Weblogs help to encourage debate outside lectures. Shola Adenekan reports
US colleges, students and lecturers are embracing the next big thing in internet technology. Blogs, the journal-like websites that are big in politics and journalism, are fast becoming an important teaching resource.
John Palfrey, executive director at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center, is one of a growing band of blogging evangelists. Since 2003, when the law school began the first blogging initiative at a major educational establishment, providing a free blogging server to anyone on campus, Palfrey has been prophesising that the technology will change pedagogical practices.
Palfrey says there is "an amazing conversation going on among the 600 or so bloggers at the university" and the thousands outside its walls.
And other US colleges are taking the cheap, fast, easy-to-use blogging technology to new levels. At Middlebury College, Vermont, the creative writing department is using weblogs to promote active writing-to-learn activities and to improve collaboration between teachers and students and between students themselves. Future courses, the college says, will create a "weblog zine".
For professors, blogs are attractive because they require little effort to maintain and their interactivity allows them to give students feedback much more quickly than before. Catharine Wright, a senior tutor at Middlebury, adds: "Blogs allow for all sorts of innovation and, because they make writing so public and have such real-life applications, students take them seriously." Daniel Medina, a student at the college, agrees: "My learning experience has definitely been aided by blogs. I also enjoy the opportunity to read my professor's opinions on issues outside of class."
At Harvard and Middlebury, students tend to blog about specific things discussed in classes that day. They may expand on their thinking, link to other bloggers, relevant news articles or new and breaking cases. Sometimes they blog about their interests. Managing them can be tricky. For instance, how much should a university service them? And how should they be monitored to protect the university from allegations of racism, libel, slander and plagiarism?
Britain's Birmingham University, for example, had to pull the plug on its service after incidents of anti-Semitic blogging.
But, despite some reservations, many blogging tutors in the US say the pros outweigh the cons.
"Using blogs in an academic environment is not just about jumping on the bandwagon of the next big thing," says Mary Ellen Bertolini, another senior tutor at Middlebury. "It's more about having an opportunity to bring discussion and resources to students faster and more completely."