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Coming to Terms with Digital Authorship in Education

By Michael Peters

What is blogging, really?
One of the barriers to a meaningful conversation about blogging in the classroom is a pervasive confusion about what blogs are, both generally and in the educational context.
Blogging crosses many traditional “forms of writing” that teachers have long become accustomed and comfortable with.
Out in the “real world,” blogs can be expository, narrative, or descriptive. They can be fictional, factual, or satirical. Often they are an expression of a single person’s voice, but they can also be developed by a community. Blogs can be carefully crafted formal writing, or highly personal and idiosyncratic.
If we expand our notion of digital authorship to include platforms such as Twitter, or others that are almost entirely visual (Tumblr, Pinterest), we end up with a definition that seems impossibly broad.
And this presents almost limitless educational possibilities! The great challenge is developing an understanding of blogging that can both accommodate this diversity and provide a framework of policies, practices, and pedagogy to support working teachers.
In some ways, blogs resonate closely with traditional teaching practices. After all, journaling is a time-tested classroom strategy. However, as educational blogging advocate Anne Davis stresses, “it is not just a matter of transferring classroom writing into digital spaces.”
Defining the “right” way to use blogs in the classroom is thus a complicated question.
Once again—what is blogging?
Blogging is publishing
The primary characteristic that sets blogging apart from simple journaling is the act of publishing. In many ways, blogging can be viewed as a democratic revolution in publishing. Anyone with basic access to the internet can be a blogger. You do not need a tenured university position, or a publisher, or a paid column in a newspaper to express your opinion and attract an audience.
Much has been written about the motivating power of authentic writing for an audience. While most blogs allow private or semi-private posts, and educational blogging platforms are usually capable of operating within a “walled garden,” my sense is that this is fighting against the nature of the medium.
Blogging is community
Blogging is about audience, but not a static, silent audience. On many blogs, much of the excitement happens when readers start adding their comments. Community is also developed by connecting blogs and bloggers who share common interests.
Also, studies show the positive educational applications of community-developed blogs, where students collectively share responsibility for producing content.
Blogging is personal
While blogs can host formal academic activities, it is not possible (nor desirable, I think) to escape the personal nature of blogs. Young people often struggle in defining and expressing their personal identity. Even within the context of school-administered educational blogs, it is important to allow students freedom to express this voice and take ownership of their digital footprint.
Blogging is linking
One skill that is absolutely fundamental to blogging is the ability to create hyperlinks. Often links serve as informal citations that readers can follow for more information. Linking can also connect to other student-created content as well, such as videos or other multimedia. There are a huge number of web-based services that can be used to embed all sorts of content.
In effect, the blog becomes a dead-simple platform that allows students to host a huge variety of audiovisual material in a single dynamic, multimedia document.
In getting it right, what strategies must we consider?
1. Create a meaningful connection between student blogs and the classroom.
Blogging should not be a one-on-one conversation between teacher and student. Students should be connecting to, and commenting on, the work of their peers. Online discussions should be continued face-to-face, and should inform classroom activities.
2. Develop norms and expectations
With no single, widely understood formula, it is essential that teachers define the goals and expectations for blog-based activities. What is the learning goal? How will the task be assessed? Behavioral expectations, such as respectful commenting and awareness of one’s own digital footprint, should also be discussed.
3. Require linking and multimedia
Digital authorship is not just about text. Images, media, and links are essential components of the medium and should be blended seamlessly together in digital texts. Teachers and students need to be taught the technical skills to accomplish this, and the referencing and citation skills to do it responsibly.
4. Read some blogs!
To be comfortable with any medium, you must become familiar with its language and features. If “publishing for a global audience” is too much to ask initially, a logical first step would be to begin reading more blogs.
In conclusion, schools must keep pace with changing notions of literacy. We must guide our teachers and students to take advantage of their unique possibilities, while navigating the potential pitfalls. Both teachers and students must develop the knowledge and skills to evolve past the mere replication of traditional activities in an online environment.
Mr. Peters is Upper School Digital Learning Coach at the International School of Prague, Czech Republic.

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