Using Blogs to Enhance Literacy: The Next Powerful Step in 21st-Century Learning
reviewed by Melanie Shoffner - August 15, 2007
Title: Using Blogs to Enhance Literacy: The Next Powerful Step in 21st-Century Learning
Author(s): Diane Penrod
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1578865662, Pages: 175, Year: 2007
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In Using Blogs to Enhance Literacy: The Next Powerful Step in 21st-Century Learning, Diane Penrod asserts that weblogs more commonly known as blogs are an important new approach for teaching and learning [that can teach] students how to master language use, writing, critical thinking, and multimedia use (p. 151). Penrods argument is twofold. With the ever-increasing importance of technology in all aspects of society today, schools must prepare technologically literate students. Weblogs a form of asynchronous communication similar to online journals are a specific technology that support the development of students and should be incorporated into classrooms to that end.
Penrod looks at the literacy required of technology as a new literacy, one that draws on specific skills to present written information for an audience in an electronic environment. This new literacy reconfigures writing as a visual enterprise, where the presentation is as important as the message. She asserts that a new style of writing emerges in this environment, blending styles, strategies, and structures to express content (p. 36). This new literacy also alters the role of the individual. Rather than passively consuming information, students are actively engaged in creating meaning, making decisions on content and presentation, and determining the social, cultural, emotional and political impact of their words.
As the title suggests, Penrod considers blogs a crucial vehicle to support the development of this new literacy in students. She explains in the first three chapters of her book that weblogs are a new writing genre: part conversation, part diary, part narrative, part letter, part newspaper article (p. 44); blogs support individually motivated writing through an easy-to-use technical platform in a fun space that encourages feedback from an audience. Noting that blogs display a specific look and feel (p. 37), Penrod identifies six specific elements that differentiate weblogs from other writing genres: emphasis, tone, consistency, repetition, information placement and color.
These elements also speak to the differences inherent in the new literacy espoused by Penrod. Since weblogs exist in an electronic space, adolescents view their writing as an enterprise for communal consumption. As Penrod explains,
Even though these terms are common ones for English majors or writers, how the vocabulary is understood in a blog setting differs from the terms usage in print-based contexts To be competent writers for the 21st century, we have to become hybrids those who can shift linguistic registers or styles to fit the audiences needs and expectations. (pp. 37-38)
Penrod does not elaborate, however, on how this new writing genre should best be incorporated into the classroom to support the new literacy. Although some ideas for class blogs are presented (specifically on p. 47), Penrod does not quite link their use to her assertion that weblogs are changing the way people view writing, the writing process, and the finished product (p. 48).
Although this new genre of writing is open to anyone, Penrod sees blogs as a predominantly youthful subculture that few adults enter (p. 1). She cites the popularity of blogs among adolescents, noting that of the 900 million weblogs currently found on the Web, 52 percent are developed and maintained by 13- to 19-year-olds (p. 52). Because of their public existence on the Web, blogs are vehicles for social interaction, allowing adolescents to meet others who have shared interests and form communities without the social awkwardness of meeting face-to-face (p. 18).
Regardless of how adults may react to such communities, they appeal to a variety of adolescents, in Penrods words, providing a practical and useful medium for helping youngsters express their voices in the world (p. 17). She specifically considers how engaging with weblogs connects to issues of adolescent gender and ethnicity. In Chapter 4, she examines male and female blogging styles and the gender similarities and differences associated with adolescent blogs. The presentation of this information is linked to issues of literacy, where weblogs may be seen as gendered in relation to writing styles, content preferences and collaborative interactions. This, in turn, can inform teachers use of weblogs in the classroom to support male and female blogging and encourage all students, regardless of gender, to develop important technological abilities (p. 61).
Penrod continues this discussion of difference in Chapter 5 with a consideration of ethnicitys influence on weblog content and use. Asserting that blogs offer the social, spiritual, and intellectual outlets that [many minority adolescents] cannot find during the school day (p. 66), Penrod goes on to examine the benefits that at-risk students most often minority students accrue by maintaining weblogs. Among these, she notes that students can write about topics familiar to them, those who are not successful in the rigid social atmosphere of a classroom can perform under a different structure and those who may not interact well with peers can find other audiences with whom they can engage (p. 71). Although her emphasis on the connection between ethnicity and at-risk status may not appeal to many readers, in Penrods view, blogs offer a means to engage minority students with the new literacy required for participation in the 21st century.
Weblogs also have the potential to invite less than salubrious interactions, of which Penrod is justifiably concerned. She devotes three full chapters to the ethical issues surrounding adolescents and weblogs, however, in a book concentrating on weblogs and literacy. Chapter 6 deals exclusively with the concept of the cyberbully and examples rising from this dark side of adolescent life (p. 90). These examples, however, are not actually tied to weblog use but to other technologies used by adolescents to bully their peers. Chapter 7 addresses the issue of safe blogging practices, providing tips for schools and parents to make blogging safer for adolescents. Again, however, these tips are not aimed only at weblog usage but at Internet usage in general. Chapter 9 goes into more detail concerning the use of weblogs in an educational setting, explaining the need for a code of ethics for school blogging and providing examples of ethical codes for educators to adopt. While useful, this level of detail for weblog use only may be more than teachers are willing to embrace when many of the issues discussed are addressed in school technology guidelines.
Penrod clearly supports the use of blogs in education, linking much of her discussion throughout the book to the presence of blogs in the classroom. She explains that weblogs support cooperative learning, critical thinking, cross-curricular learning initiatives, student centered classrooms and multiple intelligences (to which Chapter 8 is devoted). As discussed previously, she sees that blogs allow students to engage with a different writing genre to expand their understanding and performance of literacy. Blogs also have the potential to support previously marginalized populations in the classroom, such as students labeled special-needs, deaf, visually impaired, emotionally challenged, at-risk and English-language learners. Specific examples of these benefits, however beyond the teacher testimonials offered in Chapter 8 would strengthen her call for weblogs in the classroom.
Penrods premise is a solid one: Technology is changing the way we understand literacy, and educational practices must respond to that change. While Penrod offers a wealth of discussion, summarized above, too often her arguments lack solid support. Too few references are provided throughout the book to substantiate the claims made about the benefits of blogging for adolescents or the connection between weblogs and increased literacy. While these contentions may be accurate, outside studies, additional readings and specific examples would provide support for Penrods ideas. Kajder and Bull (2003; 2004), for example, have researched weblogs in the classroom and found a range of benefits to students with their use, as have Richardson (2003), Oravec (2003) and Bull and Kajder (2003). Drawing from the research of teachers and teacher educators who use weblogs with their students would strengthen Penrods arguments and exemplify the issues she addresses
A second concern is the lack of concrete examples provided throughout the book. As Penrod notes, her intended audience is that of K-12 or K-13 teachers, school administrators, and parents (p. 154). If these adults are as unfamiliar with adolescents usage of weblogs as claimed, they would benefit greatly from multiple clear examples of the issues Penrod offers for consideration. What do students weblogs look like? How are adolescents configuring this emerging literary space? What literacy benefits differentiate blogs from other electronic spaces inhabited by adolescents, such as wikis or MOOs? In addition, while some classroom weblog assignments are offered in the book, the presence of more detailed assignments, accompanied by illustrative figures and explanations of classroom implementation, would only strengthen Penrods contention that weblogs provide a means for enhancing 21st century literacy.
Bull, G., Bull, G., & Kajder, S. B. (2003). Writing with weblogs: Reinventing student journals. Learning & Leading with Technology, 31(1), 32-35.
Kajder, S. B., & Bull, G. (2003). Scaffolding for struggling students: Reading and writing with blogs. Learning & Leading with Technology, 31(2), 32-35.
Kajder, S. B., & Bull, G. (2004). A space for "writing without writing". Learning & Leading with Technology, 31(6), 32-35.
Oravec, J. A. (2003). Blending by blogging: Weblogs in blended learning initiatives. Journal of Educational Media, 28(2-3), 225-233.
Richardson, W. (2003). Web logs in the English classroom: More than just chat. English Journal, 93(1), 39-43.