New developments, discoveries and a diversity of ideas are encountered daily by those of us engaged in academic work. The explosion in on-line publishing, the growing popularity of downloadable media, and advances in wireless technology and mobile reading devices virtually assure that such new information may be accessed on-line. Given the appropriate tool, this Internet-based information environment allows us to easily share knowledge with others regardless of their location. As 21st century professors, we chose to utilize and explore the use of blogs in our university teaching and creative expression. We took up this initiative separately and with differing pedagogical strategies, but our purpose for entering the blogosphere has been similar in intention: to reach the ‘digital natives,’ namely our students and to add to the public sphere of knowledge as scholars and teachers in higher education.
The Blogosphere: What is it?
Some would say that blogging is one of the new media technologies that remains on the margins of academe. For those who are not well acquainted with the blogosphere, a blog (short for web log) is a personal website that features information or commentary on any subject. Entries posted on a blog appear in reverse chronological order and may include any, all, or some combination of text, photos, videos, audio, as well as hyperlinks (links to websites or other Internet-based information). One of the more useful features of blogs is their interactivity—they are designed to facilitate interaction by permitting readers to comment on entries.
The computer literacy skills required to create and maintain blogs have changed a great deal since the early days of blogging in the 1990’s. To publish material on the Internet, early bloggers required at least a rudimentary knowledge of how to create webpages using Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). To make these pages accessible via the World Wide Web, the pioneers of blogging also needed to know how to upload files to a server using File Transfer Protocol (FTP).
Fast forward to today and far less technical knowledge is needed to blog because of the availability of new user-friendly blog publishing tools such as Blogger (www.blogger.com) and LiveJournal (www.livejournal.com) that are designed to help users to create and maintain blogs. We utilize Blogger’s publishing tool to bring newly available information about the world of post-secondary education to our students and many interested others.
Now you might be thinking, “why not just print the material and bring it to class?” Alternatively, we could also e-mail information to our students. From time to time we still do each of these, except in cases of on-line or distance courses where that sharing of photocopied materials is not really an option after a course gets underway. On the whole, we have discovered that a blog is a timely, efficient and truly interactive way to share information with our students where they are and to keep conversations going.
Digital Natives & Digital Immigrants
As Marc Prensky noted in his article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, a great many of “our students today are … ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” This new generation of tech-savvy post-secondary students is well-acquainted with the world of podcasts, blogs, wiki writing platforms, YouTube, and social networking technologies such as text messaging. In recent years, there has also been explosive growth in creative and authoring activities by students on social networking sites and on-line communities like Facebook and MySpace. On-line social networking is now so deeply embedded in the lifestyles of young people that it has come to compete with television for their attention. A blog in a college or university program, or high school for that matter, is quite within the reach of this audience of digital natives.
Unlike these digital natives, the many digital immigrants (those over the age of 25) who make up our older student populations are at a bit of a disadvantage as a result of their differing backgrounds and experiences. We should take care though not to overstate the gap between our younger digital natives and older digital immigrants. We know that over two-thirds of adult Canadians have personal access to the Internet. Further, a recent poll conducted by Ipsos Reid indicated that 34 per cent of Canadian adults have visited blogs at one time or another. This poll also found that adult Canadians with higher levels of education are more likely people to visit a blog— university graduates, 40 per cent; other post-secondary graduates, 36 per cent; and high school graduates or lower, 21 per cent. It is relatively safe to assume that the blogosphere is accessible to our older students as well, albeit to a lesser degree as compared to digital natives.
Some academics use blogs to reflect on the qualities and characteristics of academic work while other blogs exist only to chronicle the personal lives of their creators
The Academic Blogosphere
The academic blogosphere is far from uniform, and not necessarily directed toward academic audiences. Some scholars blog about their research and some blog about teaching. The faculties of law at both the University of Toronto (http://utorontolaw.typepad.com) and the University of Alberta (http://ualbertalaw.typepad.com) have each instituted blogs that feature contributions from professors across their faculties. Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, maintains a blog that is devoted to emerging issues in his field (http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/blogsection). Throughout 2007, Geist was at the forefront of the debate regarding proposed changes to Canadian copyright laws, using his blog to draw public and media attention to the issue.
In some instances academics are using blogs as a medium to reflect on and critique the qualities and characteristics of academic work while others seem to exist only to chronicle the personal lives of the authors and their families. In an interesting example of the latter variety, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, Michael Barbour, created a blog called Breaking into the Academy to “chronicle the trials and tribulations” of completing his doctorate and securing an academic position (http://mkbabd.blogspot.com).
Quite a number of academic blogs function as virtual soapboxes that professors use to share their opinions and engage others in debates concerning current events and, of course, politics. For example, Instapundit, a blog maintained by Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, is one of the most widely read conservative political blogs (http://www.instapundit.com). Another popular academic blog of this type is Bitch, Ph.D. which is the creation of Tedra Osell, a former assistant professor of English at the University of Guelph (http://bitchphd.blogspot.com).
It is common for academic bloggers to share their insights and opinions anonymously by keeping their identities undisclosed. Examples of this include “Dean Dad” at Confessions of a Community College Dean (http://suburbdad.blogspot.com) and “New Kid” at New Kid on the Hallway (http://newkidonthehallway.typepad.com). It has been argued that an absence of anonymity in the academic blogosphere has been career-limiting for some. A July 2005 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that academic job-seekers who blog can destroy chances of being offered a position by irritating or offending hiring com mittee members in their on-line writing. Contrary to the notion of academic freedom, there have also been a number of instances where denial of tenure has been attributed to negative assessments of scholars’ blogging. One high-profile instance of this occurred when, in 2006, Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, was rejected for a tenured position in Middle Eastern history at Yale University contrary to the recommendations of both Yale’s sociology and history departments. Cole, who blogs at Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion (http://juancole.com), has often opined about his strong opposition to the war in Iraq and the rights of Palestinians.
Within academe, the blogsphere is an important new space that can be used for the sharing of ideas across disciplines
Broadening the Public Sphere
New Media Consortium, (NMC), a not-for-profit international organization made up of hundreds of learning-focused organizations across USA, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia, is led by many of the elite universities of the USA and Canada. As part of its mandate, NMC researches emerging technologies for teaching, learning and creative expression and releases an annual report (http://www.nmc.org/ pdf/2007_Horizon_Report.pdf). Their 2007 report clearly articulates the resistance to accepting interactive on-line scholarship, such as blogs, and NMC predicts it will take four to five years before such avenues for creative expression will be accepted by institutions of higher learning.
Of course, this is but one example of the on-going debate about the impact, real or imagined, of blogging on scholarly discourse and academic culture. Within academe, the blogosphere is an important new space that can be used for the sharing of ideas across disciplines in ways that cannot be accomplished outside of the on-line environment. Blogging also presents an opportunity to free academics from the many constraints that characterize academic work (i.e., the traditional promotional process which necessitates that we direct our writing toward a pecialized, and in many cases, small audience).
Blogs provide a mechanism for those of us who are immersed in humanities and social sciences research to disseminate our ideas in a manner that is accessible to a far broader audience than academics have been able to reach in recent times. This presents an opportunity for academics to reconfigure culture and extend it far beyond the university campus and the occasional gathering of scholars. In this way, the increasing use of blogs and other new media in academe could bring us closer to Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of the public sphere and facilitate a further democratization of intellectual discourse.
Of course, it is important to temper our expectations and to keep in mind that new Internet technologies have limitations, and that the latter goal is constrained by the fact that not everyone has access to blogs because not everyone can afford a computer and internet access. Nor does everyone possess the necessary knowledge to effectively use computer technology.
Despite their various limitations, the full educational potential of academic blogs has yet to be unlocked. Blogs present an array of possibilities both as technological tools for teaching and learning and as a communicative technique with power to invigorate and broaden public discourse. AM
Dale Kirby and Mary Cameron are assistant professors in the Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland.