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Aug 06, 2004: Blogs + Egos = Learning?

Had an interesting breakfast discussion yesterday with Bud Gibson, a professor at the University of Michigan business school. Bud is developing a collection of student blogs (or "blogosphere") as the infrastructure and publishing medium for an upcoming course. Bud hopes this blogosphere will help his students learn about new technologies (blogs, syndication, and aggregation) and provide them with an opportunity to create content in a new and unfamiliar medium.

Which is all well and good. But our discussion kept veering toward the idea of studying the blogosphere itself: it's a stand-alone information system with all kinds of cool functionality. And Bud and class get to build and observe it from scratch, starting with the very first entry, and watch it grow over the course of a semester.

We rambled on about how much fun it would be to observe patterns in the use of comments, classification, cross-linking between entries, aggregation, and so on. We brainstormed a few metrics that could be tracked longitudinally against the growth of the system's content and usage. And we came up with some fun questions that could be investigated. For example, would a static set of general classification terms lose value as content grew? Would more precise terms be added, or would students naturally rely on other approaches, such as cross-linking, to make the content more accessible?

Wow, this blogosphere stuff could be a great learning tool! But for whom? Certainly for people like Bud and I, who are fascinated by information systems. But business students? Maybe not; newbie students are more likely to focus on the basics, such as how to publish content and the tangible functionality that the technology provides.

But the "real" blogosphere--the one we're using to interact as you read this--isn't just blogs. In addition to tools that help us say stuff (e.g., blogs), there are tools that help us find other people's stuff (e.g., aggregators like Bloglines) and, perhaps most compelling, tools that help us find out what other people are saying about our own stuff (e.g., Technorati). If a student blogosphere included similar "add-on" tools, students might constantly monitor their content's "performance" just as we all obsessively do in the open blogosphere (and hey, come on, I'm sure I'm not the only one).

Understanding how one's content performed in a competitive, if local, information marketplace would surely be quite instructive. Through trial, error, and emulating others' successes, students would learn to write more effectively for the medium, which meets one of Bud's original goals. And students would arrive at their own understanding of the blogosphere as not just a collection of tools and content, but a fuller information ecology, complete with rules, incentives and disincentives, social agreements, boundaries, and metrics to help make sense of it all.

Maybe I'm being a bit too optimistic regarding what might happen in an instructional setting (unless, of course, final grades could be directly tied to how a student's content "performed"). But I wonder if corporate and other enterprise blogospheres would be more successful if they were overlaid with a similar set of tools to monitor content performance. At least initially, new bloggers would derive motivation from the egotistical pursuit of watching how well their content performed. That motivation might get many over the initial hump that a new technology brings, and help create a critical mass of content that would ensure a blogosphere's survival, if not success, in an enterprise environment.

Just a thought.

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Comment: matthew oliphant (Aug 6, 2004)

*But I wonder if corporate and other enterprise blogospheres would be more successful if they were overlaid with a similar set of tools to monitor content performance.*

This is exactly the question we are working with our clients to answer. While it doesn't hurt to have a client excited about starting a business log, it really needs to be more about ROI.

They will be investing money, time (money), and resources (money)... they want to see a return. A business log, for the most part, really is a long term investment. And some of the returns are going to be invisible in the short term (like a better overall reputation).

We put it in terms of, "look at it as a long-term marketing study that takes place everyday." For most business people that is something to which they can relate.

On a "it never hurts to ask" note: I'd love to hear what metrics you came up with.

On a related note: http://weblogs.asp.net/heatherleigh/archive/2004/06/14/155705.aspx talks about what it will take for blogging to become a job skill. Might be a thought starter for your friend. The thoughts behind it are part of the reason I am redoing my resume in blog-format. :)

Yikes, sorry for the novel.

Comment: Seaghan (Aug 6, 2004)

"would be more successful if they were overlaid with a similar set of tools to monitor content performance"

interesting that both comments feature this quote, n'est pas? :-)

This reminds me of the pedagogical rule of thumb which says "test for what you're teaching and soon you'll be teaching for what you're testing". In the edusphere, this is disasterous for creativity, teacher professional development and long-term standards. I suspect a similar consequence for "monitor[ing] content performance" - Yeuk!!

PS OK, if you're using this as a criterion-referenced assessment tool (an own-tail-eating snake IMHO), but as a medium for self-reflection, discovery, true communication and collaboration etc. forget the 'monitoring' :)

Comment: Lee LeFever (Aug 6, 2004)

I think these are good ideas and they would be really interesting to see in action. Just speculating, I think you might find that "performance in a competitive enviroment", like comparing Technorati style linking, may show that the best (how ever you measure it) doesn't always rise to the top.

Links and popularity in a smaller enviroment may not equate to quality writing, smart ideas or best practices. In the case of a provacateur, their blog may rise to the top due to inflammatory or intentionally contentious comments. In the world-wide blogosphere, I think volume controls for this a little more and keeps the flamers at bay.

If it happened like that, I do think it would instructional at the same time. Just my 2 cents...

Comment: Lou (Aug 6, 2004)

Seaghan, I don't mean monitoring in the Big Brotherish way I think you're describing it. Maybe "self-monitoring," as in monitoring how one's own content was performing, would be a better term to use...

Comment: MaryH (Aug 8, 2004)

It's great to see this proposition getting some credibility - I've been suggesting that Blogs would be a useful tool in the eLearning organisations I've been involved with, but not met with much enthusiasm.

The main question that's been posed has been "But what advantages has blogging got over a threaded discussion forum?" For me, the central issue is ownership - and the implications for a genuine co-construction of knowledge when the participants create their own learning spaces governed by their own frames of reference, rather than "leasing" space on the provider's discussionboard.

At present there are several students in the Instructional Design course I'm studying from University of Southern Queensland who are using blogs as reflective journals. This seems to me to be a really good way to start using the medium, and if you publish with Blogger for example, which is pretty idiot-proof, it's easy to focus onthe content, because the functionality is provided in the templates.

If you wanted a secure environment, then the open publishers wouldn't be your choice obviously, but any decent courseware developer should be able to provide a basic template for in-house use.

I'd be interested to know what you see as the advantages of blogging over discussion boards in the context of formal structured learning?

Comment: Mark Thristan (Aug 9, 2004)

With reference to Lee's point, leveraging the social network in a more qualitative way could give some added content performance metrics. If the comment field was "comment and rate", ratings of posts/blogs could be used to weight against links as a pure measure of popularity. I don't see why this would necessarily have to work against commenting and trackback.

Comment: Nick (Aug 9, 2004)

MaryH wrote:
For me, the central issue is ownership - and the implications for a genuine co-construction of knowledge when the participants create their own learning spaces governed by their own frames of reference, rather than "leasing" space on the provider's discussion board.

Interestingly, for me this is the problem with blogs in education. That the knowledge/meaning etc. is located at the edges and is ‘owned’ and dictated by the author, rather than being collaboratively constructed in a neutral space in the centre.

I take your point, Mary, about students feeling like they have their own expressive space within the institution, but I think that this benefit is outweighed by the distribution factor. In a distance/pure e-learning context blogs may actually reinforce the feelings of isolation that cause many learners to drop out. Conversely, I’ve seen discussion boards used very effectively on large-scale distance education programmes to provide a sense of an educational community and of belonging to that community for the students.

Blogs sound great to academics because they are primarily broadcast-based, are situated and are all about writing. For students though I feel that there are issues of confidence, of developing a ‘voice’ and of a *perceived* lack of time that may mitigate against their widespread use.

Comment: Bud (Aug 11, 2004)

I'm the "Bud" Lou mentioned in his original post. This dialog has been remarkably instructional for me. Shortly after Lou posted this blog entry, I managed to get up a project description for what I am calling the "BIT320 Distributed Learning Blogosphere" at http://budgibson.com/projects. If you're interested in tracking progress of the project as we propel through the semester, I will be posting frequently (twice per week during the semester in fact) about it on my Information Business blog at http://budgibson.com.

Let me provide a little background for why I am creating this project. I have been involved in many distributed learning efforts. These efforts almost always include both an in-class as well as a virtual component. The real issue for me has been keeping track of where people are. Also, I have wanted to draw in lurkers. The more participation, the more knowledge actually enters the class, and the more everyone gets out of it.

There are a few things I see mentioned here that I would like to reply to directly in this forum. First, MaryH makes some excellent observations on ownership of blogs vs. discussion boards. I've tried discussion boards, and I would argue that they are one way and top down. I set the topics and control them. I essentially own the system.

With the distributed learning blogosphere, I think we will get past that issue.

But then there are the issues raised in response to MaryH by Nick. In effect, will we wind up with isolated islands? For neophyte students, such an outcome will lead to dissatisfaction and complaints, a likely death knell for the experiment. I think we have come up with an exciting way to avoid that fate, the innovative use of RSS feeds to create a sense of place. We are still perfecting the implementation, but the main idea is as follows:

1. Create a set of categories that can be used by all bloggers. Bloggers can add to the set of categories, but what they add will be available to everybody.

2. Have feeds (and indeed synthetic blogs, aka channels) that cut across individual blogs based on these categories.

3. Present a unified view of the set of aggregating feeds (blogs, channels) created in step 2 and allow people to subscribe to all of them.

Now, the key to getting any value out of all of this is to get people to participate. I think the ROI issues raised by Matthew Oliphant are quite interesting. For students, the ROI question is typically in this form, "Is the effort I go through to post worth what I get out of it?" To some degree, that's where the ego gratification Lou mentions can come into play. Ultimately though, I think students will need to see that the pot of knowledge is worth more to them than just the parts they put in.

For me, the instructor, the questions are:

1. Do I have a better idea of what is going on in the class? In other words, is this serving as an effective picture on the student world? We have some measures we are looking at to help us here.

2. Does the approach lead to higher satisfaction for students with the class as a whole?

This latter may strike some as regrettable, but the world of offering classes is a market place. In an elective such as this, students should get what they were looking for, feel they got what they were looking for, and be satisfied with they got. Pulling this off I find requires effective communication throughout the term.

Comment: MaryH (Aug 22, 2004)

Nick and Bud have raised some interesting points.

Nick comments that
"Blogs sound great to academics because they are primarily broadcast-based, are situated and are all about writing. For students though I feel that there are issues of confidence, of developing a ‘voice’ and of a *perceived* lack of time that may mitigate against their widespread use."

I think this is a valid point, for some learners anyway. However, my comments are posted from my point of view as a student in a post-grad education program, not as an academic. For me, and for a few others in the same cohort, keeping a blog is an effective way of reflecting both on the course content and on our own learning process. I can't recall the exact numbers, but I think there are between 4 & 6 of us out of a cohort of 75 keeping blogs. Comments posted to the class discussion forums make it clear that several other students are regular followers, and appreciate the insights they gain into the bloggers' interaction with the material.

There is a very effective and well-run discussion board which forms a core element of the course. Activities and assessment discussions are posted to and peer reviewed on the forums as well as items being formally assessed by the course leader through an upload link.

In this context, I think the two things serve different purposes. The discussion forums are the vehicle for my interaction with my classmates and course facilitators, the blog is my personal reflective journal. One of the reasons for starting it was because I didn't want to monopolise the discussion forums - which I can be inclined to do - but I did want an avenue to "think aloud" about what I'm learning. The blog provides me with that.

Bud says "I've tried discussion boards, and I would argue that they are one way and top down. I set the topics and control them. I essentially own the system." I think the control element is essentially true, although I must say, the course I'm doing the forums don't feel either one-way or top-down at all. The course is entirely online (which may make a difference) and the participants are active in creating and pursuing discussions that interest them, not merely passive followers. However, the structure of the discussion is in the hands of the moderator (the course leader) and that doesn't change however much co-construction goes on within them.

Both Bud and Nick talk about blogs suiting students in the aggregate. I think this begs the issue. I do not believe that the validity of student blogs as a learning tool depends on it suiting all students all the time, any more than written materials can be discredited as because some learners are dyslexic. A good learning environment will provide a range of tools and opportunities to suit a range of learning styles.

I'm starting to play with the idea of creating a web-ring linking the key blogs and some of the core resources that we've found to support the 'formal' course materials and this I thnk has real possibilities, particularly in addressing the isolation issue.

Ultimately, blogs are probably a tool best suited for a constructivist learning environment.

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