Saturday, July 25, 2009

Learning through Blogging: Graduate Student Experiences By Robert Davison, City University of Hong Kong

Communication is a fundamental part of learning. As instructors, we communicate with each other, as well as with our students, who also interact with us and each other. Indeed, we can go further and assert that communication is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. It is not surprising therefore that a wide variety of IT-based communication tools have been developed, and that many of these have found application in the context of learning.

It is also true that, at least in more traditional "chalk-talk" forms of learning, participating (or chatting) by students is discouraged or prohibited. Furthermore, even when IT-supported communication is accepted in the andragogical (learning through life experience) space, the "older" tools such as email tend to dominate. Recently developed tools such as instant messaging and weblogs are often relegated, perhaps by virtue of their perceived informality, to a less preferred status. However, over the last few years, I have successfully incorporated a blogging assignment into the coursework component of my graduate level (MBA and similar) classes.

These courses typically include a substantial coursework requirement (in addition to examinations). Roughly a third of the coursework marks come from the blog. First, I set up a class blog (usually at Xanga). Then, each student in the class is required to create his or her own blog, also on Xanga. Next, I, as the owner of the class blog, "subscribe" to all the student blogs—so that I can see what they are all writing (unless they mark it as "private")—and they can also, through the class blog, see each other's entries, though of course they may also subscribe to one another's blogs. Each student is required to write four to eight entries (the exact number depends on the class) of at least 200 words during the course of the semester. In each entry, they should reflect on their learning in the class and explain how this learning can be applied to their organizational context (all students study part time, working full time during the day).

In reality, most students write many more entries than the minimum required. They also read each other's entries, and comment on them, as do I as the instructor. While the blog writing is motivated as a class assignment, student enthusiasm for the activity is contagious: Once a critical mass of active student bloggers is established (and of course, there are some who steadfastly refuse to have anything to do with it, incentives and penalties notwithstanding), off they go!

The learning that occurs is at least bifocal. Firstly, when the students reflect on what they have learned in class, they are in the position to extract some of their tacit understanding and explicitly document it in the form of a blog. That this reflection is at least in part organizationally focused is an extra benefit, because the students often pepper their entries with details about their work contexts and why (or why not) a particular IT application would be appropriate. Better still, if, say, we have been discussing ERP systems implementation, they will come back with examples of how their own company failed dramatically (and expensively) to implement ERP.

Secondly, by both reading and commenting on others' blogs, so they start to learn from each other—without the instructor being too directly involved. Of course, I do read and comment on each blog entry as well, independently of the students, giving constructive and positive feedback where possible. This can be a time-taking exercise, depending on the size of the class. It is best to check the blogs every few days or less in order to prevent an overflow of unread, uncommented new blog entries from building up.

A hidden benefit of these blogs is revealed in class. Generally, the rooms I teach in have a PC for each student, but no software explicitly designed to support brainstorming. Weblog tools like Xanga, however, are ideal brainstorming applications: Simply create the discussion topics as entries in the class blog, and then ask everyone to login and go to the class blog. They can see the discussion topics—and submit their brainstorm ideas as comments. They can also comment on each other. For quieter students, of whom there are many in Hong Kong, this provides a much less threatening opportunity for them to communicate and share ideas at their own pace. It is all down to communication—and finding the right tools for the right people at the right time for the right task. But blogs are versatile and definitely deserve greater attention in the classroom.

About the author
Robert Davison is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the City University of Hong Kong. His current research focuses on virtual knowledge management and collaboration in the Chinese SME context. He has published over 50 articles in a variety of journals, and serves as Editor of the Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries.

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