Using blogs with trainee teachers

In the previous entry I discussed the use of blogs with my EAP learners, now I would like to focus on how we have been using blogs in a teacher training distance learning course.

Our trainee teachers are adults who have varied degrees of experience teaching English but not necessarily experience in teaching EAP and would like to move into the field or acquire a qualification to do so. They are from all over the world and access the course via the university Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). As my EAP students, they write blog entries as part of their non-assessed module activities but, differently from the language learners, they are required to writing a longer blog entry as part of their course assessment.

For each module, our trainee teachers are asked to submit three different pieces coursework as their assignments and one of them is a blog entry. The blog entry should be 500-700 words in length and be critical and reflective in nature. Moreover, the writer’s arguments should be supported by proper academic references, which should appear in a reference list at the end of the post. Considering this description, one could argue that such a ‘blog’ is nothing more than a short essay in disguise and that, to be honest, is not too far from the truth. However, unlike an academic essay, we do not expect extensive referencing, and we do allow for more informal use of language, a more personal tone, and a greater focus on the writer’s teaching and learning practice. Instead of being a mini-literature review, these blog entries are expected to show us how much our trainee teachers can bring together the course reading input, their professional experience and reflection.

One may also question the status of such piece of writing. It is indeed disputable whether we can adopt labels such as ‘academic blog’ to the pieces we are asking our students to produce since there is little consensus of what to expect from such kind of writing. There are considerable variations in the way different academics write on their internet blogs and also significant diversity in terms of format and features in different disciplines. In the field of education, it is possibly fair to say that we would expect quite lengthy pieces that are a mix of theoretically informed opinion – with a couple of citations – and critical reflection on practice. In the field of literary studies, for instance, we could expect some discussion of theory and literary analysis with a much more substantial number of citations and possibly some direct quotes from primary and secondary sources.

One aspect that needs to be mentioned is that it is important to make a distinction between medium and genre. A blog is a not a writing genre; it is a medium, a vehicle for writing and expression in the same way books, films, games and other cultural artifacts are different media. A book is an artifact, a medium; epic poetry, the realistic novel, fantasy and autobiography are book genres and sub-genres. Films are a medium; sci-fi, action movies and period dramas are film genres. A video game is a medium; WRPGs, JRPGS, FPS games and action games are different game genres. Likewise, blogs are electronic artifacts people use to express themselves in writing; there are personal blogs, opinion blogs, travel blogs, entertainment blogs, reflective blogs and ‘academic’ blogs. These can be seen as blog ‘genres’, even though the medium is perhaps still too young for us to be able to reach a consensus about the features each kind of blog should display to be classified as such.

When I started this blog, nine years ago, blogs were new things and people tended to use them as travel logs, to post their personal reflections, write brief comments on their hobbies, or upload photos of their family and friends (cats & dogs included). Since them, the internet has change considerably and these functions are now performed by social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. Blogs were then almost on the verge of extinction till some people started to find other uses for them: quality online newspapers, like The Guardian, now use their blog function as an interactive comment space for their columnists and readers; publishers, like Bloomsbury, use them as spaces for authors to extend the experience (and the marketing) of their books; scholars, such as Northop Frye, use them to make their theories more accessible to a general readership; and teacher trainers, such as Jeremy Harmer, use them to share their ideas and professional practices.

When we ask our trainee teachers to write blogs as part of their coursework, we are not only using the tool as a form of assessing their performance, but also giving them the opportunity to get familiar with a new medium and form of writing. Whether we call such pieces of writing ‘academic blogs’ or ‘‘professional blogs’, or any other terminology you may wish to adopt, the fact is that they do not display the rigour expected from an academic essay, but they are still too formal to comply with the traditional idea of an internet opinion blog. These pieces of writing are hybrid forms; they are like mythological beasts which are half animal, half human. However, instead of dismissing them as natural impossibilities, they should perhaps be judged by their own standards and seen as products of our teaching/academic creative imaginations.

At the end of the course, we do provide our students examples of professional teaching-related blogs they have to read and discuss and do encourage them to leave the neat and protected blog area of the VLE and adventure as full-fledged bloggers in the wide wild world of the internet.

Further reading

  • Albion, P.R., 2008. Web 2.0 in Teacher Education: Two Imperatives for Action. Computers in the Schools, 25(3-4), pp.181–198.
  • Coutinho, C., 2007. Infusing technology in pre service teacher education programs in Portugal: an experience with weblogs. In R. Carlsen, K. McFerrin, J. Price, R. Weber & D. Willis (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2007 (pp. 2527-2534). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).
  • Hatton, N., and Smith, D., 1995. Reflection in teacher education: Towards definition and implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11(1), pp.33–49.
  • Shih-Hsien Y., 2009. Using Blogs to Enhance Critical Reflection and Community of Practice. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(2), 11–21.