I have spent the last ten days creating a new blogging community for my students. The old one stopped working. I've been using Manila for the past two years but there have been too many problems lately. First, the IT team said it was a virus, then the aftermath of the virus, then compatibility issues. Finally, after many disruptions to our classroom blogging, I decided to take action and get new software and a new server. As you can imagine, it was a lot of work. This whole experience, however, proved to be very enlightening from an educational point of view.
First of all, when we started experiencing problems with the class blogosphere, my students were the first ones to notice and complain. I heard many comments which helped me fully understand what our blogging community means to my students. They complained about unreliable access to their work. Many of them actually said that they couldn't prepare for assignments or test their knowledge of some of the texts we'd been reading. I listened to all these carefully and took notes every single time something was said to me about technical problems. I have included excerpts from my log notes below:
"I feel like I've lost all my binders" "Now that my blog is gone, English feels different" "How are we gonna discuss things?"
"You know that assignment last night that we did on Word?" "Yes. Did you do it?" "I did, but writing it felt strange." "How so?" "It was like - like talking to someone who was not listening."
"Are we gonna do any work until it's fixed?"
I was so interested in what my students had to say that fixing the technical problems was no longer my priority! Yes - I was that interested in learning about the impact of this situation on them as students and as learners. It quickly became clear from what they were saying to me that blogging was synonymous with English class, that their class consisted primarily of a community and that its absence had an impact on learning.
Their community was inaccessible for about two weeks and its absence seemed to have a profound impact on the students:
"How are we going to study for the final exam?" "What if I want to comment on things - can our work be recovered?" "When are we getting our blogs back?"
I realized that they had formed a bond, not just with each other as learners but also with the community itself. My students got used to inhabiting a space which, as virtual as it was, constituted an important part of their learning experience. When the space became temporarily inaccessible, learning itself seemed to be put on hold.
Then, when I made the switch to the new server and new software, I was fascinated to find out that making the switch would also be quite insightful. After all, I was introducing a slightly different software to a group of fairly experienced bloggers, students who were used to a specific tool. I was delighted to discover that they all embraced the new multi-user software with enthusiasm. They seemed to like all the features and the simplicity of its design (Manila, which we used before, can be a bit overwhelming). Again, the comments were very encouraging.
As soon as they were able to create their new individual blogs, the first question was:
"What about the old posts?"
The new space, I realized, was not really a blog or a community. It was an empty space and almost all of them were overcome by a need to populate their new blogs. They have been working very hard since but many also insisted on transferring their old entries to the new blogs. Their blogging identity, it seems to me, is so inextricably linked to their writing that abandoning their old work seemed somehow wrong. Many were very disappointed that the comments they received cannot be automatically moved with the posts.
What have I learned from this? Well, I'm not going to mention the technical aspects. The experience was frustrating. When technology fails and your classroom depends on it, the feeling of helplessness and frustration can be overwhelming. I've decided to look at this experience as a very enlightening one. It taught me many things about my students and their relationship with the blogging community that they have inhabited since September. This experience confirmed my belief that blogging is about creating communities. My students didn't really miss writing itself. Had that been the case, they wouldn't have complained about writing in notebooks. What they missed was situated writing, a cognitive activity situated within a specific space that fosters cognitive engagement. They missed interactions, interactions with texts and with each other through texts. They missed the sense of participation and their audience. They missed the exploratory environment of the class blogosphere. The student who, having written his assignment in a notebook, complained about feeling like he was talking to himself, missed making connections, he missed the web of correspondences that they have been weaving since September. Their efforts to transfer their entries from their old blogs to the new ones were really efforts to rebuild that network.
I know that the network will continue to emerge through their writing. The network is not an exterior aid that helps them write. It emerges because of their work, through their work. The software we use to create these communities, to enable this kind of learning, is a tool interiorized - a tool that has become an integral part of who they are as learners:
Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it. The fact is that by using a mechanical contrivance, a violinist or an organist can express something poignantly human that cannot be expressed without the mechanical contrivance. To achieve such expression of course the violinist or organist had to have interiorized the technology, made the tool or machine a second nature, a psychological part of himself or herself. Such shaping of a tool to oneself, learning a technological skill, is hardly dehumanizing. The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life. (Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. pp. 82-83).
I believe in "shaping of a tool to oneself." I believe that learning is tools interiorized and thoughts made visible. I believe that blogging classrooms are helping us get there.