Blog in the limelight

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Thanks to the Baghdad Blogger, people are seeing the potential for weblogs in the classroom, as Gail Robinson reports

Imagine a piece of software that sits at the centre of all the work you do in the classroom - somewhere where you can organise your lesson plans, tell the kids (and their parents) about homework assignments and where pupils can post their essays for marking.

Will Richardson, supervisor of instructional technology at Hunterdon High School, New Jersey in the US uses weblogging (blogging) software to do just that and is a huge advocate of the technology. He told us: "I take about 20-30 minutes each day to post the daily plan, provide links and announce homework assignments using the weblog. This is the starting point for each class.

"All my students have their own weblogs where they post their assignments.

Their work is accessible through the term and they never lose it. And they give feedback to one another in weblogs."

Not familiar with weblogs? You'll probably have heard of their famous exponent, Blogger (www.blogger.com). And it's a technology that's going to be hard to avoid; some pundits have gone so far as to hail weblogs as a publishing revolution.

At their simplest, weblogs let you publish information on the internet instantly and easily - you don't need to know HTML or how to send files to web servers, it's all done for you. A typical weblog page is usually made up of short, frequently updated postings that are arranged chronologically.

Hundreds of thousands of internet users now have weblogs covering all manner of subjects but it wasn't until after the events of September 11 that they really began to hit the headlines. New Yorkers used weblogs to tell their friends and family they were safe. And thousands of logs were set up to provide a multitude of perspectives on the Iraq war.

Perhaps the most famous of these is the "Baghdad Blogger" - a 29-year old Iraqi living in Baghdad who started posting uncensored descriptions of his daily life in September 2002 and continued through the war.

And now the weblog is infiltrating schools, the US seems to be leading the way but the technology is being picked up here too. For example Gavin Richards, e-learning manager at Kingsmead Community School in Somerset, is a weblog convert.

Last term, in his previous role as ICT teacher at Courtfields School in Somerset, he made good use of weblogs in his geography class. Two friends of his, Richard Barclay and Lisa Jewitt, were travelling the world and Richards persuaded them to publish a travel journal and photo archive on Blogger for his students to access.

Richards is convinced of the benefits of blogging: "My class found this experience interesting and they regularly posted questions. It certainly improved their knowledge of places and geographical features."

Richards is currently looking at ways to use weblogs in his new role as e-learning manager. He's planning to use blogs in language lessons so students can communicate online with pupils from around the world. You'll find the blog at Richards's excellent geography resource site www.geoexplorer.co.uk.

Will Richardson has also used weblogs to allow students to communicate with people outside the school. "I had the author of a book we were reading in class answer questions from my students in the weblog," he says.

Weblogs have other benefits that will endear them to schools on a tight IT budget. Crucially much of the weblogging software is free (see side bar for details). They're also designed to be as easy to use as a word processor, which allows busy heads of IT to spread the responsibility for updates and maintenance across both teachers and students.

Of course there are security issues to tackle. Although many weblogs are publicly accessible to all, you can password-protect them to restrict access to teachers, students and parents. You may also need to vet student.

Over-police the system and you could discourage students, but if you don't set clear guidelines of what is and isn't acceptable, you leave the system open to abuse.

That said, the benefits of using weblogging in the classroom are extensive.

They encourage discussion and debate and can be especially useful for those kids that find it difficult to speak up in class.

Meg Hourihan, co-founder of Blogger.com, says: "It's a great way for quieter kids to participate. Blogs take away the advantage from the loudest person and highlight people who actually add something to the conversation."

WHERE TO GO

Schoolblogs

www.schoolblogs.com

Advice site set up by Peter Ford, a teacher who has used weblogs extensively in schools.

USING WEBLOGS IN EDUCATION

www.weblogg-ed.com

Set up by US teacher Will Richardson, this is an excellent place to go for resources and tips. Also includes links to the weblogs created by his pupils.

Weblogging software

Blogger

www.blogger.com

The most famous provider of weblogging software and now owned by ueber search engine Google. It's a doddle to use and it's free. You don't need to know any code or worry about the updating process - just submit a form on the Blogger website and the results immediately show up on your site.

UserLand

www.userland.com

Suppliers of the easy to use weblog Radio UserLand and the full-featured content management system Manila. Radio UserLand costs $39.95 and automatically builds your site, organises and archives your posts and publishes your content. For a more hefty $899, Manila can be set up as a weblog portal that can support hundreds of weblogs for a school.

Six Apart

www.sixapart.com

Six Apart is the company behind Movable Type, one of the most powerful weblog publishing systems. Its latest product is TypePad, which is described as a major step forward for weblogging tools. You'll find a 30-day free trial of TypePad at the Six Apart website.

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