In a post for the EVO 2010 Multiliteracies session (it’s on Ning, and you have to be a group member to read the original post), Vanessa Vaile counts up the “clutch of blogs” she maintains, and discusses what she uses them for. She talks of other people’s (mis)conceptions of what a blog is, or should be. Implicit in her post – as I read it – is the view that a blog is a publishing platform, which you can use how you see fit, and this is exactly what I feel.
Her post set me thinking about my own blogging experiences, which date back less than three years to a conference at my institution on Emerging Technologies, and as I wrote in my first post two days later:
“They all ganged up on me and said “you have to blog, you’re no-one unless you blog”, so here I am, too weak to resist.”
So I’ve been looking back over the blogs that I’ve played about with since then, asking myself the usual questions: why? what? where? when? how? who for? was it worth it? . . .
I couldn’t think what to blog about (what have I got to say about anything?), but I wanted to give the format a try so I started it off just with a few posts about things I had been doing, places I had been to. It was a personal blog, a ‘sort of a diary’, so I gave it a personal name, Micalet, the Valencian version of ‘Michael’ and the popular nickname of the cathedral tower in Valencia (Spain).
Right from the start I realised that, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, so I began to use my camera-phone to snap anything I thought I might want to write about later. Since I was mainly writing about people, places and events I was usually able to get at least a couple of pictures to choose from. Even though many of the snaps are poor quality, they fulfil several important functions for me: they illustrate and brighten up the post, and hopefully add a little bit of meaning, and immediacy, to it.
The Daily Post
A few months later, as part of the SMiELT strand (Social Media in English Language Education) of EVO08, I decided to try out another platform – Micalet is on Blogger, so I started this blog on WordPress. The intention was to post something relevant to the course as frequently as possible, so I called it The Daily Post. The first post is ostensibly about a music session I had been to the night before, but as you can see it was really just a ‘sandbox’ for me to find my way about WordPress. This blog developed into a place for (very infrequent) comments on e-learning, learning technologies and other more or less professional matters. My identity here is ‘Michalska’, which is a street in Prague (named after me, of course).
A couple of weeks later, spending a few days in Spain, I started up a blog in Spanish, the language I have spent my working life teaching. Someone in one of the EVO08 strands had asked if I had a blog in Spanish, so I thought I’d give it a try. I put it on WordPress again, and called it La Sombrilla – ‘the sunshade’, a play on my surname this time.
However WP wouldn’t let me choose a Spanish-sounding identity – because I already had a blog there, I had to keep the same identity – michalska. Initially I thought I might write about my experiences in Spain, in Spanish, and perhaps my students might be interested. However it didn’t work out like that – I didn’t keep it up, and there are only 3 posts, the last one being a version in Spanish of a conference report originally written in English here on The Daily Post. I’ll be in Spain again in a couple of weeks – perhaps I should give La Sombrilla another go?
– At work –
EVO08 gave me the chance to see what other language teachers were doing with blogs, and this prompted me to start exploring how I could use the format in my own working situation as a teacher of Spanish at a UK university. I tried a number of activities with different groups, but mostly I just asked students to submit their written work via a class blog. I won’t go into detail here, but I discussed some of the issues that arose in a post at the end of that academic year: Exploring Web2.0, and learning to SMiLE. This experience led to a series of workshops for colleagues, an informal working group, and a project – Social Media in Language Education (SMiLE – yes, I pinched the name from EVO08’s SMiELT :-)) – for which I was awarded a Learning and Teaching Fellowship at my University.
The SMiLE wiki was intended to be the hub of our activities, and so it was for a year or so. However, since I retired last summer the group has gone into hibernation, and I have not touched the wiki since then either. Yes, I know, I should keep it going – another ‘retirement project’, perhaps?
San Miguel Bajo
In my personal blogs I had experimented with various ways of embedding images, sound and video, and this quickly suggested to me that a blog could provide a useful platform for presenting online materials for my students. This led me to develop a blog site for just this purpose: San Miguel Bajo (it’s a square in Granada – named after me again).
I decided to host this site externally, on Blogger, largely because my University’s VLE, based on Blackboard and ELGG, couldn’t handle the embedding in the way I wanted. Images are mostly embedded from Flickr, audio clips from Box.net, videos from YouTube and slideshows from SlideBoom, which at the time I felt offered a cleaner interface than SlideShare. Although the embeds appear small in the blog post, most of the videoclips and slideshows will display full-screen, so you can use the embeds to show them in the classroom, and students working on their own can still read the small print on the slides. Much of this material I have uploaded myself precisely in order to be able to embed it here.
Other embeds which we enjoyed trying out include a Google Street View tour of Seville with (separate) audio commentary (although the map doesn’t want to embed in the blog for me at the moment, I have to click on ‘Ver mapa más grande’), and a Google Map of Salobreña with annotated placemarks that link to videoclips associated with each place.
This blog has no writing, there are no posts as commonly understood – it is purely used for housing materials, which can then be linked to from within the VLE so that they appear to be part of it. Hosting the site externally also brings added bonuses for me: the materials are not restricted to my institution, so anyone else can use them, and I can continue developing the site now that I no longer work there – or rather I could – in fact I have done very little with it since I stopped working.
I also set up a ‘sister’ wiki to help organise access to the materials housed on the blog: La Placeta de San Miguel Bajo (the little square of St Michael), which again anyone can access.
Just a bit of F.U.N.
Meanwhile I had a few little projects in my head that I wanted to put online, but which I preferred to keep separate from my personal Micalet blog.
When my football team’s greatest rivals had their worst ever start to a season, I reckoned a blog would be as good a way as any of marking the occasion, so I set up the Seven Sisters Conjunction, named after the road in North London which runs between the two grounds, and gathered together some of the jokes which were going the rounds as well as some pseudo-scientific inventions of my own. For this blog, on Blogger again, I wanted to be able to post with a separate identity, so I had to set up a separate Google account. Here I am ‘Northbanker’, named after the part of the ground I used to watch from as a lad.
Some years previously I had set up a static web page dedicated to aptronyms – people whose names reflect their occupation – another little thing that never ceases to please my little mind. Once I had started using blogs I realised they offered a much better platform for this sort of occasional posting, and were much easier to manage, so I set up Like a Glove; I post here with my usual Blogger identity, Micalet.
I also find myself drawn to odd, ambiguous or incomprehensible signs in public places, and realised I had been taking photos of them for some time. You know what comes next – yes, another blog site! On Signpostings I wanted to call myself Signposter, but it was all getting too complicated so I just as post as Micalet.
I’ve no idea if anyone looks at these sites, but I don’t really care – they’re for my own amusement in the first instance, and if others like them, great. Just another bit of Frivolous Unanticipated Nonsense, really.
My partner Jan and I visited Israel and the Occupied Territories last November, primarily on an organised tour of traditional and community dance groups, but also taking in a visit to a permaculture project and including a number of family encounters on the way. The trip – the first to Israel for both of us – was a succession of huge experiences and strong emotions, of many sorts. We took hundreds of photos, and shot several hours of video, most of which is now finding its way online. And of course it’s all being held together by means of a blog, Merkavah 09 (‘Journey of Light’). There is a massive amount of material, and to organise it and keep it under some sort of control I’m trying to draw on some of the techniques I have come across in my other blogs, and those of others.
During the trip, I tried to remember to take a few pictures on my mobile phone at each place we visited, and send them up to Flickr directly from the phone the same day, preferably with a brief description. Then, whenever we managed to get internet access, I posted the pictures from Flickr across to the blog, with their original descriptions. This provided a very patchy coverage of the trip, but at least it established an online presence that friends and family could look at from time to time. Since we returned we have been gradually increasing and expanding the posts – there’s so much to say!
I spent the first month or so after we got back going through all my photos, selecting, editing, cropping, lightening, darkening, and sending them all up to Flickr, where I put them into Sets, and put all the Sets into a Collection (also called Merkavah 09). Flickr allocates a unique url to each photo, each set, and the collection as a whole, so I can create links from the blog to any group of appropriate pictures.
One feature I have found very useful is that Sets in Flickr have a Slideshow button, and the slideshow itself has a url – so I often link to that from the relevant blog post, as a slideshow presents the pictures in a more immediate way to the viewer; see for instance the Old City Souk post – click on the picture or the link to go straight to the slideshow. I have used this technique with teaching materials as well – see La Comida (food) or En la Ciudad (around town), which we have used to develop vocabulary and conversation skills for beginners.
Another useful – in this case vital – technique for me has been the judicious use of tags, which Blogger calls labels, for the internal organisation of the material. I have renamed them Topics in this blog, because that’s what I’m using them for. Clicking on a Topic (there’s a list in the right-hand sidebar) brings up a page populated only with posts carrying that tag; this page in turn has a url, so that I can link to any of the Topics as I feel the need. For instance, here’s our Jerusalem page; at the time of writing this has 19 entries, but there are several more that we haven’t started writing yet – when these are posted, and tagged ‘jerusalem’, they’ll be automatically added to the page. This page has no permanent existence, but rather is composed on the fly when you call it up by clicking on the link.
[I had first come across this feature when working on San Miguel Bajo. Try clicking on one of the module codes – SPxxx – in the ‘Etiquetas’ (tags) list in the sidebar – this will bring up just those posts relevant to that module, with a unique url that can then be used in a link.]
There will eventually be 100 or so posts on this site – but many of them have not yet been drafted, yet alone written. We are writing and posting them as we get the urge (and the time!). So the order they’re going up in does not in any way correspond to the original order of events. However Blogger displays posts in strict chronological order of posting, with the latest at the top, and doesn’t allow you to play around with this sequence. If you look at the default ‘home page‘ of the blog at the moment, the post currently at the top (Yad Vashem) is in fact from the beginning of the trip. If you scroll through the following posts on that page you will see that the dates of the events, which I usually put at the beginning of a post, jump about all over the place.
I wanted a more coherent and easily navegable way for readers to find their way about the site, and for them to be able to follow the trip in chronological order if they so wished. At first I thought of using a text widget in the sidebar to display a list of contents, but soon realised that that would not be practical as there would be far too many items.
The solution I arrived at was to create a new post to serve this function, which I called the Timeline, and this is now the address I normally give out for the blog itself, my de facto home page, if you like. I am now aware that here at WordPress there is a ‘Pages’ facility, which allows you to create permanent pages from blank, and would do this job quite nicely. But I’d already posted tons of stuff to Blogger by the time I remembered this 😦 .
Every day you come across something new. I have been using Scribd to make text documents available online for display and download for some time, but it had not struck me that I could also use it to embed. When Jan passed me a pdf file with poems and photos in a layout that she wanted to retain, I uploaded it to Scribd and tried embedding from there – and hey presto it works! If the text is too small you can toggle Full-screen and back directly from the blog post, without being diverted to an external site.
So why use a blog?
I suggested at the beginning of this post that a blog is basically a publishing platform. As I have been preparing it I have become more aware of the variety of ways in which I have used them, and I am also aware that there are many facilities offered by blog platforms, commonly used by others, that I have not even tried using yet.
So let’s rephrase the question: Why use a publishing platform?
Why use a platform that can enable you to write what you like, when you like, how you like, to whom you like? That you can edit and re-edit at will, as often as you like? That you can use to publish to a select group or to the whole world? Where you can display your own or others’ text, documents, images, audioclips, videos, slideshows, charts, maps and Google Street View tours? That you can link from to anything on the big wide web? That you can organise and style in a variety of ways? That you can tag so that others can find it? That others can post comments to? That your students can use in as many or as few of these ways as you, or they, see fit? Or your Granny, likewise?