The Use of a Blog for Knowledge Sharing

by
Derek Wenmoth – Director of eLearning
CORE Education – Christchurch, New Zealand
http://blog.core-ed.net/derek


Introduction
My name is Derek Wenmoth and I work as the Director of eLearning in a not-for-profit eLearning research and development organisation in New Zealand called CORE Education. Our company has contracts with the NZ Ministry of Education to oversee the programmes of professional development of teachers across the whole country, in schools and early childhood centres. In addition, we have a number of research contracts with the Ministry of Education and other government agencies, exploring and evaluating the use of ICT in educational settings. Much of this work requires our staff to travel, with regular periods of time away from the main office in Christchurch.

Less than half of our team are based in Christchurch, with the rest being located in various places across the whole of the country. For this reason we rely very much on a range of technologies to keep in touch with each other and to ensure that we operate as a whole team, with everyone being able to participate in discussions and decision-making. This includes our website which is built using an open source application called Plone. Our website is maintained and contributed to by all CORE staff as it has a range of wiki and blog functions built into it. Most CORE staff also maintain their own blogs and these are fed to the main CORE site through an RSS link, providing an easy point of access.

CORE staff also make extensive use of iChat and Skype for instant messaging, audio chat and video conferencing. In addition we use email lists and straight emails – often with links to specific pages on our CORE website for further information etc.

My Blogging
I was a relatively early adopter of blogging, first taking an interest around 2002 through what I read in various lists and forums. In 2004 we installed a version of Movable Type onto our CORE server and I began blogging in earnest in May of that year. Several of my colleagues followed suit as the year progressed, adding some incentives to persevere as we all became interested in what each other was blogging about.

Initially I determined that my blog would exist primarily as a place for me to record and keep track of the many links and ideas that I came across in lists I read and forums I participate in. Because I spend a lot of my time travelling and speaking to groups, my blog became a ready reference point and memory jogger, and as the entries on it grew, a good place to refer people to as a follow-up to my talks or workshops.

Over time my blog has grown to serve a broader set of purposes, in particular, it has become a way of maintaining a flow of information and connection with the many people I have initiated contact with in my travels, as well as being an essential part of my role as the director of eLearning at CORE. My blog is now a place where my colleagues can visit to see what I am working on, thinking about and who I am interacting with. It is still a place where I record key ideas and links to resources and ideas that I think are of significance – the difference being that instead of doing it primarily to meet personal needs, I am now very aware of the much wider audience that I have reading my blog. As a consequence, my writing style has altered somewhat, and I attempt to offer some level of commentary or analysis of the item or reference I am blogging about.


Milestones
Since I began, my use of my blog has evolved from what was essentially a very personal and almost private use of the environment, to where it is now very public and a place where I intentionally share ideas and information that I expect others to read and respond to. I was very excited when I began receiving the first comments on my blog. Despite the fact that most of these comments came from my colleagues and friends, it created for me a sense of the readership that my blog was developing, and the fact that what I’d started writing for personal reasons now had a wider audience. This in turn impacted on both what I chose to write about and how I actually wrote.

In the earlier stages of my blog writing my entries tended to be ‘diary entries’ and a record of events, papers, software etc that were happening elsewhere. The readership at this stage tended to treat my blog as a sort of “knowledge brokerage’ – a place where they could come to find the useful bits of information and links that someone they knew had already searched and sorted.

As my confidence increased I began adding more personal commentary to many of my blog entries, and then, to upload original ideas, papers and diagrams. This in turn created a whole new readership and got me connected to and involved with a wider, international community of people with shared interests. My ongoing work around the development of learning management systems and how social software might be incorporated into these is a good example of this, with critical feedback and comments coming from a wide range of people, including some of the more notable ‘names’ in the blogosphere.

Of interest to me has been the drop-off in comments made directly to my blog in the past year or so. Despite this, our server log showed that the blog itself was being accessed very regularly. In an effort to understand this I created a Technorati account (http://www.technorati.com) to monitor other blogs that were referring what I’d posted on mine. As a result I became aware of a number of people who were obviously reading my blog regularly and, instead of commenting to an entry on my blog, were creating an entry on their own blog referring to something that I’d said or commented on. I’ve since included a Sitemeter account (http://www.sitemeter.com) and a Google Analytics account (http://www.google.com/analystics) to keep an eye on where my blog visitors are coming from, and where my thoughts and ideas are being referred to or built upon.

The value of social software
The emergence of a range of applications, collectively known as ‘social software’ (of which blogs are just one), is helping transform the way in which we conceive of and use the World Wide Web. For me the value of these applications lies in the following:
- Ownership – Fundamental to the whole ‘revolution’ is the fact that individuals can now ‘own’ their own space on the Web – moving from being consumers to becoming contributors and collaborators. Sites that allow individuals to create and maintain their own collections of photos, videos, music and bookmarks online are examples of this
- Personalisation – the ability to customise the interface of many of these sites is an example of the personalised approach. But personalisation goes a lot deeper with this, and includes the ability to actually ‘construct’ the way in which information is represented, where it comes from, how it is used etc.
- Participation – the move from simply publishing or participation is another hallmark of this software. Even blogs, while being a personal publishing tool, allow for participation – at one level through the comments that can be left, and at another through the communities of interest that develop
- Aggregation – the availability of software that makes use of RSS demonstrates how information from one source can so easily be integrated into another. Sites that allow individuals to create their personal aggregations of news feeds, blog links, and other feeds, such as NetVibes (http://www.netvibes.com) and PageFlakes (http://www.pageflakes.com), are good examples of this. Other sites such as Technorati (http://www.technorati.com) illustrate how easily communities of interest can be formed through the aggregation of people’s blog entries.

Key Benefits
The use of blogs and other social software has benefited the organisation I work for in many ways, and is an integral factor in the successful way we work. This occurs in a number of ways:
- blogs – blogs maintained by individuals can be read by other staff members and used as a way of keeping up to date with what others are thinking. Similarly, they are read by those with whom we are working and form an important dimension of our company profile in the marketplace.
- RSS – the aggregation of our blogs within our website creates the sense of community that our company regards as important, particularly as we are distributed across the country
- Wikis – the fact that our company website has in-built wiki functionality means that we are all responsible for adding material and the maintenance of what is posted there. In addition, the wiki forms a place where we can collaboratively work on documents and develop proposals etc.
- Calendars – a shared calendaring service allows us to know where other members of the orgnaisation are at any time, and enables the scheduling of meetings and events.

In these, and other ways, CORE Education staff can operate in a truly collaborative and democratic manner that is consistent with the values of our organization.

In addition to these ‘internal’ benefits, the use of social software has proved beneficial in terms of our ‘external’ relationships. The combination of blog and wiki use means that our ideas and experiences are constantly being refreshed and updated for others to access, giving them reason to return regularly, or subscribe by RSS feed, to our websites. Since many of our staff are involved in travelling and working around NZ, the ability to access and maintain these environments from anywhere at any time means that timely and relevant information is provided to those with whom we work.

The Future
Predicting the future is always a dangerous thing, however, in the area of social software I believe the future will at least include the following:
- the further development of personal aggregation environments
- more sophisticated personal content management, including federated searching capability
- robust e-portfolio systems that support life-long learning
- greater emphasis on the use of mobile technologies as the means of interfacing with these environments
- anything that promotes and supports the aims of personalising learning!