Build Discourse Communities, not blogs.

I am getting more an more convinced that in high school it is imperative for teachers who want to ‘get into blogging’ to understand the under pinning nature of ‘writing communities’.

I am interested in the context of getting large numbers of culturally diverse students (100+) learning in a social constructavist model using the read write web – simultaneously.

To simply say ‘my class is blogging’ misses a key point that Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach talks about. ‘Why do we need to understand the shift in education’.

To ask students to ‘blog’ is, as Will Richardson described, ‘artificial’ and as Clay Burell describes as and activity smelling of ‘schooliness’.

I am interested in how technology can be used to navigate a path between the Cartesian view that teachers have to learning and the socially enabling use of technology that students have.

  • Can an online discourse community get to the point where it is being used by students as a ‘choice’ rather than an ‘instruction’ to keep a teacher happy?
  • At what point does it become evident that the student is writing because they want to, not just told to’.

In doing this, I am attempting to ‘notice’ what is happening in an online writing community of around 160 students and teachers and therefore modify my ‘EdTech’ approach to support it.

  • How does a web2.0 discourse community change the origin-language of students?
  • How quickly does it happen?
  • What does a turning point look like?
  • What are the key interventions that teachers and students make that develops the student writing to such a point where they are no longer writing recounts but developing as reflective writer.
  • What evidence demonstrates understanding of issues and justified solutions.
  • Are there any measurable, demonstrated benefits in comparison to non-computer based approaches in more traditional, Cartesian approaches to learning.

Language, and it’s extension “literacy” is collection of voices, which people draw upon to engage with their world. A weblog has the ability to embed all types of multi-literacies – making it more complex that ‘just writing’.

Schools demand by nature of the syllabus and incumbent cultural capital of ‘Australian’ society, a set of expected writing conventions, that teachers, parents and examiners view has highly beneficial.

Students however, come from a range of culturally diverse origins, and these have a differing set of conventions and preferences. Students express their ‘voice’ using different communicative methods. Students may be fully, or partly bilingual or even bicultural in origin, so establishing a ‘norm’ for literacy in a discourse community must accept that different is not altogether an interchangeable word for deficit.

Students draw their language and therefore literacy – from a number of sources constantly.

From their peers, their family, their culture and of course the various ‘youth’ enabling online communities such as MySpace and Bebo using computers and mobile phones.

They are immersed in communities that have special rules for speech, nonverbal behaviour and of course online writing in which the conventions of the written word are mashed with alternative typographic rendering and visual images.

Shirley Brice Heath (1981) suggested that a ‘literacy event’ is characterised by ‘socially organised communicative routines that are centered around print rather than oral discourse.’

Some two decades later, the ability to ‘print’ has become ridiculously easy for students using the internet and mobile phones. Paper is something teachers and schools use.

Project Based Learning, founded on Constructavist theory is best enabled using the read/write web as an enabling technology.

From Day 1 of developing the EdTech environment to support PBL,. Its been my belief that Web2.0 is the most enabling technology platform for the students (not necessarily the teachers). It takes time and patience for teachers to warm to a very different learning environment where Web2.0 is the platform and not an optional one.

In fact, I think that it generates ‘Passion Based Learning’ in which students and teachers are far more engaged that using non-ICT or even ‘conventional’ ICT approaches to Project Based Learning.

To me that is the difference between what I am involved with and Project Based Learning.

It has an ability to deliver upon what Vygotsky said 60 years ago that “human learning presupposes a specific social nature and process by which novices grow into the intellectual life of those around them”.

The read/write nature of Web2.0 is ideally suited to Project Based Learning. It is a conduit for students to engage in a discourse community – in which their cultural capital can be tempered with the needs of the ‘syllabus’ and our notion of ‘literacy’ – from a school and examination perspective.

Encouraging students to become participant observers in a discourse communities reflective practice, is a function of the membership itself.

If students are to master the discourse in the community of writers, they need to observe their own and their communities literacy practices in a social interaction as well as in more formal language.

Once the do this, the nature of cultural linguistic writing changes to become more meaningful participation in an inclusive discourse community.

PBL brings to this a central communicative, discourse problem, that is solved through a project based learning framework. Students begin to explore and analyse their beliefs about literacy practices. As time moves on, and students engage in the community discourse, then they eventually begin to deconstruct their own language (literacy) in the context of the discourse community and begin to put it into some framework that separates formal writing, informal conversation and culturally targeted language.

In effect, they are learning about the form and function of language – as much as the ‘content’ itself.

Writing in a community allows students to explore their beliefs about writing and digital media events, but at the same time the teacher is equally important as their interventions allow the student to gain insight into writing for an audience, which is outside their cultural origin or social network.

This is why, in a ‘blogging community’ such as 21 classes or Ning, that the exchange of informal and formal language between student and teacher is particularly important. it serves as a contrast between what they have learned in an informal setting, their beliefs about what academic writing is, and their use of language in online communities such as MySpace.

The exchange of language between teacher and student, student and student becomes increasingly important, as the writing community evolves. The teacher becomes a ‘voice’ with a particular style and tone. Students deconstruct their own language to fit with that of their teacher. Literacy is therefore promoted as a key factor in measuring growth. Much more so than in a Cartesian ‘content’ model, as the student’s language is much more visible, more of the time.

The teacher must therefore take responsibility for setting the standards of that writing, and model it within the discourse community. The danger here is that the teacher is unable to use language that is sympathetic to the origins of the student’s language, and resorts to ‘marking’ and ‘correcting’ rather than communicating.

And that is a massive challenge and new skill for many teachers to consider when setting out to use read/write technologies.

Saying ‘my class is blogging’ – as it to say ‘we are a 21st Century School’ – is self-serving unless you have decided on, and been clear about the challenges you have in your school and how can Educational Technology will help meet those challenges.

Getting students to post online is easy. Sustaining a learning community with diverse cultural origins and social preferences – is substantially more complex. But not impossible.

References :
Heath, SB (1983). Ways with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Vygotsky, Lev S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP 1978

7 thoughts on “Build Discourse Communities, not blogs.

  1. Hi Dean,

    Am I right in saying that your point isn’t really about blogging at all? Levels of formality and various language codes for various social groups apply in any media, spoken, written, typed, published, private, and so on. Your comment seems to be on the educational philosophy, or on the power-posture that the teacher adopts, and you seem to be saying the teacher ought to provide an injection of a certain formalised voice, which, if the students can coopt into their own spectrum, will empower them to engage with society in general? This voice is injected through interaction rather than through judgement of the students natural modes of communication.

    Is this what you mean? Is this particular to blogging or is it a general principle? – To me it seems like a fundamental perspective on the linguistic role of the teacher, regardless of the method of communication being used. What do you think?



  2. I agree, but I think that at times the rush to ‘blog’ forgets some of the under pinning values, and that it is easy to miss the most powerful reasons to write online and in a community. It is about the practice of teaching, which in this context requires a different approach, that is sadly missed at times in the rush to ‘blog’.

  3. The point about linguistics of blogging and teacher-student interaction is important – communicating rather than correcting may become my mantra as I think about blogging in a classroom.

    I am curious about encouraging student-to-student interaction. I think that one of the major benefits of blogging is the conversation that can occur with comments and trackbacks. I’m part of an emerging blogging community in my grad school cohort. So far, there seems to be more output than discourse which makes blogging a form of public homework rather than community collaboration.

  4. Most of this is happening with 14/15 year olds ( or ( – 15/16 year olds … and given that I’m more involved in the EdTech architecture for digital literacy – the idea of trackbacks is too far out for the kids right now. I do see a 1/10 ratio of posts to comments – and that is pretty consistent between 14-18 year old work. It is homework, parents WANT homework – but students make the choice as to post or comment – that is a skill too – bear in mind – I’m talking high school not grad school.

    Discourse in Ning, generally starts in Forums (for which students have more meta-congnition) – usually the loose, impromptu topics attract the most discussion. I think of ‘forums’ in the community as a ‘third space’ – where language and focus is less formal – endless formal writing would become tiresome.

    I also try to use VoiceThread or YakPak as a tool, as we need to engage students for which ‘text’ is a challenge – a well rounded project needs to accommodate all learning preferences.

    Thanks for the feedback – I’ll take the homework comment away with me as it’s very thought provoking.

  5. Hi Dean

    Your post is both affirming and yet challenging!

    I have been considering supporting our senior students to start a blog – their own blog – using the words of Michel Montaigne -so that we can make sense of our own work, our practice and our learning and if in the process of us trying to make sense it accidently helps others then so much the better.

    Blogging should us first and foremost help us construct meaning from our experiences and practices and the social discourse is by those it accidently helps.

    I have seen school models of blogging where its used as a digital portfolio and on one level eg parents its useful to look at the work but I fear this is the formal judgemental view.

    Teachers commenting on student posts that share reflections and content understandings means we have to respond to student voice rather than linguistic structures.

    How to start and sustain student blogging that is meaningful – constructive – rather than schooling is the challenge.

    I use my blog to reflect upon my practice and understandings and share some resources I use and value.

    More thought is needed. Thanks

  6. Pingback: Colloquies with Kathryn » Blogging Community?

  7. Thanks for the fine post, Dean. To my mind, one of the keys to making blogging work in a class is to shift everyone’s attitude about the ability of students to add value to the class. In traditional classes, all the value-add is from the teacher, the teacher’s content, and the school’s curriculum. The students are passive recipients, taking from the ecosystem, but not feeding back. This type of relationship seldom survives in nature, where all organisms at all scales take value from their ecosystems and feed value back into that ecosystem. When the feedback loop stops, the ecosystem stops. When the feedback loop stops, the conversation stops. And grading, by the way, is almost never real feedback.

    Unfortunately, most students, teachers, and administrators expect no value-add from students; therefore, genuine conversation is very difficult to sustain in class. You are correct when you note that “the danger here is that the teacher is unable to use language that is sympathetic to the origins of the student’s language, and resorts to ‘marking’ and ‘correcting’ rather than communicating.” Sadly, most teachers just don’t expect to learn anything from their students, and until they do, they can hardly have an authentic conversation with them.

    And students have been conditioned to expect no value-add from themselves. They are taught that their own voices are inadequate and probably wrong. They are taught to fawn for the right answer, which is always the teacher’s answer. They are taught to echo in their speech and writing what they’ve heard the teacher say and read in their textbooks. Should we wonder that they won’t trust each other’s knowledge when only the teacher’s knowledge counts on the test?

    But remove them from their classes, and they won’t shut up talking and texting to one another. This generation is generating more verbiage—both written and oral—than any other generation in history, but they don’t do it in school. They talk, write, and text in those spaces where they can engage in authentic conversation, where they can both give and receive real value.

    Just as we adults do.

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