July 2008 Archives

Identity crisis

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Since we began working on the "blogs as portfolio" project, I think everyone on the team has been struggling with the baggage associated with the notion of portfolio, as well as with blogs. Perspectives on portfolios are often limited by their most common definition, "a collection of evidence." Research and practice, however, suggest that it is when we move beyond the collection itself to using it for demonstrating some aspect of personal or professional growth and/or competency that it becomes a powerful vehicle for learning. This is further enhanced when evidence/artifacts in the portfolio are made public and fuel professional discourse within a community (e.g., portfolio conversations). Similarly, blogs are often reduced to a mere an online diary of daily events. Once again, there is so much more potential there if you can get beyond the initial take and harness social interactions and professional discourse.

Our current language about the Blogs at Penn State does not reflect what we are trying to convey about the potential of the platform. This became apparent at our meeting this week when Chris, Brad and I were attempting to bring Erin Long, our new ETS ID teammate, up to speed on the project. We officially abandoned the name "Blogs as Portfolio" (sorry Erin). While we don't have a new catch phrase yet, here's where we may want to go and why.

The Blogs at Penn State are most commonly referred to as a  "personal content management system" or a "personal publishing platform." While these labels convey fundamental meaning about the tool, they fall short in terms of social interactions and professional discourse. At several points this summer, Cole has asked whether folks are going to just scratch their heads in confusion when we begin to push the social angle. The more I have talked to colleagues, the more I realize he may be right - at least initially. People need a compelling place to start, which I think the idea of a personal publishing platform provides. However, we should make an intentional attempt to move the discourse and practices associated with blogs beyond this entry point in order to harness their full potential for teaching and learning.

While I don't have "the answer, " I do have a few ideas that keep me awake at night. As a start, how about "blogs as public scholarship communities." What I am trying to convey with this is that publishing personal artifacts of learning to the blog is an initial contribution to the community for the ultimate purpose of engaging peers/colleagues in professional discourse that may result in moving the collective understanding of the group forward (or prompt new and better questions, etc.). Your turn. Share your insights here and help us redefine the blogs as portfolio project.

Smart people make me happy

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Okay. Truth be told, not ALL smart people make me happy. I like to be challenged in my thinking, but in ways that are collaborative and generative. To date, that has been my experience at ETS. My colleagues here are helping me think hard about blogs as portfolio, particularly how to take full advantage of features that support social interaction and learning. As Brad Kozlek passionately asserted at a recent meeting, blogging (at least the version we are talking about) encompasses much of what higher education experiences should be about -- creative expression, critical reasoning, professional discourse, collaboration and communication. Read more about Brad's views on blogging at Blog of Brad (of course).

For all of the talk about 21st century learning, I still don't see too much of it in action. We often teach our students to use technology tools when our time and energy might be better spent adjusting the norms of participation in learning communities. What does it mean to be accountable to the community through your interactions and contributions? What role does technology play?

This afternoon I am exploring some tools (small pieces, loosely joined -- I get it now and will never laugh about it in public again) that might help us get there. The first is trackbacks, and I was happy to hear from Cole and Brad that they are widely misunderstood. I was clearly one of the folks misunderstanding them. I had been solely focused on comments as the primary vehicle for demonstrating social interaction and discourse. This presents a few problems. The biggie is that when you comment on someone else's blog, the content is no longer yours. What if I am writing a meta-blog on my development in a particular professional domain and a crucial piece of evidence turns out to be a comment I made? As an alternative, consider that instead of merely posting a comment that I post a reflection on how reading a peer's blog and commenting on it advanced my own thinking about something I was grappling with AND I include a trackback to that blog post. This approach seems to me to render a much more useful form of evidence when it comes to examining my own learning over time and the kinds of experiences, assignments, social interactions, etc. that influenced it. It also takes advantage of one of the most powerful features of the web -- interconnections. Thanks, Brad, for helping me understand the potential of this blog capability.

The second toy/tool I am playing with is the embed feature which Brad activated on my blog earlier this week. Forgive my techno-ignorance here, but my understanding is that it allows you to create a live feed to the original post. If the original gets updated, it is updated on your blog automatically. Pretty cool. Of course there are all sorts of copyright issues that will need to be addressed. Imagine the possibilities, though. Once again, keep the focus on discourse communities and social perspectives on learning. If the blog post of a peer (or instructor, or expert, or...) has a significant impact on my thinking and professional development, I can write a reflective entry and embed the original post. I am including Brad's post on the embed feature here as an example.

Learning theory [re]considered

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I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the extent to which my theoretical framework fits with the work on blogs and portfolio. For a number of years now, I have been building on a framework that integrates theories of learning as being social, situated and distributed to make sense of my work in teacher education. This has been productive in that it guides my pedagogical decisions and informs my research (questions, design, data collection, analysis and interpretations of data). Social perspectives on learning (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer & Scott, 1994; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Resnick, 1998, 1991) emphasize the role of interactions in learning and the significance of discourse communities. This keeps my focus on crafting experiences in which students negotiate meaning through relevant social experiences and professional discourse (as opposed to me telling them the one right way of doing things). Situative perspectives on learning (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Greeno, 2003, 1997; Greeno, Collins & Resnick, 1996; Lave & Wenger, 1991) suggest that learning is by nature intertwined with the contexts in which it occurs. In light of this, the need to create authentic learning activities is essential. Another important element is the connection between knowledge and participation in social practices. Finally, distributed perspectives on learning (Pea, 1993; Resnick, 1987) suggest that knowledge and learning (and expertise) does not reside in the individual, but rather the discourse community (or community of practice -- see Scott McDonald's work here). Please excuse my gross oversimplification of some very complex theories.

I am also a big fan of John Dewey -- "Reflection is the hallmark of intelligent action." "It is not from our experiences that we learn, but from reflecting upon them." [Quotes are from memory. Don't take them too seriously.] Point of clarification: I am not referring to the warm and fuzzy brand of reflection here, but rather Dewey's notion of reasoned interactions within a problem space that have a generative impact on conceptions that guide the interactions. For this to apply, in my work teaching is approached as a complex, problem-solving activity. 

So what does all of this mean in terms of blogs as portfolio? I am still working on that, but the connections appear to be strong. How do we make the most effective use of social features of blogs, such as commenting and trackbacks, in ways that support and advance the discourse community, as well as novices' enculturation into that community? In what ways does engaging students in publishing artifacts that were developed in authentic contexts (and considering their relevance to professional standards) influence their development as professionals? What approaches are most successful in terms of creating norms for engaging in professional discourse through/around blogging? There are many more questions and ideas swimming around in my head. It is exciting to have dedicated time as a TLT faculty fellow to consider them.