MET:Teaching Literacy Using Blogs
Originally authored by Michael Awmack and Crystal Pullman (2009).
A weblog, or “blog”, is a Web 2.0 tool that seems, from a design standpoint, to be particularly suitable for teaching literacy. Its design offers a number of affordances that promote literacy, not only via the traditional print medium, but also through the interactivities and linkages commonly seen within a blog. In this way, the affordances of a blog design promote multiple literacies. To take full advantage of these affordances, however, the instructor must be strategic in the use of blogs, as there are also a number of limitations and concerns that can be raised about this very powerful tool.
To Norman (1999), and to Gibson (1977) before, affordances are about relationships. The design element itself is not an affordance; it is the relationship between the design element and what the user can do with it that makes it an affordance. With this understood, it is possible to take a look at the unique affordances seen in the traditional design of a weblog that would allow an instructor to use a blog for teaching literacy.
The most common conceptualization of literacy refers to print-based literacy. A blog, in its most basic form, affords practice in writing and reading through its WYSIWIG web publishing interface. Students are encouraged to express their ideas in writing, hopefully gaining motivation by knowing that their work will be viewable by their peers, if not by the world at large.
The ability of readers to comment on blog postings affords interaction between a writer and readers. This can lead to a deeper understanding of the writer’s intentions than a traditional one-direction print format affords. This particular affordance is a key component of many Web 2.0 teaching tools.
Blog authors also have the ability to incorporate images, videos, sounds, Flash animations/games, and hyperlinks in their writings. This affords a multi-sensory and three-dimensional aspect to literacy teaching. The blog reader’s experience can be as print-based or visual as desired. After all, actual images can often provoke responses that are very different from those that come from reading text.
The use of hyperlinks also has an added benefit of situating an author’s ideas and work in relation to the ideas of others. It allows writers to source their ideas, provide illustrations, or link to news reports, definitions, or to any other kind of reference materials that they wish.
Gee (2003, p. 19) argues that “In the modern world, print literacy is not enough”. He advocates for multiple literacies and a greater understanding of the notion of Semiotic_Domains. What this basically means is that the context that a particular literacy is used in plays a key role in determining what meanings can be interpreted from something. Gee (p. 18) provides cellular biology, postmodern literary criticism, and Roman Catholic theology as only a few examples of semiotic domains. Someone reading or writing about cellular biology goes into the practice with a different understanding of the meaning of “cell” than someone studying criminology, for example. A semiotic domain, then, can be seen as a filter through which various literacies can be seen.
For this reason, blogs can be seen as promoting the idea of multiple literacies. They provide not only print literacy practice, but also visual literacy, media literacy, critical literacy, professional practices literacy, as well as a broader understanding of web literacy. The segmentation and linkages seen in blogs also allows for a greater understanding of semiotic domains to emerge. Students have the ability to write short story blogs, news blogs, reflective journals, research blogs, and many more. With each kind of blog, or blog entry, certain conventions and meanings appear by default. News blogs promote criticism and fact checking, journals lead to inner reflection, and fictional story blogs require creativity. The language seen in each kind of blog leads to unique meanings being developed, appropriate to the semiotic domain in question.
The digital and hyperlinked nature of weblogs also leads to the development of multiple literacies due to the many layers of information that is available in a hyperlinked text, such as a blog. Intended semiotic domains, and thus meanings, can be determined by the linkages the author decides to include. Linking to a cartoon video, for example, will illustrate a point differently than would a link to a Wikipedia entry. Meaning, then, in a multiple literate environment comes not only from words, but from the choices the author makes when incorporating other media. This type of tool reflects the literacy expectations of the modern world and prepares students well for the world beyond school.
1. Use topic or theme-oriented community blogs:
- You can inspire your students to learn and teach each other by establishing a blog on topic-specific elements of the classroom. For example, if the current science topic is Tornados, build a blog for Tornados and allow students to contribute blog entries based on their experiences, research, and learning before, during, and after the unit.
2. Encourage students to keep their own blog, perhaps in place of in-class journals:
- They can report on their current learning, making them responsible for their own learning, their experiences such as vacations or special events at the school (dances, field trips, etc.). This encourages reading and writing as well as personal reflection
3. Keep a classroom blog:
- This can be kept by the teacher on what is happening in the classroom, and include information
on homework for the day, upcoming assignments and tests, or parental notifications.
4. Keep a controlled community classroom blog:
- This is a quasi-community blog, allowing students to comment on the teacher’s blog posts. For example the teacher can post on experiments that occurred in science class, and students could comment on how much they enjoyed the lesson, or thoughts they have on taking the lesson further.
5. Keep a community classroom blog:
- One student could post on the events of the day, homework for that day, etc. The teacher could appoint a different student each day to post, or a different student for each subject. This would encourage students to keep reading the blog, so that they know what has been posted and they will also be excited about their own upcoming post.
1. Student Vulnerabilities:
- Blogs have the potential to expose vulnerabilities in students if the opportunity for anonymity is allowed, similar to current bullying issues with Facebook and MySpace. You need to have access and control of all blogs and postings, and ensure that your students know that only appropriate posts, even on each other’s blogs, are acceptable.
- Blogs such as Wordpress are open to the world. Unless you are using a blogging feature inside a classroom CMS, such as Moodle or Blackboard, you should be aware that the world has access to your blog. Allowing students to create usernames for themselves for the blog (not related to their real name) can help protect them from potential predators.
- As many blogs are open to the world, you will need to be careful about posting students’ work, photos of the class/classroom, and videos of student performances. If the website is closed, such as inside a CMS/LMS, then this is a minimal worry, however you should still obtain permission from parents to take photos or videos of your students and/or their work.
4. Internet Access at School:
- Many schools have many social networking/blogging sites like Wordpress blocked, so you need to ensure that you choose a blogging site that is accessible from the school, or see if you can have the administrators allow access to a specific blogging site.
5. Internet Access at Home:
- If you are having students write their own blogs, or asking them to contribute or comment on a classroom blog, then you need to ensure that students have sufficient Internet access at home to be able to do so, and if they don’t then you need to ensure that you give the students sufficient time at school to be able to complete the necessary entries/comments.
- Having a classroom blog allows you to share external links with your students, like museum websites, and other educational sites. Your students can share them as well. However, you will need to check each of the links that they post to ensure that they link to appropriate websites. Keep in mind that your students are likely Internet savvy. Even though a link may look like: http://www.myschoolwebsite.com; it could be linked to a different web address, so that when you click it will take you to a potentially inappropriate site.
- If your site is open to the public, then you need to be careful about who you allow to post comments on the blog. Many blogs by default allow people to post anonymously, without requiring them to be a user on the blog. This means that you could have spammers posting many messages as comments, inviting your readers to visit their site and buy such products as Viagra. You will either need to require that people who want to post comments be users (students), or you will need to monitor the comment section closely to quickly get rid of this inappropriate content.
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