Talking to the darkness


Sarah Lloyd-Winder

Internet Cultures
The uses of social software in educational settings: some reflections based on practice and theory in the course

This is an account and reflection on my journey to create a blog suitable to use with my students. It had to have a purpose, work as defined by that purpose and reflect the needs and abilities of students working today within their qualification pathway. It also had to satisfy the education bodies that are worried by the greater implications of safety that are seen to impact on young people accessing and participating the world of web 2.0. Web 2.0 is defined by the Pew Internet research blog as:
Web 2.0” is an umbrella term that is used to refer to a new era of Web-enabled applications that are built around user-generated or user-manipulated content, such as wikis, blogs, podcasts, and social networking sites (Internet, 2009).
Finally the blog needed to find some relevance to students used to working in and with the world of interaction and participation that is web 2.0. As danah boyd, a researcher on social networking, says:
Today’s teens are still more interested in their friends than their lessons. They’re still resistant to power and authority at variable levels. They still gossip, bully, flirt, joke around, and hang out. The underlying dynamics are fairly consistent. That said, technology is inflecting these practices in a unique way. (boyd, Living and learning with social media)
The project meant that there had to be a swift understanding of how to create a blog that would have content to stimulate and interest the student, alongside creating something that would have a long-term educational purpose. To support this I looked at other blogs and blogging experiences in education. Lucie deLaBruere had created her own blog, which described her early experiments in blogging for an educational use:
First of all, this project helped to realize that there is a difference between a) using blogging tools and, b) the verb “blogging”. Blogging tools can become a teacher productivity tools, whether it be to post homework assignments for students to access, or produce an online newsletter for increased communication between homes and school. However, the increase and impact of blogging on our culture has made it more challenging to use blogging tools (which are really ‘easy web content publishing tools) without being associated with the blogging culture (which in an of itself has some negative associations for educators). (deLaBruere, 2005)
What I had gained from my reading and research was a feeling that the concept of web 2.0 was sandwiched between the educational blog, as described by deLaBruere, and the technical competence and playfulness of young people as described by danah boyd. It could be said that education takes a lively medium used by young people and decides that will make them read, write, take interest and solve a vast range of educational problems. As with everything else no solution is that easy, and hijacking popular culture to use in education has always had indifferent results. What I want is to use the skills and abilities young people gain in social networking and the wider use of web 2.0 to create a blog that has a clear educational and qualification based purpose but was not primarily literacy based.

The initial blog.
Researching the work of others and creating my own blog happened as a parallel process which meant there were quite a few experiment before I knew in which direction I would go with my blog. The first blog was initially trying out the wordpress program and testing how to get the words on the screen. There was also a lot of experimentation with the content of the blog. What is a blog, is it a diary or a gossip or a series of revelations? These all seem to be the simplest forms of one-person blogs that you find when you do some simple research.
One of the first blogs I looked at was by Rory Cellan-Jones (see below) who is a BBC technology reporter and avid Twitterer. It was a very simple and clear format with the interface focusing on the written word. For me the interface or page image is very important. As someone who is dyslexic the page view can help or detract from my ability to feel at ease with the written page. I had immediately dismissed all design pages that had more than one column of the prime blog content. Although many think that dyslexia is about spelling and grammar there is much more that might cause someone to have literacy problems. I have scanning difficulties that make it difficult to move from page to screen when reading (this was board to note taking in the classroom) and two columns on a page can make to impossible to read. I also find black type on a white page difficult and would rather use tonal ink or a tonal page to overcome this. That the student can also select a design styles that suits their needs and learning style is an important benefit from using web 2.0 technologies.
When I look at this blog I felt that although the type and presentation is clear, the black and white typeface here was too stark for me and I looked for a more tonal blog front page. I went on to choose a presentation with a tonal background. I was also able to personalise the blog with the inclusion of my own photograph.
The presentation style and design was very important to me. The fact that what you present can become personalised adds to the attraction of using blogs in an educational situation. Identity and the construction of online identity is an important part of the creation of the blog as identified by Huffaker and Calvert (Huffaker, 2005).
This was the style I used for the first blog . As I learnt how to use the functions I progressed to use images on the page but became frustrated, as I could not add sound. I later found that this was to do with the format rather than my technical ability. I was still exploring what the blog was going to be for. A research project that looked at the starting points for blogs found there were various answers:
Blogs were used by many of our informants as a record to inform and update family, friends, and colleagues via text and/or pictures of the author’s activities and whereabouts. Other bloggers used their blogs to document their lives as a personal diary seen only by the author and possibly a few friends.  Depending on the audience and content, a blog could be a diary/journal, a photo album, or a travelogue.  A single blog could be used in one or more of these ways. (Nardi, 2007)

If the starting point for my blog was exploration of the medium, I soon realized that I wanted to focus on an educational use, which I could use within my teaching at college. Thus my second blog was born and initially called ‘Digital Art Book’. With this blog I was seeking to create an area where students could collect and explore information in the style of a sketchbook normally used in an art classroom.

Although the use of colour, the black and red, worked well with the imported picture, a photograph of an original painting, the design had difficulties . As this screenshot reveals there is a lot of wasted space on the page and there are applications, such as the calendar, which are not needed. Although I could change some applications, to expand the main blog content area was more difficult. It is possible to access the HTML program code and change it but it was something that I felt was not necessary, as I could change blog design again.
On the first Digital art sketchbook I had looked at other blogs for ideas. The Guardian does an Art and Design blog:
This contains a wide variety information as words reviews, images and short films, all contained within one area. Other blogs are more like websites used by artists to sell their own work:
I was now refining my choices and focusing on what I felt would be most important for the final digital sketchbook.

By the time Green & Gothic was created I had a much clearer idea of what the blog was for and I had decided of a set of rules or barriers that would define this blog. I had chosen this design for the blog because of the simple design, the two areas one changing the other static . The use of a tonal background and the grey / blue typeface which cuts down on the black on white jarring, which causes some people to have difficulties reading online. I could also add as many ‘pages’ or different areas for different ideas. This was to be a digital art sketchbook, which would collect ideas and inspirations, leading toward final self generated ideas and a final major project. It would exactly mirror the sketchbooks all students create for all art projects but this one would support those working in a new media medium.
The Rules
As I worked on the blog Green & Gothic I decided that there needed to be a set of rules or protocols that would govern what would be included on the blog. The blog was to be a working model that would be taken back into college to be used with the students next year. This would leave the blog Soryahh to continue as a commentary, reflecting the processes I would go through creating the Green & Gothic blog and also the general reading and research I would undertake on web 2.0.
The first protocol was that everything must be possible for all students and this meant that things must free or possible for the majority of the students. Although it is seen as important and relevant to teach students in a style that reflects the general level of computer literacy, we have no research that defines what access students at Barnet College have to web 2.0 technologies outside college. This may seriously limit the ability of some students to develop their work as has been identified in research in this area of student access(Livingstone, 2004). Anecdotal evidence would suggest that vulnerable students living in difficult or broken family situations have limited access to computers. As the 2009 EU Kids online report suggests:
There remains in most countries a considerable gap between the ambitions of those promoting media literacy and the delivery of an effective media literacy curriculum. Specifically, those already ‘ahead’ tend to sustain their relative advantage over others, low media literacy is associated with other forms of social deprivation, and media literacy initiatives more effectively reaches the information rich than the information poor (de Haan, 2009).

I am seeking to introduce an induction questionnaire at college that would address this lack of internal college research, understanding of access difficulties should inform decisions about in college IT access.

If the first protocol was that the blog and its access must be as available as I can make it, then the second is that the interface must be as as accessible as possible. Because the students I work with have varying levels of literacy I made a decision to use as few words as possible on the blog, replacing them with images, sound and video. Trying to use sounds, or talking, instead of large areas of words created difficulties, as I soon found that the only way to add sound was to pay for extra space from the wordpress provider.
The difficulties were explored through the parent blog ‘Soryahh’, which enabled me to talk about decisions made and frustrations encountered whilst working on the Green & Gothic site. It was while I was looking for a way to add talking to my blog that I came across Audioboo which was talked about on Twitter. Audioboo is an iPhone application, which allows the user to talk into a phone, recording thoughts, ideas and descriptions. Access to the iPhone is limited so further research brought me to iPadio, which makes phlogs or audio blogs that can then be linked to you blog, Facebook page or other social networking site.  The ipadio application can be used for any phone, mobile and landline, and only costs a local rate call. This made it a possible application.
The third protocol or rule was that there must not be a high level of technical ability needed to be able to create the blog in new media style. As with sound links, video links were difficult to add. Again it was impossible to upload directly from desktop to blog without paying for extra memory space. It was possible to upload photographs and images from the desktop to the blog. To put video on the blog, work had to be uploaded to Youtube and then embedded into the blog. This worked quite well and I was able to load slide shows of photographs with music quite easily.
Having made decisions on what or how to create the digital sketchbook, it was now important to start exploring and experimenting to see if this style of blog world work and would be a useful learning tool.
Green & Gothic homepage.
The general theme for the blog was to collect images, sounds and ideas around a theme of gothic. This might include style, architecture and fiction influenced by the term ‘Gothic’. As with a sketchbook the initial searches are very wide and varied with no focus or direction at this stage. Because I saw the blog as a sketchbook/scrapbook I collected the images and films in a very random and haphazard way. At present I have not referenced each piece of work or annotated why I have chosen each piece. Initially I wanted as little writing as possible so I have not even said where work has come from. There was also the formality that blocks of words would introduce to the blog.

The main or ‘homepage’ for a blog works in reverse building the newest post at the top of the page. When you add additional pages to a blog the newest addition tends to be at the bottom of the page. The homepage built a collection of ideas from a film trailer, to the Highgate Cemetery walk and onto the first iPadio posting. Gradually I would add pages to express different ideas, or show different explorations.
Dark Face
Dark Face was the first extra page I made for the blog. The first page, the homepage, had been a collection of primary source information. Dark face was secondary sources building on the initial ideas. I did not want to develop too fast so the central slideshow was a slow collection of original photographs worked in black and white. Using the protocol of few words has left me with little area for explanation on each page and this may be a mistake. I have tried to use iPadio but I am not sure that it works as a form of annotation. I am thinking of getting a webcam and trying this as we have access to new Mac’s at college with integrated webcam’s.

This page is also linked with a website that discusses of Alice in Wonderland in terms of Gothic (gothic as in Goth style or sub group) imagery.

Green, the second page, developed ideas further and the short film was an original piece made for the page. Although still using only photographs, I want the sketchbook to develop towards a film as a final project, it is a more experimental piece than the slideshow on Dark Face. The image was in a gothic style distorted in imovie and then played back against a track by The Horrors. At present the pages are in alphabetical order but it would be more logical to have them in developmental order. This change would help the viewer progress through the blog, creating their own narrative.

Finally we come to the angel’s page, which is moving, towards my final piece. This is where the work has developed further away from the Gothic idea to a newly defined idea. Here I have come face to face with the problem that I have not labelled and annotated images. This can bring up ethical issues of citing others work. If I was creating a drawn sketchbook I might start my project with collections of postcards, photos and images from magazines. These might be collected for colour, design or other factor. Do I want to cite and label every image?

What happens next
I am working on creating a page that addresses the need for more information on the page and ensuring the photo is cited. This page was rather disappointing. Unlike in Word I could not text wrap the images so we have a lot of empty space. I could not get the three photographs to line up. These problems need to be sorted out so that the blog works as a sketchbook. The second line up works much better but is only achieved with a lot of editing.
I have decided to use short explanations and to make sure that each photograph and film has the origins noted.

When I set out to research and experiment with blogs for use in education I had no specific pathway. I have looked at various examples of blogs and where they are being used in education. They are often used in quite a narrow way as defined by the department of education in WA:
Blogs provide a communication space that teachers can utilise with students whenever there is a curriculum need to develop writing, share ideas and reflect on work being undertaken in the classroom.  (WA)
Most online blogs in the UK, that I could find, are in Higher education and are used for reflection on the process of learning. I found this very limiting especially as for students at L1 & L2 (generally on or below GCSE level) whose literacy skills are low. These are the type of students that my blog is aimed at. In informal conversations with staff in Further and Higher Education they suggest that there is often reluctance by students to take up blogs. I wonder if this relates to the fact that to students we are replacing one written task with another. It also seems that in using a blog as a reflection or evaluation exercise we are limiting the possibilities of this new medium. As I finish my reflection I have found new areas to explore to add such as Soundcloud. My reflection must end with my very personal thoughts about the whole process. It has been such a wonderful exciting experience that I cannot stop here and my process of exploration and development will continue.


One response

  1. quitefarnorth

    Hi Haven’t had time to read all of this but I love the way you have organised it. Organisation … hmmm.. What is that??

    August 4, 2009 at 9:38 am

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