CSM tutor Hywel Davies and the second year BA Fashion Communication and Promotion (FCP) cohort at CSM have been exploring the uses of blogs to support collaboration within an arts and design environment. The students are working in groups to produce short film responses to a forthcoming prestigious exhibition in London, and they are investigating blogs as part of the project.
In the spirit of my ‘findings on the fly’ open research approach, this article shares insights from the study thus far.
The use of blogs being employed in multiple ways is commonplace globally. Hence this study is not about investigating an emerging technology, or inquiring into novel uses of existing technologies, it is simply shining a light on a cohort of new users within the arts and design context. Indeed, arts and design education is an uncertain and ambiguous environment, as is the digital terrain we traverse. Therefore it is valuable to focus on how we engage with digital technologies to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be digitally literate in the University of the Arts London (UAL), and to inform evolving methods and approaches to learning and teaching in the 21c.
FCP project background
18 students are participating in the study – all but one are active facebook users. Prior to this project only four students had set-up and maintained their own blog; developing a deeper engagement with the functionality of different software over time. The ways these four use their personal blogs differs:
- daily personal reflection
- sharing activities with friends and family
- an online portfolio
- supporting creative projects.
Over an eight week period the FCP cohort has had access to the university’s WordPress blog platform and has been asked to include blogs within their group work. They were not instructed on the specific ways in which they were to employ the blogs, but they were given an overview of possible roles, and also had an introduction about setting up a group blog and uploading a post. In addition, the students took part in two further interim reflections on the ways they were approaching blogs within each group, and are active and collaborative participants in this study.
Initial insights emerging from the study to date include:
Expectation or assumption After the introductory session about setting up a group blog and writing/publishing text and images, the students expressed confidence in their ability to undertake these activities. However, in practice a week later a sizable number found themselves unable to engage with the software for various reasons. For example, some experienced difficulty logging on to the university blogging platform for user id compatibility issues, whilst others had not understood the need to select a particular functional status (administrator) to enable them to fully engage with their blog. A few students blamed the system, claiming that other blogging software (Tumblr) was ‘better’ and ‘easier to use’. Whilst some students had experience of the Tumblr platform, this claim was also made by some of those who had never set-up a blog, or used Tumblr software.
This situation often plays out across different groups. There can be an assumption by some students, and staff, that familiarity with systems such as facebook, Google search, Illustrator and texting, means that students are able to interact fluently within other system without much practice. Whilst this may well be the case with simple applications, where limited functionality offers a swift route to operational fluency, as with many material tools and instruments, a more sophisticated/complicated package may require deeper engagement in order to develop familiarity and understanding.
The notion of all young people being ‘digital natives’ when they join the college – adept and critical users of digital technologies – is inaccurate, and unhelpful when conceiving of ways in which technologies can be integrated into creative teaching and learning practices.
However, for one of the students who has a deep experience of blogs, returning to WordPress was frustrating: “WordPress was the platform I first used back in 2009 to set up my first ever blog, then I moved to Blogger and then on to Tumblr. Tumblr offers absolute flexibility to customise and organise layouts any way you want, it opened the doors for html and CSS programmers to write their own codes so the appearance of their blogs would be exactly as they wanted without any restrictions by the platform…it was like switching back to PC after having been working with a Mac.”
It is useful to remind ourselves that while some students are indeed adept, experienced and critical users of digital technologies – they may also be expected to challenge their own assumptions regarding relationships with technologies amongst their cohort.
Time for familiarity and reflection After eight weeks, to a greater or lesser extent, each student group had successfully managed to produce a blog and populate it with several images, text and videos. At this point they were able to express a more considered and informed critique of how blogs were employed within the project.
We used it because we had to at the beginning. But it was good to see what we had done, and there was a point we saw we had done enough research and it was time to move on.
We used the blog at the beginning when we were looking for imagery, but once we knew what we were doing for the film, we then went on with the film and didn’t use the blog.
It worked well in the end – for reflection, I liked to see how we’d progressed. But mostly we used Facebook during the project, you can do so much on facebook that you can’t do on the blog.
The quotes above are from a discussion with students about their experience of using the group project blogs. The students appreciated that the act of documenting the development of their project through a shared online space was useful when reflecting on their work. Despite initial misgivings, and a continued use of facebook to communicate, the use of a collaborative blog enabled one group to identify when they needed to move on from collecting visual references in order to start synthesising the emerging themes. Two further groups noted that the blog content after eight weeks was a valuable document showing the journey they had been on together, thus aiding reflection. And a member of a fourth group found the blog useful in ways that the other two members did not, again principally to aid reflection.
The notion of group blogs supporting individual and differing learning styles is one that is often overlooked, and it is something worth bearing in mind when thinking about how technologies can enhance the learning experience.
Tutor response to project blogs
Whilst the students preferred to use other familiar digital tools, for instance facebook, Dropbox and email, tutor Hywel Davies saw their exploration of the creation and use of a blog as being valuable for a number of reasons, including:
- ability to critically engage with a new system. Students will be operating in an uncertain professional world and the digital landscape is ever shifting, thus it is important that they are able to understand how to develop the ability to use and interrogate new software quickly. In their professional lives they will be expected to adopt and identify all sorts of technologies, and not rely on facebook;
- opportunity to experience a tool that is part of a well known and internationally employed blogging platform – WordPress. Individual students will now have the confidence and ability to set up their own blog should they wish;
- the difference in the sophistication of the blog content over an eight week period was significant. Each group was able to readily communicate how their project developed, as well as the visual references collated, by presenting their blogs.
During the plenary session the students maintained that facebook was their preferred mode of communication when working in a group as it was quick, they could interact with it on their smartphones, upload any media quickly, and facebook plays a large part in their everyday communication anyhow. Whereas the WordPress blogs were seen as taking more time to maintain and not having the functionality or immediacy they expected. One student felt that ‘Facebook is raw. Pure.‘ By this she meant that the structured presentation templates/themes of the blogs presented the uploaded media in a way that appeared too complicated, finished or complete, for the early stage the students were at in their design process. This point is interesting and worth pursuing separately, and it also highlights the value of active student participation in research studies.
In this study both CSM staff and students were on a shared journey of discovery. Thank you to Hywel and the BA FCP students for their co-research undertaking.