Connective writing involves a dialogue among others, but more importantly, it requires learners to adopt a reflective stance while interacting with their own ideas, the ideas of others, and with content. This paper will provide an overview of how learners navigate through online practice networks engaging in both the knowledge-construction process and the network construction process. This paper also explores pedagogical strategies to encourage and facilitate learners to develop the skills and processes to learn connective writing as autonomous, self-regulated bloggers.
Author’s Note: 2019: The need for a self-reflective stance among lifelong learners is applicable to all learning environments, and necessary ten years on more than ever as participants learn using a dizzying variety of webinars, MOOCs, online courses, and online exam prep programs.
Connective writing, or the use of blogs and forums within formal education programming, is an important sub-set of meaning-making, as it provides an opportunity for learners to practice connective writing within a structured, secure, formal learning environment. Connective writing involves a dialogue among others, but more importantly, it requires learners to adopt a reflective stance while interacting with their own ideas, the ideas of others, and with content. This paper explores pedagogical strategies to encourage and facilitate learners to develop the skills and processes to learn as autonomous, self-regulated bloggers. This paper explores methods for facilitating two key processes for learners new to connective writing: network construction and knowledge-construction (Kerawalla, 2008). Connective writing can be used to build connections between self and others, to express ideas and share perspectives, and can be used for collaborative and cooperative learning. While engaging in network construction, students master the skills to engage with others in discourse and dialogue, relying on others for validity and for resources. However, an equally important process that successful bloggers engage in is knowledge construction, a largely solitary activity, where they use self-talk and others’ content rather than rely primarily on conversation with others. By engaging in critical self-reflection and sense-making and mastering skills to effectively form connections between ideas, these learners engage in self-regulated learning.
This paper explores facilitating connective writing activities within a formal practice network through posting ideas to one’s own personal blog, interacting with other individual student bloggers, participating in smaller peer group blogs and forums, and engaging in connective writing with the whole class in a group blog.
The discussion of facilitation strategies for student bloggers begins with a definition of the nature of connective writing for learning, followed with an exploration of controversies surrounding the identification of what successful student connective writing entails. This is followed by an overview of facilitation strategies for students new to connective writing, followed by a review of a recent case study conducted by Royer (2009) which offers recommendations for facilitating student connective writing. Finally, this paper will provide an overview of the stages of both the knowledge-construction process based on Efimova’s description of the ideas development process (2009) and the network construction process based on Downes’ ARRFF theory of personal learning (2009). The various stages for both cycles will be outlined in terms of the following: description and significance, facilitation strategies, scaffolds, assessment strategies, and student products.
Defining Learning through Connective Writing
Currently there is great confusion in the research literature as well as anecdotal online and offline conversation, over the most effective and efficient means that connective writing can be utilized to support learning. Following a review of academic literature on the subject of connective writing, a number of definitions emerged that suggest wide variations in definitions, theories, and goals.
On the one hand, there are connectivist theorists that assert that blogs and forums provide learners with the tool to form and strengthen networks, and create and share learning objects with others. Stephen Downes (2009) described learning as the ability to construct and traverse networks, to learn how to communicate with those networks, and to learn how to share with those connections. Learning is the process of creating objects and then sharing them among fellow learners within a distributed environment (Downes, 2009). Furthermore, George Siemens supported Downes’ views, and explained that connectivism involves the act of learning as the process of “forming and navigating networks” (2006). Because connective writing provides an authentic audience for learners, students are more motivated to strive to produce their best work (Downes, 2009).
Another major theme found in the literature about connective writing is that there is consensus on the importance of the process of knowledge building and sense-making and the role that public authorship plays in enhancing these practices. Much of the academic literature recognizes that connective writing enables a learning process that encourages learners to organize and present knowledge, as well as a process of learning by observing the best practices of others (Du & Wagner, 2009).
“…learning is better accomplished by engaging students in the continuous process of constructing knowledge through acquiring, generating, analyzing, manipulating, and structuring information” (pg. 2). In addition, “…learning is a process which develops, tests, and refines mental models, and transfers new knowledge into long-term memory” (Du & Wagner, 2009, pg. 3).
Important questions arose from the literature review: how can connective writing contribute to the development of cognitive and social knowledge construction processes in learners? Is connective writing even an effective tool, compared to other online tools? What are some compelling reasons are there for students to blog?
Du and Wagner (2009) argue that connective writing is useful for encouraging “thinking by writing”. They note that the sustained, continuous use of blogs and forums actively promotes both cognitive and social knowledge construction and representation by learners. Connective writing enables a learning process that encourages learners to organize and present knowledge, as well as a process of learning from best practices of others (Du & Wagner, 2009).
Connective writing enables incremental improvements of one’s own ideas, promotes a specific kind of self-directed learning in which “…learning is a process which develops, tests, and refines mental models and transfers new knowledge in to long-term memory” (Du and Wagner, 2009, pg. 3).
Though academic literature has come to an agreement on the central benefits of educational connective writing, there does not seem to be the same level of agreement on the reasons blogs and forums should be used, and the most promising practices for using blogs and forums for learners.
Controversies Surrounding Facilitating Connective Writing
Academic literature is split on the reasons for using blogs and forums and forums for instruction. This has implications for decisions on how facilitators decide to interact online with learners. The controversy exists between theorists supporting the use of blogs and forums as journals for fostering reflection and knowledge-construction processes, and theorists supporting the use of blogs and forums as tools for building social networks for network construction. Royer (2009) argues that some educators think of the blog as a means to facilitate learners’ responses, or reactions, to content, such as readings, events, and experiences, whereas other educators argued that connective writing is not about journaling nor responding to instructional content, but about making connections between readers, events, ideas, and others’ posts. I find that the two processes are complementary rather than separate for successful connective writing, and thus both should and could be facilitated. But how?
More confusion results when instructors graft older, more traditional, pedagogies and methodologies and learning activities onto connective writing technologies, and engage or assess learners in conventional ways, suggesting there needs to be a model of instruction that effectively incorporates both content (knowledge construction) and process (network construction) in a manner that provides clear roles for instructors and students.
The largest challenge to determining effective facilitation strategies for student bloggers is determining the perspective of learners. If learners see themselves as goal-oriented, for example, engaged in instrumental learning and motivated by utilitarian aims, (networked learners) they will have expectations that their instructor will provide well-structured content and sequenced learning activities. There needs to be support for both process and product, so that instructors provide signposts to guide apprentice bloggers in an educational setting. For learners to make most appropriate and compelling use of blogs and forums and forums, students and instructors need to shift to a perspective of co-creator, of self-regulated learner, and of informed participant. These self-regulated learners do not require (but invite) direct tutorial support from peers, and instead tend to draw their ideas from a wide number of sources. They set their own goals, and engage in self-monitoring and adapt their network construction and ideas development strategies within a number of connective writing environments within a practice network, and often do so without significant direct feedback from others. This paper now turns to effective facilitation strategies for these autonomous, self-regulated learners.
Methods for Effective Facilitation
Several authors have identified a number of strategies to promote connective learning; that is, knowledge construction and network construction. For example, Oravec (2003) asserts that instructors need to encourage students to make connections to content, observe and comment on their online learning environments, and learn the skills required to collect observations and data. To accomplish this, instructors need to provide feedback and support as well as provide exemplars for students to guide them with models of connective writing, or connective writing (Oravec, 2003).
(This is important to both formal and non-formal learning settings, both online and face to face)
The academic literature also describes the importance of the instructor in the establishment of the learning setting. Haverila (2009) lists several key goals that should be accounted for by facilitators within the connective writing context: understanding and reducing anxiety, eliciting and incorporating expectations, and acknowledging and utilizing learners’ experiences. In addition, Haverila (2009) also identified techniques such as embedded questions, self-checks, and practice exercises for facilitating student self-assessment and self-correcting capacity and the development of learners’ meta-cognitive skills. Instructors might encourage learners/apprentices to engender connections to content, observe and comment on learning environment, collect observations and data, provide exemplars for writing, and provide feedback and support for learners.
The Knowledge Construction Process
Author’s Note 2019: The process described is equally applicable, even more so, in the context of non-formal online learning. It is especially useful as a second track learning system, on-ramping and off-ramping between formal instruction and non-formal instructional system.
This section provides an overview of the stages of the network construction process which I have labeled as berry-picking, piling, weaving, path-making, path-sharing, sense-making and sense-giving. For each stage, there will be the following details provided: description and significance, facilitation strategies, scaffolds, assessment strategies, and products.
Berry picking is a real-time, complex combination of the following emergent actions: examining, attending, evaluating, and assessing (Anderson & Rohse, 2006). Bates (1989) identified six methods for engaging in searching for bits and pieces, or berry-picking: footnote chasing, citations searching, journal running, area scanning, subject searching, and author searching. The result is a blog post that demonstrates learners’ efforts to identify, evaluate, and organize resources as a collaborative collection of useful resources. Facilitation strategies included provide list of online resources; and the facilitator acts as a role model and guide, and shares their own berry-picking process with students. Scaffolds used to guide students with berry-picking activities include decision flowcharts, checklists, and exemplars. Assessment is conducted using posting rubrics, design templates, and the use of patterning schema templates with key elements labeled (Rohse & Anderson, 2006). A specific product that can be used for students to demonstrate skills development for students would be a student-created list of annotated bookmarks.
Piling involves students classifying their own posts according to self-identified categories. By using tags, or keywords that act as labels to organize posts, either at the time of posting or anytime afterwards, learners can improve retrieval of related posts from the stored archive in future. Initially, the collection of unrelated posts under similar categories and tags occur in a random, haphazard fashion, but then become more systematic and organized as these posts are tagged with the intent that students are connective writing for future reference at a later date (Efimova, 2009). Methods for supporting this activity include providing model examples of how the instructor uses tags and categories, and offering a list of tagging tips and strategies. Scaffolds used to support student bloggers included exemplars of tag use; the instructor’s tag cloud; a user checklist, as well as a podcast describing reasons and benefits. Assessment methods include the use of reflective posts describing reasons for using tags and categories at course mid-point and at end-point. To demonstrate this skill-set, students are requested to create a more elaborate tag cloud, as well as a summary post of how tags and categories were used by individual learners.
Weaving involves responding to and interacting with content from a number of sources either through direct quotes, summarizing, or linking. This skill-set can be facilitated by engaging in discussion with students on criteria to use when weaving ideas. Scaffolds include the use of former students’ posts that act as exemplars of weaving within posts, for example, summaries, quotations, links to other students’ posts and resources. The concept of weaving ideas is based on integration, the third phase of the practical inquiry model as described by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2004). Methods used to assess weaving activities include the use of posting rubrics, as well as a self-assessment checklist students apply to their own connective writing. These blog posts demonstrating connective writing referring to different resource types are used as products to add to the student portfolio.
Path Finding requires students to use strategies for searching through online resources and exploring resources. One way to facilitate path-finding is to encourage students to share links with other students and describe their methods for searching for and finding resource portals, blog search tools, and communities. In an interview with E-Learn with Lisa Gualtieri (2009), George Siemens explained that learners need to be provided more choices on how they could find their way. “Rather than detailing a pathway through material, learners should have the option to way-find through utilization of personal and social networks” (Siemens, 2009). For example, a post that describes a learner’s path-finding efforts describes the surfing actions taken and impressions the learner has while exploring resources, while following and noting down links visited, to provide a log of the click-paths followed to share as a resource for self and other learners for easier re-tracing and revisiting at a later time. Scaffolds required to support student bloggers include the use of the instructor’s blog, in which learners are asked to analyze in terms of the blog –roll and bookmarks, as well as the embedded links in posts and comments. In addition, students need to be provided with tutorials to use online library resource collections. Methods for assessing path-finding include a student self-assessment, in which students compose summary blog posts on their resource list and tool usage. Students can demonstrate their path-finding skills by creating a shared wiki page a blog-roll, and a web page with an annotated list of downloaded resources.
Path Making is a process that involves learners’ expectations and understandings. Students are engaged in traversing learning trails while reading blogs and forums and forums and building contingent narratives (Pachler & Daly, 2009). Such way-making involves the methods in which “… participants orient themselves in their environments in order to accomplish certain tasks or arrive at certain locations” (Siemens, 2009, pg. 13). During path-making, students practice and hone personal strategies concerning search collection techniques. It also involves establishing routines for using search tools. Facilitation strategies include engaging students in discussions sharing path-making strategies and routines. Scaffolds include the use of exemplars of reflections on path-making routines, strategies and processes. Assessment strategies include the use of reflective blog post rubric; student self-assessment checklist. Students can demonstrate their path-making skills using their own student blog to link to their RSS feed aggregator, links added to the blog-roll, as well as reflective posts.
Sense-making is comparable to a “way-station” because it involves the interplay of action and interpretation (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005). The process begins with actions, local context, and concrete cues and involves a cycle of talk and action. Such talk “…leads to a continual iteratively developed, shared understanding of the diagnosis” (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 412). A specific process key to sense-making is “storying” (Pachler and Daly, 2009). Learners act as trail makers who construct personal narrative trails in which they draw upon a range of available resources (Walker, 2006). “Sense-making …is about continued redrafting of an emerging story so that it becomes more comprehensive, incorporates more of the observed data, and is more resilient in the face of criticism.” (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 412). Sense-making is a chain of events with a narrator’s perspective to explore intentions, interpretations, and evaluations of these interpretations. “The user is in a constant process of meaning-making involving judgments of relevance, interest, importance and readability” (Pachler & Daly, 2009). Specific choices made by learners while reading blogs and forums include choices about interest in the bloggers’ personal/public domains, choices about engaging with the blog’s technological affordances, and choices about engaging with links to academic articles.
Path Sharing is the act of signposting, of leaving a trail with suitable cues for others, which in turn facilitates the sense-making process for other readers. It involves creating narrative nodes, or points of decision, for readers, so that learners can be provided a wider range of choices over the type of interaction they might choose to have. Path sharing implies a widening of narrative nodes to facilitate learner engagement (Pachler & Daly, 2009). Facilitation strategies include the use of a student discussion topic, including questions on “How to find resources online”. Scaffolds include the use of exemplars of former students’ posts on topic, and recommendations on mentoring strategies for students. Methods for assessing students’ path-sharing skills include the use of student post rubrics, connective writing skills checklists, and students’ summaries of connective writing activity using their own post archives. Students can demonstrate their path-sharing skills through student presentations such as podcasts discussing their own experiences and reflections on way-making activities and routines.
Sense-giving activity involves a process of creating meanings for a target audience. The act of sense-giving has an impact on both the sense-giver and the audience (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005). This activity involves passing along experiences, modeling skills, mentoring, reporting, exchanging ideas, and acting as witness and observer. Methods to facilitate sense-giving activity include engaging students in group discussion, in which they identify roles, metaphors, intentions, and expectations for future connective writing, as well as encouraging learners to compose reflective posts called “digital footprints”. Scaffolds to be used for supporting learners include creating links to experts’ podcasts on topics, and instructor’s resources on tips to plan, create and present. Methods for assessing students include requesting students to prepare summative reflective posts as part of a personal “educational biography” in which the students explore the context of three posts at various points of the course. Students demonstrate sense-giving activities through the creation of presentations such as podcasts on their impressions in which they compose a series of iterative posts building on their original ideas open to cohort for discussion and critique.
Network Construction Process
This section provides an overview of the stages of the network construction process, which is a combination of Stephen Downes’ ARRFF process description (2009), and Lilia Efimova’s idea-making process (Efimova, 2009).The stages are as follows: awareness, articulate, aggregate, re-use, re-mix, feed-forward, process capture, product creation and review. For each stage, there will be the following details provided: description and significance, facilitation strategies, scaffolds, assessment strategies, and products.
This first step involves an introductory orientation to the learning environment and features of the Personal Learning Environment. The facilitator guides learners to engage in scanning, reading, and reviewing of online resources, as well as identifying gaps in skills & knowledge. To facilitate awareness of features of the learning setting, the instructor distributes an orientation package to student bloggers, including a welcome message, a list of resources, and suggestions on topics/sub-topics for new students. Additional scaffolds used to support learners with developing awareness of network construction during the first weeks of classes include the use of blog post templates, guiding questions for reflective posts, as well as post model exemplars. To assess students’ network awareness, students complete an awareness activities checklist, and apply a blog post rubric for the first two weeks’ posts. Students demonstrate awareness by composing blog posts describing their own impressions of using resources during the first two weeks.
The next step for students engaged in network construction is to engage in explorations with peers and their instructor by commenting on others’ posts and weaving others’ ideas into one’s own posts. Articulation involves the activities in which student bloggers formulate a tentative description of their initial activities. To facilitate learners for articulation, the instructor can post a series of model posts describing observations and impressions of processes and skills used/developed. Scaffolds that can be used to support students include online tutorials, as well as a series of blog posts capturing instructors’ articulation activities while becoming familiar with online learning system. To assess students’ articulation skills, the facilitator can utilize an articulation activities checklist for students, as well as a blog post rubric for the second half of first month of connective writing activity. Students demonstrate articulation skills by composing blog posts describing their observations and impressions, descriptions of skills use, as well as a summary of experiences of first month of connective writing.
The skills required for aggregation involves bringing together content, links and profiles and identify personal usage patterns. To facilitate learners to engage in such aggregation activities, the instructor models posts describing and demonstrating aggregating activities, engages students in discussion, and provides feedback. Scaffolding activities to support learners include the use of model post exemplars, an online tutorial on the use of RSS feeds and RSS readers, as well as supplementary resources on tips to use RSS aggregators, RSS readers, subscriptions and feed-burning. In addition, the facilitator also applies blog post templates to guide content and structure of student posts during the second and third month of connective writing activity. To assess students’ aggregation activities, learners make use of an aggregation activities checklist, and engage in self-assessment through a reflective post rubric about their aggregating activities. There are a number of methods for students to demonstrate their mastery of aggregation skills. Students can post a list of links to their own RSS feed reader or aggregator, their own blog’s Tag Cloud, Blog Roll and annotated bookmarks. In addition, students would be expected to compose a blog post summary of experiences with aggregation activities.
This step in network construction involves re-examination, culling, filtering, re-organizing and revising blog content such as posts, feeds, and comments. Students are expected to return to previous iterations of their blog posts, or weaving emails or work from assignments into new blog posts. This skills-set is best facilitated through group discussion, in which students discuss methods for reviewing and re-purposing content. Scaffolds which support student learning include the use of exemplars of previous students’ archived posts, as well as a podcast prepared by the facilitator describing the process of finding, selecting, and re-using previously created blog posts. Methods for assessing learners’ skills with re-using content include a blog post rubric about reflecting on selecting and re-using personal content. To demonstrate re-use skills, students compose a series of blog posts describing their own experiences with revisiting, reviewing and revising their previously created posts.
This step of involves drawing ideas from multiple sources, as well as summarizing, analyzing, and reporting on ideas. Methods to facilitate learners include providing model blog posts suggesting links and describing or explaining the remix process. Useful scaffolds to support learners include a number of tutorials for online note-taking and commenting, as well as providing feedback comments to students’ posts. To assess re-mix skills, learners can be asked to complete a self-assessment on their experiences with re-mixing using a blog post design template. To demonstrate these skills, students complete a series of model posts on their own blogs and forums documenting their experiences making resource summaries, reports and critiques.
This step involves students in the activities of sharing, exchanging, and story-telling to audiences using multiple applications to disseminate messages to multiple networks. To facilitate feed-forward skills in student bloggers, students would engage in learning partnerships, or mentoring, with a number of outside expert learners (former students). The facilitator would offer support for students through a number of scaffolds such as examples of online expert presentations using CIDER and Slide Share, blog post exemplars; and learning objects (tutorials) that describe processes and tools. Methods for assessing feed-forward skills include the use of a presentation rubric, as well as a critical incident post template. To demonstrate skills, students could be asked to create e-portfolios by identifying exemplary posts as Personal Learning Objects (PLO), and prepare online presentations describing critical incidents that outline their experiences of the learning process.
This step involves sharing, exchanging, and story-telling to audiences. It involves systematic recording of students’ thought processes and ideas using multiple media. To facilitate these skills, students are asked to create model posts illustrating process-capture activity. In addition, the facilitator would lead a discussion on process-capture, and encourage learners to describe their challenges and solutions. Scaffolds used to support learning would include the use of post exemplars; learning objects that illustrate process capture, and tutorials for online tools. The process-capture skills would be assessed using a combination of a student self-assessment and presentation rubric. To demonstrate mastery of process-capture skills, students would be asked to prepare a Personal Learning Object in which they would engage in Self-Talk combining audio, visuals, and text.
This skills-set consists of preparation, planning, and performing of learning events, as well as engaging in reflection in practice. Facilitation strategies useful for students to develop these skills include the use of learning partnerships between students and expert learners, as well as feedback and dialogue to overcome challenges and solve problems. Scaffolds include links to learning objects, as well as links to articles and resources of the larger practice network. Assessment strategies for student bloggers include a self-assessment checklist and the use of a student presentation rubric. Students can demonstrate their skills by creating a Personal Learning Object (PLO) in which they prepare an online presentation describing their own current Personal Learning Environment. In addition, students are asked to prepare a resource links page for other students as a public learning artifact.
This skills-set consists of activities in which students engage in post-performance review, reflection, summary and critique. To aid students with this skills-set, the facilitator refers students to helpful resources; provides feedback and responds to student questions. Scaffolds useful to support learning include the use of exemplars of blog posts from previous students’ course summaries, and a blog summary template. To assess learning, students are asked to use a blog post rubric, a summative self-assessment rubric, and a connective writing skills checklist. To demonstrate skills mastery, students can compose a series of reflective posts summarizing their network construction activities.
The knowledge construction process and the network construction process cycles are tentative frameworks created by myself with the aim of encouraging discussion and sharing of best practices about the use of blogs and forums for instruction within practice networks, which act as social networks within the boundaries of formal educational institutions.
This paper explored general principles for facilitating student connective writing, described two learning process cycles central to learner autonomy, and explored methods for facilitating learning to foster both the knowledge construction process cycle and the network construction process cycle.
Whether the learners are taking the perspective of autonomous, intrinsically motivated self-regulated learners, or are taking the perspective of dependent, extrinsically motivated consumers, or typically, share characteristics of both these perspectives, the needs and expectations of these learners within a formal practice network can be met through a focus on skill building. The instructor’s role from the outset is to provide the overall coordination of connective writing activities for these learners, modeling and animating learners to engage as participants in connective writing. Only through the development and eventual mastery of skills required for effective knowledge creation and network construction will student bloggers be confidently able to participate as self-regulated learners within larger, more public, mesh networks (Downes, 2009).
About the Author
Glenn Groulx completed his Master’s of Distance Education (MDE) degree from Athabasca University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Adult Education. His research interests include connective writing, social learning practice networks, e-portfolios, and experiential learning. He works as a literacy educator and facilitator in Prince Rupert, BC teaching non-formal ESOL (English as a Second Language) and has been an advocate for anytime/anyplace online and face-to-face learning for adult literacy learners.
Author’s Note: These references were made in 2009; I will ultimately re-link as many of these sources as possible, and begin revising/updating the content to include more current resources ten years on.
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