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December 08, 2006

Blogs and forums redux

Stephen links to an interesting article reviving the discussion of blogs and forums as educational technologies.

As I've previously written, one of the challenges posed by blogs is that they require an entirely different approach to the establishment of context and conversation than that offered by forums. The co-ordination of a forum is quite explicit and structural - someone hosts it, someone moderates it, someone decided to create it in the first place for a particular purpose. By contrast blogs are rarely contextual, and where context exists (e.g., where people created multiple blogs for different kinds of writing) these are idiosyncratic and personal rather than by common agreement (what I've previously described as asymmetric contexts).

This does not mean co-ordination is impossible, or even more difficult, it simply means it is different. For example, facilitating discourse within a blogging community is actually pretty easy. Just post something. If its interesting and relevant and stimulating then discussion usually develops quite quickly. What is a little more difficult is tracing the evolution of discourse, however with RSS, tagging, and a bit of content analysis this becomes possible too, even in a completely distributed conversation with no common platform and entirely separate hosting.

Contextual boundaries, if desired, are also possible, by means of selectivity (e.g. choosing which feeds you aggregate and filter to generate a contextualized posting set), although some will be dissatisfied that this only gives the illusion of a bounded discussion with a common context. Well, I think that's the best you can do with a forum too, to be honest. The rest of the conversation is still happening, just off the forum - and if you're unlucky, that's the more interesting part, and eventually your forum will die as the real discussion moves outside.

(And an awful lot of forums in VLEs die. How many end up as a vehicle for lecturer's announcements with no actual subject-matter conversations? How many are only concerned with the timing and format of assignments? From what I've observed casually in this space student's blog posting are if anything more subject-focussed than what they write on official course forums, but that's a topic for another kind of study.)

What isn't possible with blogs is the resource-bargain that forums offer - you can't take down someone's blog if you don't host it. You can't ban them from posting on a topic on their own website. That means you have to use different strategies for dealing with behaviour such as "hostile tagging", bullying, and plain defamation. However we've had processes in organisations for dealing with unwanted behaviour from well before computers entered the frame, and these are a lot more mature (e.g. structures for assisted representation and appeals) than those enforced in IT systems.

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