Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Blogging Help

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 26, 2006

A reader writes,
I teach 6th grade in an inner city school and started using technology towards the end of the school year. I am taking graduate classes at the University of Indianapolis and started getting hooked on Technology. All of this is new to me, but I want to give my kids an experience this year they will never forget. I want to get away from pencil and paper and start using the computers more and I want a way to keep in better contact with parents. Can you give me some ideas and help me?
I guess the first thing I would say is to not to try to do everything all at once, and to try things for yourself before trying them with a class. You probably want to start by following some education technology blogs, both to get a feel for reading blogs and to inform yourself about some of the different options out there. At a certain point, you should begin commenting on blog posts and to start your own blog, to become more used to working with these tools in a practical way for yourself (as opposed to looking at them from the point of view of trying them in class).

Most likely as time goes by you will be exposed to a variety on web-based services, the first one being Blogger for blogs, and others being web-based wikis, word processors, notepads, photo albums and more. What you want to do is explore these, asking yourself whether they help you in your own life and work - that is, do they help you take notes, do they help you organize your knowledge, do they make things easier. Don't even think about using them in a class, really, before you are comfortable that they are helping you in some way. This is important, because it seems to me that you'll need to be able to answer the 'why' of these tools as well as the 'what' and the 'how'.

A good place to start following these blogs is through a service I offer called Edu_RSS. It collects the writings of 300 or so sources in educational technology and displays them in a single feed. There's a lot to read in this feed (I'll be cutting it down a bit soon) so don't worry about reading everything. If something catches your interest, click on the link, and if it doesn't, simply move on to the next item. Here's the link to that feed:

When you introduce a technology to a class, in my view, you should introduce it as an option. Again, the point of this technology is to make things easier or to give you more capacities. I would begin, again, by using it yourself and making your use an option to your students. For example, tell your students that you have a blog, and that they can read it if they want. Or that you've posted additional thoughts on the class material which they may read if they're interested. Or that you will be listing interesting links and resources. In other words, model the behaviour you want to encourage.

At least part of your online content should reflect your own discovery and exploration of these online tools. The idea here is to share with your students your own learning and exploration. This will encourage the same practice in them, and as well will help you teach and demonstrate how these tools can be used. This will encourage the students to want to use these tools themselves. Their approach will likely vary depending on their interests - some may want to use a blog to do a journalling exercise, others may want to use Writely to collaborate on an essay, and still others may want to use instant messaging to organize an activity. Ensure that you review their technology plans before they get started, so you can monitor what they're doing and prepare for the inevitable disaster ("Mr. Hooper, Blogger wiped my post!").

In my view, the real advantage of these tools is that they transfer ownership of the process from the teacher to the student. This happens by the students choosing their own manner and approach to using these tools, and often customizing them to their own preferences. But it also happens because you are no longer the only person they are writing for - when they write online, they are writing for you, their classmates, their parents, and the larger internet population. This creates a change in their attitude toward their work. It involves them in it and motivates them to do their best work.

With Grade 5 students, you want to exercise more care and prudence than you might with older students. The experience at Institut St. Joseph that I describe in my article Educational Blogging is helpful. Students there have essentially three blogs - a private blog, shared only between teacher and student, an in-house blog, shared only within the school, and a public blog. Setting up something like this take a bit more work, since you need to provide (or access) education-specific blogging services. You will want to contact your computer support and you will want to send email to people who have set up such systems in their schools - you'll find them in the Edu_RSS feed. In the meantime, you may opt to use a site like Blogger, but use it with caution, and make it clear that you will be monitoring the posts.

That's my best advice as a start, I guess. Really, the main thing is, use the tools yourself. This will ease a lot of the mystery, and uses in the classroom will be suggested by your own use. And the second thing is, let the students take ownership of their own tools. This is the only way the real benefits of online learning are realized.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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