One of the features of Sakai that our team was looking for in a new LMS is a blogging tool. I admit some significant improvements in usability are possible in this tool. However, it does give us the option of blogging within the system. Previously, we’ve used tools like Wikispaces and Edublogs, but we’ve had a number of requests for internal tools that don’t require a separate login and location. We’re still using those tools for some courses, depending on the content and activities, but we’re starting to integrate this internal blog into our activities.
During the pilot of our new facilitator training course, I lurked in the forums during a heated debate about the use of the blog tool. The participants were definitely struggling with the tool, partly due to usability, partly due to a lack of understanding of the purpose of the tool. So how do you use a blog effectively when it’s housed within a walled garden?
One of our great facilitators suggested that it might be better to emphasize the conversations more, as we do in another class that uses Edublogs. In that course, one of the most successful activities is student-led blog discussions, where each week two or three students start a conversation on a topic they care about by posting on their blogs.
My struggle with the internal blog tool is that I don’t think you can get that depth of conversation within the walled garden of the LMS. Sakai’s blog tool doesn’t allow students to link to each others’ posts (or if it does, it’s not an intuitive process, as I haven’t found it yet). Without linking, the blog writing is flatter; it doesn’t have that dimension of linking to other posts. Now, they can link to external blogs, so there is some opportunity to create the 3-D writing that is more typical of blogging. But external bloggers can’t see the posts, of course, and you can’t create the same kind of network of links even among students.
The other struggle for both students and especially facilitators is with keeping track of everything. The blog tool doesn’t create an RSS feed (which actually makes sense for a private blog like this). The main page for the blog actually is sort of like an RSS feed though, with abstracts from the entire class’ posts visible. This makes the default view more like an aggregator than a typical blog. You do have the option of filtering for individual people though, which is more what I would expect a blog to look like.
One of the usability issues is the lack of notification of unread posts or comments. When facilitators grade comments on posts, they have to open up each post individually to see whether a comment has been made. Tracking is going to be a hassle for them, although I think tracking would be a hassle on external blogs too. If you facilitate using blogs, how do you keep track? Do you have a spreadsheet where you mark whether someone has made a comment or not, or document where they made the comment? I’d like to create a checklist or something for the facilitators to help them, but I’m curious what others are doing.
Making the Most of Walled Garden Blogs
This is all a great example of how the tool shapes the kind of learning and writing that takes place. External blogs have a lot more flexibility and power for different kinds of writing: journals, conversations, videos, etc. With a blog in a walled garden, I don’t think you’re ever going to get the same kind of discussion and connections as you would with a blog exposed to the outside world.
However, a walled garden blog can be a space for reflective learning, a journal of observations and personal growth. In many respects, this would be the same as if students kept a running journal in a Word document. A blog gives a chance to share the learning at least with others in a class though, and to get some peer feedback and encouragement. Even sharing with a limited audience changes how you write and reflect, maybe not to the same degree as sharing in a public online space, but somewhat. It changes your motivation when you know you’re not just writing for the facilitator but for your peers as well. I’ve read how some online instructors have seen positive pressure to perform when some students write really well. If a few students set the bar for quality high, then others will often rise to meet that level. A completely private journal doesn’t provide that extra motivation.
So do I see value in having the blog tool in Sakai, even if it doesn’t provide the depth of conversation a public blog would? Yes, I do, as a space for more focused personal reflective learning. That’s how I’m trying to use it. I’m saving the deeper conversations for the forums where, frankly, they really belong. Will I still feel the same way after we’ve seen how the walled garden blog works for more courses than the pilot? Ask me again in six months or a year; I may have some different observations then. These are my impressions after one course, so it’s likely I’ll know more with more experience.
Have you used a blog within a walled garden of an LMS? If so, what types of activities work well? What hasn’t worked for you? How do you keep track of it all as an instructor?