There is an ongoing debate on the intarwebs as to whether blogging is dead, whether Twitter and/or Facebook has killed blogging, and so on and so forth. The fact that you are reading these words here on this blog says that perhaps these dire predictions are, at least for the moment, unfounded.
From where I sit/ stand, the use of blogs in the language classroom continues to be of interest. Where I work we support a free standing version of WordPress blogs and, thanks to some generous, sharing folks we know at the DTLT at UMW, we have a do it yourself blogging set up here where faculty and students can set up a personal blog, a class blog, and where groups or communities related to languages can set up web page/blogs with very few steps. The word is slowing getting out about this, but the enthusiasm is there and it has been fun to watch people explore the possibilities.
Included in our set up is a really wonderful list of ideas, also developed by the DTLT crew, on things blogs can do other than being, well, just blogs. I encourage you to take a peek at the amazing work their community is doing with all things WordPress.
Their list of ideas inspired me to think of some strategies that I have developed, over the years, for using blogs successfully in the language classroom. If you have ideas you would like to add to this list please contribute them in the comment section!
Open vs Closed?
The default on our blogs is always open, that is, if someone realllly truly wanted to find a student’s class blog in Russian, it could be possible. The reason we default to being open vs closed has less to do with being edgy or taking risks, and more to do with the possibilities that an open blogging platform can provide: we want to bring people to come to the blog and comment on stuff, people that are not just the teacher or fellow student. But that takes work (lotsa work in fact) and doesn’t happen automagically (on class blogs or any blog). I’ll explain what that “work” entails in just a sec.
We take privacy seriously and we discuss this with teachers and students. But more than that we try to use this as a starting point for a larger conversation about who you are online and what your online presence says about you. (We need to do more of this… far too often this chat is jammed into 1/2 of a class in the first week… it needs a bigger conversations)
We explain the options users have to limit the amount of personal information that is visible via their blogs. In WordPress, under users–>Your Profile–> it is possible to change the setting “Display Name Publicly As….” to suit the users. If a person wants to blog under a pseudonym that is fine too. (Note: bloggers have to register with an email address from our school to set up an account, so while they might be anonymous to their public, their id is known to the blog administrator)
Simply put: Blogging won’t work if users are uncomfortable or anxious. It’s hard enough to write in a second language much less in a second language in an online environment. We try to make it less scary by offering options to support privacy.
Blogging speech is intended to be informal and conversational. There is lots of research out there about how this form of Computer Mediated Conversation mimics informal (oral) conversation, vs formal academic rhetoric. I encourage students to see the blog as a place to make mistakes, learn from them, and then get better as you go along. I know of some teachers who edit blog posts before the students post them so that they are perfect, and that is fine, but the teacher is not the only audience in the blog readership. One idea would be to use the blog as a space to workshop second language writing, get feedback, get inspiration.
Making blog magic (aka the “work” part)
Here are some ideas I have come up with over the years to make blogs do their “magic” which I define as connecting people who wouldn’t otherwise be connected about topics of shared interest.
Caveat: I recc’d that there be a lot of thinking and googling before blogging. Maybe two-three weeks worth at least.
Questions to think about before you blog:
What matters to you?
One of the best ways to learn a language is when you have to express your thoughts clearly and passionately. What do you care about? What are you passionate about? And most importantly, what kinds of conversations could you have with others about this topic. Remember, blogging is creating conversations with others. How do you write about what matters and engage others in your thoughts?
What do you want to learn about vs what is your area of expertise?
Blogging doesn’t have to be about being an expert (that is such a Higher Ed way of thinking). It can be about asking questions about something you care about and using that space to learn more. In a language or culture context there could be a lot of things to explore: what is the food like in Valparaíso, Chile? What is some slang I will need to learn before I go to Buenos Aires? How do people dress for going to the university in Córdoba? Use the blog as a place for people to share THEIR expertise with YOU, vs worrying about being the expert all the time.
This is less about a research project where you come up with a definitive answers and more about a way to crowd source a whole lotta answers (some of which may conflict with others) and learn from those resources
Finding other bloggers before you blog: (teh googles in other countries)
I wait several weeks before I have students blog in my classes. I have found that it pays to have students familiarize themselves with the blogosphere and how it works (and what is already out there) before starting their own space. I also tell them that as easy as it is to google for blogs in English, they should also think about looking for blogs in other countries as well as search for info in languages other than English.
This list of Google domains in other countries is a fascinating learning adventure. If I am interested in the environment, specifically environmentally responsible ways of farming, what are the terms I need to know to talk about this in a language other than my own? Where are there people blogging about this (if at all?) in the language I am studying? If I can’t find blogs, who is writing about this on the internet? Can I contact them? If I do contact them, what questions do I want to ask and how do I ask them? Thinking through the pieces of the online conversation before actually having the conversation is important, and this takes time.
The idea is this: Curate an audience of readers before you blog. Once a student has written a thought piece, have them share that with people they know will be interested and then ask them to comment. Or suggest that they comment on someone else’s blog and then leave a link to their post and ask for comments (blogging is all about reciprocation). The experience is so much more fulfilling when you give and get a response, not to mention three.
Finding other people who will help you with your language skills
I have heard time and again from students that they would prefer to make a fool of themselves in another language with someone they do not know vs someone they do know. In the same breath they also find it hard to connect with people they don;t know because, well, they have been told for years that the internet is full of creepers.
Enter The Mixxer. We have been using this site for over 10 years as a way for students to find language partners. I have had only one incidence of a registered Mixxer user mis-behaving… ask me to tell you the story sometime when I see you…. Todd Bryant, who runs the site, does an amazing job. Need more convincing about why you should use it? Read here and here…
Students create conversations with people who are learning English, and when things go well, they find people with common interests who are eager to talk about and write about these things. One of the more successful blogging experiences I have watched was when a student had conversation partners via the Mixxer (one on one) and then brought them to her blog to talk collectively about the same topic. Fascinating stuff.
Make it (more) visible
We use WordPress and WordPress is all about the plug-ins. The main website of our center is also on WordPress. My project for Spring break is to figure out how to get the posts that are happening on the blogs we are supporting to show up on our Center’s web page, vs being buried in the internets.
Archive your content, but don’t delete it: use it as a resource
Having taught this way with blogs for 10+ years I now have a database of sorts of topics, links, commenters, news articles that can be used by future bloggers who need some ideas or a place to start digging. Make sure your blogs are not pulled down at the end of the class…keep them open and available for as long as you can. You might want to turn off comments, but then again you might not…
This post about Ricardo Arjona’s song “Si el Norte fuera el Sur” still receives comments. Yes some are bots, to be sure, but many are real people adding their opinions…and have been doing so for three years now :-)