Things I Discovered About eLearning from Writing for a Food Blog

In a conversation with Bill Moyers, the scholar Joseph Campbell said that “if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”  I decided to take his advice a few years ago during a frenzy of cooking and reading food-oriented books and essays. Unfortunately, my “bliss” tends to be an ever changing thing. Like Susan Orlean’s depiction of John LaRoche in The Orchid Theif, my passions tend to seize me then leave me like a gigolo with mommy issues. I suppose I’m still obsessed with food writing and the many characters emerging from the restaurant front, but perhaps due to my job or perhaps due to some other flight of the imagination, I don’t write as much for “The Tart Little Piggy” as I used to, although I wish I could. These days, I’m an Instructional Designer for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and I spend my time helping faculty put their classes on the web by teaching them to use WordPress and all sorts of other web tools. Of course, everything I know about WordPress comes from my days and nights spent as a food blogger. As a matter of fact, almost all of what I know about eLearning itself comes from that experience. Perhaps what Campbell said is at least partially true, since I’m now surrounded by others whose passions burn brightly and extinguish in cycles of obsession and ambivalence, those who paint or draw or sculpt or write, and those who are persistently enamored of the emerging world of the internet and the gadgets that connect us to it. Some doors have certainly opened where I never would have predicted they would be. And even though I can’t spend all day cooking or painting or writing, at least it’s all within arms reach, if not central to my life.

The understanding I have about food writing after having created the Tart Little Piggy has taught me a great deal about the relationship between creating something of value and deeper levels of understanding.  After building a few WordPress sites that house actual courses (including one that I teach), it seems pretty obvious to me that if you’re teaching a class online and it isn’t any fun, you aren’t doing it right. Why should an online college class be any less illuminating of a topic for the teacher or students than a food blog (or whatever you’re into)? Some of the correlations between my personal interest blog and course blogs are focused on eLearning from the student’s perspective, and others are focused on the teacher’s perspective, but any way you slice it, the process itself was (and continues to be) highly instructive. The following is a short list of things I’m pretty sure are true.

Building something you care about is a great way to learn more about it.
We really hammer this home during our faculty development training sessions here. When we ask students to write a paper, they’re engaging a small handful of skills and approaches to a topic. If we ask students to create multi-media driven (but well-written) posts on a topic, hyperlink sources in the post, comment on the posts of other students, and respond to those who’ve posted in theirs, they’re engaging more than just a handful of skills. As a matter of fact, they have to learn a whole host of new skills just to publish the post. If we ask students to do even more by creating an entire blog on a subject with links to resources, tagged posts, and any other content, they’re learning even more and constellating concepts and ideas that would otherwise be disparate.

Great courses have a central theme or idea that guides the content and interactions of the students.
Part of what we teach during our faculty development sessions is that a course needs to be built backwards from a central or “Big” idea. This concept is covered extensively in Understanding by Design. Inevitably, if you write for a food blog and you posting things about paintbrush solvents, you’re going to lose part of your audience. The same is true in the online (or face-to-face) classroom.

Many web tools and publishing platforms have features that may scare novice users. Practice and exploration are key to mitigating fear.
This I remember very distinctly from my early days as a blogger. I remember looking at the sidebar in WordPress and thinking “What the heck is a plug-in? Do I have to know what it is in order to do this? What’s the difference between a “page” and a “post”? I can’t do this…” Obviously, I forged ahead, but with a great deal of uncertainty. This confusion and fear is even worse for new instructors or students who may not be volunteers to the process. A good course designer or instructor will be able to foresee places where students will get stuck. Creating things like FAQs and making yourself available to answer questions is part of running a successful course. These things are true for first-time online instructors as well. Creating and running a blog has a steep learning curve but prepares you to address student problems when they arise.

Engaging in collaboration or conversation about a topic is a great way to deepen your understanding of it.
Getting a comment on my blog is not only gratifying, but they often help me understand what others find valuable about a topic. Shared experiences, kudos, and even criticisms have helped me craft my work as a writer and a cook. Students have to be given an opportunity to engage what they’re learning. They need places to share what they’re learning, questions they have, and new ideas that arise.

Critical thinking arises with thinking about the user experience. Empathy works.
“User Interface Design” is a fancy title for someone who spends time thinking about what it’s like to use a website. Does your navigation make sense? If a student clicks a button, will he or she get what is expected? Thinking about how others might use a website is a corollary to thinking about how others might perceive or argue with a position, claim, or opinion–a healthy component of critical thinking. Faculty should be empathizing with their users, and so should students.

Information fluency is gained through building, producing new content for, and maintaining a blog or other public creation.
Aggregating source material, curating what you find, and storing and managing what you find so that you can return to it while crafting your own unique content is not a new set of skills. I taught these things when I taught students to write academic research papers. But doing those things in a digital environment requires some practical know-how and many repeat performances before mastery is achieved.

The intentional use of images and thoughtful layout improves visual literacy skills.
This particular point is related to information fluency, but I separate it out, because for too long we’ve been asking students to craft verbal demonstrations of topic mastery, missing an entire visual vocabulary that is obviously integral to the way we communicate today. Writing for a blog? You should really be thinking hard about visuals. No one likes to look at a wall of text. Even Wikipedia uses pictures these days.

Identity can be more deeply understood by crafting material and sharing personal reflections that are shared with a real audience.
This benefit (understanding our place in the universe) of a University education seems to have been lost in recent years. Of course, my education is meaningful in that I have a good job with benefits, but more than this material good, my education provided me with a sense of identity that really matters. The world out there and the world in here are not entirely separate. “Know Thyself” is a dictum that matters to all of us, not just philosophers.

Practical and transferable skills on everything from HTML5 to CSS to WordPress Plug-ins to basic computer and web literacy will emerge over time.
If students are asked to contribute rather than simply regurgitate, what they learn will extend beyond data stored in their short term memory, the very least of which is simple web-related skills. Knowing how to set up and manage a website is a skill that most professionals will increasingly benefit from. I’ve learned more from blogging about food writing than I ever would have in a course that relied only on papers and tests.

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