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TOOLS FOR THE TEKS: INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM

Successful and Safe Educational Blogging

by Wesley A. Fryer
www.wesfryer.com

During the TCEA conference several years ago, speaker Alan November challenged classroom teachers in attendance to analyze the net input and output of information going into and out of their classrooms.[1] For most teachers, a great deal of information is brought into their classroom, much of it thanks to the Internet’s World-Wide Web. The web is inherently an interactive medium, and although outside of class time many teachers and students utilize its interactive potential via email and instant messaging programs, during school it is much more common for them to use this tremendous tool like an advanced television: tuning in to channels (websites) of desired information and then bringing those broadcast streams into the instructional environment for largely passive consumption.

Weblogs are Internet-based informational resources with the potential to change this common, limited use of the World-Wide Web in education. This article will provide an overview of blogs as well as suggestions for ways they can be effectively and safely used in educational contexts.  Like many technological tools, blogs have potential for exciting instructional uses, but also potential for abuse and even dangerous uses which educators should acknowledge and proactively address to protect their students as well as themselves.

Blogs Defined

Unbeknownst perhaps to many students, teachers, and even librarians, “blog” was the word of the year in 2004 according to dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster.[2] As defined in the Wikipedia, “A weblog, web log or simply a blog, is a web application which contains periodic time-stamped posts on a common webpage. These posts are often but not necessarily in reverse chronological order. Such a website would typically be accessible to any Internet user.”[3] Blogs are frequently used like an online journal or diary, significantly different from their paper-base counterparts since they are 1) Accessible to a global audience, and 2) Generally allow readers to post comments on blog entries they read.

Blogs are revolutionary primarily because of the ease with which they allow any Internet user, regardless of age, experience, or ready access to a credit card, to publish textual content on an Internet website. For those with sufficient motivation and technology savvy, Internet publishing has been a practical reality for many years, arguably since the early days of the World-Wide Web in the 1990s. Web publishing in a more traditional sense required:

  1. A computer with Internet access
  2. Rudimentary knowledge of a basic markup language (hypertext markup language, or HTML) and/or
  3. Use of a basic what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) webpage editor
  4. A website account including a hostname, userid, and password, and
  5. File transfer protocol (FTP) software capable of copying created webpages from the user’s local hard drive to the actual website account.

The advent of free online blogging services has changed these requirements dramatically, so now all someone needs to be a global content publisher is:

  1. A computer with Internet access
  2. A blog service website address (like www.blogger.com), and
  3. The ability to remember their username and password!

Given the prevalent availability of Internet connected computers not only at school but also in homes, the potential for students as well as teachers to not only access others’ blogs but also create their own is unprecedented. According to Dr. David Thornberg, while the computer to student ratio has stagnated nationwide over the past few years at 4:1, the ratio in homes across the US has continued to go down to its present average level of 2:1.[4] This prospect is exciting, but can become problematic if teachers do not understand the potential for students to post personal and unsafe information about themselves and take steps to address these concerns.

Blog Reading Tools

Weblogs can universally be accessed using web browser software, like Internet Explorer, but more advanced tools are available that can make blog reading more efficient and less time consuming. These tools permit blog readers to avoid visiting blog websites individually one at a time, and instead quickly browse updated blog headlines customized to include only those of interest.

AppleMark
The Firefox web browser, based on “Gecko” technology used in the original Netscape browser, was released in late 2004 for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computer platforms (www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/). Firefox has many advantages over Internet Explorer including speed, security, and a feature called “live bookmarks.” Live bookmarks allow an Internet user to save the web address for a blog site’s syndication address (also called an RSS or ATOM feed) as an Internet favorite or bookmark in the Firefox browser. The accompanying screenshot shows how updated blog or news postings are displayed in a “live” popup window in the Firefox browser. The shown blog postings in this screenshot are from David Warlick, one of my favorite educational thinkers. Syndication web addresses usually have the extension “.rss” rather than the more typical “.htm” or “.html” of static webpages. In this case, the address for David’s blog is http://davidwarlick.com/blog/e2cw_ext.rss, which has been saved as a “live bookmark” in my Firefox browser toolbar.

Newsreader software is also worthy of examination as a blog reader tool. Visit www.download.com and search for the acronym “rss” – then click on “total” under the column “Downloads” to sort the results list by the total number of times the software has been downloaded. Free and popular options for blog news readers include:

For Windows:

For Macintosh:

Alternatively, students and teachers alike can use BlogLines (www.bloglines.com), a free web-based service permitting blog subscriptions as well as sharing of recommended blog feeds.

Students studying current events like the war in Iraq no longer have to limit their news information to established agencies like the BBC, FoxNews, CNN, and MSNBC. A multitude of worthwhile blogger websites updated regularly by people living and working in Iraq are available. These include:

  1. Iraq and Iraqi’s - http://www.iraq-iraqis.blogspot.com/
  2. Raed in the Middle - http://raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com/
  3. Iraq the Model - http://raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com/
  4. Boots on the Ground - http://www.bootsonground.blogspot.com/
  5. The Mesopotamian - http://messopotamian.blogspot.com/

Most of these blogs include other links to Iraq-related blog websites. Armed with these links, students can read the perspectives of Iraqi civilians living in Bagdad, US soldiers on temporary duty there, and many others. This is but one example of how blog content can bring authentic and personal perspectives into the classroom and provide educational opportunities quite different from those provided by more traditional textbook/worksheet activities. For more information and practical tips on getting started using RSS, refer to Will Richardson’s RSS Quick Start Guide for Educators (www.weblogg-ed.com/rss_for_ed).

Blog Publishing Tools

The magical power of blogs in the classroom comes not only from reading content posted by others, but also from the ability they provide for teachers and students themselves to post their own ideas online.

Blogging tools come in two broad varieties:

  1. Server-based blogging tools and services
  2. Software-based blogging tools

The most common and easiest blogging tools to use are server-based services, including Blogger (www.blogger.com). In a few steps, anyone with an email address can setup a free account on Blogger.com and start publishing content. Different design templates are available that can be used or further customized to change the look and feel of the blog website.

Software-based blogging tools are also popular but have additional requirements for web publishing that server-based tools do not. One example is Thingamablog (http://thingamablog.sourceforge.net), available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux platforms. Software-based blog tools create all the webpages for a blog website automatically, so it is NOT necessary to use a separate webpage authoring program like Frontpage or Dreamweaver to create content pages. However, it is necessary to “upload” created webpages to a server, similar to way webpages are transferred via FTP software to an Internet server where they can be accessed.

Other software-based blogging tools worth checking out include:

  1. For Windows, Greymatter: http://noahgrey.com/greysoft/
  2. For Macintosh, BlogWave Studio: www.littlehj.com

Many teachers who have previously attended professional development workshops and tried to learn how to create and post their own websites on the Internet have walked away from the experience overwhelmed and frustrated. Creating a blog is comparatively a much simpler enterprise than learning how to make even basic webpages with Frontpage or Dreamweaver. The potential uses for teacher blogs include posting classroom notes, homework assignments, web links for extension activities, etc. The possibilities are only limited by the imagination of the teacher.

Managing Blog Comments

One of the features of blogs that define them as interactive tools, but are likely to make many teachers initially cringe, is their ability to permit web visitors to leave comments on posted entries. Services like blogger.com allow blog authors to prohibit anonymous comments, which is a very good idea and highly recommended for educational contexts. By prohibiting anonymous comments, the blog author can not only delete a posted comment that is offensive or inappropriate, but also ban the user who posted the comment from posting subsequent comments.

If software-based blogging tools are used, the free web commenting and trackback service provided by Haloscan (www.haloscan.com) can be readily integrated into most blogging software in the stylesheet settings. After signing up for a free Haloscan account, instructions are provided about using Haloscan commenting features with different blogging software. Haloscan commenting can be used with any website incidentally, including a school or classroom website.

After a comment is posted to a blog, the owner can edit or delete comments. If desired, many software tools (including Haloscan) allow owners to ban users who have posted offensive comments. Teachers need-not take the time to scour each and every blog posting for comments that need to be edited or deleted, students as well as parents can be enlisted to help in this effort as well. Blog commenting may “go against the grain” for some traditional educators who envision the ideal classroom environment as one of strict control and passive student compliance with teacher directions. For teachers who recognize the inherent value of expanding the authentic audience for student writing and engaging a wide variety of community educational stakeholders through the use of blogs, the dynamical nature of the medium can become a tremendous asset rather than a liability.

Using Blogs to Publish Student Work

I could attempt to capture the wide variety of educational uses for which weblogs are and can be employed to fulfill in the classroom, but it would be hard to do a better job than Will Richardson has in the short video he has posted on www.weblogg-ed.com/weblogs_in_ed_video). His website, Weblogg-ed, is a superb resource for educators at all levels contemplating or already engaged in the use of blogs for educational purposes. Link to the 2 ½ minute video above to see and hear students as well as teachers talk about their positive experiences with weblogs in the classroom.

As all writing teachers know, some students are motivated to write “for an audience of one” when the teacher is the only one reading and grading a writing assignment, but many students are not. Using a weblog to publish student work can fundamentally change the writing process for many or all students, because it redefines the audience and their purpose for writing. When students understand that not only their peers, but also their parents, community members, and even people they have never met living in other states or other countries will be reading and commenting on their authored works published to a blog, in some cases, it is not an understatement to say that EVERYTHING CHANGES.

Alan November has an excellent compilation of educational “blogs in action” posted on http://www.novemberlearning.com/blogs/alannovember/articles/blogsinaction.aspx. These include middle school writing projects, student artwork, assignments, tests, and even interactive classroom project results. Again, the potential educational uses are only limited by the creative minds of the bloggers.

Student Safety and Privacy Concerns

Amidst the enthusiasm and excitement for educational blogging, all educators as well as parents should take pause to consider the very real student privacy and safety considerations presented by blogging. The January 2005 article published by the BBC entitled “Blogging 'a paedophile's dream'” provides a case in point.[5] Students accustomed to instant messaging with friends can and do frequently provide more personal information about themselves to others than they should in electronic environments, including blogs. The following guidelines are by no means exhaustive, but may be helpful to address these real and legitimate concerns:

  1. Depending on the age of students, consider posting their work on your own teacher blog using a pseudonym instead of the students’ real names. In no cases use a student’s first name and last name on a blog posting.
  2. Set up your weblog with a password to limit public access. The password can be provided to class members, parents, and others with an interest in the work of your class, but others in the public are prohibited from simply browsing the contents of your classroom weblog.
  3. If students set up their own blogs, conduct formal orientation sessions for students and parents about online safety, specifically as it relates to blogging. Document attendance at these sessions and provide handouts. Encourage students to use pseudonyms instead of their real names on their blogs, to never divulge personal information including their email address, phone number, and address, etc. Find more information and resources to share on www.getnetwise.org.
  4. Work with your school district to find out if policies exist relating to student blogging and employee blogging. Work with administrators as well as parents, to inform all stakeholders about your planned or ongoing use of blogs for instructional purposes. Solicit their support and feedback in advance, ideally before concerns or problems develop relating to blog postings.

Blog Publishing Liability

The ease with which a teacher or student can publish content for a global audience with their blog also comes with a caveat: armed with that username and password, ANYONE can post content on the person’s blog or edit and delete content previously posted there. Given this fact, all bloggers are well advised to:

  1. Protect your blog userid and password just like you would a credit card number or your social security number
  2. Use a secure password composed of letters and numbers (never an easy-to-guess word like the name of your pet or even a word readily found in the dictionary)
  3. Change your blog password periodically.

Under no circumstances should a teacher ever provide their blog userid and password to a student, or write the userid and password down on a stickynote attached to the computer or placed anywhere else it could be seen by others. Students should likewise be diligent in protecting their blog account information from others, even their close friends.

Teachers as well as students should also be aware of issues related to publishing that may be novel for the classroom environment, including cyber-bullying, libel and slander.[6] Just because someone has an opinion about something or someone does not necessarily mean that s/he should publish those thoughts to a global audience via a blog. All bloggers should understand there can be serious consequences to the publication of ideas online. These comments are not made to dissuade educators from exploring the positive potential for blogs to transform the classroom writing process, but rather to appreciate from the outset the wide range of issues, both positive and negative, which can be raised by the use of educational blogs.

Get Started!

An excellent step-by-step resource guide for educators wanting to get started using weblogs is Alan November’s Educator’s Guide to Blogs (http://novemberlearning.com/Portals/0/Educators_Guide_to_blogs.pdf). Although the initial pages are specific to blogs created on Alan’s website, the steps and concepts for creating blog postings, blog categories, editing comments, etc. are common to most blog creation services and software tools.

We live in a culture and economy transformed in many fundamental ways by technology, but often work in classrooms little-changed from those of our ancestors many decades ago. Teachers at all levels can interpret the message of Dr. Larry Cuban’s book, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/CUBOVE.html) as an indictment of predominant educational technology practices, which have not broadly changed classroom pedagogies at the elementary, secondary, or university levels despite the billions of dollars spent by local, state and federal agencies.

Can blogs change this reality? It is up to the teachers and students who are and can use them. The potential for positive change is exciting, but the chances for abuse and problems should keep even the evangelists for educational blogs sober and realistic.

Wesley Fryer is the Director of Instructional Support Services for the College of Education at Texas Tech University. Catch up on his latest musings about education and life in general on his weblog at www.wesfryer.com/blog



[1] "The Increasing Importance of the Educator in the Digital Age." Presentation by Alan November at TCEA 2002. 7 Feb 2002. http://webpages.acs.ttu.edu/wfryer/tcea2002/Alan_November_2-7-02.html.

[2] ‘Blog' Is Runaway Word Of Year. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/12/01/print/main658433.shtml. Accessed 14 March 2005.

[3] Weblog as defined in Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weblog. Accessed 14 March 2005.

[4] “But Wait, There's More: Redefining Education in a Light-Speed World.” Presentation by Dr. David Thornberg at TCEA 2005. 10 February 2005. http://www.wesfryer.com/blog/B106757942/C192863536/E1229351981/index.html.

[5] “Blogging 'a paedophile's dream'”. 26 January 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/uk_news/scotland/4209801.stm.

[6] “Schoolyard bullies get nastier online.” 7 March 2005. http://www.usatoday.com/educate/college/education/articles/20050313.htm.


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