one students (!) which not only broadened their classroom experience, but also showed a level of reflexivity well beyond the primary school level!
* PodKids Australia – From a year 4/5 class in a WA country town who have used podcasting (and their blog) to communicate with their parents and the wider world in a sensible, thoughtful and safe manner.

Higher Ed Examples

* Self.Net Tutorial (Monday 2pm) blog – An example of a blog used to expand the engagement of students in the tutorial process, and extend their potential interaction beyond the confines of the classroom.
* iGeneration Honours Unit blogs – A full university unit where the entire curriculum is online (collaboratively constructed by the unit coordinator and the students) as well as all of the students work – which include critical evaluations of blogs and podcasts as the major assessment item – and the week-by-week tutorials in the course.
* Communication Studies 1101 link blog – the least exciting of all the examples, but nevertheless useful, this blog is simply a series of links to useful material for students in a first-year Communication Studies course at UWA.

(All three Higher Ed examples use Creative Commons licenses to make legally explicit the intention that students’ content can be build-upon by others, on the condition of citation. I was particularly pleased to see both Elliott Bledscoe and Jessica Coates from Creative Commons Australia in this session!)

Missing from these examples was the best use of blogging as per blogging as a participatory cultural form which is a course-length blog maintained across the three to five years of a degree. One good example I’ve found now that the session is over is Sarah Demicoli’s Looking Up? blog; notably Sarah is a student in Adrian Miles’ Labsome Honours cohort.

Should academics blog?

This question ended up being divided into two parts: should K-12 teachers blog, and should academics (and doctoral students) blog? The first question proved far more complicated in that there is an expectation that teachers in the K-12 environment will share less of their personal lives with the world. The accountability that comes with being a teacher – especially from parental expectations – means it’s something of a challenge to share too much of a teacher’s life publicly, less it be seen and critiqued by parents or students. Likewise, the important line between teachers and students was one of those areas where teachers need to be especially careful when using social networks like Facebook or MySpace because ‘friending’ students might inadvertently be read as entering into a social dynamic with students which is generally something of a taboo. Some folks felt this was particularly complicated since some teachers using social networks might be less familiar with the social norms of the platforms and accidentally cross a line – or be perceived to cross a line – by accident. Sadly, excessive accountability seems to be one of the major reasons that teachers would be hesitant to blog – or at least only blog on a narrow band of topics. That said, there was still a sense that teachers would blog if they found the right reason or topic, but that the boundaries as to what other personal information would find its way online would be a very solid boundary indeed!

On the ‘should academics blog?’ front, things were decidedly more optimistic. There was a strong sense that academic blogs were a rich source of information, insight and commentary and that these were often far more accessible than other forms of academic writing. I asked a particularly loaded question – should academics feel obliged to blog since in publicly funded institutions the onus is to share our thoughts, research and ideas with the public, not just a our peers via peer viewed gatekeeping – and a few people were enthused by this idea, although there were a few comments about the need to have peer review before academic ideas escape into the world. The confusion surrounding danah boyd’s MySpace/Facebook class paper, and her subsequent reflections on the process, proved a useful example. That said, the biggest boundary to academic blogging seemed to be the amount of time it might take, but most people in the session thought it was time well spent!

I should add that these notes are re-constituted from rather poorly recorded keywords during the session, so further reflections, comments and notes on this session are most definitely welcome!

The Rest of the Conference

I don’t have terribly detailed notes from the other sessions I attended (which might be a blessing since caught the red-eye from Perth the night before the conference was thus a little less than coherent in the morning sessions), but thankfully being a blogged event, there are plenty of posts about the conference worth reading. Reflections well worth reading include those from Senator Andrew Bartlett, Australia’s most web-savvy politician. Derek Barry has posted three detailed reports on the Morning Panel discussion, The Politics of Blogging session and the panel on Citizen Journalism. Mark Bahnisch, one of the Politics of Blogging facilitators, has also posted on the ‘state of political blogging’ specifically for that session. Robyn Rebollo has notes from the conference which include reflections on the Legal Issues and Blogs session. Nick Hodge was one of the facilitators for the Business Blogging session and has posted both his notes and powerpoint slides. Likewise, Joanne Jacobs has some useful notes from The Future of Blogging closing session, and Kate Davis’ notes from the parallel ‘Building a Better Blog’ session are useful, too. Conference notes and reports keep emerging, so watch the blogoz tag on Technorati for more.

I should say, as well, that I was fortunate enough to catch up with a whole bunch of folk I’ve known through blogging, social networks, shared research interests and so on, but never actually met in the flesh before. It was great chatting with Brian Fitzgerald, Jessica Coates and Rachel Cobcroft, as well as Elliot Bledscoe who I met a few weeks earlier, all of whom are part of the Creative Commons Australia team, which Brian leads. Given their enthusiasm and energy, I’m sure CC Australia has a lot going on in the future, and with any luck I’ll be involved with some of the CC and Education things as they emerge. I also chatted to Melissa Gregg, Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns, all of whom are blogosphere friends who its nice to see annually (or thereabouts) at conferences. Quite unexpectedly, I ran into Sarah Xu who I’ve met through local fannish events, but I hadn’t realised she’d landed in sunny BrisVegas to write her doctorate, which is creatively exploring the important question: “how can cyberfeminist practice and Web 2.0 applications be used to recode gendered representations of women on the Internet?” Sounds like a thesis worth watching!

Finally, a huge congratulations to Peter Black who put the conference together and assembled a fascinating group of people to participate in some really meaningful exchanges! Time to start planning for next year …

Update: Peta Hopkins also has some notes from the Blogging in Education session, including a several things I’d forgotten we’d talked about (including ebublogs.org).

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  1. Yes, it was an excellent conference. As a former chalkie and education bureaucrat I found your notes on the education issues and examples fascinating. I do hope teachers will dive in more and help one another negotiate the very real but hopefully not insuperable challenges identified. And I hope that the resourcing of social media capability in schools will include some support for teachers to share ideas and experiences about how to engage as active bloggers.

  2. Thanks for the great summary of the education session. It’s great to have notes from all the concurrent sessions so readily available around the blogosphere. In my field (libraries), we’re grappling with a lot of the same issues around blogging that the education sector is working through, so these notes are really useful.

    BTW, on the danah boyd MySpace/Facebook class divide issue: I’m really interested in the idea of academic thought being published via blogs and the dynamics that surround the interaction of professional literature and professional blogs. When do you blog, and when do you write an article for an academic publication?

    As an aside, I attended an education.au seminar recently, at which danah boyd spoke. She did talk about the whole divide issue, and there are podcasts available. She mentioned that perhaps the class divide is not as relevant, or at least, operates differently, in the Australian context. Interesting stuff.

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