CONTEXT and RESOURCES? - Graphic Design Students in the Blogosphere
Cloud created by:
Sancha de Burca
21 January 2013
I wrote this in 2012 as part of my Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (Uni of Kent). I feel it might be useful to others as it is about relationships with resources but also about context. What I discovered in my research was not totally what I expected:
Technology in the Academic Environment
Graphic Design Students in the Blogosphere
I was first inspired to explore blogging as a practice in July 2011 while attending a talk by Jim Turner of John Moore’s University, at the Greenwich e-learning conference. Turner spoke about blogging as an activity that raised awareness of the blogger’s own identity. In particular, he had undertaken a research study with fine art students and found that the use of blogs helped increase their own perception of themselves as “professionals” (Turner, 2011). This was something that especially interested me as I was already investigating the ways in which H.E. students, especially my own graphic design students, could be moved from viewing themselves as “passive students” to regarding themselves as “active professional designers”.
Turner also emphasised that the professionalisation of these identities only occurred when students used outside, real life blogs, rather than in-house institutional blogs, such as Moodle. This was because with the “real” blogs there were the potential opportunities for “authentic” audience reaction, especially the notion that other professionals were watching. This was a two-way effect, as Turner’s students also liked to “lurk” and to view what was happening on the blogs of others. There was always the opportunity to be inspired, even mimic, the work of others and to keep on trend (Tuner, 2011).
In Turner’s study he observed that the students who took to blogging easily were “extravert, agreeable and open” and that some conscientious or “neurotic” learners did not find blogging useful. Moreover, some students had reported deep suspicion of blogging per se in that it was nothing to do with “real art, self aware and playing the game” (Turner 2011).
Nevertheless, my interest was stirred. My own cohorts of students on the graphic design programmes were already voluntarily beginning to use blogs as part of their design work and were submitting these as evidence of their bodies of work. Our team had always encouraged learners to find their own best practice within their design processes. I was also interested from a personal point of view, being in the process of setting up online design courses and suspecting that blogs would be a good way of viewing evidence of process, rather than expensive digital portfolios (such as Digication) or VLEs such as Joomla, which I had experience of using for tutoring for another organisation.
Consequently in September 2011, when the new cohort arrived, I encouraged as many of them as possible to begin to use blogs for their back-up work. They were invited to do this in conjunction with the traditional sketchbooks or instead of sketchbooks.
The main areas that needed to be shown as part of a graphic design body of work were as follows:
- Analysis and perhaps negotiation of the design brief
- Research into design methods, audience and design “noise” (things detracting from the intended message, including other design “out there”)
- Evaluation of own work in progress and the work of others
- Ideas generation, development and improvement
- Reflection of own working practices
Problems with traditional sketchbook work were that learners could spend undue time collecting and collating research in the form of print outs and objects. These needed to be physically stuck into the book and annotated in a way that showed meaningful conclusions were being drawn. But students often progressed with their design process and left annotation until the end of the project. This rendered the notes almost useless as they should be contemporaneous with the thought processes in order for them to work as development tools and ideas-generators. Late notes were often lacking in critical value or meaningful inspiration. Sketchbook work could thus become laborious and to an extent even pointless.
My aims in the promotion of blogs were to enable contemporaneous note-taking to help promote further development of ideas and to foster a professional identity which would help move the learners into design thinking and practice. Secondary to this, I had observed that some learners with challenges to written work, such as the dyslexic, also found the idea of blogging preferable to pen or pencil work on paper pages.
The idea that blogs can drive specific identities occurs across much of the literature that I have observed. Gregg (2006, quoted in Kirkup 2010) states that all blogging is “performative writing”, in that it has an audience and Ewins (2005, quoted in Kirkup 2010) refers to “multiphrenic” identities when individuals are using a range of media, styles and narratives in which to write or occur. In relation to academics who blog, Kirkup also states that blogging is a kind of “continuous development of the professional self” in which identities morph and grow as blogging leads in new directions. For academics, this is an alternative to the peer-reviewed paper permitting new areas of the public self to be aired (Kirkup 2010).
Purpose or format of blogs
Academic blogs, states Lee Skallerup Besette (Moorehead State University, Kentucky), take three differing forms. These are the journal, sharing thoughts; the how-to blog sharing advice or good practice, such as teaching notes; and the reflective blog. To this might be added the commercial, self-promoting blog often used by companies or even universities. It is possible that the blogs of my students, instigated because of the need to evidence bodies of research and development for specific programme learning outcomes, could fall into any or all of these categories as cognitive and technical parts of the design process are discussed.
There are two realms in which my own cohorts might blog; the professional realm of the graphic designer and the academic realm of the H.E. student and novice academic.
Graphic design students are often tempted into the topic in the first place by their interest in technology and so blogging may be a “natural” progression or continuation for them. I have noticed that more and more of my students have blogged prior to coming to university, often through school projects as well as privately. The “design” feel of many blogs, especially those such as Wordpress, is an attractive and easy setting in which to express themselves in a smart, efficient and trendy manner.
This is probably positive as when moving out into the design industry they may well be asked, or feel the need to blog as part of their commercial profile. Design companies like to use blogs as an attachment to their regular websites as it is a chance to demonstrate their open, informal and friendly side. Here they can discuss their work in progress or any other “everyday” items that they feel helps their identity and might gain more clients (Sheldon 2008).Moreover, blogs can easily be regularly updated and are therefore seen as fresh and new (Mathers 2011) and can gather important feedback, so vital to any company in the social networking era of advertising (Sheldon, 2008). See examples such as the major design company Pentagram at www.pentagram.com.
The latter of these areas of blogging, the academic arena, has many negative issues with blogging. Namely that blogs do not constitute proper places for academic thought to be published. Blogs do not count as publishing because they are not peer reviewed or edited (Saper, 2006, quoted in Kirkup 2010) and can be subjective, even a place for complaint. My own research has found, however, that the content of academic papers on blogging and the blogs themselves are often identical when it comes to forming opinions about the validity of blogging. It is hard to know, for example, how much to rely on blogs or strictly academic papers for a text like this one. Many writers argue that blogs should be counted as valid places to publish and that indeed they are (potentially) peer reviewed simply by being public. Indeed, many of the blog posts researched for this paper are followed by long and highly academic discussions (see, for example,Cassuto).
The pro-blogging commentators are unanimous it seems on one topic though; that blogging is an ideal way of practicing and developing writing skills. Blog posts are not random, quick or unthought through. Indeed bloggers consider the completeness of each post as “a rounded piece”. Writing of concise yet “finished” texts is practised (Kirkup 2010).
Many writers from the academic community also agree that blogging is a useful way of shaping ideas and of gleaning feedback and ideas from others. Becoming more confident in the sharing ideas is a side effect of blogging (Kirkup 2010). In this way blogs fall into the overall idea of the shared, community body of collective knowledge and learning that is re-shaped by users (Littlejohn, 2011).
Issues of copyright are also on the agenda. My own students, for example, use images of other design that they have researched and analysed. Used within sketchbooks there has never been any problem with this. But in use on a public blog it is not known what repercussions there might be of breaches of copyright, even if the work is used in an educational and well-referenced context.
Above all, the notion of a “lurking” or active audience is paramount in blogging. On many occasions, there are no comments posted. But the possibility that their might become to be an audience is a driver of how and what the blogger posts. Bloggers have reported trying to make their posts more accessible for imagined audiences, or of being “attention-hungry” (Kirkup 2010). Kirkup’s study found that all of her blogging subjects wished to gain an audience and engage in dialogue. For Turner’s study it was the idea of an audience of peers and professionals that drove the blogger’s identity from “student” to “fellow professional” (Tuner, 2011).
In September 2011 my new first year HND cohort was encouraged to use blogs instead or as well as sketchbooks. It was made clear that anyone with challenges to written work, such as dyslexia, might find blogs easier. There was an initial period when students who had not blogged got to grips with the formats and technologies. I also wrestled with permissions to keep some blogs open as some, such as Tumblr, were deemed by my institution to pose a danger to learners (uncensored imagery).
My initial investigations were a comparison of sketchbooks and blogs, seeking best practice ways for students to demonstrate their work. I also sought ways to promote students’ “design/professional” identities, having done previous studies on identity as a motivator. During the course of the study I began to recognise blogs as ways of promoting writing skills and awareness of audiences.
I surveyed the students about a third of the way into the first term and again
at the close of the third term.
Not long into the first term, there seemed, informally, to be a co-relation between the students that blogged and the students that gained higher grades. My first year cohort was immediately slightly above average with their grades. But any direct co-relation was and is very hard to prove. Perhaps these were just a good group, driven by the peer dynamic. Perhaps the bloggers were just good students. Turner had described willing bloggers as gregarious and open people. Perhaps these people just do better at expressing their design process irrespective of blogging.
Nevertheless, blogging grew in popularity amongst the group. A second year student who took up blogging at this point noted that it was a much easier process than sketchbook-keeping and that he meant that in a “meaningful way, not just a lazy way”. Blogs were felt to be more in keeping with the idea of being a designer.
Another positive outcome and one that had been an aim of mine, was that the blog posts were made on a regular basis, often, as one student described “done from my phone of the way home”. We had previously had a problem with non-contemporaneous note-making, and this continued in some sketchbooks. Now blogging students were posting thoughts at more appropriate times and perhaps this played back into the creative process in an effective way, helping grades to rise.
A further positive outcome was that some students were adding extras to their blogs, such as accounts of exhibition visits and other enrichment activities that were not directly part of the design projects. So blogs became more diary-like and widened the blogger’s identity as a reporter of design and culture not just a student engaged in a project.
Surprisingly, none of the students in the first survey felt any connection to a “community” or reported any links with audiences. Turner’s student subjects had been encouraged to feed into each other’s blogs, whereas our students would only ask the tutors to view their blog work. As far as I know I was the only person commenting in most of these blogs.
Evaluations were used more within the blogs than within the sketchbooks, but this might simply have been the ease of cutting and pasting an evaluative set of questions from a Word document on Moodle, which formed the basis of many of these evaluations.
Another benefit of using a blog is that the student has a ready-made
e-portfolio within the extra page. I had previously explored the use of Mahara and Digication portfolios. The link can be sent to prospective employers and customisation can be used to make the portfolio personal. Again, the “ownership” of the portfolio is the student’s and this might help form a professional identity.
In the last weeks of the year I again surveyed the students. Not only did the first year group wish to contribute but the second year and BA Top Up year were also keen to express thoughts. Blogging had grown in popularity over the year, partly through discussion of my studies but also because some members of the groups felt the need to “have a go” at something that was seen as a contemporary design practice.
My questions were less concerned with the student identity in the public realm as I now – surprisingly - understood that this was not important to the group. When asked what they thought about their blogs being in the public domain many of my bloggers worried about the copyright issue, both of using the images of others, but also of other people stealing their own images. Some had taken to marking their own images with a named watermark (which had the effect of making them harder to see and assess for staff!). Others only made their blogs public to enable www.print.what.you.like.com to be able to convert the blog to PDF and print it. We were still required to present the examiner with a hard copy body of work but two examiners have recently expressed desire to see blogs in their original form.
Most students said they would welcome feedback on their blogs, not just from staff, but it was not clear if any had had any outside comments. In Turner’s study the students were encouraged to view each others blogs but ours had not. I feel that this is an area to build on next year. My own and my colleagues viewing of blogs was sporadic depending on when we asked students to email their links or when they requested feedback. I would prefer a more organised approach. We mainly saw the blogs once they were printed and submitted. This meant that they were independent work, and were generally of a high standard, but we felt a bit detached.
I asked the groups in what ways they felt a blog was better than a sketchbook, or not. The overwhelming answer was that everything was together and all you needed was the internet to access it. Convenience seemed to be paramount rather than any other reason for preferring them. Again students felt that you could work into them contemporaneously, on the train home, and that they didn’t forget to add notes. This in turn helped their design process.
One student mentioned that in a blog you could write what you liked in terms of amount because it physically expanded to accommodate text and image, whereas when using a sketchbook he would only write to fill spaces on the page and if he ran out of page he would stop. This seemed to be echoed across the blogging students. This might account for the raised levels of analysis that I saw across the year.
However, many bloggers also kept sketchbooks for ideas generation and development in terms of thumbnail sketches. There were students in the group, it should be stressed, that refused to use blogs at all because they were happy with the sketchbook tradition and felt that they worked better this way. Also a few people remarked that they might have liked to blog but didn’t know how to and advised me to do an introduction next year. Two good students had moved out of blogs and were now keeping ongoing InDesign records of process instead.
I specifically surveyed them asking “In what ways do you feel that your blog has helped you to develop skills of writing or analysis?” – a question I might not have thought to ask at the start of the year. Most of the students surveyed agreed with the points mentioned previously from my research that the “roundedness” and frequency of posting helped them to construct well written texts. They also liked the fact that posts could be edited or added to.
I also asked students, perhaps controversially, if they felt that keeping a blog had helped their grades. Everyone surveyed felt that this was indeed the case. Again, this is not proof that it did help grades as previously mentioned and it would take a much bigger study to show any evidence for this. However, I was interested in an identity sense that this was the overwhelming perception.
So in conclusion, I cannot say that blogging helped my students move from a student identity to that of a member of a knowledge community; at least not that they were overtly aware. However, all the people doing blogging moved into a comforting sense that this was helping their design processes, helping them to keep a record of interesting resources and keeping them up-to-date. This is encouraging in terms of them later moving out into the industry. Most bloggers found the experience positive and even fun. One remarked “I love my blog!”
The bloggers found the process organised, efficient, helpful, aesthetically smart and of-the-moment in that most designers are using blogs. Perhaps this had subconsciously helped their identities develop after all.
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Boundaries are more overt when the blogger is using an institutional or company blog. Whether officially warned of boundaries or not, many bloggers choose to move into open access blogs to allow themselves more freedom of expression. This tallies with what Jim Turner stated about students wishing to use unrestricted and “real” blogs.
But the extent of the boundaries is as yet not fully worked out (McCullagh, 2009 quoted in Kirkup 2010). Kirkup states of her own blog “not only did I have to struggle with ‘what’ I could say in public, I had to develop a voice for the blog, decide the relationship between my public (blog) identity and other professional and private identities and think about my audience” (2010).
Word count 3513 of which 314 bibliography and 123 Appendix (therefor text = 3076 words).