Teachers use blogs instead of

By Tracy Culumber

Students enrolled in Professor Christian Sandvig’s speech communication course last spring never handed in a written assignment; Sandvig never asked them to do it. Class research, opinions and assignments were available for the world to see on the class weblog network.

Sandvig, associate professor of Speech Communications at the University and associate fellow in Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University, is among an increasing number of students and teachers who use online technology in the classroom. After eight years of experimenting with different types of computer software, Sandvig organizes all his course curricula through class Web pages and communal blogs.

“(Weblogs) are a topic in class as well as a way of turning things in,” Sandvig said. “Think of (a blog) as a lab book, which you write in as you go so you don’t forget the steps.”

A 2004 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey of several million American adults found that with an estimated 40,000 new weblogs, also known as blogs, created each day, the number of weblog users has increased by more than 8 million since March 2003. These online disruptive technologies, or groundbreaking innovations that have the potential to revolutionize an existing market, are rapidly being incorporated into society at educational and professional levels.

Robert Baird, Coordinator of Instructional Development for CITES EdTechs and assistant professor for cinema studies, said one of the most important functions of an academic blog is to reach the experts in a particular field.

“Blogs make things messy but interesting,” Baird said. “There are people who can write to a specialist and also the lay reader and regular people.”

Doug Mills, Baird’s lecture partner and CITES EdTech Consultant, recommended that faculty members at the University take advantage of the technologies because they offer a state-of-the-art method of course organization and collaboration.

“We are scratching the surface here on this campus,” Mills said. “This is something that will blossom and flourish because (online technologies) are not a one-size-fits-all tool.”

Baird said while students adapt to the changes quickly, most faculty members have been slow to catch on to the grassroots growth of online technology.

“Our campus is funny,” Baird said. “We helped invent the Internet, but that doesn’t mean it trickled into things we do all the time – like teach.”

After years of trial-and-error experiments with different online forums, Sandvig chose communal blogs as the best way to organize students’ work. He admitted, however, that a variety of problems, including privacy issues and informality of writing, could arise from the use of blogs. The problems depend on which programs are used to supplement it. Sandvig’s classes use a program called Movable Type, which documents when information is posted, who can comment on the blog and how many people viewed each entry, among other features.

Sandvig said because the blogs can be viewed by the public at http://pactlab.spcomm.uiuc.edu/classes/05SP/199/, privacy is a big issue in the class, and considerable measures have been taken to ensure student confidentiality and safety.

“In my Speech Communication 199 class we talk about privacy and anonymity with respect to online communities,” Sandvig said. “I ask them to make the blogs anonymous so that they can experience anonymity. Of course, I can always tell who the author is.”

Sandvig said students could write anything they liked in addition to class assignments, which can be viewed by the general public. However, all public comments are password protected.

Siddhartha Raja, a graduate student and teacher’s assistant for Sandvig’s course in spring 2005, explained that no outside activity can take place on the class blogs without instructor permission.

“Instructors should be careful about password protected comment entries,” Raja said. “What happens is you get blog spam, which is like pornography or credit card advertisements, in the comment boxes.”

Despite the problems with the class weblogs, Raja said the technology has proved to have a very positive influence on the students, inspiring them to be creative and efficient when completing their assignments. He said one of the system’s greatest flaws is informal grammar.

“Just because this is online, does not mean it is informal. People associate anything online with email grammar and casual etiquette,” Raja said.

Raja said this nonchalant attitude toward classroom blogging arises from very informal personal journals, such as livejournal.com and xanga.com, which many students use. Sandvig said there is a clear distinction between personal journals and link-based blogs. He also said academic blogs present a number of benefits.

“It is often beneficial to have an audience for your writing other than your teacher,” Sandvig said. “The idea is for the student to take responsibility for their own knowledge.”

Sandvig and his colleagues said the students have done just that. They consistently go “above and beyond” the assigned course requirements, and continue with their blogs after the courses have ended.

“It all comes down to what drives creativity,” Raja said. “Some people say technology drives creativity, but I think it is really the student’s attitude towards that technology.”