What Exactly is a Blog, Anyway?
In the coming weeks and months here at learning.now, you’re going to hear a lot about the exciting educational work that’s being done with technologies like podcasts, photo blogs and video blogs, just to name a few. But before we jump too far ahead, I thought it might be useful to talk about where all of this got started: blogs.
If you don’t know what a blog is, you’re not alone; according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly two-thirds of Internet users don’t have a good idea of the meaning of “blog.” In case you fall within this group, you’re in luck, though - you’re looking at a blog right now.
But this is just a website, right? Yeah, I get that a lot. On several occasions while doing workshops with both educators and non-educators, people have asked me if blogs are just websites. Yes, it’s true, blogs are a type of website, but there’s more to it than that. Perhaps I should offer a bit of Internet history to explain.
Back when the World Wide Web was young, more than a decade ago, creating websites wasn’t easy. There weren’t any tools that allowed you to design a site. Instead, you had to program a website just like you were writing a piece of software. Every website is made up of a coding language called HTML, which stands for HyperText Markup Language. Normally you don’t have to see this code when viewing a website, but if you check your Web browser’s menu you’ll probably find an item called something like “view page source,” which will let you see what this code looks like. HTML defines how every Web page looks and how it interacts with other pages. Without HTML, the World Wide Web wouldn’t function.
Unfortunately, knowing HTML isn’t for everyone. It’s not the most difficult coding language in the world, but there’s still a learning curve that’s a turn-off for lots of people. Because of this, websites designed in the mid-1990s tended to be created by people who were very tech-savvy. Even if you just wanted to have a simple website about yourself or your family, you first had to learn a lot about how the Web worked.
Nonetheless, this didn’t deter a number of people who saw the Web as a potential medium for sharing stories about themselves. They started to publish online diaries, using HTML to code websites about their daily lives. It was like keeping a personal journal, but sharing it with the world. Back in 1996, for example, I started publishing travel diaries, writing first-person stories about my personal vacation adventures. Web diaries were sometimes referred to as “Web logs,” not unlike the way a ship captain would keep a log of all events that took place at sea.
In the late 1990s, programmers began exploring ways of making these Web logs easier to publish. Soon, tools like Open Diary and LiveJournal popped up. These tools allowed you to publish a Web log simply by filling out a form. The software would have a blank field for the title and body of each journal entry. Rather than having to code each page by hand, a user would write anything they want, then press a button. The software would do the rest.
After a few more years, these journals started to spread like wildfire. Thousands and thousands of Internet users began publishing on their Web logs, or “blogs” for short. The software also became more sophisticated, allowing people to publish complex websites. What used to take a lot of money and manpower could be done by one person. All of us could become publishers.
Fast forward to 2006…. While no one’s exactly sure how many blogs there are, estimates often range from 30 to 100 million of them, all over the world. Check out a website like Global Voices and you can get a taste for the global reach of blogging, or the blogosphere, as it’s often known.
Even you can start a blog. Right now.
There are many blogging tools available online, including free ones. For example, take a look at Blogger.com, one of the most popular blogging platforms. Blogger is a website that lets you set up a free account and create your own blogs - as many as you want. The site has basic step-by-step instructions, taking you through the process of setting up your account, naming your blog and choosing a design template. Then it’s just a matter of filling out a form and pressing a button. The online software does all the hard work, while you get to focus on the fun part - being creative and saying whatever it is you have to say.
Of course, there’s a bigger question - why would you, as a teacher, want to create your own blog? The answer to that is going to vary from person to person, but here are a few common answers I hear from educators who’ve taken the blogging plunge.
Communicate with parents. Some teachers see blogging as an outreach tool for interacting with parents. It’s not always possible to have the kind of hands-on interaction with parents, especially with large class sizes and busy schedules. A blog allows a teacher to summarize what’s going on in the classroom and share it with parents that have Internet access. (But it’s worth noting that not all parents will have access - something we’ll talk about more another day.) And most blogging tools allow readers to comment on what’s been posted, so parents are able to respond to different blog entries and have an online conversation with the teacher.
Communicate with your peers. Lots of educators blog so they can have a professional dialogue with their colleagues. Everyone can benefit from discussing the various challenges we all face in our work, and blogs serve as a mechanism for sharing those ideas. Some educational bloggers like Will Richardson and David Warlick have developed quite a following because of their eloquence and creativity. In many ways, blogs like these serve the same purpose that email discussion lists have served for more than a decade - they become a platform for discussing topics of interest to a large group of people. Blogging is different, though, in that it’s more personal and intimate, tailored to your professional interests and needs.
Showcase student work There’s nothing like seeing a teacher beam with pride because of the success of their students. Blogs can be used as a platform for highlighting the best work of your students, showcasing their talent to an audience that goes beyond the classroom.
And who’s to say that teachers are the only ones who should blog? More and more educators are exploring blogging as a student activity in itself. Blogging takes writing assignments into the real world, giving students the chance to receive feedback from each other, as well as other online mentors. While some teachers prefer that blogs only feature their students’ polished work, others see blogging as a platform where students can share early drafts of a writing assignment, using online feedback to improve each version. Blogging becomes an interactive form of peer review.
Student blogging does raise certain concerns, though. How much information do you reveal about a student? Do you accept comments from the general public, or only a select group of trusted individuals? Are students staying on topic, or are they getting too personal or inappropriate in some other way? There’s no one answer to these questions, and classroom blogging is still a relatively knew phenomenon. But that’s why educational blogs are important - they can serve as a place where teachers can debate these topics among their peers and work out answers that are appropriate for their classrooms and communities.
Have you or your students started blogging? What are you doing with them? Have your students and colleagues responded positively? And whether you blog or don’t, what other blogs have been useful to you professionally? -andy
Filed under : Blogging