I first published this article on a previous web site around 7 years ago (2008?). At the time it received some attention and some parts were circulated widely. I have tweaked it a little but I have kept the 2008 context…
I’ve come to value my subscription to various educational forums. It’s good to run ideas past professional colleagues and benefit from the wisdom born of their experience and expertise. It came as some surprise though, when I announced that I was considering introducing blogging to the whole school, that some thought that I was taking a technological fad too far. I had obviously bumped into some pretty entrenched views about jumping on bandwagons in education. But, however much I respect the opinion and advice from my fellow listserv members; I could not see how blogging was a fad. Ok, I can concede that the notion of the blog as web space specifically structured to the recording of a diary might be transitory, but there is plenty of variation on the theme out there.
Lately I had come to appreciate just how many pupils are managing their own Bebo or Piczo sites. Although these may not be set up to be diaries, the application of templates that facilitate the addition of content is a pretty constant feature. What brought me to consider giving pupils blogs in school was the divide between how pupils were using ICT at home and what we were giving them access to in the network suite. I felt that in most cases this home-based activity is generally being ignored by ICT departments. Fixed in my mind was a conversation I had with a year 8 pupil a year or so ago who stayed after class to show me her Piczo site. I had known for some while that some pupils were dabbling with such sites but I had not really acknowledged, or even taken the time out to see what they were actually doing. Whatever it was they were doing with these sites it had to be trivial surely? This young lady, perfectly polite, just above average ability, steadily working towards level 5, was quite unexpectedly explaining to me how she had prepared in Photoshop (not available in school) an image she had obtained from the internet. She then exported the image from Photoshop in a suitable file format then posted it to her Piczo site. When posting she added html code that had been emailed to her by a friend that produced a glitter effect on the image (a sort of My Little Pony horse if I remember correctly). She then went on to show me the rest of her site. She explained how she modified the html template and how she had created different categories on her site and linked between them. This was not a level five dialogue I was having with this pupil and as she showed how her collection of virtual friends left comments and html tips on her site, her tangible friends that had stayed behind with her made grabs at the mouse saying “can I show him mine?” It became clear to me that this was not just the activity of a geeky isolate, this was a representative of a community of young people taking control of the technology. “How much time do you spend on this?” I asked. “Every night!” she answered. “My Dad is always complaining that he can’t get to use the computer. He keeps asking me what I am doing. I try to explain but he doesn’t understand.”
This term we recycled the exercise books and donated our lined paper to the English Department and had pupils create blogs in the first lessons of the year. Our plan was start every lesson with a blogging task at KS3 and for DIDA students at KS4 to display and describe the outcomes from skills exercises. We chose blogger.com as our provider which surfaced as a tried, tested and popular provider after asking around on a few forums and listservs. At the time of registration we felt that we had not thought the process through properly as we experienced a few problems during the registration process. However three months on these problems now seem trivial and transitory.
The first problem was the difficulty some pupils had in finding a unique username. We had little guidance prepared and teachers were taking pupils through using IWBT. Not anticipating that some pupils would take more than ten attempts to find a suitable username teachers had to decide whether to leave the stalled pupils behind and continue walking the rest of the class through the process. Similar problems occurred when pupils were asked to select a name for the blog URL. By the second day we had produced a guide sheet that let pupils work through the registration on their own. We also did not properly think through the need for pupils to provide an email address. Pupils do not yet have school based email accounts and pupils began to enter their own home based email addresses. Not knowing whether the email address would feature on the site and wary of providing unwanted access to our pupils we quickly advised pupils to use a single school-based email address that we had the network manager hastily create. However this also caused some problems. That pupils were using the same email address was interpreted as spam by blogger.com and some accounts were not successfully created first time.
After registration was completed the department reviewed the process. Our greatest concern was pupils remembering their passwords. With pupils already having to remember their network login details and a VLE user name and password, we wondered if this third set of login details was a step too far and if we should have instructed pupils to reuse their network login password. The answer is probably yes and I am sure that we will with the new intake next year, but, three months on, even without such guidance, password problems are surprisingly rare. Pupils actually like their blogs and tend to remember their passwords. We also wondered if we should have offered more direction for blog URL names, perhaps instructing pupils to use their network user names. This would enable us to predict blog URLs when monitoring and marking the blogs. Network user names are, however, derived from the pupils’ names and we had instructed pupils not to display any personal details on their blogs. We would, I am sure, have also had problems with registering many URLs for pupils with common names. In fact how pupils dealt with the creation of user names and URL names was somewhat enlightening and revealed a level of sophistication I had not anticipated. Most were very well versed in the need for a unique name and the need for anonymity. For instance, many used characters as decoration as in X_X_P_R_I_N_C_E_S_S_X_X. They seemed not to consider usernames or URL names in a literary sense, but rather as a creative task, like inventing a tag or logo. An indication of their out-of-school involvement with communication technology I am sure.
The last piece of administration required was the construction of a database containing hyperlinks to blog URLs. This was structured to list all teaching groups so teachers had quick access to all blogs by pupils in their class. All blogger.com blogs are given blogspot.com as a domain name. We run a positive filter on our network so added blogger.com and blogspot.com to this filter to ensure that all pupils had access. However, a feature of the blogspot templates is that a link is included to random blogspot urls. Pupils quickly found this feature and it soon became evident that not all blogspot home pages are suitable for pupil consumption. Collecting the URLs of our pupils’ blogs on a database allows us to pass a csv file containing pupils’ specific URLs to our network manager to add to the positive filter and remove the generic blogspot.com from the positive filter.
Quite early on we had to show pupils of all years how to add images to their blogs. We showed them how to import a screen shot into Fireworks, crop, resize and export as a gif or jpeg file then upload the image to their blogs. This quickly accelerated Fireworks as one of the most popular pieces of software on the school network. Until this time we had a few Photoshop ‘experts’ across the school, but the need for image manipulation as a basic skill was not present. Now, no pupil would be content with just text based blogs and all use Fireworks regularly and without prompting. Last week a year 10 pupil showed me how he had spent the weekend working out how to embed a flash video player into his site!
After the initial registration up and getting ourselves organised blogging became a regular feature of every lesson. We found that pupils were much more willing to write about tasks they had completed, theoretical aspects or their thoughts and decisions than they would with pen and paper. Sometimes pupils added unprompted posts to their blogs, perhaps if they completed work early in lesson or discovered a new technique that they were pleased with. An unexpected benefit was that pupils very often reread their posts and took much more pride in ensuring that the post was as intended. However, text slang surfaced as a problem early on as did superfluous entries and inappropriate comments on each other’s blogs, sometimes in the form of mild bullying, we had a group of year eight pupils who used their blogs to conduct a little war of insults. We also had two instances of anonymous comments to pupil blogs that sniffed suspiciously of adults making approaches to the pupils. The trick we wanted to achieve was for pupils to understand that they needed to take responsibility for their blogs and that they were part of their school work. I took up these issues with pupils in a series of assemblies reminding pupils of the best way of representing school through their blogs. I reminded them of the need to report, ignore and delete unwelcome comments and that they needed to remember that their blogs could and would be viewed by a range of adults. I also reminded them that they were at the cutting edge of use of ICT in schools and that should they misuse the facility, not only would they lose it, they would deter schools across the country from providing their pupils with blogs.
So now, a few months on how do we sit with blogging? The answer has to be, very comfortably. By any measure blogging is now a positive feature of all ICT lessons. It has given lessons structure where explanation and summary are regular components and the teacher instruction “post to your blog…” is eagerly responded to by pupils. Feedback is now embedded into lessons as pupils look forward to viewing teacher comments added to their posts. Here lies the key to successful class blogging. It is the fact that the blogs are conspicuous and that pupils know that they can be, and are, monitored and any abuse of the kind we saw in the first few weeks has, apart from the occasional transgression, subsided. This is partly through the routine viewing and marking by teachers, but also because pupils know any member of the school leadership team may view them. The fact that blogging and feedback from teachers is a regular part of pupil classwork has a regulatory affect. I am sure that if we insisted only on occasional use instances of abuse would be more common. This coming term we hope to recruit parents on board and make them aware of the URL of their child’s blog. We think that they will be grateful for the opportunity to view their child’s work in return for assisting us in further monitoring their use. The rule must be that if you are going to blog with your classes then it has to be fully embedded into lessons. There are no half measures.
My instincts at the onset of the initiative seem to have been correct in that pupils have brought a lot to their blogs in the way of skills acquired outside school. We have never taught pupils how to alter the blog templates, yet pupils do this regularly altering backgrounds and font styles. Many pupils, particularly at KS4, have created a collection of blogs and have categorised posts across blogs so that the ‘home page’ contains only hyperlinks their other blogs. New ‘tricks’ such as these spread quickly through teaching groups as the initiators share their skills with friends. I was concerned when visiting one of my more able DIDA candidate’s blogs to mark her work that her DIDA work had been replaced with some posts about the progress of her Art project, with, I might add, photographs of the work in progress. Closer inspection revealed that her DIDA posts had been restructured and placed on another linked blog, but the fact that she had felt the urge to record and display her Art work is an indication of the ownership and pride many pupils place on their blogs as a vehicle to display their achievements.
So positive has the introduction of blogging been that it is difficult to imagine the department without it. This term we aim to map the act of blogging against National Curriculum levels of achievement and so properly embedding into the work of the department. We still have some problems to overcome, it is true, some pupils lose their blogs and with no direct contact with blogger.com available, some pupils have needed to start again. Pupil password problems are difficult to correct sometimes but new posts blogs can be linked to incapacitated blogs as staff keep a record of all URLs. I still worry that at some point a pupil will not respond appropriately to a malicious or sexually inappropriate comment but with parents on board we can build a good level of support around the activity. Admittedly we are using blogs more like an online exercise book and this use does stray a little from the true concept of online diary keeping, but this issue is one of semantics. Folk are interpreting the use of their blog space in different ways around the world. Right now though, I am really pleased that I did not listen to the sceptics as, and I am sure that our staff will agree, that the department has walked confidently into a new and exciting world of pupil achievement.