OMG I Forgot To Post: An Examination of How Students View and Use Blogs Within an Academic Organization

Abstract:

This paper explores how class blogs are perceived as an instructional tool from the perspective of the graduate student. This boundary spanning technology allows for student-student and student-instructor engagement to continue outside the traditional classroom, yet does capability lead to success in the eyes of the user? Applying Orlikowski’s revision of Structuration Theory to the ongoing structural negotiation between student and organization provides insight into the future of the twenty-first century learning environment.


In the age of globalization, Orlikowski determines that organizational artifacts become more interconnected and interdependent (409). As classrooms walls are lowered, the need for engaging, boundary-spanning technology increases; blogs are an example of such a technology. I argue that blogs are a technological symbol of interconnection on both a personal and organizational level (Crystal, 237-247). In the classroom, a blog is a new, exploratory teaching tool that is used as a supplement or substitute to traditional teaching. A goal of a blog is to better the student-instructor as well as the student-student relationship. Ideally, they enhance learning through content-management and context-specific sharing among students and teacher (Crystal, 2006).

I examine class blogs within the university system, specifically Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture and Technology Program (CCT) so that I may gain insight into the twenty-first century university learning environment. The graduate students in the CCT program may be classified as early adopters of technology and are encouraged by the program to participate in virtual interaction. I acknowledge that the subjects of this study qualify as heavy users of technology and do not reflect the average citizen’s relationship with new media.

This study aims to explore blogging behavior and opinions of CCT students in order to discuss the perceptions of those who are technically inclined. This investigation leads me to ask, how do students view and use class blogs as part of their CCT educational experience? I investigate this issue through qualitative interviews and personal experience. These interviews lead me to explore various aspects of blogging and a blog’s role in the classroom.

First, I define blogs and give a brief history of blogging within CCT. I review relevant literature and apply chosen theoretical frameworks to the study of class blogs. I discuss my research method, which is qualitative interviews of CCT graduate students and explore the findings from the data in relation to Daft and Lengel’s Media Richness Theory (1986) as well as Orlikowski’s Structuration Theory (2000). I conclude by discussing the implications of the current state and the future of class blogs and conclude with ideas for future research.

Defining Blogs: An Overview

Blogs, or weblogs, first appeared in the public sphere during mid-1999 (Crystal, 239). Crystal defines a blog as, “a web application, which allows the user to enter, display, and edit posts at any time” (240). According to Crystal, blogs are a content-management system that acts as an avenue for getting content to the Web. This suggests that while content is submitted to online space, one maintains a certain degree of control over the tool due to interactivity between the information (blog post) and its user (student blogger).

In 1998, CCT adopted an early form of blogs through a system called Blackboard (Irvine, e-mail communication). Blackboard remains an option, but the majority of CCT professors prefer to employ the system Digital Commons, now called Georgetown Commons commons.georgetown.edu. Georgetown Commons has a greater emphasis on blogging yet, according to Dr. Irvine, former director of the CCT program, there has not been an official introduction of blogs in CCT. Faculty are currently using blogs that professor’s design individually or blogs set up by Georgetown’s CNDLS Department (Center for New Design in Learning and Scholarship). Though blogs have been an active tool in the program’s curriculum for over a decade, the faculty as a whole has not formally declared blogs as part of their standard teaching practice. As Dr. Irvine suggests, CCT’s technological drive has emerged from professors who experiment with virtual space in order to enhance teaching and learning on the Web (Irvine, e-mail communication).

Literature Review

Daft and Lengel (1986) describe the role media play in relation to users as one that is driven by task efficiency and uncertainty reduction. They write, “organization structure and internal systems determine both the amount and richness of information provided to managers” (Daft and Lengel, 554). In the case being examined, the organization is both the CCT Program and the classroom system, while the professor represents the managerial role. Traditional forms of grading, peer-to-peer interaction, participation expectations, and student-teacher roles contribute to the internal learning system. This system determines the usefulness of a medium’s cues (1986). Daft and Lengel (1986) developed four cues in an effort to better evaluate a medium’s ability to reduce uncertainty and manage equivocality.

The four cues are as follows:

  • 1- Facilitate feedback
  • 2- Communicate multiple cues
  • 3- Ability to tailor/personalize messages
  • 4- Use natural language to convey meaning

Media Richness Theory was coined prior to the advent of blogs; thus the theory’s applicability to blogging becomes problematic. Class blogs have the power to transcend real-time instruction and face-to-face interaction. As it stands, a blog’s power as a medium is not correctly reflected in Media Richness Theory. Daft and Lengel’s theory requires updating because it does not discuss current space and place or temporal changes brought about by technological advances. As a solution to its timeliness, I recommend additives to accompany Media Richness Theory. These additives are 1. accessibility; 2. capability of spanning boundaries,; and 3. adaptability. I propose that these not be separate cues, but additives that be taken into consideration with the existing cues. In the following paragraphs, I discuss these additives and how they contribute to the evaluation of a medium.

First, access to a medium must be considered. Access to media lays the groundwork for evaluation because it sets a standard for how effective the four cues are as an evaluation tool in relation to whether the audience does or does not have the means of exposure to the message (Eisenberg, 2007, Walther, 1996). If a population’s accessibility is high, such as in a university setting, then applying Daft and Lengel’s four cues to the evaluation of a medium and its users is justified. If access is low, than the four cues may not be an accurate representation of a medium’s richness.

The next additive the theory should incorporate is a medium’s boundary spanning capabilities. This additive complements the existing cues because it considers new, current, and traditional media’s place in virtual space. There are two motives that drive this additive. The first is sharing, and it is optimized through media that can span boundaries (Walther, 1996). Daft and Lengel write, “one distinguishing feature of organizational information processing is sharing” (556). The second motivation behind having the capability to span boundaries is having the ability to reach fellow users who are dispersed geographically, or chromatically increases users’ presence, thus making the medium richer.

The final additive, adaptation, benefits the theory by linking the four existing cues to uncertainty management. As previously stated, Media Richness Theory’s process of medium evaluation is driven by the need to reduce uncertainty and equivocality (Daft and Lengel, 1986). Adaptation, or adaptability, of a medium can be measured in degrees of user-openness and perceived difficulty. User-openness to media, especially technological media, provides insight into how easy or how difficult it will be for users to adapt and manage uncertainty when engaging with various forms of media. I propose that uncertainty will remain high if users cannot or will not adapt to a medium.

Media Richness Theory declares face-to-face interaction as the richest medium, thus implying that it is necessary for successful organizational communication (1986). Today, organizational tasks and the sharing of information is often conducted virtually or paired with face-to-face interaction. While agreeing with Daft and Lengel, Handy stresses the importance of adaptability, thus affirming its place as an additive to Media Richness Theory (1995).

Pairing the existing cues with the suggested additives qualify class blogs as a rich medium. Three of the four media richness cues identify a blog as rich: it has the ability to tailor/personalize messages, facilitate feedback, and uses natural language to convey meaning. Even so, it is lean in its ability to communicate multiple cues due to its inability to convey nonverbal communication (I discuss whether students qualify class blogs as rich or lean media in the results section).

The second theory I apply to the study of graduate student’s views and use of class blogs is Orlikowski’s revision of Giddens’ Structuration Theory (Orlikowski, 2000, Turner and West, 2010). Structuration describes possible explanations for how class blogs reached their current state and why students view and use blogs as they do. Orlikowski updates the theory by bringing a practice-orientated emphasis to Giddens’ research by including technology, which allows Structuration to help explain criticism from its users, as well as the blogging process as a whole.

Orlikowski combines Giddens’ concentration on social construction with a focus on the instability of technology and the ever-changing process of forming norms (2000). Structuration Theory states that organizations create structures guided by rules and resources that produce social systems (2000). These social systems enforce power structures, which, in turn, guide decision-making (Turner and West, 261).

This study views Georgetown University’s CCT Program as the organization in which structuration occurs. The CCT Program, along with the professors who comprise the whole, implements learning structures. In this case, the university structure gains an additional resource (academic blogging) that restructures the learning system toward a technology-heavy curriculum. The technology’s creator and/or enforcer (which in this case is the professor) brings intent to the technology itself as well as ideas of how it should be implemented within an existing structure (Orlikowski, 2000).

Method

My desire to examine students within a technology-heavy program is rooted in my current position as a graduate student in CCT. I choose to interview my peers in hopes of gaining insight into the perceptions of class blogs in CCT so that we may better understand the graduate students’ learning experience. As a result, we may apply this insight toward using blogs to their full potential, thus enhancing the quality of the department and graduate programs alike.

Qualitative interviews were conducted through three mediums: face-to-face, e-mail, or Facebook chat depending on the subject’s preference and availability. The majority preferred e-mail, while one person favored face-to-face and one chose Facebook chat. I interviewed ten CCT graduate students, four of whom were in their second year, five in their first year, and one who was part-time. Each student was asked if he/she would prefer to remain unidentified and none of the ten chose to be identified as anonymous. I interpreted this as evidence of their passion for the issue of blogging in the classroom and their desire to be heard.

After finishing the interviews, I reviewed, transcribed, or formatted the answers and began coding. I referred to Foss (2007) for a coding method to help me through the steps of analysis. Foss’s steps led me to create five coding labels: “Role of Teacher,” “Experience,” “Use,” “Self-Presentation,” and “View.” Following coding, I developed overarching themes as well as a research schema (2007).

Two of the coding labels “Use” and “Self-Presentation” did not contain a large amount of responses. This was evidence that these labels were not as significant as I thought, which resulted in a pairing of “Use” with “Experience” and a combination of “Self-Presentation” with “View.” Once this change was made, I reviewed the data again and the direction of the research emerged. This process helped me choose Media Richness Theory and Structuration Theory as appropriate theories for my evaluation. The findings are explained by connecting these theories to the interviews in the following section.

Research Findings

Compared to society at large, CCT students qualified as early adopters. The technical nature of the graduate program fostered a sense of willingness to incorporate technology into one’s everyday practice, both on an academic and social level. That being said, many CCT students had no previous exposure to class blogging. Each of the interviewees began using blogs in the classroom upon entering CCT. First-year graduate student Smith attested to this:

“My first experience with having a real class blog began my first semester at CCT. Of the six classes that I have taken so far, five have had a class blog, and one utilized Blackboard.”

This was a significant finding in itself because it contradicted the perceived level of expertise of the average CCT student upon entering the program.

The finding that little to no CCT students have class blogging experience sets future groundwork for how the program might introduce blogs. As it stands, class blogs and blogging practices are not formally explained. Introducing blogs during orientation or during the first week of classes may encourage a more cohesive structuration process in the program. Orlikowski may suggest that those who have no previous exposure to class blogging may be open to developing norms and a blogging schema, thus becoming active participants who have the agency to guide the technology’s place in the organization. This suggestion needs to consider that 1) having no set of previous class blogging norms and 2) recreational use of blogs outside of class influences the structuration process of blogs in an academic organization.

The first issue, having no previous set of classroom blogging rules, is not heavily addressed in student’s responses, yet I infer that the lack of blogging experience may encourage students to prefer the traditional classroom atmosphere and reject the blog.

The second implication of recreational blogging is highly interconnected with perceptions of the medium as a learning tool. Students classify their use of new media as extensive and a main source of recreation. The activity of social blogging may be so high that it spills over into teaching expectations, causing users to view class blogs with little satisfaction. An example of this spillover is in the finding that 80 percent of the subjects keep a personal blog and 100 percent read blogs outside of class. Outside use is motivated by either recreation or non-academic, newsworthy information.

“I am what you would consider an average new media user. I read at least five blogs regularly, all belonging to people I know personally (Dale, e-mail interview).”

“I mostly use new media to connect with friends and as part of my job. I limit my engagement to blogs, Facebook, and Twitter (Davidson, e-mail interview).”

Given student’s frequent use of new media and interest in technology, proficiency with the medium (blogs) in a specific environment (academia) may not be necessary for adoption (Orlikowski, 2000). Orlikowski’s research suggests that, based on socially constructed rules, members who enter a structure will encourage each other to adopt rules and incentivize one another to adapt to overall departmental norms.

Based on the current structure of blogs within CCT, the instructor sets the standards. Each student adapts to the norms of the medium in a short amount of time. This is not to detract from the previous statement that user’s views may vary due to inexperience with the medium. Both ways of viewing out-of-class virtual activity suggests that it influences perceptions of class blogs.

Users view class blogs as rich mediums with potential. Second-year student, Martinez, believes blogs serve a purpose: “I like it and I think it can be very helpful to develop new skills such as collaboration” (Martinez, e-mail interview). It is important to note that Martinez does not explain what he means by “collaboration.” Because these are one-time interviews and questions are open-ended, it is important to consider the possible meaning behind Martinez’s comment. The term “collaboration” is commonly associated with academia, so it is possible that he is employing an idea of how class blogging should be viewed rather than his personal view of current class blogs.

Handy discusses how users, mainly managers and those in workgroups, create a work presence that transcends space and place. Thus, the success of a medium lies in the user’s expectations and norms they create as a unit (Handy, 1995). Examining the students set of norms allows me to study if/how blogs are viewed as separate virtual learning environments or as extensions of the physical classroom. Results indicate that there is no solid, unified answer to this question.

Students voice passionate opinions on how a blog should be structured and its role in the classroom, but there is no unified structure that students agree upon that could lead to the formation of a norm. For example, part-time student Lee’s idea of class blogging is tightly constructed. “Instructors should have a specific reason for [blogs] and structure activity in such a way that speaks to that reason” (Lee, e-mail communication).

In contrast, student Alamy prefers class blogs to be actively present but not bound to set constructs. She comments on her feelings toward a loosely structured tool.

“I like a blog that is used as an open space for sharing thoughts and discussion by the students and teacher. It seems like more of an open extension of the classroom and sometimes can be more conducive to participation for people who might not feel as comfortable speaking up in class.”

If Lee represents one side of the spectrum and Alamy lies in the middle, then student Dale and first year student Al-Hajri’s view on the structuring of class blogs represents the opposite end. Dale dislikes when students are required to blog about readings online or transfer discussions that do not come to an end during class time to the online platform. She says it feels forced and does not like the current structure of CCT blogging. Al-Hajri argues for a dramatic shift in blogging priorities and suggests that the most important factor for learning through a class blog would be “having a moderated chat room. This would be much better than entries. Blogs are meant to be a reflection of you [not the class].”

It is important to note that these varying opinions may be due to different blogging styles within the CCT department. There is no mandated blog composition within the program. For example, faculty member Dr. Turner describes how she views blog participation in her syllabus as an extension of learning. Her expected standard for blogs is guided by her grading policy and assignment deadlines. An in-person conversation regarding the medium suggests that this style is chosen to keep students accountable and productive.

The blog style of another professor in the CCT department Dr. Dediac, is an example of Dale and/or Alamy’s blogging preference because it has an active overseer and is loosely structures. This open space holds students accountable through the teacher’s in-class comments and peer pressure to participate (Orlikowski, 2000). In addition, accountability is measured in the number of posts that accompany one’s name in the username section. If one’s number is higher than most students, than one may see oneself as highly participative. This is not the case with Dr. Turner’s structured blog form because one is held accountable by a weekly set of posting rules rather than objective participation. Dr. Turner’s blogging style fits with Lee’s view of having specific tasks coupled with a set of norms that relate to in-class standards.

Findings suggest that CCT students want to maintain role specification in their professor-student virtual relationship. There is an overall, shared opinion that the teacher should set rules and expectations for the class blog. In a virtual forum, they agree that the teacher should lead the class blog but disagree on the duties and definition of a leader. An example of this is in Lee’s description of expected professor-student interaction.

“The teacher chooses to engage the blog. I have had teachers assign weekly posts but never commented or participated on the blog. My relationship with my professors in this case was not enhanced through the blog.”

Davidson, a second year graduate student, voices a similar opinion in saying, “the instructor should participate in the same way that the students do. If the instructor’s interactivity is limited, the students will follow suit.”

Second year student Scacco, perceives the teacher’s leadership role as more passive. He wants a virtual overseer with little participation, while regulation and commenting should be lead by peers. Fellow second-year student Khater and first-year student, Smith’s answers are slightly more removed from Lee and Davidson’s opinions. Both Khater and Smith view a successful class leader as filling the role of “facilitator.” Smith describes the role of the instructor as having little dominant force.

I interpret these responses to symbolize the negotiation of control occurring in the issue of class blogs; the student views the teacher as the user who has single control over the class, yet the day-to-day activity of the medium is driven by the activity of the students as a whole. The acknowledgment of this control however, seems to be avoided by the students. This hinders emerging structuration because it places power at the top while students wait for orders. Students contribute to the structuring process by perpetuating the need for the instructor to set rules for them.

Various theorists claim that technology use is either task orientated, socially constructed, or both (Daft and Lengel, 1985, Eisenberg, 2007, Handy, 1995, Orlikowski, 2000). Eisenberg believes organizational communication “depends on a unique blend of technical and social factors at work and stresses the importance of communication and collaboration” (211-12). Taking into account that those interviewed are experienced new media users who have been exposed to theories such as these helps explain why many of the interviewees express opinions about blogs being “collaborative” and “helpful.” The demographic does not explain why students are contradicting these team-driven words (collaboration, helpful, creative) then providing examples that diminish the medium. An example of this is in Al-Hajri response when she says, “Students are getting lazy. Why get fancy? Teachers need to step it up and teach, not wow or win over students.” Based on Al-Hajri’s other responses that praise the medium as a reflection of self and a creative outlet, the “back-to-the-basics” undertone of the above comment comes as a surprise.

Other interviewees who praise the medium as a team-building tool but later contradict their opinion are first-year students, Anderson and Smith. Anderson spoke of blogging as a way to share ideas and as a skill that boosts one’s employment opportunities. Later, she contradicts these claims by voicing her distaste for the additional required commitment blogging entails. Smith is an advocate for new media but asserts his concern for class blogs having the power to “unnecessarily turn students off from technology.”

Earlier in the paper, I discuss possible reasons for Martinez’s use of the word “collaboration.” I hypothesize that it may be an ingrained response that relies on his attitude toward new media. The example of Martinez varies from others discussed in this section because his response remains positive. More negative answers flatter the collaborative myth, then unconstructively criticize the medium through which collaboration could occur.

Mixed views suggest that the majority of users feel class blogs, in their current state, are helpful in theory but not in practice. Voicing the concept of “helpfulness” may be a socially driven theme due to their positions within a technology-driven program. Mixed views may also be due to the idea that students are not angry at the medium but angry about the way the technology is being used. Orlikowski’s work suggests that once users solidify, action toward restructuring should follow (2000). The CCT Program’s path to reaching a solidified practice of blogging will be long because students are not inclined to provide unified solutions to how the process may be improved. Solutions are either not given or light in their Lose Weight Exercise of practicality given the current university system.

I am convinced that CCT’s in-class rhetoric varies from its out-of-class vernacular (Crystal, 2006). The amount of attention to wording students allot to interaction with professors differs from the attention students award to everyday conversations. In matters of attention, graduate student Anderson reports devoting less concentration to blogs due to time constraints. “If the right time is not spent then it is little more than a waste of time.” Students position blogs somewhere in the middle of academic rhetoric and everyday language.

Some students want their nonacademic blogs to mirror their class blogs through colloquial language. Scacco, for example, views his language within class blogs to be a direct reflection of his in-person rhetoric. In contrast, Dale uses emoticons and abbreviations when communicating through leaner mediums such as text messaging or e-mail, yet writes formally when blogging for class. She says, “because of the limitations involved in writing [posting] I often present myself as much more serious and formal.”

Conclusion

As an academic organization, Georgetown’s CCT has an opportunity to keep their finger on the pulse of an evolving teaching and learning tool if they acknowledge and exploit the richness of blogs, as well as continue to examine the ever-changing structure of the technology and technological standards set by students, teachers, and the medium (Daft and Lengel, 1986, Orlikowski, 2000). Taking an inside-out approach to studying users’ views and use of blogs provides valuable insight into the mind-frame of graduate students who are invested in technology’s role in the academy. Successful incorporation of this medium into CCT depends on how well we continue to review user opinions rather than employ an outside-in approach of creation and dissemination (Orlikowski, 2000).

According to Crystal, blogs within organizations have an unclear potential that relies on how they are indoctrinated. “The audio and visual dimensions are bound to foster novel linguistic developments, in due course, but it is too soon to say what character these might take” (Crystal, 239). From the findings, it seems students allow their online presence outside of class to fuse with online presence inside academia. This may not be negative, but we have yet to figure out how to use this fusion to advance the teaching process.

It is my hope that this research may serve as a look into the blogging preferences of graduate students. These preferences are based on past and current utilization as well as their view on how the tool fits into curriculum. These interviews suggest that we are in a state of blogging confusion due to the phase transition we are experiencing in the classroom by combining the virtual with the traditional (Buchanan, 2003).

In addition, it is my hope that this research helps the CCT department, as well as similar programs, structure its new media implementation and help decipher a blog’s role in the teaching and learning process.

Future research on the subject will examine decision making on an administrative level. Also, I would like to apply an ethnographic lens to the study of how students view and use blogs in the classroom and how instructors incorporate them into their curriculum. An examination of the teacher-student and student-student relationship development in conjunction with blogging would shine light on a blog’s role as a teaching and learning tool. Ideally, I aim to conduct a longitudinal, two-year study of Master’s candidates and their relationship with class blogs. The study would begin upon a student’s entry into CCT and follow his/her usage patterns and opinion shifts until completion of the program. This would add to the current research by contributing to our knowledge of a blog’s long-term presence within academia.

Bibliography

Al-Hajri, Kholoud. E-mail Communication. April 1, 2010.

Alamy, Nancy. Facebook Communication. April 1, 2010.

Anderson, Megan. E-mail Communication. April 13, 2010.

Buchanan, Mark (2003). Nexus: Small Worlds and the New Science of Networks. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.

Crystal, David (2006). Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Daft, R. and Lengel R. (1986). “Organizational Information Requirements, Media Richness, and Structural Design.” Management Science 32(5): 554-571.

Dale, Katie. E-mail Communication. April 1, 2010.

Davidson, Mike. E-mail Communication. April 11, 2010.

Eisenberg, Eric, Goodall, H.L., and Trethewey (2007). Teams and Networks: Collaboration in the Workplace. (Chapter 7, 206-248). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Foss, S. and Waters, W. (2007). Destination Dissertation: A traveler’s guide to a done dissertation. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (Chapter 7, Things to See and Do, Data Collection and Analysis, 185-215).

Handy, Charles (1995, May/June). “Trust and the Virtual Organization.” Harvard Business Review 73: 40-50.

Irvine, Martin. E-mail Communication. April 25-27, 2010.

Khater, Rami. E-mail Communication. April 13, 2010.

Lee, Christina. E-mail Communication. April 12, 2010.

Martinez, Carlos. E-mail Communication. April 13, 2010.

Meyrowitz, Joshua (1985). No Sense of Place. New York: Oxford University Press.

Orlikowski, W. (2000). “Using Technology and Constituting Structures: A Practice Lens for Studying Technology in Organizations.”Organization Science 11(4): 404-428.

Scacco, Joshua. In-Person Communication. April 12, 2010.

Smith, Andy. E-mail Communication. April 11, 2010.

Walther, J. (1996). “Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction.” Communication Research 23: 3-43.

West, Richard & Turner, Lynn (2010). Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application. (Fourth Edition) McGraw Hill.