Weblogs, or blogs, are online journals which have made publishing to the Web simple. The user does not need to know a programming language to create and publish content online. As blogs have grown in popularity, they have evolved to be more advanced systems for publishing text, images, documents, and other kinds of information. Content can be added to a live site from any Internet connection, once the blog is set up on a hosting service or server. Weblogs encourage collaboration and communication. They have built-in features that allow for commenting, discussion, and syndication of content. This means users can view a live page and respond in real-time to what someone else has written.
Using blogs to improve writing in a high school English class
Robert Baker teaches language arts at a small high school in a metropolitan area. In a typical class, he might have 30 students who speak one of 12 different native languages at home. Nearly all are growing up in poverty. English language skills range widely, a factor that limits many students' confidence and motivation as writers. Baker is always looking for ways to individualize instruction to meet his students' diverse needs.
Recently, Baker attended a workshop on how to improve student writing by using weblogs, or "blogs." He saw the potential of blogs to meet his students' diverse language needs. They would allow his students to work at their own pace, receive ongoing feedback about their writing, and practice using English. They would not need to learn a programming language or how to design a Web page to publish their work online.
While the blog allowed students to comment on each others' work, it also provided Baker with important ways to give feedback that would improve his students' writing quality.
Once students posted a version of their paper, the teacher had access to it and could add comments without disrupting their work. He could access the class blog from any computer, at school, at home, or anywhere with an Internet connection. Sometimes he provided overall feedback, using a general comment feature. In other cases, he was more specific—praising a well-chosen word, showing how to correct flawed grammar or spelling, or suggesting how to improve the organization of a paragraph.
The comment feature allowed students to give peer feedback. Baker structured this activity so that student comments focused on the traits of effective writing (such as word choice, conventions, and organization).
In his weekly newsletter to parents, Baker asked for volunteers who would respond to student writing online. Parents needed access to the Internet. Baker knew not all families had computers at home, so he listed places where Internet access was free. He made it clear that he would not be asking parents to critique or correct students' work. Rather, parents would respond to the teacher's specific prompts for feedback.
Midway through the quarter, students had polished some of their work through peer editing and revision. Then Baker invited his parent volunteers to visit the site and make comments, following the teacher's prompts. The students were proud to have their work read and were more motivated to write well. Their writing continued to improve as they wanted to publish their best work for their new audience.Baker saw how weblogs were addressing the unique needs of students growing up in poverty by making them more active users of technology.
Baker worked with the district technology coordinator to set up the first class weblog, using the free service at http://www.blogger.com. They chose to build the blogs for each student using this service, hosting them on the school's servers, which allowed them to place all student blogs behind a secure password. It took three minutes to create a weblog for each student. Baker could enable or disable the commenting features on all the student's blogs and even edit their entries or add his own comments. The site was secure, but students could still interact freely.
When Baker introduced his students to the class weblog, he explained how this technology would enable them all to become published authors. "What if my writing isn't good enough?" one student asked. Baker discussed how the technology and the support of their peers would help them. He showed them how to post their work, get feedback, revise, and then post again, saving the earlier draft.
Baker reserved the computer lab for three periods each week during the semester so that his students would have enough opportunities to work online. He structured the schedule into thirds: one day students focused on their own writing, the next session they read one another's work and provided feedback, and the third day they read the feedback and revised their work. This weekly, structured cycle of writing, reading, reviewing, and revising effectively embedded feedback and revision into their experience.