== Blogs and Wikis for K-12 Language and Literacy Development ==
By Daisuke Funai
== Introduction ==
The proliferation of electronic devices is becoming increasingly apparent to anyone who has stepped inside an American school in recent years. Even in the nation’s inner-cities, many students flaunt their iPods and sidekicks and display a fluency in all things digital. These digital natives are growing up in an exciting new world, but the ubiquity of new technology and the most recent developments on the World Wide Web—increasing the capacity for more people to publish and participate online—present new social, cultural and educational challenges and implications (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). The context in which education was (at least conceived to be) confined within the walls of a classroom has shifted to a more globally connected reality, in which the innovative uses of technology highlight the fact that learning occurs all around us. Indeed, Web 2.0 has opened doors to distance learning and foreshadowed, for some, a refinement of the learning process altogether. Yet despite the inherent educational qualities of Web 2.0 applications and software, their adaptation for formal educational practices has had varying results (Bernard et al., 2004). In light of the shifting identities stemming from the advent of these revolutionary features of Web 2.0, it is imperative that educators are cognizant of both the benefits and consequences of using them to promote learning and ultimately, to promote cross-cultural awareness. This section provides a brief overview of two features of Web 2.0—blogs and wikis—that may be useful for promoting literacy and language acquisition through K-12 distance learning projects, while considering technical and social benefits and precautions. Through this brief exposition, it is hoped that the concluding section will provide a starting point for further reflection and consideration of how these technologies are impacting the lives of generations new and old.
== Defining Web 2.0 and Distance Learning ==
Ten years ago, there was not a single country where the majority of its people accessed the Internet, and very few utilized it in the collaborative and imaginative ways it is currently used (Warschauer, 2003). Today, there are at least 47 countries with an Internet penetration rate above 50 percent (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2008), and online publishing and participation is no longer limited to an erudite and select few. Simple and easily accessible software has spawned the development of wikis, blogs, podcasts and social networking sites. The amalgamation of these new features—some which had existed before, albeit less accessibly—has been coined the second generation of the World Wide Web, or more simply, Web 2.0. The most conspicuous qualities are its capacities for fostering widespread publication and participation (Warschauer & Grimes, 2007; Freedman, 2006).
The expanded capacities of Web 2.0 are inherently conducive to distance learning, the definition of which is often contested and hardly explicit. However, the following section will work under the assumption that distance learning encompasses the ways in which new telecommunications technologies, particularly those afforded by computer-based software, allow learners and educators to communicate, interact and construct knowledge together in a way that was not once possible due to geographic limitations (Taylor, 1991).
== Selected Features of Web 2.0 for Distance Learning ==
Inventions such as social networking and video-sharing sites are characteristic of the new Web 2.0 era in which innovation is merged with practicality. Web 2.0 software and applications afford revolutionary mediums of communication and interaction through their various features. The discussion below aims to highlight two features of Web 2.0—blogs and wikis—that are particularly conducive to distance learning and the teaching of literacy and language. The discourse is not comprehensive and does not offer a how-to, but rather serves as a catalyst for thoughtful contemplation for educators and technology coordinators before embarking upon the exciting educational experiences that Web 2.0 has to offer.
A popular form of one-to-many communication (Freedman, 2006), a blog (derived from the word Weblog), in its most basic form, is essentially an online journal with the most recent post listed first. This medium has quickly grown in use throughout the world, with over 112.8 million blogs being tracked today (http://technorati.com), and it now takes shape in various forms including newspaper columns or pamphlets, especially with regard to political topics (Baron, 2008; Warschauer & Grimes, 2007). Participation in blogs can take place in several ways, depending on the popularity and structure of the blog. Sophisticated blogs can have several editors, regular writers and contributors who begin a thought process to generate threads, comments and responses from other users
(Warschauer & Grimes, 2007).
The potential for blogs to aid distance learning is far greater than one-to-one communication mediums such as emailing or instant messaging due to its inherent capacity to reach wider audiences and foster collaboration. Whether the blog is utilized for knowledge collaboration across classrooms in different countries or for students to supplement class work and delve further into topics at home, this medium provides a phenomenal way for students to endeavor and experience publishing their own work.
Successful blogs, regardless of the size of audience, “tend to have a strong authorial voice” (Warschauer & Grimes 2007, p. 8). As such, this medium affords a great way for educators to teach writing styles. There are myriad possibilities. Students, for example, could find pen pals in other parts of the world and engage in cross-cultural exchange through letter writing. Teachers could help guide the process by proposing themes or topics. Students could also develop writing skills and voice by completing writing assignments at home. This last point has some positive implications for struggling students in particular. It is increasingly apparent that formal schooling is not the exclusive factor affecting students' academic development; what happens at home is equally as important as what happens at school. Using blogs for at-home writing assignments, especially over the summer or other holidays when students are not in school, can help bridge this achievement gap. Moreover, in allowing for authorship and empowering students to contribute to a global information network, blogs enhance student participation and motivation (November, 2006).
Another potentially exciting area for blog use is in second language (L2) writing or foreign language study. Immersion is often cited as the best way for one to learn another language. Although this may be the case, recent technology and features like blogging allow for students without the time or resources to travel, to do the next best thing.
The benefits of blogs for educational and distance learning purposes are many, although they require educators and technology coordinators to be cognizant of equally numerous threats and dangers—both traditional and new. The ease and convenience for publication is both an appeal of the technology as well as a source for caution. The danger for plagiarism is nothing new, but this medium requires educators to understand the new ways in which information is readily available to students and how entire genres of writing are being transformed. Indeed, in many ways, blogs and other Web 2.0 features are reconstructing what constitutes legitimate knowledge. Publication no longer necessarily entails laborious vetting processes. Thus, the ease of authorship for the masses creates new challenges to ensure that students are cognizant of what authorship means. With the freedom of expression and publication also comes the possibility of exposure to many different and conflicting points of view and, at times, inappropriate posts and abuses. Karchmer (2001) studied the best practices of pioneering educators who have been successfully adapting technology in the classroom to promote literacy and found that these teachers spent significant time finding reading level- and age-appropriate text. Textual aids and interactive features were important for capturing students’ interest. And teaching responsibility and reminding students of the world lens for which they are publishing is essential (November, 2006). Educators and technology coordinators should create rubrics in a concerted effort to provide students with guidelines and evaluation criteria for choosing sources of information (Karchmer, 2001). It is also extremely easy to get lost in the immense network of the World Wide Web. As students learn to develop a voice in their writing, they should always be reminded of both the target and potential audience that is accessible through this technology.
Wikis are also great resources for students and educators to use for learning through time and space. They are similar to blogs in that they are websites that allow for collaboration, but wikis allow for expeditious editing of the site as well, intertwining the role of author and reader/editor (Terrill, 2006). Although there are not as many wikis in cyberspace as there are blogs, their presence is inescapable, and most students in the US undoubtedly already access the highly popular open-source, public encyclopedia: Wikipedia (Warschauer & Grimes, 2007). Many students use this site for quick reference, and they would be astonished to learn that since it was created in 2001, 5.77 million users have made over 250 million edits to Wikipedia (Wilkinson & Huberman, 2007).
Wikipedia is quickly shaping the manner in which digital natives retrieve, understand and use information and can serve as a great educational tool. Because Wikipedia is translated and/or created in several languages, it can be a useful resource for foreign language teachers. Students and teachers can reference various topics and themes and compare them in disparate languages, thus allowing for an integrated topical as well as language study. Although there have been studies equating and validating the accuracy of Wikipedia with more reputable encyclopedias (Warschauer & Grimes, 2007), Wikipedia has yet to be acknowledged as a credible academic source. It provides a great starting point and reference for discovery and learning, but educators must be extremely cautious about working with students to develop an understanding about authorship and credibility.
Much of the research and analysis regarding wikis has focused on the legitimacy of information presented in wikis (Warschauer & Grimes, 2007), implying the importance of understanding authorship and credibility. But educators and learners can also utilize wikis to construct their own knowledge collaboratively. Wikis are extremely easy to use and some are designed specifically for educational purposes; its design lends itself to collaborative group work, requiring the inputting and editing of information by a team of students and teachers. On sites like PB Wiki, users enjoy a number of other convenient and beneficial attributes. Wikis allow for safe storage of work and a referencing back to past course work. They also allow students and teachers to share digital files, including video and audio features for learning enhancement. Both teachers and students can post homework assignments, helping to alleviate the potential for miscommunication or irresponsibility. By moving to a virtual medium, parents can also be more involved in the dialogue and their children’s learning. Furthermore, teachers also have important control options. Changes to the wiki are visible and access controls can be set to ensure privacy (http://pbwiki.com/). All of these can facilitate everything from cross-cultural exchange to an at-home expansion of classroom activities, engaging students in learning in unconventional spaces. What makes this even more appealing to educators is that wiki software is often equipped with tracking devices to record individual contributions, allowing for seamless individual assessments (Warschauer & Grimes, 2007).
The possibilities for using such applications for distance learning and literacy and language education are unlimited, and the highly collaborative nature provides an ideal space for cross-cultural exchange. For example, classes from different countries could work together on editing pages on particular themes. Unlike blogs, which are also good for teaching writing, the space would allow literacy instruction to take place in a more interactive format. Instead of the write and response format of the prior, wikis allow for educators to make marks right on the students’ work. Furthermore, through tracking of changes, students, parents and educators can mark the progress of a writing assignment, effectively displaying the many steps involved in the crafting of an essay. Using the technology for language instruction would also benefit from this style of interaction.
The potential educational benefits of utilizing wikis for out of the classroom instruction are obvious, but educators should be also be aware of precautionary considerations in implementing any new technology. Unlike blogs, wikis allow for a displacement of individual voice with collaboration on a given topic. This warrants many discussions on authorship and knowledge construction. Open wikis can also be susceptible to the risk of spamming and hacking from unwanted participants (Freedman, 2006). Therefore, technology coordinators should be aware of privacy settings. It is also advised that educators become familiar with the particular software or websites before implementing them into lesson plans. The collaborative nature of wikis can make both the orchestration and product of the work extremely disorganized. An instructor’s consistent involvement and knowledge of the technology is imperative. Fortunately, most sites are designed to be extremely user-friendly.
Cooperation with other classrooms and cultures is highly encouraged but should also be conducted with care. Although such exchanges can provide extremely rich learning experiences, they have much potential for creating frustration as well. For example, a study by Pfeil et al. (2006) found that editing styles and norms differed greatly across various languages and cultures. This is also true with how argument and writing is constructed. Understanding this and teaching students a particular form while preaching cultural sensitivity to various styles of writing, argument construction and editing, can be a challenge. But doing so is essential and will ensure fulfilling experiences for all those involved.
Finally, the use of information sources such as Wikipedia can also facilitate a move towards a convergence of information. For example, if classes in China are translating work written in English, it could become an inadvertent move towards a globalization of information. On the other hand, wikis and other Web 2.0 features have the potential for learners and educators to specialize their fields of study in ways that were never possible before. The juggling act between these polar extremes is something that educators and technology coordinators will have to refine.
== For Further Consideration ==
The educational capacity of Web 2.0 is apparent with merely a quick glance at these two applications. Additionally, Web 2.0 offers many more exciting possibilities, but in this digital age where a whole generation has been labeled digital natives (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008), it is imperative to keep up with shifting technological and social changes to ensure that Web 2.0 is utilized for effective educational purposes. Baron (2008) discusses some of the social consequences that we are already witnessing. The over-stimulation caused by the ubiquity of computers and cellular phones means that Americans are always connected. This has tremendous social implications as people learn to multi-task and make sense of the monumental access to information and communication. As barriers shift, privacy and safety issues become apparent as well. The bombardment of not only information but also the proliferation of advertisements and increase of cyberbullying highlights the important role that parents, teachers and technology coordinators play in promoting general Internet safety. A concerted effort should involve all three constituents in dialogue and produce a formal written agreement (Karchmer, 2001).
Equally important is the need for parents, teachers and technology coordinators to understand the context in which digital natives are maturing. From the use of emoticons to the general condensing of language, it is evident that these technologies are shifting language practices. Baron (2008) goes so far as to reflect that the increase in online writing has contributed to the gradual deterioration of language in general. This is compounded by the fact that text is increasingly supplemented with audio and visual elements. Web 2.0 technologies are indeed affecting both language use as well as social relationships (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). But rather than viewing the emergence of Web 2.0 as the deterioration of communicative practices, it is helpful to understand all of this in the context of the nature of language. Evolving literacies highlight the inherently shifting nature of languages and remind us that languages are indeed human constructs. In this environment that is so conducive to information overload, it is imperative to have conversations with students about discretion, responsibility and critical thinking.
In addition to such dialogue, it is imperative to supply educators with the resources and expertise for effective implementation. Cuban (1986) found that in addition to their own educational experiences, teacher practices are heavily influenced by classroom environment expectations. This makes the task of technology coordinators a vital one, as they must work with teachers in breaking traditional molds and provide adequate training.
== Conclusion ==
Technology affords greater conveniences but the experiences are still fundamentally human. Whether students are learning from each other via technology or reading a traditionally bound, physical book, it is important to recognize that distance learning occurs through myriad mediums, and mediums evolve with time. Being aware of these issues and reflecting on how technology can enhance curricula, and in some cases, reinvent it, so that these mediums can be utilized positively is our responsibility. Such discourse will lend itself to promoting citizenship in the global information age. To this end, educators should encourage more openness. Students should not only develop their digital literacies but also understand them in the context of our ever-interconnected world. They should be encouraged to read and contribute to blogs and wikis from around the world. They should be encouraged to reach out cross-culturally. And they should be cognizant of their privilege and responsibility as those on the advantaged side of the digital divide. Teaching context and fostering in students the need to be globally minded as we experience a further information convergence is imperative for promoting practical and ethical uses of Web 3.0.
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