The following paper will critically review a journal article entitled Understanding class blogs as a tool for language development, authored by Doris de Almeida Soares and published in ‘Language Teaching Research’ (2008; 12; 517-534). The study described in the article was carried out over a three month period at a private language school in Brazil using practitioner research into learning activities and includes the results of an online survey of teachers who used blogs in different contexts around the world. The paper evaluates both the positive and negative aspects of the article and is divided into six main sections. The first, which analyses the literature review presented by the author, is followed by the rationale behind the study. Subsequently, there is an analysis of the methods used to carry out the research, including the participants and sampling techniques, the instruments used to collect data, and the way in which the data was analysed. The fourth section considers how the findings are presented, whether the conclusions drawn from the study can be justified, and how important they are to the wider field of research. Next, attention is given to the author’s use of references and appendices to support her findings. Finally, there is an evaluation of the study as a whole.
2. Literature Review
The literature review describes previously published overviews of how blogs can potentially be used to aid language learning. It provides clear definitions of what a blog is and presents the three different ways they can be used for pedagogical purposes while listing some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of each in turn. However, the review could be criticised as being overly descriptive rather than discursive. The literature is quoted at great length without any critical comment on its strengths and weaknesses, such as an acknowledgment of the fact that none list empirical data or classroom research to support their conclusions or the fact that they present merely “an overview” (Stanley, 2005) or a “brief introduction and overview” (Bartlett-Bragg, 2003). Some claims, notably that blogging makes the learning experience “more fun and concrete” (p.520), are not hedged, supported by the author’s personal experience or substantiated by reference to research.
Soares could have formulated questions on topics which required more research or related the literature to the research questions posed (Taylor & Proctor, 2008). For instance, do class blogs actually facilitate project-based language learning? (Campbell, 2003) Or, as Soares herself speculates, could self-study links foster learner autonomy? Nor does she explicitly state the rationale for choosing a class blog, although she does later write “My aim was to foster student autonomy and independence” (p.522).
In her abstract Soares presents two main research questions:
“a) did my students see our blog as a learning tool? and b) what was blogging like in other language teaching contexts?” (p.517).
They emerged as a result of classroom activities and the author’s observations on how the learners were using the blog, in accordance with the principles of Exploratory Practice outlined by Allwright (2003), who called for teachers to make use of puzzles (in this case, why the learners were not using the blog in the manner the author initially expected and to what extent this behaviour was found in other contexts too) in order to work towards a greater understanding of classroom events.
a. Participants and Sampling Methods
The author conducted her Exploratory Practice with a class of nine pre-intermediate teenage learners, raising potential ethical concerns and the risk of a halo effect (Mackey & Gass, 2005: 114) in the learners’ actions and responses, particularly as they were “gaining extra marks for course involvement and participation” (p.524). Soares also admits that she decided on both the platform and type of blog to use before suggesting to her students that they create a blog (p.521). Mackey & Gass (op. cit: 51) warn of the unintentional influence authority figures can exert on students in recommending courses of action. Although information is provided on the learners’ age, language proficiency and previous experience with blogging as part of classroom work, the author does not relate if all of the students had frequent computer access at home, a fact of crucial significance in their ability to work autonomously.
The author does observe the ethical standards of Exploratory Practice advocated by Allwright (2005) by involving her learners and working to bring people together. She also maintains participant anonymity, although it is not stated whether the learners had given informed consent to the listing of their blog’s URL address within the published article.
The sixteen participants in the online survey were chosen on the basis of a convenience or opportunity sampling (Dornyei, 2007: 98) from among an online community of practice which the author had previously joined. Significantly, although one of the questions specifically referred to the attitudes of students, no attempt is made to sample the learners themselves.
b. Data Collection and Analysis
The author uses two “Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activities ” (p.522) to gather data from the learners, which, quoting from Allwright, she defines as being “useful for data collection purposes without losing their value as learning activities” (ibid). She presents contributions from all of the learners together with her own commentary, although some conclusions are high in inference and could have been followed up by further questioning of the students involved. This is illustrated by PEPA2, when the author does not query the reported increase in motivation to use the blogs at home.
An online survey was administered to gather data about the use of blogs in other contexts. The author does make some attempt to describe the individual questions, but fails to state whether the survey was administered in English alone or with an accompanying translation, whether it had been piloted beforehand, if any statistical procedures had been used on the data, or if the results were analysed by the author alone. These are particularly important given the small size of the sample and the existence of distinct sub-groups such as the teacher of vocational studies and the two teaching English as a mother tongue (Dornyei, 2007: 100).
Furthermore, as the link provided to view the survey online is no longer accessible, it is not clear if open- or closed-ended questions were used. It may have been more helpful to include a copy of the survey as an appendix, along with a more comprehensive statistical analysis of the results.
As argued by Wilson & Dewaele (2010), the validity and reliability of data in self-report surveys cannot be assumed to be wholly accurate. Following the advice of Birnbaum (2004), the data could have been improved by comparing the results against a similar non-web based study or by analysis against separate demographic variables such as age and teaching environment.
The author recognises some of her failings in setting up the class blog and makes recommendations for improvement such as the need to trial different blogs before selecting a permanent one. Given the fact her initial aim was to foster student autonomy, it is perhaps strange that she does not suggest how this could have been better achieved. For instance, the author does not consider how her decision to correct students’ mistakes may have impacted on their motivation to use the blog independently.
Soares makes some attempt to describe the contexts of the respondents to her online survey, but there is no recognition of how either they or the sampling technique used might have affected the results. Dornyei (2007:99) recommends the limitations of non-probability samples be described “in detail” while Mackey & Gass (2005: 140-141) state researchers must “make an argument about the representativeness of the sample” before results can be considered generalizable. In this light, if the author believes her sample to represent, for instance, a form of a criterion sampling (Dornyei, 2007:128), she does not provide any grounds for the reader to consider it so.
It could further be argued that the research question itself is problematic, in that the contexts are too broadly defined to enable them to be measured successfully. Perhaps a more meaningful comparison could have been drawn with respondent 14 alone, whose learners shared some apparent similarities in terms of age and linguistic ability. If a similar form of Exploratory Practice had been used this may also have provided a degree of triangulation for the author’s data.
Once again, high inference is drawn from some of the responses to the survey, not least the author’s view of the importance of linguistic accuracy to teachers who include blogging as part of their curriculum (p.525). Dornyei (2007:99) argues that non-probability samples provide negligible scope for generalisation, while Mackey & Gass (2005:96) outline the frequent inability of questionnaires to provide a complete view of individual contexts. These views are shared by Bannen (2005) in considering the potential limitations of quantitative methods as a whole.
Given these factors, the author’s final conclusion that her blogging experiences are shared by practitioners “all over the world” (p. 532) can not be fully justified.
6. References and appendices
The author presents an alphabetical list of references at the end of the article and uses quotations from Allwright effectively in support of her use of Exploratory Practice. When citing published work, however, it is not always clear whether she is expressing a personal view or using direct quotations. This is illustrated in the literature review when she states:
“…the tutor blog usually restricts students to writing comments on the subject the teacher has posted” (p.519)
Despite the lack of attribution, this quotes directly from Stanley (2005).
As previously noted, appendices could have been used to present the author’s results in full and to ensure that data such as the online survey questions were available to all subsequent readers. Without access to all of the results and comments generated, the potential for anecdotalism in the responses selected by the author cannot be discounted.
7. Overall Evaluation
Overall, the author does provide some original evidence of how class blogs may or may not function as a language tool, supported by comments from learners and her own observations, although she does not always recognise the potential shortcomings of her approach. However, the previously mentioned flaws with the online survey and the conclusions Soares subsequently draws from it, mean the results can not be considered as generalizable to the extent claimed by the author and minimises its importance to the understanding of how blogs are used in contexts other than her own.