Using social networking to enhance English-language learning

by / Sunday, 13 January 2013 / Published in ILC

With social media continuing to grow globally and the rapid introduction of mobile devices in schools and colleges around the world, here’s an idea for a class project that uses social networking to enhance English language learning.

The educational benefits of blogging have been well documented over the years (Downes 2004), (Richardson 2009), (Tolisano 2012). Everything from student engagement and motivation to improved writing and digital media skills have all been cited. Turning an individual student blog into a class blog incorporates many 21st century skills & literacies such as cooperation, collaboration, communication, organisation, critical thinking, global awareness, problem solving and time management skills. Making it a photoblog adds creativity and a fun element. Also, with free publishing tools like Blogger www.blogger.com, (alternatives include Live Journal www.livejournal.com/ and WordPress www.wordpress.org/) starting your own class photoblog couldn’t be easier.

Four years ago I started my own photoblog http://abudhabidailyphotograph.blogspot.com/ using Google’s Blogger. I get an average of 2000 visits a month from people all over the world. Within one 24-hour time period alone, I’d had visitors from Athens, Bremen, Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Moscow, Nairobi, New Delhi, Oslo, Pretoria, Santiago, Tbilisi, Toronto and Warsaw. Many readers leave interesting comments, questions or additional information. I’ve got 298 public followers who receive regular updates automatically. The spinoffs are numerous: My blog was one of nine finalists recently shortlisted for the du Social Media Awards 2012, recognised for its positive social media presence. In 2010, I sold AED 3000 worth of photos from the blog to raise money for the Haiti earthquake victims. I’ve also published my own book of photographs and written this article!

camels

 

One idea for a class project is to join a public photoblog portal like “City Daily Photo” http://citydailyphoto.org, a phenomenon which was started in 2005 by Eric Tenin with his “Paris – One Photo A Day” blog. Today, it’s a fantastic collection of photos submitted daily from people living in over 1000 cities worldwide from obscure places such as La Antigua and Maungaturoto to well-known cities such as Abu Dhabi, London, New York and Paris, all of which have multiple entries.

The rules for joining the City Daily Photo community couldn’t be simpler:

  • Post one photo a day, though not necessarily one taken that day.
  • Include a short caption (in English) describing the place, the situation, and sometimes a little history.
  • The blogger should ideally be living in the city they photograph and write about.
  • The name of the city should be included in the title of the blog.

Preparing Students for Blogging

Before launching your blog, introduce and discuss the idea of a class photoblog with your class. “BrainPop” www.brainpop.com/english/writing/blogs/ has a great educational video, language activity and quiz on blogs. Likewise, “Smashing Magazine” http://tinyurl.com/nho5br offers photography advice with “50 Free Resources That Will Improve Your Photography Skills” and Photo Net http://photo.net/learn/ offers great tips and useful lessons.

Of course you’ll need access to some digital cameras. The latest smartphones and iPads all come with great built-in cameras to use for such a project. If money’s no object, you could ask your institution to purchase a couple of cameras. CNET recently compiled a list of the best budget digital cameras for under $200 http://reviews.cnet.com/best-budget-cameras/

Once you have your cameras, set your students a weekly photography assignment or scavenger hunt. This way your students will get a bit of practice in before the launch of your blog. For inspiration check out http://chasethelight.org/ who run a number public photographic competitions such as “26 Things”, “A Day In The Life”, “Q&A” and “Quick Snap”.

Next, if you are using a PC or Mac download Google’s easy-to-use Picasa software http://picasa.google.com/ to help organise, edit, and blog photos easily. If you are using a Smartphone or iPad, the official free Blogger App allows you to take a picture and publish it directly from the App. There are also many free cool photography Apps for the iPad to choose from such as Adobe Photoshop Express and Gorillacam.

Steps for Getting Started on Blogs

Start by creating a google account www.blogger.com and build and name your class photoblog. Blogger templates come in various sizes, shapes and colours. Some are even designed especially for photoblogs. Checkout www.ourblogtemplates.com/ which offers a number of wide templates for free.

Blogger is perfect for a class project as it allows up to 100 authors to share and publish the same blog. You will need to invite your students to be co-authors (under the permissions tab). Although you can send the invitation to any email account, every student will need a Google account to participate in the project www.google.com/accounts/. For those concerned with student privacy and anonymity, blogger comes with a range settings. For example, students have the option to choose a display name rather than their real name.

I recommend adding a web counter or two to your blog. Sitemeter www.sitemeter.com/ offers a free tracking and counter tool giving you instant access to vital information and data about your site’s audience while Revolver Maps www.revolvermaps.com/ offers an interactive visitor globe where every visitor leaves a dot on a world map. With their detailed reporting, you’ll have a clear picture of who is visiting your site, how they found you, where they came from, what interests them and much more.

stats

 

Before you start publishing, you’ll need a good bank of photos to start you off. It’s advisable to discuss the theme and subject matter of postings with your class in advance. For example, you may want to post a week-long series on a particular aspect of your chosen city such as architecture or people and portraits. Alternatively, you could post an A-Z of city life or keep it completely random. In a class size of fifteen, students should be prepared to write about and post an average of two photographs a month for the duration of the project (a semester, year, forever!). Blogs can even be handed down to the next batch of students.

Get the class to help draw up an acceptable use policy like safe and sensible behavior as blog authors and readers as well as what types of images are permissible, remembering taking photos of people need their consent. In addition, as blogs have no publisher, producer, or editor, you may also want to consider forming a rotating student editorial committee to deal with quality control, themes and scheduling issues. One of the best features of Blogger is the ability to schedule blog postings in advance, so weekends, public holidays and semester breaks are all covered.

Once you have your bank of photos, the students will need to plan, draft, edit and revise and peer review their posts (and photos) before publishing. This activity could easily make-up part of the writing component of an English course or Liberal Arts course. One of the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of running a blog is the feedback and comments from readers. This gives students an authentic and worldwide audience which provides an excellent opportunity for them to improve their reading and writing. Responding to these comments is also a valuable part of the learning experience. Likewise, visiting and commenting on other people’s blogs is an important aspect of blogging etiquette, which will also bring readers to your site.

dino2

Google does a great job of indexing your blog’s keywords and tags, so take time thinking about how to best exploit this to increase readership. 50% of my blog traffic comes as a result of Google searches.

Do consider signing up with Google AdSense www.google.com/adsense/ who display relevant Google ads on your blog pages for which you earn money. It might even raise enough funds to publish a book of your project!

Once you’ve started publishing your blog, you will need to publicize it (otherwise you won’t get many readers) by registering it with City Daily Photo http://citydailyphoto.org and a couple of others such as Technorati http://technorati.com/, Networked Blogs www.networkedblogs.com and Photoblogs http://www.photoblogs.org/signup/, who have over 36,000 photoblogs indexed.

Give your readers another way to keep up with your blog by placing an email subscription form on your site. I got mine from FeedBurner www.feedburner.com/. Likewise, add the “Followers” widget (under the layout tab) to your photoblog .

Finally, at the end of the year do consider putting on an exhibition of the photographs or producing a commemorative book. Blog2Print http://blog2print.com lets you publish some or all of your posts, photo and comments as a professionally-printed, full-colour book starting from $14.95 (or $7.95 for a PDF version). If the project really takes off, you may want to design, publish and sell your work online at Blurb http://www.blurb.com/books/1691941

I look forward to seeing a whole host of new city daily photoblogs and if you have any questions or queries about starting a class photoblog, feel free to leave a comment below.

References

Downes, S. (2004). Educational Blogging. Educause Review, 39(5), 14-26. Retrieved December 18, 2012, from http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM0450.pdf

Richardson, W. (2009) Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms
Second Edition. Weblogs: Pedagogy and Practice (pp. 17-54). Corwin Press.

Tolisano, S. (2012). Implementing Blogging in the Classroom. Retrieved December 18, 2012, from http://langwitches.org/blog/2012/10/08/implementing-blogging-in-the-classroom/

 

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