Summer 2007
ISSN 1477-1241

Blog Technology at MMUBS

Collaboration and Reflection in Student Learning - a research outcome

Introduction

The education sector is continually evolving to meet ever-changing business needs, changes in society involving technological advancements and globalisation, and in response to increased pressure to demonstrate the effectiveness of their educational efforts, by engaging students to play an active role in the learning process.

MMUBS has continually striven to maintain a coherent approach to the delivery of learning through innovations which encourage more self-organised learning for students. Furthermore, the School is committed to delivering learning which recognises the changing lifestyles of students, by being flexible and thus meeting the students’ fast-paced cultural and technological advancement. Pedagogical approaches at MMUBS range from traditional classroom-style teaching to full use of technology-based learning, with communication and dissemination of teaching materials via systems such as, WebCT Vista and the Intranet.

In recent years, the adoption of blogs in pedagogical student- centred learning has increased. Blogging in education can be blended in a number of ways, including reviewing and revising, research, collective collaborative participation, creative writing and reflection on academic progress, notice board, as a bulletin board, for course material dissemination. Blogs can be archived so that students benefit from each other’s contributions. Indeed, blogs can be whatever you want them to be. Several world-class universities, such as Harvard and Warwick, have been quick to adapt the technology.

The aim of this research was to investigate the use of blogs in promoting student learning at MMUBS by developing a blogsite: the ‘blogosphere’ which would be allowed to develop naturally, keeping moderation of users’ blogs to a minimum. The objective was to use the blogs as an example of a new e-learning technology which could be incorporated into course structure, providing an environment that would be flexible to both staff and students in areas of accessibility, communication, collaboration and in allowing personal reflection on studies.

 

MMUBS Blogosphere

The MMUBS blogosphere is illustrated in Figure 1. The site was open to undergraduate students in different stages of their degree course. Staff member 1 (SM1) was responsible for students from three different subject areas. Staff member 2 (SM2) was responsible for second and third year students working in groups, centred round the Young Enterprise Business Game. Business advisors appointed from outside MMUBS to liaise with the groups were also registered on the blog site.

the MMUBS blogosphere diagram
Figure 1: The MMUBS Blogosphere

The site was developed so that only registered users could read, browse, publish and make comments on the blogs. Appropriate categories were created for the different course modules being studied. Users were trained to use the site and the blogging software (WordPress) by combination of a demonstration and a printed set of instructions.

The blog site became active in Sept 2006 and registered 900. Students after 9 months of operation there are currently 805 posts and 1,112 comments, contained within 70 categories. Monthly archives of blogs by calendar month can be seen in Figure 2.
 
Figure 2 – Archives of the blog site. Numbers in brackets indicate the number of postings for that month

 

Collection of Data

The data for analysis were collected by means of:

1) Interview process: Interviews were conducted with the two members of staff who volunteered to use the MMUBS-Blog site for their students.

2) Questionnaire to students: The questions were categorised into the following areas:

  • The students’ previous knowledge about blogging in general.
  • The frequency of use of the MMUBS - Blog site.
  • The students’ personal satisfaction in using a support service within their course curriculum.
  • Using blogs as a means of reflective learning
  • The usability of MMUBS - Blog site.

The students’ responses towards using blogs was measured using the five point Likert response format where ‘1’ is ‘Strongly disagree’, ‘2’ is ‘disagree’, ‘3’ is ‘Neither Agree or Disagree’, ‘4’is ‘Agree’ and ‘5’ is ‘Strongly Agree’.

3) MMUBS-Blog Site Published Blogs

The published blogs gave further indication of the validity of blogs in education and specifically their adaptability at MMUBS as a tool for student-centred learning. The data have been taken and analysed from the contents of the published blogs and the comments made by the users on those published blogs. Analysis of the published blogs has come from observing the interaction of students and staff on the blog site.

Typically, the areas included for observation and analysis were: the types of blogs produced by students and staff; student-to-student online communication and collaboration; staff-to-student online communication and collaboration towards reflective learning; and student(s)-to-staff questions and requests for general information.

 

Key Findings

Interviews with staff

Both members of staff stated that they were familiar with the use of blogs as a discussion forum. SM 2 described blogs much like a “blackboard” system from previous experience. The staff needed a one-to-many communication system and something that was fairly easy to use. The intranet was described as a place to store files and post notices and announcements. WebCT was described as complex to use and develop; it took too long to learn. SM 1 noted that it took between 50 and 100 hours to write course material and place it on WebCT, whereas blogging took 2 hours to start using the system.

Communicating with a mass of students was another plus factor for them, when using the blog. The blog saved time for staff by not having to send multiple emails out on a problem or a query from the students. Dissemination of course material had been easier than when using other MMU generic support systems.

SM 2 noticed that the use of blogging had reduced the number of meetings with students for discussion on the progress of their business game compared with the previous year. During 2005-6, there were 10 companies, each of which held a meeting with the staff once a week. In 2006-7, despite more students and companies (13) only 2 or 3 meetings per week were required in total. SM 2 described this as “significant time saved”, pointing out that, with extra students and even more companies this year, “we would have struggled using the old system”.

Both members of staff expressed dissatisfaction in having to share a virtual space with so many different students who were taking different subjects on different courses. The staff would want to segregate students in appropriate subject areas in future. The other dissatisfaction, once they became familiar with the blog concept, was that more blog plugins should have been installed to maximise the use of the blog technology. There was a demand for podcasting, RSS, images and video interfacing.

SM2 stated that “sharing of knowledge and collaboration has been easier”, despite some students having been sceptical about the value of blogging. The same member also suggested that more training for staff and students would “create a cleaner environment”. SM1 remarked that “Blogging represents the future of online communication in that it builds communities and team spirit. The students who blog form friendships in real life and all of this makes the university experience more pleasurable.”

Early into the term, both members of staff decided to award extra marks for blogging on the site. SM1’s reasons were based on the fact that, when he placed information on the blog system, he became informed “whether students understand the information I give them and how much to use it. It helps me to get to know the students better”.

SM2’s reasons were based on using blogs for peer assessments and for monitoring the students’ performance. In previous years, this task was carried out in class or students were required to complete forms.

The students very quickly adapted to the blog technology, and the feedback received from the students to the staff had been positive. Students requested that more information be placed on the blog site. Students recognised the value of blogging and used the site not just for learning but for “selling old text books, contacting staff for work, widening participation”. Blogging has many informal uses which, in the opinion of SM1, were not available with the intranet or WebCT.

Both members of staff felt that blogging had helped students with revision. Students had demonstrated this in their reports (SM2) while SM1 anticipated use of the blog archive for revision for the summer exams.

Both members of staff rated the blog system a good experience, saying that it gave them more ideas for teaching activities. This was described as a ‘positive’ aspect of the blog technology. SM2 has now incorporated blogging into three more units and has added more categories to the blog site. He reports: “It has proved useful and will prove more useful in another three to four weeks. So, yes, I am now using blogs in a more advanced way than I was originally using it for”.

 

The Student Questionnaire

A total of 103 student questionnaires were completed. Responses to individual categories of question are given below.

The students’ previous knowledge about blogs in general

The blog technology was certainly not new to the students. Over 49% of students had heard of blogs, while 26.2% had already blogged before coming to MMU. Indeed, 12.6% already had their own blog with an external hosting site. In addition, 3.9% of the students have come from a school or college which had implemented blogs.

The frequency of use of the MMUBS Blog site

A high percentage of students published blogs occasionally (50.5%) and a small percentage published blogs daily (6.8%). The site was accessed at regular intervals from within MMUBS (75.7%) and away from the university (66.0%). There is, however, a large portion of students who were passive users (66.0%) of the site. They would login to check for any new activities and updates on the site but failed to post any blogs themselves

Students’ personal satisfaction with using the support service within their course curriculum

There was an overall satisfaction with the use of this service. Students did enjoy participating with staff and other students (32.0%) via blog but, at the same time, there were students who did not (25.3%). The reasons for not participating may have been in the use of the technology, the blog software, and the restrictions imposed on the site over the contents of the students’ blogs. Other possible reasons may be anxiety and fear of blogging, given that that other students and staff would be reading their blogs.

A high portion of students were undecided in their opinions choosing the ‘neither agree nor disagree’ option of the Likert scale. Raaijmakers et al (2000) showed that, between the ages of 12 and 24 years, a person’s views depend on their political knowledge, social and general awareness and of change in opinions? Therefore student perception of the usefulness of blogs in education is limited by the level of exposure in the educational environment.
A high proportion (49.5%) of students enjoyed reading the published blogs and this can only add weight to the educational value.

The blog site gave some students flexibility (28.2%) when working in groups, providing a central point for communication and discussions. It took away the feeling of isolation and students felt that they belonged to a community (27.2%). The blog site was available for students to contact and communicate with staff; an added bonus to the meetings and emails students already used to contact and communicate with staff (38.8%).

For some students blogging had provided opportunities not related to learning. A few students would have liked to blog about their hobbies (13.6%) and many would welcome the site being available for use when they leave the university (48.5%).

Using blogs as a means of reflective learning

Students appreciated the learning aspect associated with blogging and acknowledged that the blog had aided their understanding of the course content ((52.4%). Many (41.7%) felt that the blog archive would help with revision and that blogging helped them to demonstrate their academic critical thinking (39.8%). Writing down thoughts (29.1%), when publishing blogs, helped towards a clearer understanding of the academic material, and also helped with retention of information. When asked if they would like tutorials (28.2%) to be replaced by questions posted on the blog site for discussion, the response has been generally good. Students did spend time reading blogs in categories not directly related to their studies (26.2%), possibly allowing some cross-pollination to occur

When asked about the importance of writing blogs that are professionally constructed with proficiency in English and at a academic level (Table 1), the response has been fairly neutral, most choosing to opt for the option “Neither Agree nor Disagree”. There were few blogs that included ellipsis text in the students’ blog. When students were asked “Should spelling and grammar be important to everyone if other users are reading the blogs?” the response from the survey had shown that it should be but many students had been undecided.

Table 1: Proficiency at academic level
Having to blog knowing other students will read what I have written will make me express my thoughts professionally.
Blogging improves my academic skills in understanding and responding to different types of discussions.

Blogging helps towards improving my English writing at a more academic level.

I consider English writing at an academic level more important than blogging.
I consider English writing at an academic level less important than blogging.
Spelling and grammar to me is not important when blogging.

 

There was a high response from students in favour of wanting to incorporate the blog in other course modules (43.7%).

Usability of MMUBS - Blog site

Most students successfully registered on the site using the required university standard credentials. However, some students tried registering using their own aliases for the login name and personal email and many students would have preferred this method which would have allowed more privacy. However, for security and legal reasons, as well as ease of moderation and administration of the blogging activities and provision of support it was considered essential to continue with this sign-in process.

There was a learning curve in the use of the blog site for both students and staff at the start of the term but, as the term progressed, students and staff experimented with various aspect of the blogging software. The introduction to the blog site at the start of the term helped many students (42.7%). The blog hosting software, wordpress provided a good user-friendly front end, and students generally adapted to it quickly, with 51.5% students agreeing that the site was well presented.

The implemented blog site was well received by the students and there was a general satisfaction with the usability of the site. The only dissatisfaction shown by the students was the difficulty in finding the information and not being able to master the advance search methods that are built into the blog software. 80% of students did not use the advanced search methods via “site admin”, options such as calendar and monthly search methods were poorly utilised. The archive of the blog was well received and had been accessed by 59.2% of the students.

The results from the student questionnaire indicated a general satisfaction with the blog technology and the way it was implemented in the course curriculum. Examples of positive feedback from students are shown below:

“I think that the blogs are very easy to use. I find them very interesting.”

“I love the blog. I just think that all information should be posted on one site so we can just look and find this information easily”

 

Findings from the Published Blogs on MMUBS - Blog Site

Although a set format for blogging was introduced at the start of the course the blog site evolved into more than what it was set up to do, namely, to investigate student reflective learning and online communication and collaboration. This transformation of the blog site for other uses indicated its adaptability. The blog site can be installed and configured to emulate the characteristics of an intranet system, a forum for discussion, communication and collaboration all in one virtual space. As the term progressed, staff and students used the MMUBS blog site frequently and became more comfortable in its use. Requests were made by staff and students to add extra categories, to change the order in which the categories should be placed, and generally to add more facilities.

Students were initially confused about the use of the blog site. This confusion arose, in part, because different communities of students were sharing the same ‘virtual space’. Some students expressed dissatisfaction at the need to blog: “I don’t see the importance of blogging” and “the student should be judged through personal interaction between student and tutor and not on the number of blogs posted”.

As the site evolved the author’s observation on the pedagogical pattern can be seen in Figure 3 which illustrates how the blog site has developed to cater for the many needs of staff and students. The blog site had been well received and provided students with a place to meet and work in groups, download course materials, catch up on announcements and notices, use the site for business opportunities, advertising, organising social venues etc. It also provided students with the facilities to ask for assistance from the site users and a means of communication between students on a particular course who would otherwise not be able to meet. In addition, the blog has allowed staff to communicate online to all students, solving common student queries, using blogging for course material dissemination and enhancing the student group collaboration. This online collaboration benefited other students in their learning allowing the sharing of experiences in the group assignment. The blogs that were published by both students and staff demonstrated the ease with which the blogging could be adapted for uses beyond those originally intended. The site developed to cater for course material dissemination, advertising, general announcements, business opportunities, forthcoming events, and organising social venues etc.

Diagram of blog pedagogical pattern and evolution
Figure 3: Blog pedagogical pattern and its natural evolution

 

Collaboration

Students working with SM 2 had to collaborate on the progress they were making with their project and to publish blogs on any information they deemed would be useful to others. The justification for this was for the students to share information that would assist with their business ventures and to create a knowledge base and a foundation for the business game on the blog site which would benefit future students.

This information sharing became evident from the way some of the students from the Young Enterprise used suggestions placed on the site by other students. For example, one group posted suggestions about creating a web site for their business. The group presented their homepage URL and also gave instructions on how to go about creating the homepage. Soon after, most of the other groups created their own business website. Other blogs placed by students included one asking for help on the logistics and processes of creating a website on an external web hosting site. Further development of the blogs involved students volunteering to assist other students who were having problems with other aspects of the business, such as organising venues, registering the business plan with a bank, and raising revenues. The students found this use of the blog site to be highly motivating in tackling the young enterprise business game, and felt that some of their problems were quickly overcome by referring to comments placed on blogs by others in a similar situation. The students felt part of a community/group working as a part of a larger community.

 

Reflective learning

During the first six weeks of the term, SM1 and his student group used the blog site in a number of ways. This group had no formal training in the use of the site beyond a set of instructions. The general response to the student survey indicated that use of the site was not difficult. The tutor used the site publish blogs on subjects which related to the students’ course content and would request that the students make comments on this subject.

Comments on these particular types of blogs were well received. The students felt that only so much could be discussed on a particular topic, but a large proportion felt that these types of blogs helped them understand the nature of what was studied. These students were mostly passive users of the blog site.

SM1 had 800 students registered on the MMUBS - Blog site. Initially blog posting by these students was poor, but most visited the site on a regular basis to see what new blogs or other activities were being added. Mostly this member of staff and his students used the blog site much like an intranet service. The popular theme was for course material dissemination and general announcements. The few blogs published by some of students from this group used the blog site for querying matters such as where to hand in their assignment, the deadline for the assignment, exam timetable, organisation of their course.

 

Findings from the MMUBS Academic Staff Survey

This survey was short; the primary aim here was to establish 1) the level of interest the staff of MMUBS have of blog technology and 2) level of general knowledge MMUBS staff had of blog technology.

The majority (62.2%) of MMUBS staff do know and have heard about blog. However, the concept of blogging as an educational tool was less well known, with only 17.1% having encountered it. However, there is a clear interest in blog technology, with 17.1% stating they would use the service and 43.9% would consider using it if MMUBS had a blog facility. These high percentages of ‘maybe’ probably represent staff who not fully aware of the capability of blogging.

The comments received from the web-based survey suggested a number of ways in which blogging can be used. This further suggests that blogs are versatile and that this technology can be adapted to the needs of the education community. The staff at MMUBS, in their response to the survey, suggested a number of different ways in which they were willing to integrate blogging, not only for student learning, but also as a way of keeping colleagues up-to-date with project progress, news, research diary and using it at departmental level for communication.

Suggested uses for blogs in learning and teaching (staff comments):

Course progress monitoring
A discussion board and a means of presenting points of view less formally

A discussion vehicle with masters and international students

To answer student FAQs such as “What are we doing in the tutorial this week” “What will happen if I exceed the word count in my assignment”. These answers would then be stored for others to look at and then save on my time in answering the questions.

As a means of sharing views/ideas between students and myself when dealing with specific topics/assignments

For discussion of current issues with like-minded staff (both internal and external). For team assignments - we’ve used wikis in the past but blogs also offer potential Potentially as an individual assignment submission, i.e. the blog is what is assessed?

A vehicle to communicate project information to colleagues and to communicate general information

Dissemination of general information about future developments / Professional and employer contacts

To support Young Enterprise companies

Probably for debating work issues

To keep colleagues up to date with project progress

A research diary

Specific projects - management and progress

In a variety of way to allow my undergrads to keep up to date on the latest technological issues. Develop a community spirit in my subject discipline

A facilitator for generating an online community that has the potential to accrue information benefits

A forum for academic discussion

A way of extending the reading list to include current news stories that could be relevant to teaching. It would also give the impression that MMU was engaging in new ideas and technologies and therefore we would look “current”

A mechanism for sharing student experience but I would probably prefer a wiki as this fits the kinds of teaching I do better

A tool for communicating with other staff

A discussion area for students to liaise with one another in respect of group work. A tool to improve the cohesion of a group/unit by giving it a distinctive look/feel that would distinguish it from other MMUBS blogs. An area in which I could include extra curriculum

A discussion forum for raising queries and giving feedback

A way to answer the same questions that students pose but in one go, and to encourage them to talk to each other/swap knowledge e.g. about projects or dissertations

Inform MMUBS staff of latest developments in the Information Systems Team

A student forum and self help environment in which students might answer their own questions. Also any answer I provide to a Q would be available for the entire cohort

An interactive discussion area - perhaps for students to cite examples from the week to link to the lecture

Supplementary and complementary learning resource

 

A summary of the research output from the different data sources is shown in Table 2 below. As the blog site develops, it will open up new and innovative ways in which students can communicate with each other and staff and will enable staff to develop courses centred round this supportive tool. The site would benefit enormously from the installation and use of surrounding blog technology such as RSS, podcasting and Wikis.

Table 2: Summary of results derived from different data sources
Data Source

Results from data analysed:
Positive characteristics of using blogging

Results from data analysed:
Negative characteristics of using blogging
Interviews with two staff
  • Save time
  • One to many communication
  • Flexible
  • Richer experience for students
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Revising and revision for students
  • Monitoring students' progress
  • Daily updates
  • Improvement in students' work and quality of blogs
  • Archives of blogs would be a valuable source of online materials for staff to improve on and for future students to build on
  • Distribution of general information to mass audiences
  • Needs more structure on the site
  • Needs more structure with the course
  • Needs a disciplined environment
  • Training needs to be addressed both for staff and students
  • Students to take ownership of their blogs
  • Staff need to take ownership of their blogs
  • Central access to all student services via student number and password
  • More blog technology to be installed
  • Need podcasting, images and audio facilities

Questionnaire to Students

Results from student questionnaires

  • Good form of communication
  • Enjoyable
  • Access to other students and staff blogs
  • Flexibility
  • Felt part of a bigger community
  • Instant communication
  • Sharing information with other students
  • Blogs gave students other means of utilising this technology
  • Better understanding of course contents
  • Help towards revising and revision
  • Critical thinking
  • Information retention
  • Another user id and password to remember
  • Confusing at times
  • Restriction of contents
  • Need easier site admin front end
  • More control to students
  • Lack of training
  • Hard to find blogs

MMUBS - Blog site

The published blogs and comments placed on them by students and staff are observed and analysed as to how the site was used.

  • Course material dissemination
  • Online communication
  • Collaboration
  • Student community
  • Discussion forum
  • Noticeboard
  • Advertising
  • Distribution of general information to mass audiences
  • Promoting social events
  • Flexible group collaboration
  • Need more structure
  • Separate the course module and students in subject areas

MMUBS Academic Staff

Web-based survey carried out asking the MMUBS staff general questions on their awareness of blogs and how they would integrate within their teaching

  • Many would try it out
  • Use for discussion
  • A forum with students
  • Announcements
  • Contacts
  • Debating work issues
  • A research diary
  • A forum for academic discussion
  • Sharing student experiences
  • Course progress monitoring
  • Specific topic and assignment
  • Not aware of blog
  • Need to more about blog before committing
  • High number of staff already using one or more existing support tool, ie Intranet and WebCT
  • Would not use it

 


From the research I have been able to construct an adaptability pattern which is illustrated in Figure 4. The blog site was integrated in numerous areas ranging from its simplistic use of announcements, material-dissemination notice board, to reflective learning outcomes, creative writing, communicating collaboratively in a community of other users, blending course content delivery management and more.

Diagram of blog adapdability pattern
Figure 4: Blog Adaptability Pattern

 

Conclusion

The research outlines the benefits of using blogging in education. Blogs are versatile when used as supportive technology with students and, together with associated tools such as podcasting, audio, video, images and more, could prove to be a valuable resource in student learning. Blog functions as a repository for information and information dissemination which would be capable of harnessing intelligence through collective collaboration and cross-pollination. Blogs can be ‘tweaked and twisted’ in many different ways and can be adapted as part of a disciplined course content delivery.

Overall the research has been successful despite the limitation of the hardware and the software. However even with this limitation the MMUBS - Blog site has catered for a large user base and has been running successfully over three academic terms.

Students and staff have both benefited from using the blog as a pedagogical tool. The students who participated on the MMUBS-Blog site have received a richer academic experience whilst gaining knowledge of blog technology.

Staff who had used blogging with their students had a better understanding of this new technology while, generally, the project raised awareness amongst the MMUBS staff of the use of this technology in promoting student learning. The research has interested many staff at MMUBS and has, surprisingly, brought out a ‘hidden army of bloggers’.

 

References

Harvard University. [cited 8th May 2007].

Raaijmakers, Q. A. W., Hoof,A., Hart, H., Verbogt, T. F. M. A. and Vollebergh, W. A. M. (2000) Adolecents’ Midpoint Responses on Likert-Type Scale Items: Neutral or Missing Values? International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 12(2), pp208-216

The University of Warwick. Blogs. [cited 8th May 2007].

 

About the Author
photo of Nillan Fakira
 

Nillan Fakira
Information Systems Officer, MMUBS

e-mail: n.fakira@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 3801

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