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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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January032007

Educational Blogging: Avoiding the Usual Suspects Syndrome

There’s been a fascinating conversation unfolding online over the last few days about the role of blogging in building communities of educators. The discussion raises an important question: does the advent of all-star bloggers in education help, or hinder a broader conversation about the role of education technology?

The discussion began with a post to the WWWEDU list from Steve Hargadon, who’s been cranking out a series of amazing series of podcasts in which he’s been interviewing interesting people involved in education and technology. His latest podcast is with Will Richardson, and they touched on a wide range of issues. In response to the podcast, digital art teacher Harold Olejarz raised some questions about the professional development benefits of blogging in contrast to other communication platforms, such as email lists:

One issue I have always wanted to bring up about blogging and haven’t was kind of touched upon in your interview. That is the issue of community building. I am interested in a comparison of blogging and being a member of a listserv as ways for educators to build community and learn. Obviously you participate in both.

At NECC in San Diego I had a conversation with a blogger who felt that listservs were filled with “too many dumb people” asking inane questions. He liked blogging because he could sift out the that was a waste of his time. I like the openness of listservs and feel they are more “democratic” than blogging.

I like the focus of bloggers and the depth they get into but feel that a part of blogging is about becoming a “star” blogger.

This last sentence in particular provoked a series of responses, beginning with Professor John Thompson of Buffalo State College:

Are you saying that in this new Web 2.0 world of sharing, interacting and “we” that the way to grow a blog’s community is for the blogger to be a “star?” So the “we” is more “me” than some would like to admit? An example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing (i.e., it’s really about “me” but I’ll use the “we” approach as a guise to enhance me?)? BTW, since to be a “star” one needs others to acknowledge it, a blog needs a community of constant posters/ings. A way to build a blog’s community is for the blogger to be prolific in his/her writing.

Steve Hargadon then jumped back into the conversation with some useful insights:

I do think that the edublogger community worries about certain bloggers becoming “stars,” since the constant pointing to particular bloggers is likely to reduce the variety of ideas and then maybe just mimics the few voices of traditional media . Stephen Downes (http://www.downes.ca) has discussed this concern. I think John Seely Brown has also touched on it.

Certainly, for someone like me who does not have a “large” readership, most of the motivation for blogging is the ability to think and learn and network. Is it different than posting to a list? For me, yes, because my blog becomes a personal repository of my journey. In the same way that a young person likes to bring a friend over to see their room, the posters they have on their wall, and the music they listen to (ergo, the appeal of MySpace, I believe), my blog is a way for someone to come and see what I am thinking about and working on, in a way that used to be reserved only for those who were prominent enough to be published by traditional media.

So, while “stars” exist in the blogging world, their presence doesn’t stop me from making great contacts and having great discussions because of my blog.

The conversation has now spread to the blogosphere as well. Miguel Guhlin, for example, cites the “long tail” of edublogging - the idea that there’s a long line representing small numbers of individuals with very specific professional interests that may not be relevant to many of us, but the Internet makes it possible for those like-minded people to connect with each other.

While I once thought there were “stars” in the blogosphere—people who made a special effort to reveal what they were thinking about, working on—the more time I spend in the blogosphere, I realize that we each have our own voice, our own revelations…Some of those insights may appeal to the masses, some may be frowned upon by those who blog about topics that are more accepted (e.g. online learning) or phrased in positive ways, but I know my writing has value because it’s valuable to me. So, in that regard, I certainly agree with Steve’s point. The Long Tail explains the power of blogging to find people who my writing connects with, who are willing to subscribe via RSS or email. I know that I never set out to become a star, only someone who wanted to explore writing and blogging…and got more than I bargained for.

I hope you have and continue to get more out of it than you imagined.

Audrey Hill offers a more personal reflection:

I am not blogging to be a star; I’m blogging to understand and communicate. I think star bloggers are those who blog to advance their professional goals. They have a career intent, and they go forward with their goal in mind. They need not apologize for using blogging to support their goal. It’s one way to be a professional in the field. People definitely have a right to promote their good work and their expertise, although, of course, no one likes the “self promoter” who uses others for their own gain and does not give back. Those stars are just an annoying reminder that good things can happen to bad people. I prefer to read those who are farther along the road than I am or who have something really unique that they bring to the table, but I also care about the quality of person and whether or not I feel like I can participate with them or learn from them. I read those who have something I want to develop and who in one way or another present a generosity of spirit.

It may be, as some fear, that blogging is a pyramid structure, with only room for the few star bloggers who vested early, but I prefer to think that you get what you put into something. Those who act like there’s a limited amount to go around and who focus exclusively on getting theirs, are not my type of people. I do my little part by ignoring them. After all, in the blog world, there’s so many places to put your attention….

I’ve been finding myself fascinated by the discussion, partially because I agree with a lot of what’s been said and also because it’s forced me to think about whether I’m a part of the problem or a part of the solution. For example, if you read my blog regularly, you’ll probably see certain names popping up on regular occasions, like Will’s, Miguel’s, David Warlick and others. I’ll refer to their blog writings because they have a wonderful signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to insightful thinking, making them very quotable. And because the blogosphere has distributed conversations, in which people will post their replies to other posts on their own blogs, it’s not unusual to develop a sense that there’s a group of “usual suspects” talking among themselves. It’s certainly not intended to be exclusionary, but for those people who aren’t a part of the conversation, I can see how it’s sometimes interpreted that way.

This isn’t really a new phenomenon by any means: since the earliest days of email discussion lists, well before the Web or the blogosphere, discussion groups could usually be divided into the “leaders” who posted frequently and the “lurkers” who almost never posted. More recently, this phenomenon has been referred to by some as the One Percent Rule. Whether you’re referring to a list, a blog, a discussion forum or even a site like YouTube, you often find a similar pattern: about one percent of the audience posts frequently, 10% posts occasionally and the rest of them lurk. So it’s hardly a new trend that’s emerged because of blogging. Of course, not everyone has the time to participate actively, but the smaller group of people participating in a conversation, the more likely you’ll only find limited diversity in their viewpoints. To paraphrase the sign-off line of edtech pioneer Stephen Collins, we all need to give back to the Net, and we do that by participating in it. Otherwise we suffer from the usual suspects syndrome, with a limited group of repeat offenders contributing to the conversation. This holds true for discussion lists just as much as it does for blogs.

What’s different, though, is blogging is more visible to the public. The same people who used to wrote cogent thoughts in relative anonymity on email lists now find themselves making a public name for themselves because they’re continuing those same thoughts on blogs. Blogs are more accessible than email lists, better indexed by search engines, better at attracting a diverse audience and more likely to get you quoted by the mainstream media. All of these factors, when taken together, can lead to a situation in which some bloggers develop a certain notoriety. This can create the perception that they dominate the online conversation, and since popular bloggers will blog among themselves as I’ve noted, that perception is sometimes warranted.

In some ways, I’m reminded of a fascinating speech by Internet entrepreneur Mitch Kapor that I saw last summer. Mitch suggested that political blogging was failing the public when it came to true open discourse about policymaking, with bloggers talking among themselves and discussing things in a linear, tit-for-tat way, rather than collaborating in ways that affect positive policy outcomes. He argued that wikis might actually be a better tool for collaboration, since it allows participants to layer each other’s best ideas on top of each other and create a product - in this case, new policies - that better reflect the opinions of the public. Call it citizen policymaking, if you will.

The same thing might be said of educational blogging; at times, those of us who do it sometimes project that it’s an exclusive club, simply because some people get bigger audiences than others. We may not do it consciously, but we still do it, and it’s a shame, because most of us who blog about education would argue that blogging is a democratizing force, open to all newcomers, who can create an audience based on the merit of their ideas. I still believe this very strongly, but acknowledge I need to do a better job at reflecting those new voices when I blog. RSS tools can help, because they can let you manage larger amounts of content, but it’s easy to get lazy and rely on the same two or three blogs as sources, thus limiting the scope and breadth of your own professional development.

Blogging, it seems, is just like making a commitment to lifelong learning; if you don’t expose yourself to a constant flow of new ideas, your own ideas become stale. We need to do a better job at bringing more people into the conversation. I need to do a better job at it. -andy

Filed under : Blogging, People

Responses

Well, Andy, I think for starters you are being way too hard on yourself. I cannot think of a person who has lived up to Stephen Collins’ reminder to give back to the net more than you have. For a long time. Thank you.

Now on this stardom thing. Yes, I find it interesting as well. I see it a naturally occurring event - it makes sense that we would be talking about it right now. There are more edubloggers every day, hour, minute. It’s harder to get your voice heard, your ideas circulated. Not because your ideas are wimpy, it’s just that the pond has become an ocean, and there are a lot more fish out there.

My third graders are bloggers. Think they’re not counting how many blog postings each member of the class has made? Think they have not talked about how to get people to read their blog? And how to get their word out? And how to comment? and on, and on….

Right now they are joining in on the “5 things meme” (I tagged them all). It’s all about the conversation. We can all learn so much, from exchanging web 2.0 educational best practice stuff, to learning how to be a better writer at eight years old because somebody asked you to blog about yourself. The medium seems limitless in educational potential. It is all good stuff. We just need to keep the doors open.

Andy, great post as usual, except that you even mentioned me! How nice! Thank you!

Mark has a point. The pond is turning into an ocean. Some want to hold on to the “star blogger” concept because it is one way to make sense of the ubiquity of online learning opportunities. When everyone is a learner, everyone a teacher, how do you validate your sources? How do I know I’m not in an echo chamber? It’s back to the wisdom of crowds, and all that.

One problem with blogging is that to “add” new voices to one’s aggregator is a REAL pain in the rear. I have to go blog by blog by blog, scouring the lists of other bloggers to find folks I like, searching Technorati, etc.

More at http://www.mguhlin.net

With appreciation,
Miguel Guhlin
Around the Corner-MGuhlin.net
http://www.mguhlin.net

My observation is that it is not harder to get any attention as a blogger than it used to be (assuming that’s a goal). When I started four years ago or so, it seemed pretty standard that you’d have to write for a year before anyone outside your immediate circle of friends. If you look at a list of most linked ed-tech blogs, several of them are about a year old. They’ve not only found readers in a year, they’ve become the entrenched stars people are kvetching about.

If anything, it is easier to find readers and get attention than before.

I think the real problem is that the big names are running out of ideas and writing in circles.

Andy, this is really an insightful post. I wonder if its possible to have any kind of community that does not have followers and leaders. The blogging stars are the leaders and everybody else is a follower. Here’s how I think blogging is more democratic. The barriers to leadership are lower. If somebody chooses to write prolifically and they have insightful things to say they will be read. Before blogs, the best writers still had to be accepted by the few elite publishers in order to have their ideas publisehd. Now, the masses can choose who they want to read and individuals can choose to work hard and be read.

Andrew Pass
http://www.Pass-Ed.com/blogger.html

btw, Clay Shirky’s Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality is probably still the best analysis of this subject.

Since the conversation has spilled over from the listserv I thought I would post what I wrote on the listserv below.

Harold

I have enjoyed reading the posts in this thread and also the fact that
this thread has spilled over into several people’s blogs. Andy
Carvin’s thoughts were especially insightful.

What continues to be so great about the web is it’s seamlessness. I
can click on a link in someone’s response on the list and wind up on someone’s blog and then read the responses to the blog posting
without having to “go out and buy the next edition of the journal,
magazine or newspaper.”

Still in some respects I wish that all of the responses stayed on the
list. Yet I also realize that having the dialog spill onto blogs
spreads the conversation to more people and ultimately that is what
all of us who participate in lists or post on blogs are about,
communication.

Personally I was excited about Blogging and started a blog with the
intent of blogging about NECC in San Diego and continuing after that.
As was commented on in a previous email in this thread, my blogging ran out of gas. Other projects sucked up my time and in the end I guess my motivation was not strong enough to keep me going.

In some respects I see blogging as a way for those people who posted thoughtful and insightful things on lists to “own” their work. Posting your writings on a blog as opposed to on a listserv gives the author more credit. (Bloggers become “auteurs” when they post on their blogs as opposed to just another posting on a listserv.)

One thing I do find limiting about blogs is the diaristic linearity of
them. I have maintained my own website for many years and like the
complexity of connections that a website offers. I also like the fact
that websites can have different sections with different material.
(Andy Carvin linked to my blog on his blog but didn’t link to my
personal or school website. I feel that my personal website is more
representative of me.)

At lunch today I was sitting next to a teacher who has done some
things with technology. She is a terrific, hard working educator who
has an impact on kids. Our school website, which I set up and maintain came up. Then she talked about new technology and out of the blue said, ” I hope they aren’t going to make us start blogging.”

Unfortunately, K-12 teaching is so demanding time-wise that few
teachers have the time for blogs or listervs.

Harold

PS As someone who has had a personal and class website for years I can see a blog as being a part of a personal or class website. I enjoy being able to set up a site with many different pages and navigational schemes.

Harold Olejarz
Website - www.digitalharold.com

I have been “lurking” on many library and education blogs for quite a while now. Personally, I don’t care what we call those of you who write so prolifically with so many wonderful ideas. I learned about all of this when I attended a workshop led by Will Richardson at NECC. Ever since, I have been collecting exciting and informative blogs on my Bloglines aggregator and sharing terrific ideas with my colleagues. From my perspective, these blogs have given me a way to learn more from (and even interact occasionally with) mentors all over the world. In what other period in history could an educator from small town USA be able to (even afford to) listen at home in her spare time to the expressions and ideas of professionals/leaders in their fields from all over the world. My lurking is some of the best professional development that money can buy and I love it. What you are called really doesn’t matter? It is what you say that matters. If you don’t have anything to say, no one is going to listen. I believe I speak for the majority of the 90% when I say, thank you all for the passion and creativity that is reshaping my world.

I am very new (since NECC, also) to lurking in edtech blogs. I have seriously considered starting a blog myself, knowing I’d never become a “star.” I seriously wonder how one would even begin to get ONE reader! My situation and viewpoints are from a very different angle - the parochial school system. I am much more “conservative” (tradtitional?) than any of the “star” bloggers. I did step out of my comfort zone last week and left a comment on David Warlik’s blog and was surprised when several other readers echoed my comments. This makes me think there is need for a new and different voice in the edtech world. But to embark on such a venture is very intimidating. After creating the blog account, where does one begin?

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