Tag Archives: Technology in education

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 unassessed 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.

Using blogs with language learners

Blogs have long been used by educators as a means of promoting reading and writing and English language teachers have also been using them not only as a way of helping learners develop such skills but also as tools to improve their language awareness.

There are different ways in which blogs can be used and different online platforms available which give bloggers a variety of options and a wide online readership. However, there are also blog applications on Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) which restrict the audience to students and instructors enrolled in particular courses on the VLE. In this post, I discuss the way in which I have been using blogs with my EAP students and I hope this will give you some ideas about how to explore such tool in your own teaching practice.

Blogs in VLEs, such as Blackboard, can in principle have two disadvantages in relation to web2 blog platforms: they do look definitely plain and unattractive compared with the visual resources and tools open access online blogs offer, and they do restrict the readership to the ones enrolled in the system. However, when explored for specific purposes and in particular contexts, VLE blogs may, in fact, offer a couple of advantages. First of all, the limited editing functions may make them less daunting to users who are not particularly well-acquainted with web page construction and design and for whom having to learn how to build a site would actually require another whole set of tech skills. Because they do not have to look pretty, blogs in VLEs may free students to focus more on the content of their posts instead of worrying too much about adding aesthetic elements to them. Secondly, although posters’ ideas will be shared with fewer readers, some bloggers, particularly if they are language learners, may actually feel more confident to write knowing that if they make a mistake or do not express themselves as they would like to, this will only be seen by their tutor and other language learners like themselves. It can be less intimidating posting to a restricted, familiar readership than knowing that your writing will be open to scrutiny and criticism on the whole internet.

I have been using blogs on Blackboard with my language and literature students for about two years now and the results have been quite positive. Although their blog entries are usually short, I have observed that some of them really enjoying posting and value this as an opportunity for a bit of extra writing practice without the burden of been assessed for it. In this particular case, the blog entries are not part of their module assessment but are assigned to them as pieces of homework. Making blogging part of their homework is a very important aspect of it and typically I assign blog posting to:

  • flip a lesson, i.e. students have to search information on a particular aspect related to a literary work that we will be studying in the following sessions;
  • build collaborative learning, i.e. no student is asked to blog about exactly the same thing so each one of them has to contribute with something to the group learning and also acquire some knowledge from what their classmates post;
  • practise paraphrasing. Since this is a notorious difficult skill for learners of academic English, reading articles in literary criticism and posting their summaries and paraphrasing of some paragraphs can help students practise their writing at the same time they get to grips with the concepts and ideas in the articles and with the genre conventions in literary criticism.

An important aspect of using blogs with such learners is to give them some space to make decisions about what to post and how to post it. Although I do assign them a very specific task – for example, ‘find a description of a character in the novel, copy and paste the passage, and comment on it’- they still have the autonomy to decide which character they will choose, which passage to copy and analyse, and also decide whether they want to add pictures or video links to illustrate their analysis. A certain degree of autonomy is important to give students a sense of ownership over the task and make it less as a piece of homework and more like an intellectual exploration of the aspect discussed.

Another significant aspect is feedback. More often than I would wish so, I do not have time to comment on each individual post, but I do write my own blog entry with general comments on what they produced as a way to wrap up the activity. I also make sure I show their blogs on the screen in class and verbally comment on them.

Using blogs with my students has considerably increased their amount of writing and reading practice, with groups of 20 students producing per term around 120 posts of about 150-200 words each. It has also increased their engagement with and understanding of the literary texts and provided invaluable practice towards the essay writing assignment.

Below are some suggestions for further reading on using blogs in education.

  • Amir, Z., Ismail, K. and Hussin, S., 2011. Blogs in Language Learning: Maximizing Students’ Collaborative Writing. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 18, pp.537–543.
  • Blau, I., Mor, N. and Neuthal, T., 2009. Open the windows of communication: promoting interpersonal and group interactions using blogs in higher education. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 5(1), pp.233–246.
  • Churchill, D., 2009. Educational applications of Web 2.0: using blogs to support teaching and learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(1), pp.179–183.
  • Hourigan, T. and Murray, L., 2010. Using blogs to help language students to develop reflective learning strategies: Towards a pedagogical framework. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 26(2).
  • Kajder, S., Bull, G. and Van Noy, E., 2004. A Space for ‘Writing without Writing’ Blogs In The Language Arts Classroom. Mining the Internet. Learning & Leading with Technology, 31(6), pp.32–35.
  • Kim, H.N., 2008. The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computers & Education, 51(3), pp.1342–1352.
  • Trajtemberg, C. and Yiakoumetti, A., 2011. Weblogs: a tool for EFL interaction, expression, and self-evaluation. ELT Journal, 65(4), pp.437–445.
  • Williams, J.B. and Jacobs, J., 2004. Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 20(2).

Text analysers

No, they will not tell you why Liz Bennet has changed her mind and decided to accept Mr Darcy after visiting Permberley. Neither will they tell you why Pip had such an outrageous behaviour towards Joe. These you have to figure out yourself 🙂

What text analysers do is to look at the language in the the text  and give you the  frequency with which words appear. They also tell  you what particular lexical items collocate with a given word, and show example sentences. They work as concordancers but they are visually more  appealing and more user-friendly. They can be great tools to explore the text from a  lexical point of view.

The links below come from the Oxford Dictionaries Online and were developed for two books that are perhaps the best known novels in the English language. Enjoy!

Pride and Prejudice Tex Analyser

Great Expectations Text Analyser