University of Alabama senior Christine Green couldn’t describe what a Web log was before the first day of her opinion writing class. But she had to learn fast. After all, her grade depended on it.
“Almost all of my friends don’t know what a blog is,” Green said. “It had been maybe two months before (the class started) that I knew what blogs were.”
Green, who is majoring in economics and journalism, was better off than many of the 13 other students taking the somewhat experimental course – the first in the university’s journalism program to require the use of Web logs, or online journals of brief chronological entries commonly called “blogs.”
But the idea of using blogs to teach journalism opinion writing at UA almost didn’t happen. In fact, it was such a last-minute addition that instructor Carolyn Mason couldn’t add it to the class syllabus.
“I knew as little as they did at first,” Mason said. “Their initial reaction, with a few exceptions, was ‘what’s a blog?’ ”
The difficulty in explaining the concept of blogging as it relates to journalism was probably not a surprise given its association with “new media,” which not every university journalism program has adopted yet. However, the recent push by maverick journalism instructors like Mason is helping reveal innovative teaching methods for the now-popular Internet publishing form, including getting students used to public scrutiny.
It’s also becoming a way to bridge the increasing gap to young students more familiar with reading the news on a computer screen than an inked sheet of paper. These news consumers ages 18 to 34 said the Internet, by a 41-to-15 percent margin over second-ranked local TV, is “the most useful way to learn,” according to a May 2004 Frank N. Magid Associates survey conducted for the Carnegie Corporation.
Students in Mason’s opinion writing class created their blogs using Google’s blogging tool, Blogger.com. All of the blogs were then put under the umbrella of Mason’s blog and linked together to form a virtual classroom.
Grades were earned for participation, good writing, regular updates – at least once per week – and for posting assignments. Mason also used the blog to communicate with the class after hours with links to suggested readings.
“I was looking for a way to showcase students’ work,” she said. “(Blogs were) perfect for opinion writing class.”
Mason also was intrigued with how a group blog could add to an editorial team atmosphere common in the workplace, but not so common in college classrooms. Students could read their classmates’ work and overcome shyness about their opinion writing.
“This forced them to put it out there,” she said.
Rachel Telehany, a UA senior majoring in journalism, is planning to enter the school’s graduate program in the fall. She said adding a form of publishing in the class also brought an element of professionalism.
“It was an experiment, but I think it worked,” Telehany said.
The huge peer pressure brought on by the blogs made many students take extra care in editing their articles prior to posting. In the past, students simply turned in assignments to the instructor.
It also added a sense of camaraderie to the class.
“They really support each other even though their opinions are widely diverse,” Mason said. “There’s a group closeness and compassion I’ve never seen in all my years of teaching.
“I can only figure that it’s from the blog.”
Blogging core journalism courses
Despite the recent mainstream media blitz on blogs, they actually have been used in journalism programs since their widespread introduction in 1999. Since that time, blogs have jumped from the “new media” niche to the syllabi of core classes.
The University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication began its use of blogs in the school’s online journalism course in fall 1999. Assistant professor of journalism Larry Pryor taught that class, whose blog, rolled on the school’s Online Journalism Review Web site, avoided quirky, individualized voices for a more refined sound.
Pryor said that since its inception, the design and name of the blog, “News Blog,” has taken the format of other blogs on the Web.
“(The blog) didn’t do that before. (We) called them news briefs,” he said.
The blog’s content also consists of both mainstream media and blog coverage. The latter wasn’t addressed until the past few semesters.
“Sort of an evolutionary thing,” he said. “Our coverage reflects that.”
The students working on the News Blog mostly are freshman and sophomore journalism majors. Paid graduate students edit the content, which gets wide, daily exposure to a variety of audiences including professional journalists, newspaper executives and government officials.
Each post to the blog is 60 to 200 words with a headline of five to 10 words. Students writing the posts are taught to paraphrase the original story, selecting key facts and notable quotes.
Pryor said the blogs are part of the learning experience for student journalists. He said it helps make their writing more concise and focused, while also examining how blogging relates to traditional journalism.
“It’s forced them to confront these questions associated with blogging,” he said.
Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, helped push USC’s Internet news briefs into the News Blog format after becoming an adjunct faculty member in fall 2003. He teaches online reporting, newswriting and computer assisted reporting courses at the university.
Niles said the primary advantage to beginning journalism students writing blogs is the transition from stilted, academic writing to journalistic writing, while working on accuracy and focus. He compares blogs to writing journals, a common exercise for core journalism courses.
“Students are more natural,” he said. “At least they’ve dropped this dry, academic tone that they’ve brought to class.”
Most journalism students in Niles’ classes know about blogs, but many don’t realize the extent of their Internet audience.
“The only real issue is getting them familiar with the idea that this is going to be read by other people,” he said. “Conceivably, your parents could be reading this (the blog). That usually takes a week or two to figure out.”
Other uses for instruction
While USC blazes a path in the use of blogs in core college journalism courses, other schools are just leaving the trailhead. But technology-savvy students at either end appear to be adapting without many problems.
Leslie-Jean Thornton, a journalism instructor at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, teaches online media and advanced editing courses, both using blogs. That semester was Thornton’s first attempt in using the publishing form in the classroom.
Though Thornton’s two classes use blogs only for discussion, rather than a true publishing outlet, she still believes it gives students a more realistic view of the profession. It also seems to be more in tune with the younger generation’s way of thinking.
“In general we’re just tending to become a more online, computer literate society,” she said. “(We want to get) the challenge and excitement that other bloggers feel.”
Journalism students at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., are getting a similar taste of blogs without actually entering the growing community of bloggers or what’s being called the “blogosphere.”
Associate professor of journalism Claudette Artwick teaches the course “Digital Journalism and Society,” where blogs are discussed in terms of journalism and democracy. Though students don’t post to a blog, they do read, analyze and discuss them.
Artwick said studying blogs enhances students’ understanding of journalism. She said blog-related issues are timely and relevant to journalistic issues.
“By asking if bloggers are journalists, students re-examine what a journalist is and if or how a blogger fits in that role,” she said.
Yet, other professors of journalism, some with a more cynical perspective of blogs, are praising the popular publishing form for its ability to enliven students’ interest in journalism.
University of North Carolina associate professor of journalism Debashis “Deb” Aikat is one of those cynics about the attention mainstream media are giving to blogs. He even refers to blogs as “a glorified bulletin board” rather than a source for original content.
“It’s like a DJ in a music show. The DJ doesn’t create the music but picks from a list,” Aikat said.
Despite his feelings about the blog hype, Aikat requires students taking his “Global Impact of New Communication Technologies” course to create a blog using the Blogger.com tools. Students then pick a global issue, construct a focus and post blog rolls. All of these steps are positioned into “bite-sized chunks” for students.
Aikat said the global reach of the Internet and blogs was perfect for a course on global communication.
“It’s a very vibrant electronic community that would otherwise be limited by geography,” he said. “This is a wonderful thing.”
But one of the most gratifying aspects of using blogs to teach a journalism course for Aikat was that it took the professor out from behind the podium. He is a participant instead of a fountain head.
“It made discussion very rich,” he said. “Students thought it was cool that they could create a blog.”
Blogs in university journalism programs are still limited largely by their use in only one or two of the total classes being offered. Some schools, mostly graduate programs, are bucking this approach to merge blogs into almost every course.
In fall 2002, University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism took an experimental leap into the blogosphere with bIPblog. John Battelle, a recent teaching fellow and co-founder of WIRED magazine, and Paul Grabowicz, assistant dean, adjunct professor and director of the school’s new media program, decided to use blogs to report on the issue of intellectual property. This small class with a handful of students would eventually spawn one of the most expansive collegiate journalism blogging efforts in the nation.
UC Berkeley’s blogs are contained on the school of journalism’s “North Gate” Web site. They encompass everything from the war on terror, news from China, last year’s presidential election, issues in Iraq and hate crimes in the town of Davis, Calif.
“It has become standard fare to use blogging software in class,” Grabowicz said.
The invitation of public interaction with journalism students is both a challenging and intimidating sidebar for the new media director. But it’s this relationship he is trying to instill with the young journalists in order to better prepare them for a profession grounded in the public arena.
“We are moving toward the idea that the Web is an interactive medium,” he said. “The blog invites that. It forces the students to think that through. The public isn’t a passive recipient.”
Grabowicz said that even on the most passive journalistic level, blogs keep students in touch with people reading them. He said the next step is more interaction with those readers.
“If you just have them write, that’s all well and good, but the test is when they get the public feedback,” he said. “The bridge between what a student journalist does and what a professional does is publishing.
“It’s not playtime any more.”
Patrick Beeson is a graduate student of journalism at the University of Alabama. His master’s project focuses on Web logs, blogging ethics and the use of Web logs in college journalism programs. He writes for many publications, including The Tuscaloosa News, Tuscaloosa Magazine and Equipment World Magazine. He is also editor of DatelineAlabama.com, winner of the 2003 SPJ Mark of Excellence award for the nation’s best all-around independent online student publication.