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.


Blogger Nathan Lowell said...

Excellent points.

The ease of use thing is a good issue. We aren't very clear on what use we mean. I agree that modifying the templates here is a bit of a pain ... still relatively easy for somebody who can code around them. The tags are somewhat limiting -- but that's true of Moveable Type as well. The tags in TextPattern drive me crazy. So there are trade-offs -- as there are tradeoffs with every software. The more complex the tool, the more responsibility falls to the user. The simpler the tool, the more knowledge is required for wise use.

I don't ever consider the blog to be a writing tool, altho perhaps a lot of people do. It's never been more than a publishing tool for me. If I'm writing serious format/spell checked/grammar and all, I use a word processor. After that, maybe it goes on the drive, maybe it goes to the printer, and maybe it goes to the blog.

As for the archive issue, we need to take responsibility for our own. I don't want my stuff archived by somebody else. I don't want my artifacts being used in the next course (altho I know perfectly well, the teacher thinks that's ok because he's showing me stuff from last semester).

Maybe that's just me.

17 February 2005 at 22:44  
Blogger Marco Polo said...

Here's one Scot who can write an entertaining and informative blog:
Stu Savory

18 February 2005 at 08:35  
Blogger aaron said...

Hey bring up something that has always fascinated me about webpublishing: it's public nature. It's up to individuals to decide for themselves what 'public' means to them and how to relate to that public. What we choose to publish on blogs doesn't have to necessarily be reflective, although blogs certainly lend themselves well to that. It could be informative or objective just as easily. Coming to terms with that 'public' and how to relate to it is a very personal process and one that can cause a bit of self reflection before the act of publishing. I wonder what this does to a person experientially? I suppose there is always that element of 'exposure' to deal with, which necessitates coming to terms with who we are and accepting that, before we can proceed. Fascinating psychological issue here!

Also related to the public nature of webpublishing are the issues of copyright and freedom. I believe very strongly that anything published to the web should be available for educational purposes. Whatever I publish, I see as an offering for others to do with as they wish, as long as its use is noncommercial and the source is attributed. I believe that sharing our resources and artifacts will be of great benefit to all. If a person doesn't want his/her creations to be used by others, he/she should password protect them or take them off the web. I will certainly point my students toward resources that are helpful and publically available. By making them public, the author has *already* given me permission to do that.

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