Jueves 26 de Mayo de 2005, Ip nš 110

Just do it ... blog it
Por Jim Mcclellan

Students who write online journals or weblogs often do so as a way to keep in touch with family and friends from pre-university life. They generally find their own way to it, but some universities are starting to encourage students to keep weblogs. The hope is that the benefits noted by some academics - testing ideas, keeping track of research, sharing work with peers and developing a writing style - could work for students as well.

Warwick University is playing a pioneering role with its Warwick Blogs project, which is available to all students, teachers and staff. The idea behind it, says John Dale, head of IT services at Warwick, was "self-publishing for all". Students were allowed to create homepages on the university's network, he says, but few bothered because it was too difficult. In contrast, setting up a Warwick Blog is easy. The hope is that once students start blogging, says Dale, it could build a community, foster collaboration and perhaps help with the personal development planning that students and tutors have to work on.

Warwick Blogs went live in October. Dale and his team created their own software, mainly because they didn't see an adequate commercial package. "We needed a system that would allow us to host thousands of blogs and manage them easily, and we wanted to be able to add new functions as needs emerged."

There has been praise for the service and for the marketing created by Hannah Jamieson - a mix of clever slogans ("do it. think it. blog it!") spread throughout the campus on posters, beer mats and fridge magnets.

Warwick Blogs now hosts more than 3,000 weblogs - but with 15,000 students at the university, at least 12,000 therefore remain unconvinced. "We don't know in detail why they don't blog," says Dale. "And we don't plan to try and 'convert' them. That sounds a bit scary." Dale says he has been most surprised by the way people write "emotionally charged, highly personal entries ... about intimate aspects of their lives, knowing they are publishing to an audience of 20,000 or more, and getting something very positive out of doing so".

Less surprising, perhaps, has been the attempts to push boundaries - by using inappropriate and offensive language, copyrighted material or by "gaming" the system. For example, students have faked comments to certain posts so they are identified as hot topics and highlighted on the main Warwick Blogs page.

"There's a kind of a self-correcting element to the system," says Dale. "If someone says something inappropriate or offensive, there are often comments and debate appended to the original post which serve to change its effect from something unhelpful. The collective intelligence and insight of the community is impressive."

So what do students make of Warwick Blogs? Helen Ryan, a second-year physics student, began blogging in October and is one of the more active users. "When I started I was simply using it to vent about things in my personal life." Support came from other bloggers and Ryan became "part of a community, which I never expected".

Philosophy student Dan Lawrence and active Warwick blogger, says "it has been a social revolution". He has also used it "to try to transform dry lecture notes into something entertaining for a wider audience, thereby helping myself learn along the way".

Others are less positive. Max Hammond, a chemistry PhD student, says that blogs are a useful social tool, but that the service's acceptable usage policy is draconian. "The blogs admin appears to suspend student blogs on some very shaky reasons."

Dale points out that Warwick Blogs gives a lot of control to students who can, for example, block tutors from reading posts, and adds that the university management has been very tolerant of critical posts. Lawrence denies that freedom of speech is an issue. "Many controversial posts have been allowed to stand. The ones that have been censored have almost all involved abusive comments."

When it comes to supporting academic and personal development, as with the social side of university, blogs may work for some students and not for others. And if they do help, it may be in an informal way that is hard to map in official surveys. Dale says it is still too early to come to any conclusions, in part because people are still discovering how to use the service.

"There are a few cases where tutors are using blogs to track what their students are doing, but that is a really new idea, and I expect it will take years before we know whether this is a valuable way of supporting learning." The university is planning to do research on the service.

In the meantime, Dale argues that it is sensible to keep an open mind about blogs. "There are lots of other ways of supporting reflection and personal development, or community and collaboration. We did speculate about whether it would be cheaper and quicker to give every student an A5 diary."

  05/05/2005. The Guardian.