Sunday, October 21, 2007

Why I blog

I've been a blogger for almost 10 years. In the early days, I had to write HTML by hand every time I wanted to post. Hard to believe. Now, blogging is as easy as writing an email.

The first blog that I ever read was Cameron Barrett's blog, CamWorld. Those early weblogs were "click trails". People wrote blogs to share interesting things they found online. Reading blogs made it easier to find the good stuff online. You used your favourite blogs as a filter. Blogs brought the web down to a manageable size.

I started my first blog as a teaching tool. It was called Design the Web and I used it to post links to the web sites I talked about during my web design class. (Here's the earliest version you can still find online.) When I found that learners were still checking the blog after the course ended, I continued to blog, and I've kept that habit ever since. I don't blog about web design anymore. These days I blog about technology and learning at Random Mind.

Like well-known edublogger Will Richardson, I've learned more by being a blogger than from most of my formal learning experiences. Blogging has connected me with some really amazing educators around the world, and it's given me a different view of what it means to be a teacher and a learner.

What is a blog?

Most bloggers agree that the only thing that blogs have in common is their format. Blogs are personal web pages that you update frequently. The newest post appears at the top of the page. Older posts fall to the bottom and are eventually archived.

I read a lot of different blogs. Some are related to my work as an instructional designer. Some are just things I'm interested in. Here are a few blogs I read every day:
As you can see, it's quite a diverse pot.

You can include just about anything in a blog post including pictures, video, a podcast, a PowerPoint presentation (click the forward & back buttons down by the words "on Slideshare") or a sketch. It's a really flexible tool.

The best part about blogging is the connection you make with other people. Before I started blogging, if I had an idea only my friends or colleagues knew it. Now, when I blog about my ideas, everyone sees what I'm thinking. They can comment on it, ask a question or share it with other people. I connect with other people and they connect with me. That's what blogging is. It's connective writing.

Why blog?

The reasons for blogging are probably as different as the people who blog. People blog because it helps then do something they want to do -- whether that's sharing ideas, resources, pictures, a great accomplishment or an "aha" moment. People blog to get feedback. People blog because it's an important way for them to learn.

Chris says, "I blog because I like to share & connect with people. It also helps me remember things."

Ian says, "I blog to express myself and share what I have to say with an audience that I hope will respond, one way or the other to it - to engage in dialogue ... to vent, to rant, to share my thoughts and talk about things that make me go Hmmm... "

At NSCC, people have used blogs to keep others updated on projects they're involved with or to stay in touch and support learners while they're on work experience. Learners use blogs to reflect. Others blog about us and our learners.

Other educators and learners use blogs to organize and share learning resources, to reflect on learning (does this look like an eportfolio to you?). Some use blogging as a key part of their course. Admissions blogging is becoming more and more popular. At the University of Manitoba, students blog their service learning projects. We can also use blogs to stay current in our own field.

Like many simple web tools, blogs give you a way to

  • deliver content
  • extend the learning that happens in the classroom
  • build communities of learners
  • connect learners with the larger world
  • encourage peer review or peer teaching (i.e. learners post what they learn on their blogs)
  • assess learners
Remember it's not the tool. It's how you use it.

How to get started

Blogging can be a big commitment or a small one. You can blog for one course. You can share a blog with other faculty. Learners can share a blog. You might decide you just want to read blogs so that you can learn and stay up to date with what's going on. (If that's the case, use an aggregator -- I use Netvibes -- and learn about RSS!! It will make your online life easier.)

There are a few really great free blogging tools. The ones I use are WordPress and Blogger (also known as Blogspot). Vox and LiveJournal are two others. It's easy to start.

A common sense approach to blogging

Most blogs are public so here are a few common sense rules to keep in mind when blogging:

  • Don't post any information that identifies you (your address, your phone number, etc.) even if your blog is private since anything can be cut, pasted and posted elsewhere
  • Don't share personal information
  • Once you blog about something, it can stay online even if you delete it so think before you click "post" -- never post anything when you're angry or upset
  • Ask other bloggers if you have a question
  • Keep your Academic Chair in the loop if you're blogging with learners, and be professional if you're keeping a personal blog
You might also want to have a look at Cyberjournalist's Blogger's Code of Ethics. Although it was written for those who use their blogs to report news, there's some great advice here. If you're blogging with learners, this post is worth discussing with learners so that they understand what they need to do to stay safe and responsible online. (And shouldn't we be having more conversations like that with learners?)

How do I facilitate blogging if it's part of my course?

First, before you start, make sure that you're using blogging because it fits with the learning outcomes in your course, not just because blogs are cool tools. Do learners need to research, share resources or reflect? Then blogging may be a good choice. Is this learning something that would benefit from being shared with a wider community? Do learners need a real audience for their work? Then blogging may be a great choice.

Remember, just because a learner may feel comfortable with technology won't necessarily give them an easy comfort level with blogging. Even in the beehive of the internet, only a few genuinely participate. Blogging involves a lot of reflection and motivation. Learners may need the same level of help and encouragement that you'd offer if they were doing similar assignments in class. They will need guidance. (Here are some great practical examples.)

Once learners have established their blog, your role is similar to what your role would be in facilitating any online discussion or managing an online community. Sometimes you just have step back & let the conversation happen. Sometimes you need to probe. Sometimes you need to intervene. Some of these skills may come naturally to you. (Weaving is a great metaphor for what online facilitators do.) Some skills you may have to learn. But they come in really handy if you ever teach an online course or lead an online community. Don't forget the importance of commenting on blogs. (Vicki Davis has some great advice.)

A few NSCC bloggers

Good luck! Have fun! Learn to amaze yourself!

Do your students have what it takes to learn online?

It's common to hear that learning online is great for some people but it's not for everyone. If you ask people what kind of learners do well online, a lot of people suggest that it has something to do with being comfortable with technology. However, when the Illinois Online Network looked at what made learners successful online, its list looked like this. Successful online learners ...
  • are open-minded about sharing life, work and educational experiences as part of the learning process
  • can communicate through writing
  • are self-motivated and self-disciplined
  • are willing to speak up if problems arise
  • be willing to commit between 4 and 15 hours per week per course
  • meet the minimum requirements for the program
  • accept critical thinking and decision making as part of the learning process
  • have access to a computer with an internet connection
  • think through ideas before responding
  • feel that high quality learning can take place without going to a classroom
It's safe to say that learning online has less to do with being tech savvy than it does with being a motivated, independent learner. Can those skills be learned? Absolutely! In fact, one of our roles is to develop these skills in all learners, not just those learning online. Does every learner have the potential to learn successfully online? Definitely! Can you help? Of course!
  • Be clear about your expectations
  • Encourage learners to reflect on how they learn best
  • Offer learners choices about what and how they learn
  • Offer learners opportunities to improve their skills as online learners
  • Give learners plenty of feedback on their strengths as online learners & offer tips on how they can improve
  • Encourage learners to share their difficulties and successes
By the way, look at the first list again. This is a list of characteristics of successful learners online. But how many of those characteristics apply to a successful online teacher? And how many of those characteristics do you have?

(Photo, stillness, by David Pham)


For the past year I've been offering a series of workshops at our college with "Teach from the Beach" theme. I've gotten a lot of great feedback so I decided to start a blog to share resources that can help teachers support learning more effectively with technology. Take care & please feel free to leave a comment.