*This post was edited on 3/15/16 – The accompanying slides were added to the bottom of the post.
More than 20 years into the Internet revolution, many of us understand what it means to blog – in fact many of us have done it. If you happen to be less familiar with the concept, I like the Dictionary.com definition for blog: “A website containing a writer’s own experiences, observations, and opinions that often has images or links to other websites.” Reading Goyal (2012) will tell you that blogs often have the process-oriented feel of a diary or journal in which people work through and jot down thoughts, ideas, and innovations. A Google search will add that blogs are updated frequently by the author and typically allow readers to comment or respond to what has been written. Add “edu-” to the front of blogging (edu-blogging) and you simply have a shorter, slicker way of saying “course-related” or “academic” blogging.
Edu-blogging is becoming more common in the higher education, but not everyone (faculty, students, or administrators) are on board with the idea. The concept becomes even more controversial when students are asked to blog their academic experience in an open forum such as Virginia Commonwealth University’s RamPages. RamPages is a campus-supported (but still very much public and open) WordPress installation that supports as many student, faculty, staff, extracurricular, co-curricular, or formal academic course websites as desired by the VCU community. Less than two years after its initial launch, RamPages is at 15,000 blogs and rising.
When I talk to faculty about students blogging publicly, I get a lot of questions — many related to FERPA, student choice, and the risk that students will blog something that is either (a) technically incorrect and/or (b) that they will live to regret. I have answers for these questions, but there’s an underlying question (that often goes unasked): “Why should I have my students blog? Even if I think frequent student reflection exercises are a valuable learning tool, why should students learn in public? What could possibly be worth that risk?”
There are many answers to that question, but here is one: Public edu-blogging is an essential element of digital age education, because a student blog acts as a launch pad for developing and leveraging student connectivity, reflexivity, and personal learning networks.
This post attempts to make the argument for public edu-blogging as an essential component of a connected learning strategy for higher education. After a brief introduction to common elements of emerging digital pedagogies (specifically “open,” “connected,” and “networked”), it will define connectivity and the development of digital workflows as desired student outcomes associated with networked participatory cultures. Personal learning networks and e-portfolios will be identified as associated and potentially “high impact” pedagogical strategies that may support connected learning outcomes while enhancing student engagement and success. Finally, the post will demonstrate how blogging fits into the development of personal learning networks and e-portfolios as a foundational (if not singular) pedagogical tool for success.
Introduction: Open, Networked, and Connected
If you are not tired of the cliche already (it’s the first line of every journal article on emerging digital pedagogies), the world and its educational needs are changing. Groups such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) are citing the need to promote relevant, authentic, active and engaging learning opportunities in higher education (“high impact practices”) or else face the consequences of under-prepared, uninspired, and less than successful students, graduates, and citizens. As part of that call to action, the vanguard of learning innovation are asking educators to consider the digital participatory cultures as potent spaces for relevant, engaging, and participatory learning. These educational environments run on power of three intertwined concepts: open, networked, and connected.
Briefly, I am using “openness” to refer to education that is accessible and shared with others on a global scale. Open educators are interested in all aspects of equitable education including but not limited to the optimization of course formats, costs of educational materials, and open teaching practices. “Open” learning spaces are public, transparent, and fluid with other spaces on the open web for the purpose of enabling accessibility of resources and inherent relevance of learning activities.
“Networked” emphasizes the impact and experience of decentralized or distributed information sources in the digital world. It focuses attention on the importance of interpersonal connection between learners and their peers, instructors, and other people. The goal of networked educators is to create digital learning communities that promote collaborative and cooperative learning. “Networked” learning spaces facilitate interaction and knowledge co-construction with the purpose of enabling students to function in and even leverage digital, decentralized environments.
Finally, “connected” emphasizes the overlap between the diverse spaces in which people learn, including personal passion projects, peer organizations and cultures, and academic environments. Connected educators help students explore, develop, and drive their own “learning lives,” the compilation of informal and formal learning experiences that make up the student’s learner identity. “Connected” learning spaces emphasize reflective, interest-driven, and holistic approaches to learning for the purpose of increasing inclusiveness, student engagement, and success.
I have made the argument here and here and here that emerging digital pedagogies value connectivity as a fundamental approach to knowledge construction. Connectivity is the act of connecting current thought and experience with and across networks of people, other concepts, contexts, and times to create knowledge and inform future action. I am not the first person to make this argument; in fact, conceptualizing learning as an act of making connections is not particularly revolutionary. Connectivity draws from social learning theory, schema theory, threshold concepts, and concept mapping and knowledge transfer theory to suggest that students learning through the active, experiential process of making connections, reflecting on them, analyzing them, and making plans around what to connect next.
Digital educators are equally interested in supporting student development of digital workflows. In particular, connectivist-based scholars make the argument students must develop the skills necessary to filter, organize, remix, repurpose, and disseminate information. Given the shifting realities brought on by the constant stream of Internet-based information, some connectivists suggest that the ability to master workflow may be more important than content knowledge, itself.
In an attempt to model and scaffold the development of student connectivity and digital workflows in light of calls for increasing student engagement, retention, and ultimate success, the connectivist and connected learning literatures tend to point towards the benefits of personal learning networks and e-portfolio systems. This is not to say that these are the only strategies associated with these pedagogical approaches; others include but are not limited to connectivist-MOOCs, maker spaces, federated wikis, and similar. However, I will focus on personal learning networks and e-portfolios because of the role blogging plays in both.
Personal learning network (PLNs)
My discussion of PLNs emerges from the connected learning, connectivist, and technology-enhanced active learning (TEAL) literature. A PLN is a self-directed system meant to support lifelong learning through the development, maintenance, and leveraging of digital networks. The purpose of PLNs is to act as a platform for:
- Sharing information, feedback, and learning opportunities (The connected learners call this last act “brokering*”);
- Creating learning products, an act that comes with directly related skills around presentation and information dissemination;
- Participating in conversations and co-construction of knowledge.
[*A quick note on brokering: According to Ching and colleagues (2015), faculty can use their personal learning networks to connect students with relevant learning opportunities such as events, programs, internships, people, and resources, thereby supporting the ongoing development of students’ personalized, interest-driven learning. These faculty help seed the students’ personal learning networks (and assist them in developing the necessary skills to develop and leverage them), so that students can eventually broker their own experiences. In this way, PLNs become a sustainable source of lifelong learning, social capital, and opportunity]
PLNs emerged in the mid-2000s as a connectivist alternative [although I prefer augmentation] to the closed educational spaces associated with learning management systems. Here’s a comparison chart for PLNs and LMS-based learning communities. To summarize, PLNs shift: (1) ownership of learning, knowledge, and social capital from the institution to the student; (2) orientation of the learning from the individual course to more holistic and longitudinal definitions of learning (i.e. co-curricular, extra curricular, home); and (3) increase scope of potential resources from institution-based peers and instructors to the world. This last point is particularly important for students seeking mentorship around niche or locally underrepresented interests.
There are at least three ways to conceptualize personal learning networks: digital platforms, people and topics, and digital workflows. The first requires the participant to create a concept map of the digital platforms and then identify how they use them. There is research to suggest that the creation of these concept maps and ensuing reflection and discussion can increase efficiency and engagement in digital workflows (i.e. productivity). The JISC-funded Digital Residents and Visitors Project provides a nice explanation of this process, as well as ideas for how to use it in a workshop or professional development setting.
The role of blogging in a PLN is best demonstrated through a discussion of PLNs as digital workflow. DML Research Hub collects stories and supports ethnographic and case study research about how students use personal learning networks to support their learning, but I will supply you with one of my own.
In the fall of 2014, I participated in the Twitter component of DML Research Hub’s Connected Courses, a massively open “connected” course that aimed to model and scaffold faculty development for the creation of additional online connected learning experiences. Through my Twitter interactions on the #connectedcourses hashtag, I became recognized in this community as someone who researched connected learning. Around that same time, I was developing and presenting a mock prospectus for a dissertation preparation course I was taking through the VCU School of Education. I posted my mock prospectus slides on slideshare.net, embedded that presentation in a blog post that explained my research, and announced the presence of my blog post on Twitter using the #connectedcourses hashtag. The people I knew from #connectedcourses began to look at and comment on my presentation.
I noticed a trend in the comments that pointed to additional research questions. I summarized the commentary and my argument for potential research collaboration in a Storify, which I also embedded in a blog post and promoted on Twitter using the #connectedcourses hashtag. Several scholars (only some of whom were included in the Storify) expressed interest in collaboration. We spent the next 18 months communicating through Google hangouts, Google docs, and Google plus to develop conference proposals and publications. Ultimately, we became friends and professional colleagues.
Take Home Point: Personal Learning Networks are systemic approaches to student success, aimed at supplying relevant, powerful, personalized learning experiences through the development of sustainable personal relationships driven entirely through student choice and mentor brokerage. By “systemic” I mean that their development must be longitudinal and not limited to one or two college courses; I also mean that they involve the interaction of multiple digital and non-digital spaces, resources, and people. However, in terms of logistics and necessary digital tools, student blog spaces provide a student controlled “dock” (or launch pad) for displaying calls to action and facilitating the organization of collaborative efforts. Blogs provide spaces for longer format proposals [i.e. longer than a tweet, for sure] and a “calling card” that wrangles a decentralized digital identity so that potential collaborators and employers may come to know who and what an individual might be able to achieve. Blogs serve an important purpose and are not easily replaced by other platforms. And, by way of an important reminder, the blog posts must be public or else they cannot perform these necessary functions in a true PLN.
E-portfolios: A “filing cabinet in dialogue.”
My understanding of e-portfolios emerges from the higher education, digital humanities, and connected learning literature. According to an extensive, four year e-portfolio research and development project funded by JISC, e-portfolios are complex entities which can be defined as products, tools, and processes for learning. Like personal learning networks, the richest e-portfolio programs are conceptualized as systems meant to serve a variety of purposes for the student — from helping them celebrate learning, to helping them reflect, assess, and plan their learning, to demonstrating learning to external stakeholders such as future employers. Only some components of the e-portfolio are “presentational;” in fact, many aspects of the e-portfolio are process-related, an experimental and experiential learning sandbox in which students “develop the key skills of capturing evidence, reflecting, sharing, collaborating, annotating, and presenting” (Gray, 2008).
Research on e-portfolios suggest advantages over paper-based portfolios.
- They are easier to share with a variety of stakeholders over space and time.
- Figital portfolios are more likely to be used longitudinally through a student’s learning journey, rather than isolated to one discipline, context, or course.
- The ability to express ideas and experiences through a variety of media (e.g. audio, animation, annotation, image, infographic, video) provides more “presentational” opportunities; is consistent with principles of universal design for learning; and has been associated with higher levels of student interest and engagement as well as connectivity, creativity, and the development of a personal aesthetic (Yancey, McElroy, & Powers, 2012).
- Hyperlinks allow students to connect the content of their posts with other web documents, providing source, background, and supporting information.
- Moreover, they – along with categories and tags – enable students to “order and re-order, link, unlink, and relink their learning points and accomplishments….[In doing so] unexpected patterns and connections emerge across academic achievements, professional pursuits, and personal interests” (Yancey, 2004).
E-portfolios have been connected to reflective practice, knowledge transfer, and deeper discipline-based content knowledge (Eynon, Gambino, Torok, 2014). The AACU considers e-portfolios to be a high impact practice, with early but promising evidence of increased student engagement and retention in schools with large scale, integrated portfolio programs. This is particularly true for nontraditional students who may benefit from more opportunities to piece together informal, formal, and work-related learning experiences into a holistic learning identity.
However — and this is a big “however” — not all e-portfolio programs are created equal. Yancey (2009) found that students were most engaged in their e-portfolio projects when they had the most agency and choice over their e-portfolios in terms of aesthetics and structure. The lack of templates allows students to experiment with forming connections and in doing so students learn more about themselves, their experiences, and their learning.
I cannot stress this enough — one-size-fits-all approaches to e-portfolios do not work very well. Therefore, I am not suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to e-portfolios. However, in terms of e-portfolios, some component of blogging makes sense. A student blog can act as the entire e-portfolio. Alternatively, it can be some procedural aspect (“the experimental sandbox”) for the e-portfolio.
My e-portfolio is an aggregation hub for reigning in the digital sprawl of my digital presence. It acts as a personal dashboard (read that as “system”) for my highly decentralized digital presence. There are “presentational” components, including the CV, videos, presentation, photography, and writing links. There are links to active collaborative projects, which are housed on their own blog sites (“Twitter Journal Club”). The dashboard includes Twitter and Instagram feeds to offer a real-time perspective on my activity. The Deconstructed Dissertation links to another blogspace that focuses entirely on my dissertation research, broken down into translatable, accessible pieces of information. Finally, Messy Thinking (this blog), is my process-oriented “experimental sandbox,” where I write think pieces, reflections, and more.
To my mind, the advantage of this system-based set up is multifold:
- It gives me flexibility to incorporate platforms with different functionalities (eg slideshare.net for slide sharing, academia.edu for pdf sharing, flickr for photo sharing). When I update something on one of those platforms, it is also automatically updated on my eportfolio.
- It allows me to reveal my collaborative activities through links to collaborative websites – I cannot house Twitter Journal Club on my eportfolio, because it belongs to a group of people. However, it is an important part of who I am (I founded the group) and I would like to demonstrate the strong connection to the club.
- It allows me to pick and choose which platforms I share with which audiences. I am proud of everything I do – including my meandering posts – so I most frequently share my eportfolio link, so that they can get a full view on who I am. HOWEVER, if I am meeting with someone who is just interested in my dissertation research, I can just as easily send them directly to my Deconstructed Dissertation blog. I’ve linked everything so they can eventually find their way back to the big picture – but only if they want to.
Conclusion: Bringing It All Together
The purpose of this post was to introduce personal learning networks and e-portfolios as two pedagogical strategies that embody digital participatory cultures and learning while also showing promise in terms of enhancing student engagement and success. Both of these strategies represent the development of “systems” – in terms of crossing digital (and nondigital) platforms and resources and in terms of spanning academic courses, informal learning spaces, and time. Blogging can and should play a role in both of these systems – it’s not the only platform required (because systems always have more than one platform, right?), but it is one that plays an important role in both:
In a PLN, a student blog offers a student-controlled long-form platform for calls to action, other proposals, and organization. In an e-portfolio, a student blog offers a platform for connecting, reflecting, presenting, and experimenting. Do you see the overlap? I’m hoping that it is clear.
When students blog in public, the space simultaneously acts as a launch pad for PLN and e-portfolio activity. Does every blog post need to be public? Of course not. Do students need to be provided with opportunities to learn about Internet safety, privacy, copyright and ownership, and voice? Of course. Does every blog need to be easy to find? Of course not. However, providing students with opportunity to work in public opens the doors to tremendous potential for learning and professional growth, while giving them control (agency, choice) over their own education. It’s worth the consideration.