Weblogs and Discourse
Weblogs as a transformational technology for higher education and
There has been a lot of chat about »weblogs in education« and »personal publishing for learners«. Why is that? Well, compared to other formats there are some aspects about weblogs that are very distinctive:
Weblogs integrate these characteristics. Other software concepts that are relevant for education have some specific advantages and they're definitively effective when properly applied. But they also have some backdraws that limit their application:
Weblogs are not special because of their technology but because of the practice and authorship they shape. And it is a practice that will require a weblog author to be »connected« to processes, discourses and communities. With a linear growing number of connections the chance for interconnections increases exponentially (like the value of a fax machine increases with the number of fax machines installed). But a "massive parallel state" can not be communicated because communication is a sequences of signals (like for instance a reverse chronological order of comments on a homepage).
So the questions are these: If weblogs can create a communicative socio-dynamic interaction, how is this "dynamic" generated and maintained? What kind of educational goals do they support better than other formats?
Weblogs combine two oppositional principles: monologue and dialogue. A reaction to a statement is not only directed to the sender but also to unknown readers. Very often the weblogger gets feedback from unexpected source: new relations and contexts emerge. This (assumed) undirected communication developes to an open and involving activity.
Weblogs not only enable interaction with other webloggers, they offer a way to engage in a discoursive exchange with the author's self (intrapersonal conversation). A weblog becomes an active partner in communication, because it demands consistent criteria for what will be posted to a weblog (and how). This »indirect monologic dialog« of weblogs allow to conduct communicative acts that otherwise would only be possible in very particular circumstances.
That is what weblogs have in common with diaries. But in opposition to diaries, weblogs are usually a form of writing in public and with the intention to offer opportunities for communication. A weblog is a constant invitation for conversation - directly and indirectly.
A specialty of weblogs is to seperate authors and commentators. Only the author - the active weblogger - has the chance to contextualize statements with his personal identity. This identity is not described with a profile on a homepage, but rather with a sum of judgements that are implicit to his commentary.
Discourse is about relations - and not just about standpoints. It's not a pool of arguments and statements but rather the temporal structure of communication that has to be paired with a development agenda (or at least an intention that is shared among all participants).
Discourse never ends or at least: it will end in the moment nothing is said anymore. The same is true for weblogs: in the moment there are no new posts weblogs will degrade to ordinary websites [A]. And because of that weblogs are by definition an almost daily activity for their creators that naturally require a high level of attention.
In recent discussions about »conversational blogging« it has been noted that sometimes it is hard to follow a line of thought when replies are not posted in close proximity. While this is basically true this "issue" is also a feature: a reply on another weblog will contextualize that statement and communicate much more than the actual statement. A picture about the author can be extracted from the other posts on his/her site, the about page, the blogroll (and many other clues that may be available). The visitor gets a different image than just a name attached to the comment in a forum. The trackback functionality that was introduced by by the weblog software MovableType (and seems to become adopted by other tools) is one approach to "travel backwards" to the sites that link to a comment. Maybe we're going to see "trackback trees" that ultimatly will remind everybody of the threads in discussion forums. And basically they would be exactly that with one little but substantial difference: the writing style would be notably different because a post on a weblog isn't meant to be a direct reply.
The communication code in a majority of weblog entries is written language. There are audio-blogs, video-blogs and photo-blogs, but they currently are rather exotic examples for the weblog format. Weblog writing is an art that needs to be mastered by weblog authors or readers will have a hard time to understand and they will add facts to entries by simply interpreting what is said. That is not a problem of weblogs in particular, but a problem of all computer mediated communication. Well crafted weblog posts make the difference between a journalist and someone who is not trained as journalist (and most weblog authors are no journalists).
Let's look at an example:
Here are some facts that a reader can extract from the above post compared to some that look like facts but are just assumptions:
I believe there are many occasions where readers would comprehend a mix of both columns in the above table as actual facts. Most weblog authors are no professional writers and most weblog visitors are no professional readers as well. Not being a professional reader means, that this reading can't compensate weak writing skills of authors and potentially could be characterized as a kind of »seeing what one wants to see« (selective perception).
In addition to this comprehension problem unprofessional weblog readers very often are professional web surfers that may practice a reading style that could be called "fast scan reading". Here is a quote from Dave Winer on scripting.com that illustrates the issue:
BTW, one more thing -- people still, one month later, don't get that when I was writing about browser bugs, I wasn't writing about CSS. They're like robots. They see one of their buzzwords, scan for negative or positive words, and go into action. That's why I said at the time that Mark Pilgrim should write a new tutorial called Dive Into Reading Comprehension. It's a much bigger issue than any of the crap we argue about. Back up a step. Who is listening? Anyone?
Maybe the readers used a headline reader NetNewsWire to get the message and they did not click on the headline saying »one more thing«? Technology can backfire if it takes too much control over representation.
A helpful theory about verbal communication is the speech act theory. It has been developed in the late 60ties by J. A. Austin and J. R. Searle. Speech acts are a classification of verbal messages according to their communicative function. Utterances are communicative actions that can be conducted by saying or writing something. Before the spoken or written verbs actually will have the desired effect certain circumstances have to be met.
The speech act theory developed a clear understanding of the circumstances in which certain utterance could be made (and other can't be made). Any verbal communication can be characterized with the speech act classifications.
From early childhood we have learned to conduct speech acts. We know how to compliment and how to respond to compliments, we can request/refuse in different ways and we know how to give a command or how to open/close a conversation? We can agree/disagree in various ways and we have learned to deal with uncomfortable situations in a small talk. We have learned to correctly identify circumstances and use appropriate words to achieve goals.
With weblogs the correct interpretation of circumstances is slightly more difficult. Readers usually don't know why particular entries have been posted to a weblog. The weblog author must consider giving some background information, because the entry is not direected to someone in particular. Very often weblog authors assume their readers are frequent visitors and thus have a lot more background information.
To increase the comprehension level I suggest to think about two areas of improvement: to think of weblog entries as a very own kind of speech acts and to develop tools that help users to collect thoughts and to analyze.
Here are two examples:
There are classifications by keywords already available in most weblog softwares. A different option is to run several weblogs and to avoid conflicting modes.
One possibility is to create a classification of weblog posts by communicative acts they represent. I do not honestly believe that this would become anything more than a nice idea. But I am convinced that weblog readers and writers will develop strategies and practices to compensate missing cues for communicative acts.
Paul Ford developed a list to classify weblog posts and weblogs according to their communicative gesture and the general intention (I have simplified the descriptions a little bit):
Narrative forms of weblog posts*
Weblog types by content (suggested)*
The common format to discuss online is a forum with topics, replies and threads. But discussion is not »discourse«. The latter is usually spread over several media (books, articles, TV, magazines), many interest groups, spanned over many years or decades and often is not even expressed verbally.
Special software could help individuals to follow discourse by helping to overcome common limitations and problems. Here are two examples fo student work of the Department of Design at the Aachen University of Applied Science (these concepts have been created in a seminar titled »Discourse-Tools« in winter semester 2001/2002):
Both of these tools focus on the individual reader as someone who does not start with a clear picture and need to analyze before coming up with own statements. It is this insightful process that will constitute a rich discourse.
Weblogs offer a personal "owned" space to publish thoughts and commentary. There may be problems for readers to bring seperate pieces together, but by constantly working on »structuring the unstructured« the webloggers keep the "blog sphere" a dynamic place that is connected by time and by topic.
Peter Merholz once explained why he was turned off by weblogging once:
»I was also growing increasingly frustrated with the echo chamber effect of weblogs. A meme drifts out there, and then 38 different people post their take on that meme, and they all link to each other, and, as a reader, you bounce from post to post, the semantic feedback growing until it's deafening.«
My expectation of the close future of weblogs is that -as it always has been- people get creative about it and develop ways to enrich the experience and reduce the noise. Trackback (video demo , Quicktime, 9MB) is just an example for a technical way to generate more density in the structure. There will be more to come. Weblogs aren't any better than many other techniques, but they are a good option that might well be part of many other activities we all know (like face-to-face discussions or meetings).
During the last couple of years we made unsystematic experience with weblogs to support courses. Our approach has been to demand participation in a course weblog and to offer free weblogs for students in addition to that.
I have offered a small survery some years ago about weblogs to teach. Here are the questions that have been asked:
There have been only some answers, but they showed that educators find very different ways to utilize weblogs. They also showed that weblogs as a format are very flexible and can be used for different purposes. So there is no teaching style suggested by weblogs other than to encourage learners to freely explore, express, critizise, collaborate and share.
Sometimes it is not the time for exploration or sharing. Free expression and creativity may not be helpful in a certain stage of a course. Therefore there must be an idea what role weblogs play in a course process. For example: It makes an huge difference if weblogs are used as group weblogs or if course members write own weblogs or if the course uses a combination of those.
I also noticed students usually are much less enthusiastic about personal weblogs than educators. Educators hope for the empowerment of learners by helping them to create intellectual property. Students usually don't see a need for this and potentially see weblogging as a waste of time: the idea of having a personal webpage with (maybe) mediocre material does not seem to be appealing. I have seen very rare exceptions from this.
Many university programs still run with curricular concepts that ultimately force students to work isolated and compete with fellow students. Assigments are predictable, many courses are mandatory, performance assessments are routine tasks that don't require any deeper investigation but to what is required to determine the marks.
There are only limited ways to reward students that behave altrusitic and subdue their personal goals to that of a group of team mates but there are many ways to reward single individuals that have shown distinct dominance in a course. In school, students have learned for years to circumvent teacher's demands with almost perfect cleverness. This problem that can amount to a complete detachment from primary learning goals: many students (not all) start challenging the educational system by reverse-engineering implicit rules of performance approval and without actually complying with the goals of a curriculum. In a vicious circle educators often try to tighten the curricular structure to force students on track. But they may just open more options for students to cede responsibility of personal progress to the institution: finally it's the design of the curriculum or the teaching skills of the faculty that is responsible for failure.
Defensive learning and affirmative strategies are useless when it comes to university level and the rules of the game usually change substantially. Students are told that they are responsible for their own learning success. While it is inaccurate to identify a single source for failure or success in this regard, it is clear that without a high degree of autonomy an academic career will not be noteworthy.
If professors want students to become autonomous, creative, helpful and cooperative, educational institutions must actually allow students to practice exactly these skills (and allow students to be autonomous, creative, helpful and cooperative) by designing curriculums and courses that really value these qualities.
Educators from different professions nowadays have hidden agendas in teaching. Here is an exemplaric list of what educators would like students to learn:
These skills are not dependent on the discipline. Students that have achieved a form of mastery in these areas are not so much depending on their core profession to become a valuable member of interdisciplinary working groups.
Authorship is a very effective way to train own communication skills. One very insightful way to learn this is to communicate to a group in form of a presentation. Another potentially useful practice is to publish own thoughts publicly. One disadvantage is that the author does not always know who is reading. Therefore he/she can't adapt his writing style to anyone in particular. But on the other hand the discourse is open and could spark off feedback from who ever has a comment.
Design education is by nature extremely learner centered because very often students have to decide what to do next according to their abilities. It also demands a high level of autonomy from the students while at the same time a big amount of interaction with team-members. Personal weblogs of students offer possibilities for expression and showcasing interests and work offside the courses that probably help others to learn about the weblogger. Without student weblogs I would not know many extremly valuable details (for instance which cultural background some students have).
In my courses I encourage students to run own weblogs. I can't say that I was very succsessful at convincing them to do so. As an educator I am in fact watching the weblogs for updates. Unfortunatly students do not seem to like weblogging. Maybe they don't want to be distracted from other work.
Another approach is to run a weblog per course and assign roles & responsibilities to students. The idea is that each students has different responsibilities that generally require to work together to create.
Weblogs can function as a filter for web content. The author manually selects interesting locations on the web to send his readers to. Frequent visitors of a weblog have learned about the selection criteria and the intention of a weblog author, so they are able to distill personal value from that selection work.
Weblogs offer a way for educators and students to interact and share in the same format (to outperform the educator in reputation and public attention seems to be a quite motivating task).
Besides of that, weblogs have nothing to offer for educational uses in particular at least nothing any other form of content management system would do (if that allows users to create a space without asking the administrator for permission). But if there is an approach to teaching that encourages learners to generate knowledge and to express own standpoints openly and continuously then weblogs can support this.
While universities are very often early adopters many faculty members are not interested in anything but access to the world wide web and an e-mail address. They simply don't have the extra time or motivation to write online. Some even don't want to learn another new software even if they may have some benefit from it. And frankly: not all academics are very interested in academic discourse at all or want to have a say in it.
In the last decades many things have change drastically for universities. Here are some observations:
This -and probably some other reasons- fundamentally change the landscape for higher education. The idea of the educator as the bearer of wisdom, the gatekeeper to knowledge and the guide to profession has served us well - but it needs to be updated: the gatekeeping has become obsolete and the professions start to blur into each other.
To talk about »emergence« within institutions and corporations sounds like an antagonism. The command and control paradigm is very dominant in todays organizations. There is a desire for certainty and we are living in the golden age of engineering where most people believe command-and-control is what drives the results.
Daniel Berlinger wrote once commented on the topic of "k-logs" (knowledge weblogs):
"Most knowledge workers hide at work. Weblogs make it easy to see who is doing meaningful stuff." Which is exactly why most corporate weblogs will fill themsleves with junk if they are required. If they are not required, they won't get written at all. I don't say this lightly, I've tried it in a number of companies.
And that is basically true for so many things in todays companies. The way to approach this is to look ahead far in time and to develop slowly with small steps.
Richard Seel describes seven conditions for emergence in human systems (see his article »Emergence in Human Systems«):
Richard Seel gives some wonderful explanations about these conditions that I don't want to quote here. But I expect organizations - and especially the decision makers in organizations - having few or no chance to "decide" about the paradigm shift.
To transform an organization into an emergent human system is a very complex task. The reward would be a flexible organization that works itself around difficulties, offers support where and when support is required and reacts before damage occurs. It would be heavily overstated to say weblogs can cause or kick-off this transition. But I would go that far to say weblogs are a very useful ingredient.
As a »informal approach to knowledge management« weblogs can create transparency in ongoing processes within the university (or even different universities). The question is not if but how and when universities will start to develop expertise in this field and to take advantage of this easy to use technology.
There are a variety of tools for setting up a campus-wide weblog system. Most of them are also very affordable. Universities won't be able to avoid weblogs by not funding the infrastructure. Weblogs are here to stay, because the open space for discoursive activities.
The common obstacle remains in faculty members or students that don't see imediate benefits from being connected beyond e-mail and browsing the web from time to time. If universities create own concepts about how they could utilize weblogs, then that grassroots development could be accelerated.
»Weblog-Campus« is the working title for an upcoming research project. It is part of a bigger effort where we are working with partners to identify all needs that universities usually have and finding ways to integrate technology for next-generation university intranets.
I have followed a discussion at my own university about how and for what purpose e-learning should be further developed. It is quite clear that universities have a hard time to reinvent their own business. The only very effective way for substantial change in many universities is a grassroots development and it appears offering platforms like are good way to start.
[A] I am tempted to say that it's this discourse pattern that turns websites into weblogs, but I don't want to be the one that comes up with any proof for this.
[B] Many countries have already cemented this by creating an education market where »good education« is only available to wealthy citizens. This process is further intensified by the slow transformation of education from a public into a profit sector (see GATT). And as a matter of fact the publicly funded educational system recieves less and less money.
[C] »Transdisciplinarity« means the problem description and the problem definition are developed independently from the insight interests and scientific methods of the involved disciplines. »Interdisciplinarity« means the problem is defined by a shared insight interest - but in regard to the particular scientific methods.
* The »narrative forms« and the »weblog types« were suggested by Paul Ford (»'Log Frenzy«, ftrain.com) published in April 2000.
BlogTalk Conference: http://blogtalk.net/
Educational Bloggers Network: http://www.bayareawritingproject.org/eBn/
Seblogging Edu-Bloggers list: http://seblogging.cognitivearchitects.com/Sources
Edu-Bloggers list: http://www.elearnspace.org/cgi-bin/elearnspaceblog/archives/000920.htm
David Carraher about Weblogs in Education
Survey about Using weblogs to teach
Emergence in Human Systems: http://www.new-paradigm.co.uk/emergence-human.htm
Feedback to this paper
Michael Feldstein: Wrede¹s article gives one of the most clear-eyed assessments that I¹ve seen of the strengths and weaknesses of weblog discourse.
John Palfrey: Worth a read if you're thinking about the Web and paedagogy.
Reece Lamshed: Even though an academic discourse underpins this article, the analysis is rich and insightful - and will really help those arguing for letting blogs run free in the institutional environment.
Jay Cross: This is thought-provoking if you're contemplating the interplay of blogs and learning.
John Hibbs: This is a serious paper about blogging with a focus on its use in higher education. Highly recommended.
Stephen Downes: If we have to convince people to blog, to in some way grade them or mark them, then in so doing we lose what is essential to blogging. (my answer)
Sam DeVore: I think most of my students like the Web log, but I really don't know if they would keep a personal, reflective journal given the opportunity. And I guess I'm not sure whether it's appropriate for me to ask them to at this level.
Charles Lowe: I wouldn't say that this Blogtalk conference paper is an effective exploration of weblogs as discourse from a composition theory perspective. Nevertheless, after all the attempts on the web to define weblogs and find a place for them within education, it was interesting to read this rather lengthy speculation. It enhanced my understanding of how weblogs are being thought about outside of my field.
Terry Elliot: Much good here especially because I am not casting a baleful eye toward post-secondary universe and blogs. I especially liked the provocative "Weblog Campus" and thought to myself--"Weblog High School"
Mike Edwards: I found the attitudes evidenced in the linked Blogtalk conference paper considerably more engaging than the ideas.
Jeff Ward about »Blogging is a footstool«: For a more in-depth analysis (and one of the best I¹ve ever read) about blog discourse and its role in education try »Weblogs and Discourse« by Oliver Wrede. Though its focus is on education, even a casual blogger can draw something from it.
Mike Sanders: This is a good read for anyone who takes blogging seriously or is seriously blogging.
Laurie Armstrong: This article is grappling with a lot of what the metablog project is aiming at:-do blogs improve discourse, support teaching and what are the institutional benefits - not a completely rosy analysis.
Marsha Berry: I found the criticism of the echo-chamber affect intriguing. I don't see it as an exclusively blog phenomenon. [...] I guess what I am getting at is that the echo chamber effect could well be an artifact of human communication...
Frank Paynter: Shared intentions are the key.
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