Slings and Arrows - Pete's Evo Blog

Yawn, yes another blog about blogging:-) This one takes a robust look at the use of blogs in EFL.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Blog and Technology #2

Part two of this looooong posting on the technical side of weblogs. This time I want to consider ease of use - it is often suggested that weblogs are easier to set up and use than conventional websites.
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I can't say I 'm sure that weblogs are easier to set up than a regular website - lots of free webhosting services provide templates and simple WYSIWYG editors obviating the need for any knowledge of HTML. However when a user wants to take control over the way their site is displayed, they are likely to find the weblog templates are considerably harder to modify than a static webpage template, since they require an understanding of a whole new set of tags. Indeed, it may prove impossible to modify in the way that the user wants (just as I have been unable to modify this weblog template so that the front page contains only the most recent posting + comments). While we, as teachers, are more interested in content than form, giving the user maximum control over their pages does increase the sense of ownership.

But I do think one of the biggest advantages offered by weblogs is the ease with which content can be posted to a weblog. Users can post content to their weblog by e-mail, by logging into the site and filling in a form or through a bookmarklet on their web browser. Minimal technical skills are required, and the user can post to their weblog from any location or computer - an extremely important consideration when considering users who access their website from different locations or from different computers. Using ftp to update a static website may not be an option in many situations.

I have found a weblog to be a very useful tool for providing information to my students. Because I find myself working on different computers at different times I needed to be able to update the site from a web page rather than using FTP. By getting students to subscribe to the site, I was able to ensure that they received an alert each time that new content was posted. And, students were able to leave comments and queries about the content - and I was immediately notified when they did. I could have done this by setting up an e-mail list, but hosting the class weblog on my own server meant that I was able to integrate it into my class website, which contained other static effaces, discussion boards, etc.

This ease of use is very appealing - non-technical users can concentrate on content without being distracted by technical concerns, and there are lots of situations in which this ease of posting could be useful. For example, many teacher's associations have websites, with pages dealing with events, articles, links, etc. Usually different people are responsible for the content on different pages, but content is actually passed on to a webmaster for uploading / incorporation. Using a weblog powered site could remove the need for a webmaster to be involved in the day to day running of the website. Different people could have posting privileges to different parts of the site and post the content themselves. In addition automatic archiving could be used to push content off a page and into an archive once the content is no longer current - for example, diary events could automatically be archived once they have taken place.

But ease of use is not everything. To use an analogy, the cheap digital camera on your mobile might seem a lot easier to use than a 35mm film camera. In fact it is harder to take good photographs on a cheap digital camera - it is just easier to take bad photographs. In other words, while tools need to be easy to use this mustn't have a negative impact on our goals, which are after all why we are using the tool in the first place. Weblogs are sometimes used in teaching writing, but the weblog as a writing tool (as opposed to a publishing tool) seems very inferior to a word processor. I would like to see a weblog that included tools that help in the process of writing; for example, an outlining tool, cut and paste buttons, a dictionary and a synonym suggester. And of course a decent spellchecker, something that I don't get with Movable Type (and even the one here is a bit basic).
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Graham and Nathan suggested that a weblog can give content permanence - a student will still have access to materials once a course is over. Certainly, a publicly available weblog will remain accessible as long as the owner wants (or until the free service becomes a pay service). But to my mind the content of any class / course interaction (e-mail / forum / VLE) should be archived and should remain accessible for participants for some time afterwards. While a weblog does this automatically, it is a simple task to do the same for e-mail, forums or whatever.
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Daf thinks ... blogs are meant for sharing reflections, and Nathan considers ... the real value of the blog in general is the ability for a person to learn what they think by writing. Graham writes that he ... likes the discipline of keeping a blog as a student, of recording things in a way that is meaningful to him.

I do wonder if the weblog as a tool for reflection is all it is cracked up to be - certainly different people have very different approaches to reflection. And above all I wonder whether this reflection should be public. Am I the only one who feels a tad alienated by the quasi-confessional nature of many weblogs? Perhaps dour Scots can't blog. Issues to think about in my next post.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Silence

Nathan is worried that this blog has gone rather quiet. Not to worry, all is well, though I have been out of action with a bug for the last few days - me not my computer.

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I have been taking a look at LiveJournal, following Daf's suggestion and it does offer a solution to some of the problems I raised about interaction. It provides separate message boards for each journal page, allowing users to comment on comments and build up some kind of meaningful discussion.

However, I am not keen on the way the way Live Journal is set up. Access to templates is really only available to paying users - free users can make minor changes and can pick from a range of readymade templates. Unfortunately the discussion boards seem to lie outside the template system, so I am not sure that whether it is possible to change the way they look.

I am also not sure how the RSS feeds work for live journal. I suspect that they only cover postings to the journal itself, rather than the comments pages.

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I will be posting some thoughts about blogs and ease of use shortly (well tomorrow at the latest).

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Weblog technology #1

Well, it's time to make a start on this. I have a number of concerns about the value of weblogging, and I am going to take them one at a time. In the first two postings I want to focus on the technology itself.

What are the features that distinguish a weblog from other tools? Well, I have to say that I can't actually see any. A weblog is basically a website. It stores its content (usually) in a database and uses a system of templates to present the content. Two often made distinctions between weblogs and websites is that weblogs can offer RSS feeds, and that weblogs are interactive in that users can post comments on the content.

While weblogs were the first flavour of websites to offer RSS feeds, there is nothing specific that links the two. It is possible to offer an RSS feed for any website. By subscribing to a RSS feed you can see when a website is updated, regardless of whether it is a webblog or a 'traditional' website. I will come back to RSS feeds in more detail in a later posting.

Certainly, weblogs do allow readers to post comments on content - depending on how they are set up, anyone, subscribers or a closed group can post. Again it is worth pointing out that the a comment function is not specific to blogs - various tools (guest books) have been around for a long time to add this feature to any web page. For example Kristina Pfaff-Harris' MakeBook Script (http://www.tesol.net/scripts/MakeBook/), while designed to work as a guest book could be used for commenting on an article - and this script has been around since 1996! The problem with weblog commenting (or guest books) However, this interactivity is really pretty limited, and in my view pretty heirarchical. Usually, weblogs are set up so that the comments appear on a separate page - clicking a comments link on the main weblog page takes you to a page headed by the specific posting, followed by reader comments in chronological order (or reverse chronological order) and a form to add another comment. I think there are a number of important problems with this kind of set up, that discourage (rather than encourage) interaction.

First of all, making the contents visible only after clicking a link makes a clear distinction between content and comment - comments are subsidiary to the original post rather than part of it. If I go to the trouble of commenting on a post I want it to be visible at the same level. (For example, when you read this posting on the front page, you get little idea that there might be lots of comments giving a convincing and well argued rubbishing to my ideas.) It would seem a better idea if the most recent posting + comments formed the basis of the main (front) page, with other postings/comments available through a sidebar index, but the way most blogs are set up makes this rather difficult. (I have spent a couple of hours trying to hack the Blogger templates to achieve this but without success; it is reasonably easy with blogs that use multiple templates, such as Movable Type). Given that many people will use freely available weblog hosting, like Blogger, it is likely they will end up using them in their ready-made format, which I find discouraging.

More problematic in my view the the arrangement of comments in chronological sequence, and the lack of any threading. Interaction is extremely limited - basically commenting, rather than dialogue is taking place. It is all very linear and fragmentary. A comments, then B comments followed by C. Even if A comments again, it is not immediately clear to see how the comments relate to each other. For interaction to take place I think we need to be able to comment on comments. It is not that this is impossible, it is just that the way blogs are designed / set up discourages this. When I look at the comments on a blog, I don't feel much like commenting because it seems so one-dimensional, when compared with other tools. And for clarity we need some way of linking comments together, so that it is clear that one particular comment is linked to another. In e-mail the use of subjects, and pasting in bits of the previous comment, allows us to do this (although it is amazing that few people actually take the time to do it). And discussion forums / boards offer a clear and simple means of threading comments together.

Now, many people, including me, are not very keen on discussion boards. One disadvantage is that you need to visit a particular website to see if any comments have been posted. Even if you are set up to get an e-mail alert after posting a message, it is rather frustrating to have to connect to the forum only to find out that the new posting says "me too". E-mail, and RSS enabled blogs bring comments to our desktop, which is more convenient; but I can't see any reason why a discussion forum could not be RSS enabled (in theory) although I have yet to come across one. Another reason I dislike forums is that they tend to be either huge or dead - lots of postings and even more comments, or nothing since the first posting in 1997.

What perhaps would be more useful is to have a discussion forum embedded in a web page - in other words each posting is followed up by a discussion forum specific to that posting. To make it clearer the links to each thread could be interspersed throughout the posting, rather than appearing all together at the end. At present I am not aware of anything like this being available, although it is technically possible to create something like this. Wikis, which I will come to in a later posting do offer advantages in this and many other ways.

All in all, I feel weblogs, especially in their basic format (which I think is the one most likely to be used by learners and teachers) have been somewhat overhyped. If we hope to encourage interaction, I think there are other tools available which can be adapted to do the job better. So what do you think? What is it about weblogs that makes them so interactive? Do they really facilitate the kind of interaction that we want to encourage? How will this interaction help our learners?

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My next posting will continue to look at the technology itself, and will deal with useability, which may give weblogs an edge in comparison with 'conventional' web pages, in some cases. Further topics I hope to cover include the value of online publication, weblogs and purposeful language teaching, and more.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Rebranding this Blog

As Graham and pointed out, there was some discussion about blogging on the IATEFL BESIG list.

I am a little concerned that there has really been very little critical discussion of blogs and blogging in EFL, and it seems odd that what little discussion has taken place, has taken place elsewhere. It seems to be generally accepted that blogging is a good thing - as I stated in my introduction, this is not something that I have yet accepted, although my participation in this (and last years) group does indicate that I am open to persuasion.

In the hope of stimulating some critical discussion on Blogging, I have decided to play the devil's advocate and have changed the name of this blog to Slings and Arrows. I hope that taking a critical position on blogging may draw out some of the possible benefits of blogging.




Wednesday, January 19, 2005

First Post

This is the first post to this WebLog. I am still not quite sure how I got here. One minute I was trying to post a comment on someone's blog, the next minute here I am writing this message. I guess I will manage to get back to where I started at some point. Or maybe I will just stay lost in bloglivion.

I wonder how easy it is to adjust the templates in this blog. Not sure I like standardised templates. It would also be a good idea to have a spell check - after all I insist my students use them.

Anyway now I'll try and post that comment ......