Using Technologies for Blended Instruction: An Informal Case Study
Oftentimes, the questions about using blogs have to do with how they fit in with the regular instruction of classrooms, or what sets them apart from other online tools as a medium of instruction. This is a frank discussion about how and why I use blogs with adult literacy learners. For me, the blogging tool is intended as a voluntary supplement that invites an extended conversation between myself and my students.
Enter the Teacher
I work with learners to outline their ideas, clarify their topic sentences and theses for their writing assignments. I cover the learning outcomes of what is expected when writing a number of different paragraphs and essays. I guide students to clarify their ideas, and expect them to do research, ask questions, and engage in planning and goal-setting. For example, students work with me to develop ideas based on graphic organizers I have provided for them, based on conversations about the topic. The in-class activities are aimed at guiding the learners to sit down and write.
The students in my English classroom sit down to write after discussing their ideas, or planning the ideas in a number of ways. Their first draft often requires additional crafting, and I provide feedback about word choice, sentence structure, and organization of ideas.
Some time ago, I realized students were getting blocked in their writing. They did all the exercises in the book, scored well on tests for grammar and spelling, but could not commit ideas into written form. I had to shift the writing instruction to focus less on the step-by-step exercises of the textbook, and allow the students to discover the writing processes for themselves. I decided I would try asking one learner, who had been having challenges with completing writing assignments, had stopped progressing, and was close to dropping the class, to put the textbook away. I explained I would guide her through the writing, and asked her a number of critical questions:
If you had the choice, what would you like to write about?
- Is this writing something you want to show to others?
- Is this a piece of writing you want to keep?
- Is this a work in progress, something you intend to return to later in other courses?
- Is this work something you are interested in learning about?
- Is this a project you want to write several drafts for?
These questions are critical to determine if the student is engaged meaningfully in their writing activities. If not, I ask them to choose a topic they want to write about, but engage in a dialogue to identify their interests, and ask them to inform me and others about something that they are passionate about. Depending on the learner, this process can take time, and the learners are sometimes confused about what is expected, and frustrated at the change of topic, and the change in expectations.
Sometimes learners cannot write without an authentic purpose, and without an audience (other than writing for the teacher, which, for many learners, does not really count). Ask them what energizes them, and then negotiate with them to explore that topic in different ways, and give them alternatives for what to write… and students often ask…
Is it okay for me to write more than one assignment on the same topic?
I assure them that would be fine, and suggest that, if they want, they can also add photos and pictures to the assignment, and use what they are writing about for their presentations. If they choose, they could even talk to someone outside class about the topic.
One learner who had been blocked with writing using the textbook came up with a story about her grandfather, and recounted his trek up a mountain as the leader of an expedition. After weeks of frustration and blocking using conventional strategies drawn from the textbook, the story-telling activity opened up her creativity and allowed her to complete her writing assignments in a short period of time.
In this case, the learner used the computer to write up her drafts. She brought in photos. She summarized her notes from her face-to-face discussions with her grandfather, and incorporated them into her story. It took a couple weeks, and she finished the first draft of eight pages. She went far beyond the course requirements to tell her story.
I have students use the computers in class to use the English CD to practice grammar, use the word processing software to draft their ideas, use the browser to surf the web to search for resources, prepare formal essays and use Power Point to prepare and deliver presentations.
Oftentimes, students bring in their netbooks or laptops. With this more advanced group of learners, I noticed that when I begin discussions with one learner, other students are listening, and give clear cues of wanting to contribute, so I encourage them to jump in, and engage in impromptu discussions about each others’ papers, contributing ideas and asking questions. As a Computer/English instructor, I try to ask students to apply their computer skills to their English assignments, and encourage them to use more examples of formatting, and try to insert images, tables, and graphs into their work.
I encourage students to use USB flash drives to minimize printing, so they are constantly practicing file management, and naming folders and files effectively, and saving files to multiple drives for backup. I encourage students to send me their drafts as attachments in emails. So students send me a copy, and save copies to their USB drive, the local school drive, and to the documents folder on their own net book or laptop. For presentations, or for papers, I encourage students to record their papers in spoken word using a digital voice recorder. Learners recognize how different it is to speak in a “broadcast voice” without cues from an audience. Others prefer to record live their discussions or deliver presentations with me alone, or with other students. The presentation format is optional, but I encourage students to prepare spoken texts that accompany their written assignments.
Because blogging is largely a solitary activity, requiring focus and concentration, oftentimes the use of blogs is best for independent, self-paced learners within a learning setting where the instructor supervises learners at multiple levels. In this setting, the student can come in to the classroom with their net book or laptop, connect to the WIFI network, and begin composing a post on the word processing software of their choice, get feedback from their instructor on mechanics and structure, then post the ideas on to a blog.
What makes the blog stand out as a writing tool is how it extends the feedback loop, allowing multiple iterations of the same draft to a number of posts. To publish a blog post, the student needs to select tags that act as keywords, choose a posting category, and can also insert photos. Unlike regular writing assignments, students can insert links to other web pages, others’ blog posts, or to even one’s own earlier blog posts. The ability to connect this post to other ideas in other posts is one fundamental difference between blogging and essays. In addition, blog posts enable others, such as the instructor, fiends, peers, and even the individual learner, to engage in commenting.
Blogs also incorporate other features that students use to enhance their own learning. For example, students can select and insert links of favourite resources onto their page, called blog-rolls. As the number of posts increase, students are able to navigate through their own archived content, or search using a Tag Cloud or by Categories.
Blogging often incorporates other media, not just text. Students enjoy the creation of a project, combining their written work, links, spoken text, comments, shifting voices and perspectives, photos, scanned images, tables and charts, and even video clips into the blog post.
Blogging enables a different way of writing. Typically, students are told to write with essays in mind: a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are specific ways to cite and format sources in an essay. There needs to be a thesis. In the case of blogging, however, posts are often unstructured, disjointed, fuzzy, exploratory, rambling – but taken as a whole, capture the dialogue between the teacher and the student as they progress through the steps of idea generation, resource collection, analysis, and meaning-making that essay-writing cannot. With essay writing, the end-product is evaluated; whereas in blogging, the writing process is analyzed, and reflected upon. For essay-writing, the production is the significant unit of assessment; for blogging, it is the collection of pause-points that are considered significant. Rather than focus on commenting about the post’s spelling and grammar errors, teacher’s comments on blog posts should instead focus on extending and expanding the topic, asking questions, and reacting to the student’s message. This is an opportunity to elaborate and reinforce some of the discussions from class. The Teacher could comment on how well photos are used, how descriptive the chosen tag or category is, or the usefulness of the linked resource. The teacher could refer to additional links, to examples of how to use different fonts, or bold text, or different ways to switch voices from academic narrator to student, use of dashes or brackets to insert additional details, or partition sections of text using different colours to show breaks between what is clear and what is fuzzy. In effect, the text formatting and commenting features can augment and complement classroom instruction, and open an additional feedback channel unlike any other between the students and the teacher.
Blogging addresses an authentic audience. Unlike typical classroom writing, blogging opens up the possibility of writing for more than just the teacher. It provides more meaning as it is owned writing. This ownership of the message shifts the dynamic between the student and teacher from learner and evaluator to apprentice and expert. It opens up the possibility for a more open exchange, a greater flexibility for students to make revisions, and a more meaningful and significant content-creation experience.
The blogging tool enables a dialogue between the teacher and the student. It is the extension of the classroom, not intended to replace the necessary teaching moments that occur with Face-to-face classrooms, but to extend and complement them in an online setting.