Academic Exchange Quarterly    Winter   2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 8, Issue 4

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.                                          Join editorial staff

Weblogs and the “Middle Space” for LearningAnne-Marie Deitering and Shaun Huston



Weblogs and the “Middle Space” for Learning

Anne-Marie Deitering, Oregon State University

Shaun Huston, Western Oregon University


Anne-Marie Deitering is the Instructional Coordinator at the Valley Library at Oregon State University.

Shaun Huston is an assistant professor of geography at Western Oregon University.





Advocates suggest that Course Management Systems can transform the higher education classroom into a more student-centered space. However, this has not happened. To achieve this goal more easily, some educators are turning to weblogs (“blogs”). This paper compares the educational potential of blogs and reports on direct experience suggesting that blogs can be a creative and interactive middle space between online and traditional classrooms.




During the heady days of the dot com boom and the rise of e-commerce, many observers thought that information technology would make it possible for universities to deliver active, student-centered learning experiences to students near and far (Schellens and Valcke, 2002; Zemsky and Massy, 2004). E-learning advocates have long argued that the pedagogical impact of technology goes beyond the delivery of information and lies instead in the power to create collaborative, learner-centered educational spaces. Nearly five years into the twenty-first century, the impact that technology has had on the practices of higher education remains uneven. With the widespread adoption of Course Management Systems (CMSs) technology is certainly omnipresent on college campuses, but teaching and learning have not been fundamentally altered by the spread and innovation of these tools.  Some writers and researchers have begun to look to blogs, which are flexible and easy to use, as tools for realizing the promise of computerized and computer-assisted education (for example, Godwin-Jones, 2003 and Oravec, 2003).


This paper takes a critical and comparative look at CMS and blogs, paying particular attention to how these technologies can be used to create a “middle space” (Oravec, 2003) between fully online and traditional courses.  The “middle space” is a virtual extension of the traditional classroom that encourages student-to-student interaction, provides a dynamic context for dialogue and feedback, and is particularly exciting in its potential for teaching with writing (for example, Brown, 2000, Hardwick, 2000, and Blair, 2003/2004).  The authors draw upon their experience with a Writing Intensive geography course at Western Oregon University to examine the potential of weblogs in this context.


E-learning in Higher Education

A recurring theme in the literature on computer mediated communication is that these technologies offer opportunities for treating teaching and learning as truly social activities where knowledge is built through interaction and dialogue rather than lectures and recitation (Brown, 2000, Hardwick, 2000, Rice, 2003). An extension of this theme is the notion that these tools can reshape student perceptions about who “owns” their classes. More specifically, in online environments, students may feel more confident about contributing (Brown, 2000, Blair, 2003/2004), establish ing stronger relationships with other students through dialogue and feedback (Brown, 2000, Hardwick, 2000, Godwin-Jones, 2003, Blair, 2003/04), and, as a result, developing their understanding of class material collaboratively and collectively.


Still, for most faculty members, day-to-day teaching remains fundamentally the same as it ever was.  When asked if higher education has become more learner-centered, longtime technology advocate Carol Twigg answered simply, “No, it hasn’t.  I wish it had” (Veronikas and Shaughnessy, 2004, p. 60).  To understand some of the reasons for this, the example of CMSs is illustrative.  For many instructors, especially those without HTML or programming skills, these campus-wide systems provide a door into instructional technology.  


CMSs have “become essential features of information technology at institutions of higher education” (Warger, 2003, p. 64).  Advocates agree that they can create a learning space that is social, active, contextual, engaging and student-owned (Carmean and Haefner, 2002, p. 27).   Critics and advocates acknowledge that in practice CMSs are not usually used to this end.  Instructors are most likely to adopt just those parts of the CMS which allow them to easily automate the delivery of the same lectures they have always given (Zemsky and Massy, 2004, Warger, 2003). 


To go beyond the default options provided by the CMS, instructors must know more than how to format the appearance of their virtual classrooms; they must also understand how the CMS is configured, and populated with content (Carmean and Haefner, 2002).  A recent study at the University of Wisconsin suggests that despite their widespread adoption, faculty members and students alike find these systems difficult to use.  As a result, their potentially transformative applications offered by these systems, the possibility of student-created course content, discussion boards and chat rooms, are beyond the reach of most faculty members (Carnevale, 2004).



Weblogs also have enormous potential to create learning spaces that are social and student-owned (Oravec, 2003).  As with CMSs, realizing this potential lies with the user, not with the technology itself.  There are some important characteristics of weblogs, however, that warrant further exploration.  Weblogs were not designed to re-create the traditional classroom but were created as social, communicative tools.  Using them to encourage social and communicative learning requires little or no adaptation from their original form.  Additionally, for students and instructors alike, the technological knowledge needed to use weblogs in the classroom is relatively minor.


Not surprisingly, interest in the educational potential of online communication often stems from a desire to encourage student writing (Rice, 2003, Lankshear and Knobel, 2003, Kadjer and Bull, 2004, Blair 2003/2004).  Weblogs are used for many different types of writing, which makes them a particularly useful way to support activities rooted in the idea that writing is a not just a means for expression, but also a tool for learning (Fouberg, 2000).  With weblogs, students write not only to learn, but also to build a collaborative learning community (Godwin-Jones, 2003).  They can comment on each others’ blogs, or collectively contribute to a shared space.  This e social use of computer-mediated communication  can therefore encourages classroom participation (Brown, 2000, Hardwick, 2000, Blair, 2003/2004, Godwin-Jones, 2003). The particular flexibility and openness of weblogs , in particular, supports student engagement with course material and with each other (Lankshear and Knobel, 2003, Oravec, 2003).


Oravec (2003) characterizes blogs as a useful “middle space” between fully online and traditional classrooms, both of which tend to be instructor-centered or dependent.  Because the traditional, top-down functions of the classroom are provided in other ways, the blog can be a separate, student-owned space within the traditional course (Veronikas and Shaughnessy, 2004).  At the same time, the simplicity and flexibility of blogs, and the evolving nature of blogging, mean that students can exercise their creativity within the framework established by the instructor in the classroom. Oravec (2003) refers to this as “blended learning.”  


Where adapting a CMS course management system to support blended learning requires a level of expertise beyond the experience of many instructors, weblogs can be launched easily.  The accessibility of hosted blogging services, which eliminate the need for programming knowledge, is one reason for heightened interest in the educational classroom potential of these tools (Lankshear and Knobel, 2003). The ease with which instructors and students alike can accessuse these tools is another reason for this interest (Godwin-Jones, 2003, Kadjer and Bull, 2003).


The possibility of blending, of creating a middle space between a traditional and an online courseclassrooms  and the ease with which a blog could be set up drew us to the creation of a class weblog for GEOG 207W at Western Oregon University.  Three areas in particular, community-building, informal writing, and ease of use,  were at the core of why blogging was incorporated into GEOG 207W and are also the main concerns of a student survey designed to assess how well these goals were met during the term.


Blogging in GEOG 207W

Geography and Film is a Writing Intensive course at Western Oregon University, first offered in Spring 2004. A class weblog, filmtalk, was created to provide a space for students to publish their own ideas about course content.  Students in Geography and Film used the blog to write and communicate in a variety of formats, both formal and informal, satisfying one of the key goals of the Writing Intensive curriculum.  We hoped to encourage students to engage with course material, and collaborate with each other, by providing them with a  public space of their own to share their ideas and their writing. To gauge the success of this project we surveyed students about filmtalk and community building, informal writing, and technical problems. Eighteen out of twenty students enrolled in GEOG 207W responded to these surveys.


filmtalk was established as a multi-authored blog where every student and the instructor had the right to post both new content, and to comment on others’ contributions. For full credit, students were required to post a minimum of three messages or comments each week that addressed class discussions, readings, and films. These discussions provided a space for informal writing.  In addition, students were required to post more formal pieces of writing, specifically longer film reviews and critiques.  These pieces were also available for comment.  The substantive content on the blog was entirely student-created; the instructor only used the blog to make announcements about class procedure and scheduling.


It was hoped that a collectively authored blog would facilitate the exchange of ideas and information and would build a sense of the course lass as an extended and always in-process discussion of film and geography.

With regards to this community building function, students were asked, “How well did filmtalk work as a class discussion board?” Almost all of the students, sixteen of eighteen, indicated the blog worked well in this capacity.


Responses indicated that students appreciated the opportunity to express themselves outside of the classroom, and at the same time suggested that filmtalk allowed in-class discussions to be more focused. Others noted that the online discussion environment gave them an opportunity to gather their thoughts before commenting on class material. A few students appreciated that the blog became a “record” of class discussions that could be referred to later and in other contexts, such as in formal essays. A couple of students, including the most critical respondent, found the discussion to be forced, with many students only doing the minimum and checking into the blog but once a week. One student felt that the online nature of the blog discouraged students from of really learning who their peers were.


Participation levels on filmtalk provide additional indications that the blog worked well as a community forum. While weekly tabulations of student contributions to the blog , support student observations about minimum participation, they also show that, by mid-term, every student in the class was regularly checking in and contributing. This data and student responses further indicate that filmtalk became an effective middle space, or an online learning environment simultaneously grounded in the traditional classroom, but also having a life of its own. As a whole, GEOG 207W developed into a blended learning space along the lines suggested by Oravec (2003).


As previously noted, the weekly discussions on the blog provided the medium for informal writing in the courselass. Outside of some basic ground rules – keep messages and comments relevant to the class, avoid ad hominem attacks, preference for “standard” English over netspeak – students were free to use filmtalk to discuss topics of their choosing and without excessive attention to the mechanics or disciplinary specificity of their writing.  


In assessing this purpose, students were also asked, “How did filmtalk work as a space to do informal writing?”  Student responses indicate that they found the blog to be a comfortable space to express their ideas.  Individual responses touched on a number of themes, but this is typical: “Filmtalk helped to just let ideas flow onto the screen. You don’t have to use proper grammar you can just let your ideas flow.” The references to ideas “flowing” onto the screen indicate an appreciation for the specific format, as do responses expressing appreciation for being able to write without paper.  Students compared the blog favorably to traditional journals and e-mail listservs. The social aspects of the blog were also mentioned in this context, as some respondents positively noted the ability to get responses and feedback from other students. Both sets of responses are suggestive of students having developed a sense of ownership as anticipated by researchers and writers such as Veronikas and Shaughnessy (2004). Indeed, in a post to filmtalk, one student remarked, “[S]ince this is my blog, I'll make it on my own opinion.”


Hosted weblogging services allow the user to set up and use a blog without knowing anything about server maintenance or backend programming.  Most services offer a variety of predefined templates, which make it possible to customize the appearance and features of the weblog by choosing options from a menu.  Some of these hosted services allow users to set up basic weblogs for free, which can be important when students create their own blogs.  Blogger ( and LiveJournal ( are two such free options.  LiveJournal in particular makes it very easy to link blogs together into a virtual community.


For filmtalk, we selected Typepad (, a hosted service with a small monthly charge attached.  Despite the charge, Typepad offered two main features we felt were particularly important.   was set up through TypePad, a hosted weblogging service, for two main reasons.  First, Typepad allowed the instructorauthors to set up a single blog, with multiple -authors blog.   Secondly, user reviews of the service suggested that the interface was easy to use, and that the server provided was reliable and not prone to interruptions.  Reliability was particularly important because we wanted to eliminate the possibility of students using “I couldn’t get into the blog” as a reason to avoid participating. 


We believed that if students found the product difficult to use, or to access, their participation would suffer.  To assess this aspect of the blog, students were also asked to “describe any technical problems you had posting to filmtalk.” Students were also asked to “describe anything they thought worked well.” Most problems cited by students related not to the day-to-day use of the blog, but to getting registered and set up with TypePad. Once that was addressed, students almost uniformly indicated that posting to filmtalk was problem free. The ability to access filmtalk from anywhere – home, dorm, school – and general ease of use also came up in responses to the prior questions. These responses strongly underscore contentions regarding the non-intimidating nature of blogs, and the particular advantages afforded by hosted services such as TypePad.  The extent to which students were essentially able to manage themselves once registered as authors on filmtalk , points to the essential differences between CMSs, which are rooted in instructor management, and blogs as online learning and writing environments.


The more open-ended question produced a range of responses on a number of issues, many of which returned to themes from the previous questions. One student, for example, expressed appreciation that the blog could be accessed “at 3:30 am.” Another student appreciated the “simplicity” of the blog and expressed the view that participating on the blog made them more confident about using computers in general. Others took note of how the blog facilitated exchange with their peers. Freedom and style of writing afforded by the blog were also noted.



The experience of CMSs in higher education reveals that technologies do not, by themselves, generate dramatic changes in how courses are delivered and taught.  The interests and capabilities of students and instructors, and the capabilities of specific tools, all shape the impact of technology on the classroom.  By and large, the research on CMS indicates that those technologies have had little impact on how college and university teachers teach. However, the early literature and our experience with GEOG 207W suggest that social and communicative technologies like blogs may play a significant role in changing the dynamics of higher education courseslassrooms.  Particularly because of their flexibility and simplicity, these technologies are easy to integrate with the traditional classroom and can afford students degrees of freedom, creativity, and self-management not easily achieved through existing CMSs.



Blair, L. (2003/2004). Teaching composition online: No longer the second-best choice. Kairos: A journal for teachers of writing and webbed environments, 8(2). Retrieved June 8, 2004 from


Brown, D. (2000). Educational beliefs: An overview. In D. Brown (Ed.), Interactive learning: Vignettes from America’s most wired campuses (pp. 3-7). Boston, Anker Publishing Co.


Carmean, C. & Haefner, J. (2002, November/December). Mind over matter: Transforming course management wsystems into effective learning environments [Electronic version].  EDUCAUSE review, 26-34.


Carnevale, D. (2003, July 4). Study of Wisconsin professors finds drawbacks to course-management systems. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A26. Retrieved August 8, 2004, from EBSCO Professional Development Collection.


Fouberg, E. (2000). Concept learning through writing for learning: Using journals in an introductory geography course. Journal of Geography, 99(5), 196-206. Retrieved June 7, 2004, from Education Full Text database (200024502347004).


Godwin-Jones, R. (2003). Emerging technologies: Blogs and wikis: Environments for on-line collaboration [Electronic version]. Language, Learning & Technology, 7(2): 12-16.


Hardwick, S. (2000). Humanising the technology landscape through a collaborative pedagogy [Electronic version]. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 24(1), 123-129.


Kadjer, S., and Bull, G. (2003). Scaffolding for struggling students: Reading and writing with blogs. Learning and Leading with Technology, 31(2), 32-35. Retrieved June 7, 2004?????, from Education Full Text database (0327404947007).


Kadjer, S., and Bull, G. (2004). A space for “writing without writing”: Blogs in the language arts classroom. Learning and Leading with Technology, 31(6), 32-35. Retrieved June 7, 2004?????, from Education Full Text database (0406204947007).


Lankshear, C., and Knobel, M. (2003). Do-it-yourself broadcasting: Writing weblogs in a knowledge society. Paper presented to the American Education Research Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL, April 21 (22 pp.).


Oravec, J. (2003). Blending by blogging: weblogs in blended learning initiatives [Electronic version]. Journal of Educational Media¸ 28(2/3): 225-233.


Rice, J. (2003). Writing about cool: Teaching hypertext as juxtaposition [Electronic version]. Computers and Composition, 20: 221-236.


Schellens, T., and Valcke, M. (2000). Re-engineering conventional university education: Implications for students’ learning styles. Distance Education, 21(2), 361-384.


Veronikas, S.W., and Shaughnessy, M.F. (2004, July/August). Teaching and learning in a hybrid world: An interview with Carol Twigg [Electronic version].  EDUCAUSE review, 51-62 . 


Warger, T. (July 2003). Calling all course management systems.  University Business, 6(7), 64-66.  Retrieved August 9, 2004, from Ebsco Professional Development Collection.


Zemsky, R., and Massy, W. (2004). Thwarted innovation: What happened to e-learning and why. Philadelphia, PA: The Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania.