Here is an essay of mine that praises the blog as an educational tool in the English classroom. Although it seems redundant in the Edublogs community, I can always hope that some crotchety, “I don’t understand computer stuff” type of teacher will stumble upon it and reform. This piece compares the eve of wired classrooms with the eve of writing itself as a technology, showing how we’re in the middle of a second, riveting, knowledge revolution. Hooray for blogging teachers everywhere!
The Beauty of the Blog
Technology saturates our world. Gone are the days where computers and their many uses were reserved solely for the super smart or gearheads among us. New things made possible by recent technology are morphing even seemingly low-tech fields like never before. Blogging in the language arts classroom is a perfect example of a new thing that is making a change in an area of study that is not traditionally technology based. In the field of literacy education—teaching students to read well, write fluently, and think critically—things are changing fast. This is not, however, the first time that literacy has been altered by technology. The first time was at the dawn of the written word, when writing itself was considered a technological innovation. Both that ancient period of change and the one that we live and breathe in right now have much in common. Just as the first forms of writing did in their era, today’s weblogs and online forums are changing the way that literacy evolves in academic settings.
To compare the literacy revolution of today with that of the past, it is necessary to fully understand the impact that the very invention of writing had upon society as a whole. In his influential essay “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Walter Ong describes just that. He discusses the invention of writing as something that changed, radically, how people thought: “Writing separates academic learning (…) from wisdom (…), making possible the conveyance of highly organized abstract thought structures independently of their actual use or of their integration into the human lifeworld” (Ong 27). Whereas people once communicated orally, passing knowledge from one to the other in a simple, hear-and-remember process, the new technology of writing gave people the power to record a piece of knowledge and re-examine it again and again in its textual form. This separated the creator of an idea from the idea itself for the first time, which allows for abstract thought, critical discussion, and objective interpretation (Ong 25). It is difficult to imagine society without these processes, since they are fairly synonymous with today’s notion of higher learning and thought. But writing and its consequences were indeed revolutionary at the eve of their invention: “Writing was an intrusion, though an invaluable intrusion, into the early human lifeworld, much as computers are today” (Ong 21). The invention of writing forced orally based literacy practices into a whole new, much larger realm.
Now we stand on the cusp of another intrusion of new technology. Ong argues that this one will also irreversibly alter the way people use knowledge, stating “Print and electronics continue with new intensification and radical transformations the diaeretic programme initially set in motion by writing” (Ong 29). Dennis Baron, another notable writer on literacy, makes a similar assertion in his essay “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.” This is already seen in Baron’s opening sentence: “The computer, the latest development in writing technology, promises, or threatens, to change literacy practices for better or worse, depending on your point of view (70). In the early days of writing, the ability to put ideas on paper was the center of a literacy revolution. Today, the ability to put ideas in an infinitely reproducible and shareable format is the center of another.
The idea of computers influencing literacy, though defended adamantly by Baron and Ong, may seem like a strange one at first, especially for one who does not normally think of technology and literacy practices as cooperating agents. As Baron puts it; “Most people think of writers as rejecting technological innovations like the computer and the information superhighway” (72). So, how can we validate the claim that computers are intrinsically linked to literacy? Where do writers fit in the online world?
Let’s return to our example of blogging in the classroom as a concrete realization of the predictions made by the aforementioned essays as well as this one. A “blog,” or “weblog” as they were first named, is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “A website that displays in chronological order the postings by one or more individuals and usually has links to comments on specific postings” (Weblog). This definition is an important one, as it has much to do with the future of academia.
Biz Stone, author of multiple books on blogs and their increasing influence on society, makes an eye-opening observation—“With major institutions like Harvard, Dartmouth, and Wellesley, as well as several high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools realizing that there’s something [to the use of blogs], blogging is unavoidably headed into the trenches of learning” (179). Some of the finest academic institutions in our nation are discovering the beauty of the blog. Let’s take a closer look at how this works and how it relates to the new literacy revolution.
The basic idea of blogging is much like the common classroom practice of keeping a personal response journal. Traditionally, most language arts students have been expected to keep a journal at one time or another. This journal, kept in a notebook or folder, is a compilation of personal responses to the course reading material. It may also include quotations or references to outside sources that relate to the reading or the ideas inspired by it. A blog is essentially the electronic, internet-based version of the same thing, except that it has evolved some new features. A blog can be accessed at anytime, by anyone who has access to it at any internet connection. Viewers of a blog can immediately respond to what they read by commenting on it, and the author can write back. Blogs are a living, community-shaped entity that students and teachers alike can treat as a test site for new ideas. Blogging students turn their personal webspace into a thinking tool.
But there is also a broader discussion to be had about educational blogging. The blog shows us two aspects of new technology: one threatening aspect and one inspiring aspect. Incidentally, these same concerns were also held by the people who first encountered the technology of writing. The threatening aspect is the potential for fraud. The inspiring aspect is active learning inside a bigger world.
Fraud is a very real problem in the online realm. Baron reminds us that “anyone with a computer and a modem can put information into cyberspace” (81). This is a dangerous thing, especially if the person adding information has an extensive knowledge of how to alter that information. The contents of a blog, or of any web-based resource, always have a potential for corruption. The online world, so instantaneous and anonymous, makes it difficult to track and monitor every move of every user. This potential can be frightening, and it leads us to the question “How do we know that we can trust anything that we read online?”
The same uneasiness about fraud rocked the early writing world. Initial writing provided no means of authentication, such as signatures (Baron 76). People had no way to prove that the writing held in their hands was also written by their hand. Even once the signature was put into use, many documents still ended up in fraudulent endeavors. The invention of watermarks, dates, serial numbers, differing paper qualities, and stylistic analysis came about subsequently, to try to prevent incidences of fraud (Baron 76). Similar provisions are being made to electronic texts, including blogs: “special adjustments can be made so that passwords and permissions create a gated blogging community” (Stone 183). The ability to keep only classroom eyes on a classroom blog helps ease fear of fraud, much in the same way that written documents with signatures and identification numbers assure us of their official nature. Still, the truth remains that anytime, anywhere, to anyone, the far corners of the internet are open for use and modification.
While we must be careful to control the potential abuse of this technology, it also offers possibilities to embrace. One great thing about the freedom of viewing and distributing information is that it provides new ways of learning and expands our world. Again, these same qualities were seen at the advent of writing.
Throughout his essay, Ong strongly argues that writing’s emergence into an oral culture turned flat, stagnant ideas into living, developing ones. Ong states that writing has a “potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers” (22). Thanks to writing, anyone who holds a specific text in his or her hands has the power to read it, think about it, and discuss it with others. Since texts can be duplicated, the size of the audience can certainly come close to limitless. Every audience member has an input on the ideas generated by the text, and adds to the canon of criticism upon it. In turn, the ideas surrounding a text become far greater than the text itself, and they give birth to new insights.
Writing also accomplished what Baron calls “bridging time and space” (75). The author of a text may have been from a faraway place and might have died a century before, but his ideas can still be accessed as long as the text still survives. This quality of the written world allowed, and still allows, us to gain the viewpoints of thinkers from extremely diverse time periods, places, cultures, and social statuses. Ong says of this, “Writing is a time-obviating, context-free mechanism. (…) Writing is a consciousness raising and humanizing technology” (31).
New technology, specifically classroom blogging, is having a similar effect on literacy. Time and space can now be bridged in ways never before thought possible. With writing, anyone with a text had access to its ideas. With the internet, anyone has access to anyone’s ideas, as long as they have an internet connection. Also, the time of physical transfer has been obliterated. No copies have to be printed and distributed; no time transpires between the uploading of new material and the first viewer’s eyes resting upon it. Students with blogs can essentially hold class with one or all classmates, anytime and anywhere: “From their seats. From their bedrooms. From any web connection anywhere in the world at any time of day or night” (177). Online discussion actually makes it feasible for thirty students in thirty different countries to be educated as one classroom over one semester.
Student bloggers get feedback on their ideas not just from one teacher, but also from all of their classmates and anyone else that they choose to invite. The feedback comes in a steady stream throughout the life of the blog, not just in one letter-grade at the end of the semester. Blogs are a place where students can reflect, generate, and discuss ideas. With this interaction taking place, the world expands and diversifies before students’ eyes: “When feedback and interlinking begin to take place among the blogs, the opinions, ideas, and content becomes knitted together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. And that’s when blogging really comes alive” (Stone 180). The online world invites students and teachers of literacy to make use of it, as it intensifies the best, most revolutionary traits of writing itself.
Baron says explicitly what most of us understand as inevitable truth—“Computer communications are not going to go away” (75). For this reason, writers and thinkers must embrace new technology. They must come up with their own innovative uses of the innovations set before them. And, we can see while considering classroom blogs, that this is already happening. The very word “literacy” takes on a slightly different meaning every day, as we all contribute to our expression of what it means to us. Now that we can share and develop those expressions faster, easier, and in a much larger realm, perhaps the definition of literacy will shift more quickly than we expect it to. Baron tells us, “Once writers—in a more ‘modern’ sense of the world—discovered what writing could do, there was no turning back” (75). Again, we are finding incredible new possibilities in technology, and there is certainly no turning back. There is only moving marvelously forward into a global classroom, the new birthplace of literacy.
Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Cushman, Ellen, et. al., ed.s. New York, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.
Ong, Walter J., S.J. “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Cushman, Ellen, et. al., ed.s. New York, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.
Stone, Biz. Who Let the Blogs Out?: a hyperconnected peak at the world of Weblogs. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.
“Weblog.” The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. 02 Dec. 2006.