Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Blog Evangelism

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 06, 2006

Oh sigh.

I don't have a whole lot of patience with evangelists, at least not with those preaching doctrine with which I disagree. And so I tend to try not to evangelize over-enthusiastically myself.

That said, there is a distinction between criticizing the method - the persistent preaching that grates on everyone's ears - and the message, in this case, that blogs are good and should be used to support teaching.

Now let me be clear. The blog is for me only the most recent incarnation of what may in some senses be styled as 'user-generated media' and in other senses as 'micromedia' - and let's not forget that John Hiler was writing Microcontent News long before blogging per se was a gleam in anyone's eye.

But I sigh when I sigh as I did at the beginning of this article because of the exasperated lament over the excesses of blog evangelism, a lament less restrained than the putative advocate against which the argument rails.

I see no reason why supporters of blogs in learning should roll over before the critics in an effort to be reasonable. Because the criticisms are not reasonable.

Dave Cormier has it all.

Blogging (in its wordpress type form) is probably a transitional technology.

At the moment blogging allows for only a pretty rudimentary interactivity. There is one (or several) central characters, and then peripheral characters. You might argue that in the case of a classroom blog, everybody is a member and primary contributor, but i would say that a learning landscape is better technology for that.

Well yes, of course it is transitional technology. Name me one thing launched on the internet over the last ten years that isn't transitional technology.

The thing to ask with transitional technology is whether it is moving in the right direction. This criticism and response suggests that it isn't. "Blogging allows for only a pretty rudimentary interactivity." Well yeah, but it allows for a whole lot more interactivity than, say, plain ordinary web pages (aka shovelware).

Could it be more interactive? Sure, and people are working hard to make that possible. People, I might add, in the blogging community - and not their critics.

It can, very often, lack accountability

A very clear example of this is during the o'reilly debate some nefarious dude kept coming in and posting that o'reilly was a chaild mohlester. No name. no recourse. Also, people can start a blog on any number of blogging sites and remain anonymous and then slander people.

I find it so ironic (and perhaps intentionally so?) that Bill O'Reilly is used as an example here, yes, that Bill O'Reilly, the same man who pontificates with no apparent restraint on supposedly responsible (and accountable?) media. How many people has O'Reilly accused of being a child molester over the years?

It's pretty easy, and probably accurate, to say that blogs are not accountable. But the people who broadcast and write in traditional media are no more accountable, and they do a lot more damage when they abuse their trust.

It is not, by any means, a silver bullet

There are many situations where a blog won't suit the needs of the given person.

Actually, it turns out that not even silver bullets are silver bullets. I mean, isn't this a statement that could be made of anything at all? Of course. Which leads me to ask: where is that pundit out there who is actually saying blogs will satisfy every need of every person?

No one (at least not me) is suggesting that blogging should replace good teaching

Blogging, in and of itself, will solve nothing. It will neither make a bad teacher good, nor will it save terrible curriculum. It is one, potentially important or central, but still one piece of the puzzle.

God forbid that we should ever replace good teaching! Why, the earth would open up and swallow us up in fire and brimstone!

I mean, seriously, it depends on what we're trying to do, doesn't it? If my bicycle were broken down, I would in a minute replace good teaching with a good wrench. If I am trying to play a movie, I would trade in the best teacher in the world for a projector. If I'm trying to distribute educational materials around half a world, then I'd rather use the internet.

Blogging, in and of itself, will solve lots of things. It has, for example, already given millions of teen-age girls a place to share their stories with each other. This is a good thing.

The question is whether it solves the same problems good teachers are intended to solve, and whether it does so better than good teachers. For example, blogging gives aspiring writers a worldwide audience. This addresses issues of motivation. Do good teachers address issues of motivation? Sure. Do they give aspiring writers a world-wide audience? Well, no, not typically. So for 'motivation by creating a world-wide audience' we would certainly want to replace a good teacher with blogging.

The question that is really begged here, of course, is whether blogging - or electronic media in general, since nobody actually claims this of blogging per se - can replace good teaching entirely. As though this would be a bad thing.

But think about it. Suppose we could, just by launching blogging software, eliminate the need for every good teacher in the world. This would not merely be a good thing, it would be a great thing! Not because I have anything against teachers. But because teachers are really expensive, and the need for education worldwide is dire. If I could educate all of the Sudan merely by launching well then I'd be coding that site in a minute.

The point is, we should be using highly skilled and individualized manual labour as sparingly as possible, in specific contexts, and only for applications that cannot be easily replaced by a machine, including machine artifacts such as blogs. And it puzzles me that anybody would be suggesting that any proponent of blogging would be proposing anything else.

But asking the question honestly would mean asking something like, will blogging replace bad teaching, or will blogging replace unnecessary teaching tasks? But nobody wants to ask those questions. No indeed.

There are still a number of very important social justice issues around blogging that stop it from being the IDEAL democracy tool.

One is access. Can't get to a computer, you can't blog. Don't have time? can't blog. The second is the requisite literacy set. If you can't understand Mr. Rosen's style of English, or don't understand the western conventions of argumentation, you can't play. No matter how much you want to.

OK, if we look at this then the ideal democracy tool is one that (a) creates universal access, and (b) ensures universal literacy. Looked at from this point of view we now need to ask, is anything an ideal democracy tool?

Of course not. Not even democracy ensures universal access and universal literacy, and democracy is a pretty good tool. Small wonder then that the blog would ensure these things. But of course, nobody is claiming that blogging solves these problems. Nor should they have to.

Why not? Because the claim is, "If everybody had access to a blog, we would have a more democratic society." Right? And the response is, "But not everybody has access to a blog." Well, sure. But that's not a problem with blogs, that's a problem with society. To simply deny the antecedent of a conditional like that is to in effect ignore the proposition actually being made.

I mean, consider this statement: "If everybody could vote, then we would have a more democratic society." True, right? But how would we react if someone said, "But not everybody can vote." Does that somehow show us that voting doesn't lead to democracy? Of course not.

Hammers are not designed to address the problem of what you do when you don't have a hammer. No tool should ever be required to satisfy the condition of not having the tool. The same goes for blogging.

Yes. Many of the most vocal bloggers will probably one day work for major media corps.

Actually, if you look at the blogosphere today, most vocal bloggers came from the major media corps.


There is blogging and there is blogging. Good blogging is bound into a community. A community where people aren't anonymous and are rewarded (read) according to the quality of their work. This is good. Also, it does mean that we have a media that is not controlled in its voice sense, by money. Nasty comments can be moderated out. And blogging can give voices to many people. It can, in its own way, contribute to a more democratic world.

True, blogging isn't the same as broadcasting. A broadcaster can almost ignore the community, or even try to shape and define the community, as he or she sends a one-way message out there into the world. And blogging doesn't work this way.

But good blogging doesn't necessarily bind to a community either. True, it is more likely that members of a geographically dispersed community will find each other if the members blog. But people may well find themselves members of a community of one. This happens. That doesn't make their blogs bad. It simply means that nobody reads them.

The big difference between blogging and broadcasting is that this doesn't matter. What makes a blog is not its audience, is not its market share, is not the nature or size of its community. What makes the blog is its relation to the author. The blog needs to be an authentic, open and honest representation of the person who writes it. That's what makes a good blog.

A lot of stuff follows from that. because authentic voices, speaking freely, can engage each other in a democratic society. They can advance social causes such as education and literacy. They can minimize the self-serving agendas of corporate broadcasters, big money, and big power.

They can do all of these things - but doing these things is not why we blog. We blog because what we want is a free and authentic voice. Because we want, at last, the freedom to be ourselves.

After we established these premises, we had a very productive conversation, and I might have convinced him of a situation in which blogging would be of use in his classroom. To some people telling them they need to do something like blogging, is tantamount to saying they aren't currently doing enough. We are all salespeople in the new media revolution. We need to be realistic about what we say the technology can do so we can keep encouraging those middle adopters to join the party.

Well, again, I don't really see myself as an evangelist. Now I can say why.

It is because I see something like blogging as being no different, really, from having a free and authentic voice. And what I've come to believe over the years is that you can't convince somebody of the need for this through argument. You don't get people to embrace freedom by forcing them to concede.

But, of course, it has always been that way. You cannot incite a revolution. You have to be the revolution. There is no other way.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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