One of the ideas that often comes up when weblogs are discussed is that they offer students an audience for their writing. I think this raises a number of important issues.
The first one is the nature / identity of that audience. Who are they? Successful writing is addressed to an identifiable audience, whether it is readers of romantic novels or users of a new video recorder. The needs and expectations of the audience are an important ingredient in the writing process. The audience for an open weblog seems to be essentially unknown. A weblog is a location in cyberspace which people can stumble across and read. (Certainly, the anonymous audience may in time develop into an identifiable group, but this is not the case when the weblog is created.) I do wonder how well learner writing can be served by this kind of random audience.
I also feel that the power relationship implicit in a weblog might be unhelpful. Most weblogs are owned – they ‘belong’ to an individual or group. Insiders post content and outsiders comment on content. There seems a very clear hierarchy here, and this is very different to an e-mail discussion list. A discussion list is essentially a developing community of practice. While a list may be owned / managed by an individual, usually there is a more equal power relationship – everyone is free to post. While there may be very different levels of participation, an e-mail list is basically a community of equals.
Student journal writing is often mentioned as an example of how weblogs can be used, but I think I approach them in a very different way. With EAP learners, I do try to get them to keep a learner diary. I see this as something they can do _if_ they feel comfortable with it, and most importantly as something that is private – they can show it to me if they wish, but there is no obligation to do so. Making learner journals public changes them dramatically. Since they are public, learners are under a pressure to produce – a learner who does not write anything is likely to feel that they are not doing what their teacher wants. It also prevents learners for using them as a means of expressing their concerns to the teacher – some learners feel uncomfortable doing this in a face to face situation.
I also think that there is often an assumption that publishing student writing is a good thing, and I feel a little uncomfortable with this. It is often suggested that providing writers with an audience leads to increased motivation. However, is that audience really there? If my learners produce the millionth class weblog, how many readers will they really get? If I want to help get an audience for their writing, could I not perhaps do this more successfully through an organised e-mail exchange? And looking it from the other side, do I actually want my learners to be spending time reading other people’s weblogs? These are texts that bear no relation to their reading needs in terms of style, purpose, language or genre. If I merely want them to read for pleasure, would they not be better off reading novels, articles etc, rather than weblogs written by other learners of English?
This is not to say that weblogs have no role in language teaching, but I think that being aware of these issues can help to ensure the success of a weblog. Like all uses of technology in education, the success or failure of a weblog lies in the way it is set up, and a successful weblog activity will need careful organisation. It is important that weblog activity is integrated into the course – that it isn’t something that is tacked on to the rest of the learning activities in order to give a traditional course some technological bells and whistles. Organisation is important – it will probably work more effectively if it is set up as an exchange between one or more existing groups of learners. Two or three classes could set up weblogs and read and comment on them over a period of time. Alternatively, a number of learners from different groups could combine together to collaborate on the same weblog. In addition, a weblog activity will also work better if it is based around a defined topic or task. For example, three classes might be reading different books by the same author or on the same topic and could use weblogs to comment on them.
Weblogs seem to have less application with adult EFL learners. Dealing with adult professionals requires an approach that is focussed on outcomes – learners are not interested in ‘knowing English’ – they need to be able to use English to do something. Whatever value weblogs may or may not have, there can be few learners who are studying English in order to produce a weblog. The important question for me is whether weblogs will help learners to develop skills that can be transferred to there own situation? I also think it is important to be fairly sceptical about the use of technology in ELT. When considering an application I want it to enable me to do one of two things: to do something new, or to do something more effectively. Discussion boards and e-mail lists would seem to be more effective alternatives in many cases.
So what exactly do weblogs allow us to do that we couldn’t do before? And what do they allow us to do more effectively?