Saturday, September 29, 2012

Where's the Authentic Audience?

Have you seen the "buzzword bingo" games that go around at conferences? According to Wikipedia, a buzzword has the characteristics of:
  • Intentional vagueness. Their positive connotations prevents questioning of intent. 
  • A desire to impress a judge, an examiner, an audience, or a readership, or to win an argument, through name-dropping of esoteric and poorly understood terms in an attempt to inflate trivial ideas to something of importance.

One of these concepts, that is starting to feel like a buzzword to me,  is "authentic audience." You've heard it. I've said it. Students used to turn in work to the teacher, the audience of one. But blogs, wikis and other tools have changed all that. Now our students can share their work with (say it with me) "an authentic global audience." Really?

There is no doubt that student's work MUST be authentic and that writing for real communication is highly motivating. Take blogging for example.  Bloggers write to communicate, share and flesh out ideas. If the communication is one-way, learning may still occur. But without feedback and conversation, blogging is only slightly different than writing in a journal. If only the teacher reads and comments, how is blogging different than the "audience of one?"

What does this mean for student bloggers? What does it take to make the process truly authentic and truly interactive? I asked on Twitter but got no response...ironic? Or case in point?

Quality Work-
There are only so many people "out there" who want to read poorly written, lacking-in-passion posts with titles like "Journal #5." This poses a problem for teachers who are trying to embrace tools, but also looking for ways to structure writing assignments. Posting to a blog does not guarantee either student motivation or high quality work. 
How much choice are students given in the assignment? How much teacher guidance goes into the final product? I don't propose a canned solution. Like most dilemmas in education, every teacher has to figure this out by asking, "What will work for each individual student in my class?" 

Connected Teachers-
As teachers, we know the power of modeling. If we don't know or understand something, how can we teach it? Those teachers who, themselves,  have the strongest networks are the most successful with connecting their students in all kinds of ways. 
In my role, as teacher of teachers, it is not enough for me to set up blogs and teach the students and teachers to use them. If the teachers who assign the blog posts don't understand blogging in a deep, experiential way, the assignment is just that- a homework assignment.  

Give and Take-
In a conversation we talk and listen. We ask questions and care about the answers. Talking to myself is not a conversation. In the edublogosphere are we guilty of talking too much and interacting too little? How many bloggers leave regular comments for others? How many teachers who tweet and share the work of their own students, seeking comments and feedback from others, take the time to respond when someone else asks? 
Are we teaching our students to read the posts of other students? Are we taking the time to model and teach quality commenting? Are we assigning students to interact with others or just to write their own posts? Are we, as teachers, taking responsibility to mentor and interact with students other than our own? 

Writing with the Audience in Mind-
One thing that I have noticed over and over again, with students of all ages is the way they end a story or video or other project with the words, "I hope you like it" or "I hope you enjoy my story." They ARE innately creating with an audience in mind. And they want the audience to connect with their work. But we know that it's not enough to hope. We have to learn to use our words and images in ways that draw the attention we seek. We need to teach our students good writing, and good writing has a purpose and an audience in mind. 

Digital Literacy-
Digital writing is different. I am still learning this myself, as I know I am too wordy. In high school and college I wasn't wordy enough and had to force myself to say more to fill x pages or words to fulfill the assignment. The jury is still out on whether the Internet is making us shallower, but there is little doubt that our eyes are not drawn to endless lines of text on the digital page. Are we teaching students to use bullet points, subtitles and images? Are we teaching them to write succinctly and powerfully?

One of the parents at our school brought up the issue of humility. I thought it was an astute observation- that so much of online behavior is attention-seeking. We post something on Facebook because we hope it will be liked. We are excited for the "success" of a video gone viral. Is this the right measuring stick for work of meaning and depth, work that shows quality and growth?  How do we help students develop positive character values, such as patience and humility, in this instant, connected world?

These are just a few points to consider. What have I forgotten?


Jenny said...

"Authentic audience" is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about, especially during the past two summers as a part of the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Summer Institute. A big part of my focus has been on the idea of writing with the audience in mind. My first graders write for lots of different audiences, only some of them online. We write books that go into our classroom library for our friends to read, books that go in our school library for everyone to read, letters to pen pals in our buddy class, and other letters. Some of those we get feedback on and some we don't. I don't know that feedback is critical for all public writing.

Andrea said...

Hi Jenny,
Thanks for sharing your thoughts about writing for audiences. I don't think feedback is critical for all public writing either. However, even a lack of feedback in public writing can be seen as a form of feedback.
I'm thinking of both my own writing and also student's writing.

There are many times when I pour my heart and mind out on my blog, and receive either no comments or only "un-comments" (more on that in a minute). I can see that the post has had many views. This could mean a) the post was not interesting enough for someone to read the whole thing b) the post was read, but the reader did not relate to or understand or care about the content c) the post was read and understood, but did not inspire any comment d) read, understood, person thought about leaving a comment, but didn't have time or something similar.

So, this is in a sense feedback and also not feedback. It is certainly not very helpful feedback. However, it has made me think about how I present my ideas. I do write for myself, but I also really appreciate and value and learn from the connections.

I've been thinking a lot about this in light of student blogs. What we're starting to see is when teachers assign homework to be posted to the blog and the students are just writing to satisfy the assignment, many of the posts are beyond poor quality. It goes against this idea that just because it is on a blog and could be read by a wide audience, that it actually will be read or that the student is more motivated to write well.

Andrea said...

I didn't address the "un-comments" (got so long-winded I forgot to finish!). For a while now, almost the only comments I do get are from pre-service teachers who are assigned to comment on my blog.
The comments are rarely insightful and many times I question if the commenter has even read or understood the post at all.

Is this an example of the flawed thinking that the use of "authentic" digital writing assignments will somehow increase motivation? The student HAS to comment on the post to satisfy the assignment, but there seems to be no engagement.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post and discussion, Andrea! So glad to have discovered your blog. We have class blogs going at my school, at various stages... I plan to use your post to provoke thinking amongst staff as soon as school restarts after our two week break.
Addressing just a few of your points- Some teachers signed up for quad blogging, in the hope of connecting in an authentic way. They were pretty disappointed as the quads were randomly assigned and while they were focusing on having their students write quality comments, the responses they got were uncomments, like 'cool, I like your blog'! I think this kind of thing might work better if groups of classes connected more thoughtfully with a common a purpose (ie teachers connect with people via PLN)
When teachers post assignments or even questions for students respond to, the blog is often not much more than a glorified worksheet that happens to be online. I've seen that happen in my school and then teachers wonder why they can't get a global audience!
One more thought for now. I'm an eMediator for the Soles and Somes, interacting with kids in India via Skype, which grew out of Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall project. He calls the mediators the 'granny cloud' (not all are older people, but it's the 'proud granny giving encouragement' factor. I'm thinking there must be a way to harness retired people and other volunteers with a bit of time to respond to school children's blog posts in a similar way....
I have so many thoughts about your post, it might be better to respond with my own post instead of such a long comment!

Unknown said...

People usually either write for themselves or for others to read. Do you think that with Facebook and blogging, these 2 purposes have intermingled and confused the idea of audience?

I agree that feedbac is vital. Teachers who just assign work leads to students who just want to satisfy their requirements. There is no passion from the teacher or the students.

I teach first grade. I have thought a lot about authentic writing and struggled with how to provide that until I studied Abydos/New Jersey Writing Project. After a ton of reading and training, I have decided that the class is an excellent audience and they are learning how to give each other feedback as well as become better writers themselves. They will appreciate author's craft more if they understand how to. Not only are they learning how to craft their writing and appreciate other authors, the sense of community is wonderful.

Writing for others is such a vulnerable position to be in. Negative feedback from teachers can sure stifle writing as well. Why would you put yourself out there only to be shot down? These are just my thoughts.

Heather said...

Thank you for this thoughtful blog post. I am also a teacher of teachers and the number of teachers wanting to blog with students is exploding this year. I struggle with encouraging teachers to blog and also encouraging them to use blogs for more than simple homework assignments. We haven't made any global connections yet, but we are teaching how to comment and students will actively comment on each other's blogs. Baby steps, I guess. Do you think there are phases that classrooms go through when starting to blog? Do we just need to keep moving forward and then we'll find that authentic audience? I will say that the teachers who have started their own blogs are the ones who have moved forward the most. As a school, we are very new at using blogging for more than simple homework assignments. But we're getting there!

Andrea said...

This is the most commented on post I have written in awhile, and I can tell you that, at least for me, it definitely increases my motivation. It also makes me want to read, write, think and find out more about the subject.
Thank you all for adding to the discussion!

I am thrilled that you have discovered my blog :)
I could write another whole post on my experiences with quad-blogging. And I have been thinking the same thing about some type of com-mentor-ing program that connects older people with young bloggers. It seems to have so many potential benefits for both the older and younger participants. Yet another post...

I don't know if Facebook/blogging have confused the reasons people write. But I would not be surprised to find that to be the case. I have always written but never, until starting this blog, have I written for, thought about or even craved an audience. It has changed my writing, and I think it has motivated me to want to write better.

Yes, Blogging is a process and it makes sense that there will be phases. It is good to keep the big picture in mind, and I could probably write another post identifying the phases our classrooms/students have gone through with blogging. I do think that teachers have to understand the whole of blogging- the reading as well as the writing, the commenting as well as the posting, in order to bring the platform to life.

Dani said...

Thank you. This is a really interesting article. I am a classroom teacher in Adelaide, Australia, and have been using class blogging for a few years. Students have their own blog, connected to the class blog. Your comments about an authentic audience resonated strongly with me. I have just signed up to do quad blogging, thinking that this would be an opportunity to draw more readers to student blogs.
We have a few classes at school who also have a class blog, so I hope to be able to encourage students to comment on each others work.
I too enjoy blogging, and have had many people visit our class blog, but rarely leave comments. It's hard to know who your audience is.
I look forward to reading more of your posts soon.

Denise Krebs said...

Hi Andrea,
Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I have many ideas swirling around in my head too. Maybe like Edna, I will have to write my own blog post on the topic.

Just a few thoughts now...

I have experience with two kinds of blogging. My students and I blogged for one year with very few visitors and comments I could count on one hand (some of those were spam). I didn't even know about connecting.

Then the second year, I joined Twitter and we joined the conversation online. I realized we could make connections, and we began to do that.

Now, I'm in my third year of blogging with students. However, I would say I'm just finishing up my first year of being a "connected" educator. (Is that another buzz word?) Blogging became meaningful to me when I began to make closer connections with people (many of them through Flickr) :) I feel like now I am developing what Nussbaum-Beach and Hall call "Communities of Practice" in their book The Connected Educator.

I love the idea of com-mentor-ing. Ross Mannell (@RossMannell) is an excellent example of a mentor who my students have learned from and been challenged by. He is more effective than I in his comments to my students.

However, I'm wondering if we shouldn't work harder at helping students build their own PLNs. I would rather each of them have a couple students they can relate with and converse with. They can even "meet" them. I think you are right that it would be best to come out of the teachers own PLN. I am having more luck this year with students connecting, than I did when I tried quadblogging, which didn't work out for us. Last year Laura Coughlin (@CoughlinLaura) talked about trying to help her students build their PLN. I'm going to have to see if she's having any luck. Laura?

Thanks, Andrea!


Laura Coughlin said...

Thanks for leading me to this post, @mrsdkrebs! I have just begun the process of blogging with my 8th graders (blogged about here: Our first post had some success - 20 comments, about half from adults and half from a class of students in Hawaii, whom we had never met until the blog post. Of the adults who posted comments, many were staff in my building, and one was a fantastic member of my PLN - @joykirr.

It felt like a success to me, and I think that the "authentic" audience, buzzword as it may be, really did effect the tone and quality of my students' writing.

I hope that they will see that they did have an audience for their first post and will be even more excited for their second, and in the end I hope they will develop their own student PLNs. We'll see.


Joy Kirr said...

And now, thanks to Laura and Denise, I guess it's my turn to pipe in...

Authenticity to me has become my mantra this year. I threw out quarterly book projects. Thanks to Erin Olson (@eolsonteach), I was reminded that when adults finish a book, we do NOT make a diorama of it, nor a CD of songs that should be from it, nor a report, nor a scrapbook page, etc. No. We SHARE the book we read, if it was a good one. That's how I started this year. I introduced independent reading as this - Read something. Be inspired by it. Act on it. (Again, thanks to Erin!) However, if students are not inspired to act, then just share the book with us somehow. Students helped me create a list of possibilities - authentic ways people share books. Tell a friend about it. Create an announcement on the morning announcements. Make their own short book talk. Make a poster advertisement. Tell the reading specialist and librarian all about it, so they can spread the word. Create a book review on their blogs, and I'd tweet it out to classes that follow us. Are students getting grades for each time they share books? NO. And yet they are really sharing books!! (Success so far!)

More authenticity? We Skyped with Denise Krebs' (@mrsdkrebs) class this year already. She has SEVEN 7th graders. There are only SEVEN seventh graders in her school. My students were floored to learn this. We have 16-25 in each of my classes, with 300 in the school. They wanted to know more about what life was like in the small school in Iowa. I suggested we share what ours is like first. We divided up into four groups - School Life, Suburban Life, Jobs & Economy, and Activities. Students each wrote blog posts about their portion, and we'll be sharing them with Denise's class when they are edited and peer reviewed. They are anxious about getting them to her, as they really seem to want to know about life in Iowa. Side bonus for them - they might get "real" comments from "real" seventh graders on their own blog posts.

We started blogging this year by using paper blogs (many thanks to @mcteach). Students were exposed to what a quality comment looks like, and the fact that if they do not sign it, then they are probably not telling the truth or are not proud of their comment. We talked about how a quality comment helps the writer think about what they wrote again, in a different way. And why comment? To continue a conversation. If we do not learn to talk to each other, or have discussions, this world will never be a better place. "Join the conversation." - Heard many times by Denise Krebs. (More to come... I wrote too much!)

Joy Kirr said...

In order to practice quality comments and understand WHY people comment on blog posts, we've done a few together in class. I let students choose the class from our blogroll, the student or title of post they choose as well, and then I type up their comments. They now realize that if they have nothing nice to say, they know NOT to comment. They know they can ask questions, and suggest certain ideas in a positive fashion only. If they cannot state it in a positive manner, we do not comment at all. They are okay with each comment I type for them - yes, they are okay if the principal or their grandmothers see these comments. They also know that a quality comment can lead to better writing the next time. And my students are trying to become better writers as a result.

We are responding to the book WONDER this coming week, knowing we'll be sharing them with students around the globe who are reading the same book. This next month, we'll be having online discussions with students from British Columbia and Ontario, Canada as we read THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN for the Global Read Aloud. Having discussions with other 6th and 7th graders, I believe, is authentic. And since we cannot connect with anyone in our own school (as not one is reading the same book), we'll get our audience and participants from other places, thanks to my wonderful PLN.

Yes. I do comment on blogs I read, if I have something of substance to say, or a question to pose. Yes, I do comment on students' blogs that are NOT from my classes. And this is because I would hope those people will pay it forward, and keep the conversation going. Thank you, Laura Coughlin (@CoughlinLaura) for tweeting me about this post - it keeps me focused on what I'm trying to hard to accomplish this year. My students and I still have a ways to go, but I think we've got a good start this year. Sorry for the verbosity!

Anonymous said...

I learned about this post through Langwitches blog, and there is a lot for me to consider here. My situation is a bit different, since my classes are teachers in training for EFL certification in Mexico, where people do not write...or read for that matter as much people do in English speaking cultures. If you doubt me, just look closely at the cluster maps of your blogs, or even Wordpress, Edublogs, blogger pages. However, it might be worth a quick look at my situation to get insight into the greater worldwide picture of authentic audiences.

I've noticed that of the 150 blogs I have helped local teachers create through my teacher-training classes in the past year and a half, only a handful had ever blogged before, and only a handful have continued writing in their blogs again. While teachers take the course, I try to create a tangible authentic audience with past and present students who start to build their local PLN through the tasks they do for my class, such as recommending good sites, tips, and strategies; discussing hot topics in EFL; or even a job/position search. Some people know each other from F2F situations and others are in different classes.

When trainees install their cluster maps, they feel thrilled knowing that someone has read what they write. And that helps them clean up their grammar and spelling (even though they are teachers!).

However, what draws my attention is that even though they are building an authentic audience and connecting to other EFL teachers in our city, they stop using their blogs and cease to write any comments, but still stay subscribed to the class blog. If I meet an alumnus on the street, they will tell me how much they enjoy reading my latest post; but they will not comment on the post in writing. BTW, I have received more comments (but not many) from other EFL teachers around the world than from teachers I have trained.

I find the situation puzzling, and perhaps it relates in some small way to this discussion about authentic audiences

Heather Davis said...

I have really enjoyed reading the initial post and especially the comments. I was led to this blog from the Langwitches link.

I am an intermittent blogger but am a huge believer in student blogging. Not as a homework assignment per se but as a way to speak with their voice. I have realized over the years I have done this in Grade 4 and then 3 that I will not interest all my students with blogging but I am amazed at the number of students who struggle to write suddenly grab hold of blogging. So often the last student I would suspect of every being interested becomes the strongest blogger. Many of my more creative students found it as an outlet for some of their artistic passion as they incorporated pictures they had taken.

We worked long and hard at understanding comments. What was their purpose? What makes a good comment? How do you write a good comment? What makes up a conversation? The more time I spent on this part of the training and discussion the better my students blogged.

It was up to me as the teacher to be a guide on commenting. We revisited it over and over during the year. I kept an eye on comments and if they were getting weak I would again bring the subject up.

Now that I am no longer in the classroom but am basically a teacher of teachers I am excited about interacting with the teachers who want to blog with their students. I am working through how much control I am going to have in making sure this works and how much I am going to have to depend upon the teachers to follow through. I am working on building relationships with the teachers so that when we start this new process we can work together to guide the students.

matkinson said...

Thanks for this post! You certainly helped inspire the post I added yesterday because authentic audience is something that I really want my students to have. "Uncomments" are very frustrating for myself as a writer and for my students which is why I've worked so hard to get more connected and promote my students' work. I've considered quadblogging, but I have reservations. And I learned about the process too late to get my students started this semester anyway, but I'm going to continue my research for next semester and decide if it's the right thing for my students.

My students blogs are related to a semester long English IV service learning project, and their blog tracks their progress through the research and service process. This week they uploaded their research proposals to their personal blogs and will add a reflection piece tomorrow about where they are with the community service component of the project. I'm happy with the work they do on their blogs and feel it is relevant and meaningful because they have so much ownership in their work. My biggest frustration is that they aren't receiving feedback on their work. But we're going to keep working at it, and hopefully, they'll get some attention. And I don't mean fame when I say that... Most of their work is aimed at bringing attention to an issue and getting other people to help them make a difference.

Anna Z. said...

Hi Andrea,

Thank you for this fabulous and insightful post. My name is Anna Zhuo and I’m a student from EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. What we do in the class is blog in order to learn & interact with others and learn about useful technology that can be applied into our future classrooms. What I am doing as a student in this class relates with your post.

Excuse me if I misunderstood your post! I have to agree with you on many accounts. It's hard for bloggers, especially student bloggers, to gain an authentic and interactive audience. It's also difficult for an audience to understand a blogger's post if it's not of the right quality. In our class, Dr. Strange is teaching us many ways to do effective blogging and how to connect to the outside world. We are assigned a student to comment and critique every week. He gives us guidelines and assignments that will help us do effective critiquing too. Our audience is the class itself but only for this course. It makes me wonder and question about the audience after the semester is done. What happens after this course? What kind of audience will we get? Are we even going to get comments from people anymore? I think not. It’s really hard to gain useful feedback when you are blogging. For us, our feedbacks come from our classmates but who will give us feedbacks after the semester is over? Even if we do get feedback from people, they are more or less comments like “good job! Keep it up!” rather than a quality comment.

We are also given a blog assignment each week. We have rules and guidelines to follow in order to make it a quality post. Many students don't follow the instructions and type their post like how they would when texting. I think that is the case because people treat the internet like it's a world where we don't have to follow rules. If these were written assignments instead, I am sure more students will follow the instructions more or less. It is also because of the instant feedback that we will get from our teacher.

As a student blogger, I find it difficult to gain an authentic audience. This is also the reason why I don’t really blog in the first place. My peers and people of my generation are more into the non-educational topics when it comes to the internet. I may post something about education and get zero replies. If I were to post something about Hollywood, I’d get some replies. Another reason why I don’t blog is because I think people find it more difficult to go through the process of commenting on a blog versus Twitter or Facebook. According to what I’ve seen, I get more replies on Facebook than on Twitter or my blog. Blogging is more like a journal to most people. I am only basing it on my own experience and what I’ve been told.

I really enjoy my EDM310 blogging class and I am definitely learning a lot. A blog assignment is not just an assignment. For me, every assignment meant something. This assignment, “C4T” (comment for teachers), also means something. I am interacting with an experienced professional and am part of an audience for someone else. I am taught not to just leave feedback such as “good post”. We are also taught how to use bullets and images effectively to attract our audience. I think Dr. Strange is doing a great job teaching us.

I apologize again if I misunderstood your post. It is questionable where the authenticity is. I enjoyed reading your post and looking forward to more! I am happy to be a part of the audience.

Anna Zhuo

Andrea said...

To everyone who has added their thoughts to this discussion, I want to say thank you! This is the power of the authentic audience (when you do find it) as this blog post is so much more than it was with just my thoughts. There have also been two more posts written on this topic (that I know of): Edna Sackson's 20 Ways To Think About Your Class Blog and Mrs. Atkinson's Authentic Audience for Research, Are Blogs the Answer?

Silvia Tolisano has also written a very comprehensive post about our school's "phases" of blogging called Implementing Blogging in the Classroom

Silvia and I have also submitted a proposal to facilitate a conversation at Educon about just this topic. I hope that our proposal is accepted and that maybe some of you will join us. The goal is to brainstorm why some posts/blogs/projects meet with success and to analyze what factors lead to success in hopes of replicating those projects for more students.

Sheila Naylor said...

Hi Andrea,
I thought your comment about blogs being of poor quality, thus negatively impacting the amount of people reading the blog, was an interesting point. One would think blogs that are made public would be of higher quality because they are critiqued or given feedback by a larger audience. I think a factor that may influence the quality of work maybe the lack of quality feedback students are receiving about their writing. In my experiences, students are supposed to give feedback to other students about their work. However, there is no guidance as to what “feedback” should look like. It is not explicitly explained that it is a tool to help students improve upon their writing. Giving constructive feedback, is something that needs to be practiced with students, we can’t assume they just know how to do it. Guidelines and rationale need to be practiced and explained so students understand the role feedback plays in the writing process. If we don’t give students the constructive feedback they need to improve their writing, they have no path to follow to become better writers.

Peter Banks said...

Just wondering if there is an inherent contradiction in placing together the concepts "educational use of blogs" and "authentic audiences". As educators, at least traditionally, are concerned with in some way adding to whatever a student is producing at any given time. Hence the idea of feedback being important and concern with whatever a student may be authoring. However, blogging is not a construct of the world of educators. Educators and many others choose to become involved with blogging. Generally students become involved because they are asked/required to - at least it is their directed blogging activity that educators are interested in.

Maybe as educators we can ask ourselves questions such as:
Do we act as though students are unaware of means to communicate to a wider audience through technology?

Angela said...

What resonates with me most is the issue of humility. The writers that I work with are KEENLY sensitive to this. They do not want to portray themselves as attention seeking, so blogging in their own space is uncomfortable for them. My own daughter quit blogging because a project that she intended to be a family project got quite a bit of attention for a very short period of time, and she was not at all comfortable with this after a while. Those who didn't understand her intentions had a lot of criticism for her too...which none of us expected. It's one thing not to have any's another to have far more than you bargained for. Right now, I'm finding that the writers I work with love online communities like Figment and Wattpad. Here, they write beside others who are doing the same thing. They blend. I wonder if this helps......