I am certainly not the first to ponder the relative merits of blogging inside or outside of education’s closed garden walls (see Bill Ives Is Blogging Inside the Firewall an Oxymoron?) However, I’ve recently seen a couple of presentation by University innovators using blogging – but from behind the institutional firewall and password protection – inside the ‘garden wall’. This of course resonates with some of the large LMS (VLE) builders who are adding blogging to their suite of (closed) applications. But, the presentations left me with a skeptical notion of the value of this learning activity, especially given the availability of threaded discussions which are often much easier to use and more familiar to both students and teachers as a blog.

A significant value of blogs and most other social software is the capacity to extend and develop networks beyond the limited circle of ones existing place-bound friends. Social software can of course be used to enhance or support place-bound communication, but it is sort of like driving a car on the sidewalk – gets you to destinations, but its slow, bumpy and often inconvenient to others.

So why do teachers develop learning activities behind the ‘garden wall’?

  • Protection of student privacy – Since many closed, classroom activities are also evaluated as a component of the course mark, they are not the normal voluntary postings that define informal blogging. Students may resent being forced to make a blog posting to the class and may have even express greater resistance to posting to places that are accessible to everyone- including search engine spiders and the very long memories of net archives.
  • Ease of Aggregation: Blogging confined to a single closed system allows for easier aggregation of both posts and comments than gathering posts from disparate sources. This ease works for both students following classmates postings and for teachers tasked with commenting and evaluating these posts.
  • Control: blogs created by teachers behind passwords can easily be closed, edited or deleted by those same teachers. In addition many employees of education systems subscribe to outdated and paternalistic notions of net ownership in which they feel corporate responsibility for any posting that originates from an institutional login or email account.

Despite these benefits, closed blogs carry some pedagogical and technical baggage.

  • Control Costs: Some have argued that a designing characteristic of a blog is that it represents the personal and owned content of the poster. To allow editing, censureship, approval or restriction on access is to many an explicit contradiction of the nature a blog posting. It then becomes arguable if a marked assignment to “post two messages to your school blog and respond to three others”, is in fact an activity that accurately demonstrates the power of the technology, thereby creating a lifelong learning tool. Or does this just turn potential communicators off?
  • Assessment Challenges: I’ve found that assessing reflective journals (blogs, emails, essays or diary’s) is very challenging. I often resort to pass/fail (did it /did not do it) because reflection is such a personal process that a good effort seems in itself worthy of reward. However, I also believe that if the learning activity is worth assigning, then it is worth assessing and constructive feedback should be provided . The rubric from San Diego State University does count postings, but also provides guidance for assessing personal and intellectual engagement contribution. In best cases an informal, open blog generates feedback, review and assessment from the community at large. Such review is often sporadic, but its serendipity allows for unforeseen response that can add greatest value to the poster. Perhaps we need to get better at facilitating assessment, use of the the postings is subsidiary products (ie create an essay in which you provide excerpts of your posting to illustrate ….)
  • Decreased Motivation: Motivation is arguably the most important task of the teacher. Those that really want to learn usually do. Closed blogs tell students that they are engaged in ‘school’ work that by definition is removed from their real world of family, personal interest and employment. Many find it much harder to engage with energy when the context is alien and removed from their real existence.
  • Decreased Opportunity for Community building: Blogs have the power to reach across and beyond existing social networks to open doors to new relationships and experiences. These can be as close to home as allowing parents to virtually listen in or participate in the learning community to opening the virtual classroom doors to witness and contribution from the innumerable cultures, communities and enterprises of the open Net. Closed blogs close these opportunities.

So an innovative teacher must ponder both the advantages and disadvantage’s listed above (and of course add their own) and decide the level of security, ease of use and availability issues that are most compelling for them as individuals within particular educational contexts. It seems however that moving outside of the “garden wall”, moves our education system closer to the goal of relevancy and experience that is needed in a networked era, defined by lifelong learning. Finally, I note that elgg.org allows individual users (students and teachers) to decide on the distribution of each of their  individual postings and the selective release of personal information. This model of giving control to the end users and allowing them to selectively exercise that control may be the only solution that provides the advantages, yet addresses the challenges of educational blogging listed above.