This is a reprint of the article I mentioned yesterday, the paper concerned don’t archive their web-based stuff so I offered a more permanent home.
This was originally published in the Pakistani English language newspaper, Dawn, on January 9, 2005.
Keeping an education-related online diary
By Hafsa Ahsan
Blogs, or weblogs, have caught on fast with computer users all over the world. Alongside email, instant messengers and forums, blogs are the next best thing to communicate thoughts and feelings. Those who don’t know what a blog stands for, it is actually short for ‘web log’ – a diary written online for anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to see and comment on.
As is often the case with new technology, this development has given rise to its own nomenclature. Those who write such web logs or blogs are referred to as ‘bloggers’ and the practice is now called ‘blogging’. The fact that blogs are being used increasingly to share information on an academic level comes as a surprise to many – but, not so to the holder and winners of the EduBlog Weblog Awards 2004.
These awards were recently held by the website Incsub (http://incsub.org). Its founder, James Farmer, who is a lecturer in education design at an Australian university, told Dawn: “Our aim is to promote the use of open source software in education. What we would like to see is educational institutions using freely available software and focusing their efforts and resources on great teaching and administration through them.”
When asked why he decided to hand out awards to educational bloggers, Mr Farmer said that most of the blog awards usually ignore educational blogs. And, he said, education-related blogs deserved to be awarded as much if not more than those related to other more mundane and everyday fields. Visitors to his website nominated their choice of blogs in different categories. Voting was held over a seven-day period after which the results were announced (see box).
The question however is, what are educational blogs? How do we define a blog, (which is increasingly taken as something personal), as something educational and academic? The different winners of the awards had their own perception of what an educational blog should be. However, according to Mr Farmer: “There are three big areas of ‘educational’ blogs: those that focus on teaching and learning, discipline-specific blogs (in an academic context) and ‘service’ area blogs for things like institutional technology, libraries etc.”
Barbara Dieu, an EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher in Sao Paulo, Brazil, whose blog won an award in the ‘Best use of weblogs within teaching and learning’ category, told Dawn: “Educational to me means that the author’s voice is being published online within an educational community of practice.
Another question which arises is what motivation do educational bloggers have? After all, when the entire virtual community lives with a personal blog, keeping an education-related blog seems something of a novelty. Different award holders shared their opinion on this with this newspaper, all over email.
According to Stephen Downes, a researcher in the National Research Council of Canada, whose blog won an award in the ‘Best resource sharing blog category’ said: “In a nutshell, blogs offer unequalled channels of personal communication between students, other students and instructors.”
Ms Dieu said: “Free access to current information, the possibility to easily write and publish your own content, share it with others and interact generates motivation, stimulates the mind and releases creativity. It is a tool that may take teachers and students beyond the classroom walls, extending the learning environment and facilitating knowledge transfer.”
Steven M. Cohen, a librarian at PubSub Concepts in New York, whose blog won an award in the ‘Best librarian blog category’ said: “My goal was to keep up with the emerging technologies that can assist librarians in doing their jobs better. Writing the blog everyday forced me to keep up.”
Most of the bloggers who were asked for comments, felt that the ease of using a blog – there isn’t any extra effort required to handle the design and template part since it is all done by the hosting website – was a major factor in developing educational content to exchange with other educators. The many different ways to interact on a blog was also an inspiration to exchange ideas with like-minded teachers, lecturers and students across the globe.
An academic blog can also serve to improve the level of education in the society in general and educational institutes specifically. According to Edward Barlow, an economic consultant and whose blog which won the ‘Best group blog’ award: “People who want to educate themselves will find certain blogs to be a great resource.
There are blogs about music, technology, medicine, economics, literature, and so on. At their best, they can be a great teaching tool. I know that a lot of university classes are starting blogs where the teacher can upload documents, add comments, and continue the discussion outside the classroom, online. I think that’s a very positive development.”
In hindsight, one feels that these awards are essential to give these education-related blogs, all of those which were nominated and those which won, the necessary exposure to inspire others to carry on similar work. When asked about the importance of these awards, many winners felt that such awards if given proper attention, can serve to bring more educators into the blogging scene. Some also voiced their enthusiasm to continue their endeavors with their blogs, their motivation fuelled by the receipt and nomination of an award.
According to Natalie d’Arbeloff, cartoonist, writer and teacher, whose blog won an award in the ‘Best designed & most beautiful blog’ category: “All competitions and awards are useful in bringing attention to worthwhile blogs but of course they inevitably leave out many that have not acquired an audience as yet.”
Paul Chenoweth, web developer at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, winner of the ‘Best newcomer 2004’ award, said: “The discovery of new blogs means new sources of information, new friends, and new opportunities to learn from other individuals within the online education community.”
According to Paul Z. Myers, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, and winner of the ‘Best individual blog’ award: “The virtue of the weblog is that it is a new communication channel that allows educators and others to speak out to a larger community. But what we also need is people to pay attention, .and that’s where this kind of thing is useful. The awards help us spread the word and get more readers.”
Almost all bloggers this writer spoke to, have chalked out elaborate plans to develop their blogs further. Introduction of audio and video files, and expanding the range of education-related issues to ‘blog’ about, were mentioned as future aims. According to one blogger: “Our aim is to sow the seeds for an EFL/ESL community using collaboration tools such as blogs. We would like to network EFL bloggers from all over the world pooling the existing knowledge, experience and ideas and getting teachers and students to interact on shared interests and exchange their views on topical issues.”
So can we expect this phenomenon to pass over to Pakistan? A quick look at the Spider Blog (http://www.spider.tm/blog) reveals that blogging is very much on a personal rather than academic basis. Even web directories such as Pak Ranks (http://www.pakranks.com) hardly turn up any results when the category of education is checked. But the transition is occurring, albeit slowly.
A group of students from Usman Institute of technology (UIT) have made a group blog (http://uitians.blogspot.com/), where they share ideas as well as information. Apart from that, the only education-related blog this writer came across was one disseminating information about B.Com exams and relevant study material (http://bcomstudygroup.blogspot.com/).
Aspiring educational bloggers can also seek ideas and inspiration from a paper entitled “Blogging to Learn” written by Anne Bartlett-Bragg of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. This paper firstly examines how blogs are being used by educators, and then goes on to explore future prospects for educational blogging. Some of the areas this paper has covered include publishing the writings of students on blogs and blogs reflecting on applying theory of different subjects into practice. Interested parties can download the whole paper from http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/knowledgetree/edition04/html/blogging_to_learn_intro.html
In short, the possibilities for ‘blogging to learn’ are wide and there is a range of issues that can be dealt with. What is needed is widespread awareness of this phenomenon, and of course ego boosters like EduBlog Awards. One hopes that such awards will become more popular and will be publicized more effectively around the Internet. And in the end, the competition spurred by the awards will go a long way in improving the quality of educational blogs in general.
Writer’s Email: hafsa.ahsan@gmail. com