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.

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.

8 Comments:

Blogger Dana Watson said...

To my mind, the main difference between a website and a blog is that a website is static and a good blog shouldn't be. I use both technologies, and they seem to encourage very different uses.

My website I reserve for posting things that will remain static once posted, such as my CV, my schedule, etc.

Blogs, on the other hand, are supposed to be updated frequently. They *are* websites, but people have given them another name because they function differently than a standard "website." Many people actually have a blog as a subset of their regular site, making it just another tool, which it is.

Pedagogically, I don't particularly like comments, and I don't play it up as the reason to blog. Sure, it's great if my students get comments from other people. But what I really want them to be doing is writing, and hopefully finding out that writing is something they can do for themselves. I started my ESL students blogging because I hoped it would be a way for them to practice writing outside the classroom, in a way that would inspire them to keep writing even after their semester in my class was over. I'm not teaching them to be web designers or internet gurus; I'm teaching them to write. The hope is that having a convenient way to display their writing to a theoretical audience will inspire them as writing in a personal paper journal wouldn't.

9 February 2005 at 03:03  
Blogger Graham said...

Hi Pete

I disagree with you about blogs and discussions - one way of carrying out a discussion on a topic is by posting responses on another blog. I think that although it certainly feels different from an email list or online forum discussion, it's just as effective if not more so. Well, at least I prefer it to following a threaded conversation on a forum - I just get annoyed at the time I waste and all that clicking (especially if people aren't very careful about the titles they submit.

For more comments on your post, look here:

http://blog-efl.blogspot.com/2005/02/petes-slingshot-at-blogging.html

9 February 2005 at 12:27  
Blogger Dafne said...

Hi Pete,

I agree with many of your reflections about, especially those regarding the impossibility to add comments to comments on most blogs (that's one of the reasons I like LiveJournal which allows it). I think blogs are meant for sharing reflections, and I stick to web pages because I have control of the content which I keep on my server and my hard disk. I like Live Journal because I can read my students LiveJournal blogs from my own blog without RSS, meaning, that they do not need to make their blogs public for me to read them. Even though, I am in favor of distributed knowledge, I also appreciate giving my students some privacy. I am co-moderating another EVO session, Becoming a Webhead, and we are exploring different tools and reflecting on the advantages and disadvantes they have for EFL/ESL. I would like to copy one of the participants' comments on his blog, about blogs and wikis:
"d. Well, blogs and wikies are similar but they differ in the fact that wikies are more cooperative than blogs. In simpler words, in blogs we jott down our thoughts, view, ideas, experiences, but they are saved and unchanges. Other people can only take a look at what you've written, but cannot make any changes. People can, of course, add comments but it is more like a feedback process. In a wikie, the people subscribe can edit, change, add, and modify so the text can be considered a co-text. With a blog, we could set a writing task with peer correction or have students write journals and criticize/support what classmates have done. With a wekie, the task would be more like a writing assingment in groups in which each member of the group has to add something to the text. This collaboration may imply different ways of interaction among participants since they have to coolaborate in deciding what parts of the text to kepp and what to change.
e. I used to think of webpages as some kind of reference to acquire knowledge. I thought that it was useful to provide our students with information or to recieve their assingments and so on. However, in these four weeks I have realized that webpages can have many other applications in our professions. I've seen webpages where the people who log in can answer questionaires, take tests, read texts and answer comprehension questions, find meanings of unkown words, find thousands of resources for task-based or process-oriented projects... and quite a large etc. Either commercial or teacher-developed webpages can be useful for a lot more than just showing your pictures and giving students tips or interesting readings. Regrettably, I don't know yet how to do many of these things myself but with patience and a little bit of curiosity I hope some day soon I will.
"
This is the url to the blog: http://www.livejournal.com/users/carlosam/ but as you can see if you click on the url, his post is private, only "his" friends are allowed to read them.

Pete, if you don't mind, I would like to share your blog with the participants in the Becoming a Webhead session , because I would like them to have different points of view about the use of CMC tools.

Cheers,
Daf
PS: It is nice to hear from you :-)

10 February 2005 at 18:48  
Blogger Pete MacKichan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10 February 2005 at 19:14  
Blogger Pete MacKichan said...

I am posting this comment for Joel Bloch- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I want to respond briefly to one point Pete makes in is blog about blogs and webpages being the same. I have taught webpage design in a composition and blogging, and the pedagogy is totally different. I loved teaching web page design but it was very cumbersome. We had to spend 2-3 days a week in lab learning how to do design, color selection, and basic HTML coed. More importantly for me, since no one else in my department could do this, no one else in my department could it, which meant that unless the students wanted to design webpages, they would never do it again. No technology is radically different from a previous technology, so there is no point in expecting blogs to be radically different than web pages. Blogs are simply easier to set up, to use, and therefore more useful for teaching ESL composition. Now, we have 5-6 teachers using blogs, so the students are becoming more familiar with them. Also, the fact that there are lots of free hosting sites and aggregation sites and all the things I've learned about in this class makes it easier for more people to use blogs and the more the better for any technology. I think the ease of use also is what encourages frequent updating. It is not that people can't frequently update their webpages; it's that they don't do it.

Another factor to consider is what it is you are doing with blogs. For we wanted students to be able to create texts that other students could cite. Blogging made it easy.

I agree that commenting is not the strength; on the other hand, I think linking is much easier not just because of the technology but also because of the large number of object in the blogosphere and the ease by which you can link to specific items. If 100 people come out of this seminar blogging, I think there will be dramatic changes down the road in how blogging is used in ESL/EFL/ For all these reasons I think the hype is justified, but what makes using technology challenging is that there will always be other technologies that do some things better.

10 February 2005 at 20:03  
Blogger Nathan Lowell said...

I've put my response on the Wiki

11 February 2005 at 14:40  
Blogger Nathan Lowell said...

You can find it The Value of Weblogging

12 February 2005 at 01:00  
Blogger Nathan Lowell said...

The room got awfully quiet awfully fast.

Was it soemthing I said...?

15 February 2005 at 17:10  

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