The Prose of Blogging (and a Few Cons, Too)
Can the technology often derided as the favored tool of lowbrow
cyber rogues actually be used to improve student writing?
Educators are beginning to demonstrate it can.
READY, AIM, BLOG
Bachenheimer and a
of high school teachers
a project to see
what impact blogging
have on student performance.
At the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Principal Chris Lehmann champions integration
of technology into all aspects of the curriculum. But he emphasizes that the educational
purpose comes first. And that goes for blogging, too.
"We don't start out by saying we want to start a blog," he says. "We say, 'We want to do X or Y--
what's the tool that makes the most sense to use?'"
Lehmann views blogging as just one part of a holistic curriculum that he says should be grounded
in technology. "The kids know the technology. What they don't often know is how the technology
can change them as students. Just because they understand Facebook doesn't mean they
understand how to be a better student of English or history.
"Blogging for the sake of blogging is fine, but what is the value added?"
That's a question educational blogging advocates are now coming around to answer,
and the value they're finding may seem preposterous to those who associate blogging with barely
literate loudmouths and cyber predators. Can this often belligerent wasteland of poor punctuation
and indiscernible structure actually help develop better student writers?
Barry Bachenheimer believes so and made an effort to prove it. Bachenheimer, director of instructional
services for Caldwell-West Caldwell Public Schools in New Jersey and well known in educational
circles for his own blog, "A Plethora of Technology," set out to show that blogging could improve
students' writing skills by making them write more frequently and comment on one another's work.
Last year, he began a project with five high school teachers in the district to study technology, specifically
its effects on student achievement. One of the teachers, an 11th-grade English instructor, opted
to determine if blogging could help students in the construction of a research paper. Would writing
blog entries throughout the research process improve the quality of the final drafts that students
submitted? "The teacher used blogs for the students to keep as a journal and flesh out ideas for
point/counterpoint argument," Bachenheimer says. "There was interaction among the students and there
was writing all day long, before school, during school, and after school. That was a bonus."
Blogging is relatively new, with little research to support its
academic benefits, so Bachenheimer's study is an eye-opener. It
showed that students who blogged felt better about writing
overall, and about writing research papers in particular. Of the
25 students in the English class, 74 percent believed that blog
posts helped them articulate their ideas better, and 68 percent
said blogs helped them determine what to say. Another 60 percent
felt blogging helped them begin writing their papers,
which is compelling because 84 percent of the students said that
the hardest part of writing a research paper is starting it.
The students commented that blogs helped them organize their
thoughts, develop their ideas, synthesize their research, and
benefit from their classmates' constructive comments.
"The kids know the technology. What they don't often know is
how the technology can change them as students."
Bachenheimer's group conducted the same blogging experiment
in an AP Spanish class. Though the sample size was quite
smaller than in the English class-- only nine students-- the feedback
was similar. Fifty-five percent of the students agreed that
blogging helped improve their Spanish writing skills. Eight out
of nine (89 percent) believed that the responses they received
through the blog helped them improve their writing. "Most of
the students in my class demonstrated greater overall ease of
expression, which became apparent in in-class, timed writing
assignments," wrote the Spanish teacher, Elizabeth Coogan-
Russell, in the survey. "Although there continued to be a number
of errors in students' writing, I noticed fewer basic errors.
Most students demonstrated increased and more accurate usage
of newer, more advanced vocabulary. By the end of the research
period, virtually all of my students showed an increased ability
to meet the requirements of the AP Spanish Language exam."
Write More, Write Better
The results of Bachenheimer's project line up with a second
recent study showing that students who blog also write more
and write better. "Writing, Technology, and Teens," released
earlier this year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project,
reported that teen bloggers are far more prolific writers than
their non-blogging counterparts. For example, more teen bloggers
(47 percent) write outside school for personal reasons than
do teens who don't blog (33 percent). What's more, 65 percent
of teen bloggers consider writing essential to later success in life, compared to 53 percent of non-bloggers.
Those findings are expanded upon by a study involving
University of Florida preservice teachers and published last
year in the Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology
in Education. "Collaborative Blogging as a Means to
Develop Elementary Expository Writing Skills" examined the
effects of collaboration via blogs between the preservice
teachers and third-grade students at a west central Florida
school. The 18 participating students were assigned to write a
five-paragraph essay on a Native American tribe and create a
related online presentation, all the while maintaining a blogging
correspondence with the university students.
As the students posted ideas, comments, and questions, the
preservice teachers would respond with suggestions. Then the
students wrote the essay, one paragraph at a time, and posted it
to the blog, receiving more feedback. The students were surveyed
on their attitudes toward writing before and after the project.
There were a number of positive responses. For example,
before blogging, 39 percent of the third-graders said they
liked writing at school; after the project, that number rose to 67
percent (12 out of 18). The researchers concluded the following:
"First, general attitudes toward writing improved. Second, the
quality of writing samples increased as compared to similar
attempts from prior third-grade classes, as well as compared
to previous writing samples within this group. Third, students
remained motivated throughout the nine-week blogging
project, primarily due to the excitement generated by each
new comment from a college partner."
Kicking the Tires
EXPERIMENTATION IS KEY TO FINDING THE
BENEFITS WEB 2.0 TOOLS CAN OFFER EDUCATION.
If there is ever to be total integration of social networking technology into
the K-12 curriculum, there must be better communication between
teachers and IT administrators, in the view of Kevin Honeycutt, a veteran
K-12 teacher who is now a technology integration specialist at the
Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central
Kansas (ESSDACK). "The people who are so smart
making machines work and the people who are so smart making education
work don't always speak the same language," Honeycutt says. "We
need to talk with the tech guys. Try things out, prototype a new thing." He
cites Google Labs, which displays ideas and
concepts that its maker is playing around with and invites users to comment.
"We don't have a lot of time for prototyping, but if Google can do
it, why can't schools?"
Blogs-- and their close Web 2.0 companion, wikis-- might seem daunting
to some teachers, Honeycutt says, but it's critical to experiment with these
and other technologies. "Every school district should try new things, kick
the tires and bring that knowledge back to technology and the curriculum. If
you keep early adopters from experimenting, you don't have access to a lot
of new things. I almost wish there were some kind of hypothetical school
where we could test our thinking."
Honeycutt believes that social networks such as Plurk and Twitter perform that role to some extent. Through
these sites, he's connected with a group of 276 educators who share best
practices and resources. "You can 'shoplift' from this group and once in a
while put something on the shelf," he says. "You become braver and you try
new things." For example, he says, a self-taught blogger could use his new
skills to earn professional credits and thereby move up a notch on the
teacher salary scale. ESSDACK has recently launched online professional
development courses that offer credit for such self-directed learning.
In fact, educators say, blogs and wikis are perfect for experimentation
because the software is readily available and often free. Unlike free website
templates, which can be tricky to use and offer minimal functionality,
a free blog or wiki offers a range of features and can be up and running
in minutes. That's an irresistible draw for time- and resource-strapped
teachers. "I've mostly used free programs for blogs and also for web
pages," says Catherine Tannahill, associate professor of educational
technology at Eastern Connecticut State University. "I don't have a lot of
time and I like the premade templates as opposed to having to devise
every bit of [the blog or web page] myself."
While the improved writing skills were encouraging, they
weren't entirely unexpected. The unanticipated results were even
more striking: The third-graders transferred knowledge learned
during blogging to other academic and social aspects of the
classroom, such as building models of Native American villages
during recess. Also noteworthy, the students developed their
technology skills even though they didn't receive formal technology-
related instruction during the project. The preservice
teachers reported that the third-graders became more proficient
at keyboarding, formatting, conducting internet searches, toggling
between several open programs, and cutting and pasting
content from the blogs to their presentations.
"Blogging has made them more precise with their writing, more exact,
more focused; they have to use their words more wisely."
Blog With a Purpose
The University of Florida study concluded that the blogging
project serves as "an example of how to effectively integrate
technology into the existing curriculum." It's a finding that gets
to the heart of what educators like Bud Hunt-- and Principal
Chris Lehmann earlier-- warn against: putting the technology
ahead of the instruction.
"Blogging doesn't solve a problem just because you have the
technology," says Hunt, instructional technologist at St. Vrain
Valley School District in Longmont, CO. An avid blogger and
proponent of teaching good writing in K-12 schools, Hunt
believes that to be valuable as a writing aid, blogging should be
weaved into other components of a classroom writing program.
"Too often in blogging, attention to pedagogy and the process of writing are ignored," he says. "Blogs should be part
of a program that is focused on building a writing community
of students, teachers, and other educators."
The purpose of this community, Hunt explains, should be to
stimulate creative and reflective thinking, a process that a
fascination with technology alone can sometimes mask. Not
that blogging just for fun is a bad thing: "I'm fine with blogging
for the heck of it," Hunt says. "I'm not fine with blogging for
the heck of it and that's all we do in our language class. Blogs
make more sense as cross-curricular tools. Students should
think and write about what they learn across all subjects and
grade levels. You want them to have learning and reflective
activity in all situations." To ultimately be able to write in an
authentic and meaningful way, he believes, kids should be
blogging reflectively and across the curriculum all the way
from kindergarten through 12th grade.
And even beyond that, in the view of Deb Marciano. It's been
about a year since Marciano, associate professor of education
and coordinator of elementary education at Washington College
in Chestertown, MD, created the "Book Lovers' Online Gallery
Blog"-- the BLOG Blog-- which represents her effort to connect
her class of undergraduate education students with K-12
students, librarians, parents, and educators, as well as provide
the K-12 community with an informed resource of children's
books. The blog offers reviews of children's literature and is
organized by both grade and category (e.g., picture book, poetry,
Americana). Each review-- the blog has about 150 currently--
offers a short summary of the book as well as a suggested academic
activity that might evolve from it, such as having student
readers write a journal entry based on the ideas in the book.
A believer in blogging's ability to improve writing skills,
Marciano intended the BLOG Blog to also serve as an instructional
tool. The brevity of the book reviews combined with the
blog's target audience have worked to hone her students' writing
style. They are not merely "blowing off steam," as Marciano says
of the traditional function of blogging. "Blogging about books
has made them more precise with their writing, more exact,
more focused; they have to use their words more wisely."
She adds that the nature of the blog entries-- "short, sweet,
and to the point"-- has also helped her students write better
lesson plans: "They're learning this isn't their life story. I have
seen an improvement in their [saying] what they want to say
in a better and tighter fashion."
Because of the wider audience it affords, Marciano believes
blogging is a more instructive format for students than conventional
classroom writing. "Writing should be for others to read.
In classrooms, most writing is only for the teacher's eyes. Blog
writing for schools can become a real-life experience in the
writing process-- draft, edit, revise, publish-- with the capabilities
of getting responses from others beyond the teacher."
Unfortunately, academic networking is not immune to the
menaces of social networking, as Marciano found out soon after
debuting her blog. The blog was besieged by spam, forcing her
to shut off the collaborative component of the technology.
Fearing the site would be closed down, she contacted the site
administrator, who turned off the "comments" feature. Since
then, the blog has remained closed to feedback for the safety of
the children who are reading it, Marciano says.
Still, even if her students can no longer hear back from their
audience, they know it is out there, which compels them to
give more consideration to their work. "Writers take more
ownership of their writing when they know others will read
it," Marciano says. "So I see blogging as a contemporary, reallife
opportunity for writing development."
She argues that it is imperative for teachers to develop their
own tech skills so they can bring technology's academic
benefits into the classroom. "Now I want to look at other blogs
and compare and judge ours. Inquiry leads to inquiry. We need
to learn technology; otherwise, our students won't. We need to
roll up our sleeves and do it as well."
If you would like more information on blogging, visit
our website at www.thejournal.com. In the Browse by
Topic menu, click on eLearning/Web.
Rama Ramaswami is a business and technology writer based in
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.