- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2004

Kevin Brancato is proud to say he writes like a blogger. The 26-year-old doctoral student at George Mason University says keeping up a “blog” — shorthand for a Web log — has only enhanced his writing skills.

Blogging may not wash with wizened educators, or those who distrust modern advances, but a group of educational experts sees blogging as a way for students to hone their writing skills while discussing ideas they otherwise may never have encountered.

Isn’t that what education is supposed to be all about?

Blogs are the modern equivalent of a garden variety diary, but with an electronic, interactive twist. Postings are listed in chronological order and often include links to relevant Web sites or articles. People can sign up for their own blogs at sites such as www.blogspot.com for free. These sites allow visitors without any knowledge of computer programming start their own, updatable blogs in just a few minutes.

Mr. Brancato began his Web site, www.truckandbarter.com, a little over a year ago and keeps it up as much as his schedule allows.

“To me, the format wasn’t the big draw. It was the interaction the format brought,” says Mr. Brancato, whose blog mulls over everything from politics to economic theory.

“There’s a definite diversity,” he says of the online exchanges. “It’s an opportunity to meet new people and new ideas. It’s the people I don’t know that are out there that I wouldn’t have ‘met’ otherwise.”

He made a list of some of the topics covered on his blog over the last year. The array of themes stunned him.

“I never would have examined anything with that detail just studying in a Ph.D. program,” he says.

He says blogs also helped him refine his writing.

“It’s one of the main reasons I started it,” he says. “I didn’t have very much time to practice writing essays.”

Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, says students blogging is fairly rare at this time. The professor says about one or two students in each of his classes, particularly at the graduate level, are involved in a blog of some sort. The very nature of blogging, Mr. Tabarrok adds, can be fleeting.

“Most don’t last very long. People may have one for a little while and then drop it. If you don’t get readers, you’re writing for yourself,” says Mr. Tabarrok, who runs his own blog at www.marginalrevolution.com with fellow GMU professor Tyler Cowen.

He says the best bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com) and Mickey Kaus (www.kausfiles.com), are first and foremost strong writers.

“You must be brief. You must get to the point,” he says. “There are a lot of boring Web logs … You learn pretty quickly if you wanna be read you better be interesting and timely.”

Blogs also help students exchange ideas much like a group of students waxing poetic at a college coffeehouse. Blog sites often prominently display the e-mail address of its creators, letting readers instantly provide feedback to the site. Often, those responses are posted underneath the original posting, or incorporated into future posts by the blog author.

“Blogs become interesting when other people read them and comment on them. You get a dialogue going,” he says. “You get a debate with very smart people from all different walks of life, lawyers and scientists, interesting people. You often learn a lot that way.”

E-mail communications, to some the chief reason to go online in the first place, often teem with poor spelling and grammatical choices. Not so with most blogs, Mr. Tabarrok says.

A Web log is permanent, in the sense that if it isn’t changed it will stay online indefinitely. E-mails tend to be read and discarded, and typically are meant for just one set of eyes.

Blogs, potentially, are read by thousands of people, he says. “It goes into [the search engine] Google. If people are looking up something, they might find your Web log. It gives an incentive to be more careful.”

Mr. Tabarrok doesn’t know of any college-level courses with Web logging built into the curriculum. For now, some professors use them to communicate with their students and post relevant links to study topics.

Will Richardson, supervisor of instructional technology at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., says the few students of his who keep up blogs are passionate about them.

“They have groups of friends that are their audience,” says Mr. Richardson, whose site (www.weblogg-ed.com) explores how blogging impacts education.

Not every student blogger exudes the discipline of mainstream bloggers such as Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Richardson says.

“There are some students, they don’t really look at grammar very closely anyway, even when they’re doing Web logs,” he says. “There’s a tendency to write in their own language, but if kids are writing, that’s a good thing. They’re finding writing to be a way to identify who they are.”

Jo Ann Oravec, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, says a less obvious advantage to student blogging is that it can cut down on plagiarism.

“Students are competing on how they can cite other sources and link to the network out there instead of hiding,” says Ms. Oravec, who studies the social implications of technology.

She agrees that some students begin blog life with sloppy grammar, but they often improve their writing in a short time.

The blogs also force students to become more savvy about the world around them.

“They’ve got to feed this audience interesting things,” she says. “They’re always looking for something new to cite.”

Plus, students often will respond critically to Web logs they visit. That tendency forces them to use their analytical skills, she says.

Some students can get too critical, devolving into personal matters when the arguments heat up enough.

“Students can be hard on each other,” she says.

Young bloggers also should be careful not to reveal too much personal information online, she advises. A student might casually mention that his or her family will be on vacation soon, leaving their house unattended and an easier mark for Web-wise burglars, she says.

Mr. Richardson says that it’s too early to know what impact blogging has on students but that the subject merits further study.

“There needs to be some research,” he says. “We’re getting now to where this is a tool we can use, but we need some data to show there’s a correlation between writing for an audience like this and improving your writing and language.”

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