Do university blogs still have a role to play in developing links between students, institutions, countries and disciplines? Essay by Neil McGuire
30 November 2012
The design course blog, over a decade after blogging hit the mainstream, is still relatively rare, writes Neil McGuire. But when used imaginatively, they have the potential to enhance the educational experience on a number of levels.
Course blog as critical and reflective tool
Blogs can be a discursive tool, for debating ideas but also offer the potential to connect these ideas with an expanded network of theory and practice available online. This networked approach is embodied inDesignblog, the ‘research blog’ of the foundation design year at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. It sets out its objectives as follows:
‘Designblog is not a regular blog. It is a complex and layered system in which facts are more than facts alone … It is a network of Metadata, an experimental blog for all Rietveld’s foundation year students. It is an instrument, and it is your platform for publishing.’
While Designblog is still very much embedded in studio practice, sites such as Limited Language also incorporate printed output (see Jane Cheng’sreview in Eye 75), and take these debates to a wider audience. Colin Davies of the University of Wolverhampton, who co-founded Limited Language in 2005 with Monika Parrinder of the Royal College of Art, says the initial idea was to create a discursive platform for critical debate. ‘When we started nearly a decade ago the most exciting ingredient was the possibility of instant feedback. Of course today that feedback loop has become rather congested. However [blogs] still offer new potential for blended learning, and the opportunity for ‘students to see their thoughts and words appear in a public dialogue, rather than the usual to and fro between tutor and student in traditional essay writing’.
This is extended further by critical design courses such as D-Crit at SVA and the Critical Writing in Art and Design course at the RCA, which use their blogs as a central (public) space for the evolution and dissemination of student (and staff) projects.
While making process visible or tangible in this way might be seen as a universal good, it is always closely followed by concerns about whether blogging leads to an aggregation culture of surface-only investigation – a rapid recycling of ffffound images and styles.
Some of these concerns about Web literacy may appear over-exaggerated, but it is worth exploring in more detail the implications of, in the words of David Coyle, a ‘graphic-design-will-eat-itself’ culture.
Samuel Bonnet (of the Parallel School) adds: ‘It is so easy to copy a picture, using the same typeface and make a similar typographic composition, and we, young designers, look at so many things that we have a culture of quantity, developing an intelligence of watching and reproducing … maybe the good graphic design student today mustn’t have any website or blog, maybe (s)he just has to protect himself from the flow, and I know that some are…’
Course blog as project tool
Blogs can also function as rich, but sometimes short-lived, collaborative research environments on a project by project basis. In a project on the future of reading run by Lust with students at ESAD Valence, the project’sTumblr site became alive with a tightly focused set of references within a very specific niche activity, enabling the quick sharing of reference material and development of ideas. It also provided a handy on-the-fly way of revisiting parts of the project and collective note-taking.
Peter Nencini, a lecturer at Camberwell College of Arts, believes there is a greater role for the ‘comment’ function to play in live annotation: ‘At the moment it feels too passive; or, in the social networking context, edging somewhere not nice.’ By way of comparison he references Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio, who ‘talks about the PDF strand of their published books and a live annotation process, which echoes the moment when he would take books out of the library and find other researchers’ notes in the margins. This seems like an enrichment mode’ – a mode that courses could develop when thinking about layered learning.
This, of course, raises interesting questions about the traditional reading list and a staff-centric view of knowledge transfer that can still sometimes prevail. Alternative modes of reading, writing, collating and publishing continue to disrupt (in a good way) and force us to re-examine existing academic value systems.
Course blogs as extended family
Course blogs, by their inherently interconnected nature, offer further opportunities to extend the collegiate community of any given institution beyond its campus. This can be through alumni who continue to blog with the department, and industry professionals who both contribute to and read these blogs. Vocationally focused blogs such as Fuel at the RCA offer an open way of sharing information about future careers and advice, and in a way that potentially makes the most of the ‘wisdom of crowds’.
Blogs also provide a channel for institutions to connect with other courses, students and staff. Limited Language suggests that a possible future for design course blogs ‘may be in developing links between institutions, countries and disciplines. The trip is a simple and effective tool for communication across geographies … [an] underutilised aspect is how we can use [technology] in this more globalised educational framework.’
Blogs as incidental promotion
Perhaps unintentionally, and maybe all the better for this, course blogs have become a very good way of promoting design programmes. Nencini sees the blog ‘as offering an authentic view of the kinds of activity and discourse that happen in the studios of the course. It is free of institutional edit, at a stage where prospectuses and open days have, to an extent, become a quick, open pitch to prospective students and their families.’
Other courses have further blurred the boundaries, with their websites adopting Web 2.0 characteristics, and a spirit of ‘open’ communication. Yale University School of Art’s website is built on a wiki, in theory allowing any student or member of faculty to contribute to and edit pages. TheSystem Design course at Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig utilise webpages somewhere between a work-bench and work-in-progress blog.
But is this openness always welcomed by the host institution? Nencini notes that, in a culture where the default is set to share, ‘there is also the question, on everybody’s part, of “keeping our powder dry” – the worry that freely accessible content online might encourage a kind of remote learning culture’. Ultimately however, he feels ‘it’s an act of confidence, generosity to the wider culture and also somehow credit[s] the students on that course with the intelligence to know what it means to be in the studio, among other people, making and thinking. The “live” element sublimates any pre-posted planned content so I think longer term it’s always about how the Web can intensify the studio moment.’
Online and Off
What often emerges from this discussion is a false dichotomy, between online and offline culture. In reality, we’re dealing with a parallel situation where (as Nencini notes) ‘Having process visible – either teaching or making – allows for a more textured conversation. A side-by-side mentality.’
Therefore an interesting facet of these online spaces is what other types of activity might emerge around them. The Parallel School, a student-organised adjunct to business as usual at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, points the way towards some of these possibilities. While not necessarily intended as a wholesale replacement for institution-based studio education, it nevertheless created an additional layer of fluid, student-directed learning, that through its online existence made contact and collaborations with Manystuff, the RCA (andDepartment 21) and a likeminded group of other protagonists along the way. More importantly, through its concurrent online documentation and discussion, it presented the possibility to work in this way to a vast number of other students elsewhere.
Writing about Paul Elliman’s Wild School in Eye 25, Rick Poynor lists among its distinctive aspirations that ‘everyone will be an auditeur libre as the French put it, a “free listener” able to wander at will and determine his or her educational needs’.
‘At that time,’ Poynor notes, ‘the project was more a proposal than fully functioning public reality’ … The challenge being to ‘transform this proto-school from a list of sometimes eccentric links … and recycled teaching briefs … into a richly imagined and responsive experience in self education.’
This was in 1997. The digital tools to assist in this happening are now freely available, and their increasing uptake by existing design courses and autonomous student groups alike open up some exciting possible futures for design education both on and offline.
Neil McGuire is a designer and tutor. He blogs at OffBrand and on Visual Communication, the Communication Design course blog he established at Glasgow School of Art with Lizzie Malcolm, Sam Baldwin and Brian Cairns.
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at theEye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can see what Eye 84 looks like at Eye before You Buy on Vimeo.
22 Ways To Create Compelling Content For Your Blog [Infographic]
Starting a blog can seem quite daunting if you have no idea what to make the blog about. At the same time, it can be the most inspiring endeavor you can think of. Just the possibility of being able to reach out to a seemingly unlimited number of people is enough to make your head start spinning. But as always, everyone’s blog can’t become a success, regardless of how long you have been at it. It all depends on the broadness of your topics, and how well you can captivate your reader base. Creating a blog about the lead in your pencils might not appeal to a large reader base, but the way you write your articles about it might. So, whatever your heart beats for,create a blog about it even though you see no real growth happening anytime soon in that area. More eye catching miracles have happened than that, so just keep pushing.
But if you want to reach a broad base of readers, the best thing you can do is to try and research what seems to be in the spotlight of subjects at the moment. There are no doubt topics that everyone is talking about within your niche, and tapping in on that and voicing your opinion about it might just send your blog off into orbital circulation. Finding that information out shouldn’t be too hard either. All you really need to do is stay updated on what the larger blogs are writing about, what seems to be popular on social bookmarking sites, etc. and then add your two cents to it. Beoriginal and make sure you tap into an aspect that has not been written about until you do.
Then there is this choice about being transparent or taunting people’s reactions. What that basically means is that when you write your posts, you have the choice of either staying transparent or taking sides. Being transparent means that you pretty much have no opinion about what you write about. You just deliver the facts and let your readers decide what in your subject is good or bad. Taking sides is a more in your face kind of technique to get yourreaders’ reactions. You simply blast your opinion out there and let people either agree or disagree with what you have to share.
The latter has been proven to generate more reader interaction; however, it’s also documented that it brings with it more trolling and mean spirited comments of all kinds. But, as you are probably aware of right now, the choice is yours. Whatever approach you decide to take, always make sure you do your best to captivate your readers, and you should see substantial growth in the number of readers who visit your blog over a short period of time.
Now we are back to talk about blog topics. What should you write about, and what exactly is appealing? Well, we have already gone through the process of researching what people are talking about at the moment. Next we have to decide what kind of post we want to write about it. It can be anything from a top 10 list or just a review of your favorite product, service or app. There are of course a million different choices of topics to write about, and to help you decide, Copyblogger created a quite resourceful infographic called 22 Ways To Create Compelling Content.
Keep your subject in mind and then skim through this list of appealing content ideas. You can then find one that fits your subject the best. All that is left is for you to do is write something that you think will capture the interest of the demographic that you want to attract. I have a humble word of advice though, make sure you put some effort into your posts or articles since that will determine the level of interest in the end when your post is published.
There are no shortcuts to creating a popular blog. You have to put in long hours and a lot of hard work in order to pull off a success, and even that doesn’t guarantee that it will become successful at all. It’s all about timing, posts and articles, your ability to share your content on a large scale, and the hard work you put into perfecting your writing, proofing and editing. If all of these things align, you are most definitely destined for success soon.
Urging your students to use blogs in the classroom will improve their writing
Using Blogging As A Collaboration Platform
Steven W. Anderson (@web20classroom)
2/10/12 3:48 PM
Using Blogging As A Collaboration Platform: bit.ly/wSQCgA
Why the academic world needs blogs
I’ve been blogging for years. I do it because I think blogging is a necessary vehicle for academic writing and because I’m senior enough to get away with it. My Stat Counter tells me I’m getting a sizeable, serious and steady readership, including both academics and a broad cross-section of the wider community – but I get little or no professional credit for the work.
“A necessary vehicle for academic writing?” I hear you ask incredulously. I’d like to make a case that we academics need to make better use of the internet to disseminate our findings and the thinking that grows out of them. That is only likely to happen if dissemination of academic work through such media as blogs gets academic credit. Credit, however, only comes with credibility.
So, aside from the inertia and mindless conservatism that often afflicts many institutions, including academia, why do academic blogs lack the credibility to gain academic credit? I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with blogs in general. We all know that they tend to be wordy, subjective, and filled with often ill-founded opinions – everything that academic writing isn’t supposed to be.
I’ve browsed around academic blogs and found that there are in fact quite a few of them, including some very good ones. But a lot of academic blogs, too, are carelessly crafted – not greatly different from typical blogs. Very few of them contain material I’d assign my students to read, and I certainly wouldn’t encourage them to write their essays in a style that imitates even many academic blogs, let alone blogs in general.
That does appear to be happening. I haven’t studied this question systematically, but, as a teacher and marker of papers, I’m getting the impression that there’s a growing number of students who think conversational opinion pieces are what’s expected in a research essay. This is a danger we have to take seriously, and it’s very important to teach our students the difference between a written opinion and a research-based conclusion.
So if I’m having all those problems with the blogosphere, why have I become part of it? My reasons relate, not to the strengths of blogs, but to the weaknesses of academic articles.
What’s wrong with academic articles?
I was a journalist for more than three years in my early and mid-twenties, and, although I enjoyed journalism and learned a great deal from my practice of it, I felt finally that the tyranny of the midnight deadline was getting in the way of doing thorough research. I was eager to penetrate the appearances, get beyond conventional wisdom, and didn’t feel that journalism offered me a sufficient opportunity to do that. So I got myself into graduate school.
But, as I started to understand better how the academic world worked, it dawned on me that the penetration of appearances comes at a cost. As a journalist I had been used to writing articles and getting reactions. If I covered a hot story, I knew from the brickbats I got the next day that my pieces were being read. I watched as the course of events was influenced by my newspaper reports.
For me, therefore, it was really conspicuous how small a readership my meticulous research efforts were getting. When you do careful research, you learn interesting things – things that I felt, and still feel, are likely to interest a significant number of non-academics. For example:
- In Edmonton in the 1980s, I documented the techniques a developer used to get city council to agree to substantial and ultimately unjustifiable government subsidies for a major downtown development. Such techniques are widely used, and it pays participants in or observers of local politics to understand them.
- In Winnipeg, I showed how city council was misled into agreeing to a bridge project that turned out to be far more expensive than promised. The techniques used to mislead council, likewise, were typical of many similar cases.
- In a comparative study of housing and homelessness in three Canadian cities, my research assistants and I showed why a federal government program that made sense in Vancouver was ill suited to Winnipeg and Saint John, New Brunswick, and what that, in turn, teaches us about differences among cities.
In the academic world, you can’t just publish such findings in refereed journals. First you have to decide on a journal that’s likely to be interested in a particular set of research findings. Next you have to re-write the article in such a way as to place your findings in a theoretical context appropriate to your chosen journal’s editorial direction. An article in a refereed journal is expected to be 15-30 pages long, and you have to get it approved by an editor and a majority of three reviewers in a process that can last a year or two – and sometimes a lot more than that.
Once your gem is published, it’s only accessible to people or institutions that can afford expensive subscriptions to journals or databases. And only very few readers are going to be willing to wade through the theory to learn the interesting facts you’ve uncovered.
In short, if we were to design an academic publication system specifically for the purpose of making it as inaccessible as possible, we could hardly improve on the existing system. As a result, our assiduously researched findings rarely get to a general readership. Even university students are hard to motivate to read such materials. The reality of academic life is that we spend much of our lives asking interesting questions, and finding interesting answers to them, but too often they remain our secrets, buried out of sight in long articles almost no one reads.
I am not advocating a reform of the system of refereed publication. With all its shortcomings, it sets standards for quality research and provides a system of scrutiny that does a pretty good job of ensuring that some reasonable quality standards are met. But the internet presents us with an opportunity to do a much better job of circulating our writing much more widely, both amongst ourselves and into the wider community. These are the considerations that have governed my blog. Here’s how I proceed:
An academic blog: Content and examples
My approach to blogging involves revisiting research gems, both mine and other peoples’, lifting them out of their academic context one by one and writing a short article about each one. The articles are a bit more informal than academic articles, but they preserve an academic tone and they’re not simply opinion pieces. I make the articles as readable as I can without oversimplifying and try to write interesting headlines for them.
I refrain from using the blog to express my opinions, unless those opinions are research-based. During the fall, winter and spring I get well in excess of two thousand page views a month, and the number of page views has been on a pretty steady upward climb. That suggests a readership far in excess of what academic writing usually gets.
More interesting to me than number of hits is return visits and the length of stays. I get return visits daily, and the percentage of visitors who stay more than five minutes has climbed steadily, during the most active months, from around 15 per cent to well over 25 per cent. The articles are written so that most of them could be read in five minutes or so. That suggests that my research is getting something that far too much academic research doesn’t get, a readership.
What I use the blogs for
• Disseminating research findings relevant to current issues
A critical examination of the thesis, in a recent book by James Howard Kunstler, that the rising price of oil will force rapid and thoroughgoing social change, as well as changes in the way we build our cities.
• Communicating research ideas and getting feedback
Example: How is global political action organized? A list for your consideration
An explanation of a new research project I’m working on which looks at globally networked organizations with political and social objectives as an emerging political arena that is a product of globalization. My article contained a preliminary list of such organizations. I got some interesting feedback, including comments on my list and suggestions for additions to it. It was a way of tapping into a network of colleagues who had similar interests and sharing ideas for a new research project.
• Addressing research technique issues
This article communicated my concern that the medical model on which research ethics rules are primarily based is unsuitable to critical research on politics, in two ways. It raises ethics concerns that are not real, and ignores other ethical concerns that are.
• Dissemination to the wider community
This entry is addressed to my friends in Winnipeg and elsewhere who are frustrated with the way our city and others are run, but don’t know how go about trying to change it. The “kissing frogs” metaphor refers to the fact that we have to find common ground with people we disagree with if we want to build the necessary support for political change.
• Student assignments
Anyone who has taught university for any length of time knows that, if we assign a journal article to our students, a lot of them will not read it, especially if they are in first or second year. A good teaching tool at that level is an article a few pages long that raises an interesting question, shows the students how academic research can be used to answer it, and gets straight to the point doing that. Once students see the value of this kind of writing, they’ll be ready to tackle the more tedious challenge of a conventional academic article, but first we have to show them. The kinds of articles I write for my blog try to fill that bill.
In short, blogs offer both a format, and the low-cost technical means, to allow us to circulate our best research findings much more widely. Potentially this can maximize the value of the work we do, provide an opportunity to serve the wider community, and help to legitimate university research in the eyes of an often skeptical community and political leadership.
Universities should encourage their research faculty to put their findings on the internet. Ideally, this would be accomplished by crediting blogs and similar vehicles as legitimate academic publications, not on a par with refereed articles or peer-reviewed books, but roughly equivalent to think-tank articles or consulting work. This is likely to happen only if we import academic standards of quality into the blog format. Academic blogs that are rambling, conversational and poorly crafted are not a credit to the university, and are unlikely ever to capture career credits.