Options for Digital Journaling

Journaling is an excellent idea for all sorts of reasons. It’s easy to agree to that. But how do we make it a digital age project? How can we approach it in a way that gives us and our students more techie confidence?

First, you don’t have to go digital to journal. Write with pen and paper to your heart’s content if that’s what you want. Just so you write.

Next, journaling digitally is a good idea because it is, once again, a low stakes way to approach a skill set. If you are struggling to find more ways to bring technology into your teaching, electronic journals might just be your answer. And the two most obvious answers to how are word processing and blogs. We’ll start with them, but there are other approaches to consider while we are at it.

(1) Word Processing: Simply typing a journal is a fine way to go. This allows for copying in links and photographs and other extras as you go. It also makes it easy to do things like double-entry reading logs or color-coded topics if that’s your thing. It’s also private writing until you choose to share, which is more appropriate than public blogging in some cases. It’s simple. It provides an opportunity to practice typing, formatting, and low-key editing skills. Typed journals can be submitted electronically to instructors, saving on paper costs. They can also be printed out and bound if preferred. And, unlike spiral notebooks or composition books, reorganizing content by topic is a very simple matter. If nothing else, neatness and readability give the typed journal an edge over the handwritten journal.

(2) Online Word Processing: Google Docs or other online word processors have all of the advantages of locally installed word processors plus the ability to easily share. An instructor can be added to a Google Doc as a viewer or editor. This makes for an easy way to submit work electronically. Google Docs can also be published as web pages if a student wants to share all or parts of a journal with the class.

(2) Blogging: My preferred method of journaling is through blogging because this is a social process as much as an individual process. Blogs can be set to either public or private. A student could keep a private blog but invite the instructor and the peer group to be viewers or even contributors. The degree of privacy is up to the individual, but there’s a lot to be said for low-stakes public writing. It’s a bit like karaoke. It’s okay if you make mistakes, and the act of trying builds confidence which inspires more effort which build more skills. Blogs can also be individual or group efforts. They can be topic specific or general, and if categories and tags are applied to the posts, they can produce a well-organized archive of materials. The most popular free blogging platforms can be found at www.blogger.com and www.wordpress.com.

(3) Facebook Notes: Facebook has its own built-in blog platform with the notes feature. Remember that a large part of the draw of blogging is that it is a social act. If you or your students already have a social network established in Facebook or another site, there’s no real reason not to use it. Consider posting your own thoughts about teaching through Facebook notes. You may be surprised by the response you get.

(4) Ning: Ning is a site that allows you to create your own social network and invite people to it. The networks can be public or private. They also come with blogs and discussion forums. The blogs are shared within the the Ning site in much the same way Facebook notes are shared within a friend stream.

(5) Discussion Forums: If you post discussion topics to a discussion forum and ask students to respond, you are essentially asking them to share a guided journal entry. This also gives students a change to respond to each other and to read opinions from a variety of people. There are forums built in to Blackboard and other course management systems. There are also free sites that allow you to create public or private discussion forums. Just Google it to find the one for you.

(6) Micro-blogging: The micro-blogging site Twitter is hugely popular and may be the answer for the busy person’s journal. If you don’t think you have time to sit down and write whole paragraphs, try writing just 140 characters at a time. Just make a single comment as it occurs to you or make note of a particular article that you think might be useful. Tweeting about research articles is an excellent plan for students. Also consider having students Tweet their way through textbook chapters. Figuring out how to paraphrase key points in 140 characters might be just what they need to really take ownership of new concepts.

(7) Mobile-blogging: When making decisions about digital journaling with students, remember that they tend to live by their cell phones. If it can be accessed by an iPhone, Blackberry, or equivalent, it’s much more convenient for students, and even for their teachers. The most popular of the blogging and micro-blogging sites are prepared for this, offering automated mobile services. Where possible, try to think of ways students can phone in work and/or access class information by phone. Consider sharing your own materials and journaling with students through a public blog with built in mobile services.

Multi-Media Approaches to Journaling

(1) Audio Journals: I have a friend who once had a very long commute to work. He took a voice recorder in the car with him, and when he had ideas along the drive that he wanted to remember, he just talked into his recorder. Another friend would call her home phone from her cell phone and leave a message to herself on her answering machine. Sometimes there’s a good reason for audio journaling. It’s dangerous to write and drive. But beyond that, audio can take journaling to a new level. The examples I cite are exceptions. Most people think and write before recording themselves. Thus, for you wordies, audio journaling takes nothing away from the writing component in journals. They can be approached in several ways: (1) private recordings saved to a computer or voice recorder; (2) mp3 recordings posted to audio blogs; (3) recordings phoned in or uploaded to podcasting sites; (4) an iTunes podcast. Again, to decide an approach you need to decide what level of privacy you require, and if you want to share your audio journal, you’ll also need to know the most convenient way for others to access it.

(2) Video Journals: Like audio, video can take journaling to another level. And it’s easier to do than ever before. Most laptops come with built in web cams now, and there is a whole array of products in the $200 and under range that offer video recording capabilities, including YouTube ready video cameras, point and shoot digital cameras, and even the latest version of the iPod Nano. If using a web cam, look into creating an account with a place like Seesmic TV. If using a digital camera or some other gadget, one of the simplest ways to keep a video journal is to create your own YouTube channel. On YouTube you get to decide whether to make your video public or to share it with only a few people. Video journals could be great assignments for speech students or students doing current events projects. They are also a good way for teachers to share thoughts and lesson ideas with other teachers.

(3) Photo Journals: One of the most enjoyable ways to get a little extra writing out of students is to have them take pictures and write descriptions or responses. This can be done easily in a photo-blog. But you don’t even need a blog. Use an online photo hosting service like Flickr and have the students type in annotations or comments. They could even make Facebook photo albums with comments. If they are working on descriptive writing or studying local history, photo journals make fine sense.

(4) Scrap-booking: There’s a huge craze of scrap-booking going on now that I admit has missed me entirely. When I was a student, we did make scrapbooks as class projects, though. I made a Mississippi History scrapbook in my history class and a Plants of Mississippi scrapbook in my biology class. I was probably 14 at the time, but I learned a lot and had fun doing it. There’s no reason that kind of project has to be for younger students. If grandmothers everywhere are spending hundreds of dollars on scrapbook supplies for family albums, it can’t hurt a college student to give it a go. Scrapbooks do call for creativity from multiple directions. You have to think about design and witty captions to really get the most out of them. Depending on your subject area, you may have cause to assign a scrapbook as a project. Be aware that sites exist now to aid in building digital scrapbooks. Commercial sites like Shutterfly allow you to upload photographs and create your own online scrapbooks out of them. Of course they also try to get you to order slick printed copies of the books once they are created. And that’s okay. Some of your students might actually want to do that. As long it’s offered as an option rather than a requirement, there’s probably nothing wrong with having students purchase completed copies of their work. As an alternative, though, they could try making a scrapbook style website using something like Google Sites. Or they could make a scrapbook presentation of digital artifacts using PowerPoint. The possibilities abound.