There seem to be wide-ranging opinions on when and how students should blog as part of their learning. In one camp are the proponents of blogging by choice. These educators advocate that students should not be made to blog because it’s not authentic. Forced blogging is like forced reflection—empty and devoid of meaning. They believe that blogging should be centered around student voice and choice, and their participation in communicating their thinking through a personal or class channel should be entirely up to them. In this way, many state, it will be more authentic learning.
In the other camp are those that believe students should be required to blog—that it be an expected part of the modern learning experience. These educators believe that digital communication skills and virtual participation should be indispensable in modern classrooms. As such, all students should be expected to use the class and personal blogs to document their thinking, learning and collaboration with peers just as they would offline. They argue that we do not offer choice to students as to whether or not they want to engage with literacy and numeracy, so why should we give them an opt-out clause with online participation.
I think the first thing educators need to do when asking themselves how they would like blogs (or other forms of e-portfolios and digital documentation) to be used in their classroom is to evaluate where their students are at.
How long have the students been engaging with digital devices? Is this their first or second year in a 1:1 environment? Or, are they proficient digital consumers and creators at this point?
What is the purpose of an open-ended, choice-based, voluntary blog? Is it to empower student voice? To give them a forum? To create their own learning? Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are they?
What impact does open-choice blogging vs. required blogging have on the curriculum? Or, how does curriculum influence where students operate on the choice-requirement continuum?
Are students ready to take on an empty canvas and begin to paint their thoughts? Or, would they need more structure to give them the tools, skills and time to properly interact with blogs and other digital spaces in order to leverage their potential?
Would there be any parameters in place for open-ended student blogs? Would they have time expectations for composing a blog of their choice? Would there be expectations for conventions, skills or concepts? When and where would students complete this?
Will forcing digital participation and publishing have negative effects on students who would not choose to do it naturally? Or, could it open them up to a world they previously might never have known?
Many of the answers to these questions will also depend on what year level we teach. Obviously, what we would expect from a Year 11 student should be different from from what we would expect from a Year 9 student. More so, our expectations for a Year 4 student should be different from those of a Year 7 student. Some age-levels are going to be more productive and effective with open-ended blogging to an audience. Others are not, and their blogs might turn into rambling substitutions for journals and diaries with little educational value. We all can imagine students for whom both forms of blogging would work for, and those that would require one form or the other.
When considering whether to implement more structured blogging and online participatory agreements versus open-ended, voluntary blogs, I think it is important to consider the age of the learner and the desired purpose for these online spaces. It is also imperative that educators understand that navigation along this continuum is flexible, and extreme arguments of “no choice” and “all choice” are self-defeating.
Coming from an elementary perspective, there are a variety of viewpoints about where teachers should allow their students to interact with blogging along this choice-requirement continuum. It’s a debatable topic that often comes up in workshops, conferences, staff meetings and online discourse.
In PYP schools especially, opinions seem to be strong around this topic. And one of the most frequently used arguments against required blogging is that is is not authentic. Authentic learning seems to be the latest buzz phrase, and with most buzz phrases, the more that they are used, the more they take on a meaning of their own.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of authentic is: real or genuine; not copied or false; true and accurate; made to be or look just like an original.
It seems that the word authentic, in its oft-used educational context around blogging, has instead come to mean “of interest to and chosen by the student” rather than “real or genuine.” I understand that a blog that is required is not genuine in the sense that its impetus did not originate from a locus of self. However, I would argue against there not being real or genuine value in its practice.
To those that say expecting and requiring students to blog (or document and interact with their and others’ online learning) is inauthentic, I would present the following argument:
What about numeracy and literacy? We have the responsibility to ensure that our students become proficient in reading and writing. We require that they learn, understand and apply basic operations in mathematics. Both of these subjects are required at school. Does that make them inauthentic?
In our elementary math curriculum, do we ask students to go off and learn if they are interested? “If you want to learn, you can. If not, you don’t have to.”
In literacy, do we give an option to write a variety of text types? “Well, it’s up to you whether or not you want to.”
In PE, do we let students swim if they are passionate about it and watch if they aren’t? What about in Music? Drama? Art? “Participate if you are interested. Otherwise, you can do something else.”
The argument that required blogging participation is not authentic because it is forced or mandated would also have to mean that everything that is required in education is not authentic because it is not self-chosen learning.
Reading? Inauthentic. Writing? Inauthentic. Spelling? Inauthentic. Addition? Inauthentic. Functions? Inauthentic. MYP? Inauthentic. CAS? Inauthentic. DP? Inauthentic. School in general? Inauthentic.
Granted, some classes I was required to take in high school and college proved to be of little value to me and did not offer real application later in life. However, the issue here isn’t so much about what content or medium for learning is required or not, as it is about participation.
When did participation in learning become so optional?
There is no opt-out clause for learning in our physical classroom environment. Why should there be one in our digital environment? When did we start seeing the physical classroom as a place for learning and the digital classroom only as a place for self-chosen expression?
The classroom is a learning space. Students discuss ideas with each other, work together to solve problems, help teach and coach each other and are expected to be active members of a learning community. At times, students may choose to learn in partnerships or small groups. Other times, they may prefer to work independently. But, the shared expectation is that at all times, students should be engaged in the learning process and taking an active role in their education.
Think of the online world as another learning space. It carries the same purpose and many of the same functions and potentials as a physical learning space. Sometimes, it can provide more learning opportunities than the physical space; sometimes less. However, its essence as a place for student learning remains the same as a physical classroom.
Which brings up the following questions:
Why would we change our expectations for an equally productive learning space? If the purpose for both spaces remains the same, why would one carry expected participation while the other carry optionality?
In an online and dynamic digital space, students are:
- reflecting on their learning journey
- sharing their thinking with one another
- connecting ideas and concepts
- using an authentic tool for modern communication
- recording and celebrating their learning
- creating and publishing multimedia products
- expressing their opinions
- exploring multiple perspectives
- relating to one another
- changing their initial thinking
- experimenting with design, layout and visual literacies
- collaborating with their peers
- thinking visually
- establishing a digital thoughtprint
- practicing responsibility
- living the Learner Profile and PYP attitudes
- establishing resilience and practicing perseverance
Why would we want this to be optional? What is not real and genuine about this?
Although I believe in inquiry as a pedagogical approach, I don’t believe that extremism in student choice is the answer as we broaden our learning spaces from traditional classrooms to digital learning environments.
There is a way to ensure that student voice and choice come out in learning no matter what space we use as the medium. It’s called content. The teacher’s responsibility is to set the concepts that students will learn through and within, teach them the skills and tools necessary to access those concepts and let them explore their passions within it. Authenticity, in whatever definition one wants to use, arises out of that. It can be done in physical space or digital space.
Authentic learning does not mean that students can opt-in or opt-out of participation. It also doesn’t mean that real and genuine learning can only arise from unconditional student choice and voluntary engagement. There will be times when teachers should allow their students to blog, document and interact by choice, and there should be times when it is required. The flexible navigation along this continuum, of course, will depend on the readiness level of the learners and the age range teachers are working with. It should also reflect the role, purpose and application of this digital space. Teachers should responsibly modify their expectations for interaction in this space to ensure that they are leveraging its potential.
In the end, one should not devalue required learning in digital space and call it inauthentic because it does not provide choice in participation. This blog, after all, was written for an assignment in a course, and the thoughts within it are as authentic as they come.