Mark Prensky [1
] wrote, “Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach“. Considering the radical changes of today often summarized as Web 2.0 or e-Learning 2.0 is there really a dramatically breakpoint? Are learners who are reaching the university not comparable to those of some years ago? Currently many such questions are discussed within the university, but only little research has been done.
While the so called Web 2.0 hype is cooling down, we see that the “Read/Write” Web is becoming a serious business. People that were skeptics once are now integrating the tools provided into their daily workflow. Thus, we can expect the technology to become more and more a part of our lives [2
]. School children and teenagers in particular are very fast at adopting new habits and are likely to try out many different approaches. In the field of e-Learning additional issues play important roles: How accepted are these new technologies among people who are coming to study at our university? Do they only consume knowledge or do they contribute their own work and ideas? Do they know how to handle blogs, wikis and similar platforms? How much can they benefit from working with these? Or the other way round: how much do we impede them by not offering new ways of learning and community work?
Due to the fact that Internet pervades our daily life and its availability is still increasing, perhaps the whole teaching and learning process of the university has to be rethought. Increasingly we are living our lives on the Internet: banking activities, booking, reading news and so on, will lead to new ways of use [3
]. Growing bandwidth accommodates the demand for watching TV and movies online or sending audio files as podcasts all over the world. These change our life and our behavior tremendously.
The availability of new mobile devices such as mobile phones or PDAs implies the use of them [4
] not only in business or private life but also for learning scenarios [5
]. Technology impacts learning environments and learning styles [6
]. If people are becoming more and more mobile, why should they not learn mobile? Is this the challenge of the future? Why should we not adapt informal communication, distribution and consumption structures for learning processes?
As a matter of fact we are convinced that learning and all further processes concerning the educational system are changing. Ally [7
] mentioned: „At the same time, today’s and tomorrow’s learners will be nomadic and continuously on the move. As learners move from one location to the next, they must be able to use the infrastructure in different locations to access learning materials. Hence, learning materials must be designed for easy access by the nomadic learners using mobile technology regardless of where they are located and which network infrastructure they are using to access information“.
Obviously there are many facts pointing to a different future in learning behavior. How does this reflect in the current situation at a university? Some research work in the last years tried to identify the differences between teenagers, the so called “net generation” [8
] or “digital natives” [1
] and so on, and their lecturers. Some further studies [9
] pointed out that the change is not as dramatically as might be expected.
However, it must be concluded that the Web 2.0 [11
] is a new expression for dealing with online information. Due to the fact that is widely used, innovative technologies lead to changes of society; it seems to be obvious that children, students or teachers will be practicing a different kind of learning and teaching in the future. Using Web 2.0 technologies for learning purposes, called e-Learning 2.0, was first coined by Stephen Downes [12
] in 2005. One small aspect in the broad range of possibilities is the use of Weblogs. “A frequently updated website consisting of data entries arranged in reverse chronological order” [13
] is a simple definition.
This paper deals with the use of Weblogs and Microblogs during a course in computer science. We address the research question “How can Weblogs and Microblogs enhance a traditional lecture?”.
2. Weblogs – Microblog - Blogosphere
“Every 30 seconds a new Weblog is born” – a simple slogan of the biggest weblog search engine Technorati.com (http://technorati.com
). But what does it mean? How powerful are weblogs and why are so many created within a short time frame? Weblogs get more and more popular and influence the existing landscape of traditional media. According to Rosenbloom this kind of web publishing tool is becoming a new form of mainstream of personal communication [15
From a technical point of view weblogs are a very simple tool. They are mostly programmed as php-applications and linked to a standard SQL database. Anyone (called Blogger) can write contributions via a WYSWYG-editor and publish them to the Internet by saving. Thus, becoming an active part of the Internet [16
], by using a user-centered, decentralized concept [17
], a so-called per-user publication form [17
], gets much more powerful than was expected in the beginning. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds helped to disperse information rapidly. By subscribing to a feed, information is not found by active searching but rather automatically provided. The sum of all Weblogs is called the Blogosphere.
The usage of weblog seems to be well established and first researchers show impressive results [19
]. Weblogs are mainly used for writing short essays and thoughts. Contributions are more or less commented by readers, sometimes small discussions are started. Although blogging is an appropriate form to write fast and small contributions on the web, there is a need to publish sometimes even faster. For example you are on the move and see something interesting (picture, link, etc.
) or you read an interesting article and like to share it. In this case a blog contribution is too complicated – this leads to a new form of blogging, called microblogging. Posting updates, ideas or simple notifications [23
] is the power of microblog platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Plurk. Java [24
] claimed three types of microblogging: information sharing, information seeking and friendship-wise relationship. Ebner & Schiefner [25
] expanded these types of microblogging by expressing the communication aspect. Especially learning is an active process on the part of the learner [26
] and proceeds through conversation.
The research question we like to address is to investigate how weblogs as well as microblogs can be used to enhance traditional lectures in Higher Education.
3. The Study
In October 2006 Graz University of Technology has launched an own blogosphere for all university members – students as well as lecturers. The environment is called TU Graz LearnLand (http://tugll.tugraz.at
) and is comparable to blogger.com. Every logged-in-user has his/her own weblog with the possibility to write, collaborate and share contents [27
]. Further, the system allows creating special communities. Each community has also an own weblog, which can be actively used by its specified members. In other words TU Graz LearnLand consists of a number of personal and community weblogs.
To investigate the use of weblogs and microblogs, the microblogging application Jaiku (http://jaiku.com
) has been chosen. Similar to Twitter (http://twitter.com
) small messages up to 140 characters can be posted to the personal microblog, a so-called channel. A channel is similar to a community weblog.
As an example the course “Social Aspects of Information Technology” was chosen. This course is an obligatory one for students of informatics during their bachelor program and tries to educate students to have a critical view on how informatics influences the human society of today. More than 200 students attend this course every year to listen to about 17 presentations held by different experts in different fields. Topics are for example Human Computer Interaction, eHealth, Google, Weblogs as well as Virtual Worlds or the use of informatics in civil engineering.
In recent years, students had to write two essays on topics of their own choice to pass the lecture. Based on the strict scientific rules a high amount of text documents have been composed. The big drawback of this method is that except for teachers, nobody else is reading any text of the students. From a very critical point of view it can be argued that the presentations of the experts was concentrated into a written form by the students. Nearly no reflection and discussion about the topics occurs during the whole lecture. Hence a new didactical concept was needed to increase students’ activity.
Three crucial didactical factors must be considered:
Reflection: Students have to rethink the presentation of the experts and form their very own opinion. Critical thinking and awareness about technology impacts and effects is the target of the lecture.
Discussion: Due to the fact that discussions lead to more than one perspective on a specific topic, these enhance the visible spectrum for each learner.
Quality: The major critics concerning the content of subjective user-driven essays concern a lack of scientific quality. Hence it must be ensured that arguments and opinions are strongly based on usual scientific rules, methods and approaches.
5. Technical Concept
Graz University of Technology has been offering an own learning management system (TeachCenter) and an own blogosphere (LearnLand) since October 2006.
The learning management system bases on the current developments of the Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media called WBT-Master. The idea behind it is to offer each lecture course a virtual course enhanced by all communication and e-Learning possibilities [28
]. With other words the lecture “Social Aspects of Information Technologies” has been implemented within the system and offers students a virtual board, an overview about all administrative activities and all relevant materials to the course as well as further features for uploading essays and reviews or discussion forum. The learning management system must be seen as the centre of all activities. Figure 2
shows the main course page – in the middle lecture notes for each presentation are available, on the right sidebar a widget displays all microblog postings (green), an additional feature allows the upload of articles for Scientific Writer and Reviewer (blue) and with the aid of RSS Feeds all contributions of Community Weblogs can be shown within the course (red).
TeachCenter – the centre of all activities.
TeachCenter – the centre of all activities.
The community Weblogs are offered via LearnLand, which bases on the open-source software ELGG (http://elgg.org
). Each university member (lecturer/student) is able to create his/her own weblog. Furthermore community weblogs are provided for a specific topic or lecture. There is a difference between a personal weblog and a community weblog. Writing within a community weblog is allowed only to its members. In other words each member of the blogosphere owns his/her personal weblogs and is a member of additional arbitrarily community weblogs. For this lecture nine Community Weblogs have been created. Figure 3
shows the Community Weblog on the topic “Media & Children”. The latest contribution is placed on the top. On the right side active users, saved bookmarks, an overview of members and search possibilities are offered.
Due to the fact that channels can be created simply and the mobile client was very convincing the platform for microblogging Jaiku was chosen. Furthermore by the possibility to embed RSS feeds of external resources the Community Weblog is observable. With the help of widgets the last microblog – posts are immediately visible in the Community Weblogs as well as in the learning management system (for example, see Figure 2
Community Weblog Media & Children.
Community Weblog Media & Children.
Weblogs and microblogs can enhance lectures by bringing the resources of the WorldWideWeb to the course and making them discussable. Both new technologies, however, cannot replace writing essays and articles, because of their different nature. But the transfer of thoughts and short statements is much more appropriate using this kind of media. Critical thinking and quality assurance need control elements: the microblogging group was essential for doing this by using comments of bloggers’ contributions.
In the end it has to be said that the most positive effect of weblogs usage was that the students wrote about a topic over a longer period of time. This led to a more in depth cognitive process: each blogger discussed his topic much more in detail than a comparable Scientific Writer. Thus it can be stated that weblogs as well as microblogs are very good for reflections over a longer time period, involving more exploring and discussing. How weblogs can support informal learning and community building will be investigated in much more detail in our future research.