The Blogosphere: What's in It for Me? (An Introduction)

Small academic organizations looking for publicity but lacking the funds for a web designer, teachers interested in exposing their students to feedback from real-world audiences, and individuals who simply like to write may all find weblogs valuable, even outside the setting of a composition classroom.

We already see barefoot and pajama-clad students in the classroom; I think it's high time to make the classroom more visible to the student 24/7, preparing them for the life-long learning habits and intellectual attitudes towards life that our catalogs and recruitment brochures promise they will acquire by the time they leave.

Bloggers who are excited about their work tend to intersperse required blog entries with personal ones, reading and commenting on blog entries written by students who are not in their classes; this can energize a whole community. Several students directly compared blogging to discussion boards, and explicitly stated that they did not put as much effort in their discussion boards because they knew nobody outside the class would ever read their work.

While blogging has percolated past the computer programming, new media, and journalism departments, and is making inroads in composition and literature, the potential for blogging in first year experience, recruitment, retention, and alumni relations is almost completely untapped. (Collaboration, anyone?)

(A "Teaching and Learning Forum" at Seton Hill University.)

Few bloggers have achieved enduring fame and glory through their blogs, but as David Weinberger said on NPR a few years ago, on the web it is easy to be famous -- not for fifteen minutes, but to fifteen people (via Searles).

Academic blogging has moved beyond the computer science, new media, and journalism departments, and is making steady inroads in composition and literature -- but the potential uses for blogging in recruitment, first year experience, retention, and alumni relations remains untapped.

I assign blogs in most of my classes. While some students don't feel they have time to do more than the bare minimum required for the class, others have thrown themselves into blogs, and would love the opportunity to incorporate blogging into their work-study or classwork. Harvard's weblog collective gives researcher groups a means of promoting their accomplishments, it also builds community.

What Is a Weblog? ^

The term "weblog" was coined in December of 1997, but key elements of the genre go back to the infancy of the Web. A weblog is an easy form of web publishing for anyone with access to the web.

Formally speaking, a blog consists of short chunks of text -- from a few lines to a few pages long -- sorted in reverse-chronological order, with the newest material at the top. Bloggers might post a few short items each day, once or two longer posts each week, or only a few lines every once in a while -- whenever they feel inspired.

In terms of content, a blog can be anything. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette does a good job describing how form and content work together:

Web loggers, or bloggers for short, are that new breed of armchair documentarian, chronicling the day's events -- politics, sports, music, arts, family, dating life, anything -- on Web sites that are updated daily, or several times a week. But unlike a newspaper Web site, which brings a new front page with new stories each day, yesterday's blog musings generally aren't wiped out by the next day's postings. Scroll down, and see what was on the blogger's mind yesterday, last week and last month. ("Pittsburgh Goes Blog Wild")

It's no surprise that a journalist sees a blog as a kind of chronicle; but some are elaborate works of fiction or even hoaxes, some are variations of newsletters, souped-up bulletin boards, or bully pulpits; others are event-specific and ad-hoc. Some are many of these things at once, or nothing at all. (See Subgenres of Weblogs, below.)

You don't need to be a programmer or a designer in order to be a blogger. You log in, click a button, type something in a box, push another button, and you've posted to a weblog. Those who wish to personalize their blogs can change the style in creative ways.

Weblog Terminology ^

The basic unit of a weblog is the post -- a single, discrete entry, roughly analogous to a paragraph in traditional prose. Individual posts typically invite readers to post comments, which are then archived along with the rest of the site's content. The post often includes a link to an off-site document, such as a recent news article. A typical blog entry might post a few lines commenting on a current event, along with hyperlink to a news story about that event. The content of the home page will change, as fresher material appears at the top of the page and older material falls off the bottom into archives; so most blog entries feature a permalink (a URL that will not change as new material arrives).

Jill Walker's definition of "weblog" is the most comprehensive I've seen. I'll quote part of it here:

A weblog, or blog, is a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first... Typically, weblogs are published by individuals and their style is personal and informal. Weblogs first appeared in the mid-1990s, becoming popular as simple and free publishing tools became available towards the turn of the century. Since anybody with a net connection can publish their own weblog, there is great variety in the quality, content, and ambition of weblogs, and a weblog may have anywhere from a handful to tens of thousands of daily readers.

Walker also observes that blogs are "serial and cumulative... readers tend to read small amounts at a time, returning hours, days, or weeks later to read entries written since their last visit."

Subgenres of Weblogs ^

Posting to a Blog ^

Millions of bloggers use free services such as Blogger "Push-button Publishing for the People" or LiveJournal (aka "teen angst dot com") . I wanted a little more control over the blogging experience I created here at SHU, so for my academic blogging, I use MoveableType (which the company has agreed to offer free for SHU community members).

This is the "New Entry" interface for one popular weblog. (Others are even simpler.)

To add a link, select text, click the URL button, and the HTML code will appear (see example 1, example 2).

Here's what the above test entry looked like after I posted it to "New Media Journalism @ Seton Hill University". Notice how the weblog software handles the formatting, the date, and links to separate pages where readers can add comments.

You don't need to know HTML in order to start blogging, but you'll probably be motivated to learn at least a little before long. If you already know HTML, you can start using it right away.

A weblog can do anything a web page can do, so if you want to include multimedia files, go right ahead. In fact, there's a growing online network of audiobloggers and videobloggers.

What does one do with a weblog? ^

Since people who blog for fun only blog when they want to, academic blogging (in which students are forced to blog for a grade, or the instructor blogs in order to have something to present at a conference) can be a little tricky. That's an area of scholarship I'm still investigating... But here are a few basic tips.


  • Julie Young "Getting the Most of Your Academic Weblog"
  • Dennis G. Jerz "Forced Blogging" and "Responding to the Forced Blogging Paradigm"
  • While I don't teach my students to evaluate the quality of their blogs based solely on the number of comments left by visitors, human nature being what it is, we all tend to feel our effort is being rewarded if we know people "out there" are reading (and writing back).
  • A handful of student blogs are responsible for the vast majority of the activity on the Seton Hill blog site; the vast majority of student blogs show very little activity.
  • Midway through the second semester of blogging at SHU, the main community site (with some 80 members) shows by far the most activity, with about 350 posts and 700 comments; but the next few blogs, kept by individual students, are not far behind.
    Site Entries Comments
    New Media Journalism
    Girl Meets World
    Work in Progress
  • While the most active website attract between two and four times as many comments per post, across the whole site, there were actually on average more entries than posts -- thus, a large number of less-popular sites are not attracting the attention of the community. At the end of the year, I plan to crunch the data to look for patterns. (See bar chart: Comments and Entries, sorted by Comments.)


Professional Development

Pedablogue: A personal inquiry into the scholarship of teaching by Michael Arnzen
In naming his blog, my colleague coined this tongue-in-cheek term, and quickly attracted a following; now there are over 5000 Google hits for "pedablogue".

In a reflection on his chronicle, Arnzen writes, "I've always known that the web harbors a great number of resources for K-12 teachers, but in the past I've always steered away from those exits on the info superhighway, assuming that such info wouldn't be useful for me as a college teacher. But now that I'm self-studying pedagogy, I'm seeing many more cross-overs than I realized and I now see that much more work on learning in general has been done in those areas than on college-aged learners. So I intend to keep studying work that's been done on children and trying to utilize it in my classrooms without dumbing down the content or treating the adult learners like babies. Instead, I hope to tap into that child within -- the one who has a sense of wonder about the world, and a yearning for learning." ("End of Year Reflection")

Musings on Teaching with Blogs ^

My students have blogged about a bout a textbook, and had the textbook author contact them, promising to consider their critiques in the forthcoming edition of the book. Based on my observations and student reports, when students have their own personal weblogs, and they know they will be able to keep them after the class is over, some students will put more effort into their online writing. While some students complained of not having enough time, or simply not liking the activity of typing into a keyboard, the vast majority were at least moderately interested in blogging -- that is, they blogged the required assignments, occasionally posted items of their own choosing, reported satisfaction when their peers commented on their work, and occasionally commented on their peers' work. A significant core of students went blog wild. Their energy spilled over into the classroom, and from time to time sparked the less-enthusiastic students.

(See also the abstract of "Forced Blogging: Students' Emotional Investment in their Academic Weblogs" and the handout, "Responding to the 'Forced Blogging' Paradigm")

How is a weblog different from a threaded discussion board or a listserv? ^

The discussion boards that are part of course management systems are behind a password blockade; they aren't designed to be indexed by web search engines, and they also don't give students the chance to create an online identity (adding images and design elements to their blogs).

Because a core group of blog-happy students produces a steady stream of creative and timely material about Seton Hill life, students who aren't interested in doing "homework" may log in just to see what their friends are up to. My advanced students have begun trying to disguise their homework assignments, taking it as a challenge to make their "forced blogging" assignments just as much fun to read as their voluntary assignments. They work hard to make the material engaging, which helps the whole class learn. It also sets a high standard for the other students, who are not in the class, but who at least glance at the course-related entries.

How is a weblog different from a regular website? ^

It takes only a few minutes and no particular technical skills to start publishing on a weblog -- in part because weblogs come with default templates that are slick and easily upgradeable; students can start in on the course material right away.

I spend only the tiniest amount of time showing students how to personalize their weblogs; the documentation that comes with the software is excellent, and students who have figured it out on their own are usually more than wiling to show off for their peers.

How do I get a weblog at Seton Hill University? ^

If you are a SHU student, or faculty/staff, visit and follow the directions. It's pretty simple, really -- but I do have to do a few things by hand in order to set up a new blog. I usually try to wait until I have a handful of requests and do them all at once, but if you're eager to get going, just let me know.

If you have feedback on this resource, please feel free to visit my weblog and add a comment to the blog entry devoted to this page. Thank you!

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