Blogging & Literacy: A critical review of the literature

Introduction

This post critically evaluates some of the available literature on blogging as literacy form from an HE perspective. Considerations include: definitions of literacy, a brief history of blogging and its incorporation into education including known benefits and potential drawbacks to its uncritical adoption.

Definitions of ‘Literacy’

Over the past two decades, researchers have addressed the changing definitions of ‘literacy’ that accompanied the development of affordable and accessible technology. Allen (2001) reminds us of an early definition; signing one’s name, as opposed to simply making a mark. UNESCO (2004) discussed an evolving plurality of definitions, including the literacy skills required to function and to participate in 21C society. UNESCO (2004) also suggested the emergence of a ‘continuum of reading and writing skills’, ranging from Early Years mark-making to the complex meta-cognitive abilities required to navigate, engage with and produce multimodal media. This continuum provides a good starting point for a consideration of the ‘new literacies’ and how such skills can be supported, developed, assessed and accredited for a range of personal, educational and professional purposes.

blogging handsFrom Social Tool to Research Topic

Cottrell and Morris (2012) note that blogs began to emerge in the 1990s, becoming a mainstream social tool by 2000. More recently, they have become of interest to educators, resulting in a proliferation of research from the mid-2000s. Initial research into educational blogs focussed on the potential of Web 2.0 technologies for adding interactivity to traditional reflective learning journals.

Bouldin et al (2006) references some early small-scale studies and articles, citing Kennedy 2003, who refers to educators starting to use ‘web logs’ in their practice. Farmer et al (2008) reference an emerging body of literature on blogging, including its potential for supporting metacognitive development, higher order and critical thinking skills. Initial student feedback from these studies suggests that many found blogging engaging and informative, but with a significant minority suggesting a detrimental effect on rigorous academic writing skills.

Further studies emerged from the English as an Additional Language (EAL) field. Sun (2010), Vurdien (2013) and Lee (2015) argued that blogging promoted extended reading and writing for language acquisition. He developed a model detailing the link between blogging and extensive reading (below). The principles emerging from EAL literature may be transferable to other student populations in the context of academic discourse as a form of language acquisition.

 

Lee 2015 model of reading supported by blogging
Lee (2015): A model of extensive reading supported by blogging

Lin, Lin and Hsu (2011) challenged such studies for their failure to include a Control Group using a traditional written method, in order to generate a reliable comparison of effect sizes. With due reference to technology-related motivational effects (Sung and Mayer, 2013), they concluded that impact on students’ learning was broadly similar between the Control and Experimental Groups. They suggest that, whilst blogs work in improving writing skills, any benefits are likely to be outweighed by the time cost to the teacher. They conclude it is “doubtful that classroom blogging is worth pursuing as an approach for promoting students’ writing abilities, despite what previous studies have suggested” and “the entire blogging format failed to achieve its goal in the context of the ESL writing classroom.” (Lin, Lin and Hsu, 2011: E150).

Returning to the links between blogging and 21C literacy, Knoebel and Lankshear (2014:98) identified a significant overlap between ‘conventional’ and ‘new’ literacies, summarised as follows: “As practices, literacies — all literacies, “new” or conventional — involve bringing technology, knowledge, and skills together within contexts of social purpose.” This echoes the view of Allen (2001:252), who noted the increasing acceptance of a definition of literacy “in relative terms as competency at specific tasks within particular contexts”. However, Stordy (2015:458) believes the number of terms used to define precise literacies may be reaching an unsustainable point: “It is as if scholars and organisations have developed their conception of literacy without reference to others or they have “cherry-picked” ideas to form their own conception”. He also outlines a distinction between autonomous and ideological models of literacy, citing Lonsdale and McCurry’s (2004) description of the two positions. As educators, we must be secure in our own ideology (Murphy et al, 2009) and aware of underlying social and historical contexts when identifying new tools to promote literacy skills.

 

raifbadawi
Creative Commons Free Raif Badawi by Amnesty Finland is licensed under CC by 2.0

Social and Political Implications

As noted by Freire (1972), literacy can be an effective tool for liberation and for criticising oppressive structures and regimes. Four decades later, blogging has become a potentially subversive and dangerous activity. Stordy (2015: 464) continues this theme, noting that when combined with a drive to improve political, cultural and critical literacy, blogging can “empower individuals as opposed to promoting a protectionist and regulatory agenda”. In certain circumstances, this can result in far reaching, even fatal consequences when blogging is used to criticise oppressive or fervently religious regimes (Ex-Muslim, 2015; Raif Badawi, 2016).

Implications for Higher Education Policy and Practice

Within UK HEIs, rationales for blog use (Cottrell and Morris, 2012) could be criticised as simply using new technologies to support established assessment strategies. When considering blogging for assessment of learning, educators must consider whether it adds new pedagogic enhancements, or whether it simply enables an established pedagogy to be applied in a new way. This is not to imply that either approach is superior; rather to acknowledge differences and promote the application of effective pedagogy.

Several studies discuss blogging’s benefits for social integration by quickly and directly involving students in their learning communities (Cottrell and Morris 2012; Top, 2012; Lee, 2015). However, these benefits were well-documented and modelled by Tinto (1975) in his work on student attrition in HE. While blogging may be an efficient means of supporting such aims, it does not yet appear to be charting undiscovered territory.

 

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Further Discussion

This review has focussed on blogging and literacy from a Higher Education perspective. Further research could explore how, and at what age the so-called ‘new literacies’ can be developed alongside basic reading and writing skills. The OECD (2015) return to UNESCO’s (2004) idea of a continuum, arguing that “all students first need to be equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills so that they can participate fully in the hyper-connected, digitised societies of the 21st century.”

Institution leaders must prevent technology from contributing to the marginalisation of traditional academic and literacy skills – reading, analysing and writing extended critical texts. Failing to do so risks extending existing inequalities between state- and privately-educated students (including privately-tutored state students) allowing traditional literacy to become the preserve of a social and financial elite (Solga, 2014).

In conclusion, blogging is now well established in the standard repertoire of assessment strategies. With thoughtful application, it has the potential to extend students’ ability to write for a range of audiences, to build resilience and to give and receive effective feedback; all essential skills for participation in 21C society.

Reference List

Allen, L. (2001). “Toward a definition of technical literacy.” Ipcc 2001: Ieee International Professional Communication Conference, Proceedings: 251-254.

Bouldin, A. S., et al. (2006). “”Blogging” about course concepts: Using technology for reflective journaling in a communications class.” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 70(4).

Cottrell, S. and Morris, N. (2012). Study skills connected : using technology to support your studies. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Davies, J. and G. Merchant (2008). Looking from the Inside Out: Academic Blogging as New Literacy. A New Literacies Sampler. M. Knoebel and C. Lankshear (editors). New York, Peter Lang: 177 – 207.

Farmer, B., et al. (2008). “Using blogging for higher order learning in large cohort university teaching: A case study.” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 24(2): 123-136.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. S.l., Sheed and Ward.

Kennedy, K. (2003) Writing With Web Logs Online at: http://web2play.pbworks.com/f/Post+Writing+with+Web+Logs+copy.pdf [Accessed on 9 March, 2016]

Knobel, M. and C. Lankshear (2014). “Studying New Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58(2): 97-101.

Lee, S. Y. (2015). “Joining the ‘literacy club’: when reading meets blogging.” ELT Journal 69(4): 373-382.

Lin, M. H., Lin, C. Y. and Hsu, P. Y. (2011). “The unrealistic claims for the effects of classroom blogging on English as a second language, students’ writing performance.” British Journal of Educational Technology 42(6): E148-E151.

Murphy, L. Mufti, E. and Kassem, D. (2009) Education Studies: An introduction Maidenhead: Open University Press

OECD (2015). Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection. Online at: http://www.oecd.org/publications/students-computers-and-learning-9789264239555-en.htm [Accessed on 9 March, 2016]

Ranker, J. (2015). “The Affordances of Blogs and Digital Video NEW POTENTIALS FOR EXPLORING TOPICS AND REPRESENTING MEANING.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58(7): 568-578.

Solga, H. (2014). “Education, economic inequality and the promises of the social investment state.” Socio-Economic Review 12(2): 269-297.

Stordy, P. H. (2015). “Taxonomy of literacies.” Journal of Documentation 71(3): 456-476.

Sun, Y. C. (2010). “Extensive writing in foreign-language classrooms: a blogging approach.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47(3): 327-339.

Sung, E. and Mayer, R.E. (2013) ‘Online multimedia learning with mobile devices and desktop computers: an experimental test of Clark’s methods-not-media hypothesis’ In Computers in Human Behavior 29:639 – 647

Tinto, V. (1975). “Dropout from Higher Education – Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research.” Review of Educational Research 45(1): 89-125.

Top, E. (2012). “Blogging as a social medium in undergraduate courses: Sense of community best predictor of perceived learning.” Internet and Higher Education 15(1): 24-28.

UNESCO (2004)  The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes Online at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001362/136246e.pdf [Accessed on 8 March, 2016]

Vurdien, R. (2013). “Enhancing writing skills through blogging in an advanced English as a Foreign Language class in Spain.” Computer Assisted Language Learning 26(2): 126-143.

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Blog Review: VLEs

Macneill (2014) compares institutional expectations of VLE usage to living with a dictator. Writing in relation to Blackboard, she demonstrates an appreciation for the advantages of efficient, systematic VLE usage.  However, she voices her reservation that this view opposes the unspoken consensus that critically thinking educators should reject attempts to confine their teaching strategies to the parameters of institutionally-mandated learning packages. She links to Norman (2014), On the False Binary of LMS vs Open, who argues along similar lines, paying additional attention to issues of consistency and scale relevant in large university settings.

Reed (2014) notes a trend for complaining about the tyranny of corporate VLEs in his post The VLE vs. Whatever… . He provides an efficient critique of common objections, summarised by Groom and Lamb (2014) which include the asserted ‘clunkiness’ and ‘inflexibility’ of VLEs, and their tendency to operate within closed systems, discouraging critical thinking. I agree with Reed’s counter-argument: within a commercialised UK HE sector, the inability to provide an adequate VLE course is becoming an untenable position for teaching staff. Additionally university students have chosen to learn via a closed course instead of, for example, a MOOC. Most of Groom and Lamb’s objections are not criticisms of VLEs per se, but of generic poor teaching practice, and a lack of attention to the development of Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Graham, 2011) within HEIs academic staff development policies.

Consideration of professional context and the curriculum in question are vital to the arguments surrounding VLEs. HE and FE lecturers, schoolteachers and business trainers all have very different issues to consider. HE lecturers do not (yet) develop resources in response to specific client instructions.  Undergraduate populations, whilst diverse, do have commonalities. They often require highly scaffolded support to develop the digital literacy skills required for independent learning. (Margaryan et al, 2011). It is logical that a ‘common and consistent platform’ Norman (2014)  provides a useful starting point, even if the quality of Moodle courses still varies according to their individual creators.

My VLE experience is limited to Moodle, therefore I can only reflect on my experiences of this platform. I understand why teachers find it ‘clunky’ and ‘inflexible’. This was my opinion three years ago when I was shown how to access it and expected to get on with it. Thankfully, my PGCE tutor convinced me that Moodle is (his words) ‘a really powerful bit of kit, if you’ve got the time and inclination to get under the bonnet and learn what it can do’.

However, developing TPACK is time-consuming. I am fortunate; my role allows me this time, and my institution actively supports my development in this area. This is unlikely to be feasible in other contexts, for example for tutors working in casualised roles on zero-hours or  hourly-paid contracts. As noted above, the use of a corporate VLE allows organisations to provide a consistent user experience for students, and support and training for staff in the use of TEL resources. Whether all UK universities are actively pursuing this opportunity remains a matter for debate.

Moodle provides a useful range of ways for me to support my students. Nursing students prefer flexible access to learning materials, frequently accessing them during segments of clinical placement. Students with EAL/SpLDs appreciate the opportunity to see session resources in advance, in order to reduce extraneous processing load and enable them to participate in session on equal terms (Jamieson and Morgan, 2008).

I leave the last word on this to Steve Wheeler (2014), who concisely explains how poor design and implementation can lead to frustration and impeded learning for students and teachers. Arguing that technology must not stand in the way of good pedagogy, he presents his case for Learning First, Technology Second, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Additional References

Graham, C. (2011) ‘Theoretical considerations for understanding technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK)’ In: Computers and Education 57: 1953 – 1960

Jamieson, C. and Morgan, E.(2008)  Managing Dyslexia at University Abgindon: Routledge

Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. and Vojt, G. (2011) ‘Are digital natives a myth or reality? University students’ use of digital technologies’ In: Computers and Education 56: 429 – 44