Exploring experiential learning through blogging
Mercy Ette and Ruth Stoker, University of Huddersfield
Technological development has spawned new opportunities for the construction and dissemination of news and information by lowering or eliminating the obstacles to the production and distribution of media content. Changes brought about by this development pose challenges to journalism educators who now have to produce graduates who can perform efficiently in hybridised and multi-faceted newsrooms. One example of the impact of technological development is the evolution of blogging, which began as individualistic recording of opinion, into a reputable journalistic activity. Journalism graduates are finding work where blogging is central to their role, for example in traditional newsrooms where they are expected to facilitate interaction with audiences through web-based communication, in PR through the use of social media platforms, and as viable freelance enterprise bloggers. This paper discusses how blog spaces offer a virtual learning environment where students can acquire and hone journalistic and relevant technical skills. It argues that blogging can provide opportunities for experiential learning through the development and maintenance of an online journalistic presence, facilitate the expansion of transferable skills and graduate attributes, and enhance awareness of lifelong learning and professional development.
Scholarly research about the impact of converging technologies on the education of journalists has been on the increase since the turn of the 21st Century and one area of interest has been the potential of blogging practice as a teaching tool.
While ‘much of current research on blogs discusses them in relation to social media and social network sites’ (Rettberg, 2014:65), interest in blogging in the context of education is growing because of its impact on teaching and learning. Technological development has resulted in the ubiquitous presence of mobile devices and software that offer educators opportunities to create new environments for engaging with their students. Similarly, students have been empowered by digital technologies to actively construct knowledge through virtual interactivity and web-based communication. Given the popularity of blogging as a common form of communication, educators have found ways of harnessing its potential as a teaching tool, thus confirming an assertion Jeremy B. Williams and Joanne Jacobs made in 2004 when they noted that ‘blogging has the potential to be a transformational technology for teaching and learning’ (2004:232). Their prediction has been tested by educators to different degrees of success. The trends among educators in various disciplines have been to use blogs to facilitate collaboration among students doing group work or as a platform for reflection and the sharing of ideas, or as shared space to unravel creativity, chronicle progress, and engage in active learning (Smith 2010). As Marie E. Flatley observed, blogs can ‘be an extension of a classroom, where discussions are continued and where students get an equal voice. Or it can be a place where new ideas are formulated through collaboration’ (Flatley, 2005:77). Writing about her own experience, Flatley described the use of blogs as a teaching tool as a cost effective investment and noted that they are an ‘excellent tool to support group work’ (Flatley, 2005: 78).
From the above, it is apparent that much emphasis has been placed on the use of blogging as a teaching tool. Our research takes a different route. We are interested in understanding how blogging can be used as a learning tool, particularly for independent, lifelong learning. We are specifically interested in how journalism students who blog can use their blog space as a virtual learning environment and a tool for professional development. We share Gilly Smith’s view that writing a blog can entail the shaping and re-shaping of ideas, a skill that involves ‘taking risks if those ideas are to push at the boundaries and spawn original thought’ (2010:283). The purpose here is to explore students’ use of unsupervised and unrestricted blogs as a platform for honing their journalistic skills and the possibilities of blogging practice as an academic activity. It is also aimed at examining the potential of blogging as a virtual space for experiential learning.
Experiential learning is conceptualised as learning through first-hand experience. It focuses on the acquisition of knowledge, skills and experience outside mainstream academic setting. Kolb, a leading theorist on experiential learning, describes it as a ‘framework for examining and strengthening the critical linkages among education, work and personal development’ (1984:4). Consequently, experiential learning projects the ‘workplace as a learning environment that can enhance and supplement formal education and can foster personal development through meaningful work and career-development opportunities’ (Kolb, 1984:4). Our research idea is premised on the notion that students could, through blogging practice, sharpen their journalistic skills outside a news room and enhance their capacity to respond to some demands of journalism without the pressure of deadlines. It is also driven by the idea that a blog could be a safe and conducive web-environment for honing relevant technical skills that would make journalism students more equipped for the workplace.
Maximising the potential of blogging practice as a setting for experiential learning can be an effective way of motivating students to become independent learners. This is particularly expedient given the rapid changes and challenges in the work place. As noted already, technological advances have reshaped the publishing industry and transformed the news production process. Media organisations, for example, have hybridised into multimedia products production centres where text, audio, video elements and much more are curated. Economic pressures on publishers mean there is little time or space to train new journalists. Against this backdrop, it is clear how a blog can offer students a setting for experiential learning and the space to practice journalism outside the work place. With the growing popularity of digital technology for conducting work activities, the workplace, as Billet and Choy (2013:264) have noted, has become more electronically mediated and this calls for ‘understandings and ways of knowing and working that are quite distinct from mechanical processes.’ In the context of journalism, this means journalists are expected to be adept at manipulating technology in addition to writing good, clean copy. Therefore, blogging space, if properly harnessed, can also provide a platform to build an extensive portfolio of work, and master relevant technical skills and applications. It is worth noting that the pace of technological advances has also generated new pressures on journalism educators to produce ‘newsroom ready’ journalism graduates who do not require specialised training. As Deuze has noted:
The combination of mastering newsgathering and storytelling techniques in all media formats (so-called ‘multi-skilling’), as well as the integration of digital network technologies coupled with a rethinking of the news producer-consumer relationship tends to be seen as one of the biggest challenges facing journalism studies and education in the 21st century (Deuze, 2005:451).
Experiential learning in the workplace is achieved through imitation, observation, socialisation and practice and while blogging does not create a physical environment for that level of interaction, it still offers a virtual setting for learning. Bloggers can exercise agency in ways not feasible in the newsroom because there are no definitive normative practices or clear boundaries of tasks in the writing of personal blogs. Unlike in the workplace, personal blog spaces are not formally regulated by managers but audiences can ‘regulate’ indirectly through their approval ratings, conversations, comments and expectations. Put differently, blogging can provide opportunities for students to be critically aware of the context of their practice and to learn to apply the knowledge formalised in the classroom.
Context of study and methodology
Blogs have not always been viewed as mainstream forms of communication but as Lou Rutigliano (2007:225) has observed, they have ‘evolved significantly since their birth in 1999 and now encompass a variety of formats’. Blogs have become ‘part of the history of communication and literacy, and emblematic of a shift from uni-directional mass media to participatory media, where viewers and readers become creators of media’ (Rettberg, 2014p. 1). In its basic form, a blog is simply an online journal, which allows a writer to share his or her opinion and ideas with anyone who has access to the blog. It also provides a forum for readers to post comments, thus serving as a platform for interactivity at a level that was not possible before the emergence of digital platforms that have redefined the communication process. Blogs enable writers to engage with their readers irrespective of their location, time, identity and social status. From a journalistic perspective, this interactivity challenges a key feature of journalism, namely: the journalist as the gatekeeper of information. Digital platforms of communication have empowered consumers to be producers in the same space. However, the level of interactivity between writers and their readers is dependent on the nature of a blog as some are ‘tightly controlled formats with little audience participation’ while some versions are ‘mostly built from the bottom up through the participation of their audience’ (Rutigliano, 2007:225). Marie E. Flatley, a professor of business communication, has observed how a blog enables ‘the writer to post ideas and thoughts quickly using conversational language for many to read. It allows the writer to link easily to other sites for support as well as for example. And it provides a repository for such items’ (Flatley, 2005:77). Jill Walker Rettberg makes a similar claim about the potentials of blogging. She suggests that writers of topic-centred blogs can have significant influence on their readers by sharing ‘newly discovered ideas and information with their readers, usually providing links to more information (Rettberg, 2014: 24). In addition to these elements, ‘Blogs are also known for their interactivity and interconnectedness, as seen in conversations and co-production that take place among bloggers and their readers and across blogs and other websites’ (Manning, 2012:8). Blogs have even been conceptualised as an ‘invisible college, a community of people who have, or seek, knowledge’ (Manning, 2012:3).
Given that in principle, as Manning has pointed out, access to free-blog hosting websites and user-friendly templates make it easy for anyone with basic internet literacy and connectivity to start a blog (Manning 2012), we routinely encourage our journalism students to start and run a personal blog as a strategy for regular writing practice. This approach is underpinned by an understanding of blogs as a cheap and simple means to publish and distribute information (Rettberg, 2014) and since all students have access to the internet on campus or even on a mobile phone, we conceptualise blogging as a viable means of building an online journalistic presence. This is particularly relevant to journalism students because of the way ‘blogging has become recognised as an important part of the media ecology’ Rettberg, 2014:94).
Students are introduced to blogging in a workshop on blogging during which they have to write blog posts. However, the maintenance and development of the blog is optional and many students stop updating their blogs after a short period of time. Some, however, continue and gradually build up a following, which provides an incentive and motivation for writing regularly. For the purpose of this study, we interviewed ten of our students who have blogged for at least a year about their experiences as bloggers. Our aim was to see to what extent the blogs served as a learning tool. In this context we understand learning to be experiential when the ‘learner is directly in touch with the realities being studied. It is contrasted with learning in which the learner only reads about, hears about, talks about, or writes about these realities but never comes in contact with them as part of the learning process’ (Beard and Wilson, 2013:4). Although we do not fully adopt this ‘immersion’ approach we encourage students to use their blog for self-directed learning. We stress the need for independent learning given that there is never enough time in workshops for in-depth learning. Two aspects of experiential learning are emphasised in our teaching programme: learning as a process and learning as a continuous process grounded in experience (Kolb 1984).
The data for this analysis was generated through semi-structured interviews and mapped into Kolb’s learning cycle and analysed within a framework underpinned by the notion of experiential learning. A structured-interview approach was considered the most appropriate way of answering our research questions because we were interested in teasing out insights from the students on their experience of blogging and not on the content of their blogs. As David Gray has noted, a ‘well-conducted interview is a powerful tool for eliciting rich data on people’s views, attitudes and the meaning that underpin their lives and behaviours’ (Gray, 2014:382). As our study was largely exploratory, the interview method allowed us to ‘probe’ for detailed responses, clarify claims that the students made; understand the lived experiences of our blogging students ‘and the meaning they made of the experience’ (Gray, 2014:383). The semi-structured interview approach also enabled us to explore subjective meanings that the students ascribed to their experiences. Of particular importance was the level of flexibility that this approach afforded us. We were able to respond to what the students told us and to encourage them to reflect more. Through the process it became clear that some of the students were not even aware of how much they had learnt from the experience of creating and maintaining a blog.
The study was driven by three research questions:
- Do blog spaces offer a virtual learning environment for honing journalistic and technical skills?
- Can the development and maintenance of an online journalistic presence facilitate the development of transferable skills?
- Does blogging enhance awareness of lifelong learning and professional development?
The analytical tool used for this study reflects the experiential learning method which conceptualises the workplace as a learning environment where learning is a continuous dynamic process and learners can develop their potentials through practice (Kolb 1984). Kolb’s idea of learning encompasses doing, reflecting, processing, thinking and application of knowledge.
Kolb (1984) developed his Learning Cycle (Figure 1) as a way of describing learning processes through the practice of an activity, an experience. As Jordan et al (2008:202) point out, the Kolb Cycle is well described and understood, and can take concrete experience as a starting point in a student’s learning journey through a continuous process of knowledge and skill acquisition. The learner, having had a concrete experience, reflects on it and draws conclusions about the experience. The conclusions are used to plan new activity which becomes the new concrete experience. Learners can enter the cycle at any point, for example via a reflective observation, or perhaps active experimentation. However, for the purposes of this study, the creation of a blog provides the first concrete experience. The consideration of interactions with readers lead to reflective observation from which new story ideas or blog management techniques emerge via the process of abstract conceptualisation. These ideas and techniques are developed (active experimentation) leading to new blogging experiences which form the new concrete experience, taking the learning into a new circuit of the learning cycle.
Student responses to the research questions did indicate that they had engaged with the Kolb Learning Cycle, although they were unaware of any formal engagement with learning structures.
It should be pointed out that this research is retrospective and was not part of the teaching plan. Thus, the research was not set up at the beginning of teaching and consequently, the outcome of our analysis is also a learning experience for us.
Research question 1: Do blog spaces offer a virtual learning environment for honing of journalistic and technical skills?
While most of the students were aware of the popularity of blogging and some had already started blogging before coming on the journalism degree course, none of them saw the practice as a journalistic experience or as an academic activity. The prompting to start a blog or to turn an existing blog into a journalistic space was therefore a concrete experience for all members of the cohort. The students were steered away from ‘personal blogs’ to ‘filter’ or ‘topic-driven’ blogs (Rettberg, 2014). The former focuses on personal narratives, and serves as an online diary while the latter serves as repositories of information and observations’ (Herring et all, 2007) and not a log of the writer’s offline life The students were encouraged to find a niche, a subject that they were passionate about and that would engage their attention. The idea was for them to identify and define their areas of expertise. That, however, was challenging even for some of those who had been blogging before starting on the journalism course because they initially struggled with the idea of using their blog as an extension of the classroom. But once they did, many were interested in developing their voice. One student said that initially she did not know what to write about but after being prompted to identify her interests and hobbies, she decided to start a blog on figure skating because she was passionate about it and was confident that she could write intelligently about it. She said: ‘I was made aware of the freedom to express myself and I transferred what I learnt in class to the blog in terms of style. I have become a better writer and I am more confident in expressing my views.’ Another student recalled that starting a blog appealed to her because: ‘I liked the idea of having the space to express myself. At university I was encouraged to ask for press passes to attend events. Being on the course gave me confidence to go out and cover events. The lessons in class made me more critical of my writing. I now pay attention to word count and I have learnt to use different applications to design my site.’
Writing a blog provided opportunities for our students to hone their journalistic skills by experimenting and putting into practice what they were taught in workshops. While writing a blog was not similar to being in a newsroom, and did not follow the process of learning in the workplace through imitation, observation, socialisation and practice (Billett and Choy, 2013), the students had to actively engage and utilise their experiences in the classroom to enhance their performance, providing very clear evidence of concrete experience. One student said: ‘I blog [match report] at the whistle as I need to get it out there straight-away. I asked if I could use the press box and I was allowed to sit there and blog the game.’
Moon (2004:122) a leading scholar in experiential learning, makes the point that while it is not usually mediated, reflection on experience is a key component in facilitating a deeper understanding of what is learned. She advocates that for learning to be properly embedded, the reflection should be formal and mediated, and in the context of the classroom, this usually translates into assessment of reflection to ensure students take a purposive approach to self-evaluation. Park et al (2011:159) in a study of the value of blogging in adult informal learning, where the learning was either self-directed or incidental, noted that unmediated reflective observation does have some value and can enable and enrich learning. In our study of journalistic blogging, student work was largely unmediated and none of the students formally reflected on their activity, for example by using a reflective log. This was a deliberate strategy on our part to encourage creativity in writing and blog development free from the constraints of assessment criteria, but at the time when we were encouraging students to set up blogs, we were not exploring their potential as learning tools, we were simply encouraging students to write and engage with audiences, therefore reflection was self-directed and informal. Students did indicate that they engaged with reflective activity, using readers’ comment and reaction as the focus of their evaluation, and were very sensitive to feedback, and this played a large part in dictating changes in both blog quality and direction.
‘When I did match reports, I learnt to get to the point. That was from readers saying “we don’t need a minute by minute account of the match, you need to get to the point”.’
Although their blogs were not regulated or monitored by members of staff, their readers had indirect influence on them through their approval ratings, conversations, comments and expectations. Student responses pointed to evidence that they were drawing conclusions from their informal reflection on reader interaction, suggesting an engagement with Kolb’s abstract conceptualisation. One student said: ‘I didn’t used to like having feedback… but now I am better at this. This helped me with Uni work, and working with negative comments. Rather than getting upset I can take it.’
‘There is a better flow in my writing now, and I am learning how to correct my own mistakes to make sure the work sounds right. I am better at writing to length now too, as if there is too much, people won’t read it.’
‘I started to write for myself but now I think I am also writing for my readers. I think about my readers when I write. I am more conscious of what I write so I critique my work closely.’
Students were sensitive to the use of validation tools such as the “like” button – which readers press when they have enjoyed a particular post. Participants said that if the peer group ‘liked’ a particular piece it suggested that it was the sub-genre they were interested in reading more about.
Moving one stage further around Kolb’s cycle to consider active experimentation, it was evident that reader feedback informed learning, and also the development of future content. This point underscores the observations made by Rettberg (2014) who describes blogs as “immersive” environments, and complex “ecosystems”. Blogging is not an exercise in one-directional publication, but more a conversation with an interested community of readers which encourages continuing reflection and development.
A fashion blogger said: ‘I can tell what subjects engage audiences from the comments I get, and can work out what has gone well and what hasn’t, particularly if there are no hits.’
A music blogger said: ‘I write about things that excite me but I also monitor popular content. When I wrote about One Direction (a popular band), the response was mad.’
In the context of Kolb’s learning cycle, it was clear that students were engaging with each stage of the cycle, from concrete experience through a period of reflection and development where transformative learning was evident. While their learning was both informal and incidental, as defined by Watkins and Marsick’s work on learning modes (1992), it was evident that the blog space itself intrinsically provided an appropriate virtual learning environment for the development of journalism skills.
Research question 2:
Can the development and maintenance of an online journalistic presence facilitate the development of transferable skills?
There was strong evidence of activities that reflected the use of transferable skills but many of the students were not aware of how much they had learned until they were prompted to reflect on their experience as bloggers during our interviews. Moon (2004) makes the point that formal reflection is important in helping the learner understand what has been learned. During our interviews, it was evident that students had learned more than simply how to write journalistic blogs.
They had developed the ability to think creatively about problems. One student said: ‘You have to keep getting content out there, even when there is not much going on, and you have to be creative to do that, to make news.’
Time management was also important to the bloggers. ‘If you blog every week, on a particular day each week, then you develop an expectation in the reader. If you promise a particular frequency of publication, then you have to meet that expectation or you will lose a lot of readers.’ One gaming blogger said: ‘Time management is important, you have to find time on a regular basis to write your blog.’
Each of the participants demonstrated an understanding of sophisticated online methodologies to promote their work and gain a blog “following”. Each used social media networks, including Facebook and Twitter, to drive traffic towards their blogs, and conversely used their blogs to drive traffic towards social media networks, techniques which are commonly used to generate interest in online content (Jordan, 2008). For example, one student discussed his blog in terms of identifying the posts which attracted the most hits and developing work in that niche, in his case coverage of darts players and events.
I followed reader trends. In the beginning I had to beg retweets, I put my email address on my blog and linked the blog into my email signature, then started to pick up on which blogs had most hits and feedback. In the beginning you do a lot of work to promote your blog, hopelessly tweeting hundreds of people in the hope that some retweet you. All I do now is send a tweet saying the blog is up and people now follow me and go straight to the blog.
One music student was appointed as a volunteer blogger for a larger organisation which aggregates music blogs of events in Northern England through their website. After working on this site for a few months, he realised that it could attract more readers if it was configured differently. He suggested changes to the site’s director and obtained permission to improve the site.
“The old website was hard to get round so I offered to build a new one which is tonnes better. I redid the website and set it up for better search engine optimisation [a way of attracting more readers], and got Facebook and Twitter going as it was old-school before…now we have a Facebook group going and this is where people post comments now….my coding skills got a lot better through doing all of that.”
From our interviews it was clear that the students’ management of their blogs demonstrated their awareness of the reader as being essential to the success of the enterprise. The conscious development of a reader base using blog data illustrated their numeracy and sophisticated levels of IT skills. All the bloggers had independently developed transferable skills through their blogging experience.
Research question 3:
Does blogging enhance awareness of lifelong learning and professional development?
All the students interviewed said writing a blog made them more perceptive about their online profile and the need to be seen as professionals. It was clear from their responses to questions that they were emerging as independent learners who were becoming critically aware of the potential of their blogs:
‘I can tell what subjects engage audiences from the comments I get, and can work out what has gone well and what hasn’t, particularly if there are no hits.’
‘I know people on Twitter through running the blog and I am already known in the industry. The ‘like’ button is good for validation; it is like having a sense of community and community contacts.’
‘Readers suggest story ideas and I get into conversation with some of them’
‘As a PDP tool a blog is invaluable. When I apply for jobs I send a link to my blog, it is a professional tool.’
One student reported that within two weeks of completing his degree, he had been offered work as a communications officer for a large organisation. His interviewers told him that they had been impressed with his ability to network – a skill he had developed through running a music blog which had required him to build contacts with music agents and venues around the country.
It was striking how the students on being encouraged to reflect on their experiences became more aware of the importance of their blogging experience in terms of their professional development. Moon (2004:74) makes the point that because experiential learning is largely independent of mediation, it fits outside educational structures and extends into “real world” experience. ‘In this way, this learning extends beyond formal education and becomes very important in self-managed continuing professional development.’
One student who started a sports blog talked about meeting sports reporters and getting to know many of them but did not think of them as contacts until it was pointed out to him. Another blogger, who writes about fashion, said being invited to review fashion products convinced her that she had a voice. This corroborates Rettberg’s view that ‘blogs rely on personal authenticity, whereas traditional journalism relies on institutional credibility…. Bloggers build trust individually’ (2014:98).
In 2007 Herring et al wrote:
Although some of the most read A-list bloggers are professional journalists, most bloggers would not call themselves journalist and do not even dream of becoming journalist. Their writing would not qualify as journalism because most blogs “focus on narrow subject matter of interest to a select but circumscribed niche. And the blogs that do contain bona fide news are largely derivative, posting links to other blogs and, in many cases, print journalism” (Herring et al, 2007:6).
Contrary to this position, many of our student bloggers self-identified as journalists and although they focused on narrow subject matter of interest, they approached their writing from a journalistic perspective. Those who concentrated on topic-centred blogs built up significant readership, thus confirming Rettberg’s point that writers of topic-centred blogs can have significant influence on their audience by sharing (2014). While there was ‘a strong sense of me-ness, given the deeply personal nature of the online diary-keeping or journal-writing function afforded by them’ (Sundar et al, 2007:85), some of the students were successful in reporting first-hand on events to which they were invited to cover as bloggers.
We set out to explore the potential of blogging space as an experiential learning environment by interrogating our students who blog. As Beard and Wilson (2006) have noted, for learning to take place the environment needs to be appropriate to the learning context. While they were for the most part discussing physical learning spaces, arguably their point is equally relevant when considering online spaces. If the student’s aim is to work in journalism where online activity is becoming increasingly important, it could be argued that blog environments do offer appropriate learning spaces.
From our interviews it became quite clear that the students saw their blogs as a space where they could practice what was taught in class. They found the experience empowering when they received positive feedback. They became more analytical and critical of their work in response to comments from their readers. As DeLong, a professor of economics, noted, the blogosphere can be conceived as an ‘invisible college, ‘a community of people who have, or seek, knowledge. It reflects and embodies a particular type of culture… for creating knowledge, and for observing, verifying, or validating the knowledge that others create’ (2006:8). Our students learnt through blogging to tap into a network of people who share their interests and acquired various types of expertise through collaboration and exchange of ideas. Perhaps the most pertinent outcomes of this study is how the blogs facilitated student-centred learning and enhanced motivation. It was evident from their responses that our students had a better understanding and appreciation of their learning through blogging when they were prompted to formally reflect on that learning. We were also motivated to consider how to improve our teaching through the use of journalistic blogging as a tool for experiential learning within the curriculum.
Australian academic Stephen Billett, a leading international researcher on experiential learning in the curriculum, offers a useful framework of good practice for the management of experiential learning, which we intend to adapt for teaching blogging as a learning tool. He encourages a three-staged pedagogical approach: preparation for learning, monitoring and guidance during practice-based experience, and reflection on what has been learned. He stresses the importance of ‘aligning the kinds of experiences provided for students with the intended learning outcomes’. Underlining Moon’s point about the importance of reflection (2004) Billett recommends after-practice reflection, including making ‘links to and reconciliations between what is taught (learnt) in the academy and what is experienced in practice settings’. Although our students engaged in on-going reflection around the content and nature of their blogs (the practice setting), some of them did not consciously associate this with what they had been taught to any great extent. This suggests that there could be an advantage in bringing blogging into the experiential learning curriculum in journalism to enhance reflection on practice and secure what is learned through practice.
In particular, one area of development will entail the provision of scaffolding for reflection on ideas, performance and commitment. Attempts will be made to expand participation through dialogue on the benefits of blogging as we believe that it is important to encourage students to focus on personal development and lifelong learning and not just on performance in assessment.
We acknowledge that sample size for this discussion is small and this could be seen as a limitation but we are not convinced that a larger sample size would have significantly added to an understanding of blogging as an experiential learning tool given the similarity of responses to our questions. This study has given us an insight into how students can be guided to use the blog space as a learning environment.
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