Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Reflections on ten years of blogging - part two

"When thinking about technology and society there is a natural tendency to look forwards rather than backwards. Like in many other areas of life, it is often more compelling to anticipate what is about to happen with technology than attempt to make sense of what has already happened." 
     Neil Selwyn, Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, 2011

Following on from part one of my reflections in my tenth year of blogging, here are ten observations about blogging in ELT. The last post concentrated on some of my recollections from the time when I started blogging. This post is about conclusions I've come to about blogging with English language students. Back in 2005, I remember telling someone that I was facilitating a 6-week online course on blogging for ELT, and he was surprised that anyone could spend so much time just on blogging, but, there's a lot to blogging with learners, and unless you think carefully about it, then your blogging project is not likely to be very successful.

1. Starting is easy. Starting a blogging project with learners is easy to do, so long as you're careful not to overstretch yourself. If you don't have much time or experience, then set up a class blog (see Blogging for ELT for an explanation of types of blogs), but you should understand that this won't be as effective for encouraging learners to write than individual learner blogs. If your learners each have blogs, then you'll be busier, though. A good compromise is to divide your learners into groups of three or four and set up a blog for each group. This is particularly valuable if your focus is on process writing (see 2 below).

2. Think it through. Why have you decided to encourage your learners to blog? Blogging can be a very effective way of encouraging process writing, and for giving learners a real reason for writing (i.e. if they perceive their written work is being read by an audience beyond the teacher). If you're interested in encouraging process writing, then make sure your learners are engaged in this; that they use the blog for pre-writing, focusing ideas, and are involved in evaluating, structuring and editing. In this case, encouraging peer correction and editing may be the way forward. If you're main concern is to motivate learners to write with an audience, then make sure you can show them the blog is being read (see 4 below).

3. Think carefully about who has access. Blogs work best when they are public if your aim is increased motivation to write. Why publish something online unless people can read it? If your idea is to motivate learners to write by giving them an audience for their written work, then don't make the blogs private. You may, however, have other reasons for asking your learners to blog - it could be your circumstances mean that you want to encourage learners to write between classes and a blog will facilitate this and let you comment on what the learners have written before they come to class again. However, if the other learners don't read what their classmates have written, then this may be easier to accomplish using email. Of course, keeping a blog means the learners will have a record of all their written work in one place.

4. Find an audience. If your aim is to encourage writing through publication, then make sure you find an audience for your learners. This audience could be the learners themselves, another class or classes, parents, supportive colleagues, or a combination of these. If the learners feel that nobody is reading their writing, then blogging won't work - it'll be the same as them feeling the only audience they have for what they write is the teacher, and the only reason for the teacher reading this is for language correction. This is the surest way to ensure a public blogging project fails.

5. Show the audience. Finding an audience is one thing, but you need to show learners they are being read too. You can do this in different ways, but a counter on the blog is important - I have for years liked the ClustrMaps visitor counter because it displays numbers of visitors and shows you where in the world the visitors live. Commenting on blog posts is another way of showing learners they are being read by someone. Commenting is such an integral part of blogging, it should be encouraged right from the beginning of the blogging project. I always ask learners I start blogs with to write an introductory post and then comment on the posts of their classmates. Not only does it give fast finishers something else to do, but it encourages a practice that will help nurture the class blogging community.

6. Blog integration. If you're using blogs with classes, make sure you integrate them into whatever else you are doing in class. Make sure the subjects you ask learners to write about tie in with what you are doing in class and that they are relevant to the learners's lives and interests. Talking about what learners have written at the beginning of class, for instance, is a great way of rewarding learners who are putting a lot of effort into blogging, especially if the blogging is a voluntary part of the class.

7. Voluntary or compulsory? There are some teachers I know who are set against making blogging a compulsory part of the class. Then there are others who think their learners wouldn't blog unless it was compulsory. I have tried both methods and have succeeded and failed with both. If blogging is voluntary, then it needs to be encouraged and the learners who blog should be rewarded (see 6 above) in class. If compulsory, then make the tasks you set interesting for the learners so they aren't turned off writing, especially if one of your reasons for blogging in the first place is to encourage the learners to write, and to start to enjoy writing! So many learners I have taught have a negative attitude to writing caused (I think) by tasks previous teachers have set them, and yet I have found they can grow to enjoy writing if the kind of writing you do in class and the subjects you set (or, even better, the learners choose) is varied and interesting.

8. Speed is of essence. Make sure you respond quickly to learners when they write, especially when they start blogging. Write the same day if possible, or the day after if not. There's nothing worse than writing a blog post if you're starting out and then not getting any comments - it makes you feel there's nobody out there reading (see 5 above) and then learners will start asking themselves 'Why bother writing if nobody's reading?' To help you find out when a learner has written something, to enable you to respond, subscribe to all of your learners' blogs or use Google Reader or another similar tool. This will save you a lot of time, as it means you don't have to keep checking individual blogs to see if anyone has written anything.

9. Keeping going is harder. Keeping interest, in my experience, is the hardest thing to do with a blogging project. From the beginning, set a time limit and a goal for the learners. Tell them, for example, that you're going to be blogging for a term, and then at the end of the term, review this. did they enjoy it? Was it useful? do they want to continue? Make sure you have given them enough time to be able to reflect whether blogging is something they are interested in or not. Make sure too, that they have written frequently in their blogs. Once a week or more for learners is good practice. Make sure too, that you have responded as mentioned above. I have to say that the times I've undertaken blogging projects with classes and have followed the advice written above, the projects have been successful. I have done other blogging projects with classes that haven't been successful, and it's usually been because I haven't been able to show an audience, or haven't asked the learners to blog frequently, or didn't connect the blogging to what we were doing in class.

10. Be a blogger yourself. Don't ask learners to blog if you don't already blog. Keeping a blog and writing to it regularly before you ask learners to do the same will give you an idea of how it feels to do this, and you'll also have a better idea if it's something you're happy to ask learners to do too. If you can't keep it up, then how can you expect your learners to do so?

So that's it. I hope you find these suggestions useful, and please let me know if you agree/disagree with any of the points mentioned above, or indeed, if I've missed out anything important.


7 comments:

  1. Thanks Graham for providing such illuminating, pithy guidelines for teachers interested in blogging.

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  2. Lovely post, Graham, and great tips!

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  3. Thanks for the kind words, Kalyan and Carla!

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  4. Thanks Graham for this post. I found it very informative and inspiring. I've been thinking of starting colaborative blogging with my students since I started blogging myself but I didn't have enough courage to do it.

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  5. Thanks for inspiring post. I was wondering how long I will be enthusiastic to write my own blog, and now that this feeling may last long.

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  6. Wow, 10 years? That's amazing. I just started blogging for our
    start-up firm a couple weeks ago and already it sometimes feels like pressure to keep doing it.

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  7. Great post. I really want to start a class blog next year and you have highlighted some of the issues I have not considered.

    I think I have found my summer project!

    Thanks again for sharing.

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