Blogging in a Walled Garden

Kylemore Abbey Garden
Kylemore Abbey Garden

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?

Blog Conversations

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.

Usability

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?

Image: ‘Kylemore Abbey garden
http://www.flickr.com/photos/27466406@N00/2632082748

13 thoughts on “Blogging in a Walled Garden

  1. I live in a Sakai world and completely agree with you on usability (on both the blog tool and the wiki tool for that matter). Given the walled garden aspect I’m not sure why they are bothering with a blog tool except for the fact that blogging still has some buzz to it in academic circles. I prefer to just set up a forum for reflective writing with a topic for each student. It allows for continuing conversation with threads and both students and instructors can see when there are new posts/comments.

  2. I hope that eventually the walled garden tools (both blog and wiki) will be stepping stones to help people adjust to the external tools. It’s too early for me to tell that though, and I’m not sure what we’ll need to do to support people through that transition. I’m looking forward to seeing it though.

    The wiki tool is good for basic collaborative activities, and I’ve used it successfully for several of those. Obviously, the wiki markup is a drawback. But the ability to have small groups work on text in one place all together without having a small group forum where they pass Word attachments back and forth ad nauseum outweighs the difficulties of using markup. I know that our vendor (rSmart) is looking at using a different wiki in the future, probably one that will allow WYSIWYG editing more reliably. Once that’s in place, it should make a significant difference.

  3. We were using the blog tool in a couple of Sakai (plain vanilla Sakai 2.5) worksites, but the isntructor abandoned it since students we treating it like a discussion board. We are looking at deploying WordPressMU to handle blog functionality in the future…to serve as an instructor publishing paltform for lecture materials, and nudge our school more into blogging services. Our teachers love the Wiki tool though. This markup is easier to teach than MediaWiki’s, but we ultimately wish that we had our own “WetPaint” or “pbWiki.”

  4. In one of our facilitator training sessions, someone noted that the current Sakai wiki is more like what PBwiki’s version 1 was. I can see that it would be easier to teach than MediaWiki.

    I love the idea of using the WordPressMU within Sakai though; that would be a huge improvement over the current tool. You still would lack the connections with the outside world, but it would be a lot more functional. Thanks for sharing!

  5. It seems that the ideas of the traditional “students work on their own” and the newer “collaborative/Mashup” collide when it comes to blogging inside the garden. The blog that is not connected is a reflective journal – a useful thing to be sure, but it is not different than any other writing assignment that the student has ever had to do – one person audience for marks assigned by an “expert”.

    If blogs were allowed to be connected, a post that a teacher thinks is bunk might light fires off in others and be talked about all over the ‘net. The problem for the teacher then is – how do you mark something wrong when it is doing something right? What happens when they are no longer the expert? What happens when the teacher thinks that the post is amazing, but it gets panned in public?

    I think the walls are going to stay around these tools until instructors of all levels can deal with these power issues. And in the mean time, as the first commenter said – it is a great buzzword to have in your LMS.

  6. I disagree that blogging in a walled garden is identical to other writing assignments. If they submit a document just to the instructor, then yes, it’s an audience of one. But when they post to the blog, all their classmates can read and respond. Yes, it’s a journal, and it’s more similar to that than everything else. But it’s a journal with an audience of the class rather than the audience of one.

    I guess ultimately I disagree with you because I think an audience of 10-15 isn’t the same as an audience of 1. I do agree that 10-15 in a closed environment isn’t the same as a fully public post. I just don’t think that learning only exists at the two extremes and that a middle ground is identical to either end of the spectrum.

  7. Walled gardens allow tender plants to go strong before they are placed in the less protected open fields. I’ve been using blogger as a teacher and have recently started using kidblogs…with great success. Guest accounts can be given to other members of staff and parents to widen the audience and the option to open to all is there.

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