Blogging in SL/FL Classrooms: New(?) Directions?


In recent years, a growing number of educators have begun utilizing “blogs” in Second Language (SL) and Foreign Language (FL) learning environments, to promising results (e.g. Campbell, 2003; Johnson, 2004; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003; Richardson, 2004; Thorne, Webber, & Bensinger 2005). In language learning contexts, blogs can serve a variety of tasks, including allowing students to narrativize the language learning process, facilitating discussions of culture (see Thorne & Payne, 2005), and providing students a multi-media platform with which to practice and hone their language skills. As a newly emergent field of research, there are not many systematic studies exploring the implications of SL/FL blogging across different institutional/language settings (e.g., Camilleri, Ford, Leja, and Sollars, 2008). Having been involved in SL/FL contexts as a learner and instructor for many years, and as a regular contributor and co-administrator of the BLC’s official language blog, Found in Translation, this is an area of research that I found particularly fascinating. My BLC project, thus, was designed with the intention of contributing to this developing body of research.

The larger question framing the project was why and how SL/FL teachers use blogs to supplement the conventional language learning curriculum, and the obstacles that arise in their implementation in classrooms. Because it is a new medium/genre, and perceived as somehow “different” from traditional writing practices, instructors typically have many questions, concerns, and reservations about introducing blogs in the classroom. This project will set out to survey how blogs are currently being employed in some SL/FL classrooms, explore the issues arising in implementation, track the implementation of blogging in a classroom on campus, and ultimately develop a resource guide for instructors who wish to incorporate blogging practices into the core curriculum.

The rationale for the project involved exploring how and why SL/FL teachers used blogs to supplement conventional language learning curriculum, and examining the issues that arose in their implementation, in order to enhance our understanding of this emergent field. The project was conducted along three axes:

A. Surveying of the literature in SL/FL contexts,
B. Tracking the implementation of blogging in a classroom at UC Berkeley, &
C. Developing a resource guide for instructors who wish to incorporate blogging into their curriculum.

A. Blogging: An Overview:

Murray and Hourigan (2008) point out that because of the intrinsic generic design of blogs, “it is difficult to pinpoint a stable and succinct definition of a blog” (p. 83). Nevertheless, there are certain features that tend to be typical of blogs. A blog is often defined as a low-threshold self-publishing tool (Efimova & Hendrick, 2004) “logging” archived blog entries, also called “posts” (which could be purely text-based, or include multimedia content), arranged in reverse chronological order, normally containing date and/or time stamps, hyperlinks, and allowing reader response in the form of comments (Nardi, Schiano, & Gumbrecht, 2004; Ewins, 2005; Effimova & Hendrick, 2004). Blogs tend to be continuously updated, providing a clear impression of the blogger’s “personality, passions, and point of view” (Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, & Swartz, 2004, p. 42). Blogs offer new affordances as a kind of writing technology because of their hypertextuality, facilities for commenting, multimedia incorporation, potential for RSS feeding, and “lifting” of others’ texts.

Blogging started receiving attention in SL/FL learning contexts a couple of years after the turn of the century. In 2003, Campbell provided a helpful categorization of blogs in their use in language classrooms: 1) the tutor blog, run by the teacher (click here for an example), 2) the learner blog, run by the language learner (click here), and 3) the class blog, maintained collaboratively by participants in the classroom (click here). Blogs have been used for varied purposes in classrooms for journaling, distribution of syllabi, digital portfolios, collaborative group-work, and online newspapers, to name a few (Armstrong & Retterer, 2008).

The scholarship in the area has examined issues such as the purposes blogs serve in classrooms; the implications of reading/writing practice blogs afford; the issue of “audiences” and how it plays out in the writing; the kinds of communities that grow around blogs; and issues of presentation and expression of the self. Ducate and Lomicka (2008), for example, claim that blogs are helpful in that they offer “authentic” texts when used for reading assignments. Blogs are also said to offer an interactive and collaborative method of developing written skills (Lohnes 2003; Toto 2004); encourage freedom of expression (Ducate & Lomicke 2008; Quintero 2008; Bartlett-Bragg 2003); offer a great platform for self-reflection on the language learning process (Bartlett-Bragg, 2003; Dippold 2009); and also teach how to write for audiences (Alm 2009; Godwin-Jones 2003; Quintero 2008). The question of “audience” is one that scholars tackle frequently in the literature. This is because bloggers are claimed to be “hyper-aware” of their audience, thus attending more carefully to the form and content of their posts (Pennington 2005; Godwin-Jones 2003). The notion of audience in language classrooms is complicated by the fact that it extends beyond the immediate community, and in most cases is vulnerable to “an infinite and unknowable audience” (Ward 2004). Richardson (2006), however, differs from scholars in asserting that “students who are asked to blog are blogging for an audience of one, the teacher” (p. 24). Another aspect scholars focus on is blogs’ potential for developing community within and without the immediate classroom context. According to Deitering and Huston (2004), for example, blogs offer “a dynamic context for dialogue and feedback” (p. 273); and Herring et al. (2004) point to blogs’ ability to offer enhanced social interaction (p. 11). The “self” is an important site of tension in academic discussions around blogging. Some scholars claim that students feel more “relaxed,” and a powerful sense of “ownership” when they participate in blogging (Ducate & Lomicke 2008; Alm 2009); students feel free to “portray and show their own selves” (Quintero 2008); and can work on developing their “own digital identity” (Lee 2009). It is evident that as an emerging field of research, we are far from knowing all about how blogs play out in language classrooms: but what is clear is that it is gaining traction and popularity as a new medium that is worthwhile to explore.

B. Project Context:

For this project, I tracked the implementation of blogging in a Russian language classroom. The student participants were nine undergraduate students enrolled in Intermediate Russian that took place 5 days a week for 50 minutes each. The class itself provided a multimedia-rich learning environment: students worked on Russian film clips; contributed to the film clips wiki, used bSpace, and the class blog. They were assigned 3 blog posts over the semester, (including 2 reflection journals and a reflection on the process of subtitling film clips), and a commenting requirement was built into the assignment as the project progressed.

Methodology: Data were collected using multiple videotaped and audio taped interviews with the instructor (N.L. ); (2) videotaped interviews with students; electronic exchanges with N.L. and students; (18) blog posts (in Russian/English); a (.pdf of a) blog entry corrected by N.L.; and a translated blog entry. Additional data were collected from an intermediate French class (with 18 students) from UC Berkeley, in the form of a videotaped interview with the instructor (C.I. ); electronic exchanges with the instructor; and 3 student blog posts (in French/English) published in Found in Translation.

Data and Analysis: In this section, I explore some of the data obtained during the project along two lines: (1) Content and form, and (2) Community building through comments. Concerns of self/identity, collaboration and audience are frameworks that undergird my analysis.

I.  Content and Form:

Content: below is a screenshot of one of the blogposts up on the Slavic 3 blog.

Blogging in SL/FL Classrooms: New(?) Directions?

Blogging in SL/FL Classrooms: New(?) Directions?

Figure 1: Screenshot of a blog post from Slavic 3


Here is the translation (provided generously by N.L.):

Reaction Journal! I am finally writing on the public blog, yes?
First of all, I wish everyone all the best during Spring Break. I hope that you’ll forgive me for writing the Reaction Journal on Saturday. I read the others’ reactions, and I agree with Nina. I like the clips a lot, but I think that I’d prefer to watch the entire film. I understand that we only have one hour a day together, but perhaps we can meet on the weekend. I have a Blockbuster card and a Netflix account, and although my apartment is very small, I invite you all to watch a Russian film. Usually, I’m free on Saturday evenings. I rent an apartment to the south of the university, not
far from Telegraph…

And now isn’t it time for me to write my reaction. During the time when we continue our study of Russian, I am constantly struck by Russian. I’m sure that you know that I have this habit of being enthralled by new words, and recently I’ve been saying all the more often, “I like this word.” For example, the verb ‘to hate.’

We learned a little in this chapter about not declining a whole clause, but rather declining то and separating the following clause. I want to learn more about this construction, because I feel we can do so much more with this construction. I think we are getting to the point where we can expand our sentences, and this makes me excited for the future. Last thought: I do not think that I will very much enjoy this coming chapter as technology has never and will never be my forte! But I suppose this makes it all the more necessary for me to be able to ask for help in Russian!

The title itself is telling, and acknowledges the “hyperpublic nature” of the audience (See 2009). “Reaction Journal! I am finally writing on the public blog, yes?”: it is rhetorical, but not so rhetorical. It is the “public blog,” indicating a wider conceptualization of audience than the term “class blog” would have evoked.  In wishing “everyone” a good break (in the main body), the audience becomes more streamlined, localized, a subset of the “public” indexed in the title. The referencing of other (specifically named) students in the post creates a circulation of intertextuality, which positions the student as a member of a specific community. This community is also directly referenced in the comment “We only spend one hour a day” together-acknowledging the language learning community that the blog grows out of. Deitering and Huston (2004) note that blogs can act as a “virtual extension of the traditional classroom,” and the manner in which the actual classroom surfaces in this post, one sees how that may be true. The possibility of meeting on weekends is a more casual kind of talk that does not happen traditionally in written assignments: this makes visible the “comfort” and “relaxedness” and informality that blogs are said to have the potential to inject into the classroom (Ducate & Lomicka 2008; Alm 2009; Armstrong & Retterer, O. 2008). This kind of casual talk was something N.L., the instructor, had hoped to encourage: the blog was supposed to “give students a chance for free expression” and allow the students to communicate informally in ways not otherwise possible. Another way in which the blog was meant to serve the classroom, according to N.L., was as a means for reflection on the language learning process. The final paragraph of the student’s post points to just such reflection.

Form: One of the major concerns that arose in the implementation of blogging in Slavic 3 was the issue of language error correction. While we briefly considered correcting language errors via comments on the blogs, we were dissuaded by the very public nature the correction would take, and were concerned about how face-threatening that would end up to be. N.L. then decided to print out individual blog entries, correct them on paper, and return them to the students with comments. Here is a sample corrected post:

Blogging in SL/FL Classrooms: New(?) Directions?

Figure 2: Blog post corrected by instructor

During an interview (conducted on 4/15/2010), N.L. spoke at length about the dilemma of correcting: “I don’t want writing that’s filled with spelling errors, grammatical errors to then become a model for other students. The correcting process electronically doesn’t work at all…it is a cumbersome process and somewhat diminishes what blogging is about. If blogging has to go through my filter, it hampers the community building [that blogging is supposed to help develop].”  Other studies have found that students also fall shy of correcting their classmates’ language, because they do not wish to embarrass them in an “open space” (see, e.g., Lee 2009). A different aspect of blogging is that the sense of wider readership (beyond the instructor) puts a “subtle pressure” on students to put up more carefully polished work (Quintero 2008). N.L. also found this to be the case: he noted that “placing something in a public space was a motivating factor for students for sure-they want to write better when they know it’s not just for the instructor.”

The French instructor, similarly, felt apprehensive about the language errors that would be laid bare in an “open” platform: he confessed to feeling worried that his students were “going to represent themselves badly” (interview, 4/27/2010). He did, however, feel some peace because students could choose to write in English or French, and therefore “students themselves were taking the risk to put mistakes out there, to write in French.” He also went on to state that the purpose of the blogging assignment itself was not focused on looking for grammatical mistakes, but to lay naked the process of “I am learning a language, and here’s what I’m able to do at this point.” Quintero’s (2008) study worked along the same lines, with the result that “being successfully understood by the members of the community gave students a sense of improvement and at the same time self confidence as learners of the…language.”

II. Community building through comments: According to Ferdig & Trammell (2004), the “comment and respond is a built-in feature of the blog interface…allowing students to take advantage of the ‘discursive, relational, and conversational’ nature of knowledge construction” (p. 16). While a commenting requirement was built into the Slavic 3 blogging assignment, it did not take off in the way N.L. and I had hoped for. Students were asked to comment on each others’ posts, but, as the screenshot of the post and comment count shows below, most students did not engage with others’ posts via comments. (This is not to say that the students did not engage with each other through their blog posts).

Blogging in SL/FL Classrooms: New(?) Directions?

Figure 3: Screenshot showing comment and post count

As Ducate and Lomicka (2008) have noted, the comment features of blogging offers great potential for collaborative activity. However, the commenting aspect did not really get off ground, as I noted earlier. N.L. commented toward the end of the project (4/15/2010), “I’d have liked to see more students commenting.” Initially we had hoped students would comment on each other’s posts organically, without coercion or incentive. However, after a couple of weeks, we realized we had to change tactics, and made comments mandatory. N.L. found this problematic, since it “seems to be antithetical to what blog writing is about.” Ultimately, there were only a total of 14 comments to the 19 posts, and some posts had multiple comments, most had none.

C.I., the French instructor, had mixed feelings about the blogging project he assigned his students: “Having outside readers is fine. Having outside readers who are commenting-then becomes interfering-you have the potential for all kinds of problems” (interview, 4/27/2010). His take was that students would produce more polished products, because as Sew (2009) noted previously, the posts would be “susceptible to comments from any interested reader worldwide.” Clearly the comment feature is potentially a powerful tool in language-learning experiences mediated through blogs. However, this is a feature also fraught with problems that individual instructors must assess before and during implementation.

Benefits of blogging: Why blog? Some of the benefits of blogging enumerated by Murray and Hourigan (2008) include: Blogs may be set up easily, entail no cost, and afford writing capabilities in multiple languages (ibid.). The content may be published instantly, and it allows for enhanced collaboration and interaction (ibid.). Blogs also make possible the development of “generic transferable skills” (ibid.). Scholarship in the field, mentioned earlier, also note its potential for creating a space for self-reflection (Bartlett-Bragg 2003; Dippold 2009). Blogs also give students a sense of ownership of their writing (Goodwin-Jones 2003; Ferdig & Trammel 2004; Lee 2009). Blogs can also offer a richly layered multimedia context for language learning, to the benefit of students (Campbell, 2003, 2004; Dieu, 2004; Grewling, 2004).

Challenges to blogging: One of the principal challenges for instructors implementing blogging in language classrooms is the question of developing appropriate and fair rubrics in a context meant to encourage “creativity and subjectivity” (Connas-Quinn et al, 2009). Error correction, as explored in the previous “form and content” section, also poses a critical problem. Instructors must also be mindful of spam parading as comments, and also “uncontrolled” comments from wider audiences beyond the classroom. Technical issues also arise in every implementation of blogging. One of the students in Slavic 3 began a post with:  “I hope this is where I am supposed to post, and that I am FINALLY getting the hang of technology.” Jones & Nuhfer-Halten (2006) quoted a student whose posts disappeared from the blog due to technical reasons: “My entries went into outer space.” Where there is technology, there are technical problems. These problems may be managed, if not fully minimized: what they suggest is that instructors must be mindful of the pitfalls and familiar with the platform, work to train students before implementation, and work with administrative controls to allow for the best blend of a public/private experience.

C. Resource Guide: The final aspect of the project was the development of a resource guide for instructors (see screenshot below):

Blogging in SL/FL Classrooms: New(?) Directions?Figure 4: Screenshot of Resource Page on F.I.T.

The resource page, housed at the Found in Translation website, contains a (downloadable) reference list of recent articles on blogging in FL/SL context (containing references, subjects overview, and the target language), a list of popular (free) blogging services, embedded video guides on how to get started blogging, additional resources for instructors new to blogging, as well as a chat room for collaborating with other instructors. It is hoped that this page will serve as a meeting point for SL/FL instructors to engage with the idea of implementing blogging in the classroom, as well as to find quick access to resources for getting started.

Conclusion: Blogs, as a new medium/genre, offers new possibilities for language instructors in SL/FL contexts. However, as I have tried to show above, it is not a pedagogical tool that may be implemented unproblematically in the classroom. In a forum in the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) website, I found a set of key questions (adapted below) that crystallize the key issues that instructors must keep in mind when deciding whether to implement blogs in their classrooms:

• How do you expect the technology to affect your traditional pedagogical methods, expectations, or results? Is the purpose merely to do the same things you are doing online?
• What degree of technological experience is necessary for instructors to be able to discover, evaluate, and effectively use the multiple affordances of blogs?
• How do you think blogging will encourage critical thinking about difference – such as the Digital Divide/class/race/gender/sexual orientation?
• Do you need to spend additional time teaching students to use these tools, and does that feel useful or is it an additional burden? Do you think teaching certain technological ‘literacies’ is an essential or ancillary aspect of your curriculum development?

These questions are critical to consider prior to implementation: as instructors, the first step must be to try and understand why we want to implement blogging, and what we—and our students—should expect to get out of it. New technologies are proliferating in language classrooms, but they are not always easily implemented. Further, as Rick Kern notes, when a new technology is used in the classroom, it does not function autonomously: it “interacts ecologically with everything else that’s going on in the class” (Personal Communication, 6/6/2010). In a recent paper, de Almeida Soares (2008) claimed that in the implementation of blogging, “the walls of the classroom tumble down and the world becomes a virtual room.” At the conclusion of the project, I must confess to being a little more reserved about the potential of the medium—for it is also a tool one must use with caution. However, it definitely holds tremendous promise as an exciting new pedagogical tool for enriching the language learning experience for learners across many languages. It is hoped that in the coming years more and more instructors will experiment with blogging in the classroom and contribute to a growing dialog in the field.

Acknowledgments: This project would not have been possible without the unstinting support and intellectual guidance provided by the BLC Fellows’ mentors Rick Kern, Mark Kaiser, and Sirpa Tuomainen. My deep gratitude also to N.L., the wonderful Russian learners, as well as to C.I. for their time and effort. Additional thanks to Dave Malinowski for his insight and support, and to the extended Cal language learning community for being such a huge inspiration.

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