[It only seemed appropriate that I post this paper here in my blog. I was shy about it at first but then realized that by posting, I will be able to retrieve it easily if for some reason I want to read it again or check one of the references.
I think it’s OK. I would like to develop some of the ideas more. I really enjoyed the researching.
I didn’t spend much time with the online format or clean up. I think all the links work but I didn’t check them. If you find a broken one, let me know via a comment and I’ll fix it.
To get the Word document here, I saved as text from word, then cleaned up a bit in BBEdit (best text editor in the world and available only on the Mac). Direct copy and paste did not work well.]
Can Weblogs Be Used Effectively as a Course Management System?
Dec. 6, 2004
Online learning, especially at the academic level, is relying more and more on course management systems (CMS). Most of these systems are proprietary, very expensive, and take a “gated community” approach to the online community: they allow only the instructor and the students to participate. The University of Minnesota uses the WebCT system as its CMS.
Weblogs, or blogs, share many of the features of the proprietary CMS’s and are free or low-cost. Teachers and researchers are beginning to use weblogs in place of (or in conjunction with) the private CMS’s.
In this paper, I will look at what a weblog is and how it is being used on the Web and specifically in education. I will consider how weblogs can replace CMS’s for managing courses. Finally, I will look at how weblogs promote communities of inquiry.
Some of my observations concern the course I am enrolled in, Introduction to Instructional Systems and Technology (CI 5331, College of Education, University of Minnesota, Fall 2004).
What is a weblog?
Dave Winer (2001) has a four-part definition for weblogs. First, a weblog is personal- “you see a personality.” Second, it’s on the Web, not printed, making it easy to update, cheap to produce, and accessible via a web browser. Third, the weblog is published via technology, a process, in which, “the writer and designer are elevated” due to this formal process of presentation. Finally, the weblog is part of communities. “No weblog stands alone, they are relative to each other and to the world.” A political weblog is part of the weblog community and also part of the political community. Weblogs link people of common interests.
The basic unit of the weblog is the post. The post usually has three basic attributes: title, link, and description (Winer, 2003). A post may be a sentence, a paragraph or several pages long. The most recent post comes first in a weblog. Usually weblogs allow visitors to comment on posts.
A defining trait of the weblog compared to a typical web home page is ease of publication. Rebecca Blood (2004) talks of the early “promise of the web” in providing a personal publishing space for anyone but “the truth was that only those people who knew how to code a web page could make their voices heard.” With a weblog, creating and posting requires no special technical background or familiarity with HTML. A weblog is also very easy to update.
Weblog publishing is usually free. There are several sites on the Internet where a weblog can be created and hosted at no cost such as Blogger (http://www.blogger.com/). The University of Minnesota has its own weblog server for staff, students, and faculty called UThink (http://blog.lib.umn.edu/). As of this writing, there are 788 weblogs at the University of Minnesota site.
The growth of blogging since 2000 is extraordinary. At the beginning of 1999, twenty-three weblogs were known to be in existence (Blood). In 2002, Technorati, a weblog search service, was tracking 100,000 weblogs. (source: http://www.technorati.com/about). Today, Technorati is tracks over three million.
Most weblogs use a new technology called RSS (RDF Site Summary) to generate a content feed that allows for subscribing to the weblog via software called an aggregator. RSS is a general-purpose language for representing information in the Web (Harrsch 2003).
The aggregator software collects all the feeds in one place so that individual weblogs do not have to be checked for new content. You can view summaries of the new weblog posts before deciding to read the entire article. Bloglines is an example of a web-based aggregator (http://www.bloglines.com).
According to Blood, weblogs can be divided into two main categories. The first category is the filter-style weblog where “editors present links both to little-known corners of the web and to current news articles they feel are worthy of note.” These links usually include the editor’s commentary. This was the original weblog style.
The second type of weblog is the short-form journal. Often updated several times a day, they are “a record of the blogger’s thoughts: something noticed on the way to work, notes about the weekend, a quick reflection on some subject or another.” (Blood). This has become the most popular style of blogging with communities of conversation springing up around multiple weblogs referencing each other.
Weblogs in Education
In his Crooked Timber weblog, Henry Farrell (2003) outlines five major uses of weblogs in a classroom.
First is weblog as standard class web pages. The weblog pages take the place of the old class web site. This is a fairly static use of blogging but easy for the instructor to create and maintain.
Second are the professor-written weblogs comprised of interesting developments in the class subject and with links to related Web pages.
Third, using the weblog as class discussion organizer. The professor can post a question and students are asked to debate the question via the comments section of the weblog. Farrell states that the conversation may be a bit more stilted than classroom discussion but will likely be on a higher level as students are able to reflect more before adding to the conversation.
Farrell’s fourth use is for “Organization of intensive seminars where students have to provide weekly summaries of the readings.” He recommends a group weblog where all the students post their summaries. The group weblog scenario would make it easy for the professor and students to access the writings.
Fifth is require students to publish their own weblogs as part of their grade.
What is a Course Management System (CMS)?
In their 2003 report, Course Management Systems, the Educause Evolving Technologies Committee stated:
At its simplest a course management system is a tool that allows an instructor to post information on the web without that instructor having to know or understand HTML or other computer languages. A more complete definition of a CMS is that it provides an instructor with a set of tools and a framework that allows the relatively easy creation of online course content and the subsequently teaching and management of that course including various interactions with students taking the course. (Meerts)
The ” various interactions with students” could include managing student enrollment and tracking student performance.
Weblog as CMS
Let’s evaluate weblog attributes and see how well the weblog can meet the defining traits for a CMS.
1) a tool that allows an instructor to post information on the web without that instructor having to know or understand HTML or other computer languages;
As noted, most weblog publishing tools do not require any HTML knowledge and are hardly more difficult to use than a word processor.
2) a set of tools and a framework that allows the relatively easy creation of online course content;
Weblogs allow for the display of text, images, media objects and data. That should allow for just about any type of content necessary for a course. The instructor can also create links for downloading files.
3) allows for “teaching” the course;
This will depend on the course. Use of a weblog as a teaching method would have to be determined on a course-by-course basis.
4) course management;
Managing a course, especially administrative tasks like tracking enrollment, is not a weblog strength. This is where true CMS systems excel.
Facilitating Communities of Inquiry
The process of reading online, engaging a community, and reflecting it online is a process of bringing life into learning. (Downes 2004)
The mix is eclectic and results in a course site very different from the rigid hierarchy to be found in the typical LMS class. Blackboard and WebCT use a top-down approach; weblogs tend to go the other direction. They offer a great deal of flexibility and the potential for creativity in the construction of the site, yet still feature the ease of use of a template-based system. (Godwin-Jones 2003)
For this paper, I will define online community using Garrison’s, Anderson’s and Archer’s (2000) definition for a “community of inquiry.” They state that “a worthwhile educational experience is embedded within a Community of Inquiry that is composed of teachers and students-the key participants in the educational process.” The model for this community consists of three core elements: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence.
Cognitive presence means “the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication.” Cognitive presence is essential to the success of the community as it is a vital element in critical thinking. (Garrison et al.)
Social presence is “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people.'” Social presence supports cognitive presence (Garrison et al.).
Teaching presence encompasses two function, the design and the facilitation of the environment. These functions are taken care of by the teacher but anyone in the community of inquiry could be responsible (Garrison et al.).
James Farmer uses Garrison’s (et al) definition to evaluate CMS software like WebCT. (Farmer uses the acronym OLE-Online Learning Environment- for a CMS.) Farmer considers “to what degree the environment itself, and any inherent principles contained within its design, facilitates or obstructs the development of social, cognitive and teaching presence” and states that “the degree to which each of these can be achieved is dependent to a large degree on the communication tools within an OLE.”
WebCT (and other proprietary CMS’s) use the discussion board as a principal communication instrument. The functionality of the discussion board allows users to “post messages to a shared area or reply to existing messages in order to form a thread” and both of these functions are “limited to their current environment and do not provide email, messaging or syndicated updates to users….” (Farmer).
Farmer sees this as problematic in establishing a social presence offering:
… little opportunity for users to “project themselves socially and emotionally, as ‘real’ people” as the opportunity for projection is limited and when and if it is achieved, the ability of the projector to project and appear as a “real” person is also severely limited. … A contribution can be viewed and read by one person, the whole group or nobody and because how a writer understands the intended audience of their work dramatically impacts on their entire approach to the task of writing this uncertainty impacts considerably on the ability of the individual to project themselves.
This lack of a defined audience severely hampers cognitive presence affecting “not only… the nature of the way in which an individual writes, but also the discourse possible and in this the ability of a writer to reflect on their thoughts and ‘construct and confirm’ meaning” (Farmer). Farmer further discusses the communication process in a CMS discussion board stating that it is not unlike:
entering a room that may or may not be frequented by the people you wish to communicate with (who will, in either case, be invisible to the user), leaving a message on the table and then returning each day to see if someone has responded to the communication. Likewise, any person responding to the message would have to visit the room each day to see if the writer or anyone else has replied to it. The room may be one of many rooms (there are frequently numerous discussion boards used in a single course) and there may be little or no reason other than to check for messages or responses that a person may have to visit it. After several days of this kind of discussion it is likely in many cases that a user will visit the room less, if at all.
This is an excellent description of the process of working with the WebCT discussion board and fits with personal observations for the current class.
Farmer (2004) argues that weblogs offer “a significant opportunity for users to project themselves as ‘real’ people… the blogger is writing to their own area and context, designed to their liking… and developing on their previous postings from the online persona they have developed.” This satisfies Garrison’s concept of social presence to a far greater degree than the lack of presence of the CMS discussion board. In addition, the blogger retains ownership of the writing beyond the end of the course and can “edit at will, refer to previous items and ideas, and control in its entirety the space and manner in which the weblog is published.” This type of ownership and control is not available in WebCT. Once the course ends, the collected writings of the discussion boards are no longer available to the students.
My experience as a blogger confirms this. When I write to my weblog, I am very aware that my audience could be very large and is unknown. Anyone could find my weblog. I hope that my post is interesting and I assume that the more interesting it is, the larger my audience will be. I become responsible to posting to the unknown community. It’s not the same when posting to the WebCT discussion board. The audience is limited by the size of the class and by the temporality of the post itself-it will disappear when the class ends. I’m not free to write but must stumble through the interface, from board to board, responding to prior posts. Given the time limits of my life, I am unable to pursue discussion of a particular threads of interest because I am required to post to them all.
The crucial concept from Garrison’s definition of community of inquiry is the development of a cognitive presence, ” the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication.” How well do weblogs support this concept?
Farmer states “Weblogs undoubtedly support sustained discourse as evidenced by the development and spread of memes [a developing conversation consisting of weblog comments and weblog posts referring to another blogger’s posts-also known as trackbacks] and the ever developing nature of the blogosphere” but is this discourse “reflective, critical and purposeful.”
Farmer infers that there is not yet enough research to prove the development of the cognitive presence but he convincingly argues that weblogs do facilitate cognitive presence. First, there is research that indicates the “possibility that weblogs encourage significantly more in-depth and extended writing than communication by email or through discussion board environments.”
Second, he admits that weblogs make it difficult for development of Garrison’s (et al) third concept, teacher presence, in relation to discussion boards. Teacher and student weblogs are separate and the learner “under no compulsion to read the teachers weblog.” Outside of providing guidelines, the teacher has little design control over the student’s weblog presence.
But Farmer sees this lack of control as a potential key to cognitive presence as it allows for a learner-driven experience where students can explore “their context in ways independent of the original designers intentions.” He uses a term, “incorporated subversion”- coined by David Squires-for this practice and quotes Squires:
Rather than design with constraint in mind, design with freedom and flexibility in mind … this emphasises the active and purposeful role of learners in configuring learning environments to resonate with their own needs, echoing the notions of learning with technology through “mindful engagement” (Squires, 1999)
Compared to asynchronous discussion forums such as newsgroups and bulletin boards, Ferdig & Trammel (2004) contend that weblogs are more successful in promoting interactivity that is conversational; a mode of interaction more conducive to improved student and teacher relationships, active learning, higher order thinking, and greater flexibility in teaching and learning more generally. (Williams & Jacobs 2004)
On the other hand, a virtual classroom using Blackboard or WebCT emphasizes control within in a gated community space over interaction with the rest of the Internet. There is the sense of leaving the Web when entering a proprietary courseware site. It’s not the information super highway, but rather a one way street that only pulls from the World Wide Web without giving back. (Lowe 2003)
Teachers seeking to build a true community of inquiry in the new age of computer mediated communication would do well to experiment with weblogs in their classes. The dynamic of the weblog, especially in terms of social presence and ownership and leading to cognitive presence, is more conducive for creating not just an online community of inquiry but a true learning environment as well.
Of course, with the shift to blogging, the teacher must move to the side as the students start to truly reflect and guide the class. Barbara Ganley (2004) makes the point well:
For the weblog to work as a facilitator of efficacious learning, it is essential that everyone has an authentic voice and an authentic role on it, that everyone has a hand in creating the medium as well as the message in an environment in which the reader becomes the writer, the student the teacher, the teacher the learner as we traverse boundaries of classroom and real world, our communities forming, shifting and reforming. The teacher has to do precisely what is most difficult and most essential: create a system of shared control, of checks and balances between teacher, student and technology. In a sense, technology mediates the teacher-advocate student exchange, fulfilling the promise of a Socratic education so important a hallmark of a liberal arts education. The teacher must have faith in the process of collaborative learning and in the students to assume their roles in reciprocal apprenticeships.
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