Walled Garden or Open Road: Student Blogs

Walled Garden or Open Road: Student Blogs

I like to consider myself an open minded individual. However, I know that when it comes to how much control/freedom we grant students in the area of blogging, I become as stubborn as my bulldog when it is time to wake up because I run a hard line on my position: blogging is a public form of writing that fosters a collaborative network, period. Anything else simply isn’t blogging no matter which way you slice it.

Of late, this stubborn position has been met with much opposition amongst many of my colleagues who feel making student writing public in blogs (or other Web 2.0 tools for that matter) is just not a good thing for a number of reasons: safety risks, academic problems, and/or content issues. While no doubt valid, I’m convinced we can turn these concerns into goals instead of saying “well, too many problems so ban, block, & stop these tools”.

Safety Risks

The primary concern for many teachers, technologists, and stakeholders is the safety risks of having students blog. Will blogs open the risk of online predators? stalkers? How about students bullying students online? What about other cyberbullies? Will student work today come back to haunt them in the future: college, professional, and personal?

Academic Problems

Another major concern is having students write in a public sphere while they are still growing in their skills. Will this hinder their growth? What about their confidence? Will there be time for reflective thinking in their writing? How ethical is it to force students to write publicy? What about Andrew Keen’s points in The Cult of the Amateur about loss of creativity and thinking? Is this rigorous enough? Do students have enough to say? Should amateurs be publishing?

Think Before You Blog

Content Issue

One other concern that seems to rise to the forefront when discussing student blogs is the idea of content control. If students are blogging, who determines what is put on their blog? who filters the posts? who filters the comments?

Because of these concerns, there are those that see little to no value in students blogging (or any Web 2.o tool for that matter) and openly embrace the blocking of blogs from classroom. However, the real conflict is between The Walled Garden approach and The Open Road approach because both of these approaches believe in blogs and web 2.0 but have radically different ideas about how to infuse these within the curriculum.

The Walled Garden

The Walled Garden approach openly support blogs and other Web 2.0 tools but it recognizes the aforementioned concerns. While their hearts are in the correct place, they can’t, refuse, or fear turning the concerns into goals so they come up with compromises that are nothing more than a false sense of reality like this most often heard one:

The Walled Garden Group claim that the solution is to have students create blogs in a secured/password protected area: Google Docs, Course Mangaement System, school Intranet, etc. However, is this really blogging? Would it not be wiser to skip the technology in this situation and just use the good ol’ one subject notebook? To me, this compromise defeats the purpose of blogging and does little to shift the pedagogical practices of teachers to meet 21st Century skills like authentic blogging does. While I applaud the idea of trying to make blogging a reality in the classroom, it simply doesn’t work if what you are really wanting to do is have your students blogging.

In other words, this is blogging that isn’t really blogging. If you want to blog, BLOG! If you want to write using an electronic format, go for it but don’t call it blogging just so you can feel better about yourself. Don’t call it blogging so others feel better about themselves. Don’t call it blogging so you can say I’m or my teachers are using web 2.0 tools. All you are doing is undermining the true nature of blogging and hindering those trying to change their practices and gather real data on the use of blogs in the classroom.

I’m not saying “you shouldn’t have students writing in an electronic format”. By all means, it is great but it simply isn’t blogging.

The Open Road

The Open Road approach looks at blogging in its pure sense: public form of critical reading, writing, and interacting that fosters a collaborative and connceted community. As someone who supports this approach, I adhere to teachers scaffolding the process by having students read and react to blogs leading to the creation of a community blog for the classroom before reaching the ultimate goal of students creating their own blogs. This allows for less safety issues up front and helps to educate students on the concept of learning in the current user generated landscape of the web using powerful tools like blogs.

Final Thoughts

I do understand that parents, boards of education, and other groups are a reality that educators face but they aren’t the opposition. These groups have the same interests at heart: student learning, student safety, and student success. If we truly believe in the power of blogs as a transformative tool, why seek compromises that sacrafice the true nature, the transformative power, of this tool? Wouldn’t it be wiser to seek to educate all stakeholders on blogs than to offer an easy out?

Perhaps I am being too rigid in my beliefs, perhaps I am looking at this from merely a semantic point of view, but my heart tells me that isn’t the case. I understand the transformative power of Making It Public and I’ve lived by this philosophy (CyberEnglish) since the first time I stepped into the classroom. That is why I will always believe The Open Road is the only road.

17 Comments

  1. These are the kinds of issues, questions and discussions we are being exposed to as teacher candidates. I have personal opinions, but I realize those may have to be secondary to official dictates of a school board or principal.

    Personally, I think having students blog without a “Walled Garden” is preferable. Let them contemplate that whatever they write can and will be seen by many people. This isn’t a true diary with a lock to keep our parents from seeing our innermost thoughts.

    When I was an undergrad, I wrote for the school paper. My published articles are out there for anyone to see if they have the interest in looking them up. Some of those articles are certainly not of professional quality– OK, all of them aren’t– but that’s because I was not a professional.

    As for stalking, safety and other serious concerns, again I believe this is something students should be aware of from the beginning. How is it educational if all we do is try to surround them in a sterile environment. It will be a huge shock to them when they enter the “real world.” Better to be prepared for it before they walk down that path.

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  2. Blogging is a relatively new tool to education. Students, teachers and administrators are on quite a learning curve here. Policies are made by people who do not really understand the tool. Kids use the tools out of school with out thought to their actions or consequences. I think we need to grow student bloggers and web 2.0 users. We have some elementary kids as young as second grade using Moodle, a walled garden, to share writing and comment. Here they can learn what is appropriate or not, they practice and get comfortable with the medium. Moodle also has an IM feature that keeps a record of what is written. Also a good way to teach appropriate use of IM in a school/educational setting. As our students get older say MS or HS (still debated by the powers that be at my district) then they move to the open road.

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  3. Boy did I need your help last night! I was discussing this same issue at the ISTE social, and seemed surrounded by walled garden thinkers. You should have heard the virtual and akward silence when I said “when do we stop protecting them and start educating them?” Yikes! I am not saying that there weren’t others in the small group that agreed with me, but it did not seem like they wanted to take that stand, or perhaps they are limited by their administrators, or maybe they just wanted to go dance…not sure. I was mildly shocked by the reaction though, and it makes me think that perhaps we should be more pro-active about providing opportunities to discuss this issue in RL and SL. If we don’t affect change, who will?

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  4. Many thoughtful issues to ponder from your blog, Ryan. I am entering middle school education with the mindset that I want to expand my students thinking and output from the same inside the box thinking that currently grips many teachers. Blogs are one tool that I am in the stages of creating and developing lesson plans for.

    My thoughts are that students need to take risks and put their work out there for a wider body to analyze. How else can we hope to challege our students misconceptions and ideas. Blogs offer a great forum for learning and students should have access to them and learn how powerful they can be.

    I see no reason why we should keep student ideas private. Exposing them to the world will only make them better thinkers. I know from my experience that the few blogs I read offer me a different insight than what I may have been initially thinking. They have been powerful tools for my own learning and challenge me to look deeper than the surface on many School 2.0 issues. Why then should we, as educators, believe that the affects of reading and writing blogs would be any different on our students emergence into the global world?

    Students have a voice and they want to use it. If blogs get their voices heard and motivates them to learn, then we have achieved our objectives as educators for the day.

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  5. Ryan I agree with you, I believe the open road is the way to go with blogging. I have been having the same conversation in my district, IT guys want everything inside password protected. If we are trying to show students they have the ability to influence others, to make a difference through the use of their voices, talking to each other in a walled garden doesn’t cut it. They are only talking to same people they talk to every day. I believe as you have stated above in scaffolding as Will talks about in his book. How can we ever expect students to grow to be responsible digital citizens if we don’t teach them what that means. Once again a great post!

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  6. While we may all agree on the open road philosophy, I don’t really agree with the all or nothing approach. Scaffolding this process seems to be the key. Having a walled garden like Moodle can provide a safe haven to learn the skills of posting, commenting, and collaborating with built in wikis. That’s where I’m heading. I teach middle school and I’m not ready to jump head first into the Open Road. Yes, that is the ultimate goal. However, the kids need to learn digital citizenship and safety precautions and etiquette before I’m willing to turn them loose. Plus, there is value through discussion with their immediate peers.

    I applaud your enthusiasm regarding blogging. I also believe it is important to look at Web 2.0 from the perspective of others who are not as informed. We need to teach the teachers as well as the students. Scaffolding this approach provides a good bridge to the ultimate step of having students creating their own public content to share.

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  7. Hi John:

    Thanks for the post John. Your points are valid and offer things to think about. In fact, I think we agree on the concept of scaffolding but just different in approaches.

    If you noticed, I mentioned the scaffolding approach but in the context of an open environment. If you want to keep students within the walled garden of Moodle, I have no problems with that. I see plenty of value in that regard; however, I don’t see it as blogging nor receiving the benefits of blogging.

    As for teachers, I couldn’t agree more. When someone begins blogging, it should be through reading than to commenting than to writing. This is, if I’m not mistaken, your idea of scaffolding. What I see as a mistake is if we have teachers in a walled garden and say this is blogging. It is writing in an electronic form. Nothing wrong with that… nothing at all. However, it isn’t blogging. Heck, I love Google Docs but that isn’t blogging — great tool though 🙂

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  8. I think we’re dealing in semantics. The word “blog” has become a word that has taken on tangential meaning. It doesn’t matter to me what it’s called but it all wraps around the idea of shared learning, whether with just your class or school, or with the entire planet.

    My meaning on scaffolding is not just within the blog world: read, respond, write. I want to scaffold the entire process that can lead ultimately to mature student blogging. For me, that starts with the concepts of collaboration within the walled garden (I’m starting to not like that phrase because there is a lot of negative connotation to it). This allows them to understand and master the mechanics of the tools and allows me to lay the groundwork to more public networking in the future. Don’t get me wrong, I do want students to have more of a voice in the blog world. It does seem to be a laudable goal in Web 2.0 learning.

    With the blog-rot out there (good intended blogging projects fizzling out), it also seems to me that others are just jumping into student blogging without a clue to the foundations of digital citizenship and even good writing practice. Good advocacy means showing good examples to elicit the Wow! factor. I’m not saying it’s futile at all. In fact, I see it as an opportunity to teach kids about their responsibilities as digital natives.

    Good conversation Ryan, it’s making me think a LOT!! Take care.

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  9. Great conversation.

    Beth and Robin made excellent points that many of the decision makers (policy makers, IT) don’t really understand the tools.

    I understand that many policy makers first concern is safety. However, I would argue that teaching students to use blogs and other 2.0 tools responsibly and ethically is, in the long run, safer for students than shielding them from it.

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  10. […] Ryan Bretag’s latest post, Walled Garden or Open Road: Student Blogs, sparked a very interesting discussion about the degree of freedom educators should give student bloggers. […]

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  11. I’m not convinced that attempting to corral blogs within a highly structured environment like moodle is necessarily the answer – all that does is exclude students from the opportunity to interact productively (and I mean interact – not link to) with a host of other Web 2.0 services/information sources.

    Though Warwick (surely a poster child for the open road – just put university and blog into Google!) also illustrates some of the pitfalls, especially with staff. The amount of untended blogs – or registered and never used – is quite staggering and gives a very different message to what they perhaps intend about the real level of awareness of their academics and administrators. Whilst students undoubtedly need proper instruction on safety, privacy and so on, their teachers all too often need a whole other level of training…

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  12. You raise a number of points that need to be discussed when pondering student blogs.

    1. New Way of Thinking
    With students, blogs might be their first exposure to thinking and creating in a public environment within an academic context. Obviously, safety and ethics are key but understanding what it means to contribute to a community knowledge base is also critical.

    However, teachers are often shifting their pedagogical practices. This becomes especially difficult for teachers when past approaches to technology have been so tool focused that professional development was training focused NOT adult learning focused (semantics yes, but I’m sure you get my point). While a weblog is obviously a tool, the effective, transformative use of it goes beyond just being shown how to setup a blog. Also, it takes a lot of courage for teachers to say “my students are making their work public”.

    2. Untended Blogs

    This is an issue for which I’m sure there are a number of reasons that could explain this situation. For me, I think it stems primarily from those users not fully comprehending blogs. Often, they are shown how to set one up, go through a brief discussion on what blogging is all about, and are sent off to create their first post before going off on their own.

    This really is setting teachers and administrators (and students for that matter) up for failure. As these users begin to experience the depth of thinking (the level of productive interaction as you said) from blogs and the challenge of reading, synthesizing, creating, writing, reflecting, and repeating becomes overwhelming when not fully understood from the start.

    So, what is the best approach to professional development to ensure that we help teachers make the needed shifts in their practices to create powerful blogs themselves and with their students?

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  13. Thanks for the comments David.

    How do we go about working with those administrators, teachers, parents, and even students that don’t see it that way?

    A tough question but the reality in most schools today.

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  14. @Beth

    You raise one of the most important points to this whole conversation: “Policies are made by people who do not really understand the tool”. I would also add the policy makers are influenced by those that don’t grasp the tools either. While it is no doubt critical that students remain safe, it is often the first and only reaction when pondering the Internet.

    So what are we to do? Obviously, your approach is one way to scaffold the process which not only helps the students but teachers, administrators, and parents, too. I’d be interested in hearing how this works in the context of school districts that aren’t K-12 where the vertical articulation might not be as strong.

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  15. I commend your thinking Bob as you continue your journey towards being an educator. As you transition from a preservice educator to a practicing one, I hope you continue to hold firm to your beliefs for the sake of education and your students.

    As you said, there will be resistance but you are already engaging in the type of dialogue within the blogosphere that will assist you in developing a rationale for your instructional practices.

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  16. Wow, Vejraska!

    I do wish I was there because these are the types of discussions we need to have right now — as you said, in RL and SL. Above anything else, it shows one thing: we are divided as educators, administrators, and parents.

    What does that mean? We need to have the true facts about crimes through the Internet with plenty of statistics, we can’t allow blanket statements to be made without questioning those, and we need to do a better job of educating those around us about why the use of web 2.0 tools in their pure form is worth it.

    Well, time to start having some of these conversations at The Bloggers Cafe, eh?

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  17. Robin and E:

    You both point to strong elements that should be included in any defense of blogs in the public sphere: voice and digital citizenship.

    These are both so vital for our students as we enter the Conceptual Age where information recall isn’t enough. Obviously, those that don’t see the open road as the best approach will argue that voice can be developed within a walled garden just the same as the open road.

    I guess that is our responsibility, as those pushing for change, to provide qualitative and quantitative evidence that blogs (and other web 2.0 tools) in the public sphere provide better results. If we can’t, our argument is lost 🙂

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