Promise of Reflective Journals

By | October 9, 2012

As part of our new eLearning initiative, many faculty are keen to integrate blogging into their coursework.

There are so many great examples out there, starting with the venerable UMW Blogs, DS106, Cathy Davidson’s crowd-sourced grading model (Duke), Mark Sample‘s pedagogy and the class blog (George Mason University) and a lot more.

A lot of the resources brought me closer to home and reminded me of our own Tim O’Connell, Associate Professor & Chair of Brock University Recreation & Leisure Department, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences and his list of publications.

I have had the pleasure of attending a couple of his sessions which are very interactive and thoughtful. While his most recent publication, The Intersection of Web 2.0 Technologies and Reflective Journals: An Investigation of Possibilities, Potential and Pitfalls unfortunately sits behind a paywall, I think his work with reflective journaling (regardless of modality) can be very applicable to blogging in general.

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by giulia.forsythe

Prospective Journalling: reflecting IN the moment.
Retrospective Journalling: reflecting in hindsight.

There’s certainly something to be said for blogging regularly, as Dr. O’Connell asserts that writing daily will move you from habitual to critical … (*ahem* this is something I know I can get better at!)

Revisiting Reflective Journals cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by giulia.forsythe
Key take aways: Describe, Explain, Articulate Learning.

It is important to clarify expectations regarding purpose, audience and criteria. Audience certainly changes in an open blog versus a hand-written notebook.

The key to good journalling is to describe what makes a good journal (or blog post), for example, is it:

  • Deep, Meaningful?
  • Enhancing Learning?
  • Integrating ideas, experience and data?

What new questions are generated?

Some faculty who teach courses that deal with highly personal and sensitive content are leery to have students blog openly for fear that they will be exploring ideas they are afraid to make public.

We’ve looked at LMS options where online journalling can be kept private between instructor and student. This changes the audience aspect back to just the instructor and inevitably changes the voice and purpose of the journalling. A few faculty are overwhelmed with this option as it requires a lot of supervision for each of the students. Ideally we are shifting the feedback to student to student interactions also. Oh, hey, connectivism!

It’s interesting to be in the space where this stuff is not new by any means but new to many faculty here. I think there’s a lot to be learned from others’ experiences and thankfully they are sharing openly on the web for all to benefit.

Which brings me to my final thought that I’ve been mulling over for a couple weeks now. I highly respect Lisa M Lane for the work she does and her thoughtful approaches to sharing. When she wrote about the Unhelpful Dichotomy, I kind of shrugged my shoulders, nodded my head and sighed. I do agree this dichotomy exists.

Or do I?

Can a dichotomy exist with a healthy middle? Because I also think there are many people along spectrum but perhaps those folks in the middle aren’t vocal enough.

Well, in the spirit of nurturing my own reflective journalling process, as the quiet middle, I will attempt to add a median voice to the mix.

While I think it is extremely helpful to have card-carrying utopians out there, who preach the word of Blog, I still live in the cautiously optimistic middle-ground.

As Jason Greene says, “when you’re travelling against the curent, you have to paddle much harder”; these tech-utopians need to have so much more enthusiasm to overcome the fact that they are a minority. I’m thankful for the proselytizers, they give me the supportive push to go forward and share that enthusiasm with our faculty.

Though, I must admit, I am not always enthusiastic; even in cases where I am certain a technology will help, I often back down when I know that a faculty member cannot be swayed. Ultimately I am not the one teaching that course, at the front of the room, grading the papers, commenting on blogs or moderating the forums.

Lisa’s program for online teaching was once is called Pedagogy First, which is my Centre‘s mantra. I never suggest a technology without first thinking of the implications for the pedagogy, even for our eLearning initiative.

If something is beyond their comfort level, then we discuss ways of scaffolding their learning. I spend a lot of time reassuring faculty that they do not need to be an expert in technology to use it. That they are capable of learning while teaching and as long as they are sincere and honest with students then it should work out fine.


This is a big risk and many faculty are hesitant to put themselves out of a position of control and power. In academia power comes from knowledge ownership. To knowingly admit lack of knowledge in an area is scary and no amount of enthusiasm will reduce that fear. This might be where there is a difference between students and faculty. Students are used to relegated to the position of not-knowing. Faculty are at a point where they feel they are expected to know everything. Someone commented recently about the difference between students and learners. We can graduate out of student status, but we should be learners always.

Stephen Brookfield, at his talk at Guelph University last May, often admitted that just when he thought he had figured something out, he needed to readjust, recalculate, relearn.

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by giulia.forsythe

My favourite thing he said, as captured by Natasha Kenny is that his “How we study our own autobiographies as learners is essential to our development as teachers.”

So this brings it all back to being critically reflective on an ongoing basis (with or without technology).

Update: The book is out! Unlocking the Power and the Potential of Reflective Journals. Timothy S. O’Connell and Janet E. Dyment.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Giulia Forsythe

5 thoughts on “Promise of Reflective Journals

  1. Lisa M Lane

    Hi Giulia!

    The blog we use for the POT Certificate Class is still called Pedagogy First! (we took the phrase from Glenda Morgan, but she graciously gave her blessing).

    I agree that there’s a middle (was I loud enough?) but both ends seem to push this into a two-way fight. And indeed that critical reflection is the key – it means that people have to be willing to consider objections and concerns in a real way.

    Always love your visuals!

  2. Brian

    This is a wonderful post in a lot of ways – rich in references and layers. I will be referring to it in the future. And your visual representations continue to develop in sophistication and utility.

    I deal with these issues all the time, and I don’t see any point in being belligerent or contemptuous with people who for whatever reason don’t see things the way I do, or who need to think things through before moving. I also like to think I am playing the long game. Fighting futile battles against Fear is a loser.

    But something has not sat right with me about this discourse for a while, and rereading Lisa’s post on “Unhelpful Dichotomies” I think it finally came clear to me. I don’t think there is anything “utopian” about “want[ing] learning out in the open, freed from the constraints of systems (and sometimes schools), where students control their own web spaces, their own digital identities, their own destiny.” OK, nobody can wholly control their own destiny. And being “freed from contraints” is a value judgment that is ultimately impossible to achieve in reality. But let’s not lump working in the open and controlling web spaces in with those grand goals. Those are practical strategies, with a solid and proven track record, and can be implemented with significant cost savings to the institution and the learner.

    It is also aligned with the fundamental structures of how the internet and the web were intended to work. And it aligns with how these networks work best. Let’s invert Lisa’s statement, and imagine what is required to construct a system that “envisions learning as something that happens in controlled spaces, that reinforces and prioritizes the contraints of systems (especially of schools), where students have no control over their web spaces or their identities.” A great deal of money and effort is required to maintain this system. There is nothing “cautious” about it. Given that, perhaps we should refer to the majority view as “digital dystopians”.

    There’s a saying on the radical left that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. With the threats so prevalent and energetic today, maybe it is easier to imagine the end of public education than the end of managed online learning.

  3. Giulia Post author

    @Lisa – great! I love that name for an online teaching program. I’m glad it’s still called Pedagogy First; also glad you agree there’s a middle. Your post certainly got me thinking. Thanks for that.

    @Brian – as usual, an epic comment that I read through a couple times because I enjoy your writing so much. Perhaps labels aren’t helpful.
    ‘Digital dystopians’ just about sums that sentiment up; the end of the world and end of public education are indeed on the same parallel in my heart and mind.
    I don’t find my cautious faculty to be cynical or resistent, I sincerely think they are afraid. I work on a developmental model, where it’s my job to find out where they are and get them to the next level without it being traumatic for them or more importantly, for their students. Small steps, we have more people attempting to teach and learn out in the open, and to me that is a measure of success.

  4. Lisa M Lane

    I’m having trouble with “dystopian” because this world (controlled and closed) could now be considered traditional, in the sense that education moved very quickly into closed spaces to protect people (including children, students, copyright holders, and institutions) a number of years ago. The money and effort is an attempt to maintain that caution, but the perception of it has become dystopian because it has been abused to the point of stifling learning. I see that stifling but I also appreciate Giulia’s point about fear. The fear is grounded in real things, and that’s what’s being ignored. You can’t get someone to open the door by hollering “open up!”.

  5. Brian

    I don’t advocate confronting fear with demands, or diminishing how fear can feel. When I work day-to-day, I proceed much as both of you advocate. You have to play the hand you are dealt, and have some sympathy for where people are.

    What I reject is casting proponents of using the open web as the wide-eyed idealists (“utopians”). I would love nothing more than a comprehensive, hard-headed cost-benefit analysis of something like UMW Blogs versus a typical institutional learning management system. Especially if we account for impact on society beyond the institution.

    Again, we are swimming in shark-infested waters. We don’t have the luxury of taking as long as we want to get our act together. Are we doing anyone a favour by propping up an unsustainable system?

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