How (and how not) to teach blogging

Dominick Chen and Lawrence Lessig by Joi Ito on Flickr CC BY

Photo by Joi Ito on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license

I just wrote this post for Rising Voices and thought I’d share it here too.

In Paulo Coelho’s latest book, ‘The Witch of Portobello‘, the character Nabil Alaihi says: “What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”

I love this quote. It really expresses the goal that I have in my teaching – not to see learners as empty vessels that the teacher will pour their knowledge into, but rather as people who only need to be inspired in order to find how to apply what they already know to a new subject.

I know that I’m not there yet – and that I have a lot to learn in order to become a better teacher. The three-hour session that I had to teach blogging to an NGO in Durban, is a case in point. I thought I’d tell you what I learned.

1. Who is learning and who is teaching?

The best teaching that you can do starts with learners who actually want to learn. A good way of weeding out those who don’t want to learn is by getting people to come to you (rather than the other way round).

The lesson? When NGOs design interventions and funders fund those interventions, make sure there is some hurdle that learners have to jump over to indicate their willingness to learn. Sometimes that means paying a fee (however small) to attend the training, or asking people to write a motivation as to why they would be a good person to attend the training. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t produce a situation where people are sending learners who have no interest just to make up numbers and check the ‘outcomes achieved’ box.

2. Focus on measurable outcomes

There’s a very important difference between a goal of ‘training 10 students how to blog’ and a goal of ‘seeing 10 bloggers who are actively blogging 6 months after the initial training’. The first goal will necessarily have a pretty low success rate, even although this kind of training is much easier to do, and probably can be done lots of people. But achieving the goal of seeing active bloggers still blogging after their training will force you to think more about how you want to do the training, what you want to cover, and how long the new bloggers need to be supported for. For example, after an initial session outlining blogging tools, you could go onto teaching interviewing skills and digital camera skills, as well as goal-setting and editorial management – all this if you want to see an actual increase in the amount of meaningful content being covered by a specific group.

On this note, I found some great resources on the site ‘teachandlearn.ca’ on ‘How to grow a blog‘. This covers a lot of great material focusing on how to set long and short-term goals for your blog and how to match those goals with the kinds of habits that will enable you to find success in achieving your goals. Volunteers from the Rising Voices team are also currently working on capturing different curricula and materials for teaching blogging, and they’ll definitely be well-used since there isn’t a lot out there at the moment.

3. Listen to your learners

Another great lesson that I learned in teaching blogging last month was to listen very, very carefully to your learners, and to do as much preparation before your teaching to find out about who the students are. The best teaching starts from where the learners are at, rather than where you’re at. For the Durban workshop, I had planned to spend most of my three-hour session talking about how to maintain a blog, but when I realised that the learners had lost their usernames and passwords from the original training and we had to start at the beginning, I had to ditch my plans and focus on what would help the learners right then and there. I’d have been in a better position if I had known this during the planning stages. The lesson is to ask lots and lots of questions as you are planning what to teach – especially when you only have a limited time with your students.

4. Ask the right questions

The final lesson that I learned was to learn how to ask the right questions from your students. I thought that it would be a good idea to ask the students why they wanted to learn how to blog, but when I told Rising Voices director David Sasaki about this, he offered some wise words:

Sometimes I think people get intimidated when you ask “why do you want to blog” because many people still equate it with having something “so important” to say as to warrant publishing. One of the tough things to convey – even to experienced bloggers – is that when it’s true that they are potentially writing to the whole world, it’s also true that they probably have a very small group of readers that are interested in a very particular topic. To get the conversation going sometimes I ask, how do you explain your job to others? Or, what assumptions do people make about your work that aren’t correct?

If I knew everything I know now about my students, I think I would have done things a lot differently in those three hours that I had with them. I also realise that a lot of the session was out of my control. But the good thing is that it made me think very deeply about how we teach people how to blog and how development interventions need to be designed in order to have the most impact and to get that training to the people who most want to use it.

That’s the funny thing about teaching – you end up learning a whole lot more than you probably teach.

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6 thoughts on “How (and how not) to teach blogging

  1. A really useful post Heather – this mirrors our experience here in Zimbabwe where that tick box you mention is deemed more important than using training to its fullest potential. I recall Highway Africa training a large group of Zimbabwean journalists in blogging last year yet very few, if any of them, are blogging now.

  2. Thanks for this post. I agree that there needs to be ‘buy-in’ from the participants whether it is paying a modest, if not symbolic fee or writing a short statement as to why they want to take part in the workshop. I am part of the Voces Bolivianas project and we asked the participants themselves whether future participants should pay and they overwhelmingly said yes because they would value the workshop more.

  3. Thank you for this great reflection, I have had a similar experiences in my quest to get teachers in SA to blog.

    Last year I decided to run an online blogging un-workshop for teachers and a few people who were nagging me. I sort of did it as a way to get collaborative editing for my blogging learning objects that I was creating at the time (see: http://learnwithmaggie.ning.com/profiles/blogs/blogging-learning-pathway-lets) I first started with having them sign a declaration of commitment, but I think because they have not committed as far as having to pay anything, very few actually stuck it out (okay November is a bad time for teachers anyway ;-).

    To me a blog is like having a baby, to create it is very easy (and pleasurable) but to have it grow into a strong and independant citizen takes hard work, preserverence, pain here and there, lots of happy moments in between, and being attentive to its needs all the time. Otherwise it dies a slow death, alone and discarded…

    So it is imperative to stress to people that it is not just something you do nilly-willy but that you have to spend some time thinking about if you will be able to see it through through good and bad.

    I would love to hear if your learners (6 months after) have managed to maintain their blogs and “get into it”?

  4. @Bev – Would be interesting to develop a study to evaluate the success of projects like these 6 months down the line ne?

    @eddie – Interesting! I think it makes a lot of sense too :)

    @Maggie – love your learning objects – will definitely check them out in more detail when I train again, and re. your question about maintaining the blogs, I’m almost 100% certain that they *won’t* :( I wish that I’d been able to be more involved in the design of the entire intervention but I came in too late, I guess.

  5. This was a very informative post and the comment are also helpful. We have run workshops on blogging for teachers at conferences over the past year. It seems as you have mentioned, that although those attending come with determination – we have noted that a large percentage do not continue. For future workshops, sustainability will need to be an important part of them. I like Maggies image of a blog being like a baby – I hope you don’t mind if I quote you Maggie. Thanks for your tips Heather – its great to be able to share and support beginner bloggers.

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