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?

 

5 Responses to Some thoughts about weblogs in ELT

  1. Browser: Explorer 6.0

    Hi Pete,
    I teach English to 16-18-year-olds in a vocational school in Italy. We’ve got plenty of computers and technology at our school. I myself have been interested in ICT for TESOL for 4 years now and have experimented using it in various ways with my students.

    I totally agree when you say that technology must allow teachers and students to achieve goals that could not be achieved otherwise. The most difficult part in using technology is planning activities that are totally integrated into the curriculum.

    So why blogs? I am rather sceptical about the use of blogs as journals too, unless they are something students are happy to go with. On the other hand though, if the teacher is able to find interesting ways to use weblogs so that students get used to communicating in writing, well..that could help develop not only their writing skills, but also widen their vocabulary and ultimately their speaking. I have noticed that in my work with students when I set up e-mail exchanges with a foreign groups of students and realized that some of my weaker learners had made huge progress in a relatively short time.

    So blogs in my opinion could be used as a springboard for guided (by the teacher)optional/compulsory activities carried out by students or as a way of setting up collaborative projects with a technology, which is easier to use. Whether or not platforms hosting these weblogs are reliable, this is still to know.

    P.S.
    my site is an unfinished work, …hope to complete it soon..:-)

    Have a nice week-end
    Donatella

  2. Browser: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.6) Gecko/20040113

    Our enthusiasm to implement new technology can mask pedagogy if we’re not careful. The practical and ethical questions you raise concerning student publishing are real and ought to be considered. You seem to be suggesting that colloborative publishing might be preferable to individual publishing. Perhaps an experiment with wikis might work?

    You ask the question, ‘whether weblogs will help learners develop skills that can be transfered to their own situtation’ – very important! How can we use these tools to best meet learner needs? Are personal webpublishing tools appropriate for this? Or might another approach be necessary?

    I want to write more but my shuttle to the airport is here!!!!

  3. Chris Jones says:

    Hi, Pete,

    Your site works better in Netscape 7 than it does in IE 6. I’m still getting part of the type disappearing in IE.

    I think that teachers have to decide what they want to use blogs for. I’ve done handwritten journals and thought it was too bad that I was the only one who got to read such interesting snippets from my students’ lives. (BTW, I teach ESL at a community college.) Next I tried them in email messages with much the same thoughts. I tried a discussion board next where all the students could read each other’s journals. I think they generally didn’t share quite such personal stuff, but in fact, few students read other journals unless assigned to. Most don’t have computers at home, and as commuters they had to find time to do all computer work on campus. My thought would be to use blogs in much the same way, but it’s something that students can choose to keep up after the course finishes–which they can’t do in some discussion boards. They can tell their relatives about it if they so choose. By the way, most of the topics I give them to write about are personal experiences.

    However, my goal would be for them to write for publication for their classmates and me. I would assign them to add comments to other student blogs from time to time.

  4. Joel Bloch says:

    I think you have to have a clear purpose for blogging in a classroom; however, that is not to say there are a lot of possible purposes. Our focus is on writing for sources so we use the blogs as source texts written by the students in the same manner as traditionally published texts. For adult learners, I have found that they are very interested in meeting each other and having social interaction and blogging about one’s lives can help in that.

    What I sense from reading the posts in this group is that people are not ready to embrace blogging as blogging; that is, blogging is a form or genre of writing
    that can be taught in the same way one might teach an essay or an academic paper. It seems that most people are interested in using blogs to help them do something else but not to teach students about blogging.

  5. Anne Davis says:

    Browser: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)

    I am so glad you posted this as it has had me thinking ever since. It touches on many concerns that educators have. Please see the post I made at
    http://anvil.gsu.edu/EduBlogInsights/2004/03/18#a376

    As you can see, I had lots to say so didn’t want to put all that on this comment. I want you to know that I appreciate all your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to share with all of us.

    Best,
    Anne

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