Blog. To Blog. Blogging. These terms have captured popular interest, but what do they mean? Not surprisingly, people use this term to describe a wide variety of online activities, including writing an online journal, posting a newsletter, and chatting with friends.
Strictly speaking, a blog is a very specific writing exercise facilitated by a particular kind of web site technology. This distinction is important, because it underscores that which is new and different about blogging as compare to preexisting forms of web site publishing. These new features provide the most excitement and payoff in schools. Let's first take a look at the nature of the writing exercise.
What is "blogging?"
Blogging is personal. Most blogs have one author, whose writing is featured front and center in the blog. Since others can only leave comments, the attention is squarely focused on the author. Content is organized around the author's thoughts and expertise. This contrasts with discussion forums (topical), social networks (groups-based), and wikis (the work of the whole).
Blogging is reflective. The author uses the blog to write thoughtfully about experiences and ideas. Blogging can be an important component of professional development for adults in the Catlin community and portfolio work for students.
Blogging is transparent. Another word for this is "open." People often use blogs to describe aspects of their work in more detail than would ordinarily be the case in more polished publishing venues. Transparency brings a level of honesty to the discussion that can provide enormous value to the author and his/her readers.
Blogging is conversational. Bloggers have an audience of readers that (usually) grows over time as more people link to the blog. Public authorship demands a writing style that is acutely aware of one's audiences. Any reader may leave a comment on any post, to which the author or another reader may reply. This may evolve into a dialogue among individuals. The most popular blogs receive hundreds of comments per post.
Blogging emphasizes process. Bloggers typically describe works in progress in order to gain insight through reflection and seek feedback from others. Theories are often partially formed and experiences only somewhat understood. In this manner, bloggers engage with others for feedback earlier in the thought process of new ideas.
Blogging is connective. No blog exists in a vacuum. Posted in a public or community space, each author influences and is influenced by the authorship of others. Bloggers formalize these influences by linking to each other. All of these acts of individual authorship create a community entity of active expression and thoughtful reflection.
Blogging is archival. Old posts normally remain on a site forever, accessible through search technologies both within the blog and on the World Wide Web (think Google). The author may use the blog archive in order to mine his/her own old knowledge, and one may search the web to find blog posts of varying ages.
A look under the hood
Blogs are sequential. The newest post appears at the top, and older posts appear successively underneath. The archive feature organizes older posts by month. A search feature allows one to find posts by topic.
Blogs are portable. Blogs are syndicated via RSS (really simple syndication), a format that allows one web site or desktop application to easily pull a set of articles from a blog. This allows one blog article to appear in multiple places automatically, and allows readers to "aggregate" blogs from dozens of web sites into one place for easy viewing.
Blogs are dynamic. When you create a new blog article, you don't need to know anything about HTML programming or create a new file on the server. The blog software stores all content in a database and generates the pages on the fly as they are requested. The graphic design for all of the pages is stored in a single template. The author can focus on generating content, not web design or site production.
Blogs use multiple media. Though text dominates, bloggers with a good grasp of visual literacy enhance the reading experience with carefully selected images. Podcasting may be considered a special form of "audio blogging." You may insert other web-friendly media into a blog, such as video and animation.
Most blog software is free and open-source. The Catlin Gabel website includes a blog for each student and employee. You can open a free account at Blogger or another free blog service, or if you host your own website, you can download and install Wordpress or another free blog platform.
When is a blog not a blog?
A slew of organizations have adopted the blog format to republish other types of content. For example, many news sites now offer "blogs." Some of these are reflective, open, and interactive, whereas others are simply repackaged versions of news articles already published in print and electronic form. The same goes for corporate and presidential campaign web sites that use "blogs" to issue press releases and the like. Some describe use of MySpace and Facebook as "blogging," but the photo galleries and chat features are the most popular, interactive for sure but usually not reflective nor process-oriented. When you see a "blog," take a close look to determine whether it meets the conditions described above so you know what you're getting!
The power of blogs at school
What potential do blogs have in an educational institution? The potential is enormous.
Professional development: blogs capture the reflective component of good professional practice. Writing in a blog encourages one to constantly frame one's work within a broader context and connect past experiences to the present and the future. Blogging as a social activity forges a critical connection between a private school professional and the outside world. You may join a community of peers in your field of work who span states, countries, and continents.
Student portfolios: reflective practice is also a critical component of student work. Portfolio design is organized around a thoughtful presentation of past work that is meant to build insight into lessons learned and persistence of experience into the future. Blogging is always public to either the school community or the entire world, which ties right into the exhibition component of portfolio work.
Interaction and dialogue: typically, students and teachers are alone once they leave the school grounds. Conversational practices such as blogging can make work completed outside of school hours more interactive, extending that critical classroom or office dynamic beyond the school walls. Social software can help make a community feel smaller, more tightly-knit, and more closely connected to the rest of the world.
"Wow factor": many teachers want to get students writing as much as possible. Blogs provide novelty, risk of public performance, and interactive audience that can often gets kids really excited to write. This is true at all grade levels where students write on computers. Blogs also support some steps in the writing process, for example allowing multiple revisions of a document and sharing with peers and the teacher.
Publicity and communication: blogs provide a personal face to a school. Imagine the reader's experience if each division head and department director maintained a public-facing blog!
How do you find the time? Blogging "regulars" feel that you can't not find the time! We allocate our time based on the value of different activities. Bloggers tend to find the act of blogging so valuable that they make the effort to keep writing even when time gets cramped.
Here are some links to help you get started as either a consumer or producer of blogs.
More about blogging: start at Wikipedia.
Will you start a blog (personal or professional)? Let me know!