July/August 2003 // Tools
Blogging as a Course Management Tool
by Jon Baggaley
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Jon Baggaley "Blogging as a Course Management Tool" The Technology Source, July/August 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Mary Harrsch (previous article) is absolutely right. She correctly identifies 'blogging' as an educational killer app par eminence. Before continuing, I should stress that she is the first person I have read who has suggested this. I hope the following comments will be taken as a useful reinforcement of her dramatic claim, rather than as any attempt to upstage it.

Harrsch indicates that Rich Site Summary (RSS) enables users to publish instant, fully formatted observations directly to the web without any web programming ability. If correct, this development is as radical as the evolution of video from film, and the ability to edit images together without having to snip and paste strips of celluloid. Or as radical as the publishers' ability to bypass the typesetters by composing their newspapers electronically. The enthusiastic claims for RSS by its champions at Blogger.com are more extreme still! "Publishing Power to the People", they intone, and I believe they have a serious point.

On the one hand, a method that allows anyone to publish directly to the web on a whim, regardless of technical skill or even content, could be regarded as severely retrograde. But the ability to publish trash is by no means exclusive to those who cannot do HTML coding; and numerous publishing talents can indeed by liberated by the RSS methods. The academics at our distance education university, for example, create and update hundreds of courses annually, and the 'blogging' method accomplishes this with greatly increased efficiency.

In pre-blogging days (i.e. two years ago), subject-matter experts were required to work within a course team, including an editor, web programmer, visual designer, and multimedia specialist. Even a single-line change of text had to be submitted to one or more team members, and placed in the queue. To be sure, some academics side-stepped this process, being unable to fit their work into the overloaded schedule of these specialists. But the alternative was often a loss of quality in the materials produced, and non-conformity with the accepted 'look and feel' of the institution's materials. Failure to follow publishing standards leads to a particular decline in the quality of online course materials; for the non-technical academic may make unwarranted assumptions about the computer systems required to access the materials, and the result can be a chaotic mismatch between teacher and student that impedes rather than facilitates learning.

In 2001, Athabasca U's Centre for Distance Education made RSS conversions of all of its online materials that require occasional updating. Twenty courses, involving syllabi, assignment pages, and faculty bios, were installed at a private account on Blogger.com, using a common template developed for the Centre's web site. Each page was made accessible to the faculty member responsible for its upkeep. Instead of having to send updated information to a programmer, the faculty member sends it directly to the web, without needing to touch any of its page code. The Centre set up a virtual server to receive these updates, in order to avoid compromising the file transfer passwords of the University's secure server.

The result was an immediate increase in departmental speed and job satisfaction. For the webmaster responsible for maintaining the online course sites, the update process for each teaching semester was reduced from two weeks to a single day. For the individual faculty members, the amount of time spent on the updates was the same, though they now had ownership of them, rather than having to refer hack editing work to the media team. For the editing and programming mediators, the result has been an easing of their workload, and the ability to concentrate on developing new course design methods. 'Blogging' is on the rise at the University, as an increasing number of academic and technical staff discover its liberating potential.

Blogging is a rather inadequate term for the process, having evolved from the diaries or 'web logs' that RSS is commonly used to create. As more educational researchers discover the valuable information contained in web server files, web logs of a different type will come into prominence, and some confusion may result. Other RSS services have been available since Blogger.com opened its doors—a web search for "edit my page" reveals numerous options—and, as content management systems continue to evolve, our Centre will certainly move away from the otherwise efficient services of Blogger.com towards a completely in-house solution. Meanwhile, all hail Blogger for pointing web publishing in the right direction.

Mary Harrsch's article goes further than this one, indicating ways in which RSS and XML techniques can be used to merge information with other devices such as PDAs, and cell 'phones. For the online teacher and student, these will become valuable ways of staying in touch with each other and the course materials that link them. For all these reasons, eighteen months ago I told my students that "blogging is the next killer app"! I should have invested in the idea, as I still should. Now the word is out, of course, it may be too late!

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