Blogging developed alongside the more education-specific developments we have seen, and it was then co-opted into ed tech. In so doing, it foreshadowed much of the Web 2.0 developments, with which it is often bundled.
Blogging was a very obvious extension of the web. Once people realized that anyone could publish on the web, they inevitably started to publish diaries, journals, and regularly updated resources. Blogging emerged from a simple version of online journals when syndication became easy to implement. The advent of feeds, and particularly the universal standard RSS (which had various definitions, but Really Simple Syndication is probably the most appropriate), provided a means for readers to subscribe to anyone’s blog and receive regular updates. This was as revolutionary as the liberation that web publishing initially provided. If the web made everyone a publisher, then RSS made everyone a distributor.
People swiftly moved beyond journals. After all, what area wasn’t affected by the ability to create content freely, whenever you want, and have it immediately distributed to your audience? Blogs and RSS-type distribution were akin to giving everyone industrial powers. It’s not surprising that in 2019 we are still wrestling with the implications. No other ed tech has continued to develop and solidify (as the proliferation of WordPress sites attests) and remain so full of potential. For almost every ed tech that comes along — e-portfolios, LMS, MOOC, OER, social media — there is a group, of which I would probably be a member, who propose that a blog version would be a better alternative.
Back in 2003, the use of blogs in education was just beginning and a fledgling community of educational bloggers was emerging. There was a particularly vibrant edu-blogging set in Canada, possibly as a result of large distances involved, and those interested in new technologies found others engaging in similar experimentation via blogs. This potential to expand the academic community through the informal use of blogs that were external to formal university systems was powerful and would be repeated later with social media. From the perspective of today, with ubiquitous social media, it is difficult to appreciate how liberating the advent of blogging was in higher education.
Blogging provided a new form of academic identity, and one that increasingly became as significant as the traditional identity that is formed through publications, teaching, and research grants. It came with its own cultural norms of informality, acknowledgement, experimentation, and support. Particularly in the early years, these norms were more significant to bloggers than disciplinary ones, to the extent that bloggers in different disciplines had more in common than bloggers and non-bloggers in the same discipline. This was known to produce tension; for instance, Costa (2013) has argued that “Higher education institutions are more likely to encourage conventional forms of publication than innovative approaches to research communication” (p. 171). She reported that academics with an online identity were adopting a “double gamers” strategy, whereby they slowly implemented cultural changes to practice while simultaneously engaging in traditional practice to remain relevant within their institutions (Costa, 2016). The online academic has had to negotiate two worlds simultaneously, which can have different modes of operation and value systems; as Costa (2016) put it, they end up playing two games. There is some effort to reconcile these modes with increasing recognition of the value of network identity in achieving scholarly goals, although most remuneration is still linked to traditional outputs, such as published articles and successful research grant income. This is in contrast with the online world that determines prestige through identities and attention (Stewart, 2015).
Blogs can be seen as the start of what would become a networked academic identity, which would become more prevalent with the Web 2.0 and social media boom. Veletsianos and Kimmons (2012) used the term Networked Participatory Scholarship (NPS) to encompass scholars’ use of social networks to “pursue, share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship” (p. 766). This has become a rich area for research as academics wrestle with some of the issues it raises. On the positive side, Stewart (2016) noted that establishing such an identity increases visibility for pre-tenure academics, and this can offer some protection in a climate of precarious academic labour: “Among the junior scholars and graduate students in the study, opportunities including media appearances, plenary addresses, and even academic positions were credited to longterm NPS investment and residency, and to resultant online visibility” (p. 76). Lupton (2014) reported that academics often use social media strategically to establish networks, share information, publicize and develop research, and provide and receive support. Similarly, a study of academic bloggers by Mewburn and Thompson (2013) found that they address academic work conditions and policy contexts, share information, and provide advice, operating a form of “gift economy.”
However, on the negative side, the online world is one which Stewart (2016) notes can be characterized by “rampant misogyny, racism, and harassment” (p. 62). For all their potential to democratize the online space, such tools frequently reflect and reinforce existing prestige, with higher-ranked universities having more popular Twitter accounts (Jordan, 2017a), and professors generally developing larger networks than other positions in higher education (Jordan, 2017b).
Before this toxicity came to invade the online realm, there was a good deal of (perhaps naïve) optimism about the use of blogging in ed tech. At the time, there were many types of benefits that could be articulated for individuals who were blogging:
The economics of reputation: Increasingly a reputation online came to be seen as a valuable commodity. It became complementary to conventional scholarship, with an online reputation leading to an impact that was recognized traditionally, such as in keynote invitations, research collaborations, and increased citations for publications.
Engagement with a subject area: In many subject areas, the blogosphere was where much of the informed and detailed debate took place, and so engagement with it became part of normal academic activity.
Organizational status: Increasingly institutions came to recognize the value of academics with substantial online profiles.
Link to teaching: The type of content used in courses became increasingly diverse, and one model for including up-to-date information was to include blogs.
Public engagement: Blogs tended to have easier reading scores (Weller, 2007a), and could form part of an ecosystem around public engagement and dissemination of research. Blog posts, videos, and podcasts that accompanied formal publications could be used to explain research in more appropriate language for a wider audience.
Developing personal networks: Much as social media came to be used later, blogs established a means of building a network of contacts without the necessity of having to meet face-to-face.
Fast forward to the current Internet ecosystem and what blogs provide is a means of anchoring an online identity. It may be distributed across other media, such as YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and so on, but it provides a central hub for these. Increasingly, as data capitalism and the nefarious uses of our data have come to light, there has been a movement to “own your own domain.” That is, to host your own tools on a web domain that is under your control, rather than simply using a third-party service. Watters (2016) has emphasized that this control and ownership of data is an educational imperative:
When one controls — albeit temporarily — a domain name and a bit of server space, I contend, we act in resistance to an Internet culture and an Internet technology and an Internet business model in which we control little to nothing. We own little to nothing. (para. 4)
Blogs are not just a tool for educators, but increasingly for students also. Following on from the previous chapter, it is interesting to speculate what the current ed tech environment would look like if, in the early days, institutions had adopted blogging platforms as their LMS rather than the commercial products. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem — blogging tools such as WordPress can be constructed to deliver course content and have embedded discussions, and they are easily extendable with plug-ins for specific functions, resembling the sort of service-oriented architecture that was deemed desirable. Templated versions can be implemented for all students, so they have their own space to develop their identity, create assignments, and develop something akin to an e-portfolio (more on this later). In 2008, Jim Groom and others were promoting the idea of blogs as educational platforms:
This model puts the power in the hands of the authors, which in turn provides the possibility for a far greater level of educational openness. These are platforms that provide many, if not all, of the features of more traditional LMSs, but exponentially move beyond them given the fact that they benefit from huge open source communities that are constantly enhancing the applications. (Groom, 2008a, para. 1)
What this comparison between the LMS and blogs reveals is more than a difference over software preferences; it reveals differing visions about the nature of ed tech. For many of the advocates of blogs, the vision of ed tech is one that embraces the open aspects of the original web. To return to Watters’ (2016) post on owning your own domain, she claims,
The rest of ed-tech — the LMS, adaptive learning software, predictive analytics, surveillance tech through and through — is built on an ideology of data extraction, outsourcing, and neoliberalism. But the Web — and here I mean the Web as an ideal, to be sure, and less the Web in reality — has a stake in public scholarship and public infrastructure. (para. 26)
Groom and Lamb (2014) also bemoan this loss of the original vision of the web in how ed tech came to be deployed, and see the LMS as a key component in this:
In the mid-1990s, college and university campuses were the epicenter of web culture. . . . This is a powerful and compelling narrative of higher education as a laboratory for the future. Two decades later . . . [h]igher education overall, perhaps concerned about the untamed territories of the open web and facing unquestionably profound challenges in extending its promise beyond the early adopters, cast its lot with a “system” that promised to “manage” this wild potential and peril. (p. 29)
However, contrary to this view is the fact that many learners are nervous about entering higher education, and particularly online environments. The LMS provides a structured, “safe” environment within which to learn. It is also designed to hook into existing university systems such as registration, assessment, and library systems. It is also the case that many educators feel uncomfortable in online environments and a more open approach might leave them floundering.
It is not necessarily a binary divide. For instance, there are commercial applications of blogs and of the open-source LMS, so it is more of a continuum. It represents something of a philosophical divide about how people view e-learning, and at its centre are degrees of control. Around 2009, I demonstrated blogs to some academics, and one of them commented that they were concerned that students could share links to content outside of the course — content that was not approved and thus might be misleading. This is, at its core, the challenge that the Internet poses for education — a move from a tightly controlled system to a less regulated and more open one. The blog versus the LMS debate is a representation of this, but it recurs in different forms (we shall see it again in different interpretations of MOOC, for instance). I started blogging in earnest after several abortive attempts in 2006, and six years later (Weller, 2012) I declared the commencement of blogging to be the best decision I made in my academic career. I would still hold to that in 2019.