Higher Education is seeing an influx of tools to enhance learning and infuse technology into classes. Instructors and professors are shifting their pedagogical approach to include tools to allow students to share, collaborate, reflect, and create online. “…students noted that they expect a university education to include the use and instruction of important technologies in academic and nonacademic settings,” (Gustafson, 2004, p. 38).
Spatially and conceptually writing is changing in how, where, and why students choose to compose.
“In Web 2.0, writing and researching activities are increasingly integrated both spatially and conceptually. I argue that, with this integration, Web 2.0 technologies showcase how research and writing together participate in knowledge production,” (Purdy, 2010, p. 48). This tools are varied in style, format, and settings. Some formats such as blogs are personal and open for comments. Other formats are open only to class members. There are as many combinations and permutations in settings within various platforms as there are thoughtful contributions and discussions taking place in these online learning environments. “Through the use of ePortfolio and other Web 2.0 tools, students implement critical digital literacy skills as they learn how to write for real audiences and find an authentic voice,” (Klages & Clark, 2009, p. 34).
A Blog is a chronological journal platform. Blogs are conversational, personal, and creative. They allow for people to post openly and instantly on the open internet. The friendly, open nature of blogs allows for comments and feedback from classmates and beyond. Blogs are organized by date with the newest post on top of the stack, and older posts further down the page. You can give posts categories and tags to organize and make previous writing searchable. You can sign up for email, text, or RSS alerts of new posts or comments, making a blog easy to follow and track. Posting and commenting features are simple and very similar across various types of types of blogs, without menus full of choices and confusion, making blogs friendly and non threatening. “As an online arena where error, language play, and invention are not only accommodated but actively incorporated, blogs are a surprisingly straightforward way to negotiate the tensions of error” (Smith, 2008, p. 37). Students in Farmer, Vue, and Brooks (2007) found that blogging was a real world communication platform. An idea would take off in the class and become a self generating conversation instead of an assigned task. It was a cultural practice which related to the world outside of the classroom and the institution. Students can experiment with writing style without the pressure of a formal academic ‘structure’ to find their voice.
Ferdig and Trammell (2004) defined four pedagogic benefits of blogging for students:
- Assisting students to become subject matter experts through a process of regular scouring, filtering and posting.
- Increasing student interest and ownership in learning.
- Giving students legitimate chances to participate and enculturating them into a community of practice.
- Providing opportunities for diverse perspectives (p. 124).
The online nature of blogs mean there is an “…ease of editing in this digital format, encouraged more writing, and the archiving features of the blog kept a long-running history of the exchanges” (Banister, Ross, & Vannatta, 2008, p. 3619). You can add a twitter stream, a social network features, or a more traditional discussion forum with the customizable features of blog platforms. Blogs allow for personal control and ownership of content for students. Blogs are a very reflective. Students can delve into their learning by writing and sharing thoughts, challenges, and goals. Finding a voice and audience for writing is very motivating. Blogging makes writing accessible, easy, and gives it purpose. With this voice and purpose comes student ownership, pride, and a sense of community. “Blogging enabled my students to bounce ideas off one another and develop new trains of thought that they might not have considered on their own. It also helped them think about how they communicate in different arenas and to various audiences” (Smith 2008, p. 45).
The conversation is not a descriptive writing challenge, it is an academic challenge. Learners have to go back through their thinking, revisit instruction, and build on their knowledge. The process helps to scaffold and support learners with personal reflection and community feedback. “It was a way to express my own views…which gave me a sense of freedom” while another said, “It shows how I do develop my knowledge by posting my thinking in a written method” – A Student Comment from Sheetz and Curcher, 2008 (p. 1258).
Learning Management Systems (LMS) or Course Management Systems (CMS) are centralized, institution controlled, closed internet portals to share ideas, upload and download course materials and interact with other course members. They are are on the internet, so they can be accessed outside the classroom and the institution, but they are closed networks. Only the people the university and the individual course instructors allows into each course can interact and view material.
When comparing blogs to traditional discussion forms, found most often in Learning Management Systems (LMS), Valdes-Corbeil and Corbeil (2008) had undergraduate students share their impression
Liang (2007), found that, “In comparison to centralized learning management system (e.g., Blackboard), blogs can empower learners to actively manage their blog content, communicate their learning goals, and maintain interpersonal relationships in a community” (p. 1687).
Valdes-Corbeil and Corbeil (2008) outlined the limitations of traditional learning management system discussion boards:
- inflexible organization and display of discussion threads
- plain and visually unappealing text-based interface
- inability of participants to upload avatars or photos of themselves
- compartmentalized discussions that require readers to go in and out of threads, which can disrupt the flow of conversation (p. 1318).
Through new advances and design elements in new Learning Management Systems many of these limitations are being overcome. Blackboard and Moodle are emerging as two dominant choices with Blackboard recently acquiring both WebCT and Elluminate, it is incorporating the best features from multiple platforms to create a more modern, more versatile tool. The open source alternative Moodle is also updating and changing with the recent release of Moodle 2.0. The new release incorporates more Web 2.0, social media tie ins, and works well with the open source e-portfolio system Mahara. Moodle does take a lot of work to create attractive design elements and customization of features to develop a system that meets the needs of the institution. Other Learning Management Systems such as Frog, Glow, and Desire to Learn are also being used, but with more uptake at the K-12 education level.
This thought, from a student in the class highlights the lack of discussion of a threaded discussion board format, “The blog has more of a ‘discussion’ sense of feeling than the discussion board. Participating in this blog has enabled me to present my interpretation of a topic and give my reasoning for what I think. I also get to read others’ opinions and deduce what I agree or disagree with. Thus, this type of atmosphere coincides more accurately with the term ‘discussion.’ In the discussion board, I don’t feel like I am participating in a discussion, but rather, submitting responses to an instructor’s questions or prompts” (Valdes-Corbeil & Corbeil, 2008, p. 1322).
Blogs move beyond institutionalization into more authentic, personally controlled open writing and reflection. Part of this personal control is the choice to have blogs open or closed. In a first year english course for students learning English Sheetz and Curcher (2008) found 30% of the emerging English writers shared their blog only with the instructors, 40% with close friends, classmates and colleagues, and the final 30% had them full open. This measure of control allows students to make their own choice about the sharing of their writing.
Wikis are websites which are easily created to provide a collaborative space to create, write, and share. Pages are easy to create. Videos, media, image, and interactive content are easy to insert with embeddable HTML code or through an add image interface. Wikis are a collaborative group sharing space, more than the individual, chronological blog. A wiki is more like a traditional webpage, but it can be edited and modified very easily by multiple users.
Anzai (2008), used a wiki for collaborative writing in a higher education first year English class, and found, “82.1% of the students responded positively, of which 32.1% responded that they strongly agreed and 50% responded that they agreed. On the other hand, 3.6% were negative, and 14.3% were neutral. Thus most of the students perceived that a wiki enhanced collaborative learning in English writing” (p. 549)
Facebook is a massive social network, originally designed for use by higher education students. The concept is that you create a profile. “The creation of an online social networking profile is in actuality a complicated exercise in self-representation that requires a great deal of skill in composition, selection, manipulation, and appropriation (Perkel, 2006, p. 9)” They you can connect with friends and family, and share updates, photos, play games, and communicate in real time chat. Pages for companies, groups, and institutions can also be created with a message board, groups of members, and a place to share and communicate.
Facebook is such a dominant tool in the lives of students being present in this social networking world helps to guide, advise, model, and teach responsible use. Burying your head in the sand and pretending they don’t exists does more of a disservice. “Kemp pointed out that student initiative will be key—not only desirable but imperative—for an “interactive environment,” because these environments are effective only when students actively write and post. Obviously, if faculty are to “guide” learning, they must be there to guide it, whether that means being physically present in a classroom or virtually represented in online spaces including Facebook or MySpace” (p. 27)
Selwyn (2010) examined the Facebook use of 909 higher education students, five themes of use emerged from the data:
- recounting and reflecting on the university experience
- exchange of practical information
- exchange of academic information
- displays of supplication and/or disengagement
- exchanges of humour and nonsense
If a tool such as Facebook is already such a dominant presence in the social lives of students, why not repurpose the tool to use it in the higher education environment. Ordinary users have taken to social networks making them mainstream, and worthy of examination and scrutiny. For example, Dr. Fogg’s Psychology class at Sandford not only studies Facebook, but uses it in class as a tool to share and communicate.
Twitter is an online, open, microblogging tool. Users share 140 character snippets of information which can be sent to an open audience, directed at a specific or small group of users, or private messages can be sent. In this manner twitter users can communicate with specific individuals or can interact with all users. On twitter users choose to follow other users and they can see on their main page a feed of the ‘tweets’ sent out by those they follow. Conversely, anyone who follows a twitter user will have their ‘tweets’ populate their twitter page. A user can follow a narrow, specialized group, or a wide range of users sharing about different interests and topics.
Junco, Heiberger, and Loken (2011) found that when using twitter in a first year course for pre-health professional majors, the students who used the microblogging, social networking platform Twitter had, on average, achieved a GPA in the course which was a half a grade point ahead of the control group. They also found an increase in engagement scores in the experimental group. The research found that there was more interaction between students ands faculty when twitter was used as a communication medium in the higher education courses.
Beaudin and Deyenberg [that’s me!] (2011) used twitter at the graduate level in a presentation seminar class. A student in the class noted, “I never was able to benefit from the insights of my classmates using the paper/word document format…with twitter however, I was able to follow the presentation, read my classmates insights and evaluate my own thoughts at the same time.”
Twitter can be used to facilitate rapid, as needed, conversation. Students can send enquires out to specific classmates, instructors, or to the general public. This provides a targeted, but diverse audience for students to share ideas, acquire assistance, and bring their students to a collaborative audience.
An Electronic Portfolio or e-portfolio is an online place to store, share, and critique work. The work can be text, image, or multi-modal. Through selection, critique, and commenting the e-portfolio platform can be a reflective and powerful tool for assessment and development. “The use of portfolios in language learning should contribute to learners taking more responsibility for documenting and assessing their language abilities,” (Godwin-Jones, 2008, p. 10).
E-Portfolios are more personal and customizable than most Web 2.0 platforms. Individual users take ownership and responsibility for choice, development, and style. “Potentially, well-designed and expandable e-portfolios offer to the Myspace generation a more inviting environment than the rigid confines of the traditional learning management system” (Godwin-Jones, 2008, p. 9).
“Students compose and receive feedback digitally, which is new. But, within the context of composition studies, students are attentive to questions of audience and the development of writing in ways that are similar to a paper portfolio’s function in a writing course. ePortfolios serve as an ideal bridge between traditional, essayistic literacy pedagogies and emerging`digital rhetoric pedagogies because they embody both the old and the new” (Clark, 2010, p. 29).
When weighing the possibilities and limitations of the various platforms to provide students and teachers an online space to communicate, collaborate, and learn, it is important to weigh the goals of learning, limitations of tools, and learning curve of the new technologies. Although many students come with a strong technological base, many do not, or are not familiar with all tools and platforms. (Pearce et al., 2010). This was confirmed by Gustafson (2004) when students expressed frustrations with assignments which required advanced technical skills. Students in this cased requested advanced notification of the basic skills required so they could master the required technical components to complete the assignment. A common platform across an institution, such as an LMS may be advantageous in this manner as students use the same skill set from course to course instead of having to start fresh with each new instructor. At the same time exposure to a wide range of online tools allows students to build a more transferable set of skills, as they are asked to try new things and push their range of familiarity. Liang (2007) also noted that some students felt the course became one about “online learning” instead of “English learning,” (p. 2874). This is a concern as the focus must remain on the intend content and pedagogy to deliver that content, not the delivery tool. Purdy (2010), warned that faculty cannot automatically assume that students have the skills to use Web 2.0 technologies and “that Web 2.0 technologies offer particular affordances is not enough; teachers need to help students develop the perceptual lenses with which to use these affordances productively for work in the academy” (p. 56). Students need to able to differentiate between research text which are unfinished and those that have been vetted and are reliable.
Purdy (2010) summarizes the potential of Web 2.0 in a higher education institution, “Web 2.0 asks users to write as they are researching can encourage more active written response to texts. Students have a space in which to make their contributions visible, and these contributions can have a hand in changing texts or research practices…Their voices matter” (p. 55-56).
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