If blog comments are driving the online education revolution, then why are they organised so badly?

Blogging in Their Own Words is a short film in which secondary school students in the US respond to the different types of blogging their teacher has required them to practise.

They seem to like it and find it helpful. But their responses give them away as – and this isn’t intended to be insulting – naive users with low expectations – none of the advantages and positive qualities either the students or the teachers identify for blogging are unique to blogging, and actually some of them are better found elsewhere. One thing I find slightly mystifying is that they’re not using discussion forums – mystifying because blogs are timebound, most recent post first – is this really the best way to organise student input? And also because although blogs are good for making individual presentations they are often poor at organising the ensuing discussion – again, if comments are presented in reverse chronological order it becomes impossible to follow any proliferating threads in the response. This kind of comment system makes blogs far inferior to discussion forums. The screenshots on the film show this – one post had 144 comments and the comments page shown was entirely flat – how are you going to find your way round that?

Blogging has a romantic appeal that discussion forums never had – in making a presentation you, common or garden citizen that you are, have a voice and people, if they respond, pay homage to you. Certainly, the layout and presentation on blogs is more conducive to an individual taking centre-stage – the preeminence of the blog post and the way it stands alone from the ensuing comments are different from merely starting and contributing to a discussion thread. There’s a hierarchy in which some voices are given emphasis over others.

That isn’t bad in itself – but part of this emphasis is an inadvertant function of the bad handling, common to much off-the-shelf blog software, of comments. Moodle’s (for instance, but there are many others) discussion forums are very helpful for getting the measure of a conversation topographically (visually). The indented threading option, combined with the ready processing afforded by each contributor’s graphical icon (as opposed to textual name) allows readers to gain an overview of the discussion, and follow arguments and/or the development of individual contributions in a way that most blog software still doesn’t. But what Moodle doesn’t do is allow commenters to reply (formally, I mean, so that a link is created) to more than one post at once – this almost certainly interferes with a learner’s ease of synthesising and weaving what is coming out of the conversation.

Another thing that most blog software has yet to offer, Moodle also allows rating of comments; in a discussion with Andrea about this he mentioned the emerging idea of inter-platform ‘kudos’ – the sum of your comments’ ratings which, with the advent of Open ID, you can carry with you between different environments. This echoes the Technorati approach to calculating ‘authority’, and accordingly is fraught with all the hazards and pitfalls of the Technorati approach – bias to the norm, bias against complexity, etc. However, it may work well in an educational environment where there is an ethos of risk-taking or experimentation in discussions, and I dare say there is research on this I’ve yet to read.

Here is an alternative (2005) response to the problem of responding to more than one post at once, which is addressed by prompting commenters to list the post (or posts – can be more than one) which inspired their comment and, if their comment inspires further posts, automatically updates the post links to the posts they inspired. Clicking the names takes you to the post. I don’t know how you link your comment to your post because the blog is no longer active. This approach is a bit disorientating (in all the jumping around you’re not sure if you’ve missed something important) and what it doesn’t do which is so important, and which Moodle and Digg do so nicely, is show you the shape and extent of a thread.

I await more alternatives with anticipation.


5 thoughts on “If blog comments are driving the online education revolution, then why are they organised so badly?

  1. Much appreciate that you took the time to flesh out a proper reply to my original post. At best, all I did was toss something up on the virtual wall…and see if anyone took notice. You definitely took it a step further!

    I agree that — like the use of all technologies such as PPt, for instance — that most students are not offering compelling examples of what is possible. Often a very flat (and not in the Friedman-esque way) demonstration at best.

    This is partially a technology issue, hence your question of blogging vs. forums. This is partially a maturity issue, hence the kids not going beyond superficial demonstration.
    This is partially a vision of teacher issue, too.

    But, I will also say that the value of ‘conversation’ that is so often echoed in the blogosphere is not necessarily found in the comment stream. I have blogged pretty aggressively for nearly 2 years now with lots of access to blogging networks/voices/leaders, and yet I have rarely commented on comments to my blog. All comments generally took place behind-the-scenes via email. At the same time, I used multiple forms — Skype, Twitter, email, blogging, wikis, etc. — to keep in touch and to further conversations that may have shown up as a blog post originally.

    Too often we assume that all of it needs to be solved by one tool or app in a linear manner (regardless of 1.0 or 2.0). We want the grand unification theory to come true. The real power of ‘conversation’ via blogging — et al — comes via the never-ending streams of conversation that are taking place simultaneously, and the infinite idea paths that arise.

    Now, if you want to foster a framed conversation in school, then I agree that blogging alone won’t do it. It either requires a more nuanced understanding of blogging as a ‘culture’ and style and community-builder, or other tools — Moodle, et al.

    But deeply appreciate your thoughtful deconstruction of my original link. Well done!


  2. Christian, hello.
    My feeling is that all of the educational claims made for online social networking depend on creating circumstances which bring them about.
    For example, it’s often said that the act of authoring a blog post advances these metacognitive skills:
    Understanding a subject through articulating it
    Honing writing and thinking skills
    Keeping a record of your learning
    So far so good. It’s also said that discussion, dispersed over different media, helps build the following skills:
    Defending or challenging a point of view
    Debating clearly, constructively and tactfully
    But if these are dispersed over different media the argument is likely to be fragmented, with each ramification isolated from the others. This may act against participants – learners – experiencing diverse responses to a post and reaching their own understanding within this diversity.
    I’m not in favour of constraining people to a piece of software – counterproductive not to mention impracticable. I suppose my point is that I think that it is educationally valuable to be able to aggregate all responses to a given post in one place (pingbacks make an effort at this) and represent them in relation to each other (which comment inspired which).
    As well as the act of thinking and commenting, I value the debate, and how it develops, as a text in itself. And I think that enabling the collection and presentation of the debate as a whole has potential to extend the educational reach of blogging beyond the blogger herself.
    Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I agree, blogging is not ideal for some of the ways we used it, but it was the best tool we had access to. I still haven’t found a free online discussion forum that doesn’t come with possibly inappropriate advertising and handles threads well (not to mention has some kind of consistent student user name attached to each post), and I haven’t been able to get approval from my district for Moodle (yet – I’m still working on that one). If you have any suggestions to look at, that would be great. (Also, I don’t know enough about Moodle yet, but how “public” can you make it? I want it visible to all, not just the class.)

    As far as the low expectations, I’d refer you to the original post where I said (among other things):

    Also, keep in mind that we’ve only been blogging for about a year and a half in my school, and many folks really only in the past six months or so, so we’re still learning. We’re pretty much still in the stage of moving and extending traditional classroom activities online, which I think can add value and enhance the learning when done well, but our next step is really to help our students develop their own personal learning networks through blogs and various other Web 2.0 tools. I hope that we will make some progress with that next school year.

    So, with that in mind, do you have some examples we could look at to learn from?

  4. Hello Karl,

    Thanks for your comment, and your reference to the original post.

    I can’t show you any glowing examples – for the reasons I go into above (i.e. I haven’t found the dream tool yet), also because the most vibrant discussion forums I know of at work aren’t public, and also because as a member of a central support department I have a very birds-eye view of what’s going on on a course level. My sense of dissatisfaction is directed at the tools rather than the people who use them – who often make do and get by admirably with what they have at their disposal (which is partly my meaning when I talk about ‘low expectations’)

    You asked about Moodle being public – you can make that course area entirely public, or just available within your institution, or available to anybody with the password (‘enrolment key’). Moodle’s discussion forum tool is one of the best I’ve seen on a VLE, or at all, for that matter (though it isn’t perfect). And if it’s the forums you’re particularly interested in, you can create a course area around a central forum (choose ‘social’ when you set up the course), giving that prominence.

    I’ll be interested to see how you get on with the personal learning tools, and also whether my ‘high expectations’ are reflected in your student bloggers and teachers as they become more experienced. It may be that they have others.

  5. But then again, as somebody (I forget who) said – “All software sucks”. Sometimes you just have to get on with it and not let having to devise work-arounds put you off.

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