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Stephen Downes, Research Officer, National Research Council’s Institute for Information Technology, Moncton, NB.
If you have heard about weblogs at all, you have probably heard of them described as being similar to a personal journal or diary. There is an element of truth in this observation. Weblogs began as an outgrowth of personal home pages, they contain a series of dated entries, and a great many weblogs are little more than personal reflections or talk about how the writers spent their day.
The typical weblog is the creation of one person. It is intended to capture the day-to-day thoughts of that person, ordered chronologically and displayed with the most recent entry at the top. And with the advent of simple and powerful weblog authoring tools such as Blogger (http://www.blogger.com), weblogs became the vehicle of choice for people without much to say but with the desire to say it in any case, so long as it did not take too much effort. And so the early days were filled with reminisciences of teen-age angst, failed and flawed romance, efforts to stay on a diet, and the usual run of information of interest only to the author and perhaps a close circle of friends.
As the popularity of weblogs grew, however, they began to reach to a wider range of interests. Users of Userland software, for example, began to follow creator Dave Winer's weblog in order to capture a sense of what an expert thought of the current state of content management and XML syndication languages. Readers of publisher Tim O'Reilly's weblog began to catch a glimpse into some of the issues surrounding open source software and solutions. It turns out that when experts, or knowledgable people in general, write weblogs, they have something of interest to say.
For many, weblogs quickly became the most effective source of new and relevant information about a discipline, a device that not only captured the pulse of an industry or field of study, but a means of finding out in a timely manner about the most important developments. News of articles, papers, applications and disputes would appear in weblogs long before they were captured by search services such as Google, and even longer before these same thoughts found expression in printed media such as books and magazines. Weblogs were like a direct channel into the heart of a discipline, expressed with the authority of those deeply involved in its inner workings.
Of late this has become most evident with a subclass of weblogs, called 'war blogs.' Written by people from all political stripes with a deep interest in the war in Iraq, the authors of these weblogs ranged from the causal observer (The Agonist) to the former military personnel (Tacitus) to the war correspondent (Kevin Sikes) to the person living in Baghdad (Salam Pax). Through these weblogs readers not only learned about the ebb and flow of the war and events leading up to it, they were also able to sample first-hand the thoughts of those directly
involved and to hear the same story from points of view not available in the traditional media.
Weloggers became not only a source of information about the war; they became a check and a balance to other source of information about the war. When a missile landed in an Iraqi market, for example, it was webloggers who performed the detailed analysis of the crater size and missile capacities in order to determine its probable origin. When the British government plagiarized evidence against Iraq from a graduate student's research paper, it was a weblog that found this out. "Given enough eyeballs," writes one commentator, "even a New York Times editorial can be corrected.” (http://www.oreillynet.com/lpt/wlg/1770) The webloggers' scrutiny extends beyond mainstream media: when The Agonist was found to be plagiarizing articles from a subscription-based news service, it was another weblogger that brought it to light.
By sheer dint of numbers and arcane interest, the weblogger community can and does extend much greater scrutiny to just about anything that catches its interest. This happens because webloggers, though they write as individuals, tend to work in groups or networks. On almost any weblog a reader will find a 'Blogroll,' that is, a list of other weblogs habitually read by the author of the site. Weblog authors read each other's posts, and as a consequence, a conversation develops between weblogs, each writer building on or reacting to the previous author's post.
Through the interlocked network of weblogs, information can spread like wildfire. Very few blogs have a large audience - the largest, Instapundit, attracts only some tens of thousands of readers. But the network of weblogs forms a set of interlocking communities, so that on the whole, a new idea or a link to a new article can move very quickly. What's even more significant is that these ideas and links will only propogate to those parts of the network where the information is of the most interest. The weblog community is therefore a highly efficient filtering community, a capacity that has been recognized by the establishment of such services as Metafilter, Blogdex and Daypop, and which prompted Google to purchase Blogger a few months ago.
Educators have been quick to seize the potential of weblogs for learning. They first used the format to exchange information among themsleves, developing such sites as elearningpost, Serious Instructional Technology, elearnspace and my own OLDaily. But a far more interesting use evolved when blogs were applied to classroom learning. Blogs are an ideal platform for student writing. As the authors of SchoolBlogs write, "SchoolBlogs can give children their own soapbox, their own voice. They become habitual writers. They are in control." This feature is attractive not only to school children but to learners at all levels, as the quick uptake by staff and students at the Harvard Blogs website shows.
According to SchoolBlogs, weblogs also foster communication between
students. "Working projects between schools across the globe can be
provided with an online platform in a matter of seconds. SchoolBlogs can also produce discussion and information flows within an individual educational establishment that are far more dynamic and effective than a traditional 'intranet'. Teachers and students are motivated to share information because they have ownership of it." (http://www.schoolblogs.com/stories/storyReader$265)
In both the educational and non-educational environments, the development of the blogging community is proceeding rapidly. Tools, such as Blogrolling (mentioned above) and my own Referrer service are helping blogs find the other members of their community. Sites such as Syndic8 and NewsIsFree are providing indices of blogs. A tool called Bloglet allows readers to receive blog updates by email. Blog content is now being distributed in XML using a language called RSS; this has allowed developers to create aggregation sites featuring content from several blogs devoted to a single topic. A good example of this is my EduRSS service, which list submissions from online learning blogs of note. Blog chats, discussion lists, filters and more may be found at the Weblogs Compendium Tools site. (http://www.lights.com/weblogs/tools.html)
The next educational use of blogs will be for the distribution of learning content. Blogs form an ideal medium for the distribution of professional development and other learning resources. Some initiatives have already started as places such as Maricopa College and the University of Calgary are experimenting with the use of RSS to distribute learning objects and learning object metadata. Coupled with a standard web browser or email client, or using a dedicated RSS headline reader such as Amphetadesk or Carmen's Headline Viewer, a learner may be presented with a selection of learning objects supporting day-to-day or preprogrammed study. This allows a learner to access resources from a wide variety of sources, including not only education providers, but also companies and individuals offering specialized learning opportunities.
Although weblogs began as vehicles for personal expression, they have become something much more. Because they tap into the heart of one of the web's great strengths, personal expression and control, and
because they draw on the communication capacities inherent in an inter-network, they have become an effective means of distribution any digital content and at the same time a highly selective filtering and classification system for that content. Weblogs are, right now, the best the web has to offer, and they herald a new era in online process and interaction.
References and Resources (* = by the author)
GENERAL INTEREST BLOGS