Blogs and Blogging – Teaching 2.0 Circle

This post has been written primarily to support a session about blogs for the November 2008 Teaching 2.0 Circle at The University of Sheffield.

Further information about blogging at The University of Sheffield and the Teaching 2.0 Circle is available on the Good Practice Wiki.

Presentations

Visual representation of blogging

cover1

More detailed presentation about blogging in education

Useful Links

Links about blogging

What are blogs? What is blogging?


A blog is a website that can be individually edited using just a web browser.
It consists primarily of periodic articles, most often in reverse chronological order. Whilst blogs can contain photos or media, they are primarily focused on the easy ability to post written thoughts. Typically, a blog ‘post’ can be ‘commented’ on by others, allowing for a dialogue on the topic of the post. This allows a system of ‘peer review’ to be used in education.

Things to remember about blogs:

  • Everything you post is public
  • It goes everywhere with you
  • It’s easy to find using Google

Tools for blogging include:

As always one of the best explanations of read/write web technology is available via a Lee LeFever ‘Plain English’ video from the CommonCraft Show:

A Robert and Maryam Scoble presentation gives amusingly presented pointers about blogging:

  1. Blog because you want to
  2. Read other blogs
  3. Pick a niche you can own
  4. Link to other blogs
  5. Admit mistakes
  6. Write good headlines
  7. Use other media
  8. Have a voice
  9. Get outside the blogosphere
  10. Market yourself
  11. Write well
  12. Expose yourself
  13. Help other people blog
  14. Engage with commenters
  15. Keep your integrity

The full presentation can be seen:

But has blogging had its day? Well according to Wired Magazine article, ‘Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004‘, yes. I don’t think that’s the case. There is very much a vibrant blogging community, and the good outweighs the bad. Certainly blogs have great potential for educational use. (And blog posts can still be the number one returned item in a Google search, mine are.)

Educational Uses

Will Richardson writes a blog called Webblog-ed and has written a book:

† Richardson, W., (2006) Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, Sage Publications Ltd.

The following contains some useful extracts from the book for what we’re considering.

Research has shown that blogs can †(p20):

  • Promote critical and analytical thinking
  • Be a powerful promoter of creative, intuitive, and associational thinking
  • Promote analogical thinking
  • Be a powerful medium for increasing access and exposure to quality information
  • Combine the best of solitary reflection and social interaction

Blogs allow for a wider participation beyond the institutional boundaries. They provide a useful archiving process for learning and interactions for the student. Using blogs can enhance the development of expertise in a particular subject: students blogging on a subject tend to focus their research and writing activities specifically to a topic leading to greater expertise. Combined with the archiving process, this can develop into a useful database-like resource for the student. The use of blogs can allow students to develop the newer literacies for an information society; where analysis and managing of information is a critical skill. †(p28)

A spectrum of the different blog post types has been proposed †(p32):

Post Type Comment
Posting assignments Not blogging
Journaling Not blogging
Posting links Not blogging
Links with descriptive annotations Not blogging, but getting close depending on the depth of the description
Links with analysis that gets into the meaning of the content being linked A simple form of blogging
Reflective, metacognitive writing on practice without links Complex writing, but simple blogging – commenting would probably fall in here
Links with analysis and synthesis that articulate a deeper understanding or relationship to the content being linked and written with potential audience response in mind Real blogging
Extended analysis and synthesis over a longer period of time that builds on previous posts, links, and comments Complex blogging

.

Whether you or your students become bloggers, blogs are already an important source of information for studies. Therefore, there is a requirement to evaluate their content for accuracy and trustworthiness; after all this is all unedited comment. Steven Downes says you need to determine for yourself who to trust. Evaluating and developing this trust take time, something that students may not be used to having to do. Whilst suggestions have been made about how to evaluate the credibility of a blogger, I personally believe that you have to develop a ‘feel’ for the quality of the content yourself, though this is something you could discuss with your students. †(p38-38)

Importantly, I think that for students to relate to the significance of blogs and blogging you as an instructor have to engage with them yourself. This may be identifying and following some blogs regularly in your own subject area, participating in the commenting process, running your own blog(s), developing and practising the analysis skills required to evaluate the quality of other people’s blogs.

Blogs – What to include

What to have in the sidebar

Basics

  • Categories
  • Blogrolls
  • Recent posts
  • RSS Feeds
  • Site Search
  • About Page

Other stuff

  • Email subscriptions
  • Top 10 Most Popular or Favourite Posts
  • Widgets

The generally considered advice for the different types of posts are:

News Posts – News posts usually take about 10-20 minutes to write.

Regular Posts – Regular posts should account for more than half of your posts taking between 45 minutes and 2 hours to write.

Great Posts – These are the posts which your readers will really enjoy and find very useful. These posts generated :

  • Much more comments than normal
  • Much more links than normal (i.e. trackbacks)
  • Much more social votes than normal (i.e. diggs and stumbles)

Because of social votes and incoming links these posts increase traffic to your blog in the short term and in the long term they bring a lot of traffic via search engines.

These posts take time to write; they are research-led, so some effort has to be put in researching the subject. This takes several hours or even days. The majority of people don’t want to dedicate the effort to creating these information posts, and that is why they are popular with readers. Effectively you’re doing the hard work for your readers.

Against this more considered advice, I tend to spend all my blogging time on my Never Mind the Pedagogy blog creating this final class of blog posts.

Making your blog more successful

To increase the usefulness of your blog you need to increase the about of traffic (readers) to your site. This is all about optimization. More traffic means more interaction, more comments and discussion, which increases your credibility.

The following is taken from a presentation by Rohit Bharagava:

Social Media Optimization

This is a process of optimizing your blog to be more visible in social media searches and sites, easily linked by other sites, and more frequently discussed online in blog posts and other social media.

We need optimization because there is an increase in ‘noise’ online. Human filtering is a key component in the way we’ll be working from now into the future, call it the wisdom of crowds. This allows you to access the long tail of interest.

Five basic rules for Optimization:

1. Increasing Linkability

  • Update your content as often as possible
  • Create sticky content features – Downloads, Lists/Rules
  • Use catchy headlines and branding
  • Follow the Permalink conventions

2. Make Tagging and Bookmarking easy

  • Use quick buttons to let people save your blog to any social bookmarking tool they use
  • Add relevant tags to each blog post so these posts can appear in aggregations listed by keyword on sites like Technorati
  • ‘Claim’ your posts first by bookmarking them in delicious

3. Reward Inbound Links

  • Display trackbacks, comments on your blog automatically
  • Add a list of ‘blogs that link here’ or ‘recent comments’ to feature contributors to your blog more highly (and therefore potentially send more of your traffic to them)
  • Offer thanks by adding comment to a linking blog post or directly thanking linkers
  • Add links to further thoughts as updates on your original post

4. Help Your Content Travel

  • Syndicate your content in RSS and provide direct links for visitors to subscribe
  • Offer email subscriptions to content through services like Feedburner
  • Don’t be afraid to submit your own posts to sites like Digg or Marktd, assuming the content is relevant (relevancy is key)
  • Tell other bloggers about your blog or a recent post – especially bloggers you admire

5. Encourage the Mashup

  • Choose a Creative Commons licence for your content
  • Find blog networks that can help you distribute your content and fit the premise of your blog
  • Pursue guest author or contributor arrangements with blogs in your industry to spread the word about your blog

The full presentation:

Interesting Blog Example

WW1 blog

This interesting use of blogging was highlighted on various BBC Radio programmes.

WW1 Blog

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The Man from JISC, he say …

Recently I had the opportunity to work closely with Dr Jamie Wood; giving some advice on the technical aspects of using social bookmarking software in a series of first year History seminars. Jamie has an interest in experimenting with innovative technology to enhance the learning experience, and possesses the technical ability to see it through. Part of my role was to act as what’s know academically as a ‘critical friend’, giving him tips on how he could best use the technology for his and the students’ needs. I believe this model of technical advisor and academic working in partnership is a good one, and certainly worked well in this instance.

Difficulties can arise when faculty don’t readily want to relinquish any control of the course or it’s content and may lack the skills to effectively integrate social learning activities and collaborative, dynamic content generation into the teaching environment. Social Bookmarking can provide a bridge for this gap by allowing an easy to use, engaging tool for managing web resources on course topics, with minimal implementation cost or barriers. An added bonus is that it can overlap with faculty [academic] research areas thus appealing to faculty’s [academic’s] desire to include their own scholarly activities in their teaching.

Examples:

  1. an instructor can use it as a framework for students to explore the web,
  2. push out resources specific to a course of discipline,
  3. use it as an assignment to get students to find relevant resources to share with the entire class.

Students need to be able to critically evaluate what they are reading. They have to be able to justify their choices for selecting those resources. Social Bookmarking is great for teaching Information Literacy with an instructor led discussion about a set of resources and then what is a quality resource. Students learn more when they are actively engaged and have a sense of ownership of these materials in their own learning processes.

(Extract from ‘Pedagogic Implications of Social Bookmarking‘, accessed 6 Nov 2008)

Jamie wrote about what he did in ‘Social bookmarking software helps students to generate resource lists‘ on the University’s Good Practice wiki (accessed 6 Nov 2008).

Working with academic colleagues on implementing technology into their teaching practices is rewarding in itself. But this isn’t the end of this story. JISC currently has a project running looking at innovative uses of technology in learning and teaching. They found out about how Jamie was using Social Bookmarking and were interested in developing a Case Study for the JISC website, which necessitated them sending a representative to interview separately me and Jamie. The interviews took place the first week of November.

The guy they sent had worked in supporting computing services and lecturing computing for a good many years, now working for the Open University, but had a degree background in Physics. Also he knew Sheffield quite well, talking about the first head of Computing Services who he knew, and the fact that one of his sons studied Architecture here. So we had a lot to talk about over lunch.

After signing the appropriate release forms, the actual recorded interview lasted just over an hour. I was asked to explain in some detail how technology had been used in the History seminar programme, what I’d expected would be achieved, how I’d supported the process, what I would suggest doing differently, and how I saw things going forward. All quotes will be attributed to The University of Sheffield rather than any individual. I look forward to seeing the actual Case Study when it is published, and am proud to have been involved with the whole activity.

Radio’s “Ask the Expert” Spot

A couple of months ago I was contacted by the BBC to see if I’d appear on one of their programmes to talk and answer listeners’ questions on their “Ask the Expert” slot. The subject – Podcasting.

Following some initial toing-and-froing, I found out what they’d want me to talk about would include what podcasting is, the history of it, how to get podcasts, how to listen to them, how popular they are, what some of the good ones are, and how to make them yourself. As I’ve taken an interest in podcasts and podcasting right from when the phenomenon started, I know how they came about, which of the original podcasts are still around and how big they’ve become, along with the history of podcasting (without having to look it up on Wikipedia). Also, as I’ve run courses both in the University and the community, I know how to create and where to host podcasts if the radio listeners wanted to know any of that. Consequently, I agreed to appear on the radio.

So the day arrived, one dull and damp Monday morning in the middle of October. Great, I thought, more people might be listening in on a day like this. I arrived at the studios and waited in the upstairs reception area. Eventually it was my turn ‘on-air’. I explained to the listeners a bit about what podcasting was and my involvement with it. How back in 2005, podcasting was very much in its infancy and was just getting off the ground in the United States. I heard about it and what the pioneers were doing and decided that it was something that could have significant impact for learning. I introduced the concept of podcasting in June of 2005 to The University of Sheffield when I created a podcast internal to the University to provide wider access to interesting and noted external speakers, for example the author Joanne Harris and the Noble Prize winner Prof Sir Harry Kroto. When the BBC started a pilot podcast services I realised that this was something which would be around for a few years to come, after all the BBC wouldn’t invest in something that wasn’t going to take off. My role back then meant that I was able to provide instructions on how to receive podcasts, use appropriate software and, indeed, how to create podcasts. I became an unofficial podcast support contact within the University at that time. External to the University, back in February 2007 I developed and ran courses at BBC Radio Sheffield covering an ‘Introduction to podcasting’ and ‘How to podcast’. In addition, I produced podcasts of my own, both audio and enhanced podcasts; one provided information for others who wanted to get started in podcasting themselves.

I explained to the listeners some of the uses of podcasting in learning at a university and elsewhere, including:

  • The majority are for talk shows covering a host of different subject areas
  • Some local councils are producing podcasts for self-guided walking tours
  • Art galleries and museums in America, and recently the UK, are using podcasts to inform about exhibits and even incorporate the opinions of visitors
  • Other areas include stories for children or the visually-impaired
  • In business it is being implemented for ‘just-in-time’ training
  • It is being extensively used in US universities as a supplement to lecture programmes, and is finding a similar use in UK universities. It was timely because I could talk about the decision by Oxford and Cambridge Universities to sign up toiTunes U the previous week.

I gave some statistics on how many people reportedly download podcasts, as well as what the popular ones are beyond the BBC ‘stable’, and what my particular favourites are.

The whole interview went well.

After answering a final listeners question, I left the studio. Very satisfying.

The Helpful Blogpost

In the latter part of 2007 I became interested in the potential of Netbooks as they’ve now come to be known, but back then they were called UMPCs or Ultra Mobile PCs. The first of these radical devices, with its solid state flash memory and Linux OS was the Asus EeePC. So when they hit the UK I put in my order. That was November.

In early January I received a phone call saying the supplier now had some in. The demand for these things had suddenly rocketed (particularly in the States), outstripping supply many times over. Predicted world-wide sales for the year were revised upwards to 5m; phenomenal when compared to the 10m predicted sales of the then new Apple iPhone.

I reckoned that Netbooks were convenient and could save me lots of time by working in The Cloud. I’d previously tried other mobile devices for Cloud working but the installed browsers weren’t up to the job, and installing other browsers tended to be flakey.

When the EeePC finally came I was away. The particular flavour of Linux on the EeePC is called Xandros and the startup is quick; just a few seconds. Ideal for lectures or meeting or whatever. On a home wireless network running WPA security, the Eee worked a treat. And then came the Eduroam connection. Da da daaaa. Cue the scary music and the camera running into a brick wall. Oh dear, factory installed Xandros doesn’t support WPA2 security used in Eduroam. The wheels had just come off my new toy (or should that be myNewtoy). If this thing wouldn’t work at the Uni over a security wireless network than its usefulness was suddenly very limited.

So what were the options. Install Windows XP. Well that would slow things down (a lot) and besides all that paging to solid state memory could drastically reduce the lifetime of the device. What about Ubuntu. Maybe. But what would the students do generally; well they wouldn’t install Ubuntu. I needed to stick with Xandros and get it working.

After several evenings of tinkering with the code and several hours of searching the web for pointers, I finally worked out how to set up access to WPA2 security, but nothing on setting Xandros up for use on Eduroam. Eventually after much trial and error, suddenly – Game On. I’d done it.

As these devices are cheap I could see them appealing to students. In fact, I was working in the Information Commons and the evidence was there. I talked to one student who had run into the Eduroam problem. He was tech savvy and had gone the Ubuntu route, but he said he’d have preferred to stick with Xandros.

How to connect an EeePC to Eduroam was something that the HE community in the UK (and Europe) would find useful. So I created a blog and wrote about the EeePC generally, and my experience with connecting to Eduroam, including links off to a forum to download what’s required from Linux repositories and set up for WPA2 connection. I also importantly included the required settings for Eduroam.

I posted this entry in mid-March. And this month, October, I’ve hit the 1000 viewings mark. I think that is pretty good going for something that has a limited lifespan and a niche appear. I say niche appeal because there are many alternatives to the Asus EeePC on the market now, and many with Windows XP preinstalled. But at least I feel I’m helped about 40 people a week or 6 people daily to achieve something they wouldn’t otherwise necessarily achieve. Isn’t the community approach a good one? I think so.

The actual Eduroam information blogpost