Mobile Blogs, Personal Reflections and Learning Environments: The RAMBLE Project
Public participation in the Internet has continued to boom, aided in no small measure by the 'weblog' (or, simply, 'blog'), one of the most accessible means of online publication, a term that is rapidly entering common parlance. Blogs are authored by people from many walks of life and are of many kinds: for instance, Penny Garrod has shown how they can support reading groups and community links, such as news from local councillors . They have also grown in sophistication from their humble origins as personal diaries, similar to the way that a simple solo sonata might lead eventually to a complex orchestral work. The facility to have multiple authors linking to each other offers exciting research possibilities for exploring social learning networks and their intricate harmonies.
Evidence of the educational benefits is accumulating and has been trumpeted in the media, even for young children , though there is relatively little formal literature extolling their merits in scholarly publications, especially for Higher Education (HE). However, this is gradually emerging: for instance, in 'Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector' , Williams and Jacobs conclude that based on case studies, blogs can be an effective aid to teaching and learning, pointing out that students are provided with a high level of autonomy independent of the campus, while simultaneously providing opportunity for greater interaction with peers. Ferdig and Trammell indicate that blogs support social interaction while giving students full control and ownership over their online content . A fair number of other references are provided in the Educause Resource Center , showing an increasing level of positive engagement.
While much of the attention has focused on community interactions, the UK Government's emphasis on widening participation and lifelong learning focuses on an individual's personalised learning and development, where an individual needs to reflect internally. Blogs can facilitate this process simply and effectively, especially when the object of reflection is their study; and the experiences they have will be of value not just to themselves, but to others.
At some stage the reflective blogs will need to be related to their learning environments. The Remote Authoring of Mobile Blogs for Learning Environments (RAMBLE) Project  has recognised that these institutional systems are often quite remote from this 'blogosphere'. Such a recognition has motivated the project to investigate how personal reflections in the HE context may be supported through mobile blogging and the provision of stepping stones into a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), typically core to an institution's e-learning infrastructure. The methodology and some findings are reported below.
For newcomers to blogging, some basic terms are introduced here.
A 'weblog' (or 'web log' or 'blog') can mean any authored content with an underlying chronological basis that is published on the World Wide Web. The content may be about any topic and consist of any media, including audio, images and video, though presently the majority of blogs are largely text-based. A blog can be authored by one or more people, who are the blog 'owners', responsible for maintaining the blog.
A blog is made up of 'blog entries', consisting of contributions posted to the blog by the blog owner(s). Entries generally consist of just a title and body and are usually listed chronologically, the most recent first. How many depends upon the hosting application and the blog owner. Typically, entries contain hyperlinks to other Web sites, including other blogs, thus contributing to a more social manner in which the Web is interlinked. Optionally they may allow response from others, most commonly through a comments system, allowing a critique of ideas, suggestions, etc., which some argue is a defining characteristic of a blog. Some of the more popular blogs receive many comments and become discussion threads, but as the owners are always originators of the topic, they retain overall control of the flow.
A digital diary may appear in a virtual void without some means for others to find the blog. Many blog sites host a number of blogs and offer a facility to search across the site's contents, of which usually the title and body fields are indexed. If the site uses a popular hosting provider, then it may be easily picked up by a search engine and added to their index, as detailed in Phil Bradley's column in issue 36 of Ariadne . However, once someone has found your blog, then how do they keep up to date with the latest thoughts? Blogs are designed to be viewed over time and most of them are not updated with uniform regularity, so there needs to be a means for keeping readers informed as and when new entries are authored and also for including extracts. This role is fulfilled by Web content 'syndication' in which a portion of content is made available in a format that can be read by an external source. The most common means is a 'newsfeed' that displays the most recent articles or postings, which typically use de facto standards in XML of which the most popular are RSS in its variants such as Really Simple Syndication and RDF Rich Site Summary and, more recently, Atom.
Picking up the feeds requires a feed reader, for which there are many clients, both online and for the desktop, a number of these detailed in Bradley's survey . The role of combining feeds from multiple sources is fulfilled by 'aggregation'. Public sites such as Bloglines  provide a flexible service that can harvest and aggregate feeds from blog sites on an ongoing basis, thereby overcoming limitations inherent in the time-limited supply in feeds. They also provide search and browse facilities to the blogs being subscribed by other users of the service.
Personal Reflective Blogs
Personal reflection and internal distillation constitute a large part of the educational process, which takes place independently of the classroom, whether on or off campus. They can be facilitated by blogs acting as personal diaries, addressing a specific theme or, more generally, offering personal reflection on any matters that affect their daily lives. They can cover anything from general orientation - how to plan leisure and study activities in university life - through to figuring out that confusing concept in the last lecture. Staff can also benefit from maintaining a reflective blog, whether a seasoned senior manager or a first-time lecturer. For example, a vice-chancellor might consider offering personal reflections on the university's first official inter-faith service, a response to the Indian Ocean disasters of December 2004. The blog can record its conception and planning, the event itself and any personal reflections. It thus shows the bigger picture, highlighting some activities and thoughts that may not ordinarily receive much attention.
Personal reflections featured in the early use of blogs. In 'Bookmarking the world: Weblog applications in education'  Oravec states that weblogs foster the development of unique voices associated with particular individuals; the development of Weblogs over time can empower students to become more analytical and critical, responding to the resources they receive. Indeed, used in this way, blogs are entirely what the author is making of the world and can cast light on implicit assumptions in teaching.
For the educator, especially tutor, blogs have a number of attractions including:
- through publication on the Web, the tutor may have convenient access to view the blog and also, where appropriate, provide responses;
- further, it is possible to interact with blogs, to guide the author (tutee, say) to address particular issues;
- the ongoing nature supports longitudinal surveys on a continual basis;
- blogs can be grouped together, enabling tutors to gain a broad picture of their students as a whole, and highlighting particular issues.
Personal reflective blogs can be facilitated in a number of ways, including:
- in form - make them intuitive to view and navigate;
- for contribution - make writing and publishing easy;
- for application developers - make the software simple;
- in use - allow free expression without constraining unnecessarily.
Blogs used in this way are characteristic of what may be referred to as a 'Personal Learning Environment' (PLE), which focuses on an individual's own educational space, which can be said to 'wrap around the learner.' Blogs can fit very comfortably in the PLE context, providing a medium that facilitates reflection about life over an extended period as well as capturing something in an instant - an instantaneous note to capture a concept before it escapes.
Many of these kinds of activities (reflecting, recording and so on) are carried out by students in 'Personal Development Planning' (PDP), which UK Higher Education institutions (HEIs) are required to support by September 2005, as detailed by the Higher Education Academy . Students are required to build portfolios that showcase their record of achievement. Blogging activities can form part of the process, particularly contributing to the portfolios, though much depends upon their nature. Generally, blogs can be spontaneous, informal and only lightly structured, whereas PDP systems are more deliberate, formal and highly structured, perhaps with checklists and context-specific vocabularies. What may be possible is to import blog content in PDP systems, to support more structured reflections, or possibly work up the text to a more formal record.
Experiences in Mobile Blogging from the RAMBLE Project
While blogs promise a number of potential benefits for personal reflection in the PLE context within an academic institution, there are many constraints, particularly in respect of structures. Most HEIs have some form of centrally hosted Virtual Learning Environment through which much of the online learning is mediated. In such environments, the emphasis is on delivery of information, generally not where substantial amounts of original content are authored by students, though submissions may be uploaded through an interface. Many VLE systems have been designed as self-contained environments with a great deal of functionality, but are often monolithic and complex. Further, their use often imposes other constraints: for instance, most working has to be carried out while online.
Linking PLEs with VLEs
Perhaps not surprisingly then, not a great deal has been done to connect PLEs and VLEs. Against this background, the JISC-funded RAMBLE Project  undertook to develop some linkage between PLEs and VLEs, so that at least the blogging activities could be imported into the VLE context. Thus RAMBLE's brief was to investigate the use of blogs as a reflective authoring activity in an educational context through two strands of work:
- The off-line authoring of blog entries on a PDA and subsequent upload to a blog server.
- The creation of a blogging component that will allow blog content to be integrated into the Bodington VLE .
The project recognised that there are existing patterns of activity that ought to be very amenable to blogging - such as the habit of Short Message Service (SMS) text messaging, which can be any place, any time. Hence, in order to best realise working off site, the blogging was made mobile, i.e. participants each authored a 'moblog', where: 'A mobile weblog, or moblog, consists of content posted to the Internet from a mobile device, such as a cellular phone or PDA' .
Technical choices had to be made very quickly: after brief investigation, two kinds of PDA-based blogging clients were chosen, one using the Microsoft Pocket PC operating system and the other using Palm OS, which at the time were the two most popular platforms. Each device was also supplemented with a wireless infra-red foldaway keyboard, which was essential to support more than token input. The content was subsequently submitted to a blog hosting service ('blog server') on the Web via synchronisation with a networked desktop PC.
Most of the requirements were drawn from moblogging exercises undertaken by two groups of Oxford undergraduates (Year 1 Chemistry, and Year 5 Medical Sciences). It is worth noting that they were given short and simple briefs - the first group was to give feedback on lecture courses, tutorials and practicals, while the other was to record their learning experiences while on a clinical rotation. The blogs were authored over a period of a month or so, generally a couple of entries submitted each week. In addition, a project blog was maintained through the project period of about 6 months .
Particular attention was given to privacy. Most blogs, even personal diaries, are viewable by the public, but in the personal learning context, this is not always appropriate. These requirements made it really necessary to have control over the blog server in-house. So access to the blogs was set up so that there was only one owner per blog and the only others who could read and respond to the blogs were their peers plus the blog project supervisor and RAMBLE project team.
Reflections from Students
The requirements gathering proved unexpectedly rich and deserves closer attention, even though the project was primarily about tool development. Considerable content was generated, covering learning processes, teaching style, academic provision, timetabling and many other aspects. Its extent can only be briefly covered by a few paragraphs, but it is hoped that the following, gathered from the Chemistry undergraduates, indicates the range and depth of what was recorded.
Students expressed themselves very freely, showing few signs of reticence. Their feedback was constructive, for example, commenting if the pace was too fast: one student recorded that a lecturer wrote so much that his hand ached and further there was little pause for explanation so that he could digest the concepts. This was evidently a disincentive to reading what had been written as in a later entry he noted that he had just come to realise that the notes were actually very thorough, covering most of what he needed for his tutorials.
At the same time, students would give credit where they thought it was due.
'I've found our tutor .. to be clear and very happy to pause in her method to explain what she is doing if we don't quite see something that is usually quite obvious. This is really helpful to set in the mind the basics of the topic.'
They also remarked on whether lecturers were enthusiastic or appeared uninterested, which affected their own motivation: one whose manner was 'ever-enthusiastic' meant 'i never get bored in his lectures even though usually i find the maths pretty hard.' Some observations were perspicacious: about one tutor it was written, 'clearly had lined up the topics that he wanted to touch upon and had it in mind where he was going to take the discussion.'
Entries could be instructive and humorous: one student remarked on how practical books were very easy to follow and that a demonstrator was very helpful, especially in providing directions on where to find the dustpan and brush for broken glass!
After a few weeks, some general changes were noted. Students recorded when they felt they were making progress and gaining in confidence, attributing some of this to they way they were being taught. 'The work load has not increased as much as i thought it would, if anything getting lighter! Either that or i'm getting used to it!' This would be encouraging not only for the student, but also for a tutor.
Some of the reflections themselves changed in nature and would consider wider implications. For instance, one entry compared people's backgrounds in relation to the subject matter:
'I have found it hard to follow a lot of the mathematical content of the course so far, not having studied further maths at school, but there are also students who had taken gap years and have not applied functional maths for nearly 16 months... this in my mind would make the material almost unapproachable.'
Observations were sometimes at several levels. For instance, in one entry a student makes an observation primarily about lecturing style, in which he feels the lecturer ought to take more time to interact with the audience than the blackboard, as he continues to write new notes on the board while explaining something that he had introduced previously without checking that everyone is following. The student then reflects on the situation and sees the implications, seeing that this interaction would need extra time and ends up by suggesting the extension of the course by a lecture or two.
These blogs were very elementary, with little use made of comments, though students did read other blogs. There is certainly potential for much richer use of the facilities, especially where the work is more oriented towards making use of online resources. Yet, this was already a fairly complex operation involving several kinds of PDAs, desktop PCs, and servers, though the complexity was hidden as much as possible from the user, so that the moblogging itself became a fairly simple process.
At the end of the exercises students were asked to fill in a survey to report back on the exercise. The initial technical barriers seemed to be overcome as can be seen in the feedback obtained, but not everyone takes to blogging, so alternatives may have to be provided. It is difficult to say to what extent mobility aids the reflection process with a relatively small sample and no control experiment (blogging without PDAs). However, when asked 'Where there any advantages to using the PDA to write your blogs?' all but one responded positively, several citing the convenience of writing without constraints on place and time - 'even in lectures' and 'easier than sitting at a desk.' One comment was particularly interesting for its suggestion about note taking - 'I could do small pieces at a time and build up a piece.'
Whereas the blog hosting solution proved very satisfactory, the general immaturity of moblogging tools was disappointing. Few clients were available and most of these were limited to particular platforms, contained bugs, or lacked important functionality; few were released with open source licences. Setting up the devices and tools can be very fiddly, which raises the question of support from IT staff, who may not have any resources allocated for training in this area. Current products are generally marketed at mobile phones, reflecting the growth in that market. However, the phone clients are typically designed for instant capture of events, rather than sustained reflection, with small screens that cannot hold much text and able to store very few entries in the cache. Altogether, this environment may offer convenience but also may be encouraging short attention spans (as well as large phone bills).
Even so, moblogging did work quite well, despite the scarcity of dependable software.
Issues for Educators
For a tutor who might consider offering guidance to a student blogger, there are a number of challenges and caveats.
The quality of the entries can vary considerably: some contributions were difficult to follow, being staccato in style and very lax in grammar, though usually not going quite as far as SMS 'textspeak' with all its abbreviations. Thus, basic guidelines may be needed on the use of the English language, perhaps assisted by some monitoring. Further, keeping a blog going for any lengthy period requires a lot of commitment and there is a risk of 'blog rot', in which blogs become neglected and fall into disuse. So there needs to be a good reason to get started and it must be sustainable for at least some while.
A common complaint is that blogs contain such a diversity of thoughts that it becomes difficult to find relevant points, though it may be argued that many aspects are interdependent and need the bigger picture, which a blog can provide. There is always the danger of mental proliferation, resulting in blogs going off topic: the empty boxes in blogs don't provide explicit means to take an idea and focus on it and refine it further, so more effort is required by authors to keep contributions relevant, with the need for guidance and vigilance by tutors.
Many blog systems provide some means of structuring blogs, which can mitigate these disadvantages, notably the facility to group entries through categories. Categories may be from a controlled vocabulary, completely user-defined, or a mixture of both. Similarly, some systems support tags, which specify a property of an object, and can apply to a particular entry. Where structuring elements are scarce, the choice can have a very important impact.
Students are likely to put more effort into blogs if they feel that someone is taking notice of their blogs on more than an occasional basis. However, it would probably take quite a lot of experience to know how to interpret and respond appropriately: an individual might make challenging assertions about workload, which could be well-founded or an indication of other problems that need a pastoral response. In such cases, having a group of student blogs to compare side by side is valuable.
Blogs in an Institutional Setting
Blogs offer considerable potential and so it is natural to ask: How to incorporate blogs in the institutional setting, particularly with existing e-learning systems? Should the institution offer a blog to all its staff and students? Very few universities offer blogs as a general service, one of the most well known being 'Warwick Blogs', provided by Warwick University . This is a completely home-grown and heavily customised e-learning system built around blogs and integrated with local directory services, so is currently not an option for other institutions.
So should other educational establishments follow Warwick's example? It is not easy to give a general answer, but a few observations can be made. First, if blogs require some degree of privacy, especially within particular groups, then public hosting services are unlikely to be suitable, not least because the institution has no control - the extreme scenario being that a hosting service goes offline. Given the simplicity of blogs, it might be tempting to think that blog hosting is easy. While it may be straightforward for a small deployment, in a particular department, scaling up across an institution presents a far greater challenge.
If providing an institutional blog, one question that ought to be considered is: How many blogs are appropriate for an individual? Do people prefer to maintain just one blog in which they can store all their reflections, relating to work and study, or would they prefer to keep separate blogs depending upon the context? The judicious use of categories might enable a single blog to fulfil these roles, but there is added complexity as personal circumstances (including their learning contexts) change over time. As blogging continues to grow in popularity, it becomes increasingly likely that schoolchildren will have blog accounts on public services before moving to Further and Higher Education. Just as it might be the case that there need to be compelling reasons why students ought to drop their Hotmail accounts in favour of the university system, so they will need to have spelt out the value of having university blogs. As time spent at a particular university is normally only a few years, there is another issue about what happens on departure?
Trends are difficult to predict, but there will quite likely be a need to import and export the content easily in some standards-compliant way, because in contrast to the transience of e-mail, blogs provide a consolidated personal record that can be referenced in the future. Hence they need to be portable.
Technical Overview: Getting Blogs from PDAs to VLEs
Against this backdrop, RAMBLE sought to adopt a flexible architecture that could at least offer the potential to account for different scenarios. This employed three independent components where the use of communication standards allows different solutions to be easily slotted in.
Pebble Weblog  was chosen as the blog server as it provides extensive and flexible means for receiving blogs from PDAs and for supplying newsfeeds to consumers. A tool was developed in Bodington to read and embed these feeds in the VLE using XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations), together with various display options so that they can appear together in aggregation or separately in their own container. The example below comes from WebLearn, Oxford's centrally hosted service based on Bodington.
Bodington is particularly flexible in that it does not impose particular teaching structures, but instead makes use of generic containers: suites can contain further suites and many tools, so feeds may be introduced into any number of views (course, module, etc). For instance, a suite of rooms may be created within the Department's undergraduate teaching space, in which all students may have their own suite as a study space, which can include their blog to share as they wish. Supporting documentation, surveys, other blog feeds, and other tools can help build up a shared area. For the tutor, there are facilities to display a given number of entries per blog and for blog aggregation, enabling easy comparison. This was implemented in a small way in RAMBLE, where students were requested to fill in a questionnaire to gain feedback on the project itself.
Details about this approach are discussed in various parts of the project documentation, especially the final report and report on blog servers .
The Issue of Privacy
Both student exercises required privacy: in the case of the medical students it was needed, for instance, to protect patient confidentiality; with the Chemistry feedback, it was necessary to allow honest appraisal of the teaching etc.
Pebble and other blog hosting services provide some means of restricting access, but this generally assumes that users are accessing the service directly through the Web interface and not via a third-party system. Yet, perhaps the key benefit of the Bodington VLE is that it can restrict access to selected groups of users that reflect the institutional hierarchy.
Especially useful are the access control mechanisms, available for each resource, which can be anything such as a general container, questionnaire, or discussion area. In all these cases, access can be set for any number of groups via an interface like the following example taken from Oxford's deployment:
The left-hand side shows the selection of a particular course-related group (all those involved in Forced Migration studies) which is available from automated feeds from student records data. On the right-hand side are listed the different kinds of access to resources. The owner of a resource can thus choose which groups can have 'see' and 'view' access to read the contents. The system might be further developed so that members of groups with 'post' rights are able to comment on a blog, and so on. For blogs to be restricted in this way means that most people will come to the blog through the learning context of the VLE. A very basic proof of concept was achieved, but the technical solution is not appropriate for a production service.
Thus conceived, the blog server is used to store all the blog entries. At the same time, Bodington VLE users make use of access control systems to set who can access the blog via a display of an RSS/Atom feed. When authorised users view this resource, Bodington downloads the RSS and renders it to HTML, sending the output to the client (browser). In this scenario there is implicit co-ordination between the blog server and VLE: when a user is in the VLE and attempts to access a private blog the VLE does the authorization and Pebble has to trust the VLE completely.
This is an illustration of the general problem of secondary authentication, the same issue commonly encountered in portals where there is the need for trust between machines. It soon becomes evident that interoperating systems need an infrastructure in which authentication and authorisation services stand outside any particular application and are readily accessible by the various applications. Problems like these have led to the development of component-based frameworks and Service Oriented Architectures, an approach that is being actively promoted by JISC in their E-Learning Framework (ELF) . Demonstrators, toolkits and reference models are being developed for ELF against which existing systems may evolve from monolithic structures to more reusable component-based services. One of the demonstrator projects is BEWT , which will develop an IMS Enterprise service for Bodington Authorisation, the kind of service that should lead to richer communication between blogs and learning environments.
Developing a seamless flow from the reflections in personal learning environments to institutional learning environments is a considerable challenge. However, the experiences from the RAMBLE Project have shown that blogs are generally very useful support for personal reflections and that this can be further enhanced by the mobility of PDAs. These and other blogs can be read into VLEs using syndicated newsfeeds, for which a new Bodington tool offers considerable flexibly. However, fuller integration is currently problematic until more modular designs with greater support for open standards improve the situation in future.
The author would like to thank the following colleagues: Karl Harrison (Department of Chemistry) and Danny Tucker (Nuffield Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology) for allowing quotes from the student blogs and Vivien Sieber (Medical Sciences Teaching Centre) and Peter Robinson (Learning Technologies Group) for comments on drafts of this article.
- Garrod, P., Weblogs: Do they belong in libraries?, Ariadne 40, July 2004 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue40/public-libraries/
- "The seven-year-old bloggers", BBC News online, 14 June 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3804773.stm
- Williams, J.B., Jacobs, J., "Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector", Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2004, 20(2), 232-247 http://ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet20/williams.html
- Ferdig, R. E., Trammell K. D., "Content delivery in the Blogosphere", T.H.E. Journal Online, February 2004, http://www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/articleprintversion.cfm?aid=4677
- Educause Resource Center: Blogs section http://www.educause.edu/content.asp?page_id=645&PARENT_ID=645&bhcp=1
- Remote Authoring of Mobile Blogs for Learning Environments, JISC DEL E-Tools Project http://www.jisc.ac.uk/deletramble.html
- Bradley, P., Search Engines: Weblog search engines, Ariadne 36, July 2003 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue36/search-engines/
- Bloglines http://bloglines.com
- Oravec, J. A., "Bookmarking the world: Weblog applications in education", Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Newark, April 2002
- Higher Education Academy Personal Development Planning Page http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/PDP.htm
- Bodington Open Source Project http://bodington.org
- word iQ: definition of Moblog, http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Moblog.html
- RAMBLE Project Blog (summary list) http://ramble.oucs.ox.ac.uk/blogs_proj_all.html
- Warwick Blogs, Warwick University http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/
- Pebble Weblog, SourceForge Project site http://pebble.sourceforge.net/
- RAMBLE Project Documentation http://ramble.oucs.ox.ac.uk/docs/index.html
- The E-Learning Framework site, http://www.elframework.org/
- Bodington integrated with Enterprise Webservice Toolkit, JISC ELF Demonstrator Project