I’m still muddling through this whole “can K-12 students REALLY blog?” question, and Ken Smith at Indiana University has some great posts this week about student blogging that get the crux of many of my issues and difficulties. His reflections on the 4Cs conference are well worth the read, but I want to note one comment that I find particularly relevant to what I’ve been experiencing:

I have a hunch that half the problem with student blogs is a problem with audience, but not the problem mentioned in conference papers. It’s just that there is, for all practical purposes, no audience for a new blog, and only a skilled writer knows how to write with no audience (and even skilled writers are sometimes defeated by that prospect for months or years). If you have no clear project, no clear audience, no clear purpose, what can you write about except how bad the dorm food is?

That audience piece of it is surely one of the biggest benefits of Weblogs, on one hand. But on the other, students don’t (can’t?) experience audience the way that we do when we blog. For them it’s more or less constructed, not earned. And my frustration these days is I don’t see a way to making it more real for them right now. In some part, that’s a problem with the software which won’t allow for public and private posting. Peter Nguyen, in a long comment (also well worth the read) to an earlier post, says:

The social climate that students experience in the real world transitions to the blog world so easily, especially to new bloggers. Getting the students to write, collaborate, and build a sense of community will take time and we must allow them to slowly define and build trust in that community. In doing so, students will eventually start to OWN their blog, have faith in the medium, and build that community and collaboration writers desperately need.

He suggests that choosing what to make public can build that trust more effectively, and I tend to agree. I sincerely hope that Manila 9.0.1 has that capability.

Ken’s post today is even more thought-provoking. He links to a post by Richard Long of 2River that asks a number of fundamental questions:

Throughout the conference I went to several sessions on blogging. I’m not convinced, however, the presenters who claimed to be blogging are actually blogging. They’re using blogging software, their students use blogging software, but I’m not convinced that using the software is the same as blogging. For example, does posting writing prompts for students constitute blogging? Are students blogging when they use blogging software to write to those prompts?

Ken talks about his own struggles, noting that his student sites were “not quite weblogs as you would see them in the wild, and not all the students could see the opportunities the genre offered them. Those that could see it wrote the most blog-like sites.” He has a pretty intriguing observation:

The more you recognize what you see on the web page from some other genre or some other place, the less the thing is a weblog. Or maybe: …the less the thing is taking advantage of being a weblog. And that is all the more true of wikis, I’d say. A next step would be to talk about what we take advantage of when we write blogs or wikis, then. We should be able to name what all the features of a blog or wiki really accomplish, then.

I think that’s where I have to go with this to clarify my own thinking. What exactly can Web logs provide my students, and what can’t they?